Splotches

Featured Image:  “Close up on Monet,” © Peter Boothe, Jul 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Everything now is preparation for something else. Nothing is as it seems. I cannot help but wonder how it will all fit together in the end. Where am I going? Where will I be in a year? What will amount from the events of these disparate days? It is all building to something more, something else, something that I cannot grasp. To paraphrase St. Paul, I see only in shadows and mists, in fragments of the whole. I see splotches of color and flashes of light, but I have no concept of a sunrise or of the full brilliance of day. I am reminded of a great Monet waterlily painting that once captivated me in the gallery at MoMA. It was so expansive that it could only be best appreciated from a second-floor landing on the opposite side of the vast room in which it hung. It is as if I am staring at it with my nose pressed to the thick globs of paint and my feet cemented to the floor. I have no scope of the complete masterpiece, its majesty, or the transcendence of its beauty. It isn’t even within my power to step back, that I might survey the wholeness of the work. To do so would require an omnipotence and omniscience that I can’t even pretend to possess. If I clenched my fists, shook and heaved, screamed, shouted, and wailed, I would only exhaust and frustrate myself in futility. If I pummeled and clawed at the canvas, pulled at my hair, or cried, I would only hurt myself and further obfuscate the image. The only logical conclusion is to… relax. Let be what will be, though I am flooded with curiosity and intrigue.

Plunged into the simplicity of the void of the unknown and the complexity that my imagination creates there, I try to surrender. I cannot help but remain intrigued, perplexed, captivated… There is an eagerness inside me that isn’t quite the same as impatience. It is more like a sublime excitement. The status quo is blissful. I soothe myself with the expected, which allows me the delusion that I am masterfully in control of my little sliver of the universe. Excitement is about as unwelcome an emotion as anxiety. The energy and intensity that surges from novelty and anticipation upsets my equilibrium in a way that once provoked binges and furious activity – anything that would allow me to numb and avoid the discomfort of my thoughts and feelings. Now, I exercise tolerance of that empty hollow contained in my chest that resembles breathlessness. With practiced patience, I watch the energetic tides of enthusiasm, bewilderment, and fretfulness roll in and gently recede.

On Tuesday, I woke early and set about my morning routine, with a few notable exceptions. By the front door, my well-traveled suitcase was packed and my new backpack stood ready. It was not just any travel day. With my tickets for Paris purchased and the hotel booked, every trip now offered targeted opportunities to train myself for that next adventure. As a frequent flyer and someone who both values efficiency and cherishes the coziness of the familiar, my traveling was steeped in rather exact habits and routines. With every trip, I discovered some new pearl of an insight that allowed me to tweak my preparations for my next journey. Unfortunately, my methods evolved to suit domestic jaunts. An international expedition was going to require some radical departures from my comfort zone.

Mentally, I ticked off all the differences I would face as I crossed national borders and that great expanse of the Atlantic. No rental car, only a theoretical understanding of the ground transportation system at my destination, a language barrier, no local contacts or support network, no fresh fruits or vegetables allowed through French customs… even cell service and a mobile internet connection weren’t guaranteed. I would need to be ready to navigate a foreign train system and metro with all of my luggage. This trip would involve more walking than ever before!

In December, I decided that I would ditch the duffle-like, Samsonite carry-on that served me so reliably on almost every excursion since I was sixteen. My Christmas treat to myself was a new, black, backpack from my favorite German outfitter, which could also double as a large daypack during my weeklong vacation. Last week’s trip was my first flight after the holidays. The time was come to break in my pack with an inaugural adventure! It didn’t fit nearly the volume of my Samsonite, but it was made for long-distance trekking in a way that the Samsonite was not. I faced a tricky decision. What was non-essential? I was under the impression that I whittled down my packing list to the absolute necessities long ago, but when I re-examined all the gear I was consistently lugging around with me, I confronted an unsettling realization. I was capable of greater adaptability than I allowed myself to believe. A word coalesced in the back of my mind, a word that creeped into my thought once or twice in the preceding months but which was not yet one I was ready to invite into my organized consciousness. Recovered.

Items that were once essential to ensure I could maintain my coping skills in any eventuality were no longer required. My flexibility with food and my trust in my ability to “make it work” in any situation meant I could pack fewer snacks and exchanges. As I pared the contents of my bag down to my new basic necessities, a knot twisted in my gut. No reassurance from the rational part of my brain could alleviate the gnawing pain that gripped my stomach. Just as so many times in the past, I needed to prove myself to myself. My destination was Denver, and my purpose was personal as well as professional. I was headed to yet another conference, but the focus of the three-day intensive was related more to the career I hoped to find myself in someday than it was to my current work. Before I left, I ordered new business cards and printed several copies of my résumé. From the forgotten corner of a bookshelf in my study, I rooted out my black, leather portfolio with the gold embossed seal of my alma mater. The last time I used it was when I applied to graduate school 10 years ago. Then, I checked my expectations, reminding myself that my experience would be imperfect, I would invariably say or do something I would regret, and I would not be surprised if I was plagued by self-doubt and self-criticism. “This is hard,” I reminded myself gently. “It’s ok to make mistakes. It’s ok to doubt.” I said a little prayer, and I put my trust in God.

During the conference, I met some wonderful people, gained a wealth of new information, exchanged ideas and business cards, and exercised an unprecedented flexibility around food. With so many networking luncheons and dinners, I ate more prepared meals in a shorter period of time than ever before in all of my recovery. Each morning, I descended the eight floors from my room to the street below, turned the corner, and picked up a coffee and croissant at the café halfway down the block. When I wasn’t dining with the other conference attendees, I stopped at the grocery on the corner for the fresh fixings of a lone supper. “What good practice for Paris!” I merrily applauded myself.

Will anything emerge from all of the goings on of these last days? Will any of the connections that I made develop into something more? Will I ever grow beyond Vanillasville and the little, under-fulfilling job I occupy here? It is good, but I cannot help wondering what better possibilities I am not yet imagining. Where will I go? And when? Is what I think I want really what’s best for me? All I can see are flashes of color and wet, sticky globs of paint. Reflecting, I can recall countless stages of my life when I stood ankle-deep in these waters of uncertainty. I remember all of the interviews that I went on during my application to college, then graduate school, and later my first job, always imagining “What if?” and wondering, “Is this the one? Is this the place? Will I be back here again? Or will I never return?” It’s unpleasant, it’s disconcerting, and it’s confusing… yet, I feel so alive! Oh, how grateful I am for this vast, uncomfortable, blind void. The greater sorrow is to sit in my small, windowless office, content but under-stimulated all the rest of my working days. I don’t know what is coming next, or whether anything is coming at all, but there is something breathtaking in the bewilderment.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

~ Thomas Merton, Thoughts on Solitude

lilies
lilies,” © Josh, Feb 2011. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license).  “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond,” by Claude Monet. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

 

 

Breakfasting

Featured Image:  “Night Street,” © Roman Boed (own work), Oct 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Morning is my favorite time of day. However, don’t let me fool you. When I declare my love for morning, I do not claim that I am a “morning person.” Though I tend to arise earlier than most, I generally arrive late for my first commitment of the day. I once read that lateness arises from arrogance – the belief that my own time and priorities are more important than those of anyone else. While I see the truth in this statement, my delinquency is also the result of chronically underestimating how long it takes me to complete those basic self-care tasks that are generally non-negotiable parts of my morning routine, such as brushing my teeth and making my bed. If I wake up so early, why do I not simply leave myself more time to choose clothes to wear, apply my makeup, and blow-dry my hair? The answer is straightforward. The more time that I spend on these chores, the less I am able to linger over that which actually makes morning my favorite. It is in the soft, dark, almost mysterious minutes when I sit with my cup of tea (or coffee, but lately, tea), savoring the stillness of the world before daybreak that I truly delight.

The earth is at rest. The streets are quiet and empty. From my bedroom, if the air is very calm as I listen carefully, I can hear an occasional, faint whoosh of a distant truck speeding along the highway where it crosses under the main road a few miles off. It is amazing how the sound carries when the rest of the world is asleep. Usually, I hurry to ready myself before I nip downstairs. Splashing water on my face, rolling on antiperspirant, and fussing with my hair, I can’t get through these onerous bits of my morning ritual quickly enough. It takes ten minutes to boil the water for my tea and prepare my breakfast. While my other meals throughout the day vary according to my mood or taste (or the expiring contents of my refrigerator), my breakfast is rather consistent. I choose between a selection of teas or coffees, and I alternate the type of chopped nut that I add to my piping hot bowl of oatmeal, but the remainder is always the same. With a cup of soy milk and an apple, the meal is complete. I can be flexible when the situation demands it, such as when I am traveling, but that flexibility usually ends at bringing a packet of plain instant oatmeal, some chopped nuts, and an apple with me in my carry-on, then grabbing some hot water and a cup of soy milk on the go.

There is something sublime about the predawn hour. It possesses a subrosa, almost transcendental quality. In my very active imagination, there is a magic here that is reserved for we early risers. It is as if by awaking before the rest of the world, we are in on some mutual secret that we each experience individually and share only with God. The day is a black canvas, awaiting the light and color of the artist’s brush. It might yet become anything at all. It is a stage plunged into opacity, before the blazing spotlights shine upon it and all the myriad supporting actors crowd the scene, bringing the set to life. What will be of this day; who will I be within it? What challenges will I face, and how will I respond to them? In these moments before I exit my apartment into a stream of noise and busyness, I can hope that I will maintain some small amount of mindfulness, live purposefully, and respond to the circumstances I will encounter with actions that are in accordance with my values. I can still hope that I will not react in fear, attempt to control the uncontrollable, lash out at others, or fall into the often-automatic trap of blaming, shaming, and judgment. I can still hope that, by the end of the day, I will be able to reflect on what was with some sense of joy rather than the deflated exhaustion of one who feels like she was dragged behind a truck over an uneven road all day.

Leaning over the steam that arises from my mug, I relish this breakfasting. A small candle flickers in the center of the dining room table. The cat sits on the chair next to me, at first watching me eat, then arching his back for a scratch, then hopping down to nibble from his own bowl, and finally curling up on the chair once more to nap. My journal is spread out before me, and my hand alternates between spoon, mug, and pen. Sometimes, I reflect on recent personal events or conversations with my therapist, at other times, I write about a book that I am reading. Often, I write about the sights and sounds and smells around me, and oh, how much I love the morning!

coffee-winters-morning
Coffee on a Winter’s Morning,” © Stefan Lins (own work), Mar 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“Before you go to Paris, you’re going to have to go out to breakfast,” declared Kelly, my dietician, several weeks ago.

“Psssshhhhh!” was my almost immediate rejoinder. “As if,” I laughed, while simultaneously acknowledging the essentiality of the challenge. My eyes were rolling in my head, and from my tone, she could tell that I knew she was right. “Ugh, this is going to suck, isn’t it?” Even one lost breakfast experience seemed a major blow, so attached was I to my ritual. Making accommodations for a flight or fasting bloodwork or some other necessity was one matter. To voluntarily sacrifice my favorite meal and my favorite moments for no purpose other than to practice eating other breakfasts was something else entirely.

“I didn’t say you had to do it now,” Kelly emphasized. “You have a few months.”

It turned out that I didn’t need a few months. The day of the breakfast challenge arrived last weekend. It came without any fanfare and without much anticipation. On a Friday evening, the thought occurred to me, “I could go out to breakfast tomorrow.” It was an unbidden inkling of an idea, to which I attached no pressure or expectation. “Where would I even go?” I wondered. It was years ago that I last dined out for my first meal of the day. There were two or three restaurants nearby that served breakfast, but when I looked up their hours and menus online, I was a bit flabbergasted. Even the smallest plates were overwhelming. I certainly did not need TWO eggs, AND sausage, AND hash browns, AND two toasts. Couldn’t I simply order one egg and one piece of toast and some fruit? This undertaking was supposed to be preparing me to eat a reasonably portioned meal for everyday of the week while on the road. My objective was not to induce a food coma. Perhaps I was going about my search with the wrong approach. If I was setting off to visit the Louvre or to spend the day touring the Eiffel Tower, I likely wouldn’t sit down at a formal restaurant. “Where would I eat if I was traveling?” I asked myself. A few more clicks took me to the website for the Panera around the corner. Open at 6 am! Well, I would see how I felt in the morning.

When I stirred from my restful slumber at just about 6 am, the thought of a breakfast adventure was still on my mind. I pet the cat, made the bed, fixed my hair and makeup, and pulled on the same comfortable slacks that I frequently wear when flying. After pausing to wash the dishes from the night before, I cast off into the deepness of the dark. The streets were empty, and the world was silent. Inside the café, the light shone brightly upon a half-dozen patrons quietly sipping their coffees and studying their newspapers. A minimal staff took my order with pleasant smiles – to think that other people knew how to prepare oatmeal, too! Sitting in a cushioned booth, angled rays from various lights cast translucent layers of shadow upon my journal page. I bit into my apple. The heat radiating from the mug of coffee brushed against the side of my face. “What a treat this is!” I wrote in my narrow cursive. “To be out to breakfast! My secretive morning! Now, I am sharing it with these people who are all drawn together in this little haven. I was so concerned that my favorite time of day would be ruined. I never considered that, under the proper conditions, it might be enhanced!”

There I sat, writing, savoring, and soaking in all that my senses perceived until the sky was soft blue and a crowd was beginning to materialize. The last words that I wrote? “So here I am, and it is delightful. It is 10 minutes until 8 am, and the magenta stripe on the horizon is melting into a lovely pink. The whole day is ahead of me, but it is off to a decent start.”

cafe-noir
CAFE-NOIR,” © Sam Leighton (own work), Jan 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Resigned Acceptance

Featured Image:  “Wedding Invitation,” © Rachel Knickmeyer (own work), Jul 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“What is the reason that you don’t want to attend this wedding?” Kelly queried from across her desk during my nutrition appointment several weeks ago. “Are you avoiding a social situation because you don’t want to face the food aspect of it?”

The idea that she thought it likely that, after two years of recovery, I remained so dreadfully afraid of eating in situations beyond my control that I would avoid them entirely caught me by surprise.  My shocked reply was genuine. “No!” I exclaimed. “Not at all! I don’t want to go because the trip itself is going to suck, and I’m going to come back exhausted and feeling like shit.” As I spoke, I recognized the alarming nature of these predictions, and for an instant, I wondered if they were the result of my catastrophic, all-or-nothing thinking. It didn’t take long for me to conclude based on past experience and knowledge of my itinerary that there was sufficient evidence to support the prognostication. Departing Friday at noon, I would fly west to catch a connecting flight to the east coast, spend one night at my parents’ house, then drive an hour north. On Saturday, I would attend a wedding that was not scheduled to begin until 6 pm, and then I would awake at the crack of dawn the next morning so that I could drive another hour back to the airport to rush onto the only plane departing westward on a route that would return me to Vanillasville before midnight. After logging 10,892 airline miles already this year alone, I was practiced enough to know that I would be utterly drained, and familiar with myself enough to appreciate how much of a toll that physical and emotional depletion would truly exact from me. I was utterly dreading the trip. Yet, the tickets were purchased, the rental car booked, the hotel room reserved, and my RSVP was in the mail.

It seemed that there were certain events in life that demanded a choice. What type of person was I? Who did I want to be? This wedding was one of those occasions, and I was going to show up and be present. Period. No matter what. End of story.

Alexandra, Greg, and I were in college together. For four years, we studied together, endured together, celebrated together, and grew to approximate adults just a bit more closely together. Finally, we graduated together, and from that day, we continued to show up for each other at those major life events, despite being scattered to different corners of the globe. When Alexandra married George, we were both there, though it required Greg crossing multiple continents to be at their wedding. When I completed a grueling second degree, they were both there, though Alexandra and George were in the middle of moving halfway across the country. During those first, sleepless weeks after Alexandra’s daughter was born, I was there to keep her company and offer what little emotional support I could, though by that time, I was struggling desperately to cope with my own eating disorder. When I fell seriously ill with colitis, Greg was actually living in Vanillasville and working on his master’s. Though we didn’t see much of each other or speak very often, he was the one who brought me to my colonoscopy and drove me home when there was nobody else for me to call.

There was no doubt that I was less than enthusiastic about sitting on four planes, traipsing through six airports, and transiting more than 2,000 miles in order to spend a few hours at a wedding where I would know precisely three people, including the groom. Neither Alexandra, George, nor I ever met Greg’s fiancé prior to the reception, nor did we know his family, nor were any of our other college friends going to be in attendance. Yet, I was going, and so were they. Though the last time Greg and I spoke was probably a year before, I could not imagine an excuse worthy of keeping me from being present for my friend at his wedding.

vancouver-airport
Vancouver Airport,” © Matthew Grapengieser (own work), Jul 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

As the day of my departure neared, I prepared myself with stoic resolve. I was genuinely excited to see Alexandra for the first time since spring, but I was steeling myself with realistic expectations. There would be joy in spending time with my friends, and the wedding would be a jubilant occasion, but I knew full well that it would be a trying weekend, and it was not because of the food. A single “off-nominal” meal did not give me palpitations. Considering where I started two years ago, the ease that I felt about the dinner was alone worthy of celebration. However, the greater victory for me was my resigned acceptance of reality. I dreaded how depleted I would feel as I dragged myself out of bed on Sunday morning, and I recalled how crummy it was to endure a full day of traveling with barely any physical, mental, or emotional reserve. Yet, I would survive. The sole reason that I was able to forecast these predictions was because it would not be the first time I stretched myself so thin, and it would not be the last. Been there. Done that. The travel would not be fun, but the world would keep turning, and I would be fine.

Without building up fanciful dreams of what would be and without overly dramatizing the challenges I would face, I set off. “It is what it is,” I told myself when my connecting flight was delayed. “I was ready for this,” I told myself when I walked through the doors of the only motel in the tiny town and discovered the place decorated with mystery stains and reeking of tobacco. After a few rounds of deep breathing, I decided that I really would not be able to sleep if I remained there, and I settled on my plan B – driving the hour back to my parents’ house after the reception ended and leaving from there for the airport in the morning. When dinner wasn’t served until 9 pm, I wasn’t fazed, though my heart did skip a few beats when the waiter brought us each a tiny plate of ravioli before serving the salads. “Where are the vegetables?” I bemoaned to Alexandra and George while reminding myself that it was just one meal, and telling myself that three raviolis would not harm me. The night was not about me, and I wasn’t there in search of fun and enjoyment. I was there to be present and to support a friend. So, when the music began and nobody rose from their tables, Alexandra and I didn’t hesitate to awkwardly and conspicuously dance alone through the excruciating length of an entire song, until two, then two more, then gradually many others joined us on the floor.

In the end, it was a lovely time. The night was imperfect, and that was ok. It was a delight to see Greg so happy, and Alexandra, George, and I relished each other’s company for the evening. I accepted all the elements that were beyond my control without resistance or anxiety, I adapted to every hiccup and snafu, including nearly missing my return flight on Sunday morning. I was thankful for every moment of grace and for every small consolation. It took me an entire week to rebound, and I wound up leaving work sick on Tuesday, but ultimately I managed to recover my sleep and my sense of wellbeing. Through it all, I proved to myself that I was capable, not of physical endurance, but of mental flexibility and emotional regulation. I demonstrated to myself that I could be loyal and place others first, while maintaining a healthy sense of boundaries and remaining aware of my own needs. Finally, I found myself humbled with gratitude for the strength of the connections that united us all. Relationships worth undertaking such a journey were the greatest gifts of all.

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.”

~ C.S. Lewis

wedding-gift
wedding gift,” © Julian Wylegly (own work), Mar 2009. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Critical Moments

Featured Image:  “American & Italian Cuisine,” © GmanViz (own work), Nov 2007. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

An extrovert trying to be an introvert to avoid being hurt… that was how my first therapist described me. Isolation and feelings of loneliness were always sources of pain for me. Exploring my need to be in the company of other people and embracing the discomfort and uncertainty inherent in the swampland of forging personal connections was a first beyond the entrenched cognitive-behavioral-emotional loops of my chronic depression. Reengaging with old friends and building new relationships were dramatic shifts outside of my comfort zone, and these efforts were challenging enough. At a time when I was also waging a pitched war for my life against binge eating disorder, the fact that many (perhaps most) social situations involved food only heightened the drama. My recovery from my depression and my eating disorder were too interdependent to be dissected apart. As I battled on, my friend Amelia was a close ally on both fronts. We fell into a routine of meeting up after work every few weeks for dinner, making our way through a circuit of the best local restaurants in our little area. Over seltzer with lime and decaf black coffee, we shared all the details of our lives, from the most mundane to the deepest and most heartfelt. Each meal was anticipated with delight as an opportunity to be genuine and authentic for a few hours. In the comfortable cocoon of merry conversation, I grew increasingly resilient as I coped with one menu and then the next.

In April, Amelia accepted an offer of a new position and relocated to a city five hours away. It was a long-expected move, and there was nothing sudden about it. I was excited for her, and I was prepared for the change, but there was a difference between predicting loneliness and then actually feeling it. Over the summer, I continued to travel frequently, remained involved in all of my meaningful activities, and maintained my connections with all of my long-distance friends. Yet… I spent much of my time alone. It didn’t always feel like loneliness. I remained connected and I didn’t dwell in any sense of isolation or entertain self-pity. However, every once in a while, I felt the definitive absence of my friends. At times, my therapist and I spoke about the subject, but we never arrived at any useful conclusions. I continued to participate in yoga, I lingered after mass each Sunday to chat with my casual acquaintances from my parish, and, every so often, I went out to lunch with some of my coworkers. None of those fleeting connections filled the empty space in my heart that longed for a kindred spirit.

It was a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and I was leaving work in just such a state. I was at the nadir of a several-day funk, and I was not looking forward to a solitary weekend. My mood was low and my anxiety was piqued, triggered by automatic, alarming, all-or-nothing type thoughts about an upcoming professional conference and all the logistics of another trip. To an entirely new city. Alone.

My phone buzzed, and a lengthy text message popped onto the screen. It was Amelia! “Pete and I are headed your way for the weekend! There’s a cycling convention in town. I know it’s last minute, but we’re going out for dinner at Giovanni’s on Saturday night if you want to come. Let me know!” Amelia was returning at precisely the moment it seemed that I needed her most! My heart perked, but my head reeled at the name of the restaurant. Giovanni’s was decidedly unsafe.

“Lord, you have probed me, you know me: / you know when I sit and stand; / you understand my thoughts from afar. / You sift through my travels and my rest; / with all my ways you are familiar. / Even before a word is on my tongue, / Lord, you know it all. / You formed my inmost being; / You knit me in my mother’s womb. / My very self you know.”

~ Psalm 139:1b-4,13,14b

Competing ideas zipped into my consciousness. “No,” was a prominent voice. “No” to the menu, “no” to the restaurant, and “no” to everything that they both represented to me. Giovanni’s exemplified everything that I found repugnant in American food culture. It was about as far from authentically Italian as one could possibly find. The fare was entirely Midwestern American, featuring pasta with a side of bread, served with meatballs, sausage, salami, and pepperoni, heavily doused with cheese, cream sauces, and more cheese, and served with a garnish of tomato sauce. The three salads on the menu consisted mainly of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and, you guessed it, more cheese. The only entrée that included a vegetable was fried eggplant parmesan. There weren’t even any vegetable sides offered.

lightly-breaded
Lightly Breaded,” © Gexydaf (own work), Jun 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Against these objections, I also heard myself stating a decisive, Yes.” My memory of a recent appointment with my dietician resonated, and I couldn’t escape the echoed repetitions of Kelly’s voice, “You may not skip social things because of food.” I was grateful for her clear, direct manner, which left little room for quibbling. “Yes” to Kelly, “yes” to Amelia, and “yes” to connection, friendship, and wholeheartedness. I couldn’t conceive how I would manage the menu, but there was little utility in obsessing over it. Reading and rereading the descriptions of the unappealing choices would not alter them or make them more acceptable. Memorizing every deplorable detail would only make me more anxious. I admitted to myself that there were no safe choices; I replied to Amelia that I was not in the least bit comfortable with the restaurant; and I expressed my tremendous joy at the prospect of seeing her again, committing myself, for better or worse, to whatever this dinner entailed. Decision made, I settled into waiting with a combination of exuberance and resigned acceptance.

As afternoon succeeded morning on Saturday, a familiar exchange revolved through my head. Yes/no. Excitement/acceptance. Tranquility/anxiety. Amelia and Pete were at their cycling convention, and I awaited their word on a dinner time. It wasn’t until 3:30pm that I heard from them. Could I meet at the restaurant in two hours? Typically, 5:30pm would be “way too early” for me to eat, especially given the typical later timing of my weekend lunch. However, on this particular Saturday, I was grateful that the short notice left me little interval for pre-planning, advance calculations, or ruminations. Still in yoga tights and looking a teensy bit too disheveled for a sit-down meal, even at the most casual of places like Giovanni’s, my main concern was making myself presentable and getting across town in under 120 minutes.

When I arrived (only 10 minutes late – which is just on time for me!), I was so flooded with the excitement of seeing my beloved friend that I could barely focus on anything else. It was impossible to read a menu and survey all the sights and sounds of my new environment while maintaining the bubbling flow of conversation that gushed forth the instant Amelia and I reunited. I tripped my way to the table, so distracted I was peering over my shoulder in an attempt to keep her in sight, as words tumbled out in all directions from both sides. It was after the waitress paused at our table for the third time to take our orders that I concluded it was time to settle into dedicated concentration for the task at hand – to hobble together some sort of manageable compromise from a truly abysmal list of choices.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

When the pleasant waitress returned once more, I smiled sweetly and asked innocently, “Do you have any side vegetable dishes?” I fully expected her negative answer, but I wasn’t yet discouraged or dissuaded. “Do you have any vegetables?” I asked in my most saccharine way. Like, at all? Like, in the entire restaurant? Like, could you go to the grocery store and buy me a carrot?

She twisted one corner of her mouth and scrunched her nose as if she was racking her brain. “You know what, let me check,” she responded kindly. I tried not to be too appalled that it seemed like such a bizarre, foreign idea that a patron would want to eat a vegetable with her dinner. A few moments later, she returned triumphantly with the answer: there were spinach and red peppers in the kitchen.

“Perfect!” I internally rejoiced. I asked her if it would be too much trouble to steam some spinach for me. She offered to sauté it. I asked her to sauté it lightly, ordered the grilled chicken with pasta and pesto, and said a little prayer under my breath that my meal wouldn’t arrive at the table swimming in oil. “It’s out of my control now,” I told myself as I settled back into the rhythm of conversation, happy, content, acquiescent, pleased, relaxed, and willing.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

It would be a lie if I denied that I was unconcerned about gaining weight. Those thoughts were present. I was upset and disturbed by the food selection and by the relationships with food and eating behaviors reflected around me. However, in a moment when I was faced with a choice to isolate within the safe, protective shell of my eating disorder or turn all of my self-protective instincts upside down, I committed to the uncertain path, and I forged ahead without wavering. It felt risky, it felt reckless, and it felt real. In a less-than-ideal situation, I did better than cope. It felt like progress.

day-148
Day 148,” © Flood G. (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Being Wrong

Featured Image: “Peterhof Palace Garden,” © Leon Yaakov, May 2010. CC BY 2.0.

How does growth happen? How does a person heal? How do I become the person that I am becoming?

My thoughts on the subject seem to drift in front of my eyes like an ephemeral mist. I stretch out my fingers to grasp at them, but the mere act of clutching stirs those same air currents on which they ride, and just like that, the understanding that was almost mine disperses in a gentle puff. I squeeze my eyes shut tight and try to recollect the pattern of the wisps before they disappeared… “Don’t hold on so tight!” I tell myself. “It will come.” My eyes relax, and I inhale deeply. This is what growth looks like.

Smoke,” © Centophobia, Apr 2009. CC BY-SA 2.0.

“Why does it hurt? Why does God let us hurt so badly? Why is it so hard?” Vivienne asks me over and over again. I only have one answer for her. It is always the same answer. I don’t know. For myself, hindsight reveals that my experiences of struggling and hardship, my personal losses and deepest grief, my darkest times and deepest turmoil, are creating the person I am today… and the person I will be tomorrow. Without those experiences, would I be able to empathize, to think dialectically, to see the world not only in shades of gray but in a multitude of colors? No. I would still be the arrogant, bitter, angry, resentful, perfectionistic, driven, striving, anxious, person that I was before all of my treatment helped me to see the greater perspective in those experiences. Now, at least, there is the hope that I am, just maybe, on the path toward a more profound capacity for love, forgiveness, humility, patience, gratitude, and joy.

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard

I close my eyes again as the vapors swirl just beyond the thin lids. They are barely out of my reach. There is something else required for this growth that I so treasure… Perhaps there are many other somethings… But the one that comes to the forefront of my mind as I sit in contemplation is… Being Wrong. More specifically, I am finding that my own becoming necessitates that I be willing to admit that there is the possibility, the near definite likelihood, that I have been wrong in the past and may be wrong now.

_____

When people ask me why I have an eating disorder, or how I developed an eating disorder, I am usually quick to point the finger at my mother. My mom is a loving, dedicated woman, and I know that all of her actions were carried out with my best interest (and the best interest of my brother) in her mind and heart. She is smart and hard-working, with a master’s degree in special education for elementary school-aged kids with learning disabilities. Yet, I could spend hours recounting stories of shame, humiliation, and invalidation that I felt as a result of her parenting style. Despite the fact that I was always normal weight, when she wasn’t telling me that I was fat, it was subtly (or not so subtly) implied. When I reached puberty, she made copies of the growth chart from the pediatrician’s office, and then she sat me down after one check-up to explain that even though the doctor wasn’t direct enough to tell me I was gaining weight, she was NOT going to have a fat daughter, so I better shape up, because there was the irrefutable evidence staring me in the face that I had moved up a growth curve. When she took me shopping for a prom dress, out slipped the comment, “Oh, this one makes you look thin!” When I left for college, she threatened me with, “Not EVERYONE gains the freshman fifteen, you know.” During my second week in the dorm, I received a package in the mail. It was my very first scale, with a handwritten note from my mom, “The better to weigh yourself with, my dear!”

It seemed that nothing I ever did was good enough. When I brought home straight A’s on my report card, my mom asked, “Why aren’t there any A+’s?” The answer was that my high school didn’t use an A+ grade. A 4.0 was considered an A. When I came in second place, my mom asked, “Well, who was first?” Whatever her intention, what I learned was that my best was not good enough, I would never be good enough, I could never work hard enough or do enough, and I needed to earn her love and approval.

“Genetics loads the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger.”

~ Jenni Schaefer, author of “Life Without Ed”

It was not as though this harsh and critical treatment was reserved for me alone. She treated my younger brother with similar regard. My brother was a collegiate athlete on the water polo team at his university. They were in the midst of an intense cycle of training and competition one October when my parents went to visit him at school. “How’s it going with Mom and Dad?” I asked when I got him on the phone.

“Well, the first thing she said to me when I opened the front door was, ‘You look like you’re getting fat!’ even though I think I’ve lost at least 10 pounds since I last so them. So, there’s that.” Yeah. My mom was demanding, there is no doubt about it. But my brother did not develop an eating disorder, and I did. He doesn’t suffer from depression. His medical history is remarkable for his chronic allergies and his total absence of mental illness.

"Cape Robin Eggs," © Martin Heigan, Aug 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Cape Robin Eggs,” © Martin Heigan, Aug 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“I just wanted the best for you!” she protested defensively when I first confronted her after my eating disorder was diagnosed. I was so angry. I essentially accused her of destroying my life. What made me even more irate was her complete denial that there was anything wrong with me at all. I suppose that refuting the existence of my eating disorder made her adamant refusal to either accept any wrongdoing or responsibility for her actions easier for her. “Well, just how much weight do they want you to gain?!” she demanded to know when I told her the results of my medical evaluation. “I think you need a second opinion,” she argued when I attempted to explain the definition of binge eating disorder. I finally just stopped speaking to her entirely.

Fast forwarding about six months, I found myself sitting in one of the group rooms at Walden with Diana, the mental health counselor who was assigned to my case, my mom, and my father. It was to be our one and only family session during my six weeks at the center. There are a few strong memories from that afternoon, but among them stands out a recollection of my mom asking, “How can we learn from what Lulu is learning here?”

Our session occurred in the third week of December. I was planning to spend Christmas with the family of one of my college roommates, so uncomfortable was I with my parents, but after that meeting and much soul-searching, I decided to take a chance on going home. A few months later, I was back again for another visit. One afternoon, I found myself struggling with some difficult emotions. Near tears, I sat at the dining room table, and as I questioned how I was going to get through that particular obstacle, my mother replied, “With those new skills that you are building! You are really changing. I am learning just from listening to the new way that you talk about things.”

About three months after I returned to work full-time, I was invited to deliver a presentation at an international professional meeting in Florida. Everyone from my office would be attending, in addition to everyone who is anyone in our industry. I was still relatively insecure about traveling and managing my eating disorder on the road. By “insecure,” I mean “terrified.” How would I deal with restaurant meals? What if there was a (GASP) formal dinner! How was I going to survive a week with all of those work colleagues, who did not know about my eating disorder, and without any sources of support? I started asking friends if they wanted a free trip to Florida for a week. Alice had family obligations. Alexandra was already overbooked with business traveling. Therese was just returning from her honeymoon. The conference was occurring over Mother’s Day weekend. Joking with my mom on the phone as the date approached, I was relating my anxieties and laughingly said something such as, “Let me know if you want to spend Mother’s Day in Orlando.” The next day she phoned me back, stating in a serious tone, “If you really need me to go to Florida, then I will be there.” I couldn’t believe it.

She purchased her own plane ticket, and I bought us two passes to Disney World. A few weeks later, we were sharing a hotel room in the Sunshine State. We had a fantastic time. My presentation went off without a hitch, even though I was so anxious, my stomach was upset for an entire day. We both coped well with the little ups and downs of the week. My mom gently prodded me to think dialectically and to accept imperfection, and I reminded my mom that life is not just about what a person can achieve or accomplish. On our last night, we ate dinner at Epcot and gazed at a fireworks show before exhaustedly turning back to our hotel. My mother was once my main trigger and a major contributing environmental factor to the expression of my mental illness. Yet, as we both came to recognize the ways in which we could be wrong, she became an unexpected source of support.

I was so wrong about so many things. We both were. It took admitting it to ourselves and to each other to move beyond the pain. What am I wrong about right now, even as I am typing this? It’s an unsettling thought, and it’s difficult to admit that I’m probably mistaken about a great many things. But is that how growth happens?

I close my eyes. There is no swirling mist. Just stillness and the emptiness of my mind. For this moment.

Autumn Clematis,” © Tricia J, Sep 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Potluck Lot

One of the recurrent themes that I seem to return to with great frequency is my aversion to the preponderance of food in my workplace. I feel as though I live in a varying state of dudgeon over what I interpret as the unconscious perpetuation by those around me of the insidious and reprehensibly unhealthy values surrounding food, exercise, and body image that are so deeply ingrained in our culture. My righteous indignation stirs into a fiery fervor whenever the “Naughty or Nice Cart” rolls through my hallway. I feel like a zealot on a one-woman crusade against the political, media, and industry-fueled machine that drives perversions of what is considered “healthy” in our society. Sometimes, I wish that I could just shout, “Wake up! Wake up, people! Don’t you realize what is going on here?!” After so much cognitive behavioral work, so much practicing at identifying my distorted, all-or-nothing, black-and-white thoughts and then replacing those thoughts with more reasonable, appropriate, rational versions, I might be better at recognizing the pattern of extremism and alarm underlying my ruminations.

Yet, I still find myself sucked into a vortex of vilification and catastrophization on a not-irregular frequency. Why is it so difficult to just LET GO. Is the situation as tectonic as I paint it through my choice of language and the story that I construct in my mind? I am so sensitized to these issues due to my personal history that it is impossible for me to approach the problem from an unbiased, objective perspective. A frequent topic of conversation at my weekly therapy appointments is trying to decide just when to speak up and when to simply ACCEPT that I do not control the actions, opinions, behaviors, or beliefs of others. Can I acknowledge that, though I have a unique insight, I am not an expert, and I am not always right? Can I “choose my battles,” so to speak? Can I WILLINGLY tolerate the off-hand comments, insensitive remarks, and the possibly uneducated or uninformed, but not necessarily ill-intentioned, activities around me? I CAN… but it takes practice. And more practice. And more practice. And more and more and more and more practice.

My latest distress revolved around an office potluck-staff meeting. I wanted to characterize my workplace as evil and my co-workers as criminal because we must hold a potluck at every quarterly staff meeting… However, I ruefully acquiesced that the focus on food did not, of itself, make the environment hellish or the people wicked. In fact, I admitted to myself, a shared meal can be a very healthy activity! It builds bonds of connection and can be an expression of love, friendship, and joy. Unfortunately, in my personal experience as someone with binge eating disorder, these large-scale potlucks are too often derailed by eating just for the physical pleasure of consuming food, which shortly loses its pleasing effect. The sanctity of the meal is lost. The gratitude for nourishment and fellowship and the serenity that would follow from that sense of fulfillment erodes away when satiety is exceeded, the sugar crash sets in, and I begin lambasting myself for being such a fat, stupid, worthless cow in the privacy of my inner mind. I can’t speak for others, but I wonder if this is not a somewhat shared experience. Do we joke about how overly stuffed we are, the number of calories we just consumed, how many hours at the gym it will take to burn off our excesses, or the number of pounds we just gained in order to normalize, rationalize, and justify? Again, how can I expect to be objective? Sometimes, it seems that attention is purposely diverted to others in a scapegoating fashion. At the last office potluck-staff meeting, I listened in shocked horror as two colleagues made some of the most demeaning, dehumanizing “fat jokes” I could recall hearing since riding the school bus as a teenager. When I objected, one of the men laughed and stated, “It’s OK, because they’re fat. They deserve it. If they didn’t want to be made fun of, they wouldn’t be fat.” Appalled, I decided this was one of those situations I wasn’t going to be able to change (though I did speak to the supervisor later about the inappropriateness of those comments).

Perhaps it was this past experience that aroused so much discomfort and resentment in me as the day of the potluck approached. Recollections of previous struggles at similar office events were also, undoubtedly, contributing factors. Would this potluck-staff meeting be anything like those affairs? When I considered the looming occasion, words such as “awful,” “horrible,” “sucks,” “crap,” “problem,” “failure,” and “disaster,” sprang forward. Alternatives such as, “less than ideal,” “it is what it is,” “imperfect,” “opportunity,” “challenge,” “doable,” “growth,” and “surmountable,” were much less accessible to me. When I was able to string together a “rational response” to a doomful prediction, the thought was ephemeral, vaporizing almost as soon as it was conceptualized, while my negativity lingered.

On the day of the potluck, I summoned my courage and my coping skills. It wasn’t graceful. I always have this image of myself navigating distressing situations with perfect equanimity. Of course, using that ideal as my standard, I felt shamefully dejected. Fortunately, the wonderful supports to whom I reached out possessed the clarity and insight to point out that such a model is entirely unrealistic, and I was able to listen. Once I started admitting my small successes, it became increasingly easier to see the multitude of ways in which I did remarkably well under less than ideal circumstances that were beyond my control. My brain is expertly trained to instantly find the fault, the critique, the thing to improve upon. What I discovered following the potluck, or perhaps just stumbled upon again, is the need to preferentially look for my positives. My good qualities. My strengths.

So… these are my goals today. 1) Practice willing acceptance. Again. And again. And again. 2) Look for my positives. I hope you all can see your positives today, too!

"Hawaiian Sunrise 09," by Tamugreg, [Public Domain], May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.
“Hawaiian Sunrise 09,” by Tamugreg, [Public Domain], May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.
Featured Image Credit: “Ceremonial,” © NAEINSUN, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Feb 2008. Wikimedia Commons.