Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My Body is Not a Temple

The unofficial start of summer is here again.  And, like many people, I'm doing a little happy dance at the thought of beach strolling, BBQs, and sunny days in sundresses.  But this time of year, as someone who has struggled with body image issues, also gets me a little squirmy.  It's all those triggery buzz words - you know the ones I mean - "swimsuit ready," "beach abs,"  "bikini body."  Those loathsome phrases which imply that in order to justify our entry into the attire and activities of the upcoming season, we need to chip and chisel away, tone and tighten up.  That our bodies somehow aren't good enough for summer, exactly as they are. 

I remember:  last week, walking through the doors of my local gym.  A large table display of their current pre-summer offering, the "Lose Big 2 Win Big" challenge, was set up right near the entrance.  I shouldn't have been intimidated by the young buff trainer dude manning the table, saddled with the unfortunate task of intercepting people on the way in and signing them up for the challenge.  I shouldn't have hesitated for a moment and felt my insides clench up.  I shouldn't have dropped my gaze and rounded my shoulders in the hopes of becoming invisible to him.  I shouldn't have, but I did.  I wasn't in the mood to engage or explain.  I walked in totally confident and feeling amazing in my body that morning, but in an instant, I wished that I could somehow disappear.  

It wasn't about the skinny girls in the magazines.  It wasn't about wanting to look another way or fit into a different size, to have others gasp and gape and ooh and aah at my incredible, perfect physique.  It really started with the desire, honestly, to not be seen at all.  It started in college because I felt lost, drowning in a social sea of boys and girls and partying and promiscuity, none of which was familiar or in the least bit appealing to me.  It started because I was overwhelmed with a flood of uncomfortable, intense emotions about my own sexuality, my own sense of self, and I was terrified to look any of them straight in the eye.  I didn't understand any of this at the time, all I knew was that the world felt like it was spinning around me, and I needed a handle to hold.  I needed something to still feel like it was under my control.

I remember:  20 years ago, about 6 months knee-deep into my anorexia.  I had just finished one of my daily 2 hour workouts at the college campus fitness center.  I was approached, on my way out, by one of the athletic directors, asking me if I was interested in a health assessment they were offering free to students.  Though I knew what I was doing wasn't normal, though I knew my eating and exercise behaviors had become extreme, I didn't know if anybody else could see.  And I was curious.  So I agreed to have my height and weight recorded and answer a handful of generic questions about my daily exercise, diet and hygiene habits.  I agreed to have my first experience with a BMI recorder, a primitive looking device which literally pinches the body's skin in a few specific places to determine overall body fat percentage.  After calculating my number, which I can't remember specifically, she picked up a chart and, this I will never forget, says to the girl standing in front of her, the girl who had been starving herself and literally running herself raw for months, she says to me, "According to the chart, your BMI indicates you are in the Elite Athlete category.  Nice work, keep it up!"  I remember it took everything I had to not double over and burst out into hysterical laughter.  She couldn't see it after all.  Keep it up, she said.  "Thanks," I replied.  And I did.

We wear invisibility cloaks.  We are hard-wired to meet other people's needs so deeply and remarkably in place of our own, that we ourselves often vanish.  I remember thinking, though the details of our lives are so different, this quality was something we seemed to share.  The sensitive, brilliant girls and women who, like me, feel and think so big but choose to take up such little space.  I wasn't a college kid anymore, I was a grown woman with a husband and a child and in this real life with real responsibilities and yet somehow I had found my way back to my eating disorder so many years later, so seduced and immeshed that I didn't know how I would begin to come out the other side.  I didn't know if I even wanted to yet.  I didn't know much, but I did know that when I talked with these women, when we were tired and scared and giddy and angry and creative and uncomfortable together, I felt like I vanished a little less.

I remember:  5 years ago, 2 months into intensive outpatient treatment.  We were asked in one of our processing groups to write a letter to the body part with which we've struggled the most.  I chose my belly.  I expected, as I started to write, to produce a scathing, vengeful commentary to this piece of me that I could never seem to get under control, this part of me that, no matter how much I starved or deprived myself, always sat, round and soft, as a reminder of my hungers and needs.  But what came out instead, surprisingly, was a love letter.  A note of admiration and gratitude for this part of me that grew and housed my baby, that was wise enough to know how to keep him safe and take care of exactly what he needed in any given moment.  It was the weirdest feeling, I remember, like I had for the first time bypassed my inner critic, the bullying shame-monger I was so used to hearing in my head, and accessed a part of my insides I had never felt before.  I sobbed buckets as I wrote, and something was washed away.  The letter was a revelation, the pause that prompted the redirection, the radical shift I needed to, literally, bring me back to life.  

Recovery requires vigilance.  It requires constantly adapting to the waves, the inner and outer fluctuations that have the potential of pushing little trigger buttons.  I remember, it was hard, really hard, at the beginning, but it's gotten much easier as I've gotten better at clarifying my boundaries and trusting my intuition.  So, for me, recovery means moving everyday because it helps burn away anxiety and frustration, not calories and fat.  It means moving in a way that feels good and stopping when it doesn't.  Recovery means using cream in my coffee and eating chocolate covered macaroons on occasion because they both taste f*cking amazing.  It means steering clear of anything resembling a diet, detox, or juice cleanse, because I can't do depletion and depravation.  I know if I swing the pendulum too far one way, it's that much harder to bring back in the other direction.  It means using the privilege and responsibility that I have of teaching mindful movement to bodies of all shapes and sizes, to speak about inner worthiness and resilience, to remember all of the awesome ways the body functions, versus focusing on shape and form.  Recovery means immediately challenging the thoughts that come into my head and the barrage of messages I see around me, the ones that poke and pick at our bodies, compare them to each other and make judgements about our value based on those comparisons.  And it means surrounding myself with people, especially women, who are loving and grounded and ballsy enough to challenge those things for me, on the days when I don't have it in me.   Recovery is about best supporting my body, not as a temple to be purified, idolized and adorned, but as the fluid, thorny, bio-intelligent organism that it is, one that reacts and regenerates, that can take one hell of a licking and keep on ticking.

In this moment, I re-member:  all of the parts of me that have been wounded, violated, malnourished, and stripped away.  I plant my roots firmly enough to hold both insecurities and worthiness at the same time.  I grow out with courage and curiosity, satisfying my appetites when I am hungry, pausing to be still when I am full.  I listen to my gut.  I trust my cravings.  And sometimes, I take a step forward, open my arms wide, and even ask for more.  

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Grow Up

I've had a hard time articulating my thoughts about the Trump scene lately.  It's not because I don't have an opinion on it; on the contrary, I have many opinions.  It's mainly because I haven't been sure exactly how to process it.  I find myself devouring information - 24-hr news analysis, social media memes, eloquent essays written by informed political scientists - all in an effort to put 2 + 2 together and create logical feedback in my mind.  I consider myself pretty savvy, but time and time again all I seem to come up with is this red old-timey computer ticker tape running through my brain that flashes "Does not compute. Does not compute. Does not compute" over and over and over again.

Recently, "does not compute" has turned into total system overload.  The unabashed physical violence, abhorrent racism, utter stupidity (go back to Auschwitz?  seriously?) and us vs. them middle-school dodgeball mentality has begun to illicit a potent cocktail of reaction from within me over the past few weeks.  It's this feeling of wanting to simultaneously vomit, weep uncontrollably, and smash all my dishes.  It's this odd blend of anger mixed with grief mixed with the kind of remarkable vitriol that my 2-year old daughter displays when she explodes in all her tantrum glory.  

I watched it explode just this morning.  We were going outside in chilly weather.  She didn't want to put her coat on.  And off to the races we went.  Guttural sobs, streaming tears, flailing arms and legs, throwing herself on the floor and writhing like a fish stranded out of water on her back.  She lost it.  Her emotions very quickly became too big for her little body, and she was totally overloaded.  The tantrum took on a life of it's own.  It was about the coat but it was no longer about the coat.  She had passed the point of no return and her body simply erupted into pure reactivity.  

In reality, she was exhausted.  So after about 10 minutes of watching her rage around the house, clear entire shelves of their chat-skis with one single sweep of her arm, I finally picked her up and squeezed her tightly and shushed loudly into her ear.  I stroked her head and kept repeating that it would be okay.  That she needed to just stop what she was doing and go to sleep.  And sure enough, after about 2 minutes, her rigid body began to soften, her sobs quieted, and she passed out hard on my chest.  

I get it.  She's tired.  I'm tired.  We're all tired.  I am so tired that at the end of some days when my partner rolls in the door, I lay into him like a petulant child, barking orders and demands, when all I really need is a big bear hug.  It's easy for me to resort to anger and reactive defensiveness to mask the squishy, tender parts of me that are run down or exhausted.  It's scary to admit, I'm tired.  I feel like nobody understands me.  I'm trying really hard, and I feel like my needs aren't getting met.  I get how it's easier sometimes to just go off, to sling a few f* bombs and wail and flail and throw shit around because at least then, you feel like you're being heard.  I get it.  It's exactly how I want to act when I'm overwhelmed by the ignorance and violence that has been driving the Trump train as of late.     

But here's the thing.  When my 2 year old loses her shit, it's because she doesn't quite yet have the emotional and cognitive wherewithal to deal any other way.  She doesn't know any better.  But I do.  And Trump does.  And so do his supporters.  Cause we're grown-ass adults.  

It's about the coat, and it isn't about the coat.  It's about Trump, and it isn't about Trump.  I think this is why I'm having such a hard time computing.  Because it's not just about one overgrown toddler stomping around, flailing his arms and spitting lies and hate.  It's about how this one toddler is riling up an army of toddlers.  It's about the tantrums he is throwing and encouraging among his supporters, mainly middle-aged and in a middle to lower socioeconomic class who, yeah, are really tired.  They're tired of not feeling understood.  They're tired of trying really hard and not feeling like their needs are being met.  But instead of getting underneath their anger, of connecting to the soft squishy underbelly, Trump is catalyzing it.  He's playing to their anger and fear.  It's calculated and intentional.  And when that anger is also charged with obscenely overt racism, sexism, and xenophobia, it also becomes dangerous.  I can tell you from experience, it takes no skill or leadership ability at all to rile up a group of toddlers.  All it takes is one of them, yelling really loudly.   

So if they insist on acting like toddlers, I will treat them like toddlers.  I will tell them the same thing I tell my toddler when she freaks out.  Play nice.  Gentle touch.  Open your listening ears.  Use your words.  I will even swallow the taste of bile in my mouth and extend compassion, the equivalent of stroking their heads and shushing in their ears like maybe their own mommies never did.  Because I want to set a good example for my own children, and deep down I do believe that love is always stronger than hate.  But when my own kid starts hitting and biting, I draw the line.  And when I watch or hear about someone hitting or spitting at or verbally degrading another person, I have to speak up. I sure as hell won't tolerate their violence just like I wouldn't tolerate watching my or another person's child bully or get bullied on the playground.  

So I'm going to also tell them something I would never say to my toddler because it's not developmentally appropriate:  Grow up.  Act your age.  Get over yourself, get over your anger and start treating other people with the same kind of respect and understanding that you're hemming and hawing you want extended toward yourself.  Do I think they'll listen?  No.  But I also don't think that Trump has a chance in hell to be President.  Because at the end of the day when all the votes are counted, I firmly believe that the majority of the people don't want an egomaniacal narcissistic tantrum-throwing toddler bossing them around.  We're too smart for that.  And that gives me a little hope.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Push and Pull

She came on a Saturday in early spring.  I was lying in bed, the April sun had just started to peek it's way over the horizon and through my bedroom window.  There it was, like a comforting touch, warm and fast and suddenly, on my face.  One of those perfect moments when in an instant, in the length of a single inhale, I closed my eyes, all of the pain and disappointment of the past few weeks totally melted away, and I was at peace.  Then in a single exhale, as quickly as it came, the sun passed behind a cloud, I opened my eyes, and it was gone.

Then there it was again.  Warm and fast and suddenly.  Only this time, the feeling was between my legs.  My eyes got big and my heart started racing, and I jumped up to find my husband who was already downstairs tending to the needs of our 5 year old early-riser.

"Dude."  Crap.  "I think my water broke."  Damn.  "I need to call next door.  They need to take Jack.  We need to go to the hospital, like, now."  So I did, and they did, and my husband and I jumped in the car and started the drive to the hospital, both of us silent, staring straight ahead, like two wigged out deer caught in strobing disco headlights.

This was not how it was supposed to go.  I was not supposed to be racing to the hospital at the first rumblings of labor with a towel jammed in my crotch, terrified to move or even breathe.  One single phrase repeating itself over and over in my brain.  Prolapsed cord, prolapsed cord, prolapsed cord.  I had never even heard of the term until six weeks prior, when my midwife first told me that my baby was breech.  Prolapsed cord.  It's the technical term for when, during labor, the umbilical cord slips out before the baby, most common in pregnancies, like mine, where the baby's head is facing up and not down to plug up the exit way, so to speak.  On the chance that the cord is also wrapped around the baby's neck, it could strangle the baby on the way out.  Prolapsed cord, prolapsed cord, prolapsed cord.  Totally rare, completely unlikely, yet blaring like an alarm bell in my head.  Don't budge, don't breathe, don't move.  I am supposed to be at home, moaning, squatting, writhing around my yoga mat.  I am supposed to be riding the wave of each contraction to the birthing center.  I am supposed to plop into a warm tub and gently push my baby through the water and out into the world.

It turns out it was pee.  That warm and fast and sudden feeling between my legs.  It wasn't my water breaking, it was me peeing myself.  A lot.  But given the fact that I had started to have regular contractions when I arrived at the hospital, the staff decided to keep me monitored for a while, to see how things progressed.  So I was plugged in and laid down and destined to ride the waves of my contractions, not on my yoga mat like I was supposed to, but in bed.  Twenty minutes later, during a particularly strong contraction, my water did in fact break, and the countdown to my Caesarian began.  The on-call surgeon came in to introduce himself and sweetly apologized that we had never met before, even though he was going to be the one cutting me open.  The nurses and anesthesiologist apologized that I was in labor, promising that my pain was going to end soon.  Ironic, I thought, given the fact that this was actually the least painful part of the process yet.  I had made it this far, it was finally time, the physical and emotional and mental preparation of the past few weeks were about to culminate in one defining moment, I was about to meet my baby girl.

This was not how it was supposed to go.  It was the first thought that entered my head at my 32 week appointment, lying on an exam table with ultrasound goo on my belly, when I learned my baby was breech.  Followed closely by:  Prenatal yoga teachers don't have breech babies.  And then an emphatic:  What the hell did I do wrong?  Prior to that moment, I hadn't even considered that this birth would be any different than my first.  A ten to twelve hour stretch of labor at home, a quick, albeit ludicrous and uncomfortable drive to the hospital, a few grunts and pushes and wham-o, a beautiful slimy bundle of baby on my chest.  I fought back sobs as my midwife suggested I either start to make a plan on how to flip this kid around or prepare for the possibility of a surgical birth.

So make a plan, I did.  I gathered an incredible group of local practitioners - chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncturists and body workers - who, for weeks, worked their own brands of specialized magic to help poke, prod, coax and cajole my baby back around.  I set up a mini altar in her nursery, literally stood on my head in front of it every morning and then sat in meditation, my skin-crawling, crying and silently pleading to my stubborn little unborn girl to just go back to normal, damnit.  I dropped deeper and deeper into every nook and cranny of my body, traveling to places my ten plus years of practicing and teaching yoga had never even taken me.  And I got pissed.  So pissed.  At my baby for not cooperating, at my care providers for not fixing it, at random pregnant women on the street who I assumed took for granted that they got to push their babies out while I was doomed to go under the knife.  But mostly, I got angry at myself.  I felt defective and faulty.  And when I hit 38 weeks and my baby hadn't budged and the realization hit that it was finally time to make logistical preparations for the dreaded "C" word, I felt utterly defeated and unworthy.  Like the weepy kid on the losing end of a wicked game of tug-o-war.  

I can tell you this honestly about my daughter's birth:  There was a disconnect when my baby was pulled out of me.  The body goes numb, a cut is made, and a baby emerges.  No wave of relief, no rush of oxytocin.  It could not be more surreal.  I heard her cry for the first time, and for one brief, slippery millisecond, her cry didn't sync up with my heart.  Like a needle that temporarily slips out of the groove of a record.  There was a disconnect.  And, though it was so faint and so brief, that disconnect was enough to plant a seed of grief that is watered just a tiny bit each time I hear the story of a woman's picture-perfect, blissed-out "natural" birth.  Or each time I read an article some well meaning friend posts on her Facebook feed about the evils of Caesarian birth and how my baby is ten times more likely to be fat, diabetic, depressed, stupid or just plan unhappy because of her birth.  And, inevitably, each little hit of grief brings with it just a sprinkle of guilt.  It's slight and wispy and usually an afterthought, but it's there, in the form of a single phrase, "Why me?"

I can also tell you this about my daughter's birth:  An incredible, surprising shift happened.  After that brief moment of disconnect passed, when she was placed on me and immediately stopped crying and rested her perfectly round, wrinkly head on my chest.  When I wrapped my arms around her and held her tiny blue fingers in my hand, I knew.  My entire body softened, like a giant sigh, the tears flowed, and I knew.  This was exactly how it was supposed to go.  This was exactly her journey and exactly my journey and exactly how we were supposed to meet up together.  I knew as sure as I was holding her that I had done nothing wrong and that every moment that came before this one and every moment that came after was exactly how it was supposed to be.  This was completely normal.  This was completely natural.  Medicated?  Sure.  Highly intervened?  You bet.  But totally 100% natural.  

I don't believe that everything happens for a reason.  But I do believe that we have a choice in how to respond to everything that happens to us.  I believe that that choice gives us power, even if the thing that happened to us felt like it took a little power away.  I don't believe anymore in calling something natural, because to call one thing natural silently labels all the other things in that category unnatural.  And that's a loaded label, especially when that thing is birth.  It boasts an inherent sense of right or wrong.  It hangs with a tough crowd - shame, grief, anger, guilt.  It intimidates you into believing that there is one specific way that something should go.  It had been my own mantra for so many weeks.  This is not the way it's supposed to go.  My daughter's birth, what came before and what came after, fundamentally changed the way I trust.  Myself, others, and an awareness of something bigger than all of it.  It opened my eyes and my heart to a whole new scope of my empathy.  It required me to let go of the white knuckle grip I had on the picture of how it should be and open myself up with faith and strength to how it actually was.

A few days ago, I was sitting across the table from my daughter, a feisty red head, now almost two.  She was doodling with crayons, focused and driven, like she had a master plan for the collection of circles and scribbles she was marking on the paper.  It seemed like the perfect time to bring up the subject.  "So, tell me, honey, what was up with you not flipping around for me in my belly?"  She paused from her drawing, looked up from her doodles and stared into my eyes, silent.  "Seriously, kid, what was up with that?"  She continued to silently stare.  "You're not going to tell me, are you?"  Still nothing.  I took a deep breath and stared back at her.  This lovely, stubborn tiny human who had pushed me up against and pulled me beyond my limits in so many ways, even before she was born.  Who never faltered in her certainty that I had the stamina to keep moving, even when I wasn't so sure myself.  And then there it was.  A little giggle.  Then a smirk.  As if to say, "Duh, mom, this again?  You already know the answer to all of it.  You did before, you do now.  You always did."  I let out a big sigh, smirked a little myself, and picked up a crayon to color with her.  She was right again.  

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Kittens, Puppies and the Long Road to Gratitude

My therapist once told me that there are two types of people in the world:  those who spend most of their time thinking about what they have, and those who spend most of their time thinking about what they don't. I had been seeing this therapist for about two years and had a lot of respect for her ability to wade through all my bullshit to help me get to the root of most issues.  I especially appreciated her insight in calling out when I talked about things as either black or white.  So when she told me this, I took it deeply to heart, cause I knew what she was really saying to me in her delicate, therapish-y way was, "You, my dear, are a member of the latter group."  It was humbling to hear, but I knew she was totally right.  I'm a glass-half-empty gal, you might say.  Always have been.  Even as a young child, I always had to have something ahead of me to look forward to, always had to plan and set goals that were just a little bit ahead of me.  The now was always missing something.  The now was never good enough.   

So, needless to say, gratitude, has never come easy for me. In fact, quite honestly, I spent most of my life really irked by people who spewed their gratitude all over the place for everyone to see.  A similar kind of irked I felt for people who wore sweatshirts with puppies and kittens on them.  Like, what gives you the right to walk around with that much concentrated happy and cuteness emblazoned on your chest?  And why should I be forced to look at it?  So, daily gratitude meditations? What. Ever. Gratitude journals?  Hearty eye roll.  Gratitude, like faith, was for the naive, ignorant and baby animal apparel wearers of the world.  Because when it came down to it, how was it possible to focus on the joy in life without simultaneously ignoring the incredible amount of suffering in the world?  I chose to focus on the latter because that seemed more important and more urgent.  Black or white.  It was that simple.

But then here's the thing. Something shifted. It was a number of events over a number of years, but it all accumulated into one crazy wild shift.  And as it shifted, as I shifted, things started to drop away - things I had been clinging to that were not really serving me, things I was terrified of letting go of for fear of what may come in to replace them.  And as things started to drop away and the ground beneath me got less and less stable, I needed to trust something new.  I needed to connect with something that felt really really real among all the unreal and false truths that were quickly dropping away.  I needed a nightlight.  I needed to believe in the light, believe that light was possible, to have the strength and endurance to sit in the dark.  I needed to breathe in moments of good.  So, I warily gave it a shot.  And then I got it.  

We aren't grateful in spite of all the terrible things that could go wrong with ourselves and the world, we are grateful because of them. Practicing gratitude gives us energy.  It nurses our compassion. It feeds our empathy. It walks hand-in-hand with our ability to engage courageously with the world, especially with the discomfort. It doesn't necessitate that we ignore the suffering like I had initially thought, it just helps us not to get too weighted down by it. Gratitude catalyses our light.  Gratitude gives us joy. 

And here's the kicker, and here's what had been holding me back for so long from going there, and here's what had kept me in shame and resentment around gratitude for so long:  not only does gratitude give us joy, it requires us to acknowledge that we are worthy of that joy.  And in acknowledging that worthiness, gratitude, then, becomes a radical, revolutionary, contagious act of courage.

I see all that now. And gratitude's grown on me.  Kindof like those people in the animal sweatshirts.  
It's not any easier or more comfortable to practice, but it definitely feels essential to keep trying.  Everyday.  Multiple times a day.

So today and everyday, count those blessings.  Say them out loud.  See them in front of you, write them down, offer them up as a prayer, really breathe them in.  Flaunt your damn baby animals.  Spread your joy.  You're worth it. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Welcome Back

So, the truth is, I haven't opened up my journal in over a year.  Don't get me wrong, the desire is there:  I've been carrying it around with me, moving it from bag to bag, from house to car and back again, waiting for that glorious, inspired moment when the clouds will part and the cover will just fly open to a crisp, blank page and the words will begin to flow again.  But it hasn't.  And they don't.  And I'm very good at convincing myself it's because I don't have time and the kids are too this and my work is too that and making all the excuses I want, but the truth is - now that we're talking truth - the real truth is that I have all these words and stories and ideas and creatives monkeying around inside of me, but as soon as they try to emerge, it's like there's this big intimidating, extremely heavy-looking boulder blocking the exit.  Every time.  So, the truth is, I'm stuck.  And probably a little scared.  Cause I think stuck and scared are bedfellows most of the time.  

But it's time.  Man, is it fucking time.  It's time to stand up, creep a little closer to that big, bad boulder and take a peek on what could be on the other side.

So I stopped waiting for that divine intervention.  I sat down, grabbed a pen, opened up the cover of my journal to the first blank page, put pen to paper, closed my eyes and just listened really hard to the first thing that came up.  No editing, no filtering, no judgement.  And this was it:  apparently I'm welcoming myself back by taking my own advice about letting go.

Take hold of what is no longer viable.  Take a good honest look.  Cradle it in both hands, softly and lovingly.  Don't squeeze it, don't suffocate it, don't punish it for the things it's no longer able to give you.  Remember, it had a pulse once.  It served a purpose.  It had a time and a place and a reason and a rhythm.  It nourished you.  Even while it may have been hurting you.  Honor it, thank it for how it served you, offer it forgiveness and grace and then open your palms and with a long, gentle exhale, blow it one last kiss.  Goodbye.