Friday, June 30, 2017

There is No God Proxy

Since my last post, I have been in the End-of-School-Year vortex: wrapping up teaching, finding a new apartment, booking movers, and planning summer travel. Some days, I feel like I am KILLING IT at this adulting thing...other days, I want to curl up on my futon and not do anything except watch the chimney swifts darting around in the sky outside (they always look like they are having the best time). Yesterday evening was of the latter type, and then it got dark out so no more chimney swifts, so I decided to search for a little inspiration online. I went on Instagram (sometimes a good idea, sometimes a tricky one) and saw that Laura McKowen had written a blog post in honor of her 1,000th day of sobriety.

One of the greatest blessings of my recovery is that I've found myself some truly outstanding teachers along the way. These women are some of the most open-hearted people I know, and they are all eager to share the wisdom they've gained from their own journeys. With some of my teachers, I've had close personal relationships; with others, like Laura, I've connected in person but know them mainly through their blogs or other online forums. Laura is a true gem. She positively radiates authenticity and she is brave as all get-out, even when being brave means saying, "I don't have anything figured out and am a total mess right now." So when I saw that she had been sober for 1,000 days, I immediately had to read her post about it.
Laura lists 5 lessons she's learned in 1,000 days of sobriety. They're all perceptive and each one rings true for me, but #2 resonates with me the strongest. Here is Laura's second lesson from sobriety:

Don't make anyone your god.

Never before have I seen anyone articulate so clearly what I do all the time, what I have always believed to be proof that I am pathologically insecure or hopelessly needy or pitifully devoid of integrity. Maybe each of those things is a little bit true, but the bigger truth is that I haven't been negating myself, I've been trying to find myself. I've just been going about it the wrong way. And, while I've known for a long time that this pattern isn't healthy, it has been very, very hard to change it. Old habits die hard, and all that.

For me, making someone my god means that I adjust my words and actions to elicit the approval of another person. It means that I reach out with emails or texts and then wait, simmering with anticipation, for a reply--and, when one is late in coming, spin fantasies about what I might have done wrong to make this person not want to stay in touch with me. It means I let another person dictate what parts of me are acceptable and what parts need adjusting or squashing. It is giving higher weight to someone else's opinions and judgments than I give to my own. It is not believing in my own strengths and positive qualities unless someone else affirms them. And it is a driving hunger-- deeper and more desperate than any I ever felt for food--for connection with a person; a hunger that leads me to think, I will be anyone you want me to be--just don't leave me.

Without going into all the painful details, I'll just say this: making someone my god has never, ever ended well.

Laura's post got me thinking: when I make someone my god, what happens to my actual God? I still think about God when I'm davening or saying brachot or observing Shabbat, but I stop thinking about my relationship with God, because I am mistakenly looking for that relationship with another human. I am so busy seeking validation, praise, and affirmation from someone else that I forget I already receive all of those things from God. When I make someone my god, that person inevitably ends up disappointing me because humans cannot actually manage all that power. I also end up feeling out of control because I am flailing around in search of a security that doesn't exist. People were never, ever meant to be god.

Who I am, and how "okay" I am, is a matter that is solely between me and the God Who made me. Other people can have their opinions, but those are just human opinions, not Divine opinions. If I get rejected or rebuffed by another individual, that is human rejection, not Divine rejection. That's not to say it doesn't sting--it does, often badly--but it is not a final verdict on my worthiness. People might cause me to feel insecure or inferior, but those are just feelings, not facts. The fact is, I am fine. I am flawed, and I have things--many things--to work on, but at my core I am a good person who is deserving of love and belonging...and I can always find both of those things with God.

For sure, we need other people, and people's opinions matter. Connections with people matter. God cannot replace relationships with other humans, and I don't think He wants to. But if you find yourself trying to use people to replace God, if you are looking to human beings to affirm your baseline worth as an individual, I would suggest that you examine how that's working for you. Take Laura's advice: don't make anyone your God. You already have a God, and that God created you with love and care. You are who you're supposed to be. You're independent, remarkable, and intuitive. Use people to enhance those qualities, not to work against them. But never forget that God has already ruled: you are worthy. You are.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

13 Reasons Why Not

For those of you who a) do not live in the U.S., b) do not keep up with Netflix, or c) do not associate with teenagers, consider this a friendly PSA: Netflix recently came out with a show called, "13 Reasons Why," about a teenage girl who dies by suicide and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes (nice throwback), each side dedicated to a classmate who she felt had wronged her enough to contribute to her death. The tapes get passed around from kid to kid with explicit instructions to listen to all 13 sides, and implicit instructions to feel guilty and ashamed for driving this girl to kill herself.

If you're anything like me, you might be thinking, "WTF is this show doing on television?!" or, "Who would even MAKE crap like this?" Well, not only has it been made, but it has created quite a sensation, particularly among teenagers and people who know/care about/work with them. I decided that before rushing to judgment, I should actually watch the show, and now that I have, I can tell you that while I do truly believe that the producers had noble intentions in making this series--bringing the issue of teen suicide and other difficult issues to the front of our collective consciousness--I also believe they got a lot of things wrong. While Hannah, the main character, is clearly depressed, the show does not discuss the issue of depression at all. It also does a disservice to mental health professionals by portraying the guidance counselor Hannah approaches as woefully inept, and I worry that this could discourage teens from seeking out adult help when they are struggling. And while I understand the argument that at least it's getting people talking about suicide and bringing the issue out into the open, but I would say that the danger of putting into the minds of teenagers the idea that you can get revenge on people by killing yourself (and then basically giving them a suicide how-to manual), far outweighs any "benefits."

I say all this as someone who knew two teenagers who took their own lives, one of whom was a former student of mine, whom I still think about daily. I also say this as someone who has spent her share of time in the throes of "passive suicidal ideation"--that is, wanting to die without having an actual plan to carry it out. For me, this was the worst part of all my mental health struggles, and it was never as dramatic as it is shown to be on "13 Reasons Why." No one wronged me, I had no terrible secrets, and I didn't need to make anyone "pay." I just didn't want to struggle anymore--I didn't have the heart or the energy for the hundred little daily battles that added up to more than I could bear. I was also seized by a deep-seated fear that I would always feel depressed and hopeless, and that my life would never get any better.

Fortunately, as a young adult in her 20s I was blessed with a gifted therapist, effective medication, and a fully functioning frontal lobe, all of which guided me to a place of knowing that despite sometimes feeling like I wanted to die, I would never actually take my own life. I knew that as firmly as I knew my own name, even as there were many things of which I was not sure: would I recover? Would my life amount to anything? I truly didn't know--but I knew I was in it for the long haul. Even now, there are days when my brain chemistry is wonky or I am feeling more depressed, and I have that thought: I hate my life. In my experience, thoughts of suicide are a bell that you can't really unring. The difference is that now, the thoughts come and go--they don't linger, and they don't scare me, because just as I knew it 10 years ago when I was really struggling, I know it now: I will never end my life. And here are some reasons...let's call them, "13 Reasons Why Not."

1) My parents. My single biggest reason to keep going has always been the love of the people who gave me life to begin with. My parents are my biggest cheerleaders and have always shown me that I am their priority, and that they love me whole. No matter how angry I ever got at myself, no matter how much fury I felt toward my life and the world, I always knew I would never, ever put my parents through the grief of losing their child to suicide. Absolutely never. No question. It's a non-starter.

2) G-d. So, I'll admit that while I have always had a firm belief in G-d, I'm a little hazy on some of the details, especially when it comes to suicide. I've read different opinions on what G-d "thinks" about suicide, but let's be honest: no one really knows. Still, I've always imagined that G-d would be disappointed if I bowed out early--not out of anger, but because He had a plan for me and I abandoned it. And if I can't handle disappointing people, I sure as sh*t don't want to disappoint G-d.

My Nana and I, circa 1984.
3) My Nana. Okay, so she passed away three years ago. Also, I'm not exactly sure what I think about the afterlife and whether or not you actually get to see people you loved who died before you. But if there's any chance that that happens, I definitely would not want to face my grandmother after having taken my own life. She was a fighter and a fiercely principled, loving woman, and she would NOT be okay with her only grandchild dying by suicide.

4) My other family members. My family is quirky (aren't all of ours?), but despite all the times I have had trouble connecting or have been distant or otherwise unavailable, they have stood by me. And I love them for it. Could I intentionally cause them the pain that would inevitably ensue if I ended my life? I really couldn't.

5) My friends and colleagues. Despite all the times when I think, I have no friends, I know that I actually do have some pretty amazing friends whom I love with my whole heart, and who would be devastated if I died. And then there's my work family, whom I'm with all day, five days a week, for 10 months of the year. There are lots of things we don't have in common, but there are more that we do, and I know that even though I sometimes feel "different" from them, they care about me deeply as a coworker, as a friend, and as a human being--and they would never want me to be gone for good.

A valentine from a former student.
Melt my heart.
6) My students, past and present. I love my students fiercely, and no matter how long ago I had them in class, they always remain "my kids." And I just could not put them through the trauma of having one of their teachers die unexpectedly. Not to mention the responsibility I have to be a role model, to demonstrate for them how to persevere through life's tough moments and to have faith in the future. "Suicide" is never what I want my students to think of when they think of me.

Baby robins!
It's the most wonderful time of the year!

7) Sunrise and sunset. Each one is different and beautiful and miraculous. Don't you want to see tomorrow's? I do.

8) Springtime. Honestly, is there a more wondrous season? Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping,  leaves are popping out, and baby animals are everywhere. It never, ever gets old. I am in a constant state of amazement every time I go outside from March through June, and I want to witness all the springs I possibly can.

9) You don't get to watch people's reactions to your death.  This is probably my biggest beef with "13 Reasons Why," or at least one of them: it fails to communicate to teens that you don't get to see what happens after you die. You don't get to see the crying, you don't get to watch the memorials, and you don't get to hear all the wonderful things people will say about you. You don't get to do any of that, because you're dead. That's it. It's final. Full stop.

10) Curiosity. Simply put, I'm interested to see how my life plays out. I have some goals and plans and, nebulous though they may be, I'm curious to see what I can make my life into if I put them into action. Teaching. Motherhood. Exploring. I bet a lot of things will happen that I'm not expecting, and some might be painful and others will be wonderful, but I still want to see how it turns out. I actually think it could be pretty great.

11) I can do more good alive, than not alive. It sounds obvious, because it is. Alive, I can teach my students, nurture them, and guide them to become self-confident, positive members of a community. Alive, I can love my family and friends and add to their lives. I can cuddle babies, I can water plants, and I can volunteer my time at causes that matter to me. Dead, I can't do any of that. And that matters.

12) Tikkun Olam. This is the Jewish belief that we are put in this world to "fix it up." Whatever our current situation, we have been brought there because there is some fixing that needs to be done, that only we can do. I like to believe that I am alive because I have not yet fulfilled my "fix-up mission" on earth. I want to be a fixer and a healer--and I definitely do not want to make this world more broken than it is right now.

13) "Pain comes and goes like clouds. Love is the sun." --Glennon Doyle Melton
PC: Lisa Randolph via Twitter
This is my favorite quote for dark times, for the times when depression sits like a brick in the middle of my skull and I don't feel good about anything. I love this quote because it has proven to be true, time and again--whatever crappy situation I find myself in, whatever intolerable feelings I am having, they all pass. It might take a few days, or even a couple of weeks, but they always fade away, and in their place is love. Not sunshine and roses everywhere, but love for the people in my life and for the beauty around me. Faith that the difficult times will pass has always been what keeps me going. It's true for me--and it's true for you, too.

If you have ever thought about ending your own life, I hope my list of "13 Reasons Why Not" inspires you to make your own list. Even if you can't get 13 things--even if you can get only one thing--that one thing is all you need. And let me be the one to tell you, in case no one else does: 

You are magnificent.
You are one-of-a-kind.
The world needs you.

Please, please stay. It's been the best thing I've ever done. It will be for you, too. I know it.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Breaking Down the Labyrinth

For me, Pesach prep is a bit like everything else--the anticipation is nearly always worse than the reality. For weeks, I am an anxious mess as I stare down the monstrous amounts of cleaning and cooking I need to do, and then the actual day comes, and I wake up at 7 am, bang it out, and am done by 3 pm. I do recognize that in this one particular instance, living alone in a small city apartment is a blessing, because the cleaning is manageable and I am cooking for one. Bottom line--I'm officially Kosher L'Pesach with time left in the afternoon to do some writing, so I feel pretty accomplished. The OU would probably find fault with a few things, but lately I've found fault with a few of their things, so I guess that makes us even.

Despite all the frenzy (or perhaps partly because of it; it's such a classic cultural ritual), I really enjoy Pesach. I appreciate that it forces me to do things differently--staying up late, eating different foods, etc. But what I really love doing during this holiday, especially in the days leading up to it, is thinking about freedom and what it means for me, personally.

In the conventional sense, I have never been an unfree person. I had the good fortune to be born in the United States to a middle-class family who never needed to worry about money. Though I'm in a religious minority in this country, I'm also in the racial majority, which has bestowed upon me benefits I would be remiss not to mention. I have never been tied down to unfavorable circumstances by debt, and though my finances do not afford me every option, I have enough decent options that I can build a good life for myself. In short, I have been very, very lucky, both as an accident of birth and as the result of planning and hard work.

But there has always been something that has bound me. In childhood, it was OCD; I could not go to bed without making two trips around my bedroom to touch certain objects, and my stuffed animals had to be arranged just so on my bed or it physically didn't feel right. I played endless games of "magical thinking," telling myself that I would do well on a test if I could throw a small object in the air and catch it with one hand three times in a row, three times (also, I loved the number 3). If I was out for a walk and stepped on a manhole cover with one foot, I had to step on it with the other foot, as well. I was never sure what, exactly, would happen if I didn't adhere to these rituals, but I had a firm (if vague) sense that it would be "something bad."

In college, some of those compulsions lessened because I was physically removed from the environment where they took place (my childhood bedroom), but that was okay because I found something better: compulsive exercise and obsessive dieting. Anorexia was the ultimate ritual. Every morning, at the same hour every day, I went to the gym. I did the same machines, in the same order, for the same amounts of time (or a little more, but never a little less). I ran the same distance every day (or a little longer, but never a little shorter). It was mind-numbingly boring, but OMG THE ENDORPHINS. Then, there was eating. I ate at the same times every day, picking from the same narrow variety of foods, counting out numbers of things to make sure my intake was exactly the same as the day before (or a little less, but never a little more). Of course, I had rituals WITH food, too--precise methods of eating from which I could not deviate. By the middle of freshman year, I had come up with a system that I had fully mastered. It did not occur to me that the system had mastered me.


I recently read a book of memoirs called, Abandon Me, by an author named Melissa Febos. I actually don't think I can adequately describe this book or its effect on me, except to say that it is, hands down, the most powerful memoir I have ever read. I got it from the library and it was a "speed read" so there were no renewals, and on the day I had to return it I went to my local bookstore and bought my own copy, even though it just came out and is only in hardcover, and I have a somewhat strict (if informal) policy against paying "extra" for hardcover books. But this book, I needed to own, and immediately.

My favorite essay is the one called, "Labyrinths," in which Melissa outlines her own addiction to heroin and her recovery from it, as well as her brother's battle with bipolar disorder. The title of the essay is a reference to the 1986 movie, "Labyrinth," in which a teenage girl named Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly) wishes for her baby brother to disappear--and then he does; he gets taken away by Jareth, the Goblin King (played by David Bowie), who stores the baby in a castle in the center of a labyrinth. Sarah has 13 hours to solve the labyrinth and rescue her brother.

Sarah enters the labyrinth and begins to run. She falls into many distracting traps designed to throw her off course; in actuality, like all labyrinths, it is only one path and will inevitably lead to the center, so all Sarah needs to do is follow it. But, as Melissa Febos writes:

Throughout the film Jareth tries to convince her that the labyrinth is too difficult to solve. He drugs her. He sends creatures to mislead her. He promises her that happiness is in succumbing to his fantasy and abandoning her quest to solve the labyrinth.

"I ask for so little," he pleads. "Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want."

When I read that, I thought of how similar Jareth's voice sounded to that of my eating disorder. When I fell into anorexia's labyrinth, my list of "everything I wanted" was simple: I wanted to fill the empty space within me. Anorexia promised me that if I allowed it to rule me, it would fulfill my wish by simply erasing my need altogether. And so, I gave in. The labyrinth seemed too complicated, the center too elusive, and so I allowed myself to be swallowed up. The truth is that I didn't even know I was trapped--I still felt like I was in control.

Recognizing the structural layout of my labyrinth was the key to its undoing. Once I knew that the voice of my captor was lying, that I would never be free unless I broke down the walls myself, I started to come back to life. But there were so many distractions. I had to learn to recognize my own anxieties and compulsions for what they were, and to be in tune to the mental and physical cues that signaled I was starting to give in to the eating disorder. Let me say: it was a complicated f*cking labyrinth. But I used my tools: I went to treatment, I participated in therapy, I took my medication. And I found the center, where my self was waiting.

My favorite excerpt from Melissa's essay is in the picture below:
I love it because this is the key to everything, this realization that our addictions, our obsessive and compulsive belief systems, are nothing more than captors trying to take away our power. They will promise us everything, but leave us with nothing. The truth is that we hold the power. The minute we even entertain the idea that we might not have to listen, the labyrinth weakens a little bit. And as soon as we are willing to say the word, "No," even if we just whisper it, that is the moment that we start to get back our freedom. The labyrinth cannot withstand a lack of worship, and when we refuse to fear it any longer, it will begin to crumble.

Sometimes, it can seem tempting to go back to the labyrinth, with its small enclosed spaces and clear boundaries. But it will never again be as satisfying as it once was, because it will have lost its luster. Every time I went back to anorexia after my first round of treatment, I found that I had too much knowledge for it to stick for long--I knew what I was doing, I recognized the irrationalities, and I knew what I should be doing instead. More importantly, I understood what my eating disorder had taken from me, and was still taking from me, and that made me angry. The day I decided that I was simply tired of this particular labyrinth, that it held nothing of value for me anymore, was the day I left treatment and never went back.

Putting my life back together and growing into a functional adult has been a lot of work; it isn't always fun and sometimes makes me cry. But since I left the labyrinth, my life has never again felt as empty as it did when I was held captive by the eating disorder that promised to fill me. I make my own choices, now. I have space for relationships, I have energy and passion for a demanding profession, and I actually have emotions, which are quite possibly the most wondrous part of the whole operation.

Freedom is everything.

And so, my Pesach wish for each of us is that we recognize the labyrinths that hold us captive, and that we start to deconstruct them, brick by brick. Freedom is out there, and in it our true selves are waiting, as they have always been.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Beautifully Broken
When I started this blog, I tried hard to publish something at least every other week...I think because I had so much to say, and sharing it felt so urgent. Clearly, I have gotten away from that level of frequency, and it's not that I haven't had anything to write's more that I haven't been able to find the most effective way to write about what has been going on for me. I feel as though I need a degree of separation from things in order to write about them clearly, and that separation hasn't happened yet, so the words haven't come. I say this not as an apology for not writing, but more as an explanation as to why I haven't been on the blog as much lately.

But then, last weekend happened, and words started to come.

I had the privilege of attending a workshop led by the amazing Laura McKowen, whom I have raved about quite a bit on this blog, and Holly Whitaker, whom I have talked about less but who is no less fabulous. These two women do incredibly important work in the recovery world; both are in sobriety and are also in recovery from eating disorders. They are impassioned writers, speakers, and yoga people, and I am a little bit (or a lot) of a groupie, so I took my yoga-ambivalent self to a yoga studio and practiced yoga for four hours, just to learn from them. (Okay, there was writing involved, too, which is more my jam.)

The title of the workshop was, "Never Not Broken," and it centered on the premise that we have each been broken open by various life situations, and we will bear those cracks for the rest of our lives...but instead of weakening us, our brokenness makes us stronger and wiser. I was attracted to this idea because I view my life into very clearly divided "before" and "after" segments: "before," being before I developed an eating disorder my freshman year in college, and "after," being everything after my last hospitalization in 2007 (I call the in-between years, "the mess").  I visualize "before" and "after" through two photographs that sit on my parents' coffee table--one of me as a senior in high school, the other of me graduating from college. When I look at my high school senior self, I see her smile as genuine, the gleam in her eyes as a sign of her full life and endless hope, for she has no idea what's coming. The photo of me as a college senior, I hate. I look at that version of myself and I know my smile is fake; my eyes masking how trapped I felt in my body, in my mind, in my misery. For most of my time in recovery, I have wanted desperately to get back to the way I was "before." Why can I not be happy anymore? I often wonder. Instead, I'm stuck being this broken thing. Put back together, yes, but still cracked in ways that I haven't figured out how to repair.

Before the workshop started, I anticipated that I would spend most of it brooding over all the broken, shattered parts of me, and maybe I would even cry, which would be a huge breach of my "no public displays of emotion" rule. But somewhere around hour three, a weird thing happened. We were journaling in response to the prompt, "What do You Want?" and I realized that although there are still some things I desire but have yet to achieve, I actually have a lot of good things in my life. I have the most fulfilling job I could ask for; I get to do what I love and I know I am making a difference. My "work family" is close-knit and supportive. Through my Jewish education, I have made dear friends in Israel who nurture me in ways that no one else does. My parents and I have great relationships with each other. I am living on my own and paying my own bills, driving around in a car that I own, with enough money saved to allow me to plan for a future child. All told, I am actually not doing too badly. And admitting this was new to me, because my usual line of thinking is to focus on the negative...but sitting there in that workshop, I was able to really see all the vitality I have built into my life, and that I have achieved successes that were absolutely not possible a decade ago.

I pondered this as I lay on my mat, listening to Laura's calm voice easing us into the final restorative pose. Then, from the speakers, I heard familiar tune begin to play...the lyrics came:

I heard there was a sacred chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord...

Yup. She played Hallelujah. She played LEONARD COHEN.

There I was on my mat, with a big old grin on my face, because THIS WAS A WORKSHOP ABOUT BROKENNESS AND SHE'S PLAYING LEONARD F**KING COHEN (no disrespect intended).

Leonard Cohen, the iconic Jewish singer and songwriter, penned the following lyrics about human brokenness:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We are all broken in some ways, some of us more than others, but we all bear at least a few cracks bequeathed upon us by the world and our own psyches. The challenge, as with any perceived weakness, is to learn how to leverage it to one's advantage. I know that I, personally, have gained enormous insight into myself and others from having gone through everything I've endured, much of which was excruciatingly painful while it was happening. I might not ever return to that innocent teenager I was before the eating disorder, the one who grins out from that high school senior photo. But I am damn sure more in tune with my emotions, more able to empathize with others, and more able to manage the demands of the world than she ever was. It was a trade I was never asked if I wanted to make; I was never given the choice of opting out.  Brokenness can't work that way, because who would ever elect to be split open? Not I. But there were lessons I needed to learn, that I am still learning, and so I was given the pain and the blessing of being broken to my core.

At the end of the workshop, Laura and Holly herded all 50 of us into a circle, and we did the "go-around": say your name, where you're from, and one thing you're taking away from today. Every single person in the room had been touched by addiction, and many were in the beginning stages of recovery. Some people shared from a place of strength, others from a place of insecurity, but the underlying current was vulnerability.

Vulnerability sounded like the man who had just begun sobriety and said, "I'm on day 28."

It was the woman who ventured, "I'm an alcoholic. I've never actually said that before."

It came through in the voice of a young woman who shared about her suicide attempt.

It was the person who admitted, "I don't actually know anyone in recovery."

And as I sat there listening and waiting for my turn, I could see my self of ten years ago mirrored back to me in my fellow participants' words. I remembered the first time I ever said, "I am anorexic," and how exhilarating was that release, and how terrifying the admission. I remembered my "day one" in my first treatment program, where I finally found comfort among other people who understood the way my brain functioned and the twisted logic by which I lived my life. I remembered meeting my first recovered person, and how powerful that encounter was. I remembered all the times I had gone to bed, wishing that I would sleep forever. And I knew, sitting in that circle, that I wasn't there anymore. I had done the work and was still doing it. And I had a lot to be proud of.

The truth is, I still go through periods of depression, where I feel like I honestly might not make it through the day. I sometimes still find that when I am stressed or in periods of transition, my first instinct is to micro-manage my food as a release. I am socially anxious, extremely introverted, and yet often feel starved for genuine connection. All of those cracks are real. But I know how to navigate them and to avoid the traps they set. I prefer to view my current self as one who has been made stronger for having been broken.

The Japanese have a practice of putting broken pottery back together by sealing the cracks with lacquer mixed with gold dust. The artist Barbara Bloom explains:
"When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something's suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful." 

That's us, lovelies. Never not broken. And growing more beautiful all the time.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Why We Need Setbacks

I'm writing my first post of 2017, twenty-six days late. I've been thinking about blogging a lot, but something has been in the way--call it writer's block, or apathy, or fatigue, or maybe a combination of those--whatever it is, it has loomed in my brain, imposing and opaque, blocking all my attempts to get any thoughts into writing.

But two days ago, a dear friend messaged me and said, "Any reason you haven't been blogging? I miss your posts!" At which point, I thought, "Oh...I guess people do read it." And then I went through the motions of going online and looking up what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has to say about this week's parasha, because when I'm coming up dry on inspiration, he's pretty much my go-to.

I'll get to Rabbi Sacks in a minute, but I think it's clear what the real lesson is here: friends are our best weapon in overcoming inertia.

So.  In last week's parasha, Hashem speaks to Moses and tells him that he is being tasked with leading the Jewish people out of Egypt. Moses protests, insisting he's not up for the task, but G-d wins the argument because, you know, He's G-d. So Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and plead their case, but it doesn't go well--Pharaoh retaliates by forcing the Israelites to not only make their quota of bricks, but now also gather their own straw for the bricks. The Israelites then basically turn against Moses and Aaron, accusing the two men of making their burden even harder to bear.

This week, Moses and Aaron begin bringing G-d's plagues to Pharaoh, but each one fails to do what it is intended to do: convince Pharaoh to let the Jews go. Moses does absolutely everything he can, and still, no freedom. But all along, Hashem reassures Moses that the Jewish people will go free, if Moses can just see the process through.

Rabbi Sacks teaches that the key take-away here is this: the greatest leaders are plagued by significant setbacks, but still manage to rise. This is certainly true of Moses, and is also true of successful leaders in many other fields--politics, science, the arts, business. And if this is true of our leaders, who are arguably among our best and brightest, how much more so is it true of us "regular people"? We are going to encounter setbacks, some of which will be pretty major. The key, as many a motivational speaker has proclaimed, is to not stay down, but rather to use the challenge to make ourselves stronger.

I have been in recovery for 12 years and cannot even begin to count my setbacks. The severe ones landed me in psychiatric hospitals and day programs. But there were also dozens of tiny bumps in the road--a missed snack, a forbidden walk, a resurrection of an arbitrary food rule--that I could (and sometimes did) brush off as insignificant, but that were really symptoms of a larger lapse in my recovery mindset. Any setbacks, large or small, can be demoralizing because they spark self-criticism and self-doubt: I am not really in recovery. I'm actually not doing well at all. I am such a loser for still having a hard time with this. (At least, that's my soundtrack. Maybe yours is different, but I suspect there are some similar lines.)

The key, for me, has been to allow myself a few negative thoughts but then start to take a deeper look at what is going on when I hit a bump. Am I anxious about something? Am I feeling vulnerable? Is there a particular stressor in my life and I'm using an old coping mechanism to deal with it? Once I start taking that careful look and talking about it with my people, I can actually deal with the underlying issue and avoid falling back into the eating disorder. And that whole process--encountering struggle, examining it, and adjusting for it--makes me stronger.

Rabbi Sacks cites a letter written by Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner to one of his students who was discouraged after repeatedly failing to master a piece of Talmud. Rabbi Hutner wrote:

Know, however, my dear friend, that your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the good inclination, but in the battle of the good inclination...The wisest of men said, "A righteous man falls seven times, but rises again." Fools believe that the intent of the verse is to teach us that the righteous man falls seven times and, despite this, he rises. But the knowledgeable are aware that the essence of the righteous man's rising again is because of his seven falls.

The line I keep coming back to is: your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the good inclination, but in the battle of the good inclination.

Brilliant, right?

We are primed for struggle, and that is what strengthens us. We cannot become great without it. We can't recover without it.  That's not to say that we don't also need times without struggle, but our souls get their juice from being squeezed a little bit. That's where we're rooted, and it's from where we grow.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Aftermath

Let me just start by saying, feelings are exhausting. Nod if you're with me.

If you read my last post, then you know I was hit pretty hard by the news of the suicide of one of my former students. The process of...well...processing this has been kind of surreal and unlike anything I've experienced before, thank G-d.

First, there was the wake. I went with some teachers from my school who also had this child in class, and I will say that I am very, very glad that wakes are not part of the Jewish tradition. It was excruciating, bearing witness to so much pain. But it was also kind of lovely in the sense that it was a beautiful tribute to this child and it was clear the family had so much support from the community. I met one of her current high school teachers, and we had a long, comforting conversation in which we shared memories of her and talked about how we were coping. Still, I don't imagine I will get images from that wake out of my head any time soon.

All of this has brought up a number of interesting parallels to themes of my recovery. Here are the two big ones:

1) I am not entitled to my feelings.
I mean, this girl was my student seven years ago and I hadn't seen her in five. Do I even get to call this, "grief?" Am I entitled to that emotion? These questions echo refrains that came up time and time again when I was struggling with my eating disorder:

a) I'm not sick enough to really "qualify." 
b) Why am I so miserable when I have a lot of good things in my life? 
c) Nothing terrible has ever happened to me. Am I even entitled to have an eating disorder, or am I making it all up?

Sound familiar?

(In case you are wondering similar things about yourself, the answers are: a) Everyone says this, and you do qualify; b) That's depression, baby; c) YES you can have an eating disorder without a history of trauma.

What I've decided in this case is that, yes, I am entitled to grieve this student. I call my students, "my kids," and they are my kids forever--so when something bad happens to one of them, even if I haven't seen her in a few years, my heart is going to break a little bit. My grief will look different than that of the teachers who taught her this year, but it's still real and I have to let it happen.

2) Black-and-white thinking
Oh, I am in this. As a former Queen of Black-and-White Thinking, this should not surprise me at all. But I will admit that I was a little taken aback by the train of thought I went down the day after the wake:

What I do to nurture my students is so insignificant. It's not going to help them later when they're really struggling. And it won't matter anyway if they kill themselves.

Now, here's the thing: I KNOW this is not rational. I know it doesn't make any kind of sense to just throw in the towel and say, "Well, I'm not teaching anymore because I can't fix all their problems." I GET IT. And yet. There are still days when I look at my current students and I just feel sad, because I can't predict what is in store for them as they get older and therefore I can't prevent their future pain. I look at them and I feel exhausted, because I can give them everything I have and it might still not be enough. But what choice do I have, really, other than to keep giving? Giving them my whole heart is the only way I know how to do my job.

Sometimes, when I reflect on my recovery and dwell on a particular area where I still need work, I will suddenly develop tunnel vision and only be able to see that way in which I am not 100% "fixed." I then start thinking, "I haven't made any progress at all," or, "I'm still really sick." In my rational moments I know that neither of those statements is true. I have made a TON of progress, and I am NOT really sick, or even close to really sick. I just still have things to work on. But if I only focus on my deficits, I can't move forward.

And if I only focus on the ways in which I can't help my students, I won't be able to be present for the ways in which I can.

One of my favorite Jewish quotes comes from Pirkei Avot, and I have been thinking of it often as I wade through this grieving process:

"He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it." (Pirkei Avot chapter 2)

That's how I am thinking about teaching. I am not going to be with my students for their whole educational careers; I will not be able to coach them through every crisis that comes their way; I won't be there to pull them out of the dark places the mind can go in adolescence and beyond. But I can--and I must--give them a strong foundation. I can teach them how to persevere, how to manage their feelings, and how to value themselves. I can show them love and hope that it sticks with them. If I make their world bright and safe while I have them, that is the most important thing I can do.

In an effort to remind myself of this, I spent some time before Shabbat going through my "Teacher Treasure Box." I found a number of adorable notes from my student who died, which I am using as a warm and positive way to remember her. But I also found this valentine from another student, which brought tears to my eyes and reminded me exactly why I do this job:

That child moved to another state the year after I had her, and I don't know how she's doing or where life has taken her. But I know I helped her love school when she was in third grade. I shined some light into her life and made her feel loved. What more can I hope for, other than that?

I'm not going to complete the task. But I'm going to continue doing my part.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Unthinkable

I can't think of a good intro for this, so I'm just going to dive in.

Today, I found out from my principal that one of my former students committed suicide last night.

I had this student in third grade seven years ago. She was a total delight. She was all sunshine, smiles, and giggles; she was smart as a whip and just as hardworking. I adored her and I never worried about her. I've had a habit since I started teaching: every year I study my students and try to predict who among them is at risk for a mental health crisis in the future. You might think that's a morbid way to view one's students, but to me it just makes sense. As the November 7 edition of TIME Magazine points out, in 2015 approximately 3 million teenagers ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode, and 6.3 million teens had an anxiety disorder. And that's just depression and anxiety, people. Statistically speaking, some of my students are going to wind up in those percentages. Maybe if I can identify them early, I've always thought, I can start the process of getting them the support they need.

This child didn't even make the bottom of my Mental Health Alert List list the year that she was in my class. If there were early warning signs, I totally missed them. Her death was one I never saw coming.

After my principal pulled me aside to tell me the news, I went back into my classroom and watched my current crop of students chattering and swarming about as they lined up for lunch. I had been at a professional development training that morning, so this was the first I had seen of my kids all day. A few came up to me, presenting me with their precious smiling faces and a cheerful, "Good morning, Ms. B!" I looked into their eyes and tried to see all the way inside, desperate both to memorize their perfect vitality in that moment and to protect them from future despair. I couldn't square the children in front of me with the news I'd just gotten about my former student: how is it possible that a child who is so brilliantly vibrant in third grade could end her life as a sophomore in high school? And if you can't predict who that will be, how can you prevent it?

I can never protect them enough, I thought. I can't love them enough. I would give them every ounce of love in my being, and the world could still defeat them. Nothing is enough in the face of all that pain.

I failed that child. Who's to say I won't fail another?

When I got home from school, I pulled out my class photo from the year I had this girl. There she is in the second row, smiling, with a bow in her hair. I also dug through my "teacher treasure box" of mementos I've saved over the years and found the holiday photo card from her family in 2010; every photo features her: mugging for the camera, hugging her parents, playing violin. Looking at the pictures fills me with sadness, but I can't pull my eyes away; I have to take her in. I've been trying to think of things I could have done differently with this kid. Could I have shown her more how precious she was? Could I have instilled in her more resilience? Should I have followed up with her as she went through school and reminded her that she was still important to me?  But then I tell myself that I'm probably overstating my impact. After all, I've been through several major depressive episodes and ventured into some pretty dark mental territory over the past 15 years, and I've never once even thought of reaching out to my former third grade teacher for support (and I had an outstanding third grade teacher). The truth is, we--as elementary school teachers--play a huge role in our kids' lives while we have them. We nurture them, support them, and challenge them to grow...but then they do grow, and they leave us behind, and that's how it should be. Hopefully they never forget our love for them, but when they need help as teenagers, we are probably not going to be the people they run to. In their minds, we're from another lifetime. And so, there really isn't anything I should have done, or could have done, to save this student. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse, honestly. But it's the truth.

I don't know where G-d fits into all of this, and I'm not going to try to figure it out. There's no way to explain this and I'm not interested at people's attempts to find one. What I want, instead, is this: I want this child to be wrapped in a Divine hug, for her tears to be dried and for her pain to be smoothed away. And I want her parents to come out of this, somehow, with some sense of healing over the gaping, raw wound in which they are currently enveloped. I don't know how that is going to happen; I don't know how one ever recovers from something like this, but as long as I'm praying, that's what I'm going to ask for.

That, and an ever-increasing capacity to love my students fully, to show them how very right they are, just as they are. I want every child I ever teach to look back on third grade and say, "That was the year I was loved by my teacher." That's all, and that's everything.