Monday, December 26, 2011

Gone Kosher

As a Jew who doesn't particularly enjoy going to the movies or having hours of unstructured time, I tend to find Christmas Day to be somewhat challenging. It doesn't help that the day falls in the midst of the New England winter, making outdoor activities iffy at best. In the past, Christmas Day has often seemed interminable. This year, however, I had a plan: I kashered my kitchen.

This was not a spontaneous decision; rather, I'd worked my way up to it over a period of many weeks. I did some research; I consulted with my rabbis; I purchased necessary supplies. Being a vegetarian made the process somewhat easier. Also, I have a galley kitchen (fancy term for, "really small kitchen") so the amount of cleaning was less than it could have been. However, I still had to contend with all my pots, utensils, appliances, and countertops, so it took a solid four-and-a-half hours to complete the job. End result: my kitchen looks the same, albeit cleaner. What feels different is internal.

For most of my adult life, I'd tossed around the idea of "keeping kosher" but had never given it serious consideration, for the simple reason that I couldn't handle another set of food rules. I was too busy adhering to the rules dictated by my eating disorder. I made food choices based on nutrition information and my own set of fears, not based on whether or not the product in question had a hekhsher. My eating disorder called all the shots--what G-d wanted me to do was not even on my radar screen.

A lot of work has gone into my journey from that place of eating disordered tunnel vision, to my newly kashered kitchen. I am proud to say that now, when I go food shopping, my chief concern is kashrut--not calorie counting. I am able to see the distinction between the Jewish practice of being mindful of what I eat, and the eating disordered trap of being obsessed by it. Before, when (if) I ate with other people, what set me apart were all the rituals and regulations of anorexia. Now, I am making the choice to be set apart once more--this time, as a Jew who keeps kosher. The difference is that the former separation felt oppressive and driven by fear, while the latter feels like an opportunity to be closer to Hashem. It is up to me to keep my practice of kashrut one of pure intentions, and not let it morph into another way to restrict what I eat. The Jewish tradition is full of evidence that while certain foods are indeed prohibited, this by no means implies that we should deny ourselves any foods that are not--in fact, quite the opposite. For me, the truth is that I like keeping kosher in recovery--I like that I can eat with friends, bring food to share, and try new recipes...while still being mindful of my connection to Hashem and to this world.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A New Spin on an Old Classic

In the most recent meeting of the Rosh Chodesh group at my shul, I learned a version of the dreidel game that is so fabulous, I absolutely have to share it here!

No coins needed! All that is required is a dreidel, comfortable company, and a healthy dose of honest self-reflection. For this game, the meaning of the letters on the dreidel is as follows:

נס -- נ -- "Nes" or "Miracle": What is a small (or big!) miracle in my life, from this past month or year? Recognize, and be thankful!

גבורה -- ג -- "Gevurah" or "Strength": What are my strengths? In what areas do I shine?

התחזקות -- ה -- "Hitchazkut" or "Strengthening": What are areas in my life in which I need more strength? What are things I need to work on?

שליחות -- ש -- "Shlichut" or "Mission": Where do my passions lie? To what do I want to be more dedicated?

Pretty spectacular, right? Here is how my personal dreidel would shape up:

נ -- My students are my daily miracles...watching them learn and being surprised by their wisdom and compassion. Also, walking across Israel this summer was truly miraculous--sharing the adventure and beauty of nature with amazing friends, and being healthy enough to enjoy it all!

ג -- One strength of mine is empathy. I think I am able to tune into others' feelings and "meet them where they're at," so to speak. Another strength is self-expression. Given time to think through my words, I am able to articulate myself clearly and firmly through writing and speaking.

ה -- One area in which I need a bit of a boost is my openness to other people. I am very guarded, and my default is "boundaries" instead of "sharing." This does serve a purpose, but it also prevents me from connecting with people at times. I also need to strengthen my self-confidence and self-appreciation. I want to be okay with myself, and not place so much power in the hands of others and their opinions.

ש -- I am passionate about my work...teaching children gives me such energy and joy, and I feel honored to be part of their development into curious, ethical, intellectual people! I am also passionate about recovery--pursuing it, experiencing it, and sharing it with those who may be in need of support.

So...that's my dreidel! What does yours look like this year??

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fight or Flight? Fight!

As parshiot go, last week's (Vayishlach) was one of my personal favorites. When I read a parasha, I usually have a section of my brain devoted to finding ways to relate the text to my own life--and to recovery. And, with that purpose in mind, I have to say that for me, it doesn't get much better than the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

Quick recap for those unfamiliar with the text: Jacob stole his father's blessing from his twin brother, Esau, along with Esau's birthright. Fearing that his brother would kill him, Jacob fled from his family's home. After many years of being estranged from his brother, Jacob gets word that Esau, along with 400 men, is coming to meet him. Jacob is sure that his brother is still furious with him, so devises an elaborate plan to flee from Esau. One night during his escape, an angel attacks Jacob and wrestles with him until dawn. The angel can't defeat Jacob, so he dislocates Jacob's hip and then demands to be released. Jacob replies, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." At this point, the angel blesses Jacob with his new name, Israel, because "you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed."

Why do I love this story? Because it carries the message that when it comes to facing our most daunting fears, we have to do it head-on--the only way out is to wrestle, to not back down, and ultimately to come out stronger. The angel prevented Jacob from fleeing from Esau, and forced him to stand his ground and fight. And, after all his efforts, Jacob had the presence of mind to demand a blessing from his challenger.

To me, recovery from an eating disorder has been a bit like wrestling with my own personal angel. At no point have I succeeded in finding a shortcut or an easy escape from my problems. Instead, I've had to buckle down and do the "dirty work" of recovery, no matter how scary or overwhelming it has been. In recovery, I've had to stop running (both literally and figuratively!)...I've had to look honestly at my personal demons and fight the battles that needed winning. The story of Jacob and the angel reminds me that I must "dig deep" and summon the bravery and strength within me--escaping is not an option. The eating disorder was my attempt at an escape, but ultimately I had to admit that it was not getting me where I needed--or wanted--to go.

I like to think that, like Jacob, I've extracted a blessing from this process. Recovery has never been easy, but it has always been worth it. I am emerging from this process more intuitive, compassionate, insightful, and grounded than was when I began it. The lessons I've learned have been hard won, but I say with certainty that I would not give a single one back. Though it didn't always feel this way when I was deeply "in it," with the perspective I now have I can see how the work of recovery has enriched my life. I stood my ground, fought for myself, and came away blessed. If you are still wrestling, don't give up--and before you let that eating disorder go for good, make sure you've demanded your blessing!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Gift of Sadness

I am usually a pretty even-keeled person, emotionally speaking. Not that I always feel positive, but my emotional pendulum simply doesn't often swing too far toward either extreme. I find intense feelings of any kind to be uncomfortable, so I do my best to keep myself in some sort of intermediate equilibrium. This often works...until, it doesn't. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, my mood plummets fast and furious.

Last week was one of those weeks. I felt disconnected and lonely, painfully aware of my relative lack of close local friends, and missing the intimate friendships that I've always craved but have seldom experienced. When I feel it intensely, loneliness grips my heart like a vise and sends me tumbling into emotional bleakness. Last week was no exception--low energy, depressed mood, and a short fuse made getting through each day feel like a tremendous feat. As I struggled to pull myself out of this slump, I found myself wondering what the "Jewish approach" to sadness is. As I read one article, a section of text jumped out at me:

"Judaism is not about being happy; it's about being whole. Wholeness, however, is actually the only true path to real happiness because then you experience an inner happiness even when you are sad. You take pleasure in your ability to feel pain. You embrace and celebrate the totality of your humanness. To be whole we must be willing to immerse ourselves in the complete drama of being alive and human."

How fabulous a philosophy is that?! I so often forget, when I am in the thick of negative emotions, how miraculous it is that I experience any emotions at all. For so many years, my feelings were locked away somewhere unaccessible--anger and elation, joy and sadness, all were numbed by my eating disorder. Although this was easier in many ways, it was also so dull...and empty. After all, the positive and negative emotions are flip sides of the same coin--we can't have happiness without also experiencing sadness at times. The difficult moments are what help us to realize what treasures the joyful times are. If I never felt disconnected from my friends, would I be able to fully appreciate the warmth I enjoy from our relationships? Probably not. In order to experience the joy, I have to be willing to open myself to the pain. No one gets to enjoy the former without the latter--that's not how the human experience works.

For so long, I was so intent on never being hurt that I also prevented myself from ever being happy. Now, I realize what a blessing it is that I am able to feel the full spectrum of human emotions...and, not only can I feel them, but I can also survive them. The next time I am in one of those dark emotional places (because there will surely be a next time!), I will try to remember that although sadness is in many ways unpleasant, it is also a gift, and a testament to the fact that I have the ability to feel. Hopefully we can all carry this perspective with us as we encounter the emotional ups and downs of recovered life.