Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Birth...times two

In this week's parashah, after a couple of weeks of plagues and back-and-forth among Hashem, Moshe, and Pharoah, the Jewish people finally are liberated from slavery in Egypt. It's a pivotal event if ever there was one--so important, in fact, that Hashem says to Moshe, "This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you." But wait...don't we already HAVE a "first month"? Doesn't the Jewish year begin in Tishrei, with Rosh Hashana? How can the month to which Hashem is referring (Nissan) ALSO be the first month of the year?

I recently read an article that offers the following explanation: Tishrei marks the anniversary of creation and the beginning of human history. Nissan, however, marks the birth of Jewish history--when the people of Israel were finally set free from the cruelties of Egyptian slavery. So, both months commemorate important "firsts": Tishrei, the first day of humankind; Nissan, the first day of Jewish freedom. Therefore, both months can be considered the beginning of the Jewish year.

This concept strongly resonates with me--the idea that even though we are physically born just one time, sometimes we need another "birth" to really kick our lives into high gear. I have found this to be especially true in recovery. Although in the concrete sense my life began on the day I came into the world, I don't think I really began living until I became solidly committed to recovery. Literally speaking, I of course have been alive every day for the past 30 years. However, it is also true that many of those years were spent in darkness, not so much living as merely subsisting. I remember with clarity the day when I first tasted freedom from that mute, restrictive existence: a friend of mine, who had also fought--and won--her own battle with an eating disorder, presented her story at a panel discussion celebrating eating disorder recovery. After the panel ended, this friend looked deep into my eyes and told me she believed in me. I had worked hard. I had a story of my own to tell. And one day, she said, I would be able to stand up in public and share my own victory with others. Something in the way she spoke made me believe her, and that moment stands out to me as the point at which I really began to believe, with my whole heart, that I could recover. This is not to say that since that day my process has always been smooth and easy...but I can say that since then, I have remained fully committed to living my "best life" in recovery...and now I am enjoying the life I have created.

The amazing thing about recovery is that it truly gives us the chance to start fresh, to "reboot" ourselves, so to speak. Birth was a miracle that happened to each of us, but recovery is a miracle we can choose for ourselves. Rather than lamenting all the time lost to the eating disorder (an easy trap to fall into!), why not actively choose a starting point from which to build a fully vibrant life? If we liberate ourselves from our own versions of slavery, we can celebrate that freedom as the time when we allowed ourselves to begin anew.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Thoughts on Beauty

I have always been a bit of an "attractiveness neglector." In terms of my own personal appearance, I tend to value function over aesthetics. "Fashion", "style", and "accessories" are vocabulary words in a language I do not speak. That's not to say that I am out of touch with what makes for a reasonably put-together physical appearance, just that external beauty has never been at the forefront of my mind. In early recovery, my refusal to play the cultural beauty game was my way of rebelling against a societal value system that I felt placed physical appearance above all other attributes. I did not see a way for recovery, with its "I-am-more-than-my-body" message, to co-exist with a desire to be considered physically beautiful.

I honestly did not expect that Judaism, which places such value on scholarship and mitzvot, would present me with a way to integrate the two. And yet, I am finding that it does...and I want to share some of these ideas with you here.

In Jewish tradition, inner beauty is most important. We should remain focused on how we act and who we are, rather than on how we look. And yet, external beauty is also important, because its role is to reflect how beautiful we are on the inside. Judaism teaches that the physical body houses the soul, which is created in the Divine image. Hillel asserted that because the soul resides in the body, care and proper treatment of the body are of the utmost importance. We should, of course, focus on refining our inner selves and behaving in a manner that is pleasing to Hashem. But, we should also view our bodies as ways to radiate our inner beauty out into the world. It is important to maintain an appearance that is well-kept, to wear clothing that is clean and neat, and to take good care of our bodies. Our attention to our external attractiveness does not have to be an end in and of itself, but rather a way of communicating to others our beauty within.

Most importantly, we must remember that true beauty comes from harmony between body and spirit. Consider this quote regarding our matriarch, Sarah, who was renowned for her beauty:

"Sarah's beauty was one of complete synchronization between external and internal, between body and soul. This kind of beauty does not fade with age, pregnancy, or weight gain. It is a beauty that is cultivated inwardly and shines forth." (from innernet.org.il ...view full article here)

Well said!

I love the idea that physical beauty need not be at the expense of inner development, that the two are not mutually exclusive but rather can reflect and complement each other. In my tendency toward "black-and-white" thinking, I had assumed that if I spent energy trying to make my body look attractive, I would be selling out my recovery-oriented value system. Judaism is offering me another way to think about this: putting time and effort into my physical appearance is not vain, nor is it superficial...it's a way of honoring the precious glow of my inner self.

Now that's a concept of beauty I can get behind!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sing it!

If you've never experienced the process of "shul shopping," let me tell you, it's not easy! Even in the neighborhood where I live, where there are probably at least 12 synagogues within a 3-mile radius of my apartment, it was no small feat to find one that felt like a good fit. I had a lot of criteria: Hebrew, but enough English so I could follow; traditional, but open-minded; authentic, but accessible. After several internet searches and one rather humorous visit to a synagogue that was decidedly NOT a good fit (another story for another time), I found myself skeptically giving one last shul a try. It was a Friday night, and in this congregation's siddur, they include contemporary readings to go along with each traditional psalm of the Kabbalat Shabbat service. I turned a page, and came face to face with this reading, accompanying Psalm 98:

To sing a new song,
I must sing with a new voice.
I must let go the known
and embrace the unknown,
for the new is always a surprise.
To sing a new song,
I must open myself to wonder.
I must embrace the fullness
of mind and body.
I must wash myself
in the totality of Life,
its births and its deaths,
its risings and its passings.
I must let go the boxes into which
I stuff the stuff of life
and allow what Is to speak its truth.
And then I shall take that truth
and sing it aloud.
With lyre and with drum,
with voice and with silence,
I will sing a song that
surprises even G-d.
And in that surprise will be
a great deliverance.

With that one reading, I knew I was home.

To me, that passage speaks so strongly of the work that is involved in recovery. It acknowledges the challenges--letting go what is known in favor of the unknown, and opening myself to all of life's experiences, both the pleasant and the unpleasant. At the same time, it articulates the hope--that what what bursts forth from my recovered soul will be a song so brilliant, so powerful, that even Hashem will marvel at its beauty.

Three years later, I still attend that shul. Undoubtedly, I am in a very different place in my recovery now, than I was then. However, this reading still speaks to my core, and every Friday night I am comforted and grounded by its honest message: if we want to sing a different tune, we have to be willing to live a different way...and the reward is better than anything that can be imagined. In my own journey, I have found this to be true...and so I want to share it with you, in the hope that you find the courage to sing the song you didn't know you could!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Whatever It Takes

During one of our many thought-provoking conversations, a dear Israeli friend of mine once paraphrased the Talmud when she said, "Eretz Yisrael is earned through hardships." (For those interested in the exact quote, see Talmud Berachot 5a!) My friend and I talked a lot about how this phrase applies to our own lives in a metaphorical sense...what personal "Promised Lands" have we had to struggle to achieve?

This past week, two events teamed up to bring this discussion back to the forefront of my mind. First, I received a surprise phone call from this particular friend, across the many miles and time zones that separate New England and Israel--talk about a total heart-warmer! Second, I had the opportunity to return as a "recovery speaker" to one of the facilities in which I received intensive treatment for my eating disorder nearly a decade ago. The women in my audience were a fabulous bunch, and we talked a lot about what separates people who do recover, from people who don't. What is it about people who attain full recovery that allows them to do that?

For me, recovery is my Eretz Yisrael, and I've had to struggle to make it my reality. As I think most people who've dealt with eating disorders can attest, these illnesses are the epitome of self-inflicted cruelty, both physical and emotional. Mine was no exception--when I was deep in anorexia, I was the most profoundly miserable I have ever been...and yet, I was also strangely comfortable being so miserable. I knew intellectually that life in recovery was what I wanted, but was I willing to leave behind the security and familiarity of my eating disorder? For a long time--years--the answer was, no. I remember saying to my therapist, "I want to BE recovered, I just don't want to DO recovery." In other words, I wanted the end result, without having to endure the hard work and struggle necessary to achieve it.

I've found (surprise!) that this is not how recovery works. The point at which I really began to move towards recovery was when I was finally able to say, "I will do whatever it takes." I will eat the food, I will gain the weight, I will go to therapy, I will keep all my appointments, I will stop lying, I will not exercise, I will not self-harm...it was a daunting list of commitments that were often painful to keep, and each one demanded my full effort. That's not to say I was 100% on board with all of those at once--but I had to be open to the idea and willing to try. For many years, I was firmly on track to becoming one of those women who lives the rest of her life "managing" her eating disorder--functioning effectively, but definitely not free. Why? Because although I wanted recovery, I wasn't willing to do all the challenging work necessary to get there. Now, I know that I will never settle for that kind of life, because I have committed to undergoing the "hardships" of recovery so that I will reside permanently in my Promised Land.

And, here's the best part...although the initial stages of recovery definitely did feel like "hardships," the later stages just feel like normal life--sometimes bumpy, sometimes smooth, but always infinitely preferable to anorexia, and all the more precious because I know how hard I've had to work to get there. No amount of simply dreaming about recovery made it a reality for me--it was dreaming, coupled with action, pure and simple. For me, life in the land of Recovery truly has been earned through hardships--and has proven worth it in every way.