Sunday, February 26, 2012

Intention Matters!

I love rules. Love them. Give me an open-ended task with no guidelines, and I become a ball of anxiety. How am I supposed to know how to do anything correctly, if no one explains the dos and don'ts? One of the things I found most reassuring about anorexia was the intricately detailed system of rules I created regarding food and exercise. Although completely arbitrary, the rules made me feel safe in the belief that if I followed them, nothing bad would happen to me.

Is it any wonder that I am pulled toward traditional Judaism? Look at all the rules!

I didn't begin increasing my level of religious observance until I was well on my way in recovery, but it still didn't take me long to realize that if I wasn't careful, the stringent regulations of traditional Judaism could become mere substitutions for the self-imposed rules of my eating disorder. I'd always been uncomfortable when other people paid attention to my physical body, so I was more than eager to sign up for religiously sanctioned modest dressing. And then, there were the negative commandments forming the basis for laws of kashrut and fasting. How comforting to know that if anorexia wouldn't be controlling what I ate, Hashem would be!

I knew that I did not have the luxury, as some people might, of just taking on rituals and rules without thinking them through. Covering one's body and restricting one's food options and intake might not be triggers for some people, but they definitely are for me. However, these are also important parts of traditional Judaism that I wanted to integrate into my life. How could I do that while still preserving the recovery for which I'd fought so hard?

For me, the key is intention. I need to do mitzvot for the right reasons, and this sometimes requires that I "re-frame" some thought patterns. Here are some examples:

Modest dressing:
Old thought: "Hey! I get to completely cover my body in shapeless skirts and long sleeves because Hashem wants me to! Now NO ONE will look at me! Awesome!"
New thought: "When I wear modest clothing, I am sending the message that my body is precious and not for just anyone to have access to. I can wear skirts and shirts that make me feel attractive while still letting others know that I value modesty."

Old thought: "Now I have a whole new way to control what I eat and avoid scary foods...and it's totally justified because it's religious!"
New thought: "The idea behind kashrut is that eating should be a sacred act. It is one way I have of striving to be holy as Hashem is holy. Kashrut teaches having some limitations on what I eat, I am acknowledging the presence of Hashem. But this does not have to lead to deprivation."

Old thought: "A whole day with no food!"
New thought: "If fasting becomes about weight control, I cannot allow myself to do it. Period. Fasting should be a way for me to focus on repentance, to turn my energy inward. To do it with the goal of food restriction is to completely miss the point."

Bottom line? Yes, it matters whether or not we do the mitzvot. But, it also matters what our intentions are as we do them. Human life has the highest value...the principle of pikuach nefesh clearly states that almost any negative commandment can be broken in order to save a life. If I twist the mitzvot into ways to perpetuate a life-threatening eating disorder, that is not what Hashem would want. As Jews in recovery, it is our responsibility not only to do mitzvot, but to do them with a pure heart, for the purposes for which they are intended.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cultivating Gratitude

There's no doubt that everyone's journey through an eating disorder is different...but one commonly occurring theme is the insidious partnership between eating disorders and depression. I am 99% sure that every single person I know who has battled an eating disorder has also experienced some form of clinical depression during the course of her illness. Personally, I am no exception: during the height of my anorexia I was chronically depressed, and my process of recovery has been peppered with periods of significant melancholy. In my experience, few things make it harder to feel committed to the work of recovery, than being profoundly saddened and discouraged by life.

Although there are, of course, pharmaceutical remedies for depressed mood, there are also a number of "do-it-yourself" exercises that one can do to improve one's overall mental health and happiness. One of my favorites is keeping a gratitude journal. There is plenty of research out there in the field of psychology that asserts that practicing gratitude is a key element to living a happier life. Keeping a gratitude journal is a concrete way to cultivate a sense of thankfulness for all the positive things we experience in our lives. A few years ago I began this practice as a homework assignment for a mind-body workshop, and I loved it so much that I never stopped. The process is simple: before going to sleep each night, I jot down three to six specific experiences I had that day for which I am grateful. The entire exercise takes fewer than five minutes, but I can honestly say that since beginning this nightly ritual, I have noticed a subtle yet significant shift in my overall affect and sense of well-being.

In keeping with the academic research pointing to the importance of gratitude, Judaism has long had a tradition of emphasizing the value of giving thanks. One way of expressing the concept of gratitude in Hebrew is hakarat hatov (הכרת הטוב), literally, "recognizing the good." We all have blessings in our lives, and practicing gratitude means acknowledging all the positivity that we already experience. So central a concept is this, that embedded in Jewish practice are brachot for just about everything imaginable: ingesting any food and drink, going to the bathroom, and waking up in the morning; smelling pleasant fragrances, witnessing thunder and lightning, seeing fruit trees in bloom, and being by the ocean...these are just a handful of the experiences for which Judaism tells us we should be thankful. As I journey through recovery, I feel incredibly fortunate to belong to a spiritual tradition that teaches me to be awake, alert, and appreciative of all the blessings, large and small, that I enjoy on a daily basis. are some things I have been grateful for this week:
  • the feeling of snowflakes landing on my cheeks as I walked to shul on Shabbat morning in light snowfall
  • seeing a brilliant red male cardinal at my parents' birdfeeder
  • a much-needed phone chat with a dear friend
  • adorable valentines from my students
  • seeing a particularly beautiful sunrise on my way to work
What would you put in your gratitude journal?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Promise of Spring

Today was one of my favorite Jewish holidays: Tu B'Shevat, the "New Year of Trees." Why do I love this holiday? Well, I live in a place where the winters are long and often harsh, and there is nothing that thrills me more than when the first buds start to blossom on the trees. So, I think the idea of having a holiday to celebrate this annual miracle is brilliant! Never mind that we observe Tu B'Shevat according to the cycle of seasons in Israel, and that the trees where I live are far from ready to bloom...just having a reminder of the forthcoming beauty is enough for me!

As I did some learning about Tu B'Shevat this year, one theme that kept coming up in my reading was the Torah's comparison of humans to trees (see Deuteronomy 20:19). I found many different ways of interpreting this comparison, but one in particular resonated with me and I want to share it here.

A tree's life cycle contains periods of growth and vitality, as well as periods of dormancy and decay. During the winter months, the tree appears almost lifeless, stripped of its colorful crown of leaves. While looking at a tree's bare branches, it can be hard to remember what the same tree looked like when it was in full bloom. Perhaps we even doubt that the tree will revive itself again...will this be the winter that finally does it in?

But then...spring arrives! With the change of seasons, the tree remembers how to live. Some trees unfurl a few leaves at a time; others bloom seemingly overnight. Buds open, flowers burst forth, and fruits--the trees' means of producing a next generation--become lush and ripe. After a seemingly interminable winter, the tree has reasserted itself vibrantly.

Aren't people the same way?

Like trees, our lives have cycles that include times of blooming as well as periods of stagnation. Being mired in an eating disorder is the equivalent of being buried in a winter snowstorm. Growth stalls and the landscape is cold and bleak. It is easy to forget what life feels like, and it is hard to trust that our lives will ever again be in full bloom. But with the work of recovery comes spring...we thaw out bit by bit, and begin to grow our lives. Recovery proves to us that we can emerge from the eating disorder and participate wholly in the business of living.

But, even within recovery there are dark times. Personally, I have not found recovery to be a guarantee of happiness--there are hard days at work, disagreements with loved ones, and periods of hormone-induced moodiness. There might be illness, or financial stress, or prolonged family drama. However...since fully entering recovery, I have never forgotten the promise of spring. Even when I am sad, scared, and angry, I am able to remember that the tide will turn, that fluctuations are part of life, and that I can weather the storm. I am also able to recognize that the tough times are part of what fuels growth...and, viewed through this lens, even challenges can have a positive tint.

I found this quote from an article on Tu B'Shevat and will share it in closing:

"This is the message of Tu B'Shevat. In the middle of winter, when everything around us seems so cold and bleak, think of spring. Eat fruit. Sing joyous tunes. Plant new trees. Always look for the good."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Crossing the Sea

I have a little bit of an optimism problem...specifically, the problem is that I am not an optimist. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm a pessimist, but I'm definitely pragmatic. I do not believe that things will always work out for the best. Risk-taking, for me, usually involves imagining every possible negative outcome I can think of and deciding whether or not I could tolerate it. In short, I'm not big on "leaps of faith." I absolutely do believe in Hashem, and I do trust in His protection...but, at the same time, I am not about to leap into the unknown without at least some sense of confidence that I will not regret it.
It seems the ancient Israelites also experienced this sense of trepidation when faced with the challenge of crossing the Red Sea. Their choice was either to return to slavery in Egypt, or to attempt to cross a vast, cold, unfamiliar body of water. All of a sudden, slavery wasn't looking so terrible...after all, they'd been slaves for so long that the lifestyle offered them a comforting sense of security. Sure, it was miserable...but it was also predictable and familiar. Is it any wonder that when they were staring down that expanse of the Red Sea, they may have started to waver a bit on their determination to escape?
According to one midrash, an Israelite named Nachshon was the first one to set foot into the water. As he waded in, inch by inch, the sea did not part...but he kept going, because he knew that returning to slavery really was not an option. Only when Nachshon was in the water up to his nose, did Hashem finally part the sea, enabling Nachshon and the rest of the Israelites to cross on dry land. Apparently, Hashem was not ready to part the sea until He knew that the Israelites had enough faith to enter the water.
To me, the message of this midrash is beautifully applicable to the risk involved in pursuing recovery. When I reflect on the source of my early ambivalence toward recovery, the word that comes to mind most often is fear. Abandoning the familiarity and security of the confines of anorexia was completely petrifying...even if, objectively, it seemed obvious that recovery offered me a much greater chance at happiness. I think this fear of the unknowns of recovery is often hard for patients' loved ones to understand, because it does seem counter-intuitive: to the witness, the eating disorder is so clearly a source of misery, and recovery is the path to freedom. But, to the person with an eating disorder, entering recovery is like wading into the Red Sea--it requires acceptance of risk and tremendous courage and faith.
In my own process, I've found that once I showed that I truly was willing to do the work of recovery, the path seemed considerably more clear than it did when I was staring at it from the camp of anorexia. It hasn't been a total breeze, but I do feel that once I demonstrated my commitment, Hashem provided me the sources of strength and guidance I needed to make the journey. To those who are still in the place of hesitation: I understand your fear, because I felt it myself. But, maybe if you take the first few steps in faith, you will find the reassurance you need to continue.
עזי וזמרת יה ויהילי לישועה
Hashem is my strength and might; He is become my deliverance.