Sunday, March 30, 2014

Life in your Life

I'll admit it:  I was one of those people grumbling about how early Pesach preparations started this year.  Since when do supermarkets start selling matzah two weeks before Purim?!  But, with only two weeks to go until Seder #1, it seems I can't avoid it any longer.  Pesach is quickly approaching, bringing with it The Big Clean, hours-long seders, and very, very flat sandwiches.

And, thoughts of freedom.

Last year at around this time, I wrote about the challenges of freedom--how living in recovery often means having more adult responsibilities and engaging head-on with the ups and downs of life.  This year, I'd like to dig a little deeper into what "freedom" really means, with the help of the always inspiring Adin Steinsaltz.

In an article titled, "To Be Free," Steinsaltz explains that slavery is not merely the absence of freedom, and freedom is not only the absence of slavery.  They each must have a definition independent of the other.  He defines slavery as the condition of being completely controlled by the will of another, while freedom is the ability to act upon one's own will.

"The individual who lacks a will of his own does not become free once he is unshackled:  he is simply a slave without a master…Between ceasing to be a slave and acquiring freedom, the individual must thus pass through an intermediate stage in his progress, without which he cannot become truly free--he must develop inner qualities of his own.  The miracle of the Exodus was not completed with the people's departure from the house of bondage; they needed to develop to become a truly free people and not merely runaway slaves."

Steinsaltz goes on to assert that a developed sense of self (or peoplehood) is essential for an individual or collective group to be free:

"In other words, the slave is doubly bound, first of all by his subjugation to another's will, and secondly by his lack of a will and personality of his own.  A person who retains his own essential character can never be completely enslaved; and, conversely, a person who has no independent self-image can never be truly free."

I find this concept of freedom to be particularly pertinent to a discussion of recovery.  What makes "slavery" to an eating disorder so debilitating isn't only the sensation of living under the thumb of a relentless task master; it's also the absence of any meaningful, independent sense of self.  In order for recovery (freedom) to really take hold, a person needs not only to let go of the eating disorder, but also to develop a full and satisfying identity apart from the illness.

Early in my recovery, an important mentor of mine used to coach me to develop "life in my life," by which she meant, "Find some interests!  Fill your life with something!  Learn who you are!"  Though this was sometimes daunting, it was also among some of the best advice I ever received.  After all, I had developed my eating disorder, at least in part, to fill a void and meet an unsatisfied need.  Why would I ever give that up, in favor of nothing?  Merely living without anorexia left me feeling vulnerable and empty.  I needed to actively replace the eating disorder with the ideas, desires, and passions that made me, me.

At least in the beginning, recovery often feels like a full-time job.  There are so many appointments to go to, it's tough to have any leftover time or energy to devote to outside interests.  But, I would argue that figuring out what you actually like doing with your time is just as important as keeping up with all your therapy sessions.  "Recovery" doesn't just mean, "not having an eating disorder."  It means having healthy interests, relationships, and activities--a life that is full of life.

As we gear up for Pesach 5774, I wish each of us the strength to not only step away from what enslaves us, but also to step toward who we truly are as individuals.  Escape bondage, and pursue freedom.  Put some life in your life!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"The Whole Megillah"

After taking a few weeks off from posting, I'm glad to report that I'm back…just in time for Purim!  I think over the years I've made pretty clear that Purim and I do not mesh well together.  Perhaps because of that, every year I feel obligated to find some way to connect with this holiday that otherwise doesn't really resonate with me.  I call it, "The Purim Challenge."

Here's this year's point of connection!

One of the mitzvot of Purim is hearing Megilat Esther read aloud, once on the Eve of Purim, and once on Purim day.  The catch is, in order to fulfill the mitzvah, you must hear every word of the Megillah--if you miss even one word, you haven't fulfilled your obligation.  Now, on any given Shabbat, if you miss a word here and there from the public Torah reading, it's no big deal.  So, what does this Purim stringency teach us?

In her article, "Every Inch Counts," Sara Debbie Gutfreund explains that the obligation to hear every word in Megilat Esther teaches us that every small step in our lives has meaning.  The Purim story is one that develops incrementally.  Hashem does not swoop in and save the day through magnificent miracles; instead, Esther and Mordechai have to carefully plot out their course of action, step by tiny step.  Last year, I wrote about Esther-Vashti dichotomy and explored why Vashti, brave rebel though she was, ultimately failed to effect change, while demure Esther succeeded.  Perhaps it is because Vashti tried to take a giant leap all at once--defying the king outright--rather than focusing on what intermediate steps could take her closer to her ultimate goal.  Esther recognized that the battle wouldn't be won with one sweeping victory.  Instead, she had to be patient and take things one step at a time.

This reminds me very much of how recovery is also an incremental, inch-by-inch process.  In a group that I co-lead for parents of people with eating disorders, I often hear mothers and fathers express frustration over what they perceive as their child's "lack of progress."  What good is all the therapy and nutritional counseling if nothing is actually shifting in their child's behaviors?  It's a great question, born of a sincere desire to see positive growth and recovery happen for their loved one.  I usually respond by reminding them that progress is not always apparent to the outsider--a lot of change happens internally before it manifests itself outwardly, and so it's possible for their child to be working really hard without having much to show for it externally.  The slow nature of the recovery process can also be frustrating for the person with the eating disorder, because--let's be honest--who wouldn't want to just snap her fingers and become recovered?  But, as the Purim story teaches us, the surest path is one measured in inches, in which every little step along the way is essential to the creation of the beautiful whole.

This year as we celebrate Purim, I hope all of us can honor the "inches" in our own journeys.  Let's be patient with ourselves as we make small but steady advances toward our goals, whatever they may be!