Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Protective Fence

Elul is the month that, in my mind, walks the very fine line between motivating and frustrating.  Motivating, because all the reflection and self-examination can energize us to better ourselves; frustrating, because all the reflection and self-examination leaves us painfully aware that we are having the exact same conversation with ourselves that we had last year at this time (or is that just me?)  Wait a minute, I find myself thinking, aren't these flaws and weaknesses the same flaws and weaknesses I said I was going to work on last year?  And the year before that?  Yes...yes, they are.  Which then begs the question, Why am I not following through?  I recently read a dvar Torah by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffman that suggests an answer based on this week's parasha, Ki Teitzei.

This parasha contains 74 mitzvot, and one of them is the mitzvah of the "protective fence":

"If you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if a fallen one falls from it."  (Devarim 22:8)

This certainly makes sense on a literal level as far as liability goes, but as is so often the case with Torah, there's a deeper meaning, as well.  The Ben Ish Chai, a renowned Torah scholar and kabbalist from the 1800s, suggests that "building a new house" refers to the process of making a clean start for oneself after a period of introspection and self-evaluation.  The "protective fence," therefore, is the boundaries one puts in place to make sure that one doesn't fall off the proverbial roof and slip back into one's old ways.  And why does the Torah say, "a fallen one falls from it"?  Isn't that redundant?  If we follow the metaphor of the Ben Ish Chai, a "fallen one" is a person who has fallen before and is likely to fall again--hence the need for a strong protective fence.

The idea of a protective fence really resonates with me, particularly in the context of recovery.  Recovering from an eating disorder is enormously challenging, especially when one has to simultaneously exist in the wider cultural milieu.  It's impossible to completely escape food, and it's also impossible to isolate ourselves from other people who have their own issues with food and body.  If we're going to be successful, we need a pretty tough fence.

I started to build my fence when I was in residential treatment twelve years ago, and it has been evolving ever since.  In treatment, one of the big protective measures was eliminating food labels--I never saw the nutrition information of anything I was eating.  We also never talked about weight or specific eating disorder behaviors.  Today, I don't need those protections anymore, but I have put in place others that still serve me well.  Here are some things that are Not Allowed inside the fence that protects my recovery:

  • The gym.  The gym and I are divorced.  It's simple, really:  when I exercise, I do it in ways that feel good and are actually enjoyable, and going to the gym neither feels good nor is enjoyable.  Buh-bye, gym.
  • "Health" magazines.  Nope, I'm actually not interested in the latest 5-minute workout or which "superfoods" I should be eating this month.  Also, who fact-checks these things?  There's a whole lot of nonsense in those pages.  
  • Reality T.V.  I don't object to the concept of reality T.V., but I definitely object to "Extreme Weight Loss" and "Extreme Makeover" and anything of that nature.  Absolutely no, thank you!
Now, none of us can live in a bubble, and we do live in a rather "non-recovery-oriented" culture, so it's unrealistic to think that we can cut out every unhelpful cultural influence.  But I've found that by setting those three things firmly outside the boundary of my protective fence, I'm happier, healthier, and a whole lot more grounded than I was when I had any of those elements in my life.  

But, it's not just what's outside the fence that matters, it's what the fence is actually made of.  And here is where self-talk and support systems come in.  For me, I know that although food and body issues aren't central to my life anymore, I am still vulnerable to anxiety, self-judgment, shame, and loneliness...and when I'm in the midst of any of those, that's when old, unhelpful thoughts and patterns start to creep in. In these situations, the protective fence is key.  I often use self-talk, and one of my favorite mantras is, "I don't have to _____; I get to _____." (Example:  "I don't have to exercise just because other people are; I get to read my book.")  And, when I feel myself going down an old, familiar, unhelpful path that I've gone down in the past, I tell myself, "Rachel, you can do it differently now."  Those phrases help a lot in the moment.  My fence is also strengthened by the many supportive people in my life--therapists, friends, teachers, and family--who provide comfort, encouragement, and connection along the way.

So, as we work our way through Elul this year, let's take time to examine our protective fences and see if there are any holes that need mending.  What do we want to keep outside our boundaries?  What will help our fences stay strong?  May we all find the tools we need to keep ourselves healthy, connected, and growing in the year to come.   

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The G-d Connection

I've been back from Israel for two weeks now, and I've more or less readjusted.  There are some features of life in the States that I definitely missed while I was away; namely, listening to Pandora Radio, using self-checkout lines at the supermarket, and drinking Starbucks iced coffee (cold brew...yes).  But in other areas, my heart misses Israel, and what I long for most of all are the connections with my Israeli friends and "family."  I have a very comfortable, predictable life here in the U.S., and I love comfort and predictability...but those features don't help me when I feel lonely.  And there are times, even as I'm enjoying the routine of my life at home, when the sense of my separation from my friends in Israel leaves me keenly aware of a raw, deep hunger for connection.  Complicating matters further is the fact that my BFA (Best Friend in America) has moved out of state.  Lately, loneliness and I have gotten to know each other quite well.

Still, it's not all bleak.  I have had some lovely interactions with people here at home and have enjoyed reconnecting with them.  But there's one relationship that has comforted me more than any other, one friend who consistently reminds me that I am not alone, and that friend is...G-d.

I was inspired to actively invest in this "G-d connection" by a dear friend of mine in Israel, who has graciously fielded a few "Help, I'm really lonely!" emails from me and whose sage advice, if distilled, comes down to this: keep reaching out, keep making friends, and keep talking to G-d.  She explained to me that she views spirituality as one's relationship with Hashem, and everything we do in that context is all about that relationship.  In any intimate relationship, we do things that we think will make our partner happy; in the case of G-d, that includes rituals of observance.  We also talk with our partner, not just as a means to get our needs met, but as a way to deepen the connection between us.  Similarly, we have davening as a formal way of communicating with G-d, but it's also important to engage Him/Her in casual, intimate conversation.  If we invest enough time and energy into this relationship with Hashem, it can become one of the most important relationships we have.

Jewish tradition strongly endorses "talking to Hashem" in this way.  I learned from one of my teachers about the practice of hitbodedut, a concept developed by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.  Hitbodedut is an unstructured, spontaneous form of prayer in which one talks to G-d about anything on one's mind.  In his work, Likutei Moharan, Rebbe Nachman explains how to do hitbodedut:

"Hitbodedut is the highest and most exalted experience...To pour out our thoughts between ourselves and G-d--in complaints or frustrations, in words of kindness or agreement, and to request and beseech G-d that we will be able to approach closer to G-d in our true behaviors and desires.

Everything in our heart we should discuss before G-d:  Regrets and changes I have made concerning the past...Desires and yearnings for the future...And if I am feeling alienated from G-d--about all of this I should talk with G-d."

I like knowing that I can talk to G-d at any time, in any place, about anything.  And, since it's important in any relationship to listen as well as talk, I can listen to G-d, too, and try to hear what He/She is telling me.

Of course, G-d is not the same as a human friend.  I can't rely only on my relationship with G-d; I need to work on developing more friendships, as well.  My friend and my teacher both emphasized that Hashem is not a substitute for human relationships; however, if I put effort into cultivating my relationship with G-d, it can sustain me and comfort me in times when I feel lonely and in need of connection.

The truth is, I've been "talking to G-d" for a long time.  Growing up without a best friend, I figured out pretty early that a friendship with G-d was one that would never fail me.  And when I was in college, struggling mightily with my eating disorder and the worst depression I've ever experienced, sometimes I used to just lie on my bed, close my eyes, and imagine that G-d was holding me.  But I always felt like I could never tell anyone about this; it seemed a little like having an "imaginary friend"--not something you would want anyone else to know about!  Imagine my surprise (and delight!) when I learned that a) other people do this, too; and b) our tradition supports it.

And so, as I've readjusted to life in the States, I've tried to connect to G-d in a friendly way on a daily basis.  Last Friday I got inspired to clean for Shabbat by imagining that Hashem was coming to visit me in my apartment.  The other day, I went for a walk in a park and told G-d how beautiful I thought everything was.  When I'm bored or lonely, I try to do some Jewish learning.  And every night, after saying Shema but before going to sleep, I take a minute to thank Hashem for all the good things that happened during the day.  None of this has completely fixed the loneliness problem, but it has definitely made me feel more connected and has reassured me that even when I am lonely, I'm never truly alone.

So, if I may offer one suggestion to anyone suffering from loneliness, depression, or isolation, it would be the advice my friend gave to me:  talk to G-d.  Share your worries, your joys, your sadness.  Do things to make G-d happy (they'll probably make you happier, too).  And, as my teacher says:  when we pray the Amidah, one of the reasons why we whisper is because G-d is right in front of us.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Unlived Life

It is officially my last full day in Israel (for now, I keep reminding myself).  Tomorrow morning I have to get on a plane and leave one home, the place where my soul lives, and go to another home, the place where I actually live and have lived for my entire life.  There are people and places in both homes that I love dearly, but I think this actually makes the transition harder, not easier.  Transitions...I hate them...and this one is a doozy.

I hadn't planned to write another blog post until I got home, but I've been thinking about a source I read on Tisha B'Av as part of a shiur on alienation, exile, and redemption.  Full disclosure:  this shiur was in the middle of the afternoon on Tisha B'Av, and due to my caffeine and glucose deficit, I *might* have dozed of a teeny bit.  Consequently, I am not exactly sure what the broader context was for this source...but I think it stands well on its own.  It comes from the book, Missing Out, by the Jewish psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips.  In this book, Phillips explores the concept that we all have two lives:  our actual lives, and the lives we wish we had.  He writes:

"Our unlived lives--the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives--are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives...What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent...We learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like...There is always what will turn out to be the life we led, and the life that accompanied it, the parallel life (or lives) that never actually happened...the risks untaken and the opportunities avoided or unprovided.  We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason they were not possible.  And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives."


When I read this, it felt like an indictment.  It felt as though Phillips had peered into my brain and seen the thoughts that I bury in there and try to avoid thinking about.  Lately, my mind has been churning around the gap between my "unlived life" and my "lived life."  I am keenly aware that I am heading back to a life that has many strengths--practicality, predictability, security, comfort--but that also falls short, in some ways, of what I wish I could have for myself. This has been brewing in my mind lately not because I am naive enough to think that moving to Israel would be the gateway to living my fantasy life.  It's  because the people I am connected to in Israel never fail to remind me that the things they want for me--connection, love, family, community, learning--are actually the things I deeply want for myself but usually try to convince myself that I don't need.

In a way, sensing the gap between my lived and unlived lives is a step in the right direction.  When I was engaged in the struggle with my eating disorder, I didn't have a fantasy life.  I couldn't see beyond where I was to imagine what could be.  I hated my life, but I felt no sense of agency and didn't believe I had the power to make it any better.  In recovery, I do have the ability to visualize what I really want.  I also understand that whether or not I end up actually living that life is up to me. The sense of possibility is exciting but comes with the weight of being responsible for making it happen.

At the end of the shiur, the lecturer left us with this question to ask ourselves:

"How can I bridge the gap between the life I an preoccupied with in my mind, and the life I'm actually living?"

That is the question I'm wrestling with as I prepare to leave Israel and reenter my "real life."  I don't know the answer, but I do know that actively seeking one is the next step for me in my process.  I feel lucky to be in a place where I am able to envision more for myself and believe that it is possible.  I've worked hard to get to this point, and now it's time for me to push ahead.

Thank you to everyone in my "Israeli family" who has reminded me to keep my eyes on the prize of a wholly fulfilling, nourishing life.  B"H I will make some progress toward that this year, and I'll report back to you next summer!