Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Aftermath

Let me just start by saying, feelings are exhausting. Nod if you're with me.

If you read my last post, then you know I was hit pretty hard by the news of the suicide of one of my former students. The process of...well...processing this has been kind of surreal and unlike anything I've experienced before, thank G-d.

First, there was the wake. I went with some teachers from my school who also had this child in class, and I will say that I am very, very glad that wakes are not part of the Jewish tradition. It was excruciating, bearing witness to so much pain. But it was also kind of lovely in the sense that it was a beautiful tribute to this child and it was clear the family had so much support from the community. I met one of her current high school teachers, and we had a long, comforting conversation in which we shared memories of her and talked about how we were coping. Still, I don't imagine I will get images from that wake out of my head any time soon.

All of this has brought up a number of interesting parallels to themes of my recovery. Here are the two big ones:

1) I am not entitled to my feelings.
I mean, this girl was my student seven years ago and I hadn't seen her in five. Do I even get to call this, "grief?" Am I entitled to that emotion? These questions echo refrains that came up time and time again when I was struggling with my eating disorder:

a) I'm not sick enough to really "qualify." 
b) Why am I so miserable when I have a lot of good things in my life? 
c) Nothing terrible has ever happened to me. Am I even entitled to have an eating disorder, or am I making it all up?

Sound familiar?

(In case you are wondering similar things about yourself, the answers are: a) Everyone says this, and you do qualify; b) That's depression, baby; c) YES you can have an eating disorder without a history of trauma.

What I've decided in this case is that, yes, I am entitled to grieve this student. I call my students, "my kids," and they are my kids forever--so when something bad happens to one of them, even if I haven't seen her in a few years, my heart is going to break a little bit. My grief will look different than that of the teachers who taught her this year, but it's still real and I have to let it happen.

2) Black-and-white thinking
Oh, I am in this. As a former Queen of Black-and-White Thinking, this should not surprise me at all. But I will admit that I was a little taken aback by the train of thought I went down the day after the wake:

What I do to nurture my students is so insignificant. It's not going to help them later when they're really struggling. And it won't matter anyway if they kill themselves.

Now, here's the thing: I KNOW this is not rational. I know it doesn't make any kind of sense to just throw in the towel and say, "Well, I'm not teaching anymore because I can't fix all their problems." I GET IT. And yet. There are still days when I look at my current students and I just feel sad, because I can't predict what is in store for them as they get older and therefore I can't prevent their future pain. I look at them and I feel exhausted, because I can give them everything I have and it might still not be enough. But what choice do I have, really, other than to keep giving? Giving them my whole heart is the only way I know how to do my job.

Sometimes, when I reflect on my recovery and dwell on a particular area where I still need work, I will suddenly develop tunnel vision and only be able to see that way in which I am not 100% "fixed." I then start thinking, "I haven't made any progress at all," or, "I'm still really sick." In my rational moments I know that neither of those statements is true. I have made a TON of progress, and I am NOT really sick, or even close to really sick. I just still have things to work on. But if I only focus on my deficits, I can't move forward.

And if I only focus on the ways in which I can't help my students, I won't be able to be present for the ways in which I can.

One of my favorite Jewish quotes comes from Pirkei Avot, and I have been thinking of it often as I wade through this grieving process:

"He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it." (Pirkei Avot chapter 2)

That's how I am thinking about teaching. I am not going to be with my students for their whole educational careers; I will not be able to coach them through every crisis that comes their way; I won't be there to pull them out of the dark places the mind can go in adolescence and beyond. But I can--and I must--give them a strong foundation. I can teach them how to persevere, how to manage their feelings, and how to value themselves. I can show them love and hope that it sticks with them. If I make their world bright and safe while I have them, that is the most important thing I can do.

In an effort to remind myself of this, I spent some time before Shabbat going through my "Teacher Treasure Box." I found a number of adorable notes from my student who died, which I am using as a warm and positive way to remember her. But I also found this valentine from another student, which brought tears to my eyes and reminded me exactly why I do this job:

That child moved to another state the year after I had her, and I don't know how she's doing or where life has taken her. But I know I helped her love school when she was in third grade. I shined some light into her life and made her feel loved. What more can I hope for, other than that?

I'm not going to complete the task. But I'm going to continue doing my part.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Unthinkable

I can't think of a good intro for this, so I'm just going to dive in.

Today, I found out from my principal that one of my former students committed suicide last night.

I had this student in third grade seven years ago. She was a total delight. She was all sunshine, smiles, and giggles; she was smart as a whip and just as hardworking. I adored her and I never worried about her. I've had a habit since I started teaching: every year I study my students and try to predict who among them is at risk for a mental health crisis in the future. You might think that's a morbid way to view one's students, but to me it just makes sense. As the November 7 edition of TIME Magazine points out, in 2015 approximately 3 million teenagers ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode, and 6.3 million teens had an anxiety disorder. And that's just depression and anxiety, people. Statistically speaking, some of my students are going to wind up in those percentages. Maybe if I can identify them early, I've always thought, I can start the process of getting them the support they need.

This child didn't even make the bottom of my Mental Health Alert List list the year that she was in my class. If there were early warning signs, I totally missed them. Her death was one I never saw coming.

After my principal pulled me aside to tell me the news, I went back into my classroom and watched my current crop of students chattering and swarming about as they lined up for lunch. I had been at a professional development training that morning, so this was the first I had seen of my kids all day. A few came up to me, presenting me with their precious smiling faces and a cheerful, "Good morning, Ms. B!" I looked into their eyes and tried to see all the way inside, desperate both to memorize their perfect vitality in that moment and to protect them from future despair. I couldn't square the children in front of me with the news I'd just gotten about my former student: how is it possible that a child who is so brilliantly vibrant in third grade could end her life as a sophomore in high school? And if you can't predict who that will be, how can you prevent it?

I can never protect them enough, I thought. I can't love them enough. I would give them every ounce of love in my being, and the world could still defeat them. Nothing is enough in the face of all that pain.

I failed that child. Who's to say I won't fail another?

When I got home from school, I pulled out my class photo from the year I had this girl. There she is in the second row, smiling, with a bow in her hair. I also dug through my "teacher treasure box" of mementos I've saved over the years and found the holiday photo card from her family in 2010; every photo features her: mugging for the camera, hugging her parents, playing violin. Looking at the pictures fills me with sadness, but I can't pull my eyes away; I have to take her in. I've been trying to think of things I could have done differently with this kid. Could I have shown her more how precious she was? Could I have instilled in her more resilience? Should I have followed up with her as she went through school and reminded her that she was still important to me?  But then I tell myself that I'm probably overstating my impact. After all, I've been through several major depressive episodes and ventured into some pretty dark mental territory over the past 15 years, and I've never once even thought of reaching out to my former third grade teacher for support (and I had an outstanding third grade teacher). The truth is, we--as elementary school teachers--play a huge role in our kids' lives while we have them. We nurture them, support them, and challenge them to grow...but then they do grow, and they leave us behind, and that's how it should be. Hopefully they never forget our love for them, but when they need help as teenagers, we are probably not going to be the people they run to. In their minds, we're from another lifetime. And so, there really isn't anything I should have done, or could have done, to save this student. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse, honestly. But it's the truth.

I don't know where G-d fits into all of this, and I'm not going to try to figure it out. There's no way to explain this and I'm not interested at people's attempts to find one. What I want, instead, is this: I want this child to be wrapped in a Divine hug, for her tears to be dried and for her pain to be smoothed away. And I want her parents to come out of this, somehow, with some sense of healing over the gaping, raw wound in which they are currently enveloped. I don't know how that is going to happen; I don't know how one ever recovers from something like this, but as long as I'm praying, that's what I'm going to ask for.

That, and an ever-increasing capacity to love my students fully, to show them how very right they are, just as they are. I want every child I ever teach to look back on third grade and say, "That was the year I was loved by my teacher." That's all, and that's everything.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

That Happened.

So, remember how in my last post I talked about my fear that Donald Trump would get elected and I would have to explain that to my students? I didn't really think it would happen. It was just a "what if" scenario--a scary one, but not one that I thought would actually come to pass.

Well, it happened. And I had to have that conversation. Here was one of their questions:

"Is Donald Trump really going to do all those things he said he'd do to Black people and Mexicans and everyone?"

Dear G-d, I thought, help me.

So I answered that student with some ideas I'd gleaned from my early morning reading of an article in the Huffington Post about how to talk to children about the results of this election. I told my students something about the Democratic process and how no one person truly dictates how the country actually runs; I said something about how our country as a whole doesn't share those values and wouldn't allow such things to happen. But even as I was saying those things in my most convincing, reassuring teacher voice, there was a voice inside me saying, "Well, really? Because what we thought would never happen, JUST HAPPENED. So how do I know we would never let his threats become reality?" I wanted my students to feel safe, protected from the sense that their country was sliding out from underneath them. But I was also keenly aware that I couldn't say, with certainty, that their fears were unfounded.

On my Instagram feed yesterday, Elizabeth Gilbert posted the following photo:
She also wrote a corresponding post on her Facebook page in which she outlined the qualities she wanted to possess during this crisis: Calm. Strong. Open-hearted. Curious. Generous. Wise. Brave. Humorous. Patient.

If she can do that, I thought, she is far more highly evolved than I. I do not know how anyone is living any of those attributes right now. I do know that yesterday I was exactly zero of those things. No one has ever accused me of handling crises gracefully, and I certainly did not see fit to start now. Yesterday morning, when I checked Instagram, I found my feed full of photos saying versions of the theme, "Love always wins." THAT IS TOTAL BULLSHIT, I thought. LOVE DOES NOT ALWAYS WIN. SOMETIMES HATE WINS. HATE WON THIS ELECTION. My anger was palpable and near to boiling. I was furious at the people who had voted Trump into office, and I was also mad at the people who were telling me to think positively. There might be a place for that in the future, I reasoned, but not now. Now I get to be angry. And I was, all day. 

The only feeling that overpowered my fury was despair. Complete and overwhelming despair. I didn't know my country anymore. It was not a place I recognized and I feared it would not be again. As a nation, we had brought upon ourselves the most devastating self-inflicted wound in at least fifty years. Trump was a disaster. Congress was a disaster. The Supreme Court would become a disaster. I couldn't even begin to contemplate the impending doom on a global scale. All day, I had one thought: I do not even want to exist in the world right now. It seemed broken beyond repair. 

Today I woke up feeling the same way. Trump was still President elect, and the world was still broken in more places than I could even begin to count. But at some point during the morning, I realized that my 100% Doom perspective was not a sustainable operating principle. I would not be able to function if I didn't shift my mentality at least a little bit out of the anger-and-depression zone. 

The thing that has helped the most so far has been finding out that Hillary did win the popular vote, so at least a little more than half the country truly doesn't agree with Trump's misogynist, racist, and xenophobic views. Of course, we have our antiquated and eternally puzzling Electoral College to thank for Trump still getting elected, but at least it's comforting to know that the country hasn't gone entirely off the rails. Maybe love did win a little bit, even if it didn't actually win win.

Also right up there is venting. I spent from 6:30-6:40 this morning commiserating with another teacher at my school, and there was something so validating about hearing him say, "Yesterday was the hardest day I've ever had as a teacher." We talked about our continued shock and our sense of not knowing what to do. I left that conversation not feeling as though anything had been resolved, but still feeling a bit lighter because I had shared my heavy feelings with another person who understood. We all need to do that. Air that sh*t out. 

And finally, finally, I am starting to think about action. One thing I noticed about myself this election cycle is that while I had strong views on the candidates and the issues, I did not voice them loudly or often because I was afraid of offending or alienating people. In retrospect, I appreciate my sensitivity but also wish that I had been brave enough to be more authentic about my views. Now, I am never going to be an activist and I am probably never going to go to rallies. I am not a campaigner, or a canvasser, or even a phone-banker. I'm not putting bumper stickers on my car, and I will probably continue to avoid engaging in political debates on social media. But. There are social causes I believe in, and groups I want to defend, that might be threatened over the next four years. If I can find ways to lend my support that do not fly in the face of my confrontation-averse nature, I want to lend my time and energy to those causes. I'm ready to think about this now. And while I don't know that I'm ready to completely buy into the idea that "love always wins" on a large scale, I do think it can win on a small one...and in the end, that's all I can control. The world is too complicated and its problems are too overwhelming for me to solve. The outcome of this election and the damage that might follow are out of my hands. All I can do is what I can do in my own little corner of life. Guide and nurture my students. Empathize with my friends and family. Actively support causes that connect with my passions. Write. It's all I can do. It's enough and not enough at the same time. But that's where we're at.

I don't know how I'll feel when I wake up tomorrow, or how the country will feel. I think we just have to take it day by day. Or hour by hour. Most importantly, we need to be there for each other. This was a viciously ugly election cycle with a traumatic outcome and aftermath. We're all going to need some comfort, no matter whom we voted for. I know I'm sending love out to you all.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Getting Political

Unless you have been blissfully living under a rock, you know that there is a national election coming up (this week!) in the U.S. Personally, I have had a stomach ache for about 72 hours straight just thinking about it, and that's just the Presidential election. There's also the matter of Congress, and there is no collective body in the United States for which I currently have more disdain than Congress. But the Presidential election clearly steals the show in the absurdity department. I feel like where we are today as Americans is kind of like the experience of waking up one morning, taking a look at your life, and thinking, "How did I get here?" If you do a careful and, honestly, not-so-difficult analysis, you can easily see how you did get to where you are. But it still seems so impossible. That is the United States right now. This situation was an impossible joke until we realized we made it happen, and now here we are.

As a teacher, I often worry about how I will explain disturbing current events to my young students. Thankfully, most of the time my kids exist in a state of age-appropriate unawareness. Every year, 9/11 comes and goes without more than a peep of recognition. After the Sandy Hook massacre, only one student seemed to know what had happened. The Boston Marathon bombing also seemed to pass in and out of my students' consciousness with minimal disturbance. So I was hoping, perhaps irrationally, that maybe my kids would also be unaware of the complete mess that is this Presidential race. But then two weeks ago we were on a school bus, coming home from a field trip, and I heard one of my boys in the back of the bus yell, clear as day, "TRUMP TOUCHED UP HER SKIRT!" And then I knew, there was going to be no avoiding it.

I told this story to my best friend in Israel last week, and I asked her, "G-d forbid he gets elected--how am I going to explain to my third graders that the man who brags about basically committing sexual assault is now our President?!" She paused, and then replied, "Yeah...I wish I could say that was my biggest problem with him."

I think that about sums it up.

And so, I have been a puddle of anxiety for the past few days. Right before Shabbat I had to take a Xanax, because OH MY G-D. Then I thought, how am I actually going to survive Tuesday? Or Wednesday, for that matter? I can't just keep taking Xanax. I mean, I can, but I'm going to need an actual strategy. So (and here's the Jewish connection I know you've been waiting for), I decided to see what Jewish tradition has to say about managing acute anxiety. Here's what I found.

There is a verse in Proverbs (12:25) which says:

דאגה בלב איש ישחנה ודבר טוב ישמחנה
Anxiety in the heart of man bows it down, but a good word makes it glad.

As is so often the case in Hebrew, the word for, "bows it down," ישחנה, can have other meanings, depending on how one reads the word in context: 1)  to suppress; 2) to ignore; 3) to articulate. These meanings also correspond to three strategies (or stages) for managing anxiety.

STAGE ONE: Suppress/Minimize

In this stage, we can make our anxiety bearable by making it smaller, often by telling ourselves that the problem isn't really as big as it seems. Regarding this election, I definitely did this for quite a while when I told myself, "Americans would never let Trump get elected." Since the possibility seemed too awful to even begin to deal with, I just told myself it wouldn't happen. But that only worked for so long. Which brings me to...


This is when we separate ourselves from the source of our anxiety. Personally, I have spent a lot of time in this stage lately. I stopped watching the news, I didn't read any articles on politics, and pretty much just stuck my head in the sand without apology. I figured this was the only viable option because whenever I came across any non-comedic election coverage, I felt my anxiety shoot up almost instantly. I'll be the first to say, avoidance is one of my favorite strategies. But now the election is two days away and I'm finding myself checking in with Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight several times a day, so it's time to move on to the next phase of the plan:

STAGE THREE: Articulate

This stage, my lovelies, is where we talk about it. 

I did this at shul yesterday with a friend of mine during Kiddush--we spent the entire time processing the current political situation, and every ten minutes or so we would say, "I can't even talk about this anymore"--at which point we would continue to talk about it. While it didn't solve anything, it was so helpful to just talk about it with someone who could commiserate. And while this was shared anxiety that we both were feeling, I think this strategy works even when the anxiety is all yours--talking about it takes some of the power away. 

I don't know about you, but I am going to need all of these stages over the next few days. I suspect 
that, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, you are going to need them, as well. So use them as often as necessary to combat the stress of the current situation and its aftermath. And if it all works out well, I, for one, will be bentching gomel. Feel free to join me!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Blessing of Rain

You guys, we made it. Cheshvan starts tomorrow night! I have never looked forward to a month so much. Actually, I think we should start a movement to remove "Mar" from "Marcheshvan." Cheshvan is not a bitter month. Cheshvan is the best month. NO HOLIDAYS--an introverted routine-lover's paradise.

So, yes, the chaggim were a bit...much. More to the point, this entire fall has been a bit much, which is why I haven't been writing. I've been too busy trying to navigate my brain chemistry, which has been a little temperamental due to a shift in medications. It is not an exaggeration when I say that there were some days when managing my mood felt like such a monumental task that taking a shower seemed a cruel and unreasonable additional chore.  Oh, you want me to enter assessment data into a spreadsheet? You want me to make travel arrangements? You want me to go to a social event? I'm busy SURVIVING here, people. I'm in full canary mode, sensitive to everything and feeling all the feels.

I don't think it's a coincidence that my mood started to stabilize right as the chaggim were winding down. Cheshvan and a neutral mood--quiet on all fronts. I'll take it.

Since I'm feeling more even-keeled, I've been able to actually stop and think about items that catch my attention. One thing I noticed recently is that we just had a change in one of the parts of the Amidah. Beginning on Simchat Torah, we add the following phrase to Blessing #2, which focuses on Divine might:
משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם
He makes the wind blow and the rain fall

Taken in geographical context, it makes total sense why we need that addition. We say it during the winter, which is the rainy season in Israel, while during the rest of the year there is basically no rain there at all. So we really need that rain during the winter in order for things to grow and bloom. If the rain doesn't come, the land dies. 

But let's be honest, rain is kind of a pain. You need special boots. You need a raincoat and an umbrella. It makes driving difficult. Streets can flood. It makes everything grey, which is kind of depressing. So it's easy to forget, on your third consecutive day of rain, why rain is such a blessing. It's easy to forget that rain makes things new.

For the past two months, I've been in rainy mode. There were a few peeks of sun, but mostly clouds and rain. I fear that place and when I'm in it, I worry that I will never get out. But I did get out, because the storm passed. That was Lesson #1: The Storm Always Passes. And on the first day I finally felt the sun come out, I was so excited that I actually emailed my psychiatrist and said, "I felt like a normal version of me today! It was AMAZING!" So that was Lesson #2: Rain Brings Gratitude. Probably the best part of that story is that my psychiatrist replied and basically said that she was really glad I had a good day, but there would probably be more bad ones to follow because that's how recovery from depression goes, which I thought was a great dose of realism. There will always be more rain, and for those of us who roll this way, the storms may be extreme. But then...there is the washing clean, and the growing, and the blooming. During my most recent dark time, I learned a few things. I learned how to trust my friends more and accept their love. I became a better observer of my own emotions and reactions without judging them. I also gained confidence in my ability to hang tight and wait it out, without using self-destructive behaviors. Those were all things I needed to learn, and I couldn't have learned them without the dark time, so G-d sent me some rain. It was painful and messy, but it was what I needed.

Come to think of it, my entire eating disorder--the rainiest years of my life thus far, for sure--may have been a complete emotional washout, but it was also where my best growing came from. I am absolutely certain I would not have become the person I am today without my journey through recovery, which would not have happened had the eating disorder never occurred. Once again, G-d gave me the rain I needed in order to bloom. I am NOT saying that, "everything happens for a reason," or some other platitude to brush over the very real and very damaging pain that I went through, or that others have endured. I'm not suggesting that we just put on our rose-colored glasses and thank G-d for all our suffering. What I am saying is that if we're going to go through a rainy season, we might as well reap the benefits. And I do believe that from every flood, every collapse, every breakdown, something new can grow up from the center of the destruction, if only we allow it--and it might be even stronger and more beautiful than what was there before.

When we add the phrase about rain into our prayers, we are acknowledging that we need G-d to send us this weather that is sometimes quite inconvenient, because it is vital to our survival and growth. Rain is what allows us to thrive in the sun. Emotional rain works the same way, and that's what I'm taking away from this holiday season. Rain comes and then it goes, and leaves us with a new beginning. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Elul...It's On.

Well...seeing as Erev Rosh Hashanah is exactly one week away, I guess I can't continue ignoring the fact that we're in the month of Elul. Okay, I haven't been ignoring it--I just haven't put quite as much energy into it as I would ideally like to. I think that pretty much sums up my relationship with Elul: in theory, I'm a fan; in reality, I'm overwhelmed. And when I get overwhelmed, I avoid.

But I hate walking into the High Holidays totally unprepared, so I needed to do something. I knew, given my current energy level and mental stamina for Things That Are Huge, that I would not be able to deeply examine all major aspects of my life this year. Not happening. But then I found some inspiration courtesy of Laura McKowen, whose blog and Instagram feed I absolutely LOVE. She wrote a post called, "16 Ways to Remember Who You Are When You Forget," and #16 is:


The idea is to choose a word that you want to be your focus or mantra for the year, or whatever period of time, and channel your energy towards that. I decided right away that I loved this idea and that I would adopt it as my personal Elul practice this year. In the end, I chose a word and a sentence. Here is my word for 5777:

I have always hated risks. In clinical terms, I am considered "highly risk averse." Probably for that very reason, I think this is where I need to put my energy this year. For several years I've felt safe in my life, though not particularly happy...and I'm at the point where "safe" just isn't enough by itself anymore. 

My "safe" approach to relationships has been to show people what I think they want to know/can handle knowing, and to keep the rest private. The upside to that strategy is that I don't give people much material for gossip or weird feelings; the downside is that very few people really know me. And that's lonely. So, very recently I've started taking some risks and being more honest with certain people in my life--people whose friendship is important to me and who have earned a chance to know me. And here's the thing: it's going really well! So THAT feels great, and makes me want to continue being authentic. It's kind of like a relationship positive feedback loop (yep, in another lifetime I was a biology nerd).

And then there are other life questions, like where I want to live, what other people I want to bring into my life, and what kind of lifestyle I want us to have. I have zero answers to any of those questions, but finding them is undoubtedly going to require some risk. A wise friend of mine from treatment once said, "You have to be willing to risk being unhappy in order to be happy." I've never been willing to take that risk...until now. Maybe.

And now, for the 5777 sentence:

I don't know about you, but I am very concerned with everyone else's path. Specifically, I'm concerned with how "everyone" seems to be following one path, and I'm doing something different. I am a conformer and my deepest desire has always been to be a "normal person." I'm not positive, but I think what that means (right now, at least) is that I want to move through life in the same way my friends do, hitting the same milestones and having the same life goals. They just seem so happy, living the way they do. But it's just not for me. I want different things, or at least a different version of things, and it is very, very hard for me to accept being different and to believe that I'm still okay. Sometimes I actually can't go on social media because it is just too painful to look at all my normal, happy friends with their normal, happy lives. Laura McKowen tackles this "Facebook envy" in an absolutely amazing blog post that everyone should read , and her ultimate advice is this:

"Keep going, beauty. Let the Pictured point you to your longing. Consider the Not Pictured and adjust your perspective. Build your own wall and stand on top of it."

And that, I think, is the essence of where my work is: to allow the pain I feel when I compare my friends' paths with mine to guide me toward what I truly want for myself--and then to build my own life proudly. This year, I hope to make decisions that will lead me down the path that is right for me, and to do it knowing that my life also deserves to be celebrated, even if it looks different from other people's. I can make my path into one worth traveling.

Best wishes to all of you as we start the new year. May 5777 be a year of growth for us all!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Being Holey

You guys. I just finished the most AMAZING book:

Not "amazing" as in, best writing I've ever seen, but "amazing" as in, Oh my G-d, this book understands me. I feel held by this book.

The plot lines of Glennon's life and my life don't really have much in common, but the subtexts sure do. Though I can't relate to being a wife and mother, I absolutely can relate to being mired in self-destruction and having to claw oneself out, only to discover that, Hey, adulting is hard. Life is hard. But life is also beautiful.

In one essay, Glennon writes about how we all live our lives searching for something. We each have an "unquenchable thirst," what author Anne Lamott calls our "God-sized hole." The struggle of life is trying to find things to fill this hole. Some people choose, perhaps obviously, to fill it with G-d. Other people fill it with work or relationships. And still other people, like Glennon and I, fill it with eating disorders and addiction. It all goes to the same purpose: feeling full. It's just that some people seek fullness from the wrong things.

When I think back to my eating disorder years, the word that first comes to mind is, hunger. There was physical hunger for sure, but there was also a deeper, more agonizing emotional hunger. I could satisfy my physical hunger, but the emotional hunger was never, ever satisfied. It just kept burning, and the hole kept growing, and I kept trying to fill it with more of the same things that weren't working: more starving, more exercising, more studying. In recovery, I've had to find different hole-fillers. My favorites are: work, nature, reading, writing, family, and friends. Those work much better. For me, recovery has been about finding positive hole-fillers, and using them regularly.

I don't think it's any coincidence that I became religious soon after letting go of my eating disorder. I had a huge hole to fill, and observant Judaism is a great hole-filler. It has given me structure and rules, a context within which to meet people, and a basis from which to define my values. And, it has given me a deeper connection to G-d, one of my greatest comforts (and challenges). I have known for a long time that my attraction to the religious life isn't purely a desire to live a "holy life"--it's a desire to fill the hole, albeit with something meaningful and nourishing. I don't think that's such a bad thing.

To an extent, it has worked, though I can't honestly say that Judaism and G-d fill me completely. They don't, though sometimes I feel like they should. I daven every day, I observe Shabbat, I keep kosher, I say dozens of brachot daily, and G-d and I have a chat every night before bed. It's soulful and lovely. But here's the thing: the hole is still there. I am still hungry, still seeking. You'd think that G-d would perfectly fill a "God-sized hole," but, at least in my case, it hasn't really worked out that way. And I think it's because, with very rare exceptions, we need other people. A person cannot subsist on G-d alone. And so when I feel hungry these days, in spite of the davening and the chatting with Hashem, I have a more honest assessment of what I need: more connection and more belonging. That is my work right now in recovery--getting myself those things. 

Glennon explains it this way:

"Some people of faith swear that their God-shaped hole was filled when they found God, or Jesus, or meditation, or whatever else. I believe them, but that's not been my experience. My experience has been that even with God, life is hard. It's hard just because it's hard being holey."

I couldn't agree more.

And what I've learned from Glennon through her writing is that everyone is holey. We all are.  While our instinct might be to stay quiet about our holes, we really should be doing the opposite, because being holey is something we can connect over. I know that when my friends come to me with their holes, when they say, I'm so lonely, or, I don't feel like I'm doing anything meaningful with my time, etc., I feel honored to meet them in their vulnerability, AND I feel energized because those holes are things we can talk about. Connection is a beautiful byproduct of our emptiness.

So if you, too, ever feel like you have a hunger that will never be satisfied, know that you're not alone. It's God-sized, which explains why it feels so big. And we all have one, even the people who hide it well. The secret is that the more we give voice to it, the more we use it to connect to nourishing people and life practices, the more it fills. Little by little. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Adult Aloneness

Yup, I know. I've been away for a while...readjusting. "Coming down" from being in Israel is always an interesting process and it seems appropriate that it took me pretty much the entire month of Av to work through it. It might have taken longer, but...Starbucks Cold Brew. Secret weapon of champions.

There have been a lot of feelings. One incident in particular really rattled me; it happened on my first Shabbat back at home.

When services were over, the usual controlled chaos ensued: kids made a beeline for the Kiddush tables and adults began socializing. (I want to go on record RIGHT NOW and say that Kiddush is my absolute least favorite part of Shabbat services. Introvert nightmare.) But on this particular day I spotted someone I wanted to talk to, a friend who had also been in Israel at the same time I was. I was excited to trade stories with this person and tell about my experience. So I walked straight over to this friend and was rewarded with a big, warm hug. All good. Until this person asked The Question:

"So...did you meet anyone?"

That was it. No, "How was your learning?" or even a simple, "How was it?" Instead, we got right to what was apparently the critical issue: did I meet anyone. As in, Meet Anyone. Bold and italics.

I was completely brought up short. I had not, in fact, Met Anyone while in Israel. To be 100% truthful, that hadn't been anywhere on my list of goals for the summer. And when I told my friend as much, this friend actually gave me an eye roll and said, "Okaaayyy," as if to imply, "What a missed opportunity!"

At first, I felt a flicker of anger. Wait a HOT SECOND, I wanted to say. I had an AMAZING time in Israel. I learned so much, I grew so much, and all you want to know is if I MET SOMEONE?!

And then shame rushed onto the scene. I felt like I had just failed a test I hadn't even known I was taking. Was I supposed to have met someone in Israel? Would other people be similarly horrified to know that I had not even made an effort to do so? Why hadn't I tried? And then, my all-time favorite, go-to Line of Shame:

There is something really wrong with me.

Because here's the thing: I never think about meeting anyone. Well, not never, but pretty much never. I can't remember ever "playing wedding" as a kid or fantasizing about a wedding dress as a teenager. At the time, I figured I was just too busy with other things. But even once I got to college, I still resisted the pull toward partnering off. A large contributor to my eating disorder was the primal fear I felt at having to enter the dating-for-marriage world; I simply let anorexia take me out of commission. In recovery, I've worked hard to change, "There is something really wrong with me because I'm still single," to, "Maybe being partnered just isn't important to me right now." To me, this feels fine. I am not big on romantic intimacy and I relish my independence. I plan on being a foster or adoptive parent and I do not tie that to the condition of being partnered. In my own head, being coupled feels like a "should," not like a "want," so I've been content to leave it alone.

And yet.

Social pressure is a real thing. I cannot deny that everyone around me is partnering off and having babies. And pretty much nowhere is this more apparent than at shul. I am not exaggerating when I say that, to my knowledge, out of an entire congregation, I am the only single-by-choice person there. As much as my friend's question caught me off guard, it really shouldn't have--the mission of most observant Jews under age 35 is to get married, and the mission of the community is to help make this happen. There's no protocol for how to handle a person who chooses to remain single. And so, I do often feel like something is truly "wrong" with me, because I don't want what everyone else wants. I want to want it, but it's not my truth. My truth is, I'm 34 and single, and that's how I want it to be for now. Even if I am the only person in the world who feels that way, I can't deny that it feels right at this time.

But maybe I'm not the only one.

I am not the biggest consumer of social media, but I LOVE Instagram. I use it mainly to follow people I admire and organizations I support, both for the work they do and the positive messages they put out into the world. One of my favorite Instagramers is Laura McKowen, a writer and "recovery warrior" who writes bravely and honestly about sobriety, motherhood, love, fear, and hope. I am routinely inspired by her work, but about a week ago she posted an image that went straight to my heart:

The temple of my adult aloneness. 


I hadn't even KNOWN there was such a thing, or that other people chose to live in that house, too. It had never occurred to me that is is okay to be single by choice, that it's not merely a condition to be endured until one eventually finds a partner. I mean, maybe most single people do end up getting married, and maybe I will, too. But in the meantime, I can be single without shame. I can live--and thrive--in my adult aloneness. Because that's the house where my soul belongs. Instead of wishing to be different, I just have to honor the way that I am, the way that G-d made me.

I think I could make that house into something beautiful.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Fall and the Comfort

And so, here we are. My last full day in Israel; I leave for the airport motza'ei Shabbat. To be honest, the primary emotion right now is exhaustion...there have been so many feelings during this time of transition that I don't really have the energy to endure any more. The grief and loneliness that come with leaving, the comfort of anticipating being back in an environment that I know like the back of my hand, the anxiety about travel and the pressure to reconnect with people back home...I'm feeling all of it. All the time. And it is so, so tiring.

Today is also Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the saddest month in the Jewish calendar and the beginning of the Nine Days, a period of mourning leading up to the 9th of Av. On 9 Av (Tisha B'Av in Hebrew), both the First and Second Temples were destroyed (there are also other calamities in Jewish history that are attributed to that date). It is a day of fasting and personal affliction, a day on which we are even prohibited to learn Torah. Unlike Yom Kippur, which is also a major fast day but brings with it the promise of teshuva and a fresh start, there is nothing uplifting about Tisha B'Av. It's all sad, all the time.

But then, there's a turning. The name of the month, Av, means "father." The custom is to add to it the word, menachem, which means, "comforter." So the full name of the month is often given as "Menachem Av," or, "Father the Comforter." In other words, in this month where there is so much sadness leading up to Tisha B'Av, Hashem (our Father, if you don't mind the gendered language) is there to console us.

I really like this idea, especially because I'm about to leave Israel and go back into the Diaspora, where holiness and connectedness sometimes feel very far away. But G-d is never far from me, no matter where I am. When I feel lonely and can't get in touch with anyone, I can remember that G-d is there to keep me company and comfort me. To some people, that idea might seem a little silly...I mean, G-d is not a person, so how can G-d really keep you company? I don't really have a good answer other than faith...and I'm glad I have that, because G-d is the One I can call on at any hour, on any day and in any place, whenever I feel lost and alone.

So, as I prepare to leave this place, I feel comforted by the knowledge that G-d is coming with me. And I also feel profoundly grateful for the past month that I have had here in Israel. I'm grateful to the staff and faculty at the Pardes Institute, who always make me feel like I've come home the minute I step into the building.  I'm grateful to my fellow students for challenging me and drawing me out of my shell in order to get to know me and connect. I'm grateful to my Israeli friends who went out of their way to see me while I was here. And I'm profoundly grateful to my teachers past and present, who continue to nurture me and serve as my surrogate family while I'm here. They take me into their homes, offer life advice and emotional support, and make sure I am safe and cared for in all ways. None of that can be replicated, but the warmth and security it generates can come with me. And believe me, I'm taking it all the way across the Atlantic.

So, I'm just about ready to go, or at least as ready as one can ever be to leave one's Favorite Place On Earth. But I think I'm leaving a little stronger and braver than I was when I got here. There's the fall, and then there's the comfort. Menachem Av.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Lessons From an American Buddhist Nun

Well, it's happening: my time in Israel is winding down. A week from Sunday, I will be heading home to the States. My summer program at Pardes finished yesterday, and that was when it hit me that I was going to have to say goodbye to everything and everyone that has been so precious to me this summer. Now, this isn't new; it happens every year and every year it's awful. But this year I am feeling it particularly acutely, I think because my connections were so authentic and so nourishing. I was able to really put myself out there and let myself be seen, and the reward was total acceptance--not something I experience on a daily basis at home. Who would want to say goodbye to that? Not I.

So I woke up this morning with "gray goggles" on and thought, "I am not going to get through this day." But I got myself together and went out to meet a friend, which helped for a couple of hours...but I had only been back in my apartment for about ten minutes when I started crying. I just felt such a void, so much loneliness--my brain just kept saying, Fill it, fill it, I can't bear it. Distract with something, anything.

So I picked up a source sheet from one of my classes because, desperate times. Now, this was an AMAZING class, and the last session focused on "losing and finding meaning." The source sheet boasts an impressive variety of contributors; to name a few: Rav Soloveitchik, Leo Tolstoy, Woody Allen, and Fred Rogers. For real. But I bypassed all of those in favor of an excerpt from an interview with the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron:

"For me the spiritual path has always been learning how to die. That involves not just death at the end of this particular life, but all the falling apart that happens continually. The fear of death--which is also the fear of groundlessness, of insecurity, of not having it all together--seems to be the most fundamental thing we have to work with. Because these endings happen all the time! Things are always ending and arising and ending. But we are strangely conditioned to feel  that we're supposed to experience just the birth part and not the death part. 

We have so much fear of not being in control, of not being able to hold on to things. Yet the true nature of things is that you're never in control...You can never hold on to anything. That's the nature of how things are. But it's almost like it's in the genes of being born human that you can't accept that. You can buy it intellectually, but moment to moment it brings up a lot of panic and fear. So my own path has been training to relax with groundlessness and the panic that accompanies it."

That's it.

That's how I feel right now, and how I feel at the end of every summer in Israel. I want to hold on to everything. I'm afraid of losing my connection to Judaism and my connection to the people I care about here. I hate the groundlessness I feel when I transition away from this place. And what accompanies all of this is grief--for the loss of people and places that are such a big piece of my heart, even if I know they're not really leaving me and I can still stay in touch. But it's not the same. And it does feel like death. The joy I felt at the beginning--that was the birth part. And what I'm experiencing now--this is the death part.

But that's how it is. It's unavoidable. And I do panic: What if I can't come back next summer? What if my friends forget about me? What if they don't respond to my emails? What if I have to spend an entire year feeling lonely and spiritually unfulfilled? And on and on. But I recognize these thoughts, and I am able to label them as Typical Leaving Israel Thoughts; this doesn't take the sting out of them but does let me relax into them a little bit because I know they're normal. I'm allowed to be sad, because endings are hard. But I have strategies: I can go for a walk; I can watch the birds; I can write. I can bring my grief to people I trust and say, Here it is. You don't have to fix it. You don't have to make me feel happy. Just be with me where I am. Help me relax with the groundlessness.

And yet, there is still so much love. So much sun. And one week left, which I plan to enjoy as best as I can while still making room for All The Feelings. Going into this Shabbat, I am profoundly grateful for all that I have been given over the past month, because those blessings are precisely what makes leaving so hard. I think I'm the lucky one.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Biblical Insecurity

I just finished Week 2 at Pardes, another week full of stimulating conversations and interesting learning. In one of my classes, we explored the story of Rachel, focusing on her beauty and how it affected her and her relationships with her husband, Jacob, and her sister, Leah.

For those of you not familiar with the story, Jacob arrives at the home of his uncle, Laban, after fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau. When Jacob sees Laban's daughter, Rachel, he falls passionately in love with her immediately. Jacob arranges to work for Laban for seven years in exchange for marrying Rachel. But at the last minute, Laban substitutes Rachel's older sister, Leah, for Rachel, explaining that the older sister has to marry before the younger one. Jacob agrees to work for Laban another seven years, at which point he will finally be able to marry Rachel.

The narrative goes on to describe the sisters:

ועיני לאה רכות ורחל היתה יפת–תאר ויפת מראה
"Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful of form and of face." (Bamidbar 29:17)

Rachel's exquisite beauty is why Jacob fell in love with her, and Leah's implied lack of beauty, along with the fact that she played a role in deceiving him, is why Jacob does not desire her. Seeing this, Hashem intervenes:

 וירא יהוה כי–שנואה לאה ויפתח את–רחמה ורחל עקרה
"Now, seeing that Leah was disfavored, Hashem opened her womb, while Rachel was childless." (Bamidbar 29:31)

What follows is a heartbreaking story of sibling rivalry: Leah gives birth to child after child, each time hoping that Jacob will finally love her. Rachel is forced to watch her sister produce all these sons while she herself remains barren, and get so jealous that she has Jacob sleep with her maid in order that she should have a child. Eventually, Hashem grants Rachel her wish and she becomes pregnant herself, having one son and dying during the birth of a second.

As my class discussed this narrative, it became clear that most of my fellow students pitied Leah because she was unloved, and had limited sympathy for Rachel because she was beautiful and therefore the object of Jacob's desire. I found this interesting for two reasons:

1) It mirrors today's attitudes toward women--we feel sympathy for "unattractive" women, while we assume that "beautiful" women have it all.

2) Personally, I had a different view--I felt badly for both sisters. Why? Because it was clear to me that both were deeply insecure, particularly around their attachment to Jacob, the man they shared.

Leah knows she is the unfavored wife and understands that if she isn't going to be loved, at least she can be useful by producing the heirs that Jacob needs. With every birth of a son, she hopes that this will be the child who makes Jacob love her. Because that love never comes, Leah feels pressured to keep bearing children, ultimately giving her maid to Jacob when she herself stops getting pregnant. The bottom line for Leah is this: being loved is best, but being needed is better than being ignored.

Rachel, on the other hand, is the object of Jacob's desire. She knows her own beauty and understands that it is the reason for Jacob's love. But she also knows that she cannot give him what he needs--children. Rachel also recognizes the importance of being needed, because while infatuation can disappear, an heir is forever. Therefore, although Jacob loves her, Rachel does not feel that the relationship is secure until she satisfies his need for children. Her bottom line? A pretty but barren wife is ultimately not essential. She needs to make herself indispensable.

I think I read this narrative in this way because the sisters' insecurity really resonated with me. In many of my relationships, from childhood into adulthood, I have understood that I was not the favorite and could be disposed of at any time. Therefore, I felt I needed to guarantee my place by providing my friends with something they needed. My motto: it is better to be used than ignored. I think Leah and Rachel both understood that to be true.

Shedding that motto has taken a lot of effort and is still a work in progress. I do still carry a bit of belief that unless I offer something useful, my friends will prefer other people over me. But I've discovered that my truest friends like me for who I am, not what I give them. In my best friendships, the relationship is its own reward--I do not have to continuously supply other incentives. But that sense of security in relationships--and the knowledge that I deserve it--is something I've had to cultivate slowly over time, and it is easily threatened by outside competition. Still, I'm working hard to learn that a genuine friendship means that you both love--and need--each other, and that this doesn't disappear just because someone else comes into the picture.

Perhaps the story of Rachel and Leah does teach us about the advantages and disadvantages of beauty, and about humility, and about character. But I think it also teaches us about relationships and how challenging it can be for women to know they have to compete and hustle for love and belonging. I hope we can all do better than our foremothers in navigating those waters, and that we understand our inherent worthiness and lovability.

שבת שלום!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Love Is the Sun

So. Remember how, in my last post (all about how happy I was), I said:

"I know the happiness won't last forever, probably not even for the duration of this summer program. I'm a mood cycler, and eventually the downswing will come."

Well, today was one of the Down Days.

I felt the shift beginning yesterday, and I thought,'s happening. And then I woke up this morning, and I couldn't access the pure elation of the previous week at all. I went to class, and all the material felt hard; I observed the participation of my classmates but couldn't bring myself to chime in.  At one point, a fellow student caught my eye, smiled at me, and said, "How are you?" So I did what I always do when I'm not feeling it--I fake it to the best of my ability. I dug up a smile, pasted it on my face, and said, "Good! How are you?" Social obligation fulfilled.

Now, there's no real reason why I am emotionally slogging through today, whereas last week I was on a happiness high. Nothing bad has happened; nothing good has gone away. I just know that some days are like this, and when it happens, it doesn't really do me much good to wonder why. Rationality doesn't help; "looking on the bright side" doesn't help. But there are a few things that do:

1) Perspective. Over the years I have experienced the full range of moods, ranging from lying on the floor in the fetal position and not wanting to wake up the next morning, to genuine happiness and inner peace. The mood I am currently experiencing is somewhere in the middle. It's not the best, but it's also not the worst. It's uncomfortable, but it's something I can deal with. I know how to do this because I have done it before.

2) Time. With regard to my own personal mood cycles, the most important thing I have learned is that given enough time, things will even out and I will feel better. This truth has proven itself over and over--if I can just hang in there and take care of myself, the waves of negativity will wash away.  Now you might be thinking, "Wait-it-out is not a viable strategy for combatting true depression," and I would say that you are correct. When I have been truly depressed, the most essential tools in my arsenal have been therapy and medication. Actually, those are still tools I use regularly, which probably explains why I have fewer episodes of genuine depression than I used to. But of course, there are lots of shades of low moods that aren't as extreme as depression, and those also need to be dealt with. For me, recovery does not mean that my mood is always positive, or even on the positive end of the spectrum. But it does mean that I know how to handle darkness, and that I take the initiative to combat it however I can...and one of the ways is by telling myself, "This will pass," and then doing something to distract myself in the meantime.

Glennon Doyle Melton recently wrote a profoundly brave and honest post on her blog, Momastery, in which she explores what it feels like to literally be at emotional rock bottom--a place in which death doesn't seem like such a bad option--and how to lift yourself up just enough to know that life is always worth fighting for. I'm linking the whole post here and I encourage you to read it in its entirety, especially if you or someone you know is struggling/has ever struggled with thoughts of suicide. These issues need to be de-shamed and talked about honestly, and Glennon opens up the dialogue thoughtfully and articulately. When I read her piece, I thought, "Yes. That's exactly it." And here is the part that I have taken with me and integrated into my core, the part that best captures what my experience of depression and lowness has been like in recovery:

"You just don't follow Despair's directions. You wait the despair monster out. You let it yammer away and try to scare the shit out of you and then you remember that despair is loud, but it's a LIAR...

Am I able to do this because I beat the monster? Because it leaves me alone now? NO! Still speaks to me. It's just not the BOSS of me. I just say: Oh, shut up. You lie. Pain comes and goes like clouds. LOVE IS THE SUN."

And that's really it. Pain comes and goes like clouds, but LOVE IS THE SUN. So today, as I waited for the clouds to pass, I did my best to engage in learning, got myself a yummy drink at a cafe after class, sat outside on the porch and read, reached out to a friend, and wrote. I still felt down, but I told myself, "This is just clouds, and love is the sun." And here in Israel, thank G-d, I have access to so much love.

I think it might just be a sunnier day tomorrow.

Monday, July 11, 2016


First things first: breaking the One Meal Rule worked out great. I had an amazing Shabbat! In case you were concerned.

Second: today was my first full day of classes at the Pardes Institute, which has been my summer intellectual home for the past 5 years. Here is today's low-down:

1) How Much Are You Worth? Introductory Talmud (Bava Kama)
I might be totally outing myself as a geek here, but there is something so fun about working your way through a piece of Talmud. It's like a gigantic puzzle. And in an intro class, no one is really good at it, and I like that I have permission not to be good at it yet, but to enjoy it nevertheless. Today, my chevruta and I began studying the civil laws of "damages." It's amazing how compelling that can actually be.

2) Modern Jewish Thought: G-d, Torah, Chosen People
This class totally blew my mind. Wide open. I'm not really a philosophy person, except apparently I am, because I am loving every minute of this. I left today's class with a ton of unanswered questions, which, when you're engaged in Jewish learning, is the sign of a successful day.

3) Beauty and the Beast: Power, Seduction, and Challenges of Vanity
I mean, what's not to love about that? The instructor is one of my all-time favorite teachers and you would not believe how much she can cram into two and a half hours. I'm still digesting it.  But let me just say, if you've ever wondered how the story of Adam and Eve relates to Pandora's Box, I now can explain it to you.

So anyway, it was a great day. And the weirdest thing happened, about midway through the afternoon class: I realized I felt happy. This is a big deal. I am not a person whose baseline emotion is, "happy." While I wouldn't say I'm unhappy, I'm usually neutral at best. There are times when I feel content, but happy is not a word I attach to myself often. And yet, here I was, in a windowless classroom in Pardes, and it occurred to me that I loved where I was. I was intellectually and spiritually engaged; I was having stimulating conversations with interesting people; I was reunited with people close to my heart in a place that is important to me. And I felt happy. It was so weird! But I loved it.

I know the happiness won't last forever, probably not even for the duration of this summer program. I'm a mood cycler, and eventually the downswing will come. But I'm not worried about that right now. I feel competent, brave, and energized. Maybe that's what happiness does for you? I'm not sure, but I'll take it. sweet, especially when it's rare. I'm going to do my best to enjoy it!

Friday, July 8, 2016

The "One Meal Rule" Was Made to Be Broken

Ah, Israel. Land of milk, honey, and feral cats. So good to be back!

The cool thing about returning to a place every year is that you can see how much better you get at navigating that place. The first time I was on my own in Israel, I was pretty much at a loss--couldn't communicate, couldn't navigate, had no idea what was safe and what was not, etc. But as this summer's trip got started, I noticed that I was handling pretty well things that would have really challenged me in years past:

1) Figuring out how to get from Tel Aviv to my apartment in Jerusalem

2) Filling several day's worth of free time before my program started

3) Going to a medical clinic for a small (non-recovery related) issue and asserting myself with an Israeli doctor

There were two things that very nearly pushed me over the edge, but I held on. First, when I had already been waiting 30 minutes to check out in the grocery store and a woman with a VERY full cart told me to move back and cut right in front of me. I wanted to cry, but I did not. I saved it for when I got back to my apartment and realized I had no internet connection. THEN I cried. But I got some help and handled it, and in a few hours it was up and running. Success! So far, so good!

But then, there was the issue of Shabbat plans. It just so happens that everyone who would normally host me for Shabbat is out of town this week, so as of last night I had no plans for either Friday night or Saturday lunch. Now, at home this would be no big deal--I am by myself for most Shabbats and actually like it because it gives me some quiet downtime after a week of teaching. But in Israel, spending Shabbat alone somehow feels more pathetic than it does at home. Still, I had pretty much convinced myself that it would be fine, when one of my teachers, who takes me under her wing every summer, texted me and asked what my plans were. Even before the words, "I don't have any," left my fingertips, I thought to myself, "She's not going to like this...." Now, I've explained the whole "quiet Shabbat alone" thing to her before, but she's Israeli and Israelis operate under a different paradigm--it is a cardinal rule that One Should Never Be Alone On Shabbat, and this goes even for die-hard introverts like myself. So it didn't surprise me at all when my teacher responded with, "Do you want me to call a friend?" I didn't think it would pan out, though--so last minute! And I'm vegetarian! Who would take that on? Well, I don't know exactly how she did it, but within 12 hours my teacher had nabbed me a place at a lovely family's table for Friday night. And then a few hours later I got ANOTHER text from my teacher, saying she had found a lunch meal for me, as well, with two young women I'd actually met one time on a previous visit.

I knew, objectively, that this was just what I needed--I now had plans for BOTH meals and would not be lonely at all. But on the other hand was my One Meal Rule: at home, if I get invited to one Shabbat meal, I'm off the hook for the other one. Dinner out = lunch at home, and vice versa. It's hard to say exactly why Shabbat meals stress me out, but mostly I think it's the unknowns: how long will it last, will I be able to leave when I want, who else will be there, what will we eat, what will we talk about, what will I say, etc. It's all just a little overwhelming...and even as I was maybe 90% happy to accept the lunch invitation, there was 10% of me that started to panic: "Too much! Too much! I can't!"

But then I thought, wait a minute...actually, I can. I am the one who made it from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem speaking only in Hebrew. I am the one who, though I lacked the vocabulary to stick up for myself, did have the wherewithal to give a dirty look to the woman who cut me in line at the supermarket. I am the one who got creative when I learned that my apartment didn't have any ice cube trays (in Israel? In the summer?!) and figured out that I could use the refrigerator's egg trays, instead. And I am the one who chose be honest and tell my teacher that I had no plans for Shabbat, knowing that she would do what good friends always do: get you what you need. So I can certainly swing two meals out in the same Shabbat weekend. Will it push my limits? For sure. But I have a feeling I will be glad I did it. And I feel very fortunate to have people in my life, like my teacher, who will go out of their way to help me grow.

So, if I never post again, you can assume that breaking the One Meal Rule did me in. But I have a feeling I'll be back next week!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

And...I'm off!

Well, the time has nearly arrived--I'm leaving for Israel tonight! The end of the school year was so overwhelming that I really didn't start thinking about this trip until maybe a week ago, and then I realized, "I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO!" But now, the to-do list is all checked off, the bags are packed, and my anxiety and I are ready to go.

Because, let's be honest, there is so much I can be anxious about! There are any number of possible flight problems, things that can go wrong with luggage, transportation issues, etc. I know I won't be wholly at ease until I finally arrive at my apartment in Jerusalem. Simply put, I like to be where I'm going, but I don't like getting there.

But, PG, I will get there. And, of course, I have some goals.

The first is related to physical health. I have been at a healthy place for a long time, but in the past month or so I've managed to boost myself up a little bit more so I could begin exercising...and I've managed to maintain it. I like how my body feels right now, and I'm proud of what I've managed to accomplish. Any long stretch of time away from my usual routine and environment can pose challenges, but I feel ready to tackle them this summer. It will be work, but it's work I think I can do--and I'm determined to give it my best effort.

The second is related to emotional health. Last summer was the first time I experienced symptoms of depression while in Israel, and it totally threw me off because Israel was supposed to be my "happy place." So I've been proactive this time around and have arranged a bit of a safety net--people I can text or call when I feel like isolating but really need connection.

My third goal is be present. It's as simple and complicated as that. I want to learn new ideas and meet new people, maybe even make some new friends. I want to be myself and not worry about what others might be thinking. If there is an opportunity to do something fun and spontaneous, I don't want to be so chained to my routine that I can't take advantage of it. I want to have fun. And be connected, and be enriched. All those forms of nourishment that Israel is so uniquely good at providing.

And, hopefully I will be back here often over the next month to write about my experiences! So stay tuned :).


Sunday, June 19, 2016

What's a Woman Worth?

I know...I'm a delinquent blogger. I actually can't even think of a good excuse, other than, "life." But I have been thinking about writing and have had a post brewing in my head for a few here it is.

Three weeks ago we read parasha Bechukotai, the last parasha in the book of Vayikra. Towards the end of the parasha the Torah speaks about "valuations," that is, how much monetary value gets assigned to a human life should one want to contribute the value of oneself to the Temple. The chapter opens with these verses:

וידבר יהוה אל–משה לאמר: דבר אל–בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם איש כי יפלא נדר בערכך נפשת ליהיה

Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: "Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: If a man articulates a vow to Hashem regarding a valuation of living beings... (Vayikra 27:1-2)

The Torah then goes on to list how much a person is worth, as follows (in translation):

...the valuation of a male shall be: for someone twenty years to sixty years of age, the valuation shall be fifty silver shekels, of the sacred shekel. If she is female, the valuation shall be thirty shekels. And if from five to twenty years of age, the valuation of a male shall be twenty shekels and of a female ten shekels. And if from one month to five years of age, the valuation of a male shall be five silver shekels; and for a female, the valuation shall be three silver shekels. And if from sixty years and up, if for a male, the valuation shall be fifteen shekels; and for a female, ten shekels. (Vayikra 27: 3-7)

Okay, so I might be the Queen of the Obvious Question, but here it is: Why is a woman always worth less than a man?

The week of that parasha, I heard a beautiful dvar Torah given by Torah scholar and writer Tamar Biala, in which she referenced a contemporary midrash written by Rivka Lubitch. In the midrash, Rivka Lubitch focuses on one word in particular:


which, she notes, doesn't actually translate as, "the valuation," but as, "your valuation." What does this mean? It means that it is not G-d who declared that a woman is worth less than a man; rather, it is humans who decided this. In the time that the Torah was given, the general consensus--among both men and women--was that males were worth more than females. Hashem understood this, and so the valuations were written to reflect it.

In other words, the problem is not that women are Divinely decreed to be of a lesser value than men. The problem is that women themselves feel that they are of a lesser value.

Now, I'd like to think that feminism has a strong enough foothold today that most of us would agree that a woman and a man should have equal value. But I know that in many cultures this is not the case, and even in my own culture, women receive messages--both overt and covert--that they are worth less than their male counterparts. These messages are troubling on many levels but they do the most damage when the women themselves buy into them. And we have bought into them. Nearly every woman and girl I've talked to who has a history of an eating disorder has expressed that at the heart of her struggles was the core belief, "I am not worthy."

I am not worthy of taking up space.
I am not worthy of help.
I am not worthy of food.
I am not worthy of love.

How much depression, shame, guilt, and self-hate could be avoided if we had a different view of our own worth?

This idea came up again for me this past week as we read parasha Nasso, specifically, the section about the Sotah or "Wayward Wife." In brief: if a husband suspected his wife of adultery but had no proof of either guilt or innocence, he should bring her before the Kohen. The Kohen would remove the woman's head covering (to shame her) and make her take an oath that if she had not committed adultery, there would be no curse, but if she had strayed, she would die. Then the Kohen would write out the oath on a scroll, dissolve it in water, and force the woman to drink it. If she was innocent, nothing would happen to her, but if she was guilty, she would die an unpleasant death.

I would say that's more than a little troubling and I could go on about it at length, but that's not for here.

Anyway, as I read those verses this past Shabbat and thought about the Sotah in conjunction with the issue of valuations, I began to wonder, "What would have happened if the women of that time had stood up and collectively said, 'ABSOLUTELY NOT!'?" What if they had said no to such a degrading and humiliating ritual? What if they had known that they deserved to be treated with more dignity, just as their husbands were? Now obviously, the women of that time would not have responded this way and it's unfair to project modern sensibilities onto ancient times, and all that. But to me, that is the real tragedy of the Sotah--that both the men and the women believed that was a reasonable way for women to be treated. There was no collective uprising of women who said, "I am too valuable to be subjected to this. I deserve better."

I think the lesson here is twofold:

1) G-d really does value all humans equally--it's just the humans themselves who have a different idea.

2) We cannot expect others to consider us worthy if we do not consider ourselves worthy.

And we are worthy. Of food, of love, of respect, of support, of happiness. G-d already knows this. He's just waiting for us to catch on.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Hishtadlut has been a long time since I last wrote!  It seems I completely missed writing about Pesach this year--and actually missed the entire month of April--due to G.L.C (General Life Craziness). What can I say?  It happens.  Good thing Pesach Sheni is around the corner!

But lest you think that I've been slacking off, I'm going to tell you a bit about what I've been doing, and I'm going to be a bit more specific than in past posts because I feel like there's no way to tell this story otherwise.

First, the background:  I was an active kid who played several different sports during grade school, but once I got to college, exercise morphed into something completely unhealthy.  Like, I actually can't think of one way in which the benefits outweighed the enormous cost to me physically and mentally. When I started working on recovery, I had to quit exercising completely, and I stayed away from it for probably around three years before I tried it again.  It did not go well.  So, for the past 6 or so years, I've abstained from "purposeful exercise" (that is, exercise done for the purpose of exercising), and have relied solely on "incidental exercise" (such as walking to and from places, etc).

But this past year, I started to feel deeply an intense desire to try exercising again, but the wanting felt different to me--I didn't want to exercise to lose weight or burn calories; instead, I wanted to feel stronger and healthier in my body.  I wanted to feel like my body was powerful.  My team and I talked about how I would do it differently this time around:  no numbers, no pushing for a certain time, no using any technology to record distance, heart rate, or calories burned. I wouldn't do it every day. I would not force myself to exercise outside in bad weather.  No gyms.  I wouldn't make myself eat less on days when I did not exercise.  And on and on.  Finally, we agreed on a plan. The only remaining obstacle was, I needed to gain some weight.

Not a lot of weight, but enough to give myself a cushion and to support my body in being more active, and also to help me stay recovery-focused mentally. Objectively, it seemed like something I should have been able to accomplish in a little over a month.  After all, I'm in solid recovery. I knew why I needed to gain weight, and I was in favor of it.  I had a goal that I really wanted to reach.  How hard could this be?


What I predicted would take me two months ended up taking four, and not because I wasn't trying.  I tried really, really hard.  For anyone who has ever had to gain weight, you know what it's like--eating past the point of fullness, eating when your'e not hungry, etc.  It's completely unpleasant.  But what's even MORE unpleasant is doing all those things, and then getting weighed and hearing, "Your weight is stable." For a while, I heard this nearly every week, and let me tell you, there was a lot of crying involved.  A lot of crying, a lot of frustration, and a lot of fear. I was already doing everything I could do. What if I just wasn't able to reach this goal?  What if it never happened for me?

When I first set my goal, I shared it with a good friend, someone who I knew would support me but also wouldn't ask me about it unless I brought it up first (if you don't have one, find yourself a friend like this).  One day, after a particularly disappointing doctor's appointment, I called this friend and shared with her my frustration and my fear.  She listened and gave encouragement, and then said, "You know, hishtadlut."

I said, "What's that?"

She explained that hishtadlut means putting in maximum effort and not giving up until you reach your goal.  I looked it up after our conversation and found that even when a person thinks that all the hishtadlut in the world won't achieve his or her goal, that person is still obligated to try.  In other words, pessimism is allowed, but giving up is not.

Sometimes, when I'm in the headspace of, "This feels IMPOSSIBLE," hearing someone say, "Just keep trying," feels invalidating.  But when my friend explained the meaning of hishtadlut, it felt different, I think because it felt like my problem was common enough that there was an actual name for how to handle it.  And the more I thought about hishtadlut, the more I realized that I really had only two options:  quit, or push ahead.  If I continued to put in all my effort, I had a chance at reaching my goal.  But if I gave up, there was no way it was happening.  So what else could I do, really, but keep trying?

And here's the thing:  it worked.

I met my goal.  Today was my first day of exercising, and it felt great--physically, but also mentally, because I knew I had worked really hard for this.  It was hishtadlut that got me there.

Whatever your recovery goals, know that sometimes the only way is the long way...but maximum effort does pay off.  It's not magic--it's something anyone can do.  But there's no giving up.  You deserve to feel the satisfaction and elation that comes with reaching your goal, so stick with hishtadlut--that's what will get you there.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Hearing Haman

Every year at around this time I face the Purim Challenge; that is, finding personal meaning in a holiday that doesn't particularly resonate with me.  This year I'm a little late to the game...I struggled with it for days leading up to Purim, and only got inspired at literally the last minute, as I attended the "Last Minute Megillah Reading" on Purim day at my shul.  Nothing like taking it down to the wire!

Right before the reading started, the man doing the leyning made the usual request for no talking during the reading because of the requirement to hear every word of the Megillah.  I love any excuse to not talk, so that totally works for me.  Usually, the only noise heard during the Megillah reading is the racket made by the graggers and other noisemakers when Haman's name is read.  But yesterday, when Haman was mentioned for the first time, I started to connect the dots:  we only make noise immediately after Haman's name, not during--we don't drown him out.  Instead, we hear his name as we must hear all the other words in the story.  We register our displeasure, but we don't erase him.

This seems like an effective way to face our own personal stories, which are (most likely) dotted with names, places, and events we'd like to blot out.  The problem with that is, if we erase those parts of our stories, the narratives lose a lot of their significance.  I mean, where would the Purim story be without Haman?  If we take him out of the mix, there would be no villain and therefore no need for the heroism of Mordechai and Esther.  The opportunity for triumph would be lost if we took out the crisis.

When I think about my own story, I would LOVE to take a huge eraser and rub out my entire four years at college, which I will always associate with the birth and rapid rise of my eating disorder.  I live in a city with lots of universities, and as I walk around and see all the undergrads and campus buildings, I wish I could do that part of my life over in a totally different way. But since I can't, I just do my best to have very little present-day connection with the university I attended.  Whenever it comes up in conversation, I would love to drown it out with a gragger!

But maybe this is not the best way.  After all, without the struggle born in those four years, I never would have started the journey I'm on--one that has given me insights and skills that I would never want to trade for an easier path.  Maybe the best approach is Purim-style:  hear the hard parts, register your displeasure, and appreciate them as necessary for the journey.

Just as we can't effectively erase parts of our narratives, we also can't erase parts of ourselves.  We all have elements to our personalities that we dislike or find shameful: the judgmental, envious, fearful, spiteful, resistant, insecure parts (to name a few).  It's probably fair to say that we are each a little "Haman-esque" in some ways, just as we also have within us elements of Mordechai and Esther.  I cannot even count the number of times I have thought, "I hate that I'm like this!" when I catch myself exhibiting any of the above traits.  But maybe these elements of our personalities should not be hated and drowned out; maybe they need to be heard and better understood.  Sometimes our most difficult attributes need the most love and compassion before we are able to see how they fit into the Big Picture that is us.  We say we "hate" Haman, but we also have to acknowledge that he gave us a key piece of our collective narrative and provided us with one of our first experiences of national triumph.  What would we have missed out on learning, if Haman had never entered the picture?  Perhaps there is also much to learn from our seemingly less desirable traits, if only we can approach them with gentle curiosity.

A local artist named Deb Koffman expresses this much better than I ever could, in her piece titled, "Some of the Parts."  She has given me permission to include it here.  You can see more of her work at  Hopefully this piece inspires you to integrate all of your story, and all of your parts!