Sunday, April 9, 2017

Breaking Down the Labyrinth

For me, Pesach prep is a bit like everything else--the anticipation is nearly always worse than the reality. For weeks, I am an anxious mess as I stare down the monstrous amounts of cleaning and cooking I need to do, and then the actual day comes, and I wake up at 7 am, bang it out, and am done by 3 pm. I do recognize that in this one particular instance, living alone in a small city apartment is a blessing, because the cleaning is manageable and I am cooking for one. Bottom line--I'm officially Kosher L'Pesach with time left in the afternoon to do some writing, so I feel pretty accomplished. The OU would probably find fault with a few things, but lately I've found fault with a few of their things, so I guess that makes us even.

Despite all the frenzy (or perhaps partly because of it; it's such a classic cultural ritual), I really enjoy Pesach. I appreciate that it forces me to do things differently--staying up late, eating different foods, etc. But what I really love doing during this holiday, especially in the days leading up to it, is thinking about freedom and what it means for me, personally.

In the conventional sense, I have never been an unfree person. I had the good fortune to be born in the United States to a middle-class family who never needed to worry about money. Though I'm in a religious minority in this country, I'm also in the racial majority, which has bestowed upon me benefits I would be remiss not to mention. I have never been tied down to unfavorable circumstances by debt, and though my finances do not afford me every option, I have enough decent options that I can build a good life for myself. In short, I have been very, very lucky, both as an accident of birth and as the result of planning and hard work.

But there has always been something that has bound me. In childhood, it was OCD; I could not go to bed without making two trips around my bedroom to touch certain objects, and my stuffed animals had to be arranged just so on my bed or it physically didn't feel right. I played endless games of "magical thinking," telling myself that I would do well on a test if I could throw a small object in the air and catch it with one hand three times in a row, three times (also, I loved the number 3). If I was out for a walk and stepped on a manhole cover with one foot, I had to step on it with the other foot, as well. I was never sure what, exactly, would happen if I didn't adhere to these rituals, but I had a firm (if vague) sense that it would be "something bad."

In college, some of those compulsions lessened because I was physically removed from the environment where they took place (my childhood bedroom), but that was okay because I found something better: compulsive exercise and obsessive dieting. Anorexia was the ultimate ritual. Every morning, at the same hour every day, I went to the gym. I did the same machines, in the same order, for the same amounts of time (or a little more, but never a little less). I ran the same distance every day (or a little longer, but never a little shorter). It was mind-numbingly boring, but OMG THE ENDORPHINS. Then, there was eating. I ate at the same times every day, picking from the same narrow variety of foods, counting out numbers of things to make sure my intake was exactly the same as the day before (or a little less, but never a little more). Of course, I had rituals WITH food, too--precise methods of eating from which I could not deviate. By the middle of freshman year, I had come up with a system that I had fully mastered. It did not occur to me that the system had mastered me.


I recently read a book of memoirs called, Abandon Me, by an author named Melissa Febos. I actually don't think I can adequately describe this book or its effect on me, except to say that it is, hands down, the most powerful memoir I have ever read. I got it from the library and it was a "speed read" so there were no renewals, and on the day I had to return it I went to my local bookstore and bought my own copy, even though it just came out and is only in hardcover, and I have a somewhat strict (if informal) policy against paying "extra" for hardcover books. But this book, I needed to own, and immediately.

My favorite essay is the one called, "Labyrinths," in which Melissa outlines her own addiction to heroin and her recovery from it, as well as her brother's battle with bipolar disorder. The title of the essay is a reference to the 1986 movie, "Labyrinth," in which a teenage girl named Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly) wishes for her baby brother to disappear--and then he does; he gets taken away by Jareth, the Goblin King (played by David Bowie), who stores the baby in a castle in the center of a labyrinth. Sarah has 13 hours to solve the labyrinth and rescue her brother.

Sarah enters the labyrinth and begins to run. She falls into many distracting traps designed to throw her off course; in actuality, like all labyrinths, it is only one path and will inevitably lead to the center, so all Sarah needs to do is follow it. But, as Melissa Febos writes:

Throughout the film Jareth tries to convince her that the labyrinth is too difficult to solve. He drugs her. He sends creatures to mislead her. He promises her that happiness is in succumbing to his fantasy and abandoning her quest to solve the labyrinth.

"I ask for so little," he pleads. "Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want."

When I read that, I thought of how similar Jareth's voice sounded to that of my eating disorder. When I fell into anorexia's labyrinth, my list of "everything I wanted" was simple: I wanted to fill the empty space within me. Anorexia promised me that if I allowed it to rule me, it would fulfill my wish by simply erasing my need altogether. And so, I gave in. The labyrinth seemed too complicated, the center too elusive, and so I allowed myself to be swallowed up. The truth is that I didn't even know I was trapped--I still felt like I was in control.

Recognizing the structural layout of my labyrinth was the key to its undoing. Once I knew that the voice of my captor was lying, that I would never be free unless I broke down the walls myself, I started to come back to life. But there were so many distractions. I had to learn to recognize my own anxieties and compulsions for what they were, and to be in tune to the mental and physical cues that signaled I was starting to give in to the eating disorder. Let me say: it was a complicated f*cking labyrinth. But I used my tools: I went to treatment, I participated in therapy, I took my medication. And I found the center, where my self was waiting.

My favorite excerpt from Melissa's essay is in the picture below:
I love it because this is the key to everything, this realization that our addictions, our obsessive and compulsive belief systems, are nothing more than captors trying to take away our power. They will promise us everything, but leave us with nothing. The truth is that we hold the power. The minute we even entertain the idea that we might not have to listen, the labyrinth weakens a little bit. And as soon as we are willing to say the word, "No," even if we just whisper it, that is the moment that we start to get back our freedom. The labyrinth cannot withstand a lack of worship, and when we refuse to fear it any longer, it will begin to crumble.

Sometimes, it can seem tempting to go back to the labyrinth, with its small enclosed spaces and clear boundaries. But it will never again be as satisfying as it once was, because it will have lost its luster. Every time I went back to anorexia after my first round of treatment, I found that I had too much knowledge for it to stick for long--I knew what I was doing, I recognized the irrationalities, and I knew what I should be doing instead. More importantly, I understood what my eating disorder had taken from me, and was still taking from me, and that made me angry. The day I decided that I was simply tired of this particular labyrinth, that it held nothing of value for me anymore, was the day I left treatment and never went back.

Putting my life back together and growing into a functional adult has been a lot of work; it isn't always fun and sometimes makes me cry. But since I left the labyrinth, my life has never again felt as empty as it did when I was held captive by the eating disorder that promised to fill me. I make my own choices, now. I have space for relationships, I have energy and passion for a demanding profession, and I actually have emotions, which are quite possibly the most wondrous part of the whole operation.

Freedom is everything.

And so, my Pesach wish for each of us is that we recognize the labyrinths that hold us captive, and that we start to deconstruct them, brick by brick. Freedom is out there, and in it our true selves are waiting, as they have always been.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Beautifully Broken
When I started this blog, I tried hard to publish something at least every other week...I think because I had so much to say, and sharing it felt so urgent. Clearly, I have gotten away from that level of frequency, and it's not that I haven't had anything to write's more that I haven't been able to find the most effective way to write about what has been going on for me. I feel as though I need a degree of separation from things in order to write about them clearly, and that separation hasn't happened yet, so the words haven't come. I say this not as an apology for not writing, but more as an explanation as to why I haven't been on the blog as much lately.

But then, last weekend happened, and words started to come.

I had the privilege of attending a workshop led by the amazing Laura McKowen, whom I have raved about quite a bit on this blog, and Holly Whitaker, whom I have talked about less but who is no less fabulous. These two women do incredibly important work in the recovery world; both are in sobriety and are also in recovery from eating disorders. They are impassioned writers, speakers, and yoga people, and I am a little bit (or a lot) of a groupie, so I took my yoga-ambivalent self to a yoga studio and practiced yoga for four hours, just to learn from them. (Okay, there was writing involved, too, which is more my jam.)

The title of the workshop was, "Never Not Broken," and it centered on the premise that we have each been broken open by various life situations, and we will bear those cracks for the rest of our lives...but instead of weakening us, our brokenness makes us stronger and wiser. I was attracted to this idea because I view my life into very clearly divided "before" and "after" segments: "before," being before I developed an eating disorder my freshman year in college, and "after," being everything after my last hospitalization in 2007 (I call the in-between years, "the mess").  I visualize "before" and "after" through two photographs that sit on my parents' coffee table--one of me as a senior in high school, the other of me graduating from college. When I look at my high school senior self, I see her smile as genuine, the gleam in her eyes as a sign of her full life and endless hope, for she has no idea what's coming. The photo of me as a college senior, I hate. I look at that version of myself and I know my smile is fake; my eyes masking how trapped I felt in my body, in my mind, in my misery. For most of my time in recovery, I have wanted desperately to get back to the way I was "before." Why can I not be happy anymore? I often wonder. Instead, I'm stuck being this broken thing. Put back together, yes, but still cracked in ways that I haven't figured out how to repair.

Before the workshop started, I anticipated that I would spend most of it brooding over all the broken, shattered parts of me, and maybe I would even cry, which would be a huge breach of my "no public displays of emotion" rule. But somewhere around hour three, a weird thing happened. We were journaling in response to the prompt, "What do You Want?" and I realized that although there are still some things I desire but have yet to achieve, I actually have a lot of good things in my life. I have the most fulfilling job I could ask for; I get to do what I love and I know I am making a difference. My "work family" is close-knit and supportive. Through my Jewish education, I have made dear friends in Israel who nurture me in ways that no one else does. My parents and I have great relationships with each other. I am living on my own and paying my own bills, driving around in a car that I own, with enough money saved to allow me to plan for a future child. All told, I am actually not doing too badly. And admitting this was new to me, because my usual line of thinking is to focus on the negative...but sitting there in that workshop, I was able to really see all the vitality I have built into my life, and that I have achieved successes that were absolutely not possible a decade ago.

I pondered this as I lay on my mat, listening to Laura's calm voice easing us into the final restorative pose. Then, from the speakers, I heard familiar tune begin to play...the lyrics came:

I heard there was a sacred chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord...

Yup. She played Hallelujah. She played LEONARD COHEN.

There I was on my mat, with a big old grin on my face, because THIS WAS A WORKSHOP ABOUT BROKENNESS AND SHE'S PLAYING LEONARD F**KING COHEN (no disrespect intended).

Leonard Cohen, the iconic Jewish singer and songwriter, penned the following lyrics about human brokenness:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We are all broken in some ways, some of us more than others, but we all bear at least a few cracks bequeathed upon us by the world and our own psyches. The challenge, as with any perceived weakness, is to learn how to leverage it to one's advantage. I know that I, personally, have gained enormous insight into myself and others from having gone through everything I've endured, much of which was excruciatingly painful while it was happening. I might not ever return to that innocent teenager I was before the eating disorder, the one who grins out from that high school senior photo. But I am damn sure more in tune with my emotions, more able to empathize with others, and more able to manage the demands of the world than she ever was. It was a trade I was never asked if I wanted to make; I was never given the choice of opting out.  Brokenness can't work that way, because who would ever elect to be split open? Not I. But there were lessons I needed to learn, that I am still learning, and so I was given the pain and the blessing of being broken to my core.

At the end of the workshop, Laura and Holly herded all 50 of us into a circle, and we did the "go-around": say your name, where you're from, and one thing you're taking away from today. Every single person in the room had been touched by addiction, and many were in the beginning stages of recovery. Some people shared from a place of strength, others from a place of insecurity, but the underlying current was vulnerability.

Vulnerability sounded like the man who had just begun sobriety and said, "I'm on day 28."

It was the woman who ventured, "I'm an alcoholic. I've never actually said that before."

It came through in the voice of a young woman who shared about her suicide attempt.

It was the person who admitted, "I don't actually know anyone in recovery."

And as I sat there listening and waiting for my turn, I could see my self of ten years ago mirrored back to me in my fellow participants' words. I remembered the first time I ever said, "I am anorexic," and how exhilarating was that release, and how terrifying the admission. I remembered my "day one" in my first treatment program, where I finally found comfort among other people who understood the way my brain functioned and the twisted logic by which I lived my life. I remembered meeting my first recovered person, and how powerful that encounter was. I remembered all the times I had gone to bed, wishing that I would sleep forever. And I knew, sitting in that circle, that I wasn't there anymore. I had done the work and was still doing it. And I had a lot to be proud of.

The truth is, I still go through periods of depression, where I feel like I honestly might not make it through the day. I sometimes still find that when I am stressed or in periods of transition, my first instinct is to micro-manage my food as a release. I am socially anxious, extremely introverted, and yet often feel starved for genuine connection. All of those cracks are real. But I know how to navigate them and to avoid the traps they set. I prefer to view my current self as one who has been made stronger for having been broken.

The Japanese have a practice of putting broken pottery back together by sealing the cracks with lacquer mixed with gold dust. The artist Barbara Bloom explains:
"When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something's suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful." 

That's us, lovelies. Never not broken. And growing more beautiful all the time.