108

My friend Autumn is many wonderful things, but most recently, she is a yoga teacher. Last night, she co-lead a group of all-level yogis and come-as-you-are oddballs through 108 Sun Salutations. To benefit B4BC. As a celebration of strength. Just because we could.

The “heartbreakthrough” of these past months lead me there. That, and my love for Autumn. Her personal growth explosion (always, but this year especially) tossed a spark into my spirit, even as it dazzled me with its firework-brilliance. Autumn is one of a growing circle of women, rough age-peers all sending these magical sparks toward me, as they throw themselves headlong into themselves.

Women owning their stories with wild abandon have started the fire of inspiration in me: kindred spirits, perhaps; but spirit kindling, certainly.

I drove up to Bellingham last night mostly out of my love for Autumn and the light she’s putting into the world, but also as an experiment in making my own sparks. In my haste to rub two sticks together, I somehow wrote down the wrong address, and I ended up a good 15 minutes north of where I was supposed to be. I arrived at the yoga studio just as the opening meditation was starting. As I rolled my mat out, willing it to be silent, willing myself not to panic, I scanned the rows of bodies in front of me, looking for a familiar warmth. I found her easily: lilac sweater the color of my yoga mat, harvest-blonde hair perched on top of her head in two elfin coils.

Okay, baby, I said to my headspace. We’re in this together. Let’s do this thing.

I’ve never done 108 Sun Salutations. I wasn’t sure I could, but I was willing to try. That “my-friend-is-here-why-not-willing-to-try”-ness got me started. Giving up, and giving in to “I don’t know if I can do this,” and just letting it move through me carried my body through all 108.

The word transformative often tumbles out in conversations about yoga, and I mostly used to roll my eyes and whatever at the two together. But when I chose to see the split in my emotional body as growth instead of brokenness—a seed cracking open, sprout reaching up—I began to feel transformation everywhere. Yoga is proving to be no exception.

Last night, I felt transformation. I gave in to the movement, my body, and my spinning mind. I teared up, laughed out loud, danced in downward-facing dog, dripped sweat down my neck and forearms, saw the scarred-heart-shape of my uterus behind my closed eyes, saw the luminous faces of two friends in the air between my hands in extended mountain pose. One song on Autumn’s playlist was something I’d come across just that morning and had been singing all day; when I recognized the chorus, flowing through up- into down-dog, I almost cried out. Another song reminded me of someone whose humor I cherish, and I smiled with my whole body at the connection.

After years of feeling nothing, really—just “good” or “bad,” not allowing or understanding anything more defined—I got to sample a decade’s worth of emotion in a little over an hour.

The trembling in my limbs this morning as I sat down to write was no ordinary post-workout fatigue. It is the electrical fire of forward emotion.

How Inspiration Feels

75D7785C-359E-498E-8B81-15A14D7D4757

I was walking home on the last Thursday morning in September, having just dropped my son off at school. I was quietly pulling our wagon (filled with my daughter and an assortment of stuffed toys) down the hill on 100th street, thinking about the most recent episode of Big Strong Yes, when Creativity jumped in front of me, grabbed me by the face, and kissed me right on the mouth.

Whoosh. A book, title and all.

I was suddenly very aware of the area underneath my sternum.

About a block from home, ducking under a neighbor’s gnarly rosebush, I felt the tickle of a question from a not-quite-all-me voice in my mind.

Yes. I told it silently, smiling at no one. Yes, I will work with you.

A book.

Holy shit. That’s the thing.

I had joked online about turning my swirling, verbose reflections on the podcast into a series of Big Strong Yes term papers. An acquaintance had (also jokingly, I think) suggested a Big Strong Yes memoir. After I read that, the idea would not leave me alone. Not even 24 hours later, it was in my body, stretching out, its weight draped over my diaphragm. This idea wasn’t planning to leave anytime soon.

I was fine carrying this spark of a book while I walked, but as soon as I got home and set myself up at the computer to announce my new project to Rob and a friend or two, the panicky feeling arrived. My arms developed tingling chills from the elbows down. It felt something like the “my limbs are asleep” pins and needles, under a layer of snow. My feet felt strangely heavy and numb. After sitting with the idea for a few minutes, I started to shake. My legs ached with the ghosts of shin splints.

What the fuck was going on?

A book. A whole book.

My body buzzed at the touch of Creativity. But fear was making its rounds, too: How am I going to do this? I can’t do this, but I can’t not do this!

It’s a totally wild idea. A memoir…about a podcast? Have I invented a new subgenre: fan nonfiction?

Questions swirled around me like a noxious mist, making my heart—my physical heart—feel strange on the inhalation: How do I write the story while the thing is still happening? I don’t know how it ends! What are the “rules” about engaging with a text when that text is the recorded voices of real people, living out their real stories in real time? Is it even memoir if it’s just my story filtered through other people’s stories?

Creativity smiled into the space behind my right ear, not worried in the least.

Okay, I told the inside of my head. I’ll just take notes to start.

Identity Agreement

My resistance to writing is related to my stubborn insistence on having one single “thing” to write about. I thought I needed a focus to give my writing some shape. But the minute I set out to write a “parenting” blog or a “recovery” blog, a wave of Nope would crash over me.

My identity is this bizarre, multimedia collage I’m still learning to interpret. I can’t write about that discovery process if I have to stay “on topic.” How do I bring in mental health? How to I talk about this book club podcast that has been better than any class I could ever imagine? How do I write about just, you know, day-to-day shit? Do I have to relate it all back to my children? To my eating disorder?

Ugh. “My eating disorder.”

I saw my doctor recently, and she said, “I don’t think you have an eating disorder. I think you have had an eating disorder in your past, but I don’t think you do now.” She was careful to point out that it’s imperative that nothing we do in our treatment should reverse that progress.

The most startling thing to me about her statement was that I fucking AGREED WITH HER! In the past, I might’ve resisted internally. I’m not proud to admit it, but as recently as a few months ago someone telling me “you don’t have an eating disorder” would’ve sent me over the edge: Oh, I DON’T, do I?! I’ll show YOU!

But I’ve come to see that I got tangled up in a series of eating disorders because I didn’t have anything else. I thought I needed a focus to give my life shape.

It sounds pathetic, but it’s the truth. I was totally out of touch with any sort of creative identity; I thought a “topic” was the answer to my curious, capable, always-churning mind. I was empty and open, and misogynistic cultural messaging flowed right in. If my children were well-fed, well-dressed, and well-behaved, and I was really, really thin, everything would be okay.

Nope.

Everything was so far from “okay.”

IMG_0559

My children and I started walking to school again this year. The last time we walked to school regularly, my daughter was a baby, and I was trying to subsist on less than a thousand calories a day. I would: walk my son to school, pushing the baby in the stroller; walk home with the baby; research the relationship between binge-eating, starvation, and heart failure; nurse the baby for hours; eat a plate of food; research potassium supplements and wonder if my heart was going to up and quit on me; walk to school again… Not okay.

Last fall, I thought about that four-miles-a-day heart-taxing starvation. I longed to be the not-even-that-skinny, sick person again. Last fall, I was focusing on recovery but feeling empty again. I didn’t understand it. Wasn’t recovery my “thing” now? This year, I’ve given up on the idea of having a “thing”—and I find myself with so much to think about that there’s no room for dangerous nostalgia.

When I was attempting to starve my body into thinness (and binge-eating my way out of it), I was also starving my mind. I fed it calorie-counts and macro numbers and approved food lists and fear and panic instead of pleasure and wonder and curiosity and connection and joy.

Fuck mind-starvation.

I want to devour joy.

When I closed up shop on my old (pregnancy/baby/parenting) blog and opened a new one, my first thought—before I settled on “recovery”—was to write about this strange process of learning about what I like and what I’m like in my mid-thirties. Can I learn to see myself in what I love? I learned the visual language of film, for example, and now I can’t un-see what’s there. I take for granted that everyone is looking for foreshadowing in a movie’s editing or production design, and I’m often genuinely confused when my partner or friends say they “didn’t see that coming!”

Really? It was right there all along!

I’ve got this glass in front of me. There’s been water in it all along. I still see “half-empty” first. (I still see myself as “empty” first.) I want to learn to see “half-full.” To be joyful.

For now, I’m joy-curious.

I Want/What If

I spent most of Tuesday feeling suicidal. Not bottle-of-pills-in-hand, primed-and-ready suicidal; smiling, playing-on-the-rug-with-my-daughter, wishing-for-death suicidal.

On Tuesday, if death had come for me, I would’ve said, “Yes, please. I’m ready.”

I still got my son off to his first day of fourth grade (and quietly berated myself for not being “the kind of mom” who posts a First Day of School picture on Facebook and writes something sentimental about her baby growing up). I still prepared meals and even did some housework. Inside, I wanted to die.

I want to die played on repeat for fourteen hours.

In the evening, after gently pulling myself up out of the downward spiral with the careful application of humor, I realized that my wishing-for-death (when I have no intention of killing myself) thoughts are roughly analogous to the intrusive thoughts that started plaguing me after my first baby was born. Every time I stood on a balcony or high-up bridge, I thought, “What if I drop him?” And then this chilling filmstrip would play in my mind: I saw myself carrying my child over to a railing, dangling him over the edge, and letting go. Over and over and over again.

It makes my chest tighten just to write about it. I didn’t want to hurt my son. I was horrified by those thoughts. But I couldn’t make it stop: What if I drop him? What if I drop him? What if…?

It’s relatively easy to separate myself from intrusive thoughts when they involve another person. I take comfort in the knowledge that finding these thoughts upsetting is a good sign. I never feel compelled to act on them. It doesn’t make them any less disturbing, but at least they’re not dangerous.

It wasn’t until Tuesday evening, having weathered the storm of I want to die, that I realized that the same could be said about my distressing “I want” ideas. I used to be plagued by thoughts of consuming massive quantities of food. In my mind, I’d hear, in my own voice, “I want to eat a whole cake.” At the time, it was deeply upsetting. A whole cake?! Who even thinks that? Something is terribly wrong with me!

When I absorbed that “I” into my identity, the “want” became real and valid. I felt there were no choices beyond acting on the thoughts, or white-knuckling through them.

But did I really want to eat a whole cake? No! Cake is delicious, and while the idea of having as much highly-palatable food as one desires is appealing, All The Cake is not better than some of the cake. In fact, as anyone who has binged or overeaten will tell you, All is emphatically much worse!

“I want to eat a whole cake” and “I want to die” thoughts are similar. They’re broadcast by the same brain-radio station. For me, the phrase “I want” pokes at a part that feels broken, deficient (the part that had to hide her true desires in order to be safe and secure), and I believe it. It’s self-emotional manipulation. Because wanting was dangerous, I believe that any “want” is real and valid and damaging. I lump all “wants” together, and point to them as a sign of my brokenness.

But I’m letting myself confuse “want” with true longing. It would serve me better to think of the destructive “wants” the same way I do an invasive, “what if?” thought. I can dismiss the “what if?” (“What if I hurt my baby?”) because I’m confident that the “I” is not who I am. “What if?” does not represent what I—the true, higher-human-self “I”—want.

What did I really want when my mind said “I want to eat a whole cake”? Several things. Often, I just needed energy, and quickly! I have a growing theory that certain urges to binge may have been my brain pleading for serotonin. Then there was a longing for the freedom to eat something delicious, that I didn’t believe I deserved—and the desire to make up for years of self-denial by cramming in as much as possible. “I want to eat a whole cake” was, in a twisted way, a quest for worthiness: Yes, my love, you are worthy of pleasure. A whole cake’s worth.

What longing is hiding behind “I want to die”? I don’t know yet. When the suicidal thoughts receded, so did the desires wrapped inside them. The next time death sounds appealing (I’m not going to fool myself into thinking there won’t be a next time), I’ll see if I can unwrap it.

My Body is a Metaphor

The correction I get most often in ballet class is “Bring your heart forward.”

This is supposed to help with balance.

Every time I step or hop up to relevé, I check in: chest open, sternum lifted, lats engaged, fingers soft…

“Bring your heart forward.”

…and heart forward.

Balance is my biggest struggle. I can make the right shape with my body, but I can’t stay up on relevé. Or I can get my body to spin, but I fall out of the turn.

“Bring your heart forward!”

That’s what I’m DOING damnit! But I keep falling!

There were just a handful of students in class the Thursday before summer break. This meant more attention, and more corrections.

I’m balancing in sous-sous, arms in an oval overhead, and I check in with each part as he names them: “Pelvis forward, tailbone down, tight glutes, everything’s lifted. You couldn’t even get a piece of paper between your legs!”

I’m squeezing, barely balancing, listening to the music. Oh god. There’s still a long phrase left. We’re supposed to stay up here forever. He calls it “living on half-toe.” I stop breathing, hold my breath to hold myself up. Balance! I feel something that’s supposed to be lifted start to sink.

“Bring your heart forward!”

Of course.

I open through my chest, feel suspended in space for a split-second…and then sway forward, falling off-balance catching myself on the barre. I spend the last of the music rolling through my feet, pretending I’ve just discovered something not-quite-right with that toe there. In my peripheral vision, I can see my fellow dancers, still and serene, balanced.

The music ends. The students descend. My teacher walks over to me.

“Go up again.”

I rise in the silence, squeezing every muscle into a knot.

“Bring your head back slightly.”

I do as I’m told, certain I now have a quintuple chin. It feels strange and ugly. I’m self-conscious, but my balance is better. I’m suddenly very aware of my chest.

He stands back and admires the picture. “There you go!”

I come down as gracefully as a person with five chins can. I’m warm from the effort, and the intense focus of my fellow students and teacher.

He explains that when I bring my sternum forward, my head comes forward, too. My head sticks out farther than my heart, in fact. I’m strong and flexible—that’s good—but I need to work on bringing my sternum up and forward, and tucking my chin ever so slightly. Then my heart will be the frontmost part of me.

When I get the hang of it, I should feel more balanced.

Joy-curious

One of the hardest things about waking up to my wants and needs in my 30s is that I have no idea what I actually enjoy! I butt up against this all the time. I think something might be fun because it’s fun for other people, but will I like it? If a thing is wildly popular and I don’t like it, does that mean I’m wrong? Am I’m too stupid to “get it”? Am I just a party-pooper?

(No; probably not; and maybe a little, on occasion.)

It’s equally strange to acknowledge that things I thought I liked are actually kind of unpleasant (baking, doing my hair, opening gifts). And it’s downright bizarre realizing I like something but don’t feel like I’m allowed.

I have several plastic bins in my attic full of dresses. At least two dozen dresses in different colors, fabrics, and styles, neatly folded, organized by season and occasion. In my attic. I love dresses, but I rarely wear them. Putting on a dress makes me feel like I’m in a costume, and I have this deep-seated fear that someone will figure out my “secret.” I’ll be exposed as the “fake girl” I’ve always believed myself to be.

I feel most like myself in a black t-shirt and jeans—and I like wearing those things!—but I keep questioning that “like.” Do I like wearing this androgynous, minimalist uniform because I actually like it, or do I “like” it because I think I’m not pretty enough to wear dresses—or that I don’t deserve to wear dresses?

How much of what I like is part of an old story from my past (probably tied to worthiness)? What really brings me joy? (What is joy, anyway?)

A frequent suggestion for sorting out what might make you happy now is to look at what made you happy then. As a child, I loved ballet, drawing, writing stories, reading, watching movies and music videos, singing low in my register (imagine an 8-year-old Cher impersonator), making up parodies, anything “behind the scenes,” and talking about my thoughts, very loudly and excitedly, for hours at a time.

In the fifth grade, I wrote and illustrated elaborate dramas about my small collection of pet mice and hamsters, complete with mysteries and love triangles. How do I get that little-kid creativity into my grown-up life? I can’t imagine making up wild adventure stories starring Fiona, the cantankerous and increasingly-incontinent cat who sleeps on my partner’s pillow.

Fortunately, I’m not the first adult to wrestle with cultivating happiness (Gretchen Rubin comes to mind). I’m pretty confident I can tap into my inner elementary-school kid and find at least a few things I like now.

It might even help me start to see what I’m like now.

Writing From the Bandage, Putting the “Cover” in Recovery

I started writing about eating disorder recovery—one type of eating disorder recovery, to be specific—because I wanted to start writing again. I thought that giving myself a topic would focus the desire to string words together, to just write and write and write and see what the story turned out to be. What I didn’t acknowledge (even to myself) was that that  “focus” was a way out. I was writing about binge eating so I wouldn’t have to write about everything else.

“Write from the scar, not the wound.” I heard this piece of advice for the first time on Chipperish Media’s “Big Strong Yes” podcast. The best case scenario is that my writing about binge eating disorder was coming from a newly-formed, still very visible scar. One that still hurt if I happened to bend or twist too far in a particular direction. But it’s more accurate to say that I was writing from the bandage. The wound was still there, fresh and open: I was just covering it up. What gaping, bloody hole? Everything’s fine!

Covering a wound so it can heal in peace is one thing. Covering a wound so you can pretend it doesn’t exist and go on about your life while hiding your pain is another. If I can run this metaphor into the ground, bandages need to be tended to. They get funky and you have to change them. Every time I adjusted the dressing or re-bandaged the wound (wrote a blog post or put some “OMG so recovered you guys!” sentiment up on Instagram) I had to touch it, and feel the pain zing through me.

I’m unwrapping the bandage.

My story so far remains true: I’m more neutral about food and my body than I’ve ever been. I definitely feel more “normal” than I’ve felt in a long time. (I think. What is “normal,” anyway? Maybe I’ll revisit that later.) But I’m not sure I’m recovered from anything.

And that wound? It’s so much deeper than I realized.

So…now what?

This reroutes my story, which is probably for the best. I can’t picture myself talking about body image and “how to eat a moderate portion of chips” forever.

“Write the thing you’d want to read.” Or something like that. Whatever that quote is, I’m pretty sure it comes from Anne Lamott.

What I love to read (and see, and hear, and experience ) is a woman’s voice, telling her own story. Especially the awful, ugly, shame-spiral parts.

So I’m going to try that, and see how it goes.