10 Things No One Tells You About Divorce

 

1. Sometimes you eat like a scavenging member of the Donner Party, dragging a carrot through a tub of expired hummus, eating bran cereal (or the kids’ Lucky Charms) by the fistful straight from the box, spooning peanut butter, the main protein source, onto your tongue, and shaking chocolate chips from the bag for dessert. You do all of this standing by the sink in the dark because you don’t believe it’s worth the effort to cook sustaining, delicious food just for yourself. People begin tell you that since the divorce, you’ve gone feral.

2. You start walking around the house in shabby underwear (when you don’t have the kids), and notice your white panties are gray. So you shuck them off, and your tired bra, too, and look down at the body that you agonized over for all those married years. You doubted that you were enough and his affair seemed to confirm this. But standing naked now, with just yourself to please, you suddenly realize: “I am effing beautiful.”

3. If you change your married name back to your unmarried name, your younger name, your name before all of the collective joy and pain, you cry the first time that you sign a check or bill, having to invent a new signature on the spot. That signature might even resemble your childhood signature: a loopy, hesitant inscription of your name on the world. Resist dotting your “i” with a heart.

4. If you have children, they worry about you. They say, “You should try to find someone! Go online! We just want you to be happy like Dad is with X.” You might want to say something disparaging about their father and the girlfriend. Don’t. Your children love you and their father with their wide and forgiving hearts. Instead, pull them close, kiss each cheek, and say, “I have you. I don’t need a man to make me happy.” Which is true, but also a tiny lie.

5. If you venture into online dating, know that perfect strangers will ask you to describe your calves and teeth, as if you are up at the cattle auction; couples will ask you to couple with them; voyeurs will want to watch you with younger partners; and younger partners will woo you with their staying power, intuiting, too, your mid-life desperation (the ex is already engaged to the other woman). Delete these messages. Or not. Trudge around the house in your gray underwear or have an exhilarating fling.

6. You spend a lot of time inspecting the gray roots when you blow-dry your hair, wondering how you got to be this old and alone. When you towel off after showering, you’ll notice the gray hair below that simultaneously sprouted with the divorce decree. Dye the top? Dye the top and bottom? Surely someone else will come along so grooming is essential. Your secret fear? No one is coming along again. Except for the crazy stalker guy from Match.com.

7. Because your ex was usually in the driver’s seat, he generally set the radio station, the temperature, and the level of road rage. You are now Danica Patrick. Turn up Taylor Swift, blast the heat, and instead of shouting invectives at other drivers, encourage the kids to join you in a sing-a-long to “Bad Blood.” They won’t actually sing-a-long, and slump in their seats when you pump the brake, pretending to have bad-ass hydraulics. But they will see that you can be happy alone and with them.

8. You realize all the pee on the toilet was not, in fact, your ex’s, but is due to your son’s bad aim. You feel guilty over all the times you stepped on wet tiles and sat on the wet toilet seat, damning your ex to outhouse hell. You feel guilty for all the arguments, for going to bed angry, for holding your ground long after it mattered. However, guilt aside, in the next co-parenting email exchange, you need to tell your ex to work on your son’s toilet etiquette.

9. You are not be prepared for the vast ocean of your king-sized bed. At night, even though you have an extra ten feet of space, space you coveted when you were married (you were pushed to the edge of the bed by your husband, the dog, and often, your son), you still sleep on a narrow sliver. In fact, you don’t disturb his side but pile your dirty yoga pants in an approximation of his body, like filling in the empty space of a body’s outline at a crime scene. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you pat the lumpy, reassuring pile as if he is there.

10. Sometimes, it feels like the end of your life. Your therapist nods ambiguously. “I hear you,” he says. You’re not sure he does. Later, when you are at your friends’ house for dinner, the husband-friend tells you that he thinks you are amazing, and that you have come so far and with such grace, and that you are loved by so many. His eyes get wet as he says this. Divorce might feel like the wages of love’s failure, but love still waits to catch you off guard.

After Divorce Dear Valentine

Dear Valentine,

Yes, this is self-addressed, so no need for the stamp. Maybe you will allow for a momentary grace period so that your kinder, sweeter (though not Confectioner’s sugar sweet) voice can speak on this day given over to L-O-V-E. You are disdainful of anything trite: the hastily remembered, supermarket rose bouquet swathed in Baby’s Breath; the mass-manufactured diamond entwined heart necklace sold in the chain outlets (Because Nothing Says You Love Her Like…); the pressured expectations of performative sex in brand new, itchy, ill-fitting lingerie. You can go on and on about all that loving sweetness sold in Aisle 6.

Of course, you’re not expecting any of that crap since you have no Valentine. Divorce lowers expectations for the little velvet box on the pillow. Your parents might send chocolate (“We still love you!), and certainly you hint to your kids how much you love their homemade cards (hint, guilt, then leave the art supplies on their beds). But you hope to disappear on this sentimental, prove-your-love day and reappear on just-another-Monday.

But what about that lovely thoroughbred at the barn that you fed sugar cubes to after your riding lesson? He lapped up the sugar from your palm with his warm tongue, then crunched up the crystals. A small gift for his patience with your human mistakes during your lesson, and for his forbearance of your human weight on his back. Don’t you seduce your own children with double-layer chocolate cake? You could make them wheat grass smoothies with mushroom protein powder for dessert, but you want the oohs and aahs, the deep sighs of pleasure and the chocolate smeary kisses. There is love in all that.

No need for embarrassment or shame. Remember when you were a little girl and spent hours making Valentines for your friends and parents and secret crushes? Red construction paper, red foil, and white doilies. Intricate, layered designs. Each card had a specific intention and message. Not just a slapdash I Love You on the bottom of a factory made Hallmark card, but these sentiments: You Are Worth the Time, You are Worth the Effort, You Are One of a Kind, You Are Not Perfectly Aligned, But You Are Perfect To Me.

What are the words you need to hear today? You choose to listen to your more cynical self. Just today, you Googled the origins of Valentine’s Day because you remembered a thread of that story and wanted to prove the holiday was for sentimental suckers. You discovered the holiday originated in ancient Rome when women waited in line for men to beat them with goat skins in the belief that it would increase their fertility, and then willingly (or not?) prostrated themselves before these randy men for two days. Does Walgreen’s sell heart-shaped boxes of chocolates depicting this forced orgy?

If you search for negative interference, that’s what you find. Let your defenses down: no Roman centurion will whack you around with a goat skin. Remember the secret messages you wrote to your future self when you were that little girl with a box of Crayola crayons, a stack of construction paper, and Elmer’s Glue: I Love You. You Make My Heart Beat Like Crazy. I Will Never Love Anyone Like I Love You. You Are So Beautiful To Me. Will You Be Mine?

That doily heart. Paper thin, so fragile like a real heart, like that little girl’s heart, like your own But the heart is a muscle, not paper at all, and beats 100,000 times a day, breaking over and over, and reassembling itself again and again, in love, out of love, for love.

Love,
Me

Crazy Like Me

“Everybody needs his memories.  They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”

–Saul Bellow

About three weeks ago, I was a minor celebrity about town.  I was the “feature” in the Sunday profile column of The Meadville Tribune that typically celebrates our small city’s successful entrepreneurs, cupcake mavens, beekeepers, quilters, and kindergarten teachers.  Initially, the reporter contacted me and said he’d heard some amazing things about me in the vein of successful-woman-about-town: 1. That I was (still) a Professor at Allegheny College while raising two children and writing my books; and, more compelling, 2. Did I really climb Mt. Olympus while nine months pregnant?

“I’m sorry to have to say,” I wrote back in my email, “but I think someone has overestimated my accomplishments.  I was a Professor at Allegheny, but I’ve left the College due to medical difficulties. And while I have climbed Mt. Olympus and did travel to Greece when I was nine months pregnant, I didn’t do both simultaneously.  I think my Ob/Gyn would have had me committed, much less my psychiatrist.  However, I would be willing to share my other story, which your readers might find interesting.  Maybe more so, though it is a different kind of adventure.  The reason I left teaching is because I was unable to find a way to recover from anorexia and find stability with my struggles from Bipolar Disorder.  So I did what was necessary for my health and well-being—not easy given that teaching was what I always wanted to do with my life, given that was basically my dream job—but rather than die while working, I needed to prioritize living.  I’ve found as I’ve been in recovery that part of what keeps me moving forward is to be a resource for others who are also struggling with mental illness and trying to get well and find balance so I am working against the shame of suffering from mental illness. Part of my mission is the blog that I write.  Let me know if you are interested.”

Well, he was interested, and I went public in my city in a BIG way, in a way I’ve never done before.  Not only was a detailed summary of my “story” published, but so was my picture—the prettiest mug shot I could come up with.  More than vanity, though.  There is a belief that someone who is seriously mentally ill can only “look” one way—unkempt, frazzled, tangled hair, stinking of piss and shit, shuffling down the street, muttering to herself.  That she, or he, is “other,” so far removed from anyone you could really know.  That she, or he, is either the person hanging around a dumpster, rocking back and forth in a corner, or institutionalized.  Surely, that’s what serious mental illness looks like.  And you wouldn’t have anything to do with someone like that, would you?  You wouldn’t let someone like that around your kids, would you?  You would never fall in love with someone like that, who had a label, a diagnosis like that, would you?

Here’s the truth.  Two months ago, I had to find a new psychiatrist because my current one was moving on to a new position.  He referred me to another psychiatrist in the area, someone with the right credentials, with the right depth and breadth of experience.  We spoke and he wanted to review my records before seeing me for my evaluative appointment.  So I had them sent.  And waited and waited and waited.  Finally, he called.

“Ms. Bakken,” he said.

“Yes?”

“I’ve had a chance to look through your records.  They’re quite extensive.”

I laughed nervously.  I’ve never looked through my records, could only imagine what the 20 or so hospitalizations, the 30+ Electroconvulsive Treatments, and the potential 3 different psychiatrists’ diagnoses might all add up to in the end.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Bakken, but I won’t be able to take you on as a patient.  Your mental illness is too severe for me to treat.  The range of severity is too extensive.  I hope you can understand.”

If one can nod dumbly into the phone, than that’s what I did.  In fact, idiotically, I reassured him.  “Of course.  I know how difficult I must be.  Don’t worry.  I’ll find someone else.”

It took ages to find someone else, but now I have and my “severe mental illness” doesn’t scare him off. Which is also to say, if, before now, I haven’t scared you off, don’t let this admission scare you away. Don’t let these words, uttered by someone in your life, or someone who could be in your life, scare you off.

Of course, there are moments—ten minutes, a few hours, a few days—when I do scare my husband and family and friends.  Usually, that’s when I’m not following my agreed upon plan that helps me stay stable and keeps anorexia, mania and the suicidal fangs of depression at bay.

Here’s the gift, and it’s not just my gift to you who might be struggling to get well and come across this blog and see that it’s possible not just to hang in there but to climb out—and to climb out each and every time, as pointless and exhausting as it might seem.  To climb out and breathe each time a bigger breath and say to everyone who loves you and who also fights for you, but especially to the doctor who believes you are too ill to help, “Fuck ill.  I am well.”

But the gift given back to me?  The more I am free with my story, the more I am helped in my adventure into love and wellness.  Two days after the article was published, I received a letter from a man who told me about his wife who had died six months earlier after a long bout with melanoma.  But his wife always talked about the time I came to visit her book club—how much that meant to her, how my book inspired her, how my talking to her and her friends was so generous and warm.  That even in the months preceding her death, she talked about me—that I made that much of an impact.  I would not have remembered this but for the article and the follow-up letter.

To be honest, because of the massive memory loss, the complete almost 10-year retrograde memory wipe-out from the Electroconvulsive treatments, I don’t remember that visit, and part of me feels desperately guilty about this.  But his letter is the gift of memory.  Because I parted with shame and fear, because I allowed myself to be seen in a small Sunday article as severely mentally ill, with the pretty, charming photograph of me juxtaposed beside it, I was given back a piece of my past that reminded me that I mattered, that in the years I normally consign to the dumpster because I was on my crazy rampage, years I just assume should truly be forgotten, there are these miraculous, salvageable moments.  A woman held on to my memories for me in her dying days.

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Ready To Run

On Saturday, Derby Day, I won first place in my age group (40-44) for a 5k running race.  And while nobody covered me in a glorious blanket of 564 roses, I was given a medal, an actual hang-around-your-neck medal, my first—my first for running, anyway–but perhaps my most meaningful as it was the first time back competing in a race since I had to bow out, most unceremoniously, five years ago because I was emaciated, suffered from irregular heart rhythms, and hypotension, all by products of anorexia.  But on Saturday, under clear blue skies, in crisp morning air, my legs prickled with goose bumps, breathing in and out, in and out, glad to be alive and there, I stood at the starting line with all the other runners ready to run.

Let me say that again.  Ready to run.  Not ready to win.  This is important and something that I am still learning in my recovering from all of IT’s manifestations—Anorexia, Bipolar Disorder, Alcoholism, Self-Injury.  Ignore the voice that says: Be Perfect.  Be the best.  Anything else is shit, is failure, is grounds for starvation/ruminative self-loathing/drinking to excess/cutting.  That’s how Anorexia works best.  Lose 10 pounds.  Now another 10.  Now another 10.  You are still too fat.  Still not good enough.  Still not the thinnest in the room, in the hospital.  Worthless if you are just mediocre, finishing fourth, or worse, always second.

I can turn anything into a competition—usually against myself since I no longer play team sports.  I time myself at little tasks—I have to unload the dishwasher before a round of commercials is over on TV. Ridiculous, I know, but when I hear the third commercial begin, my chest tightens, and I pick up my already frenetic pace.  I justify this by telling myself I’m making mundane chores interesting, but really, it’s compulsive.  Like shaving my legs in the shower—again, part of a time game—so, no shaving cream = precious seconds saved to come in under my five minute goal.  There’s the grocery store game where I’ll given myself x number of minutes to get in and out depending on how many items are on the list and whether the kids are hanging from the cart.  All of this is to say it is very hard for me to turn off the voice in my head that is always competing for The Woman Who Could Chug the Most Beers (Won that one in Jamaica on Spring Break one year), The Woman Who Had Fast-Track Admission to the Psych Ward (Well, almost, but everybody did know my name…), The Woman with The Most Scars on Her Arms (100+ but fading now so what does that mean when they’re gone?).

But I wasn’t thinking about winning at that starting line.  Instead, I was filled with gratitude.  How lucky I was, and am, to be connected again to my body which is healthy.  Unbelievably healthy because truly, I should be dead many, many times over.  I have tried to kill this body with deliberate means.  I have woken up in emergency rooms and in an intensive care unit rescued by strangers from my suicide attempts.  All of the alcohol my body has processed and recovered from (not to mention my brain).  All of the wounds my body has healed because that’s what it does when it is trying to recover from my best, competitive attempts to die.  All of the pounds lost and regained and lost and regained and lost and regained and lost and finally, hopefully for good, regained.  This body standing in shorts and a tank top and sneakers, ready to run because it was healthy.  A healthy body in the middle of a pack of what looked like other healthy bodies, other people ready to bolt into the wind and sunshine, ready to run the course.

I’ve won medals before, and trophies.  I’ve played sports my whole life, but with the attitude of DO OR DIE.  Competitive tennis from the age of five to eighteen, bruises purpled my shins because every time I flubbed a shot, really screwed one up, I’d whack myself in the shin with the tennis racquet.  No joy in the playing, because there was no playing—there was just me executing a perfect performance and when I failed, as I always did, I enacted penalties.

Ready to run.  I ran.  Without expectations.  Just do what you can do, I told myself over and over.  Of course, it was a race, so I wasn’t going to lollygag and keep vigil at the dead possum or chit chat with other runners.  I was there to run my best, which meant with all I could give, but which also meant without IT’s voice.  So when I crossed the finish line and saw that my time was faster that I imagined, because I’d been feeling a bit fatigued by the long hill, I was already elated.  And then when they posted the results and I saw my finish, and later still, when I received the medal, I knew what the medal was about: ready to run into my life and into hope.

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Bipolar Code Word

The other night, the kids and I were cuddled up on the couch watching “60 Minutes” and a segment came on about untreated schizophrenia and its links to most of the mass shootings in the past fifteen years.  In hindsight, I probably should have switched over to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” so we could watch babies get launched across the room from sling shots or poodles ride skateboards, but all three of us seemed transfixed by the expert psychiatrists’ testimonies on symptoms of schizophrenia and the history of the treatment of schizophrenia and how schizophrenia could be better treated.

To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about why my kids were so compelled by this segment until Sophia turned to me and asked, worriedly, “This isn’t the kind of mental illness that you have, is it, Mom?”

“Yeah,” Alexander said, “do you have this kind?” he kept glancing back and forth at the screen which shuffled pictures of the faces of recent shooters suspected of being mentally ill—D.C., Colorado, Arizona, Virginia.  Was he waiting to see if my face would pre-emptively appear?  His hand crept across my lap and found my hand.

“No, no, no,” I said.  “I have Bipolar Disorder, not Schizophrenia.  They’re very different from each other.”  Though not so different chromosomally.  Close cousins, really.  In fact, I’ve taken the same medications that Schizophrenics take.  But I don’t tell the kids this because I can see that they’re weighing the mental illness that they know their Mom!  Their Mom!!! has against the mental illness these mass shooters have and they want me to be as far and away different from them as possible.

“That’s right,” Sophia said.  “You have that one.  You have the mood swings one.”  She inched closer to me on the couch as if that would close the gap between what might be threatening about what was still unknown in my mental illness and what was known in her mom.  “Because,” she continued, “your mood swings can be really bad.  Sometimes you just get really angry at us for no reason.”

Alexander threw both his hands in the air.  “Yeah!  You do!  Like sometimes we’ll be sitting on the bed and you’ll just start yelling at us for sitting on the bed and we won’t be doing anything but sitting on the bed!”

I closed my eyes.  I might not have the voices of Schizophrenia, but I have the voices of punishment, of self-loathing, the voices that say: See?  This disease will ruin your relationship with your children.  It’s the wrecking ball, swinging through love, punching holes in walls, knocking out cross beams and support beams.

I opened my eyes and the kids were looking at me like I was crazy.

“I know!” Alexander said.  “Maybe when you start yelling, or before you start, you should just go to your room.”

“Yeah,” Sophia said.  “When you feel a mood coming on, so you don’t take it out on us, you can just go to your room.  And then it’ll be okay.”

I smiled at them.  They weren’t really afraid of me winding up on that television screen.  They weren’t even afraid of my having a mental illness, of my being Bipolar.  All they wanted was a tool to help me contain it.  So they could help me help myself.  So they could feel powerful instead of powerless.

“I have an idea,” I said.  “Sometimes it’s hard for me to always know when a mood is happening.  I’m not always able to spot it right away.  But you guys are experts.  So how about we have a code word for when you think I need to go to another room for a time out and I’ll go?”

Alexander smiled.  “But we won’t use it if you’re angry at us for being crazy and we need to stop being crazy and calm down.”

Sophia said, “Or like we need to stop fighting with each other and we’re not stopping.”

“Right,” I said.  “It’s for when I’m getting angry or a mood swing is happening that has no good reason and maybe it’s scaring you so you think I need a time out.  So all you have to say is ‘Go to Your Room.’ Okay?”

They both nodded and we shook on it.  Then Alexander gave a great sigh of relief and threw himself on me in a hug.  I hadn’t realized my mood swings had seemed so scary? overwhelming? engulfing?  My own mother has a big personality, and I was able, as a child, to build a pretty good moat.  I forget, sometimes, that my son, while not fragile, is more delicate—he’s like a butterfly or moth and his wings beating on the outside of his body for all to see and to be damaged.

And I forget that for my children, the wings they see beating outside my body are not the ragged wings of some storm battered butterfly, but the colossal wings of a Bipolar dragon, furiously flying into the heavens, then folding back for the dive down into the black well.  And just the day-to-day effort of keeping aloft?  Enough to make a mom tired and stupidly, unthinkingly angry.  Enough to know when it’s time to go to “Go to my room.”

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Strong, Sober, and Sane

Strong, Sober, and Sane.  These are the three words that I want to define my path in 2014.  Words I’ve been working my way towards—separately—for the past few years, but have been too small of vision, too timid to put them all together into one big AND for myself.  I can be all three, all at once.  I don’t have to do strong or sober or sane one at a time, piecemeal.  That’s for wobbly-kneed wimps.

Take today.  I signed up for my first Half-Marathon ever.  13.1 miles.  Sure, I’ve run 10 miles before, so another 3 miles more doesn’t seem like it should kill me.  But I’ve always been pretty tired at the end of 10 miles—on the point of giving up—and the self-talk has been desperate (“Please, please just another fifteen, ten, five feet and I won’t ever make you do this again?  Well, maybe in another week, but it’ll be easier next time.  I promise!”)  But here’s the thing: the fact that I can ever sign up for this race means I’m a radically different person than I was two years ago.  I’m strong—and by this I mean my body is come-back-from-the-dead-strong.  Once upon a time, I was only living to become weak and weaker still, starving and purging in an attempt to disappear.  I wouldn’t feed my body, so my body ate itself.  People looked at me and were afraid that I was going to collapse.  I was strong then, but strong-willed, stubborn, and irrational.  Now, when people look at me, they’re no longer afraid that I’m going to blow over or pass out at the track—except maybe when my face turns bright red from exertion, which I can’t help.  I love the feeling when I’m working out with free weights and lifting them over my head, doing barbell curls, and crazy kettlebell, twisty sit-ups, how something hard and tough and unbreakable is growing inside of me.  And every now and then that Eating Disordered Self pipes in and says, “You know that weightlifting will increase body weight, don’t you?”  And to that I say, “Fuck you!”  Because I’d rather be strong than weak, here than dead.

Sober.  I’m trying to extend this one beyond just alcohol to a more expansive understanding of the word sobriety.  To be sober means to be thoughtful.  And this is what I would like to be: a more forward-thinking, more reflective, more thoughtful person.  I don’t know if it’s the nature of being Bipolar, but my anger can be volcanic, my emotions run riot—at least when I’m alone or at home.  Out in public, I try to keep myself together.  I want to be like the women in those commercials that you always see standing in some doorway wearing a long white, flowy gown, hair blowing off their backs, holding onto a mug of tea.  They always look calm and content–one foot in the house, the other out on the beach.  And it’s early morning, too!  That’s what I’d like to aim for—an unruffled demeanor, a quietude, an ability to be present in myself without the need to rush around yapping at everyone else.

Sane.  What’s the expression?  The proof is in the pudding?  For the first time, well, in ever, I’m going on a solo vacation!  I am finally stable enough in my Bipolar Disorder to be able to venture out on my own for a solo adventure.  No overseers.  Ahem.  Caretakers.  Ahem.  Companions.  Just me on a mini-immersion in February for few days at a Yoga Ashram in the Caribbean.  Granted, nobody in the family would have been willing for mandatory 5:30am chanting and yoga classes and vegetarian food (not to mention ixnay on the caffeine and tent sleeping), but to me, this will be heaven!  And the only reason I get to do this is because I’ve maintained stability, kept my bearings together, fought IT off, been proactive in seeking out help when I’ve needed it, and kept my recovery front and center.  There are weeks when I forget that I was once the women located in an isolation room in the psych unit sleeping on a mattress on the floor, where I once wandered the psych unit so overmedicated I could barely tell you my name, where I was told by a psychiatrist that I was a hopeless case.  That was just three years ago.  You can read about that woman if you go back to the beginning of this blog—she’s there, and desperate and angry and scared.  But I’m not there anymore.

Strong and Sober and Sane.  That’s how far I’ve come and it keeps getting better.

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Commit Love

 

The other night, I was over my friends’ house for dinner.  A last minute invite: they had been out to the farm to pick tomatoes, boxes and bags of tomatoes, and needed to eat them, or some, that night.  The farm.  My insides tumbled.  Not their farm (they don’t have one), but the Yoder farm, the Amish family who grows all the vegetables for the CSA started up, in part, by my ex-husband (with my intermittent help).  In married life, I used to drive out to farm with C. and the kids, pick a trunkful of tomatoes, and spend days processing sauce, salsa, and bags of whole peeled Romas.  And chat with David, the farmer, and his wife, and their giggly half-dozen kids.  We even had them over for an Amish-English dinner party in our formal dining room.  One daughter, six or seven at the time, thought it was so fancy because I’d lit candles and put them in gleaming crystal holders shaped like stars.  Wedding gifts.  But in divorce, some friends get divvied up, just like the wedding gifts, which meant for two, go to one or the other.

This is not about the loss of wedding gifts, but the loss of friends.  The real loss.  Last week, one of my friends committed suicide.  Impossible to imagine (and I try not to) because she was always suffused with joy, at least when I saw her.  She owned the yoga studio where I practice.  Her smile was a stabilizing force and she inhabited her body with a grace I can only hope to achieve.  And yet, she is gone now.  A strange, legalistic phrase: “committed suicide.”  One commits crimes or commits to a relationship.  But suicide?  Perhaps initially as a cause of intended action.  But wholeheartedly?  That seems impossible, and I know since I once committed myself to such a course.  But gratefully I woke up in the hospital bed, my life, while not intact, given more time for repair.  Even in the pain and inside the intention and in the bottle of pills I swallowed, even in my irrational thinking, unable to see any other possibility, I don’t think I believed for an instant that I wouldn’t wake up at some point, even if that meant years on out, and see my daughter and son and husband again.  A faulty, fleeting solution to the pain of now, a decision, in its execution, that seemed temporary.  Except so often, it isn’t.

Sorrow for my friend in her pain and the consequent devastation.  It is not easy to resist shutting down for good.  Sometimes, I wander into thinking that might be the only way—not as often as I used to—but still, what I imagine as a blank, dark quiet can seem preferable over the angry, hopeless noise in my head. And then, my daughter emails me a sketch of the two of us, disguised as her invented cartoon characters. The mother has her arm wrapped around the daughter’s shoulders, and they gaze at the other as if besotted.

Roo and Mom

Love keeps me here.  Friends, too, and their tomato bounty.  So I commit love, then.  R. sliced up platters of enormous tomatoes marbled through like steak, and decorated them with mozzarella, feta, basil, salt and pepper.  We joked they were as big as the brains of small children or swollen hearts or alcoholic livers.  A way to counter sad mortality.  The three of us sat at the table, spearing tomatoes with our forks, juice and olive oil dripping from our chins.  We mopped up our plates with warm pita, spoke of our friend who was gone, and moved into the restoration and warmth of laughter.  That was our meal: the joy of summer’s bounty and the pain of its end, and friendship that could make a feast from what seemed like so little.

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Joy After Anorexia: The Marie Kondo Method

I came across an old pair of my really skinny jeans during my annual New Year’s closet cleanse, inspired by Marie Kondo’s advice that I only hold on to things that bring me joy.  I fondled my shirts, sweaters, skirts, dresses, and pants and waited for the fuzzy spark.  Brown, wide-legged corduroys circa 2002?  Black dress pants always covered in white fuzz?  Cheap Fair Isle sweater, my labor of love, requiring me to pluck hundreds of pills before wearing it anywhere other than bed?  I dropped them all in the “toss” pile. 

Then I found the jeans, bought in a sleek boutique in Bucharest, Romania in 2008 where my family and I lived for several months.  I didn’t speak Romanian or know my size so the salesclerk riffled through the impeccably folded stacks until she found the right pair, the smallest, most impossible size I’d ever been and only because I was anorexic, running miles and miles every day and measuring out my allowed calories.  But I felt smug, deluded joy holding the jeans at the cash register.  My hands burned with joy.  I no longer worried if clothes were too tight, no longer felt anxiety as I buttoned pants at my concave waist, no longer felt like a lumbering giant as my BMI indicated I could pass for a European runway model.  My body, which always felt unwieldy, was under my control: I was the unenlightened despot demanding to the death.

Recovery from my eating disorder has been long, agonizing, and often shameful.  Five inpatient treatment programs over three years.  While adult women over thirty comprise one-third of all eating disorder treatment admissions, there is still a bias in understanding this illness—it is assumed that it is a “young” woman’s illness, that older woman (i.e., women who no longer shop at Abercrombie) and men don’t equally stand in front of the mirror pinching what is “excess,” don’t equally starve themselves or purge their necessary meals, don’t equally die.

This is not a post about dying, but about joy because when I stood in the closet holding those really skinny jeans, I didn’t feel joy anymore or even longing’s shadow (i.e., please, God, let me wake up and be that weightless again).  Only relief: I could toss them because my joy was no longer about being weak (anorexia is exhausting, devours muscle, shrinks the brain, and damages the heart and all other organs), my joy comes from being strong.  Once upon a time, my daughter used to flinch when I hugged her because my bones hurt, and both of my kids sent drawings to hang on my hospital room walls as reminders to come home, and I was terrified of being bigger in body and heart.

What changed?  I started eating when I was hungry (the stomach churns and growls for a reason) and when I felt like it (yes, I’ll have that piece of chocolate).  I stopped counting calories, clothing sizes, laps, miles, and pounds.  I used to weigh myself ten times a day; now, I don’t own a scale.  I started CrossFit and stopped running to the ruminative mantra, “Less is more, less is more, less is more.”  CrossFit teaches me to love my tired, broken, but capable body, to see myself as a woman getting stronger, to eat more than I thought possible because that fuel allows my body to do what was once impossible.  At the weight that almost killed me, I could barely lift myself out of bed; now, I lift hundreds of pounds each week (though not all in one rep).  Working out with a group and running with friends keeps me honest and visible.  No more solitary Bataan Death Runs.  

 If only all of my insecurities and secret moments of self-loathing could be tossed with the same sangfroid with which I finally disposed of the jeans.  But that is not exactly the whole truth.  I’ve been hiding those jeans at the bottom of my bigger-sized stack in the closet out of a dangerous nostalgia.  They were like an old movie reel spinning out a long-ago childhood scene: Look at how cute I was.  Look at how small I was.  Look at how happy I was.  I’ve been holding on to a similar reel: standing in that boutique with jeans that promised joy as long as I stayed at that size forever.  Consigning the jeans to the “toss” pile was a long-needed act of rebellion.  Never again.  Last night, I saw a picture of myself at CrossFit on a friend’s Facebook page: I am mid-deadlift and my growing muscles strain at the weight.  My expression is one of intensity and fear.  Will I die?  Not anymore.  I’m certain that after I set the bar on the ground, as always, my muscles trembled with the righteous fatigue of joy.  

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