Happy birthday, Rachel

Illustration by Luzia Bione, via Pinterest

Hi, I’m still here. Sorry that I went dark for awhile.

The truth is, I started drafting this post 2 (almost 3) months ago, but I was never really satisfied with it, feeling it somehow did not convey what I wanted to say. So I edited and re-edited, and eventually got bored and left things dormant. And the thing about writing is, if you don’t carve out a specific time to do it—or if you do, but don’t honor the commitment—other stuff comes up, and life just gets in the way. That’s basically what happened.

This post was supposed to be a birthday letter to myself. But the more I wrote on, the more I hated it. Everything was coming off as self-indulgent and disingenuous, and I was beginning to bore myself. I’d love to clap myself on the back and feel happy about how ‘far’ I’ve come, but those were yesterday’s battles; today has its own unique ones, so does tomorrow, and so forth. What’s today’s hindsight gonna be worth five or ten years down the road? No, I wouldn’t repeat the Hallmark-card-worthy spiel about not sweating the small stuff, savoring every tiny moment, and how everything works out in the end. Who doesn’t know that? Nobody. Who’s tired of hearing it? Everybody. There would no cheesy letter to my past or future self.

But still, I was fascinated with the idea of writing a plain, old-fashioned letter. If I only knew who to address it to.

Around this time, I was reading and quite enjoying Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons. In it, the protagonist, Gil Coleman, has a houseful of books stuffed randomly with letters from his wife, Ingrid, who disappeared mysteriously years ago. He’s ailing and dying of cancer, and his two daughters come home to take care of him after a mishap. Throughout the novel, the author intersperses what’s happening in the present with Gil and his daughters, with Ingrid’s letters. Readers get to read first-hand the contents of these beautifully written and wonderfully detailed letters, stuck in the most random of books ranging from classics to cooking instruction manuals—but never is it mentioned whether the intended recipient—Gil—ever discovers them. In particular, one of these letters is about Gil and Ingrid’s relationship, written in reverse chronology, from the broken-down state of their marriage all the way back to their giddy courtship days. I thought that whole idea was just amazing, and though I will never hope to pull off such a feat as masterfully as Claire Fuller does, it inspired me and got me thinking.

And so I wrote a letter. To nobody.

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The universe of my swimming pool

Swimming girl [title unknown] by Eric Zener, via Pinterest.

Swimming girl [title unknown] by Eric Zener, via Pinterest.

It’s Monday and I’ve chosen to begin my week with a spot in the pool.

I’ve talked about how I swim every time the noise of my thoughts gets a little too deafening (here and here). The buzzing never completely quietens—there is never a minute of absolute silence—but what the water seems to do is numb me to it. Little by little, stroke by stroke, breath by breath, I recognize my longstanding battle with anxiety for what it is, and my prayers go from, “Lord, what the hell is happening? I want answers!” to “Just enough courage for today, Lord, and some leftover for tomorrow.”

What worries me? And are all my fears founded? My family and closest friends would probably say no, given my overwrought nature and hypochondriac tendencies, but we all know bad stuff happens to all, anxiety or no. The only difference is our coping mechanism; in my case, lack thereof.

Nothing feeds my overactive imagination like uncertainty—that murky space we all wade in before deciding if we want to find out if our worst case scenarios will play out, or if by pursuing a definitive answer, we’d buy some peace of mind—until the next maybe-crisis comes along.

Is there anything in life that’s certain, except that nothing is? And don’t we all struggle with that thought that lurks at the back of our minds—the one that goes, “It’s probably nothing, but what if it turns out to be something?” As we age, the many probably-nothing-but-maybe-somethings can only increase, but at no point will we ever know with any certainty when ignorance is bliss and when a little knowledge becomes a dangerous thing.

For me, the hardest part is managing my overarching need to know the status of and solution to everything happening to me, which proves to be an exercise in futility each and every time. Yet I can’t help myself. I desperately want to know what’s going on, but I am paralyzed with fear that it’s not the answer I hope for. I cannot begin to describe how much I dread the state of vulnerability, mostly due to its unique ability to stir up fear in my heart. To be governed by fear is a life sentence to an unfathomably miserable existence, and I wish that on nobody, least of all myself.

It’s a windy morning and the pool is unusually cold. As my head bobs above and underwater, I observe how different things look when separated by a mere surface. Coming up for air, I see swaying palm trees and empty lounge chairs; my neighbors are at work or inside their homes, domestic helpers are hanging the laundry or walking the dogs, and the maintenance staff are cutting grass or planting new hedges. But as I dip my head back in, there is only blue water and square tiles.

Pulling and gliding away in my solitary universe of water, I wonder if the seemingly disparate worlds above and beneath the surface are all that different. In or out of the pool, aren’t we all going through the motions and numbing ourselves with a daily routine to avoid having to think about how to answer the myriad probably-nothing-but-maybe-something questions that would flood our consciousness the second we stopped to be alone with our thoughts? Don’t we all do laps back and forth in our little lagoons of life, thinking we’re getting somewhere but really just bobbing between the respective realities above and underwater? Sometimes it’s bustling with life and activity, and other times, it’s just colder, blue-er and calmer.

It’s been 25 minutes and I decide that’s all the time I need for the day/week/however long until my next swim. I climb out and hurriedly pull on my bathrobe, shivering slightly from the drafty morning air. But as I remove my hair-tie to towel my hair dry, it slips from my grip and splashes back into the pool with a tiny ripple. I watch it sink to the bottom, wondering for a moment if I want to venture back in and retrieve it, but something catches my eye. The reflection of the sky and the feathery white clouds overhead.

In the end, I wade back in to grab my hair-tie, but this little ‘interruption’ has caused a thought to form at the back of my mind. There’s the world underwater, and the one immediately above, but there’s also the surface—and maybe that deserves more attention than we pay it.

Perhaps the water surface is holding up a mirror to life. Today’s gusty winds have allowed me to see in the pool’s reflection fragmented and faceted slivers of the sky. Its appearance is rippled and somewhat unclear, but by God, isn’t it beautiful?

Everything Takes Forever: A Story of Waiting (Part 14)

iceskating

[Continued from Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7,Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, and Part 13]

It’s bright and early in my condo gym and I feel good about carving out a quick 30 minutes for myself before the madness of the work day begins. Given my ED history, exercise is something to be approached with utmost caution. Notwithstanding some five years into my recovery, I remain easily triggered. The mere act of slipping my feet into running shoes or placing my hands on a treadmill’s handlebars often bring me back to a time when exercise was a means of purging what I ate, and the gym was my torture chamber of choice. Nonetheless, each time I manage not to awaken the sleeping dragon is an inch closer toward normalizing exercise, and an achievement unlocked.

This morning, I’m pedalling away on the stationary bike while meditating with a rosary app on my phone. However, the gym’s usual peace and quiet is interrupted by the cries of a baby—sounds I don’t expect to hear in a place like this. Craning my neck to trace the source of the discomfiting wails, I spot a pair of chubby legs sticking out of a stroller. They belong to a baby girl seeking her mother’s attention. Bored with her rattle and chewing toys, the infant is presently tossing them in the direction of a thin lady who’s pounding the treadmill with dogged determination. Twice, the toys bounce off the machine and land on the floor, making the baby more hysterical, but the mother—still plugged into her headphones—only casts a perfunctory glance over her shoulder. She’s scrawny and bears an uncanny resemblance to Jennifer, down to those hollow eyes and protruding cheekbones, and the sight of her instantly makes me uneasy.

When the baby’s mother finally gets off the treadmill, everyone around seems to heave a unanimous sigh of relief, but that’s until we realize she isn’t quite done with her workout. The stroller gets moved to another corner of the gym, where she proceeds with an intense routine of crunches and weights. Meanwhile, her baby is squealing in amusement at a man doing burpees, much to his irritation. I spot one or two fellow gym-goers stifling their giggles, but I’m not laughing. In that moment, memories flood my consciousness and I feel a deep sadness.

Because I used to be her.

Anyone who’s struggled to recover from addiction can tell you the aftermath is like skating on thin ice. A glass of wine may seem harmless to the average person, but the sight of it could spell the undoing of a recovering alcoholic. Similarly, what may come across to most as positive pursuits of healthy eating and exercise can be a slippery slope down a sinister path for ED sufferers wont to use health and fitness as smokescreens. Though an ED isn’t strictly an addiction, its addictive nature locks you in a vicious cycle you feel powerless to break free of. When your mind’s taken over by the workings of compulsion—a formidable force no amount of willpower can come up against—compulsive behaviors such as fastidious calorie-counting and excessive exercising manifest. Years go by and one day, tired from running but getting nowhere, you wake up and wonder when you became a hamster on a wheel, locked in a cage.

For most addictions, the straightforward approach is to identify a trigger and go cold turkey on it (i.e. abjuring the very substance you’ve been abusing, such as alcohol or drugs). But how do you ever cut out food, the very thing you’ll die without, but which is killing you? I learned quickly that in regard to ED recovery, the cure lies in the poison—not only do you not get to escape your demons, you have to learn to live with them. Like it or not, it was time for me to call a truce with eating and my body.

Very much like uninstalling programs on a computer, I had to empty my brain of all “knowledge” about food and exercise that I once held as sacrosanct. Like an infant who identifies a hunger signal and knows to cry for milk, then settles down when sated, the new rule was to only eat when hungry and stop when full. Suffice to say this was no walk in the park for someone so accustomed to denying her hunger pangs and gorging to the point of pain. In the process, I came to view food through a different lens. Whatever I used to believe were “good” and “bad” foods seemed irrelevant when I applied the principles of moderation, be it in terms of consumption or my attitude in general. When food wasn’t abused in abnormally large quantities to trigger a chemical reaction (binge eating), or withheld and constricted to keep my body weight unnaturally low, this betwixt-and-between state was where food and I learned to peacefully coexist.

The gym door closes with a thud, and I realize the mother and her baby have left. I hop off the stationary bike and decide that I too am done for the day. It hasn’t been a vigorous workout by any means, though all the baggage unlocked over the course of the morning has exhausted me.

As I exit the gym, I look back at the man on the floor, still doing his burpees, and I can see how that might look funny to a baby. Perhaps there is much wisdom to glean from infants: eat when hungry, stop when full, laugh when funny.

Sometimes I think we forget to do any of these things.

[to be continued]