Wabi Sabi: Tale of a Recovering Perfectionist

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen

There's a period in my life that I don't talk about much.  Only those that have known me most of my life or that know me very, very well are privy to it.  I bury it in the trash with the journals that helped me through it.  Not because I'm ashamed, but because I don't want it to define me.  Anorexic.  I hate nouns that end in -ic (ick!).  Bulimic, alcoholic, anorexic.  The -ic is defining- replacing the noun that I prefer, which is person.  The struggle shaped my present day person (faster, better, harder, stronger), but it's not who I am today.  I won't let it be.  I repeat, I am not ashamed. 

I recently read this article in the New York Times which resonated with and inspired me to start writing this blog post on July 19th, 2017.  Clearly it's taken me awhile to get around to posting it.  Initially lit by overachievement and perfectionism, the desire for control of something (anything) was the oxygen that fueled the fire.  The subordinate victim was my body.  It would be years before the idea of failure and it's imparting knowledge would become trendy, yet despite the growing number of Pinterest and Instagram quotes about the importance of failure, eating disorders are on the rise in women AND men ALL over the world (FU, media!).    

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Now as I write, I don't know if it's for me or for others, but every so often I realize the -ic isn't dead.  Though I can't tell you the last time I stepped on a scale, I would guess I've gained 10-15 lbs over the last 9 months of travel.  Things rub and hang that have never rubbed or hung.  My clothes are a whole lot snugger.  Last month I took a nude bath in a Bulgarian mineral spring with 7 of my fellow Remote Year female travelers. At first fully aware of the extra pounds I'm not used to carrying I felt supremely uncomfortable.  During times of major transition or confusion about future life direction (like quitting a stable job to travel for a year and realizing 9 months in you have no idea where you want to end up) or following painful life events, the -ic menacingly whispers to me- inviting me back, promising me a distorted agenda of control. Recognizing the danger, I quiet the whispers. I settle in, finally willing to embrace and then overcome the discomfort. I flashback 15 years.  

Emaciated, wan, hollow eyed, dispirited- a fading shadow of my former self.  Hangry for nourishment, for self-acceptance.  Celebrating the 'success' of deprivation. Judging those that indulge.  I'm better, I'm stronger because I resist the indulgences.   Ironically fueled by calorie restriction. But irritable, oh so irritable. The fuel turned to fumes.  Fumes are fleeting.  My thoughts, my reaction time became as slow as my heartbeat.  My heartbeat was lethally slow.  I quite literally became the walking dead.   That summer my closest high school friends, mature and courageous beyond their years, orchestrated an intervention that ultimately led to a hospital admission that saved my life. 

The day I was emergently admitted to the hospital in August 2002 (two weeks before I was to start my freshman year at Providence College) with a heart rate dipping into the 20's, 5'7' and a sickly 88 pounds, my healthcare team told me there must be angels around me because in light of my lab and EKG results, I should have been dead.  I went on to spend two months on the pediatric unit at Mass General Hospital in Boston.  Too weak to walk and in imminent danger of cardiac arrest, six of those weeks were spent strapped to monitors and an IV pole on strict, physician ordered bedrest, meaning I had to pee, poop, eat and bathe in that bed.  Vivianne, my all time favorite nursing assistant, Harry Potter supplier and inspiration for becoming a healthcare practitioner, washed my hair every other day as I held my head over the side of the bed and rolled me around the bed as she changed my sheets every few days.  My endlessly devoted and loving parents drove into the city to visit every. single. day. and an ever increasing number of gifts and cards from my godmother, other family members and friends perched on my windowsill.  

I got little sleep the first few weeks- constantly wakened by the alarm system that went off whenever I drifted off to sleep because my heart rate would drop so low, by the IV pump that went off when my electrolyte infusion was complete, by the nurses who were instructed to check my blood pressure and draw my labs every few hours, or by that one roommate (of a revolving door of many) that often broke out screaming under delusions that the person in the bed next to her (moi) was a man in a trench coat that wanted to kill her.   

Finally after 4 weeks I was granted 'commode privileges', meaning a portable toilet was wheeled bedside.  This new privilege didn't come without consequences though.  Despite the fact that there was no bulimia component to my anorexia, someone from the hospital staff had to stand in the room and watch me while I used the commode.  Then, when I was finally able to use the real bathroom I had to call someone to check the contents of the toilet before I flushed away my urine along with my dignity and modesty.  

After 6 weeks I was finally allowed to move beyond the confines of my bed.   Whatever lean muscle mass remained at the time of admission was wasted.  Strapped to a heart monitor and with a physician by my side, I took to the hospital corridor for the briefest walk of my life.  Legs wobbly, wobbly- like Bambi when Thumper teaches her to walk.  Within seconds I was short of breath and my heart was racing.  Back to bed for the rest of the day.  Once I was able to walk more than a few feet without huffing and puffing, I was transferred to an eating disorder program at McLean Hospital where I remained inpatient (but mobile!) for another two weeks.  

Following many more months of recovery at home, I finally went off to college in January 2003, carrying the copy of the DVD 'Real Women Have Curves' that my well intentioned mother gifted me. Late to the game and with a limited choice of classes, I haphazardly selected an Intro to Women's Studies course.  The professor (who became one of the most influential people in my life) and her reading assignments became rays of light, helping to warm my relationship with my body.  

A few months into college, influenced by readings from aforementioned Women's Studies class, I decided (among understandable protests from friends and family) to go vegetarian.  It started for the animals, it persisted because it helped to bridge the narrowing gap between my mind and my body.  My weight hit it's natural set point and I felt healthier than ever.  Six years later (2008) during my graduate studies to become a nurse practitioner, I questioned the utility of the drugs I was learning to prescribe and recognized the impact of poor food and other lifestyle decisions as the cause of most chronic disease, the debilitators of quality of life and the drivers of exorbitant healthcare spending.  I would make the health, animal rights, and environmentally driven decision to transition to a completely plant-based lifestyle. I read profusely to ensure I was satisfying my body's needs. I was consuming REAL food (not that fat-free, artificial, chemical, diet bullshit of my teenage years) and I grew to LOVE it.  Nutrition labels became a means of delivering welcome messages about abundance of nutrients rather than warning signals of forbidden calories.

Two years later (2010) I took up distance running.  Again voices of concern echoed around me, but to the relief of friends and family, this decision further strengthened my self-acceptance and added more muscle to my frame.  Rooted in healthy decisions, my energy level, physical and mental strength and overall sense of well-being flourished.  

I set rules and boundaries for myself as preventative measures- avoid scales, eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full, count nutrients, not calories, never follow a particular exercise schedule or strict training regimen and above all listen to your body.  I don't run to lose weight.  I don't eat to lose weight.  I run because it brings me pure joy, sanity and mental clarity.  I eat to energize, strengthen and nourish.  

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Self-worth is no longer defined as the number on the scale or the number of calories (or lack thereof consumed).  The shape and softness of my body doesn't matter as much as the finish lines it helps me cross, the mountains it helps me climb, the dance parties it grooves and shimmies me through, the nude mineral baths it allows me to soak in and the countries it helps me traverse.  The small roll over my jeans doesn't matter as much as the strength of my heart, the pliability of my arteries and the balance of my electrolytes.  Bright eyes, a smile and laughter.  Fueled by nutrients, hungry only for adventure.  Curiosity reignited.  I quiet the whispers. 

Now as I write, I recognize that my need to dissociate from the -ic was a defense mechanism and another way to relinquish control.  I repeat: I am not ashamed (because if I repeat it enough, maybe I'll start to believe it). A few years ago a massage therapist told me she could tell by the knots in my neck that I care too much about what other people think.  I brushed her off, albeit cognizant there was indeed truth to her statement. Though I developed healthy relationships with my body and food, I was acutely aware of how others perceived my disordered eating past (although intellectually I now know that this was really a projection of my own feelings).  I cringed at the idea of emotional vulnerability assuming it was reflective of weakness and worried my intelligence and sanity would be called into question because a seemingly intelligent and sane person would NEVER get herself in that situation.  And so the deeper I bury it, the stronger, smarter and saner I'm perceived, right?  Of course not. And the less I acknowledge it the less likely I am to hear criticism or concern about my plant-based food and distance running choices, right?  Well maybe, but what does that really matter as long as I'm truly healthy?

And now I know that I write this for myself AND others in hopes that these words can motivate anyone with disordered eating or a debilitating body image to embark on their own journey of self-acceptance and if appropriate, seek medical help. Though I still shun the -ic and the stereotypes that come along with labels, I accept that anorexia, although not THE definition, is PART of my definition.  I can say that now and truly not be ashamed. It's the next step in self-acceptance that was a long-time coming. Wellness is a multi-dimensional concept encompassing the way you treat your body and your mind. A large component of wellness is finding beauty in your imperfection, accepting your past (nothing is permanent) and rewriting your future (nothing is complete).  

I decided to add some more ink to my tattoo collection last month (sorry Mom!) to honor my body and the places it has taken me. These days I am embracing the concept of Wabi-Sabi wholeheartedly and that release, that acceptance is the most liberating sense of control.  

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If you or someone you know are struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the NEDA hotline available Monday-Thursday 9 am-9pm ET and Fridays 9am-5pm ET to answer any questions, to help you or a loved one find treatment or for additional support.

(Disclaimer: Though disordered thoughts occasionally creep into my head out of habit, I see them for what they are (a feeling that I want control over an emotion or a situation) and in reality I feel as fit, healthy and strong as ever.  Also please note this is a story about my own personal experience.  I am not recommending distance running or a plant-based lifestyle as a means  for recovery for those with a history of disordered eating.  These decisions served me well only AFTER I had worked very hard to reach a healthy weight and develop a healthy mindset. We are all individuals with a unique set of needs and every recovery story will follow a different trajectory.)