Whenever I teach beginning calligraphy students, I tell them to keep their practice sheets, write the date on them and tuck them away in a drawer. Then down the road, when the frustrated novice calligraphers are convinced (as they inevitably will be) that their skills are going backwards, they can pull out those early attempts and see just how far they’ve come.
Usually they’re in for a pleasant surprise.
I keep a journal (admittedly intermittent, but still) partly for the same reason — so I can remember where I used to be and to mark my progress.
Going to Jazz Camp West and CCMC every year (except last year — long story, and big mistake) serves as a great marker for my singing and guitar skills. “Wow! A year ago I couldn’t do that! Hey, I have my own original songs now! I have a CD! Remember when that was just a dream?”
Looking back to focus forward
Whenever times are especially tough, it’s a good idea to pause and look back. Usually, when I can sit “outside the distress,” as it were, I can see that things are actually on an upswing overall. Even when it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.
This past week has been kinda rough. Systems breakdown + impending deadlines = no time to work toward any Big Goals, no time to make art or music, no time do My Important Work or to do much of anything except tread water.
How is this progressing toward the life I really, really want?
Then, deep breath. Poke head up above the clouds and look back.
Confessions of a former bulimic
People would never guess this about me, but not so long ago I was caught up in an addictive behavior pattern that is as tough to deal with as any substance abuse. The “substance” was food (something we’re all technically addicted to, if you think about it), but food was not really the issue.
Still, it ruled my life. I would wake up every morning and plan, to the calorie, what I was going to eat that day. Starvation rations, usually.
Inevitably, I would “blow it,” then binge. Frequently until I was so stuffed I could barely move. Then I would purge, which is a polite way of saying I would force myself to throw up into the toilet. For a time I ate ex-lax like candy, too.
Some days were better, some worse. On a really bad day the cycle might repeat a few times. I think six might have been the record. On a good day I might make it through the day without falling prey to the cycle, but my thoughts always revolved around food, my weight, my body.
My body image was so distorted that at 5′ 8″ and 120-130-some-odd pounds, I felt “obese.” I was a modern and ballet dancer during most of the time I struggled with this eating disorder, and what’s “normal” and “beautiful” in the “regular world” is unacceptably “fat” in the dance world.
But the seeds of my illness were sown long before I started dancing at age 16. My family had a “scarcity” attitude towards food (when those brownies are gone, there are never going to be any more!), and my beautiful, image-conscious mom was always trying to lose “that last 5 pounds.” But I was facing forces much more powerful than my family.
Let’s face it: females growing up in the US (or any Western culture) are heavily programmed to believe that these false statements are god’s truth:
1) beauty is a girl’s/woman’s most important asset
2) being thin is essential to being beautiful
Look at any magazine aimed at women. Turn on any television program.
I hate to admit it, but I bought this message, hook, line and sinker. It wasn’t until I had my “radical Feminist awakening” in college at age 20 that I started questioning this idea, and understanding the concept of “the personal is political.”
Imagine if the time, money and energy women spend obsessing over body image and looks were suddenly liberated to do other things! What might we accomplish!
Slow and steady healing
It took me years to heal from my disorder. My radical Feminist awakening in college was the start. Not being in front of a mirror in a leotard and tights for hours every day helped too, as did meeting a man who believed — and convinced me — that I was beautiful just as I was. (One of the many gifts from my ex-husband.)
Improvement was slow, and there were plenty of set-backs. For years I believed “once a bulimic, always a bulimic.”
But you know what? Today I don’t think that has to be true. I’ll admit I still have “fat attacks” once or twice a year, when I start spiraling into a bit of a panic, and eat to feed something that isn’t physical hunger. I’ve gone through this cycle enough now, though, to know that it will wear itself out, and I’ll reach equilibrium again.
The amazing thing is that today, not only do I have a better relationship with my body than I did 20 years ago (when my body was more “ideal” according to cultural expectations of female beauty!), but I have a healthier relationship with food than just about any woman I know.
That is a miracle I never thought I’d see.
Anything is possible
So today, at the end of a challenging week, when my goal of creating the life I really, really want feels out of reach, I’m reminding myself of the miracles I’ve accomplished already in my life. If I can beat bulimia, and emerge a stronger, healthier person, I can achieve just about anything.
Baby steps. One step at a time.
It may not feel like I’m getting anywhere, but I’m keeping my notes and practice sheets to pull out down the road so I can see how far I’ve come.