Monday, May 31, 2010

Reflections on Three Years in H.O.W.: Physical

There's a saying in 12 step rooms: "First things first." So, first things first, on this Memorial Day, I want to publicly express my humblest gratitude for the men and women who have given service to our country in the military. Thank you.

There's another saying in OA, "Came for the vanity, stayed for the sanity." I can't say I was vain, but I am extremely happy that I have lost 103 pounds sensibly and safely -- without surgery and mostly without exercise. I love exercise, but due to a very serious ankle sprain and two subsequent surgeries, I was unable to really move around too much. Consequently, my weight reduction was mostly caused by my dramatic change in eating habits. This entailed giving up all trigger foods, and retraining my palate to like foods I previously eschewed, like whole wheat bread instead of white bread, and natural peanut butter instead of the sugary junk that passes as peanut butter.

When I came back to OA in June 2004, I was a size 22-24; my jeans were bigger. My hips were so wide, I would sometimes activate the emergency break in the car when my extra fat spilled out of the front seat and into the middle console in the car, actually raising the emergency break unintentionally. I took up 1.5 seats on the bus, and was so easily fatigued. I look back in amazement that I wouldn’t walk to the movie theater that’s just a 15 minute walk from my house, or to the dog’s obedience class only about 5 blocks away, because it was so hard for me to move. Now I’m a size 10-12, and though I still have about 25 pounds to lose, I’m working on it, and I’m mostly happy with my body (except when I see something like Scarlet Johansson in a cat suit. Then I compare and despair). 

The truth is, if I never lose another pound, I'll be ok with that. I feel like I pass for normal in society, even in the fittest city in America, meaning, that my weight is no longer so high that it attracts public attention. I'm glad I'm mostly accepting of my body, because I've had two excellent registered dietitians tell me that because of how much weight I gained at the particular time in my life I gained it (mostly in high school), I am unlikely to ever be a "healthy"weight, as defined by height-weight charts. Hey, I'm glad to move brackets from "morbidly obese" down to just "overweight." That's great! At my current weight I have much more energy, except as compromised significantly by my Lyme Disease. I walked to the movie theater today, and I don’t take up 1.5 seats on the bus.

I've had another miracle of physical recovery in OA: my life is no longer dominated by food cravings and my attempts to fulfill them. Those cravings used to control me, as I described in detail in my last post. Because I've eliminated all trigger foods from my food plan, and because I don't allow myself the option of volume eating because I weigh all my food, I am mostly craving free. This is as miraculous as the weight loss itself. Now, when I occasionally have cravings, I can usually pinpoint the source to PMS or emotional turmoil. Most importantly, I understand that just because I have cravings doesn't mean I have to heed them, and I choose to use an OA tool instead.

One last thought: I told a friend that I hated myself at my old size. That comment alarmed her because she was afraid that if I gained all my weight back, I would hate myself. Don't get me wrong, I felt terrible about myself when I was so obese. However, what was really behind my comment was that I can't like myself when I am practicing the behaviors that got me to 250 pounds. Its hard to respect the self-centered, conniving, dishonest woman I have to be to reach that weight. We're not talking a slightly unbalanced diet -- it was an addictive feeding frenzy. 

So I'll end this post where I began it: with gratitude. I am grateful to be in recovery now, and very thankful to has a husband who totally supports me in this. A few minutes ago he asked, "How is your program?" So sweet.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reflections on Three Years in H.O.W.: Spiritual

This is the first part of a three-part post discussing the spiritual, emotional, and physical facets of my recovery from an eating disorder.

May 25 marks three years of back-to-back abstinence (which is equivalent to sobriety in AA) in O.A.-H.O.W. HOW is one just one way of working the Overeaters Anonymous program, but it is a very structured approach. It is the reason that I do things like a daily writing assignment, making at least three calls to other people in OA, and committing and weighing all my food (yes, even my vegetables).

I chose to work the HOW concept because I was attracted to the spiritual, emotional and physical recovery that I saw in HOW meetings. I first began attending HOW meetings because I was desperate to see living examples of people who had as much weight to lose as I did, who did it safely and without surgery. I couldn't find examples in my local, traditional OA meetings, so I started hanging out in HOW circles. At the time, I thought people in HOW went overboard, and I found their approach quite threatening. Thankfully, I was able to find abstinence in traditional OA, albeit still with a strict sponsor. A sponsor is your guide in a 12-step program; people work with sponsors in a variety of ways, but at the very least, your sponsor is usually the main person who helps you work the 12 steps and holds you accountable.

I had my right ankle ligaments reconstructed in June 2006. It was very hard for me to leave the house, so I started doing OA phone meetings at that time in lieu of face-to-face meetings. The very first HOW phone meeting had just started on Wednesday nights, and I called in every week. In HOW meetings, we read a lot from primary 12-step texts. Anyone can do those readings. We also read summaries of the eight tools of recovery, and then HOW sponsors (and only HOW sponsors) share their personal experience with using those tools for up to three minutes. At meetings, only I grew frustrated being on the sidelines, and not being able to fully participate in the meeting since I was not a HOW sponsor. At the same time, I became willing to do the two things that up to that point had kept me from jumping into HOW with both feet: weigh my food in public, and give up alcohol.

At the time, I thought it was slightly amusing that I was taking all this on. After all, I was at my sickest with my Lyme Disease: I couldn't write, type, or cut vegetables, among many other things. I can see clearly now how much the HOW concept has saved my butt over the course of my extended illness. The reality of having to talk to three other people in program and my sponsor every day means I can't isolate. The emphasis on service both in and out of the program has really allowed me to get out of my head and think about how I can help others, which is especially useful when I'm full of self-pity about having been so sick for so long. The fact that I sponsor two amazing women who need to speak to me six days a week before they start their busy days means that I have to wake up by 7 a.m. instead of sleeping until noon like I would otherwise.

A major thing HOW has done for me is really spur my spiritual growth. The most poignant example of this is my change in my observance of kashrut [the practice of keeping kosher aka adhering to Jewish dietary laws]. One of the most painful and shameful parts of my food addiction was the discrepancy between my public face of being an Orthodox Jew, and my private hell of binging five days a week on McDonalds, Burger King, etc. I felt like a fraud. Oh yeah, that's because I was a fraud. I prayed and prayed to God to keep me from sinning in this way; I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't stop. Now I know that as long as I was putting addictive foods in my body that triggered my compulsive eating, and as long as I engaged in compulsive eating behaviors, there was no way in hell I could have stopped. When I am eating sugar, my compulsion is off to the races, religion be damned. This is really like the alcoholic who has only one drink, but soon is blacking out. For an addict, one is too many and a million never enough.

The feeling of sneaking all of this treif [non-kosher] food was one of humiliation, fear, disgust, and exhaustion. It took a lot of planning to procure the cash to binge, because I wouldn't use a debit or credit card at a restaurant that would allow my husband to see how I was drawing down our bank account. He used to wonder why I was regularly withdrawing $60-100 in cash a week that mysteriously disappeared. When I ran down our bank account, I would go to a drug store and buy junk food there, since that was a "legitimate" looking charge on our statement. Then there was the whole element of how I would avoid seeing Jewish friends when going on my daily sprees; I had ready-made excuses about why I was buying such-and-such thing. I was always looking over my shoulder.

Thanks to recovery, that dark time of sneaking around fast food joints is long passed. It feels so light, clean, and honest to be able to look in the mirror and have my outward appearance and behavior match my inner faith and values. Please don't think I'm never tempted: the other day I walked by an Italian restaurant and could feel the texture and taste the mozzarella sticks and tomato sauce in my mouth. I'm thankful that I can have cravings today and know that they're just cravings -- I don't have to give in to them, and they will pass. Now, when I go into a McDonalds, it really is just for a diet coke or bottle of water!

Thanks to the work I've done in the HOW concept, I feel closer to God now than I ever have. I have true joy in celebrating my faith, and have made it a priority to engage in regular, formal prayer, in addition to my freestyle prayer in the mornings. I'm even becoming one of those people I've wanted to be for so long: the type who regularly checks in with God, not only at set times of the day or when I need something, but just to check in. More and more, when I have to make a decision, I try to discern God's will for me instead of making it all about me. It's good.

Insurance company readers: this post took me two days.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Very Un-American Wedding

"Have you ever been to American wedding?
Where is the vodka, where's marinated herring?
Nothing gets these people going, not even Gypsy Kings
Nobody talks about my Supertheory
of Supereverythings!

So be you Donald Trump
Or be an anarchist
Make sure that your wedding
Doesn't end up like this.

I understand the cultures
Of a different kind
But here word 'celebration'
Just doesn't come to mind."

-- "American Wedding," Gogol Bordello

I am spoiled by Orthodox Jewish weddings, which are marked by copious celebration, complete with skits, costumes, and tricks. The bride and groom -- who are likened to a king and queen for a week after their nuptials -- are seated together on the dance floor, and their wedding guests entertain and delight the couple. Collectively, this is all called "shtick." For example, people dress up in wigs and costumes and write messages on poster boards to the couple, or do magic tricks or gymnastics. My husband and a friend always find empty wine bottles, fill them up with water, clink bottles, and down the "wine" while the couple looks on. Occasionally, some dumb yeshiva [Jewish institution of learning] student will coat his black hat in lighter fluid and set it on fire. That one is not one of my favorite pieces of shtick.

Ironically, I used to dislike shtick: I found it annoying and less-than-classy. I thought that weddings should be tightly-scripted, formal affairs, and that anything with that level of spontaneity was untoward. It took going to several lackluster American-style weddings for me to see the error of my ways. Now matter how joyous, without the shtick, I found them boring, and somewhat soul-less compared to what I'm used to. Gogol Bordello's song "American Wedding," quoted above, captures this perfectly and is worth Googling and listening to if there's a remote chance you'll like a song in the genre Gypsy Punk.

With this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by my dad's wedding this weekend in Phoenix. My dad loosely affiliates Jewishly, and his wife Maria is a Mexican Catholic, so I was expecting a yawner of a wedding. Luckily for David & me, this was most definitely not an American Wedding, but a Mexican wedding! The ceremony was short and sweet, and took place outside at a beautiful resort in Tempe. We had dinner inside, and then the crowd quickly segregated: Caucasians sitting around drinking, and Latinos on the dance floor. I knew which of these looked more fun, and I was completely determined to enjoy myself. One of the blessings of being so sick is that it has made me want to embrace all of life that I can, and participate fully whenever my body allows it (this is why I went down the water slide -- twice -- at the pool even though it scared me). So I hung out with the Mexicans, who quickly took me on as a protege, showing me how to do the dances, patiently encouraging me when I felt like I had three left feet. Forget pilates, by the way; meringue dancing makes pilates look like a vacation for your core!

The Mexican dances were really cool and most were choreographed group dancing, similar to the Israeli dances I see at Jewish weddings. One of the funniest moments was David and me doing the group dance to "Achy Breaky Heart" in Spanish! I was surprised to see three massive cardboard boxes full of shtick. There were masks, Elvis-style glasses, glow-in-the-dark rods, pulsating rings, Mardi Gras beads, crowns that have jewels that light up, and all matter of maracas (neon and plain)! One of the neatest things about this, and a way that it differs from Jewish weddings, is that much of the shtick was dance specific. For example, in one dance describing the bride/groom as kings and queens, the women put on the tiara-type crown, while the guys wore a more basic one. In one of David's and my favorites, a singer croons that you shouldn't call someone "dear," because of the association between deer and cuckolding. We all wore dear hats for that one (see above; thank you to David, my photographer).

I was grateful that I was able to get David into this, because we ended up both having a fabulous time. Neither of us knows how to dance all that well, but at some point in my adulthood I decided, "F-it. I'm just going to go for it and move to the music, and I don't care how dumb I look." Let's be honest: most amateur dancers look goofy anyway, so I might as well join them and have fun. We had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to make our flight, and planned to stay until 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. Every time we tried to leave, people started chanting "Stay, stay!" in Spanish. How can you leave with that fanfare? We partied until about 12:15 a.m. They went on until 2 a.m., and the partying continues tonight and for a few more days. This is another similarity to Judaism, where couples have seven days of parties thrown for them after their weddings.

So everyone won: the Mexicans were glad that David and I were interested in their culture, my sister laughed so hard she nearly peed herself, and we had a great time and killer workout. In fact, I got the greatest compliment: someone asked Maria, my dad's wife, who the white girl was dancing with the Latin contingent. She said, "Mike's daughter." They said, "Really? She looks like she belongs with you." Awesome.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Home Sweet Home

I'm sorry for not blogging more recently, but I've had a very rough few weeks with the extreme fatigue caused by my Lyme Disease. I have needed to sleep a lot, which doesn't leave a whole lot of time for creativity when I deduct time spent on my obligations. I've had "writing" on my list for a while, and today feel full of inspiration and possibilities that I wanted to share about.

David & I are working with a designer, Susan Covell, to redecorate our living room. I'll provide more specifics in a later post. I've been thinking about furniture and design a lot lately, and I hesitate to admit that in some ways I have become my mother, who is truly attached to her home. I have become more attached to my home as years have gone by. We bought the house in December 2003, and have completely gutted and replaced the kitchen; finished the basement to make a guest room, bath, music room and laundry closet. We've also moved and completely redone the upstairs bathroom, and replaced all of the upstairs doors with lovely five-panel doors. This is in addition to smaller improvements like interior and exterior painting.

As David & I have customized our house more to our liking, my fondness for it has grown, but that alone does not explain the new-found passion I feel for it. I've experienced a shift in how I view my life and my home. I used to see this house as the best house we could afford in our area, and the way station until we moved somewhere else different, bigger. I've come to plan to stay in this home, because I hate moving, but more importantly because this house genuinely has a lot of charm. I lack self-confidence in general, and that doesn't exclude the arena of home decorating, so I'm so grateful to the litany of really classy, stylish, more sophisticated people who have said to me, "Do you know what a gem this house is? It is good and could be fabulous." They have helped build my confidence, which I think is also just increasing with age; the older I get the more I trust myself and my taste.

I now view my home as my nest, my safe place. I've embraced that I hate traveling, and that I want to spend as much time at home as possible. Therefore, I want to invest in it properly and decorate with an eye toward longevity. I'd like quality furniture and art that will serve us well over time, and that we'll continue to love. I'm excited our living room renovation is giving us a chance to do this.

Concerning the shift in my attitude toward my home, I see another significant factor at work: as the years fly by and most of my friends have left (or are planning to leave) the city for far more spacious and affordable homes in the suburbs, I have become keenly aware of how much I would hate to live in those areas. I used to think that my distaste was limited to the Maryland burbs where Orthodox Jews settle in our area (a prerequisite for our religious observance), but I've realized that I just don't like suburbs in general, anywhere; let me be clear that I do not mean "suburbs" like Alexandria, VA, which is in itself a small little city, where people can live and walk to commercial spaces and have ample access to public transit. My distaste is for the areas where you have to get in your car to access commerce and recreation. Sorry to sound so dramatic, but I feel like my soul is muted when I have to spend more than a few hours in the burbs. I long for the safe, enclosed feeling of my neighborhood, and I long for the safety of sidewalks. I miss the noise (I remember growing up in a single-family home in Memphis and thinking, "If anyone killed us, no one is close enough to hear us scream." BTW, according to my definition above, Memphis is a suburb).

Furthermore, I view the burbs as the complete antithesis of what I love about city life, which has actually morphed into my values. For example, I recoil at the idea of living in a place where I have to get into my car to run errands. The costs of over-dependence on cars are environmental ruin and physical decline, since running errands in the suburbs only requires walking from the house to the garage. I love that I walk to my dry cleaners, grocery store, pharmacy, pet store, gym, library, Kacy's veterinarian, and several neighborhood gift stores that I patronize.

Another example of how my values and location are synergistic is diversity and inclusion. I love that we do not live in an area almost completely surrounded by other Jews. I recognize the importance of Jewish community, yet have never liked the ghetto mentality of living in a predominately Jewish neighborhood. I love that my neighbors are black, Asian, gay, bi-racial, and that our block has so many different types of families on it. I loved our block's holiday party, which was actually a floating party: you started at one house and went to another for the whole night. I acknowledge that I don't live in the most diverse neighborhood on earth, but I would miss even this level of diversity. There are certainly different types of people and families in the burbs, but my Jewish friends who live there seem to have little to do with their non-Jewish neighbors.

I understand that the suburbs are a good choice for some other people, and that in many ways their qualities of life can improve, like not spending two hours driving their kids to Jewish schools or being close to a kosher market. They're just not for me, and I'm thankful that David is like-minded. If anything, he's more rabid than I am. I'd take a condo in the city over a manse in the suburbs any day. I write a gratitude list every night with at least five things that I'm grateful for. Living in the neighborhood that I live in is often on that list.

This post took me three days to write.