Several (to many) months ago, I was perusing the dates on Glennon Doyle Melton’s book tour schedule and saw that she was coming to speak in a town less than an hour from where I live as part of her tour for her new book Love Warrior. I was first introduced to Glennon and her Momastery world when I followed a link for her TEDx talk, entitled “Lessons from the Mental Hospital.” If you want to grab someone who is working on her own mental health with a title, that is the way to do it. I followed my first viewing of that talk with a major sitdown in front of my computer to read through her blog, and although she was a little…ummm…open (Glennon is a truth teller, and she has made peace with the part of her that used to worry about showing up and being seen.), she had so much wisdom in her posts, and although a lot of her followers are moms (hence the name), there were plenty of nuggets in there for someone like me.
Anyway, her talk last night was part of a fundraising event for a community-based behavioral health agency in an adjoining county, so I traveled solo down to the high school (the ENORMOUS high school, BTW) where it was being held, and I settled in for some lessons. Like any good iPhone owner, I took some notes on my phone, and like any good person who is Working On Herself, I sent those notes to my therapist because I see her today, and maybe we will need something to talk about.
But let me backtrack a minute. So I have disclosed that I have an eating disorder. I usually just call it binge eating disorder because I am overweight, so when I mention having binge eating disorder, it’s not a stretch for people to believe me. After all, there is some physical evidence right in front of them. But like many eating disorders, mine does not fall neatly into a box. I have done a variety of different things that all fall under the umbrella of my eating disorder (who I call ED). I have found myself exercising for hours and eating almost nothing in order to try to lose weight. I have found myself not giving a flying fuck and eating whatever looks good whenever it looks good. I have found myself sitting at my desk and sneaking bits of raw cookie dough or Oreo cookies or M&Ms out of a drawer when no one was looking, sometimes for hours at a time. I have eaten everything, and I have eaten almost nothing. ED wears many disguises.
When I first started therapy, I was solidly shut down emotionally. I had developed a reputation as a non-hugger. I was not someone who you would expect to see cry. I didn’t share a lot about my feelings. I loved listening to other people talk about their feelings, and I felt like I was receiving a beautiful gift anytime someone felt comfortable enough to cry in front of me. But I did not do that stuff. I was not one of those touchy-feely people.
And then my divorce happened.
One thing Glennon said last night that rang so true for me is that she grew up in the Disney generation (she is just over a month older than I am). Marriage was the FINISH LINE (this was an important thing for me to hear). And I think about how I spent my early adulthood looking for “The One.” I definitely understand that concept. I was looking for the person I was going to marry. I was not necessarily looking past the wedding. My long-time on/off boyfriend, during one of our many off times, proposed, and I made it into a cute story, “thereby effectively cancelling our break-up.” And I don’t want to go too far into that story because it is a story that is mine and that is his, and I don’t want to trot his stuff out for everyone to see, but suffice to say that neither of us had any idea what marriage was going to (or was “supposed to”) look like.
We used to get razzed because we very rarely went somewhere together. He would arrive in his car, and I would arrive in my car. We could each leave when we wanted to. We kept our finances totally separate, and we had separate interests. For our entire marriage, I either worked night shift or worked every weekend. He worked a “normal” schedule, often from home. The foundation of our marriage was not as strong as it could have been. Now, the final catalyst that brought about its end is not something I am willing to take the blame for, but I can own up to the fact that there were cracks in our marriage that I helped put there. And because I was absolutely seeing marriage as a finish line and not the first chapter of a new book, I was ill-prepared for the whole experience.
Anyway, things happened, the marriage ended, I started therapy, I moved out, the divorce happened, several soul-searching years went by (I am an excellent soul-searcher…I just have not found all the answers yet), and here I was, last night, in an auditorium with many other people who had come to see Glennon. There were so many great points in her talk, but my goal here is not to write a 2000-word essay and not even break it up with any pictures. But we will see how it goes…here are a few of the thoughts I made note of:
- Do the next right thing. So here’s the thing about an eating disorder, at least for me. It’s VERY all-or-nothing. I might wake up in the morning with a plan to eat a certain number of calories. And then my first meal of the day might be something that is not going to fit into that plan. Whoops. Well, fuck it. I already screwed today up. Might as well have McDonald’s for lunch and ice cream for dinner. I can’t change today. But is the next right thing belittling myself and making a date with Ben and Jerry? Or is the next right thing saying, “Okay. That happened, but it is over. The next moment is the only one that counts.” I do a LOT of the former. I do not excel at the latter.
- Hot loneliness. Glennon describes her addictions as things she could hide beneath. In a world that just felt like WAY TOO MUCH, she felt this hot loneliness, and addiction gave her easy buttons that she could use to escape from that awful feeling. And that is what addiction is for many, many people. When the world gets to be too much (I used to think I just didn’t have feelings, but it seems like maybe I had too many feelings and didn’t know what to do with them, so I used easy buttons to stuff them away and out of sight…it was not that I was not sensitive; it was that I was TOO sensitive.), people who cannot handle it hide in alcohol and food and drugs and shopping and exercising and sex and work and any other activity that can give them a little (temporary) boost or smooth the rough edges or give them a place to hide. I know exactly what that feels like. I feel that way sometimes when I am eating a bag of chips or shopping online or playing my fifth online game or scrolling through three days of my Twitter feed. It’s hot loneliness. And instead of feeling it, we want to do anything but.
- Run toward what causes you pain, and you will find your tribe. So vulnerability is a hot topic right now. And Glennon talked about how your pain is your story, and if you run from that pain and instead present to the world the shiny side of your life coin, you might find yourself being greatly admired. However, that is not the path to love. Sometimes, an eviction notice from your life (a divorce, a loss, a job change, a move) can also be an invitation to a truer life. These changes may make the difference between being the object of your life and the subject of your life.
- What makes us sick is what makes us magic. Along with her addiction, Glennon is very open about her struggles with mental illnesses, specifically depression and anxiety. She thinks that mental health exists on a continuum. All of us have challenges, although not all of us are diagnosable. And she talked about how mental illness is an illness where people sometimes don’t want to get better. After all, sometimes symptoms can be harnessed into something that feels amazing and makes us feel like ourselves. And medication can take away those symptoms and take away that magic. Often, eating disorders, especially in younger people, are seen by those suffering from them as the thing that makes them “special.” They may feel like just another face in the crowd, but their relationship with ED, who they insist cares about them, is a special little world into which they can retreat when the real world gets to be too much. But she also advocates taking your meds. Because no matter how it might feel, your illness is not really “on your side.”
- If you put your identity in a role, what happens when that role is taken from you? I would like to follow this up with an AMEN, an AMEN, and an extra-large dose of AMEN. Oh, this one. Man, I love being a nurse. I LOVE being a NICU nurse. And I love, love, LOVE telling people that I am a NICU nurse. Because I am sure you can imagine the kind of reaction that gets….”oh, the babies!!! Oh, I could never do that. Isn’t that sad? Isn’t that hard? Wow, that must be an awesome job.” Yes, the babies. And I could never do med-surg, so we’re even. And it can be sad, but it can also be joyful. And it can be hard, but it is always worth it. And yes, it’s an awesome job. Yes. On any given day, I might be the first person to bathe a new baby who is only hours old, the first person to hand a baby to a mom who has waited days to hold her little one, the person who holds someone’s hand as she cries tears of loss and sorrow, the person in the middle of the night, who sits with a new mom as she shares all her fears with me. I might send a three-month-old home with her parents, and I might have a two-year-old miracle come to visit me and my coworkers to thank us for saving her life. It is an AWESOME gift to be there for these moments. And it is sometimes very hard. And so, when someone asks me to share something about myself, I usually say this: “Hi. I’m Mary. I’m a NICU nurse.” As if that is all there is to know about me. But that is dangerous. If we identify ourselves as wives, mothers, career roles, or any other thing that is external, we don’t give voice to the internal. So that was a reminder that it’s more like this: “Hi. I’m Mary. I am (many different things, depending on what day it is). I work as a NICU nurse.” It’s still important. But it’s not the only thing that is important.
So much for not throwing 2000 words at you today…oops! But the major thing I want to leave here is this: I have been using my easy buttons a lot lately. I have not been connecting deeply or meaningfully with people. I have spent the years since I started therapy learning to identify and feel my feelings, working on feeling safe in letting myself be seen, and for the past several weeks, I have been hiding beneath, and although it feels great not to have to deal with emotions, it does not feel great to know that I am keeping people at arm’s length and not allowing myself to reap the benefits of their caring.
But let’s remember what Glennon tells us:
“We can do hard things.”
“We belong to each other.”
I will keep showing up. I will keep fighting to be seen.