I recently began a new and important journey.
It is a long-awaited journey of healing.
I am choosing to share this because I am proud of the changes I am making and because I believe my struggle is one that is shared by many.
As the Parable of the Servant in the Gospel of Luke (12:36) illustrates, much is required of those to whom much is given. I have been given my fair share of problems and struggles, but I have also been given a passion for sharing and thinking through words and writing.
I have considered sharing this aspect of myself before, but I have been too afraid, too embarrassed, and too much of a procrastinator. But the role of a servant, of any human soul or beating heart, is to worship and struggle and strive to grow in the here and now—not tomorrow.
So here it goes.
It is difficult to define the point at which my battle began. If I had to put a date on it, it would be in the fall or winter of 2003. I was 12 years old and in the 6th grade. Perhaps it was getting glasses and braces in the same year that did it—or maybe it was just becoming a woman in a world where appearance is highly important. Whatever the trigger was, it was strong enough to break down my entire hierarchy of values and replace it with one primary concern: being thin.
I stopped eating for about six months. By my 13th birthday, my family had begun to notice that my weight loss was intentional and excessive (thank God for Mama and Anne). My family gave me two options: I attend intensive outpatient psychotherapy and eat as I was instructed to do so—or I would be sent far away, to an inpatient treatment facility for girls with anorexia nervosa. I chose to stay home. I chose to eat. I chose to gain weight. More importantly, I chose to live and be fully alive.
Many people know this part of my story; many people observed it themselves. But I have not advertised the next part. Somehow, the next part feels less heroic.
I never stopped valuing thin. I never stopped admiring anorexic supermodels. I never stopped considering every calorie that I put into my mouth. I never stopped hating myself every time I gained a pound. I never stopped viewing food and my body as things to be altered and manipulated, punished and worshipped. I even had a year of chemotherapy, and I still cared about being thin. I celebrated the weight I lost during chemo.
And so for over a decade, I have lived with this battle inside of me. Gaining weight then losing it, binge eating then dieting, allowing the number of the scale to define both my happiness and my self-worth. And while there have been many amazing things happening in my life over the years, this was always going on in the background, sometimes as a whisper and sometimes as a storm. Therapy sessions, self-help books, promises to myself and to my friends and family. None of it worked because I was never ready to commit; I was never ready to let go of the control and the obsession. I wasn’t ready to take a leap of faith.
I have had moments of being ready throughout the past few years. When I got through my cancer and regained my health again I felt ready. When I fell in love with the most amazing man I have ever met I felt ready. When I began to take on the role of a physician I felt ready. And now, as a wife and as a future mother (not pregnant just eager to adopt one day) and future doctor, I am finally ready enough. I am ready enough to stop checking my weight every day. I am ready enough to risk gaining a few healthy pounds. I am ready enough to take responsibility of my own healing, to put time and effort into therapy and journaling. I am ready enough to realize that my thoughts about food and my body are at complete odds with who I am and what I stand for.
After meeting with the most wonderful therapist I have yet to work with, she challenged me to write a reflection about our talk. It is everything that I am feeling now.
Today, I realize more than ever before that my relationships with food and my body have not been in alignment with my values. They have been in complete opposition of everything I stand for.
I stand for love and compassion towards others, for understanding and acceptance. I am comfortable with uncertainties when it comes to my faith. I am comfortable with diversity despite my Southern Mississippi upbringing. I have felt at home in Hindu temples and Indian buffets, in European Cathedrals filled with relics, in Buddhist meditation workshops, and in labyrinths and prayer gardens. I have felt at peace in yoga sessions and in nature, in art galleries and nursing homes. I have been able to find God and hope in the midst of children dying of cancer and as I walked the line between life and death. I am able to sit next to the sick and the dying and feel their sorrow with them as I help them to feel less alone on their journeys. I am able to make meaningful connections on every journey I take and never exit an airplane without a new friend, whether I know their names or not. I am courageous; I take leaps of faith because I know that failure is easier than never reaching for my goals. I feel at home when I am caring for others- physically but especially emotionally. I feel at peace when I am surrounded by people, these magical beings filled with the gift of love. I believe that love is the most beautiful and pure thing in life, and that love is evidence of God and evidence of an afterlife or some kind.
I love to laugh and make others laugh and was once recruited by an entertainment agent to perform stand-up-comedy. I love cooking without recipes so I can add whatever feels right in the moment. I love playing the piano, but only when it’s songs I write because then I can play what I’m feeling. I love to do arts and crafts, even though they never look like what I set out to create. I love dogs- their innocence and trust and willingness to love completely without judging. I love the feeling I get when I am watching a horror movie and have no clue what will scare me next. I love to dance with my husband, who is also my best friend in the world. I love flowers and gardens and would like to build my own fairy garden.
And none of this—none of who I am or who or what I love—is reflected in the way I feel about my body or the things I have done with food.
My relationship with my body and food is cold. It is filled with hatred and guilt. It is built of rigidity and rules. It is black and white, all or none, good or bad. It is a number on a scale or a size in a pair of jeans. It is about comparisons and competition, about winning or losing, but I can never win. That eating disorder part of me is not understanding or compassionate; it is judgmental and critical. It does not love anyone or anything except control. It hates laughter and social occasions. It is afraid of love or hope or taking any risks at all. It is lonely and afraid, but instead of reaching out for help, it pretends that it can control the whole world by the way she eats. My eating disorder believes that people should be punished—that I should be punished—for imperfection.
I realize that even after 12 years, there are two parts to me. The eating disorder is still there, expressing her thoughts and opinions and punishing me whenever I choose to listen. I no longer want to make room for her inside of me. I want to be all the things that I value and all the things that I truly am.
I want to learn to eat with compassion for myself. I want to learn to bathe my body and exercise and get dressed in ways that are gentle and loving and not judgmental and fueled by hate or shame. And once I am free, I want to teach others to be free, too.
I sat in mass this evening, and for the first time, instead of praying to have more control over my eating, I thanked God for my body. I listened to the words of the Eucharist and noted all of the symbolism in the Body of Christ. I realized that food and the body are not separate subjects from God or categories of sin. They are outlets through with God often acts. They are miraculous portals that allow humans to connect with God. To hunger and thirst, to taste and become satisfied, to touch and to be touched. These things are inherently beautiful, meant to be savored, not controlled.
I have begun a new journey. I hope that I will allow this journey will be as Holy as my destination. Thank you for being a part of it.
This morning I felt sorry for myself.
It started late last night, when I impulsively ate a few too many spoonfuls of Nutella. At 6 AM this morning, I hit the snooze button, so I couldn’t get in a morning workout. I went to school feeling somewhat oversaturated. Then, I got to class and had to sit through four hours of a “career workshop” for medical students that are unsure of what field they want to go into. Although it was a great workshop, I already know what I want, so it wasn’t necessarily for me. I felt lonely throughout class. Because I’m out of town visiting Drew so often, I don’t spend a lot of time outside of school with my wonderful classmates, so I sometimes feel a little disconnected, like many of them are close friends, but I am not. I wanted to pout.
At noon, I left class for my one hour lunch break and had a revelation: I was being a Debby Downer. So what if I ate too much chocolate or missed my workout routine? So what if I’m lucky enough to know what kind of doctor I would like to be? So what if I’m blessed enough to have found the love of my life already so I don’t spend as much time with my single classmates as they spend with each other? Poor, me. Poor, healthy, accomplished, married, Maggie.
Determined not to feel sorry for myself over nothing, I raced to the gym and got in a 30-minute treadmill workout. By the end of it, I had decided to turn my day around. How? I made a choice to be grateful. Just like I had to do every single day during my year of chemo, when I actually had something to be upset about.
After my lunch hour, I went back to class ready to get the most out of whatever there was to learn. It was a procedural workshop, and I got to learn how to do a lumbar puncture, insert urinary catheters into male and female mannequins, start an IV, and do phlebotomy. I made a big effort to speak to my classmates, to initiate conversations with them, and I realized how much everyone was genuinely happy to converse with me. I realized that they never isolate me; i only isolate myself.
As I walked home, I remembered how lonely I had felt early in the morning. I called my number one hero in life, Mama, and talked to her for a long time while I sat on my back porch. Then I called my best friend from college, Rachel. Then I wrote almost 50 thank you notes for wedding gifts and realized how many people love me because that’s not even a fraction of the notes I need to write. Then I called my best friend from high school, Amanda.
And at the end of the day, I realize that all of this love was there when I woke up, i just didn’t choose to recognize it.
Gratitude is our greatest power and, often, our most difficult choice.
Tomorrow I will choose to be grateful for all the love that God keeps pouring into my life. I hope you will join me.
When life gets busy, the first thing I let go of is writing. It seems silly, since I know just how much writing means to me, just how much it fuels me and pulls me out of my head and into experience the here and now. The next thing I let go if my spiritual life. I still go to mass and pray before each meal and at bedtime, but I close off the part of me that always longs for more, that always longs to take the next step and really explore God.
But late at night, when I am finally in true silence, I feel a pull to write, and I feel a pull to listen. I think this might be one major way God communicates with me. And far too often, i pretend I am too physically or mentally exhausted to listen.
This week, now that my life is “in order” from a perfectionistic point of view (I finished my huge medical school exam, I got married and had an amazing honeymoon, and I moved apartments and got all organized), I find myself feeling that pull again. In the silence, in the moments that are not packed full of academic efforts or social interactions, I feel it.
So this morning I went to mass with a mission in mind. I wanted to get back on the same page with God again, ask for forgiveness for not going the extra mile (or extra five minutes a day) again, thank God for all these incredible gifts in my life that I often forget to appreciate again. It really does get old sometimes, for me, asking God to do what He (and/or She) has done for me so many times before. It really feels exhausting and embarrassing to have to go back to start over and over and over again. I think to myself, “Why do I always take two steps forward and one step back in my faith?” “Why can’t I be consistent,” and “Surely God has given me enough chances!”
Then I listen to the readings.
In the first reading, the prophet Nathan reminds the ever-sinful King David of all God has done for him:
Nathan said to David:
“Thus says the LORD God of Israel:
‘I anointed you king of Israel.
I rescued you from the hand of Saul.
I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives for your own.
I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah.
And if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more.
Why have you rejected the LORD and done evil in his sight?
You have cut down Uriah the Hittite with the sword;
you took his wife as your own,
and him you killed with the sword of the Ammonites.
Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house,
because you have looked down on me
and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.’”
David has really been a jerk to God, again and again, despite the endless blessings God continues to give David in his life on earth (sounds familiar).
Then David said to Nathan,
“I have sinned against the LORD.”
Nathan answered David:
“The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin:
you shall not die.”
And just like that, after David only utters one single sentence, God has already forgiven him.
A Psalm follows.The response is:
“Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.”
And then one of my favorite Gospel readings:
A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him,
and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.
Now there was a sinful woman in the city
who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee.
Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment,
she stood behind him at his feet weeping
and began to bathe his feet with her tears.
Then she wiped them with her hair,
kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself,
“If this man were a prophet,
he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him,
that she is a sinner.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people were in debt to a certain creditor;
one owed five hundred day’s wages and the other owed fifty.
Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both.
Which of them will love him more?”
Simon said in reply,
“The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”
He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon,
“Do you see this woman?
When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet,
but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The others at table said to themselves,
“Who is this who even forgives sins?”
But he said to the woman,
“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
This account from the book of Luke is about a woman who is dripping with sin, but Jesus forgives her instantly. This lady comes to Jesus, refusing to be too ashamed of her social status or her recurrent sinning or her poverty or her tears to ask for forgiveness.
And I realize, that in those moments when I hear God’s voice and decide not the answer, I don’t do it because I’m too tired. I do it because I’m ashamed and embarrassed and too annoyed with my inconsistencies. I refuse to listen because I feel guilty.
But, really, perhaps God would rather me weep at his feet and ask for forgiveness for the one hundredth time than pass him by.
My most recent at St. Jude was not what I expected. I thought it would be completely routine and that my follow-up kidney function tests would be normal. Neither of those things were the case.
For starters, I was given big news from my oncologist. Because I have gone five years past the end of chemo with no relapses, I have been referred to another doctor at St. Jude- one who specializes in the care of long term survivors. For a cancer survivor, 5 years with no recurrence is incredibly promising, so this was great news. But it was so bittersweet. My doctor and I will still be in touch (he will be a big part of my wedding), but not having appointments with him will be a difficult transition. I am so lucky to have him in my life, and I am so lucky that I don’t need him to treat my cancer anymore.
Then the kidney news came back. Without being too scientific and medical (which is harder and harder to avoid these days), my GFR (glomerular filtration rate), which determines the rate at which the kidneys filter and clean the blood, is nearly half of what it was when I finished chemo in 2011. We don’t know the exact reasons for this, but the chemo made my kidneys more susceptible to injury, and combination of the antibiotics I took for a year after that and my chronic use of NSAIDs for the occasional headache likely contributed to the damage. It ls likely my kidneys are stable and won’t continue to change (we hope this is the case), but I will be seeing a nephrologist at Mayo (one of my teachers) regularly just to keep an eye on things.
As I so often do as a patient, I fell into the trap of feeling sorry for myself after getting this news. It is true that I am afraid- what if my kidneys keep declining- will I one day need a kidney transplant? It is possible. The biggest disappointment, though, was realizing that even though my cancer is really actually gone forever, I will continue to suffer the long term consequences of the drugs that cured me. I am infertile and have chronic constipation, and thought that was it. I thought i was in the clear. But now with the newly onset kidney issues, I realize that there very well may be problems that pop up in the future in regards to my health and the drugs I received in the past.
No, it’s not fair.
But then remembered that nothing is. Or ever was. Or ever will be. It’s not fair that I got cancer, but it’s also not fair that I survived mine. And it’s not fair that mine was in my leg, when many children have cancer in much more devastating places.
While at St. Jude this trip, I saw a little girl in the hallway, walking along with some incoordination and carrying a giant panda bear stuffed animal that was about her size. The panda had a blanket wrapped around it and gauze wrapped around its arm, as if it too had given blood that day. I cannot see a child without wanting to speak to him or her- that is my curse (or my gift). I stopped walking and said, “Does your panda have a blankey? I have a blanket too!” (this is not a lie).
The little girl stared at me blankly through her thick glasses, assessing me. I assumed she was not in the mood to make friends and began to walk away. Then I heard her talk:
“His name is Fluff-Fluff,” she said. I turned around and she had followed me down the hall. I spent the next fifteen minutes talking to this 5-year-old, whom I learned was named Emalinn. Her mother told us that she had a recurrent optic glioma (a brain tumor interfering with her optic nerve and causing her to have vision loss). She was receiving radiation, but she had already received chemo before. I told them I was in medical school to be a doctor, and Emalinn said she wanted to be a zookeeper and save baby animals. She melted our hearts. As we say our goodbyes, Emalinn whispered in her mother’s ear. Her mom said she had requested a “play-date” with me.
I feel so lucky, so blessed, and so grateful to have met Emalinn. She reminded me just how minor my cancer-related deficits are. And she reminded me that joy is ours for the taking no matter how hard life gets.
I have decided not to live in fear of kidney failure, just as I do not live in fear of relapse. We are only given today, no matter who we are.
It is interesting to me that the things I find most beautiful and most inspiring in life are the things that are the most abstract.
Especially because I have a type A personality, and I am always spending most of my energy trying to be a good student and a good Christian who looks good.
Lately, as I spend every free hour of my time preparing for the hardest exam of my career (the USMLE Step 1 board exam tests everything I have learned in medical school over the last 2 years), I find myself taking breaks where I search for inspiration. Here’s what I keep coming back to: pieces of abstract art with strange quotes by Brian Andreas.
Not only do I love the bizarre drawings with asymmetrical and obscure-looking people, but I love the quotes, with their simplistic yet ringing truths. It struck me this morning, as I woke to look at these again, just how much my soul longs for abstract truth rather than the rigid structure and rules I tend to live by.
Get up as early as possible every day. Go to the gym every day. Never skip a day of class. Mark as many things off the checklist as possible. Study, study, study. Go to mass on Sundays. Avoid “bad” foods. Stay below a certain weight. Always wear makeup (maybe that’s the South talking…). Don’t watch too much trashy television because it’s better to fill your time reading classics. Try to blog on a schedule (thanks Aunt Maggie, for reminding me that the point of writing is NOT to stick to a schedule). Always aim for self improvement.
While I know that these rules have gotten me where I am today in my career, I am beginning to realize they are all manifestations of self criticism and a pathological need to control myself in every way possible. Though I may be very good at doing this, that doesn’t make it the right thing for me.
I think this art speaks to me for two main reasons: first, the abstract and imperfect nature of the drawings. The people are lumpy-bumpy and asymmetric, with misshapen appendages and flamboyant outfits. They are different colors and shapes and sizes and often anatomically incorrect. Sometimes they look more like animals than people. But they don’t apologize for looking unlike supermodels. They don’t even apologize for looking unlike what we deem that humans “should” look like. They are just people, and they are different but they are also filled with color and variety and striking beauty. It’s almost like they represent how we saw the world when we were children-when we were innocent and pure. Everything was strange and beautiful, and no one looked wrong. It was all the way it was supposed to be.
The second thing I am drawn to in this art is the nature of the quotes. Some of them are slightly comical and some more serious. Some are very simplistic and literal, while others are a little deeper and metaphorical. But they all convey some type of truth that is very honest and real and human yet easily forgotten in this crazy world. And it seems that me that the underlying emphasis is on our need to give up rigid rules and the need to control and to fully live and deeply love.
The other artist I am most inspired by, for several years now, is Richard Rohr, the Franciscan Catholic Priest whom I often quote. Every time I take the time to read his meditations or books, I am taken aback by his interpretation of Christ’s words and mission.
Today, I read:
Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians are a tour de force on the pure meaning of grace and the serious limitations of morality and religion to lead you to God. “Cursed be the law,” Paul even says (Galatians 3:13). No wonder he has been called a “moral anarchist” by people who are still seeking any well-disguised path of “self-realization.” But it seems Christianity has paid little heed to Paul’s revolutionary message, or even to Jesus who says six times in a row, “The law says, but I say!” (Matthew 5:21-45). Both Jesus and Paul knew that rules and requirements were just to get you seriously engaged with the need for grace and mercy; they were never an end in themselves (read Romans 7:7ff).
“If you keep the law, the law will keep you,” we students were told on the first day in the seminary. As earnest young men anxious to succeed, we replied, “Yes, Father!” We knew how to survive in any closed system. I’m afraid we spent so much time in that world that it became the whole agenda. Canon Law was quoted much more often to us than the Sermon on the Mount before the reforms of Vatican II, and now the young priests are being taught in much the same way as I was. A strong emphasis on law and order makes for a sane boarding school, or an organized anything, for that matter. I really get that. It probably made it much easier for the professors to get a good night’s sleep with one hundred twenty young men next door. But it isn’t anywhere close to the Gospel. The Gospel was not made to help organizations run smoothly. The full Gospel actually creates necessary dilemmas for the soul much more than resolving the organizational problems of institutions. Fortunately, the Gospel is also a profound remedy for any need to rebel or be an iconoclast.
We come to God not by doing it right but, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong. We are justified not by good works, but by faith in an Infinite Mercy that we call grace. It has nothing to do with past performance or future plans for an eternal nest egg. All it requires is a deep act of confidence in a loving God. It is so hard to believe that this imperfect, insignificant creature that I am could somehow bear the eternal mystery. God can only grow bigger as we grow smaller, as John the Baptist put it (John 3:30). If we try to grow bigger by any criteria except divine mercy itself we only grow in love with our own image in a self-created mirror. That is normally called narcissism.
How could God love me so unconditionally, we all ask? This was Paul’s struggle as well, and it led him to his cataclysmic conclusion. God loved Paul in his unworthiness, “while he was yet a sinner” as he puts it (Romans 5:8). Therefore he did not have to waste the rest of his life trying to become worthy or prove his worthiness, to himself or to others.
We seem to think God will love us if we change. Paul clearly knows that God loves us so we can change. The only people who change, who are transformed, are people who feel safe, who feel their dignity, and who feel loved. When you feel loved, when you feel safe, and when you know your dignity, you just keep growing! That’s what loving people do for one another—offer safe relationships in which we can change. This kind of love is far from sentimental; it has real power. In general, you need a judicious combination of safety and necessary conflict to keep moving forward in life.
Paul has fallen in love with a God who has loved him “for nothing.” For the rest of his life, Paul is happy to give God all the credit and he stops trying to validate himself by any means whatsoever. This creates a very different kind of person, someone who is utterly free. Paul knows that “the gift far outweighed the fall” (Romans 5:15) and he lives inside the gift all his remaining days. He never looks back to law or religion for his self-validation, but becomes the ultimate reformer of all self-serving religion, not just Judaism and Christianity. At least Judaism has been honest about its dislike of Paul. Christians have pretended we love him while overwhelmingly ignoring his revolutionary and life changing insights.
I can’t really say this any better than Richard Rohr did. I can only say that I am now realizing the message here about our ideas and obsession with laws and rules and the truth that is found in love and acceptance is the same message that is in the artwork I have been looking at….maybe the world or God or my own heart is trying to tell me something.
I was catching up with a very special friend from college this evening when she asked me something that I can’t stop thinking about. “Do you still blog?”
I was disappointed to reply to her that I do not. And then I wondered why.
My reasons? Medical school is busy. Writing takes time. And one reason that shouldn’t matter but really does: I’m not sure anyone reads my blogs (except family and a couple really sweet people who also blog, including my friend Chip’s mom, who actually is a lot like me).
While my motivation for writing has never stemmed primarily from the feedback I get from readers, my thought that blogging is no different from journaling leads me to journal rather than blog.
So, here’s an experiment: If you did or would like to read my blogs (content: spiritual, emotional, meaning-of-life-ish), then comment on this entry. If I know people are listening, then I will definitely start posting again.
If not, then I’ll stick to journaling🙂