The End of the Affair (?)

Hershey's bars 6 packI thought that when I quit drinking in September of 2017, that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Turns out it was just the tip of the iceberg. Turns out Kettle One martinis have nothing on Hershey’s milk chocolate.

Of course it’s natural to crave sugar and carbs when suddenly abstaining from alcohol, which is full of both. And on top of that, I’ve struggled with disordered eating all of my life—not just my adult life. Being molested by my grandfather when I was five, and then being emotionally and verbally abused by my mother most of my life—especially when she was drinking—left me with a messy battle with food, alcohol, and my body. I was hoping that breaking up with alcohol would fix everything. Turns out it was only the end of one affair.

In recent months, Hersheys Kisses moved into my life with all the force of a lover in heat. It started with only a few Kisses a day, not even every day. But then it escalated to whole bags of kisses, which I would devour without stopping, usually while watching something dark on Netflix, like Homecoming. When I mentioned my kisses binges to a couple of people, they laughed, not realizing the seriousness of my situation. One of my favorite essayists, Anne Lamott, a recovering alcoholic herself, seems to condone my habit, as she writes in her latest book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope:

Chocolate with 81% cacao is not actually a food . . . . It was never meant to be considered an edible. [Note: AMEN!] . . . .

Don’t let others make you feel unsophisticated if you reach middle age preferring Hershey’s Kisses. So many of your better people do. Also, always carry a handful of Kisses in your backpack or purse to give away. People will like you more.

IMG_5704As I read those words, from someone who like me had ended her affair with alcohol, I wondered if I could enjoy just a handful of kisses without eating the entire bag. I thought back to when and where the attraction to the Kisses began. It was five months ago today—June 15—when I was speaking at the Alabama Writers Conclave Conference in Orange Beach, Alabama. I’m always nervous when I’m going to be speaking, and I was also teaching a workshop at this event. When I was drinking, I would shore up my courage with alcohol prior to any such event, but with that source gone from my life, I innocently picked up a handful of Hersheys Kisses from the snack table in the foyer of the building where the workshops and talks were being held. For two days, I returned to that table again and again, pocketing more and more handfuls of Kisses. (I wrote about this new lover in a post in September, “Disordered Eating Revisited.”)

Recently I wondered if I could slow my roll by switching from Hershey’s Kisses to Hershey’s chocolate bars. One bar had fewer ounces than the smallest bag of Kisses, so maybe I could wean myself off. The taste was just the same—the amazing texture and the instant comfort as the milk chocolate melted in my mouth and pumped its sweetness into my blood stream. I even found myself comparing the rush to that of a vodka martini at the end of a long day, when I’m in physical or emotional pain, nervous, or stressed. But just like the vodka, after a while one was not enough. I would purchase a 6-pack of chocolate bars—intending to eat only one a day—but I found myself eating all 6 in one sitting, more than one time. I knew I was in trouble.

Enter the Nativity Fast. What? Now you’re wondering if this is the same blog post I started out writing. In the Orthodox Church we observe the Nativity Fast from November 15 until Christmas. It’s similar to our experience of Great Lent—the forty days leading up to the celebration of Pascha (Easter). There are some rules/guidelines for fasting during this season, and the Church emphasizes that the point is spiritual growth, drawing closer to God, not just following rules. I’ve always struggled with this, but something I read a couple of days ago gave me pause:

Did not the Lord Jesus Himself begin His divine ministry of the salvation of mankind with a long, forty day fast? And did not He, in this way, clearly show that we must make a serious beginning to our life as Christians with fasting? . . . With this weapon, He vanquished Satan in the wilderness, and with it was victorious over the three chief satanic passions with which Satan tempted Him: love of ease, love of praise, and love of money.—St. Nikolai Velimirovich [quoted in Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints and Fasting Calendar 2018—the Orthodox Calendar Company]

Love of ease. Love of praise. Love of money. I struggle with all three of these. In my brain I can’t understand how fasting can help me let go of these, but I do know that I’m hungry and thirsty for something.

Anne Lamott on Hershey’s Kisses.

An Orthodox saint on the value of fasting.

What’s she going to write about next? (You know I read widely and search diligently for wisdom from many sources.)

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

Last weekend when I was speaking at the Louisiana Book Festival, I met an amazing woman. I was drinking coffee in the author’s lounge on Saturday morning, waiting for my 9 a.m. panel to start, when an attractive, colorfully-dressed, bright-eyed woman came in and sat down next to me. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out she was Sheryl St. Germain, winner of the 2018 Louisiana Writer Award. She would be presented with the award and would give a talk—you guessed it—at 9 a.m. in another room in the Louisiana State Capitol. The other members of my panel joined us on couches and chairs in a circle and laughed about how maybe some of the people who couldn’t get into her talk would find their way to our panel.

Sheryl and I had a short but intimate conversation. I fell in love with her immediately and felt a kindred spirit with her as a writer and as a human. She is 9 years sober, and has suffered great loss in her life, including the death of her son to an overdose. She wrote beautifully about this in her poetry collection, The Small Door of Your Death, which addresses issues of addiction and recovery. Sheryl directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University, but she’s a native of New Orleans. She is also the co-founder and director of the Words Without Walls Program, which offers creative writing courses to those incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail, and also to inhabitants of Sojourner House, a rehab facility for women with children.

I’m reading her book Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair right now. In this book she chronicles the time she spent in Alaska, drawing surprising similarities to her home state of Louisiana, but also sharing insights from living so close to nature. I’m remembering my own visit to Alaska about thirteen years ago as I read these words this morning:

Juneau lies on a thin strip of land at the mouth of Gold Creek amidst a backdrop of mountains and glaciers that push down from the Juneau Ice Fields, which native people called “Home of the Spirits.” The irony of this name is not lost on me; I’ve seen a lot of public drunkenness since arriving in Alaska two months ago. . . . I’m reminded that the old label for what we now call alcoholism is dipsomania, which means, ‘crazy with thirst.’ As I hammer—with difficulty—the final tent stake into this rocky soil, I wonder if the thirst I have for wilderness and for union with the land is not more deeply connected to my own thirst for alcohol than I have wanted to admit. [Note: this was before she quit drinking.] Carl Jung would write that the alcoholic’s craving for alcohol is the equivalent, on a low level, of a spiritual thirst for wholeness, a desire for union with whatever one understands as God.

There it is—a spiritual thirst for wholeness and a desire for union with God. Yes.

And later she says,

It’s no mystery that Christ’s blood is offered to us in the literal and metaphoric form of wine, and it’s no mystery that alcoholics are such spiritually thirsty people.

I was hoping to give up Hershey’s milk chocolate altogether during the Nativity Fast, and possibly forever. If I can quit alcohol, surely I can quit milk chocolate, right? But I’m wavering today . . . still clinging to the hope that I can just be moderate with it. Hoping that I can stop with one handful of Kisses or one Hershey’s milk chocolate bar. Yesterday was the first day of the fast and I did, indeed, eat only one chocolate bar. I knew better than to buy a six-pack. One day at a time. Stay tuned.

Feeding the Lake

Father Anthony Messeh

Father Anthony Messeh

A few days ago a dear friend (one of my Goddaughters, actually) shared a link to a podcast that really blessed me, so I’d like to talk about it here. The topic of the talk was OCD—but not the definition most of us probably associate with those letters (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

The speaker, Father Anthony Messeh is a Coptic Orthodox priest and pastor of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Church in Arlington, Virginia. (Sidebar: Read more about the Coptic Orthodox Church here. I’ve always personally loved their icons. You can read more about them, and their music, here.) The new spin he puts on OCD is this:

Obsessive COMPARISON Disorder.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Living with OCD Part 1

My friend shared it with me because I had just been talking with her and a couple of other close friends about my struggles in this area of my life. For my whole life, actually. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t always comparing myself to someone else, someone who seemed prettier, thinner, more popular, more successful, or someone who had a happier family, a nicer house, cooler car, more money, etc. When I was a freshman at Ole Miss, I was president of the pledge class of a top sorority, and dating (and soon engaged to) the president of the senior class of the university, who would be going to medical school the next year on a full scholarship. From the outside looking in, I had it all. But I wasn’t content. I kept comparing myself to the other girls in my sorority, even the other girls my boyfriend had dated (some of them were, literally, beauty queens) and I felt less than. From a psychological point of view, I understand that some of that was fueled by the dysfunction in my family, including my mother’s verbal and emotional abuse of me my whole life, and my grandfather’s sexual abuse of me when I was a little girl.

As I’ve grown emotionally and spiritually (and chronologically, at age 67) I’ve made baby steps in healing the disorder, but I still struggle with it. The way it rears its ugly head for me at this stage of my life has to do with my writing career. Just a few years ago all I thought I needed to be “happy” was to get a book published. Now I’ve got four published (and two more shopped out to publishers now) but I don’t have a literary agent, so I didn’t get a book deal with a large publisher for any of them. I’m stuck in a small literary pond, watching lots of my writer friends who are more “successful” than me—some are New York Times best-selling authors, and many (who have agents and publicists) have won awards and reached a much larger audience. I recently spent about six months querying agents (again) for my next two books—a collection of linked short stories and a collection of personal essays. After many rejections, I’ve “given up” and have submitted both books to small presses (which don’t require an agent). I’ve decided to be content—and thankful—if either or both books get published by these presses, which are very reputable and will be good to work with. I’m making up my mind to enjoy this little pond I get to swim in, remembering that Madeleine L’Engle said, “We all feed the lake.” (more on that at the end of this post)

thankful2

 

Close friends tell me how much I have to be proud of, and I get that. I’m working hard and loving what I’m doing, but I’m also realizing how much more I want to experience contentment. A recent experience I had at confession helped. For my non Orthodox friends, the sacrament of confession in the Orthodox Church is (or can be) a very therapeutic thing. It’s not juridical. It’s doesn’t make us “right with God.” It helps makes us right with ourselves. If your priest is a good confessor, as mine is, he will help you see the ways you are hurting yourself or others, and how to move towards healing. The best advice I received recently had to do with being thankful. And I’m finding that the more I practice thanksgiving, the more content I am. I have an incredible number of things to be thankful for in my life, and as I focus on them instead of focusing on what others have that I want, I attain peace. It isn’t a once-and-for-all thing. It’s something I have to return to every day. Sometimes many times a day.

Contement is not chosen

 

One thing Father Anthony talks about in his podcasts is the way that social media amplifies this problem. The things that people post on Facebook or Instagram (my two go-to social media sites) are usually their best selves. Their accomplishments. Their beautiful families, vacations, homes, meals, children, etc. Bombarded with this, it’s hard not to compare myself with them. Father Anthony recommends taking a time out from social media, or even considering quitting it altogether, but I’m unwilling to do that at this point. I have too many good connections there with friends who live all over the country, and I don’t want to give those up. But I do want to respond differently to the multitude of posts that tend to make me feel less than. Instead of feeling jealous, I am working to be genuinely happy for other people’s successes. And I truly am happy for so many people I’ve come to care about and respect and even love.

 Father Anthony takes this issue a step further in his second podcast, Fighting FOMO Part 2. “FOMO” is “Fear Of Missing Out.” I don’t experience this as much as younger folks might, but sometimes I do, when I read about people I know who are doing fun things that I wish I was also doing. I have an 83-year-old friend who has shared with me much about the good changes we can expect with aging, including contentment with a quieter, much less “exciting” lifestyle.

 So, I’m going to continue to fight OCD with thankfulness, and jealousy with genuine joy for others’ good fortune. I’ll close with these words from one of my favorite authors:

 “If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake’.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

It’s About TIME (with Doc Oz)

Parade Doc OzI’ve recently done a couple of posts about eating and eating disorders. If you haven’t read them, here they are:

Intuitive Eating

Disordered Eating Revisited

And a little more background, from 2015:
Eat, Drink, Repeat: Day 1 of a 3-Day Binge

I’m back again today with something I read this week from the September 9 issue of Parade Magazine:

 

“Secrets From Dr Oz: Why He’s Fasting and Using the Clock to Slow Dementia and Fight Disease.”

For those who are already embracing the “intuitive eating” approach, this might not appeal to you, since that program de-emphasizes a focus on weight loss. But I like that Dr. Oz is talking about weight loss, dementia, and other diseases in this piece.  And it’s all about TIME:

“New studies suggest that WHEN you eat matters for your health, longevity and even weight loss,” Oz says. . . . Before drive-thrus, microwaves and refrigerators, the human body evolved to go for long stretches without food. During these breaks, vital things happen. Insulin levels drop which makes stored body fat more accessible for us. Human growth hormone goes up, to help burn fat and build muscle. Damaged cell material is shed faster. All this may help us to:

Lose weight (or stick to a healthy weight.)

Slow Alzheimer’s.
Grow a healthier gut.

For more details about each of these, read the article here. (There’s also a short video with Dr. Oz included in the link.)

I was encouraged by his discussion of “intermittent fasting” because this is something that I had already embraced, with some degree of success with weight loss as a result. He promotes sleeping 8 hours (which I often do) and then fasting for 4 hours–preferably two of those before going to bed, which I also have embraced to help with my GERD (gastro-enterstinal reflux disease). I actually do better with a longer fasting time, like from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., but most night we don’t have supper until around 7. When I’m being more focused on dieting, I often have my “supper” in the middle of the afternoon and then feed my husband at 7, after he exercises after work. When I do that, I find I lose weight and feel better. But it’s hard not to snack around 8-10 p.m., which can undo the benefits of eating earlier! If I snack after 9 p.m. I often don’t eat the next day until mid morning or even noon.

Of course this doesn’t “cure” my eating disorder (I’m struggling to give up Hershey’s kisses because I can’t seem to moderate them) but I’m healthier today, weighing almost 20 pounds less than I did three years ago, and I really want to keep going to get to an even healthier weight.

Anyway, I thought I’d share the link to this article for those who are interested. To continue the discussion about various approaches to dieting (or not dieting) please leave a comment here or on the Facebook thread. Thanks, always, for reading!

 

Disordered Eating Revisited

eating-disorderAccording to an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry (2009):

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

And yet, this mental illness was left out of the Mental Health First Aid training course I took last weekend, sponsored by the Church Health Center here in Memphis. They used to include Eating Disorders, but the course took longer than one day, so they cut it out. The mental disorders they included in the eight-hour course were: anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, substance use disorder, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia. I can see why they chose these disorders for the course, as each of them have specific things a person can do to help—mental health first aid—when they see someone struggling with an anxiety or panic attack, severe depression, substance abuse, and behavior that is dangerous to themselves or others. For someone with an eating disorder, the symptoms don’t always present in such obvious forms. And “mental first aid” for persons with this disorder is a bit more complicated.

Thankfully there’s a whole chapter devoted to eating disorders in the Mental Health First Aid USA manual they gave us at the training, and I came home and read it right away. If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know that my interest in this disorder is very personal, as I’ve suffered from eating disorders for most of my life. I don’t believe that my level of disordered eating has placed me in a life-threatening situation—the way that anorexia can, on the one extreme, or morbid obesity, on the other. And for many people like me, it would be difficult for someone to know how to reach out to us with any kind of mental first aid. By the time a person’s eating disorder has become life-threatening, it seems that treatment has a diminishing chance of success.

Sept1984Color

Aerobic dance instructors at Phidippides Sports in Jackson, Mississippi, 1984. That’s me in the black tights, middle row on the left. Even at 116 pounds, I often wore black to make my thighs look skinnier. I was 33 years old.

 

With so much emphasis on body image in our culture, it’s not surprising that many people (especially women and girls) suffer from body image distortion and resultant eating disorders in an effort to live up to society’s standards for a thin body. This started for me when I was a young teenager and gained 35 pounds in one year as a result of hormone therapy I received following surgery when I was 16. I went from a skinny 95-pound bundle of energy (who could eat as much as I wanted and not gain weight) to a 130-pound late-blooming adolescent. (I also grew three inches taller.)  By the time I got married at age 19, I weighed 140 and was depressed. My bulimic habits, which began as a teenager, continued into  adulthood. I would eat in secret and lie about what I was eating. I tried various forms of exercise, and finally in 1982, I found something that “worked.” I began teaching aerobic dancing at my parents’ athletic store in Jackson, Mississippi (Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports) and dropped to 116 pounds pretty quickly. But my disordered eating and body image distortion only increased. Standing in front of a wall of mirrors in spandex, teaching my students, I still thought I was fat. On any day that I couldn’t work out, I wouldn’t eat. Bulimia was still part of my life, but less so with al the exercise.

kissesWhen I read the chapter on eating disorders in the Mental Health First Aid manual, I recognized immediately which category I fit into. I don’t have anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa (since bulimia isn’t a regular activity for me) so the third category, “Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified or EDNOS” includes Binge-Eating Disorder, which is the main thing I’ve struggled with most of my life. Whenever I post images—like this one of the Hersheys Kisses I ate on a recent binge—on social media, I get lots of responses from others with similar issues, so I know it’s fairly common. According to an article in Biological Psychiatry (2007):

A national survey of adults found that 1.2 percent had binge-eating disorder in the previous year and 2.8 percent had had it some time in their life. Approximately 28 percent of people with binge-eating disorder received treatment for mental health problems.

I think that last statistic is important, because in order to get healed from an eating disorder, I think a person needs help with the underlying cause. Again, according to the Mental Health First Aid manual (and an article in Lancet in 2003):

A range of biological, psychological, and social factors may be contributing factors. The following factors increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder:

Life Experiences
Conflict in the home, parents who have little contact with or high expectation of their children.

Sexual abuse.

Family history of dieting.

Critical comment from others about eating, weight or body shape.

Pressure to be slim because of occupation (model, jockey) or recreation (ballet, gymnastics)

Mom circle 1963. She was 35 years old and thought she was fat.

Mom circle 1963. She was 35 years old and thought she was fat.

I checked “yes” for ALL of these. I could never live up to my mother’s expectations, and experienced relentless verbal abuse from her, especially her criticism of my weight, hair, and clothes. She was always dieting and talking about weight (hers and others) although she remained slim all of her life. As a cheerleader in my teenage years and an aerobic dance instructor in my 30s, I was often in situations where I felt pressure to be slim. The year I spent as a coed on the Ole Miss campus added to that pressure. I kept comparing myself to the beauty queens my boyfriend had dated before me.

The manual also says that mental disorders in family members can contribute to someone having an eating disorder. My mother definitely exhibited substance use disorder (drinking) and I have reason to believe that she was sexually abused by her father, my grandfather, who molested me when I was a little girl.

So, what’s the Mental Health First Aid Action Plan for helping someone with an eating disorder? It’s tricky, to say the least. It requires that a person wanting to reach out and help someone must learn as much as possible about the disorder first, by reading books and articles, or talking with a health professional. Then they should choose a time to approach the person they are concerned about and do so in a way that is non-judgmental and compassionate. Some tips in the manual:

Initially, focus on conveying empathy and not on changing the person or their perspective… try not to focus solely on weight or food. Rather, focus on the eating behaviors that concern you. Allow the person to discuss other concerns that are not about food, weight, or exercise. Make sure you give the person plenty of time to discuss their feelings, and reassure them it’s safe to be open and honest about how they feel.

I think this is great advice. Some things NOT to do (that I’ve experienced personally and found not to be helpful) are: (these come from me, not from the manual)

Suggest a specific diet or nutrition plan that has “worked for them.” (Unless the person is ASKING for one.)

Use words or a tone of voice that is patronizing, even in an attempt to flatter the person with phrases like, “Oh but you are beautiful just the way you are.” This is fine if you are close friends with the person, but not helpful in mental health first aid.

Like the other mental health first aid approaches, this one has guidelines for assessing the person for crisis including:

 The person has serious health consequences (disorientation, vomiting, fainting, chest pain or trouble breathing, blood in their bowels, urine, or vomit, or cold or clammy skin and a body temperature of less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

eating_disorders_imageIf you come across someone with these symptoms, mental health first aid is important, and you should apply similar techniques as for other crises (the

ALGEE action plan I explained in my previous post.) But there are suggestions specifically for helping someone with an eating disorder who seems to be in a crisis. There’s too much information for me to share here, but I hope you will get the manual and read about this yourself.

I know this was a long post, and as always, thanks for reading. And of course I love to hear from you, either here or on the Facebook thread.

Here’s a post from a few years ago that has an excerpt from my essay “Eat, Drink, Repeat”:

“Eat Drink Repeat: Day 1 of a 3-Day Binge” (2015)

Transfiguration: People Can Change

Transfiguration1-e1353430693909Today is the Feast of Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church. (Read about this feast at the icon here.) I went to Vespers at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis last night, which was beautiful. The icon of Transfiguration at dusk made the reality of what was happening on Mount Tabor more tangible, which is one of the things I love about the Orthodox Church. It offers an embrace for all the senses, with prayerful chanting, incense, and the glow of candlelight on the gold leaf halos of the icons. I wasn’t feeling well this morning, so I didn’t make it to Liturgy for the feast. But at home I prayed before our icons and thanked God for the way He is transforming me into His image, which is what this feast is all about

Eight years ago I wrote a post about this:

“Can People Change?” (Click on the link to read the post.)

And then six months ago, on my birthday (March 8) I did a follow-up post:

“Birthday Musings: People Can Change” #sixmonthswithoutadrink

I don’t really have much to add today, except that I am full of joy and thanksgiving for the way that God is helping me to change as I grow older. In case you aren’t taking time to click on one of the links above and re-read those posts, I’m going to share my favorite quote from Dr. Jamie Moran’s essay, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in the book, Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World:

People who leave a space for God—even for the ‘hidden’ God, which is what the Holy Spirit is: God’s humility—can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.

Dormition-of-Theotokos1I love that this feast comes half-way through the Dormition Fast, because the Mother of God plays a big part in our transfiguration, in our change. In his homily yesterday Father John Troy (Mashburn, our pastor emeritus) talked about healing, and how we must come to Jesus for healing, or someone must bring us to Jesus. I started thinking about HOW to bring people to Jesus for healing, especially if they don’t physically come to church. I remembered what my “yia-yia” Urania Alissandratos told me years ago when she was still living and “mothering” so many of us at St. John. When her children left home for college, she would “bring them to God” by symbolically bringing them to the Mother of God and leaving them in Her care. She did this symbolically by decorating her icon on the solea at church with flowers every year on the Feast of the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Mother of God. At Vespers last night, I found myself praying for loved ones who weren’t there by bringing them to the Mother of God, mentally, spiritually, even physically and emotionally as I wept tears for them. We all need healing, and I know several people who have “brought” me to Christ and to His Mother for healing over the years. I hope that I am paying that forward by bringing others to Him in my prayers. I look forward to another opportunity to do that tonight, as we pray the Paraclesis Prayers to the Mother of God at St. John.

Rebranding Prayer and Mindfulness Revisited

Last night I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up, did some writing on the computer (not a good idea when Church Health Readerone is having trouble sleeping!) and then read for a while. Finally I went back to bed around 3:30 a.m., but my mind was still buzzing. The last time I looked at the clock it was close to 4 a.m. I remember falling asleep with the Jesus Prayer going through my mind and heart. Why didn’t I try that first, before getting on the computer and reading? Why didn’t I think to approach my insomnia and monkey mind with mindfulness?

Earlier in the evening I had gone to a different sort of book event. Two Memphis authors—Suzanne Smith Henley and Greg Graber—discussed their books at the first ever book reading and signing at Church Health Center at Suzannethe Crosstown Concourse. I went because of my friendship with Suzanne, whom I’ve known since 2011 when she attended a creative nonfiction workshop I led at the Fogelman Center on the campus of the University of Memphis. I was also in a writers group with Suzanne for several years, and I was honored to be an early reader for her book, Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New. I did a review of the book here on my blog back in March, and a review on Amazon, Rehab, Heart Attacks, and the Holy Spirit Riding a Harley.” It was fun hearing Suzanne talk about her book again, with her unique perspective on the use of prayer beads and what she called “rebranding prayer.”

GregGreg Graber is the head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, and a mindfulness coach for the Memphis Grizzlies and several other sports teams. He spoke about his book, Slow Your Roll: Mindfulness For Fast Times. Greg also leads mindfulness workshops at the Church Health Center on Saturday mornings. His message about slowing down in this age of smart phones, tablets, and social media is timely and important, and can be incorporated into the lives of people of all faiths.

Suzanne and Greg were introduced by Dr. Scott Morris, founder and CEO of Church Health in Memphis, the largest faith-based healthcare ministry of its type. He’s a physician and a United Methodist pastor. I picked up a copy of the Church Health Reader Scott(Summer 2018, Volume 8, Number 3) while I was at the event, and was interested to read Scott’s article, “The Way of the Pilgrim.” Scott writes about his experience in college and beyond practicing transcendental meditation (TM). He says, “Even though I liked how it calmed my mind, I didn’t feel grounded in anything that was about God.”

He goes on to write about how the Jesus Prayer opened him to a Christian form of mindfulness:

When I first tried the Jesus Prayer with Henri Nouwen, it immediately seemed like TM. I just replaced om with the short prayer…. Years later I picked up a little book—it was only about three inches long—titled The Way of the Pilgrim…. I needed to try something, so I said to myself, ‘Start praying.’

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’

These days we hear less about the Hari Krishnas and TM, but mindfulness and meditation are widespread and have proven health and spiritual benefits. Many people of faith use mindfulness practices for the same reasons I’ve used the Jesus Prayer all these years—to let go of everything that clutters our mind and be fully present in this moment, to be present in prayer, to experience it more clearly, and perhaps to find God waiting there.

There’s also an article in this issue of the Church Health Reader by Tim Stead titled “Mindfulness in the Christian Tradition,” which addresses the differences in the Buddhist approach and the Christian approach.

And another article by advanced practice psychiatric-mental health clinical nurse specialist Jane Slatery, “Will It Really Make Me Feel Better?” It’s about the research on mindfulness and medicine.

Some of these articles are available online (the ones with links) but others are only in the print edition. SUBSCRIBE to the Church Health Reader HERE. I just started my subscription and am looking forward to future issues. Join me?

Mindfulness and Addiction

NGM2017_09_SEPTEMBERThis coming Sunday, July 8, will be the ten-month anniversary of my last drink. I first wrote about this in my final blog post of 2017, “0 Meetings in 90 Days,” when I wrote about how I quit drinking on September 8, 2017.

I did a follow-up post three months later, on my 67th birthday, “Birthday Musings: People Can Change #sixmonthswithoutadrink”.  And again in January, “120 Days….”

I was talking with a friend about this yesterday and she mentioned an article she found interesting from the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine, “How Science is Unlocking the Secrets of Addiction” by Fran Smith. My friend loaned me her copy of the magazine and I read the article this morning.

While I found much that was helpful and interesting in the article—which wasn’t just about alcohol and other drug addictions, but also touched on addictions to food, shopping, and other behaviors—I took issue with the author’s definition of addiction as a disease. Although she presented a broad brush view of treatments, she seemed to agree with the Alcoholic Anonymous template when it comes to approaching alcoholism as a disease. I didn’t take issue with the plethora of treatments that are being studied to help people who are addicted to addictive substances, only with defining addiction as a disease. (One of the things that resonated with me about Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness, & Change Your Life, was her focus on alcohol as the extremely addictive drug that it is, rather than a focus on the “alcoholic” as a sick person.”)

Dr. Judson Brewer

Dr. Judson Brewer

Smith did part ways with AA on some important tenets in her National Geographic piece, though, and offered an alternative that touched on some of what works for me:

“Although 12-step programs, cognitive therapy, and other psychotherapeutic approaches are transformative for many people, they don’t work for everyone, and relapse rates are high…. [Judson]Brewer is a student of Buddhist psychology. He’s also a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction. He believes the best hope for treating addiction lies in melding modern science and ancient contemplative practice. He’s an evangelist for mindfulness, which uses meditation and other techniques to bring awareness to what we’re doing and feeling, especially to habits that drive self-defeating behavior….

Researchers at the University of Washington showed that a program based on mindfulness was more effective in preventing drug-addiction relapse than 12-step programs….

Mindfulness trains people to pay attention to cravings without reacting to them. The idea is to ride out the wave of intense desire.

That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the past ten months—riding out the wave of intense desire. Yes, the desire for a vodka martini is sometimes still intense, but the good news is that I don’t have those desires as often as I did when I was drinking. I used to crave vodka pretty much all day, every day. Now I only crave it a few times a week, sometimes less. I actually have whole days without that craving, which is wonderful.
But when it comes, I use a combination of mindfulness and prayer to ride out the craving. Sometimes I even talk to myself aloud, saying things like, “Yes, that martini sounds wonderful, and would certainly take the edge off this emotional or physical pain I’m having right now, but one wouldn’t be enough. I would want two. Or three. And the next time I’m in pain—which is a daily thing for me—I would want alcohol again. So why go there?” Sometimes I do things to counter the intense desire. Things like exercise, or a “treat” like something sweet or taking a break from work to watch TV or read a good book. All of these things help, but the mindfulness and prayer are the main things keeping me from drinking.

As I’ve written about here before, I’m still struggling to learn to apply these same tactics to my struggles with food cravings. The main problem remains: one cannot quit eating; one has to learn to be moderate with food. I’ll close with an encouraging quote from the National Geographic article about a woman who is having some success with mindfulness and eating:

Donnamarie Larievy, a marketing consultant and executive coach, joined the weekly mindfulness group to break her ice cream and chocolate habit. Four months in, she eats healthier food and enjoys an occasional scoop of double fudge but rarely yearns for it. “It has been a life changer,” she says. “Bottom line, my cravings have decreased.”

I always love hearing from my readers on your experience in these areas. Please leave a question or comment here, or in a thread on Facebook. Thanks always for reading!

Authentic Happiness

NYM_top1I just scored a 3.08 on a scale of 1 to 5 on the Authentic Happiness Inventory designed by folks at the University of Pennsylvania.  The score reflects my overall “happiness” compared with others in my age group, zip code, education level, gender, and occupation group. Although I think it’s interesting that “writer” isn’t even listed as an occupation, so I checked “artist,” the closest option to my occupation. Why did I take this inventory?

This morning, with my morning coffee, I read an article in the recent issue of New York Magazine, “The Cure for New York Face,” about Professor Laurie Santos’s new course at Yale University, PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life. I was struck by the statistics—especially among people who seem to have lots of “reasons” to be happy, from an exterior point of view. Of course there’s lots about two things that seem related to our “happiness”—time and money, and how we value them and spend them.

In Praise coverSome parts of the article reminded me of the wonderful little book I read recently by Alan Lightman, In Praise of Wasting Time. I bought and read this book a few weeks ago, primarily because its author wrote the Foreword to the anthology I edited that was recently published by University Press of Mississippi, Southern Writers on Writing. Alan is from Memphis, but teaches at MIT now. A physicist. And a novelist. Interesting combination, and he brings both of those gifts to bear in his book, and his TED talk.

Last fall I did a post about Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, “Moments of Happiness.”

Last March I did a post reflecting on a Wall Street Journal article, “Two Types of Happiness.”

The same month I read and reviewed Daphne Merken’s book, This Close to Happy.

Five years ago I was blogging about an article in Psychology Today: “Mindfulness Does Not Lead to Happiness.”

And six years ago I wrote this one: “Permission to NOT Be Happy.”

Are you seeing a trend here? And yet, I do feel that I am “happier” now that I was six years ago. And I’m actually a bit surprised that I didn’t score higher on the Authentic Happiness Inventory. But I do tend to be quite honest and in touch with my feelings. From a spiritual point of view, I sometimes wonder how important “happiness” is, as opposed to what seem to be deeper states like “peace” and “contentment.”

thOne thing I found interesting in the New York Magazine article was the author’s comments about money and happiness. His study showed that $75,000/year seems to be the salary “scientifically proven to provide the maximum amount of well-being.” So, he noted that in one study people making $30,000 a year were asked what salary would make them truly happy. The average answer was $50,000. But people making $100,000 a year said, on average, $250,000 would make them happy. Maybe it’s the old adage that the more we have, the more we want. I’m thinking about this now, not in terms of financial success, but with my writing career. Five years ago I was working with a New York literary agent (whom I would later part ways with) on my novel, CHERY BOMB, wondering if it would ever be published. When it came out last year—with a small press in Mississippi and not with one of the “big five”—I was “happy” to be published. It was a lifelong dream finally coming true. Actually, having three books published last year was pretty amazing. And a fourth this month. So, why is it that I still want “more”? Why am I now querying literary agents again (for my linked short story collection) rather than submitting it to an academic press?

the-quest-for-authentic-happiness-460x291I put this question to a very spiritual person whom I trust, and he encouraged me that it was a normal progression in my career to desire this next step up. That I wasn’t being obsessive about “success” in an unhealthy manner.

And yet I find myself praying—yes—for more success. My novel is entered into two prestigious writing contests and I’m waiting to hear the results this summer. Would I find a greater level of “happiness” if it wins one of those awards? Or even makes a short list or becomes a finalist? Of course I believe that would make me happier, but is that a superficial goal?

Again, I’ve been struggling with this for years, as these posts show:

“I Want More” (from 2016)

“We Want More” (from 2013)

It IS interesting to read those posts now, as someone who quit drinking almost nine months ago. I still want MORE (potato chips, chocolate, and—in conflict with those cravings—a skinnier body) almost every day, but I take encouragement from the fact that I was able to tame my out-of-control desire for more vodka, and hope that eventually the strength (and God’s grace) that enabled me to do that will cross over into other areas of my life. Like food. And contentment in my career.

I’d love to hear from my readers about your take on happiness. And if any of you take the Authentic Happiness Inventory, please let me know what you thought about it. Meanwhile, have a great weekend!

#Lent2018: Confession and Community

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is the fourth in my weekly series of reflections on Nicole Roccas’s book TIME AND DESPONDENCY: REGAINING THE PRESENT IN FAITH AND LIFE, which I’m reading during this season of Great Lent. If you missed my first three posts and would like to catch up, here they are:

Gratitude & Thankswriting

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perserverance

In Chapter 4, Nicole writes about our tendency to escape the present—to avoid our current circumstances, whether it be work, dealing with a difficult situation, relationships with other people, or anything that brings discomfort or requires effort. When we are despondent, we want to escape place and people, which is why confession and community are both important to consider at this juncture. We become restless, and we try to escape in three realms: physically, mentally, and spiritually:

The uncertainty of the present moment confronts us with an ever-unfolding reminder that we are not God, that we are not the masters of our own universe, that there are things we cannot choose or control. Whatever the present looks like at any given moment, there are only two possible ways of responding to it: to enter or exit it, to respond or despond.

Acedia

 

 

Of course one of the primary means of exit—of desponding—that I fall into often involves the physical act of gluttony, or “emotional eating,” as well as over-indulging in television and laziness in general. And one that she mentions that surprised me but makes perfect sense, is “unnecessary busyness.” I love being busy, and I’m sure I use busyness as an escape at times. This might sound confusing as I know I’ve heard that being active is good medicine for depression, but I think that healthy activity and excessive busyness are two different things.

Nicole Roccas, authorNicole goes into depth to expand our understanding of ways to mentally escape the present, including the understanding of two primary roots of despondency in the mind—desire and anger. As a creative (writer) I’ve always struggled with any idea of having my desires and passions stifled by the church. But understood correctly, I don’t think that’s what she is saying here, as she quotes the Dutch Catholic theologian (and one of my favorite writers) Henri Nouwen:

Spiritual disciplines are not ways to eradicate all our desires but ways to order them so that they can serve one another and serve God.

And what does she say about anger?

The anger of despondency is the anger of thwarted wishes, of reality not aligning with our silent demands—the anger that covers the pain of a lifetime spent trying (and failing) to be one’s own god.

So what does all this discussion about living in the present and not escaping it have to do with confession and community? I really like how she tied the importance of community in with our battle against despondency:

The relational context of confession reminds us how vital it is to cultivate fruitful community in the midst of despondency, which continually pulls us toward isolationism.

journal 1Her discussion and reflection questions helped me to reaffirm my commitment to do more spiritual (and not exclusively secular) reading during Lent, to participate as often as possible in the weekly services at church, and to continue to struggle against my tendency to escape with food/gluttony when I’m uncomfortable living in the present.

As she did with the previous chapter, Nicole gives us “Stepping Stones,” in this case, for confession and community: participate in community; initiate community; and learn to see confession as medicine. She asks the reader to consider one way to exercise the stepping stones this week. I hope to reach out to friends and neighbors who have special needs, initiating community and keeping despondency at bay.

P. S. I am really finding blessings in keeping my “thankswriting journal,” which I wrote about in last week’s post and began last Monday night.

Birthday Musings: People Can Change #sixmonthswithoutadrink

67th birthdayI am 67 years old today. Damn, that sounds old! But it also sounds wonderful because, as E.E. Cummings said,

“It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.”

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I had my last drink SIX MONTHS AGO TODAY, on September 8, 2017. I wrote about it here:

“0 Meetings in 90 Days” (December, 2017)

and again here:

“120 Days” (January 8, 2017)

6_month_chip_magnet-re89176215e1a488c9cd00a469e07f899_x7js9_8byvr_630My closest friends are as baffled as I am about how I’ve been able to do this. Without rehab. Without AA. (Read my first post above for more info on that.) And today, six months in, I’m more convinced than ever that it has to do with:

Timing. I read Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind, at a time when I was ready to hear her words, and ready to act on them.

God’s grace. Every morning I ask God to help me make it through the day without a drink. And every evening I say thanks. Kind of like Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow. That’s exactly how I feel today!

It also has to do with believing that people can change. In my blog post from August 8, 2010, “Can People Change?” I quoted an Orthodox psychotherapist, Dr. Jamie Moran, from his essay, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in the book Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World:

People who leave a space for God—even for the ‘hidden’ God, which is what the Holy Spirit is: God’s humility—can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.

37566-People-Can-ChangeI was trying to change back then, and for many years before that. But I couldn’t seem to let go of one of the main things that gave me comfort from my suffering—both emotional and physical—alcohol. (Another thing that I’m still struggling to let go of is trying to find that comfort from food, and I’m hoping that I will learn to do that as I have learned to let go of alcohol.) Sexual abuse—both as a child and as a young adult—left me in a messy battle with God, self, and my abusers, leading first to a lifetime of disordered eating and several decades of disordered drinking.

I’ve also struggled most of my adult life with anger and depression, which are in many ways two sides of the same coin. But in these areas I also believe that people can change, and I’m thankful to see progress with both of those demons in my own life, starting ten years ago when I had a breakthrough with anger, and wrote about it in an essay that was a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project: “Blocked.” And I’m continuing to learn ways to deal with depression—and its close cousin despondency—this Lent, as I read and write about Nicole Roccas’s new book, Time and Despondency.

So, as I move forward today into my sixty-eighth year of this amazing life that God has given me, I will try to continue to leave a space for God. Because I believe that people can change.

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