hold up the sky

november 18, 2017


a proverb from a book of daily gratitude quotes that i recently picked up at a thrift store resonated significantly with me this morning. i like it, which is quite a change in my attitude regarding a gratitude practice. finding it in a thrift store amused me; i consider the abandoning of a book on gratitude kind of ironic. their loss has been my gain. it’s a good book.

“if everyone helps to hold up the sky, then no one will be tired.” it’s true, but for a long time i believed i had to do it all myself. that really does make one tired. what i didn’t know was how to make space for other people in my life. it turns out that part of the answer to that is gratitude.

a great many interesting and well-educated people have put forward the proposition that an “attitude of gratitude” is essential for our mental health and emotional well-being. that as a species, we should take time each day to count our blessings because it will help us in our daily lives.

as i did with meditation, i resisted. i decided that gratitude wouldn’t work for me. i decided that i was already a generous and selfless person who didn’t have a problem in this area.

there’s another thought that goes along with rejecting proven advice, though it’s often subconscious: it’s the “i’m different” argument. “i’m different and my problems are unique so what works for the majority won’t possibly work for me. you can’t possibly expect what works for others to help me. i’m far too special”. this is not the belief system of someone who possesses an open heart. it’s self-centered. turns out that putting yourself first is a characteristic common among people with eating disorders.

the first time someone called me self-centered, i was horrified. i lost my temper and most of my composure, and dissolved into angry tears. luckily, this all happened while i was in residential treatment and emotional displays were common. i can’t imagine the reaction my temper tantrum would’ve caused if i’d had a similar outburst at home or at work.

i was shocked that someone could say that to me. that someone could ever think that about me. i was polite. i was thoughtful. i played nice with everyone (even if i wasn’t being authentic). i gave to the people in my personal life. i put my son first. i was a good daughter. i was a good friend. i helped homeless people, and i gave money to the food bank every time i went grocery shopping. it was obvious that i was all about others. i had almost no self-confidence. if i thought so poorly about myself, how could i possibly be guilty of putting myself first? what was this person talking about? the whole thing was ludicrous.

yet, i couldn’t let the thought go. it rattled around in my brain, inserting itself into everything. self-centered. me. someone telling me that ultimately, i was concerned only with myself. i knew i sacrificed for others; it was a petty source of pride. the thought wouldn’t leave. i couldn’t let it go.

the anger should’ve been a clue, but learning to understand my thoughts and feelings is a process, and this one took me awhile. i’ve found, though, that if my automatic reaction to what someone is saying is quick anger, i should look at what they’ve presented more closely.

i thought about it some more. it might be true i didn’t put myself first, but could i say the same about my eating disorder? no one outside of me could make a distinction between those two sides of me. people judge us by our actions not our thoughts. i want to be a good person, one who helps others and is considerate, but was that what my actions were saying? when was it then exactly, that my eating disorder didn’t come first?

was it when i was spending money on things i “needed” to feed the demands of my eating disorder? was it when i was making menu selections for family dinners difficult because of my rigid eating patterns? was it when i hurt those who loved me by ignoring their justifiable concerns over the increasing frailty of my frame? was it when i responded to those concerns with rage? was it when i lied to everyone, about everything, almost all the time?

maybe self-centered was when i ignored invitations from friends to go out, regardless of the reason, even if they needed my support, because i hadn’t incorporated a proposed outing into my day’s food plan and refused to adapt? perhaps it was when i traumatized my brothers when they had to listen to me throwing up when my parents when out? when i risked my son being equally traumatized discovering the same? maybe it was in my post-treatment expectations that i should be getting special treatment, because i now had a badge to show people that authenticated my position that my life was hard?

self-centered didn’t necessarily mean that i was unkind or a bad person, but i was in the habit of putting my eating disorder “needs” first. i was the first thing i considered. the judgment was correct. it was not a happy realization. i was angry again, though this time i had a different target. knowledge is power, though, and now i could focus on making that change.

there are things in my life now that make me less selfish: working on my recovery is one. abstinence from bingeing and purging helps in a couple of ways. the longer i go without, the clearer my thinking gets. the longer i can refrain and try and live a recovered-eating life, the more space opens for me to consider others, and to do for others. yes, i’ve had horrible things happen in my life, however, that’s true of many. if everyone used that as an excuse to always put themselves first, this would be a very ugly place.

once the truth was clear to me, i needed a path. i like directions and road maps. i’m a fan of plans and lists. i like information and so i turned to books. books are awesome. i have yet to encounter a problem that hasn’t already been addressed by someone in literary form.

i turned to brené brown, glennon doyle melton, mark manson, elizabeth gilbert, and the stoic philosophers to start. they have interesting things to say about being self-centered, about happiness, and about gratitude. best of all, they had practical advice. unfortunately for me, it turned out to be the very thing i had been resisting. count your blessings. literally.

at first, my lists were short and straightforward. my kids, my family, the fact that i have a house, the fact that i’m alive. all true and yet i didn’t feel grateful. i was jealous of others who managed to make lists of twenty or thirty things a day. i was irritated that i couldn’t seem to come up with original ideas. i was failing gratitude.

it also annoyed me to have add another task to the recovery laundry list. i wanted to be a better person, i wanted to be better, period, but i also wanted to just wake up that way. i resented having to write the lists things down. i resented meditating. i resented doing the work. my early attitude lacked grace. i was exceedingly grudging.

resenting gratitude is a little funny. i persisted though, so i feel like i earned some props for that. i pushed on, not because i had to, but because i wanted to be different. i wanted to feel different. i wanted to believe, not to just give lip service to, the fact that i am one of the lucky ones. i wanted to believe that despite my abuse, despite my health concerns, despite my mental illnesses, and despite my eating disorder, i have a lot to be grateful for. i live in the western world. i have a house and clean water and adequate food and medical care when i need it. i am not, like a young woman i recently met, trying to survive third degree burns to forty percent of my body and the loss of my feet and my hands. i am not, like another young woman, a survivor of twenty years in a refugee camp. i have not outlived my child. i have family and friends who push and prod and drag at me until i fight to stay here in the land of the living.

the various authors promised it would get easier. they promised that if you did the work, the feelings would come. it’s always a little annoying when other people are correct about things like that. it makes my initial resistance seem that much more ridiculous.

so, here’s to being less self-centered. working on recovering from my eating disorder helps. i think about things other than myself and my body; i’m freeing up space in my heart and soul. i’m also getting better at giving and accepting help, which i guess was the point of my morning gratitude quote. it’s easier when we don’t do everything alone. it’s better when we all hold up the sky.

By Em

I like writing. Words help me unpack my thoughts so things start to make sense. I suppose that once I figure out life, the universe, and everything (my thanks to Douglas Adams), I'll have nothing left to say. "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing, and learn as you go." E. L. Doctorow

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