Monday, February 25, 2013

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Honestly, my attitude most of the time is that eating disorders are less important than other diseases, because you can't control your Dandy Walker Syndrome, but you can just stop throwing up your food. You know? How "you" can do that?

I mean, I couldn't do that, not after three inpatient stays and thousands and thousands of insurance dollars and seventeen years, not after destroying teeth and friendships and opportunities, not after missing huge chunks of grade school and high school and college and life. But "you" -- that stellar rhetorical construct whose referent is always serendipitously MIA -- you can. You can do anything you set your mind to. (Just look at how well you do when "crutches" like affirmative action and food stamps are excised from the budget!)

For me, of course, it is taking divine intervention to recover from my bulimia. Which is to say, however self-consciously: I prayed to get better, I pray every time I feel my grip slipping on my recovery, and -- though God knows I've tried every other avenue recommended to me, and found some of them helpful (and some not: cutting out wheat and sugar? Not so much) -- for me, my experience of no longer being bulimic is primarily an experience in which, every day, my ass is saved by something larger than myself.

 "A friend who does not believe in God says, 'Maybe not a miracle, but a little improvement,' but to that I say, Listen! You must not have heard me right: I couldn't feed myself! So thanks for your input, but I know where I was, and I know where I am now, and you just can't get here from there.  Something happened that I had despaired would ever happened... [and] whatever it was, learning to eat was about learning to live--and deciding to live; and it is one of the most radical things I've ever done"  -- Anne Lamott

In OA, the most hardcore of us talk about a daily reprieve rather than recovery. I am reluctant to commit to a truth claim that I could just relapse at any second; I believe that, having kept me well for almost two years, God's unlikely to drop the ball or start fucking around with me now. I know the world is full of horrible, random things that I can't explain; but in my experience, I've been cared for and healed and right now, I have no real reason to expect a change.

Having said that, this is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. So, this week, I also want to bear in mind:

1. Whatever the plan is for me, however blessed I have been, lots and lots of people still suffer tremendously from eating disorders.

2. For someone actively in an eating disorder, the fact that they do not have spina bifida or brain cancer or whatever is surprisingly beside the point. It is difficult for me to fully to communicate how devastating anorexia and bulimia have been in my own life -- partially because I find it painful to remember who I was, what I did, and what I felt when I was sick, and partially because when I try to do so, I end up feeling histrionic. However doggedly we romanticize female self-sacrifice and delicacy, however insistently we shame the overweight for being "greedy" or whatever, the reality is that, when I was eating disordered, I was a deeply selfish, ugly person, and it is a struggle to feel compassionate rather than embarrassed when I remember that time in my life.

3. I believe that my recovery was an act of God, but I don't believe it was spontaneous, easy, or even truly sudden. I struggled with bulimia for seventeen years before I was able to stop binging and purging. I got used to things that people should not have to get used to; I experienced things that, however they might pale next to, say, receiving chemotherapy or being confined to a wheelchair, I would never want anyone else to experience. And even for God, my recovery has been a project, and remains an ongoing pain in the ass.

So, eating disorders: however we may enjoy the benefits of a culture that privileges a kind of body that often is maintained only through severe and chronic mental illness, ultimately this is not a win.

Check out NEDA's website to learn more. While nothing friends, family, or society does will make a person eating disordered or cure them from their disease, it is the case that we live in a society that rewards anorexia and bulimia in a way that it does not reward, say, cocaine addiction or schizophrenia. The more accommodating our society becomes to individuals with healthy bodies and minds, the less intractable these diseases will prove.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

gratitude post

In an effort to make up for taking off in an existential huff for a week and a half, here are 10  5 (because bonus: I also got a job!) unqualified-ly excellent things that have happened in the interim since my last post:

1. my Dandy Walker kiddo! Okay, actually, not excellent; Dandy Walker is a fascinating, but distressing, medical condition involving hydrocephaly and, often (but not always!) developmental disability. However, as nursing student experiences go, it's definitely bi-winning to get assigned to that patient. My research into Dandy walker also turned me onto  -- and, if you know me, you know there's no way I'd rather spend a free Friday night than doing shots and learning about rare diseases (much to the chagrin of my husband, who generally is able to redirect me to less blatantly disordered means of re-creating). 

2. You may remember my distress over my last Peds test. As it turns out, thanks to a whopping curve, I managed a 95% -- every point of which I will need, since I gather that the second test, which I am making up tomorrow, was much harder. (But as a thank-you to everyone who assured me I'd do fine on test #1, I'm just not going to indulge whatever meltdown this second test precipitates.)

3. Also: knitting! I still can't do it! But I can crochet, and crochet I do, aggressively and pointedly, in response to the myriad interpersonal conflicts I must navigate now that I 1. have a personality, rather than a DSM IV entry and 2. am less blissed-out on preggo hormones. (I don't know what kind of babies those cranky pregnant ladies were growing, but I felt amazing when I was pregnant, and not just because I found the body projects associated with growing a human to be much less odious and inane than those associated with Being Sexually Presentable, or whatever one would call that project that assumes I'm eager to spend large portions of disposable income disposing of any and all of the hair on my body, less my eyelashes.) 

Crocheting is like yoga, only better, because I actually have time to crochet and can combine it with other activities I do daily, including: talking to my husband and child about Things Other than Nursing School, making up songs about Congestive Heart Failure, watching every episode of Community the minute I can find and illegally download it, ignoring the palpable resentment of Subway Guy Who Had This Whole Seat to Himself! Gawd!

Also, if you crochet while your child is staging an Epic Tantrum (...yes, we're there now!), you are Planned-Ignoring him, which is a strategy; if slip down the street to BYC to collect yourself, you are neglecting him, which is illegal. 

4. My nurses, those writers of 40-page blueprints, bakers of wholesome cookies, interrupters of my own Epic Tantrums r/t cognitive dissonance, unanswered emails, and only-vaguely-English-speaking instructors (some of whom appear to speak no language other than English, unless you count American Stank Face (ASF?). It is absolutely the case that I am learning a great deal in nursing school, and I only wish that I could re-direct my student loan moneys to the individuals actually supplying the education my awesome father borrowed against his mortgage to co-sign on. 

5. Seriously, my nurses. By the grace of an at-least-occassionally smily and benevolent God, I got thrust into an amazing family the first time (see #4, above). It blows my mind at times, the way I've stumbled into another terrific group of people thirty years later. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

penis, envy

So, in a brief interlude during studying for The Peds Exam last Monday -- brought on by our textbook's discouraging claim that gender identity is established in children by age 3 -- I had the opportunity to speak to a classmate who really likes being a woman. Likes it so much, in fact, that she was startled that I don't like it -- that, if I could choose to be straight, I wouldn't (also shocking!), but if I could choose to be a man, I totally might.

This isn't the first time that my dislike of being female has been at issue. It comes up often, for example, with my husband -- I'm not sure what it is he thinks we're all doing --

This? -- 

but it was probably the first time that another woman has expressed surprise that I don't wake up each morning thrilled over another round of Lean Cuisine, ironic-but-not-really injokes  whose punchline inevitably is fuck my life, I'm old, and coexistence with the knowledge that not just Lena Dunham, but a large chunk of anonymous white men somewhere (perhaps the same ones determining the Republican Party's policies on reproductive rights?) believe that the TV show Girls speaks for me. 

The thing is, I was equally surprised that my friend does enjoy being a woman, especially given that this friend lives in a community in which gender roles arguably are both more rigid and more explicit than in mainstream culture (she's an Orthodox Jew). And especially since her personality -- she is not only most often the smartest person in a given room; she is also extremely direct, ambitious, and goal-oriented -- is comprised of characteristics that that I associate with being male, things that, in all the time that  I've been dating men and marrying men (just the one, but still) and producing little men, have just never been tenable traits for a woman to have. It's not just awkward for a woman to be the way she is; Judd Apatow, et al, have constructed a sizable franchise making the point that women Like This ruin men's lives.  

I don't know enough about Orthodox culture to really unpack the interesting, and delightful, prospect that a woman with so many "male" characteristics can feel so comfortable occupying a female space. But it did make me think a lot about this:

On paper, officially, I have way more options than your average Orthodox wife-and-mother when it comes to experiencing what the kids at Excelsior publishing call my "sense of being female". No one is expecting me to cook dinner for my husband or stay home from church to watch the kids while my husband relates to God. It's no longer even really acceptable to endorse restrictions like that, and those of us living in mainstream culture make a lot out of the restrictions and expectations to which female members of religious minorities are subject. (If I hear one more time about how horrified someone is by the burkha...)

And yet, women in these cultures often seem to me to be, not just happier (as though what we all really want is to be domestic and "submissive") but more assertive, more complete, than women who have no reason to identify themselves through the men in their lives -- but choose to do so anyway. 

I think the thing is: the rules for what women do in a given community can be restrictive, but because they are explicit, they are also limited: we expect you to x and y. The expectations for being a woman in our "mainstream" culture are invisible: no one is really going to come out and say anymore, You don't deserve to have sex if you weigh more than 150 pounds -- but I feel strongly that that is the case, and that entire industries exist and are sustained by the fact that that is what a lot of women believe, and that because it's never actually put into words, it can, on another day, morph into, You don't deserve to walk down the street if your ass is too fat, where "too fat" is determined, not by a number that stays the same, but by anyone who has a penis and is on that street. 

The non-rule might -- and will, should you reach that magical land of "thin enough" -- change shape so weight is no longer the issue. Should you not be personally attractive to Men,  should you have lines on your face or hair on your back, you are not only not Hot, but your lack of hotness becomes a punchline that creeps up and flings itself in your path when you really thought you were just going to the post office. 

The thing is, all of the maintstream images of how to be a woman communicate much more about how not to be a woman: don't not be a MILF, or you're disgusting and passé and your life is over and your child has ended it by "destroying" your body. (Bear in mind that when childbirth "destroys" a mainstream American woman's body, it isn't because, say, fistulas have left her incontinent or seizures have left her dead; it is because her breasts and hips no longer look like those of a twenty-five-year old.) Don't not be "sexy", or -- whether you are Lena Dunham or Hillary Clinton -- when people get done actually addressing whatever you've done or failed to do, they can, and will, slap on the corollary "and she looks like [whatever, a horse or a fat little boy or a fat little boy horse]".

Perhaps how you look is no longer vulnerable: I am less "attractive" than I was at twenty, but because a man values me enough to marry me and stay faithful to me, my value no longer hinges on what Men think. His approval is my get-out-of-jail free card, because while your average asshole on the street may not feel I measure up, he no longer has the power to determine my value absolutely; this other guy's opinion matters. The claim that I am entirely worthless is no longer valid, is no longer available to any man who dislikes me, because this other man values me.

The trade off, of course, is the incredible power that man has, by virtue of the fact that his approval, his estimation of how valuable you are, now comprises your worth. You don't have to be thin or hot anymore. Now, you can run an errand or wear a skirt without opening yourself to ridicule, provided he still thinks you're doing okay. And because he is an actual person, because he actually exists, it is possible to obtain his approval. Whereas before, well, there is always someone who thinks you're not hot enough, and even odds are one of those someones is male, or knows a guy who is.

You've gone from a truly impossible situation to situation that feels, comparatively, like freedom. To the extant that you can forget you are female, you're almost like two people who just love one another, value one another, are buddies. But, of course, the fact that you are female is not inconsequential to your partner -- so it will come up, and you won't be able to ignore it, and inevitably you will be asked why you are always so angry.

And if you are me, you won't have an answer, at least not one that will make sense now, without your explaining, first, about being eight and twelve and nineteen, about just wanting to wear a swimsuit or walk down the street or go to a job interview or on a business trip without first trying on eight outfits and shaving your legs three times. About being tired of apologizing for being attractive, for not being attractive; about feeling like twenty-three is an unreasonable expiration date for a person; about wishing you'd never heard of a Brazilian wax or a labiaplasty but living in a world in which you are expected to take for granted that those are legitimate items for one's to-do list.

About the fact that the cognitive dissonance engendered by being a body, and being compelled to agree that that body is, at best, a thing to be apologized for, the subject of self-deprecading jokes, and at worst, a thing to be held up for ridicule and violence, is an enormous fucking drag, and when it comes down to it, even on days when you feel kind of okay about yourself, it's rare that you wouldn't jump at the chance to just be a guy. Given how "guy" can pretty much always sub in person "person", and "women" -- or worse, "female", that reified categorical/imperative that loves to masquerade as a noun -- never can.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

child, development

In no particular order, lessons learned from our first unit in Pediatrics:

1. As much as the mama-nurses who make up my circle love to give examples of how our Real Live Kids are developing, being a mom doesn't necessarily make learning peds easier. It does tend to send one off on a greater number of tangents, to wit:

Why isn't my kid saying 2 to 3 words and responding to "no" by age 12 months, and will he ever, given his parentage (his little orange head looks not unlike my own when deliberately turning away from efforts at redirection)? ... Is it because, instead, he is throwing his energy into staging temper tantrums so sensational that I can't ever decide whether to laugh out loud or join him on the floor? .... Oh my God, ancephaly; I need to go plant kisses on my son's forehead-enclosed brain right now! .... Unless he's dissolved it by digging out and dousing himself with the hidden-but-not-locked-up toilet bowl cleaner....

2. I don't actually enjoy learning new things. Our excellent classmates staged a knitting workshop immediately following the carnage of yesterday's peds exam, but given that I had spent an appreciable portion of the week studying for a test on which, I suspect, I will soon be receiving a stunningly mediocre grade, I was less than open to the prospect of additional repeat failures. After literally two efforts to cast on, I was ready to go pick up Mac, so we could curl up together like bugs on the floor, butts up, faces buried, in an effort to dig our way out of an inelegant and disagreeable world.

It is discouraging to me, the way in which the emotional and spiritual growth I claim to make tends to be predicated on my Doing Better Next Time. When I don't, I tend to LOLCATZ my way right back to the same sullen, defensive place I had really believed I'd crawled out of. Disappointing.

3. But what can you do? From one perspective, it seems apparent to me that nursing school was a mistake. I'm not good at this, and given the choice to believe that I am good at nothing or that I happened to make an unfortunate mis-step, even I don't love sulking enough to go for the former. A lot of the goals I had built around being a nurse are probably unrealistic: my grades aren't going to be good enough to obtain them, and I don't have much of a reason to suspect that I'll be an exceptionally good nurse, though I do believe that I'll be competent.

From another: this is where I am. I like nursing. My only negative feelings about it center around the fact that I want to excel and seem to have picked a field in which I can't.

But I don't know that excellence, in and of itself, is as satisfying as I believe it is when I am fetishizing it: if it were, we probably wouldn't need to write so many biographies celebrating those who pursue and attain it.

I can't choose to be better, or smarter than I am, and I no longer have the option of avoiding the knowledge that I am neither as good nor as smart as I believed I would be. Currently, my choice is: do I want to react like a small child because I disappoint myself, or do I want to focus on the fact that, apart from my own limitations and the shitty feelings they engender, my circumstances are mostly pretty enviable?

No one necessarily wants to read a story about someone who fails, and learns to live with failure; but those stories exist. And I suspect that, told well, they can be interesting and valuable. Given the switch I have made from dealing with edited, imaginary stories to the inelegant stories that comprise actual lives, it's probably for the best that I learn to appreciate that value.