Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Finding the Gray

My third grade teacher gave me an award on the last day of school that recognized my propensity for always thinking in black and white.  It was meant to be funny, but in a less than ironic keeping with the award's very point, I couldn't see the humor.  All I saw was that I was being made fun of, and I didn't like it.  Not to mention, it bothered me that the award title was so long that the words ran off the allotted line.  Rigid much, Cait?  Give or take a dozen years and not much has changed.

I've been told, often, to "find the gray."  To find the area of logic, or reasoning that is neither this nor that, one thing or the other, but rather somewhere in between.  For me, the in-between is an excruciatingly uncomfortable place.  It lacks definition, and, therefore (in my mind) meaning or worth.  Without a structure, without a category, without a system in which to file experiences, thoughts, worries, and fears, my mind races, turns in circles, and often freaks out.

The eating disorder provided the clearest, most easily accessible system that I had ever encountered.  Within it, I had access to a kind of mental utopia that Valium and Seroquel only claim to provide.  In that world, decisions were so simple.  Eat, or not eat?  Purge, or not purge?  (I'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count.)  My mind relaxed.  It didn't matter that I didn't know what to do about anything else that was going on in my life, because I had the real stuff figured out: I had figured out how to lose weight.

I remember how this all began.  It was the end of December.  (Is anyone happy with how their body looks after the holidays?  I wasn't.)  I weighed myself, took stock of the situation, and set a goal for myself based on how tall I thought I was (turns out I'm an inch taller, but I didn't know that then).  Here's where the butterfly flapped its wings on one continent and it caused an earthquake on another: I took a reasonable goal weight and I subtracted one pound.  That's my goal, I decided.  That one pound does not make a difference anyway, and I like the way the second number sounds better.  Can you hear the tectonic plates shifting?  Because that was all it took.  You know how many times you can subtract one?

Take away one sugar packet, and now you're drinking black coffee.
Take away one piece of bread, and now you're eating half a sandwich.
Take away one meal, and now you're only eating two.
Take away one more (because you don't actually need breakfast and lunch, good god, don't be a pig), and you're left with only one.

Almost without noticing it, your original goal weight slips by.  You don't really notice, because for weeks now, you've had a new goal weight.  One that's just a tiny bit lower.  And so on, and so on.  Until something happens, like your father getting diagnosed with cancer, to make you realize you've been operating under a profoundly selfish paradigm for far, far too long.

Shedding the eating disorder is not comprised of a series of careful steps forward, with pauses in between each one to make sure you're ready before moving on.  Nope.  It's a clusterfuck of good intentions, bad decisions, guilt, tears, frustration, and despair.  I can't, I can't, I can't, chants your ED brain, while You must, you must, you must insists the real you, the you you're trying to access, to create, to find again after so long.  It's four steps forward, and twelve steps back.  It's picking one thing to focus on, and going for broke on that, and only that.  I will not purge, even though I just binged and I am gasping for air and my stomach is distended and I hurt, everything hurts, but I will lie here in bed and I will clutch my pillow over my swollen belly and I will tell myself that tomorrow, tomorrow will be different.  Hopefully better, but if not better, at the very least - different.

Here's the "tomorrow" that I have landed in now, one that I swore up and down I would never be in again: I am an unhealthy weight.  And not because I weigh too little, though a year ago, that was very much the case.  As my body readjusted to being fed again, it put on weight.  And more, and more, and more weight.  Meanwhile, I was fighting tooth and nail to keep from purging (it's been weeks now, you guys), but the compulsions to binge were much slower to fade.  Cut out the excessive exercising too, and hi, we've now got ourselves a weight problem.  When I try to find clothes that fit me from a closet of 2's and 4's, or when I don't manage to escape the bathroom without seeing my reflection, my brain feels like it's screaming, You know what to do.  You know how to lose this weight.  I sigh, inwardly, and grit my teeth.  That road is closed, I tell myself.  Tempting, yes, but closed.

I had a physical with my nurse-practioner last week in preparation for Yale.  I asked to be weighed backwards, and after, she and I discussed where I'm at.  We talked about normal exercising patterns, normal eating patterns, and what a normal, healthy weight for my height would be.  Armed with encouragement, strategies, and a real goal, I hopped on the scale at home the next morning.  I crumpled.  It's the highest number I've seen in years.  Higher than when I started losing weight, all those months ago.  In months past, the thought of losing almost twenty pounds wouldn't really have fazed me.  Give me two months, I might say, and then I'd promptly stop eating for three days to give myself a head start.  But now?  I'm fazed.  I'm scared, and apprehensive, and emotionally bruised, but I'm also stubborn and I refuse to give up now.   My recovery may have taken a turn I didn't expect, but it's a turn that I have to live with.

Black and white thinking tells me I will never find the middle ground between weighing too much and too little, that I will live the rest of my life oscillating from one extreme to the other, and I will never figure this out.

Here in the gray zone, though, in the profoundly uncomfortable contortion I am inhabiting, the future looks a whole lot brighter.  The gray tells me that I will learn.  The gray tells me that I will get to a healthy weight, though it's going to take a lot longer than I want it to.  Mostly, the gray tells me that however I do this, and however long it takes, and however many times I want to give up...I am worth the fight.

And that?  Well, that is something to hold on to.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Leaving Time

I pulled the covers up around her shoulders and smoothed the hair from her forehead.  "Cricket, you know I love you, right?  I love you so much, and I'm going to miss you."
"I'll miss you too," she said softly.
"But I'll write you letters, okay, sweetie?" I forced my voice to be cheerful, despite the tears gathering behind my eyes.  "And you can write me back.  And I'll come visit, too!"
She paused, in thought.  "But...I can't come visit you, right?"
"No, probably not, lovey.  That would be really hard."
"I love you, my sweet.  Sleep tight."
"I love you too!"

I shut the door softly, and tiptoed downstairs.  A minute later, I heard the wail begin.  I flew up to her room and was on her bed in a moment, wiping her sweaty bangs out of her eyes and gently swiping at the tears.  "Baby, what's wrong?  What's the matter?"
She hiccuped.  "I don't want you to leave."
"You didn't want me to leave your room until you were asleep?"
"No," she said, the tears welling afresh.  "I don't want you to leave."
"Oh, baby."  I tried to breathe.  "Oh, sweet baby girl.  Cricket, I don't want to leave you.  I will always love you.  Always.  Close your eyes, baby.  I'll stay here until you're asleep, okay?"
She nodded and sighed, her heavy eyelids already closing.  The wind gently pushed the shade away from the window frame and a sliver of gray light shone into the room for a moment before it blew closed again.  One kick, then two, and her hand reached out and wrapped itself around my wrist as she sighed one last time and then, just like that, she was asleep.

I stayed for a few more minutes, even though she was dead to the world.  So poised and silly and sharp and funny when she is awake, asleep, her face is the picture of peace.  Finally, her restless, jumpy pace is quieted and her features soften.  I think for a moment about all the people in her life who will watch her sleep.  Her parents, yes, and me, but also lovers and partners years from now.  Fiercely, I want to protect her from everything and everyone that will hurt her.  I want all her hurts to be soothed by someone sitting and holding her hand until she falls asleep.  I want every morning to hold the promise of a fresh day for her, and for the pains and troubles of the day before to be left behind as easily as the foggy remnants of the dreams she never remembers.  But more than anything, I want to not be the first person who will hurt her.  To not be the very first memory she has of someone leaving her.

Cricket will have another nanny.  Someone who loves her, I am sure.  But I tell her, gathering her into my arms and holding her close, even when she squirms to get away, "Nobody loves you like I do.  Nobody ever will."  She tells me she loves me too, plants a kiss on my cheek, leaps up and runs away.  Run back, baby.  Stay in my lap just a moment longer.  Kiss me one more time.  Because I'm going to miss you more than you know.  More than I ever could have imagined.

I'm so sorry that I'm leaving, that I'm hurting you.  I'm so, so sorry.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Very Best Dad

On my fifteenth birthday, my dad told me that as a special present, he was going to teach me how to start the car.  Now, before you laugh, I should say that in my defense, my family only ever owned cars with standard transmissions so starting a car was - albeit, only slightly - more complicated than turning a key.  Gleefully, I scampered outside in the frigid February air and practiced holding the clutch and the brake with my slippered feet, turning the ignition, moving it into neutral, and pulling up the parking brake.  Now, my dad quipped, I had an entire year to practice coming outside to warm up the car before I turned sixteen and he would actually start teaching me to drive.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to me doing chores in the rapidly descending winter darkness between when I got home from school and when my parents got home from work.  Somehow, one of the buckets of firewood that I needed to haul into the house from the garage had gotten wedged just under the bottom of the car.  Tugging on it made no difference, and red-faced and sweaty from the effort, I suddenly remembered that I had a solution.  I could turn on the car, let it roll forward just the slightest amount, and it would release the wedged bucket.  I could turn on the car!  I could do this!  I had skills!  I'm sure you can see where this is going.  I hopped in the car, I pressed on the clutch, I turned the key, and the car started to roll.  Panicked, my mind was utterly blank.  Years of driving teaches the muscles in your feet and legs how to slam on the brakes.  I had no such experience and before my brain could figure out what was happening, with a soft thud, the front of the car slammed into the back wall of the garage...a shared wall with my dad's workshop...that he had just finished re-drywalling two days ago.  All I could do was turn off the car.  The last thing I was about to attempt was backing up.  Panicked, I got out of the car and started to bawl as I saw the three foot section of cracked drywall I had just busted into my dad's shop.

The next hour until my dad to got home from work was a very long (and tearful) wait.  These were the days before everyone had a cell phone and so there was no opportunity for the softer confrontation of a phone call confession.  When he pulled into the driveway, I flew outside to tell him before he could barely step out of the car.  The last thing I wanted was for him to see the damage first.  Voice shaking, I valiantly tried to hold back more tears as I told him what happened.  I'll pay for the new drywall, I said.  I'll help you put it up, I said.  Mostly, all I said was, "I'm sorry."  Over and over again.  Until he smiled, gave me a hug, and told me it was no big deal.  He ambled into the garage, turned on the light, and bent to inspect the damage.  "No biggie," he said as he stood up.  "I'll just re-park the car and then let's go in for some dinner."

If this story ended here, I think we would all agree that my father is a pretty fantastic guy.  Not reaming your idiot teenage daughter out for running the car into the garage?  I'd drink to that.  But, sadly, the story does not end here.  Because three months later...

I did it again.

And the fact that my father was calm, and understanding, and still not angry?
The second time I ran the car into the garage?
After he'd already repaired the wall I broke the first time?
THAT is what makes him the Best Dad in the World.

Guess who always, ALWAYS starts a car with her foot on the brake now?  This girl.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy.  I love you more than you know.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Try Again

I have a confession to make.  Despite not having any kids of my own...I read parenting books.  Quite a bit, actually.  I consider them beneficial on two counts: one, it's research that allows me to do my current job better, and two, it's research that I hope will prepare me better for the job ahead of me (someday).  The book I just finished was titled, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and everywhere in between), by Mei-Ling Hopgood.  According to Amazon's book description, it's "a tour of global practices that will inspire American parents to expand their horizons (and geographical borders) and learn that there’s more than one way to diaper a baby."  The author discusses everything from children's bedtimes (or lack thereof) in Argentina, how you won't find a stroller in Kenya, why French children eat their vegetables, and the topic of this post - why Asian children blow other kids out of the academic water. 

I learned an incredible amount from this book, and spent hours mulling over some of the author's findings, comparing them to what I have done with kids and thinking about what might work better instead.  Probably mostly because it was the last chapter in the book (and is therefore the freshest in my mind), but yesterday and today, I found myself consistently being brought back to the discussion about why Asian kids excel in school.  The author makes a case for the fact that a huge reason for this is because of familial and societal expectations and pressures: if you, as an individual, expect yourself to do well and are thus the only beneficiary of your own success, it follows that you are then also the only one hurt by your own lack of effort and subsequent failure.  If, on the other hand, you are raised in a culture or family situation where it is made clear to you that the expectations of you are held by those around you, and that your success (and, obviously, your failure) reflects upon and either honors or dishonors the group, you are much more likely to try.  And that - trying - is the key.  Studies have found that while Americans are much more likely to attribute success to things like good circumstances, natural ability, and even luck, Asian parents send the message to their kids right from the get-go that effort is what matters, and that "not being inherently good at something" isn't really an option; the answer is to try harder in order to achieve success.

Is browbeating the answer?  I'd wager not.  But get a load of this.  Today, I sat with Cricket (who's five) this afternoon while the babies played on their rug and I was asking her to read the words on the bottom of her counting flashcards without looking at the pictures for clues.  The card would say something like, "two sneakers," and I'd cover the picture of the sneakers with another card so that she really had to read the words.  She can recognize number words no problem, and would instantly read the number and then guess what the second word was based on the first letter. 
"Two shoes," she said at first.
"Nope," I answered, "Let's sound it out."  Carefully, watching myself to make sure I wasn't underestimating her abilities and handing her the answer, I made her identify each sound one by one, and then asked her to string them together.  She pursed her lips and glared at me.
"Come on, Cricket, put them together."
"Sssss," she said, and then looked at me hopefully, waiting for me to provide her with the rest of the word.  I looked back, saying nothing.  We covered up the -ers, and worked only on sneak- for a while, and then reattacked the whole word.
"Come on, Cricket.  Try."
She tried, and failed: "Snakes!"
"Nope.  Try again."
She puffed her nostrils a bit, stared at the word, looked at me, and looked at the word again.
"I don't want to do this!"
"No, we're doing this.  Try harder."
 Suddenly, her eyes lit up.  "Sneakers!"
"Yes!" I cried, high-fiving her while she grinned.  "Awesome job, sweetie.  Let's keep going."

And we did.  We worked for half an hour and we got through only six cards.  She huffed and puffed only once more, but never once was she hurt or discouraged by my firm insistence that she try harder.  Rather, it was like fuel to her fire.  She knew that I believed she could do it, and so she started to believe she could too.  I know she is smart, but you know what, so are a lot of kids.  What matters more than how smart she is is how hard she tries.  And we have to teach kids to try that hard.  To fail, and then try again, and again, until they get it right.  Because the only way that she will grow to have high expectations of herself is if someone else has those expectations for her first.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Mourning Hours

Rising up from sleep, disentangling myself from whatever bad dream I'm currently in, my hand reaches out beside me long before I am fully awake.  Still mostly unconscious, my body seeks the comfort of someone that my brain has not yet registered is no longer there.  My hand grips cold sheets and discarded pillows, and with that, I surface completely, and instantly wish that I hadn't.

It's been more than five months.

I miss her, still.

When I hugged Alix goodbye at the airport last August, I never would have dreamed that that was the last time I'd ever see her.  And that first night without her, when the above scenario played out for the very first time, I would never have believed that ten months later, I'd still be living in the same bad dream.  When I fell in love with Alix, I fell hard and fast and without abandon.  It was reckless, but it was not dangerous.  We fell together, and I'd never experienced anything so thrilling and yet so safe.  Two weeks after I first met her, my tongue was tripping over the words that I knew to be true.  Don't be stupid, I told myself.  You can't possibly love someone after only two weeks.  But I did, and she did too, and that made it okay.  Safety in numbers, or something like that.  Falling out of love, on the other hand, is a much lonelier affair.  Without another beside you, experiencing the same deluge of emotion, you stumble along alone, doing things in the wrong order and reattaching pieces of yourself that you have long forgotten how to assemble without help.  It's messy, and frustrating, and meanwhile, you're constantly wondering how the other person is faring.  Inevitably, as the one who was left, I spend most of my time wondering things like, Does she even care?  Is this even affecting her?  Did she even love me, anyway? 

And that is the heart of it.  The mourning comes and goes, fills you, overwhelms you, and sometimes leaves you for a bit, but only to come sweeping back when you least expect it.  In the darkness of 3 AM, after the half-awake reach across an empty bed, after the ensuing stomach drop, and even after the deep breath and second attempt at sleep, the question still rings in your head.  Did she love me?  Like how I loved her?

How could something so right go so horribly wrong?

How can anything ever be right, ever again?


Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Very Last Time

Today was the very last time that I will ever quit a nanny job.  Never again will I agonize over an email asking my bosses if we can sit down and talk the following Friday.  Never again will I spend most of a night having nightmares about getting screamed at by the parents of the children that I love.  And never again will I sit, with my heart sinking to my toes, my voice shaking over tears as I tell yet another family that it's time for me to move on.  I'm tired of this life.  I'm tired of falling in love with these tiny people over and over again, and always leaving them behind.  I'm tired of loving everyone else's kids except my own.  I swear, the day that someone hands me my own baby that I never have to hand back - I don't think I'll actually believe it's real.  Until, of course, said baby is two-and-a-half, and throwing a tantrum in the grocery store and I look around wondering if anyone would like to maybe collect on this demon child that they mistakenly think is mine.  Anyone?  Bueller?

I haven't written much about the girls here.  I had a lot of conflicting feelings about this job, right from the beginning.  This January, when I started working with them, was so tumultuous and difficult that I felt like I could barely put one foot in front of the other.  I was completely up in the air about Yale, and needed to land a job (and quickly), regardless of whether or not I might be leaving for school in the fall.  When I did get in to Yale, and furthermore, decided to go, things got even more complicated.  All along, I had gone into this job knowing that it would be my last nanny job.  How long it was going to last, though, was anyone's guess.  All I knew when I started was that I was broke, desperate, depressed, and scared.  I needed to work.  I needed to be making money in order to survive, and perhaps more importantly, I needed a reason to get out of bed each day when it felt like there was no point in trying.

These three girls, especially the twins, gave me that reason.  For all the nothing that I said about them here, my heart has been filling with somethings for the last six months.  Dangerous though I knew it was, I fell in love, and hard.  Their faces turn towards mine like flowers to the sun when I walk into a room.  Dove learned how to lift her arms to be picked up last week, without my even teaching her.  Bun will squirm with excitement as I reach into her crib for her, as if I just can't pick her up fast enough.

My bosses were more understanding than I could have possibly anticipated.  Having finally reined in my tears enough to choke out that I would be leaving at the end of the month, I only erupted into fresh sobs when C. looked kindly at me and said, with the utmost sincerity, "Enjoy these last three weeks.  Those babies are going to miss you something fierce when you're gone."

I couldn't be more excited for Yale, for New Haven, for the house that I'm moving into, for the new beginnings that lie ahead.  But, oh my heart.  Please let this be the very last time that it breaks for the babies I love, cherish, and ultimately have to leave.

Monday, June 4, 2012

What's Kickin' in my Kitchen

Recipes available upon request...

Avocado grapefruit salad

Oven oatmeal

Blueberry cornbread

Burst tomatoes

Lemon pasta