I’ve had the pleasure recently of looking at my fears. My irrational fears. I’ve known I’ve had them for awhile. They rear up every now and then. But recently, they’ve been rampant…so I’m on a rampage to look them in the face. To contradict them. To remind myself that the world is safe.
Part of me knows that. Actually I think all of me knows it rationally. When my daughter had a tough bout of anxiety when she was younger, and she was terrified if I had to fly somewhere, I told her that the world was safe. That planes nearly always landed safely. That you heard about the ones that didn’t, because that was the anomaly. If they announced every plane that landed it would be unending and boring. I told her that the world was safe. And now I need to tell myself.
I was with my family, on our vacation in Spain, at an indoor food market. I sent my kids off to pick our dinner. They were together. We were in an enclosed area. My daughter is seventeen and my son is eleven. They were absolutely, rationally fine and safe. And after a few minutes of waiting for them, I was terrified. I’m often terrified when people I love are late, even a few minutes late. I know it’s not rational. I know it doesn’t make sense. And I know I couldn’t fully breathe until I saw them round the corner.
I get where my fears come from. I guess. I was in situations when I was young that weren’t safe. Things happened to and around me that I wouldn’t have chosen, given the choice. But I’m also proof that the world is safe because I’m here, and I wasn’t really harmed. Even if I may have felt harmed at the time.
The world may be irrational. Unexpected things may happen. Things we don’t like or don’t want may occur. That is all true. I’ve had friends who were sick, and friends who’ve died. I’ve seen suffering. Bad things do happen to good people. To people I love. But the overall truth. The world is safe. Mostly good things happen. There are moments, there can be moments, in every day that are delicious and delightful. And at most times, we are, I am, safe. I am actively remembering that every day now – until I know it so strongly I don’t forget it.
Until I do again. But that’s okay. Because I can read this blog I posted and remember that the world is safe.
A few years back my daughter was collapsing while she was running her cross-country meets. It is not a good thing when you’re standing at the finish line, waiting for your daughter to blaze through and beat her Personal Record, and instead you see her coming and she’s slow and pale and stumbling. And crosses the line and falls into your arms.
Her doctor had her tested for everything possible before she would let her run again. And what we found out – my daughter was “starving.” She literally wasn’t getting enough fuel – not enough energy, not enough food – to run as hard as she was running. So she would collapse.
She went on a high-calorie, high-fat diet and gained six pounds in six weeks. And stopped collapsing. But she was worried that somehow she would drop the weight and get in trouble again. So she asked if she could get a scale.
Now, I’ve gone years without a scale. Intentionally. I was anorexic in college and a scale, I was sure, would be bad news. I didn’t want to risk getting addicted again to stepping on the scale every morning and checking my weight. And I honestly didn’t know if I could live with a scale in my house and not step on it every morning and check my weight. I am currently in good shape, even I can admit that. I exercise, in some form, nearly every day because I enjoy it. But I also have to admit that if I go a few days without exercising, my mind tries to tell me that I’m fat. Even though I know that’s not true.
But my daughter asked. She wanted it to make sure she didn’t lose weight. The irony was not lost on me. And I wanted to do it for her. So we did. We got a scale. We keep it in her bathroom, and I’m happy to say I pretty much forget that it’s there. I don’t rush to it in the morning. I don’t have a relationship with it. I don’t worship it or nor am I afraid of it. I move it when it’s in my way.
It used to be very different. I’ve pasted below an excerpt from Way Out that gives a sense of what it was like to be in my head around food. It was not pretty. But I’m proud to say that today I can live with a scale.
As evening came, I’d walk down the hill from the library, oblivious to the beauty around me, hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone who suggested we eat dinner together. Dining on my own meant fewer questions.
Making it safely, alone, to the dining hall that was nearest our apartment, I grabbed a tray and headed towards the obstacles I had to face before I could fall into bed with a flat stomach. My eyes darted around the room to make sure I avoided everyone so that I could eat in peace. At the same time I steeled myself to overcome all the threats around me. The bread table. The ice cream freezer. The entrée line. The smells. I didn’t know how to avoid the smells. How to dislike the smells.
Quickly I made my way over to the salad bar, grabbed a plate, and piled it with lettuce. Lettuce was safe. Carrots were okay. A bit sweet, but okay. Cucumbers were mostly water. Green peppers. I didn’t like them, but at least they were low in calories. I pushed past the avocados – too fattening – past the croutons, past the cheese. As a treat, I poured on some vinegar. I liked vinegar; somehow its acidity always made me feel like it was burning calories.
I grabbed a fork and a glass of water – I was good to myself and drank a lot of water – and made my way to the loft dining area, upstairs, away from the smells. I looked around the room, searching for a spot in the corner where I could sit and eat. But every once in a while…
Shit. There was Virginia, a girl in my Psych class.
“Hey,” she called. “Come on over.”
Trapped. “Uh, sure.” I made my way over to her table and took a seat. And smelled her food, as she stared at my plate.
“That’s all you’re eating?”
“I had a huge lunch and something a little while ago at the Straight.” I looked away, just in case my face revealed my dishonesty.
“Wow, I wish I had your restraint.”
We talked about boys, classes, our professor – who knows what. I pushed my food around and took a few bites, waiting long enough before I could get up without seeming too rude. I had to get away. I interrupted Virginia in the midst of a story, a sentence even. “Uh thanks,” I said. She stared at me. “I gotta study,” I lied. “I’ll see you in class.”
With that I pushed back my chair, grabbed my tray, and practically ran down the stairs – away from the food, the smells, and the people. As I fled, it hit me. I had eaten so much, had too little control. I was disgusting. “I’ll do better tomorrow. I won’t have green peppers. I won’t use vinegar. I’ll do better tomorrow.”
Or at least we are when we read. This is what you realize when you write a memoir. You learn how self-centered we all are – how selfishly we all read. At any rate that’s one of the things I learned.
I’m not meaning to call everyone around me selfish, as if I’m better than them. I’m selfish too. The reality is, I think, that the world does revolve around each of us individually, at least in our own heads. How could it be anything different? And when we read we are in our own heads. Where else could we be?
People have read my manuscript. And what do you know, they’ve read it from their own experience, from their own frame of mind. I can tell by what some of them say to me when they’re done with it, and how they react. There are people who knew me at Stuyvesant High School, who only want to read about our high school. (Same way I feel when I read a memoir that takes place around Stuyvesant.) People who find the part of my story that resembles theirs. The ones who seemingly scour the manuscript for their own names, and read into my writing things I’m not sure I meant – but that’s what the words mean to them. The friends who are moms who read from my mother’s point of view, or at least from a mother’s point of view. The people who knew my parents who knew and saw them differently than I did (and do). And my brother who, I think mostly jokingly, tells me I got it all wrong. He remembers it differently. Who knows what is “true?”
How could we not be selfish when we read? How can we not be selfish as we go through life? I don’t mean selfish in the “bad” sense – always and only thinking of ourselves. But we see the world through our own eyes. At least mostly. And what we read touches us personally, if it touches us at all. We hear the author’s story through our own words, through our own perspective, through our own experience. I guess that’s what a writer tries to do – to express what’s in their mind and heart in a way that people resonate with. That touches the readers in their minds and hearts.
We experience everything personally. At least I do. In arguments I desperately want whomever I’m arguing with to hear my side, to understand my position. Sometimes I forget about theirs. In moments of joy I can’t understand why others see things differently, when what I see is so crazy beautiful. In conversations, brief encounters, and times when I’m listening to others talk about their realities, I catch myself seeing and understanding at least mostly through my own frame of reference. Even though I teach clients to listen to others and see where others are coming from, I forget, at times, when I’m in the thick of it. I guess that’s human.
I’m not sure how I expected people to react to my writing and my story. Maybe I thought they’d only ask me for my point of view. Maybe I thought they’d talk about me and what I experienced, not them and what they experienced. Maybe I did write for some validation, so that people could say, “Yes, it was like that. It was that crazy. It was that good. It did happen and you did live through it.” And, if I was honest, maybe I’d admit that I wanted them to say, “It’s amazing that you came through it.” Not, “Well, how I see this is…”
Someone once told me that a dichotomy of experiencing trauma is that you want to hide it so that no one knows, and at the same time shout it from the mountain tops. Well, I no longer want to identify myself as “a trauma survivor” or to have that be what defines me. I no longer want to hide it or to hide behind it. And I don’t think I wrote so that everyone could acknowledge what I’d been through. I think I mostly wrote so that people could acknowledge what they’d been through and how amazing we all are to be on the other side, whatever that means. And that would mean that everyone would have to read from their own experience. They’d have to read selfishly. Which is what we all do.