This post got much longer than I originally thought, so I wanted to provide a quick table of contents/summary for navigating. You know it’s serious when my post needs navigation — but, doggone it, if I can’t write too many words on my own blog, where CAN I write too many words?!
Here’s the sections you’ll find in this post:
On March 4, I picked Benji up from school in the middle of the day after a parent volunteer tested positive for COVID-19. We blithely walked home, talking about how different the day had turned out than we expected and speculating about when Benji would go back to school. How little we knew the marathon that awaited us.
There followed a certain amount of chaos as Ian continued going in to the office each day, Benji and I started sorting out what his homeschooling would look like, and we established some new patterns. Eventually Ian joined us at home all day when the official stay at home order came down.
Then began the long, long days. We stumbled our way to a daily weekday routine that allowed me and Ian to, if not work a full eight hours, at least achieve a minimum required productivity. Benji started on homeschooling using a combination of friends and family video chats and assignments posted by his various teachers.
Through this time, I’ve come back over and over to a few concepts, some from my faith and some learned through life. These keep grounding me and help me navigate through these dark times without giving in to despair. They are:
Build in mental and physical health time
From the beginning, from that very first day I worked from home and didn’t have to bike commute, I built biking time in for myself. I coordinated with Ian to ensure I could go out for a bike ride at least four, and sometimes five, days a week. I know myself, and I know biking doesn’t just keep my physical body fit and healthy. Biking is a critical mental-health exercise in which I process hard experiences, let go of stress and anxiety, and regain perspective.
It’s one of the things that has kept me relatively calm and able to handle the upheaval around us.
The other, more important, thing I’ve done is lean more heavily than ever on my faith. Instead of listening to NPR in the morning during on my weight training days, I listen to sermons. I signed up for and participate in my church’s daily Bible reading and devotional, called the Global Monastery (they also do a lot on Facebook, but I avoid Facebook pretty assiduously — I’ve even started considering deleting my account altogether, but that’s a different topic).
Accept what I can and cannot control
I remember years ago, an older guy at church told me, “There’s two things you don’t need to worry about: Things you can control, and things you can’t.” At the time I internally scoffed. My internal dialog went something along the lines of, “Duh. Obviously.”
But back then, I didn’t have a firm handle on my anorexia brain, and I didn’t understand what that guy was saying with that trite cliche. I still felt like I needed to try to achieve perfection, and I interpreted the Bible’s call for us to be “like Christ” as an impossible but necessary challenge to make myself as perfect as possible.
When I failed — because inevitably I failed; I couldn’t control even my own circumstances, let alone those around me — I fell back on exercising control in the one area I always, always knew I could call upon: Food. I felt reassured by my ability to control something in my life. Maybe if I could control that, I could slowly expand to controlling everything else in my life to make it, and me, perfect.
Now, though, I think and live differently. I’m not a slave to my anorexic thoughts. Even though I live a much more complicated life than I did in my 20s, with so many more moving parts and, consequently, so much more chaos and things I can’t control, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve let go of the compulsion to control my life and make myself perfect, and I’ve accepted that the only thing I can (sometimes) control is what I think about. My thoughts then flow out to my feelings and actions, but it all starts with what I think about.
This acceptance has served me well as coronavirus made it to Washington, and as our state and eventually nation slowly clamped down on activities. I honestly never had any expectation that I’d be able to control whether we went on vacation in the summer, whether I went in to the office, whether Benji went to school. Of course we planned things, but when those things got taken away, I didn’t fight it. I had already accepted that I don’t actually have control of those things anyway.
I still think the whole “two things you don’t need to worry about” is a trite cliche, but I understand now much better what that means.
Learn from the past, focus on the present, don’t worry about the future
I used to beat myself up all the time for my failures. Every time I planned to do something and then failed to complete the plan, or failed to execute it to my satisfaction, I spent days castigating myself: “You’re so stupid, how could you do something this dumb, you’re such a failure, only a pathetic loser would fail to do X.”
But in all that thinking and wallowing, I never learned from my failure. I just rehashed it. Now, when I make a mistake, I don’t see it as a reflection of my value as a human being; I see it as a reflection of the fact that I am a human being — and people make mistakes. They happen. It’s part of life, and it’s not something I should be punished for, nor does it diminish my inherent worth.
Instead, I now see mistakes as opportunities to learn and change my behavior to avoid the same thing in the future. Sometimes I have to deal with natural consequences of mistakes, like having to clean up if I drop a jug of orange juice on the floor. But that doesn’t mean I, personally, am a failure at heart. The only true failure is if I don’t learn from my mistakes, and then take those lessons with me into the future.
I used to worry a lot about the future. It felt like a nebulous dark cloud hanging over my head, something ominous, unknown and unknowable, and worst of all, uncontrollable. It stressed me out.
Now I understand better that I control very, very few things, as we’ve noted previously. One of them, however, is how I think about this exact moment. Instead of constantly rehashing past failures or anticipating future events, I’ve slowly learned to live in the moment.
I think of this as “letting future Katie worry about it.” When I start getting stressed out worrying about what’s going to happen, I remind myself that “future Katie” will deal with that. Present Katie has enough to handle living in this moment and dealing with balancing family needs, work demands, and personal mental and physical health requirements.
It sounds cheesy, but I’ve found future Katie can handle an astonishing amount of stuff — but it helps if she’s not burdened with past Katie’s anxious thoughts and constant worry.
When I was a kid, I kind of scoffed at the way my dad would come home from work and do the same series of things: Put his keys in one spot, his shoes in one spot, his glasses in one spot, etc.
Now not only do I have a spot for everything, but I have a time for everything. I don’t rigidly adhere to my schedule or insist on its unbreakability; although I do strenuously work to protect certain critical components of my routine, like my weekend bike ride, I also accept that I can’t control the future and if I need to adapt, I will.
That said, generally speaking, every weekday has a pattern and every weekend day has a different pattern. To an extent, stay at home has upheaved this pattern. I no longer leave the house at 7:00 am; Benji no longer goes to school, nor Ian to his work; we don’t all reconvene at home in the evening. Fairly early in this stay at home time, however, I realized that every single day would feel not only the same but formless, void, and to an extent empty without some framework to build the day upon.
So every day I get up at about my regular work time, I get dressed in real clothes, I eat breakfast, and a thousand other tiny things.
In short (I know; too late!), I’ve kept doing as many of the same everyday things as I would if it wasn’t stay at home. I’m not pretending or lying to myself that I’m not staying at home; I’m just maintaining the habits we established in the Before Time. I don’t know how many will prove useful to maintain into the future, but for now, keeping up the semblance of a regular day helps keep me from just sliding into total ungroomed couch-dwelling hell. Who knew that was hell? But it is.
Tell myself truth
People with mental health issues like anorexia or depression — they’re closely related — are very, very good at telling themselves convincing lies. My brain knows exactly what I’m likely to believe: I’m worthless. I’m stupid. Nobody wants me, nobody likes me, because I’m worthless and stupid. I’m alone and a failure.
In the deepest, darkest, most terrible part of my anorexia journey, I spent many hours fondling those thoughts, repeating them like some kind of dark mantra. This reinforced the lies, gave them power, and ultimately allowed my anorexic thoughts to rule me.
It was only when I started fighting each lie with a truth that my path turned to a lighter place. Over the last decade, I’ve spent uncountable hours reminding myself of the deepest, most fundamental truth about myself:
- I am God’s beloved child. He made me, He loves me as I am, and nothing I do can ever change that.
- My value comes from being God’s beloved child. I can neither earn it nor lose it by my own actions.
Every time I fail, I remind myself of this truth. When I start feeling that insidious suggestion that perhaps I shouldn’t eat quite as much as I’m hungry for — or maybe I’m not really hungry after all — or maybe I’m hungry, but I don’t need to eat quite yet — when those sneaky little lies start tiptoeing in, I stop right there. I find out what’s driving me to feel like I need to reassert that impossible control. And I tell myself what’s true:
I am beloved. God loves me no matter what. I have value because God loves me. Nobody and nothing can take that away from me.
Every time I fought a lie with truth, it got a little easier. After a while, the lies started losing their power just a little. Then a little more. Then more.
Now, today, even in the hard times we’re going through, my sense of self-worth hasn’t shaken. I’ve never doubted or felt like I need to restrict my food, even though I have shouldered some incredibly heavy, painful burdens lately. I know my own value, and I already developed strategies for dealing with all the stress, anxiety, and emotional load everyone is feeling. I’ve still got a long way to go, especially in my marriage and in parenting, but it’s a start.
I can handle whatever comes, whether it’s coronavirus stay-at-home orders, marriage struggles, parenting challenges, or personal issues, because I am God’s beloved child. And I know God cares for me, his child, not by giving me a perfectly smooth road, but by walking the rocky road hand-in-hand with me.