Monday, December 26, 2016

Clean Change (Part 2)

1. Desperation
*   *   *

I am by no means an expert on addiction, just as I have never claimed to be an expert on cancer. I have nothing more than my own experiences to share, and if I ever sound like I'm writing about anything more than those, I hope that someone tries to shut me up. Nevertheless, in my own humble experience, I believe that real change begins with desperation. 

This time last year, I was desperate. While my weight had fallen to 129 pounds when I was first diagnosed (sick-to-my-stomach fear was a real appetite blocker), it had steadily climbed up to 140, 150, and 160 in the few years after. I was terrified, not so much by the number on the scale, but by the reality that I had no choice but to face -- that something inside me had broken. 

I don't mean that metaphorically so much as I mean it literally -- I felt as if there was a switch in my head, even a floodgate if you will, that had broken, no longer giving me the ability to stop. After dinner every night, I would tell myself, One bowl of ice cream, no going back for seconds, but before I had even swallowed that last bite I would be planning my trip back into the freezer for more. I wouldn't scoop it into the bowl that second time around, I would just stand at the counter and eat it out of the container, usually until the container was empty. I loved that food at the very same time that I hated it. If I'm not sitting down, it doesn't count, I told myself. Only it counted. It counted as I started to hate myself more and more. It counted as my clothes grew tighter. It counted as I tortured myself about exercising the next day enough to erase the mistakes I had made the day prior. It counted in pounds and pounds of pain. 

If it stopped at the standing-up-ice-cream, that may have been okay. But it never stopped there. Some sort of salty cracker (Cheez-Its, Goldfish, you name it), provided the yang to the yin of the sweets. So every single night, I would eat those by the handful and ultimately, the box-ful. I'd return to the sofa or to my computer "done," but then I'd be back in the cabinet for more. I wanted to stop. So so badly I wanted to stop. But I couldn't. As I've heard people say in FA, my "enough switch" was broken. Turns out that sanity requires that switch to be functioning. Happiness does, too. 

I know that Twelve Step programs scare away some people and I swear to you, I am not promoting the program through this post. Truthfully, Twelve Step programs scared me, too. I didn't understand (and thus feared) "the God part." Growing up in a family of mostly atheists and agnostics, God wasn't ever part of my life. So when I first heard people talking about God helping them with their food (or booze, or drugs) and asking me to get down on my knees, I was completely freaked. But I was desperate enough to stay and listen. That's why I think that real change, for me at least, began with desperation. 

Desperation for me was, ultimately, a voice in my head January of last year that announced, "If I get cancer again, at least I'll die thin." And God, for me, was the voice that came right after that. God was the voice that said, "That thought is so sick, so wrong, so sad, that you better get yourself some real help, and fast." I learned about FA shortly thereafter. 

The truth is that while cancer introduced me to the idea of a higher power, FA has connected me to it. I use the term "God" because it makes it easier to converse, although I have no clue what He (or She/We/They/Me/It) is. Today, I simply believe something is there -- something bigger than myself, bigger than all of us. Surprisingly, I find comfort in that. And so the thing that freaked me out most about a Twelve Step program for food addiction (besides the "food addiction" part) is precisely the gift I have found most valuable. I know that there is something so much bigger than me at play here. There must be, because I haven't had a bowl of ice cream or a Cheez-It since last January. 

In the end, I'm not proud of anything I have admitted here. I'm not brave nor selfless. Today, I'm just desperate. Desperate because food is literally everywhere I turn. And once you take the food away from a food addict, she has to figure out what else there is to do in the week between Christmas and New Years. God, if you're not too busy, please help me with that. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Clean Change (Part 1)

We celebrated Annabel's 5th birthday nearly one year ago, on the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend. To be honest, I don't remember much about the party. Of course I remember where it was (at the place she does gymnastics) and I know that family and friends were there. But the only thing I remember in detail about that party was the food. We had pizza from Papa Gino's and cake from Wegman's. Both were extraordinarily delicious. And just like they had always been since I was a pre-teen, both were almost simultaneously my very best friend and my worst mortal enemy.

While others ate lunch with seeming nonchalance, I tried with all my might to cap myself at two pieces of pizza and one piece of cake. That was always my goal, although I never achieved it. I tried so hard to, but I failed every time. I always had different reasons, excuses, justifications, or whatever you want to call them, but no matter what, one piece of pizza would become two, three, four and the only thing that would stop me was an empty box (and sometimes shame). Cake (and pasta and crackers and, well, pretty much anything) was the same deal -- once I started, I couldn't stop. I did stop, because people were around, but once they were gone, I was a disgusting animal. I knew something was wrong and had known it for a long time. But when my daughter turned 5 years old, I hit rock bottom. 

While I don't remember anything Annabel said or did at her party, I remember that my mother threw out the cake box while it still had an outline of frosting on the cardboard bottom. I had planned to take that box home and in the privacy of my own kitchen, lick it clean. When my mom put it in the pile of trash for the gym's outdoor dumpster, I felt like she had thrown away a treasure. I was mad but I love my mom so I made the best of it. "Now I'll be 'good,'" I thought to myself. But once I was home, I considered going back to the gym, fishing the box out of the dumpster, and sitting in my car to finish that frosting. I never did it, but had the wind blown the other way, I would have. 

The next day, I went to my first meeting of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous ("FA"). There, I found a miracle. 

*   *   *

Since January 18, 2016, I have not eaten flour or sugar (save natural sugar in plain yogurt and fruit). I type that without even believing myself that it is true. But it is. And that's the first part of the miracle. 

The truth is, however, that I didn't sit down tonight to write about FA. According to the traditions of the organization, I'm not even certain I should be writing about it (I will ask my sponsor tomorrow). What drew me to my computer tonight, however, is my students. 

Tomorrow, as part of a larger team effort, I will deliver to several dozen Boston high schoolers a 90-second to 120-second pep talk about how they can change if they want to. It's likely that only a handful of students will actually be listening, but I still take those 90 seconds seriously.  I love that handful, even if I don't ever know exactly who they are. So I have thought about what I will say for 100 times longer than it will take me to say it. 

In order to deliver this message tomorrow, I had to sort out in my head the answer to a question I have danced around for quite a while now -- Can people ever really change? Before January 18, 2016, I would have said, No. But FA has shown me otherwise. FA has taken a dumpster-diving young woman who couldn't stop eating, exercising, and obsessing about both and changed her. Because of FA, I believe that people can change. I'm not sure they can change their initial instinct -- I still grieve, if only for a second, food I can't have. I still dream of swimming in a sea of brownie batter or living in a magical world where calories don't count. Food can still be my best friend and my worst enemy. But because of what I have learned in FA and because of actions I have taken as part of the program, I believe that if certain factors exist, people can change the action they take next. In FA terms, people can do the "next right thing," even if they have done 200 wrong things just prior. One day and one meal at a time, I have done just that for 324 days.  

Sometime soon, I plan to write about those factors that I believe led me to change something about myself that I thought would remain a problem forever.  In no particular order, they look something like this: 

1. Desperation  
2. Hope
3. Action steps
4. Support 
5. Faith
6. Gratitude
7. Gratitude
8. Gratitude

To be continued...

Friday, November 11, 2016


When I taught World History to 9th graders several years ago, I had a student whose parents were racist. They were captains in the Salvation Army and after I taught a unit on South Africa, the father summoned me and my department head to a meeting. His message was clear and firm -- he was extremely upset that I was teaching about tolerance yet I was not tolerant of his daughter's opinions. True, his daughter had expressed racist opinions in class and I swiftly had shut them down. He told me that if I was truly tolerant, I would tolerate the intolerant. I laughed it off as one of the most ridiculous things I had ever heard. I haven't given to the Salvation Army ever since.

*   *   *

On Tuesday night, or better yet, early Wednesday morning, I lie awake in my bed after having realized that Donald Trump would become our nation's next president. I was crushed, and still am. Just the day prior I had introduced a feminist novel to my English classes and we had analyzed some of Donald Trump's words from a feminist perspective. One of my amazing students raised his hand and said that he didn't need to take on a feminist perspective to condemn Trump's words. My heart was full of hope for humanity when he said that.

But later that night, the map turned red. I thought I was going to throw up. I cried. I prayed. I wondered, How? 

The next day was not an easy one, particularly because many of my students were extremely upset. All but a few are black or Hispanic, many of them are children of immigrants, and many of their families rely on government programs to survive. They were scared, and from my privileged white perspective, I did the best I could to help.

That day, I gave my students time to write about and discuss their feelings. (I love that I work in a school that trusts and encourages its teachers to do so.) I listened to my students. I asked them to remember all the good people in the world. We talked about how it feels to realize that so many other communities in our nation are not as accepting as ours. We talked about how some of them were surprised by this seeming injustice, and how others are surrounded by so much injustice that they expected this, too. Several of them cried. I tried to give them some historical perspective. I gave them the Louis L'Amour quote that I opened my book with -- that what seems like the end may actually be the beginning. I held it together in front of them, but on the way home, I wept, too.

Since then, I've mostly gone into a cocoon, much like I did after I was diagnosed with cancer. I can't watch the news and I don't want to talk to anyone about it, save a few select conversations. I want to recede and gain back some strength and then face the world again.

It's crazy to me how similar Tuesday night felt to the first night I experienced after I knew I had cancer. The fear, the uncertainty, the anger and confusion at something that seemed so wrong. So unfair. Amazingly, just like President Obama said it would, the sun rose again the next day.

Yesterday, I thought a lot about what I should try to learn from all of this. For one, I have realized how entitled I have felt for most of my life. Entitled to living in a place where war is not at my doorstep. Entitled to a job. Entitled to peaceful transfers of power. Entitled to a community where my children would be safe. But on Tuesday night, all of that seemed to have been invaded by principles and ideologies that I consider deeply dangerous. Racism. Xenophobia. Sexism. Homophobia. Dishonesty. Stupidity. I know I'm prone to overreactions, but truthfully, my entire universe feels -- once again -- shaken to its core.

For some perspective, I admit that I was in a dark place after George W. Bush won the 2000 and 2004 elections. At first, these reminders brought me peace because we did come out of those years alive. But then I remember that some people didn't. Life-saving research halted. The environment was neglected. And thousands of American and foreign soldiers and civilians lost their lives as an indirect or direct result of lies about weapons of mass destruction. George W. taught me that lies kill.

So today, I wonder about what I can do. When I'm ready, I will write to our President-elect to tell him some of my thoughts. I will write to Hillary Clinton to thank her for her astonishing efforts. Those letters will make me feel the tiniest bit better. But then what?

Then, I suppose, I will go to work and go to my kids' hockey games and gymnastics practices. I will have Sunday dinners surrounded by family. I will celebrate Christmas and my kids' birthdays. I will be grateful for every single day, just as I have been for years now.

Somehow in the midst of all of that, I will remember that I am not entitled to anything. None of us are. So we better be willing to work to protect the things we hold dear. Our health, perhaps...and now, our freedom. All this time, I've assumed it was the job of our military to protect our nation and I've put my feet up in my "free country" while our brave servicemen and women sacrificed themselves. I don't mean that I'm joining the army, and I still thank God that the military will take up the dangerous posts. But I think it's time I consider myself a small part of the effort.

As a first step, what I think I need to do is remember back to that conversation over 12 years ago when I laughed in the face of a man who told me I should be tolerant of the intolerant. I did not listen to him, and after I heard his daughter's racist comments, I dismissed her as someone less than me. I felt entitled to the freedom to react that way. To ignore it because the rest of the class was with me. But Tuesday night showed me that a sizable population in the United States is not with me. Clearly they don't want to be ignored.

Maybe that's what I'm most sad about right now -- that I somehow have to find a way to tolerate the intolerant. I have no idea how to do that. And I really really don't want to.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sincerely, Hope

Sincerely, Hope
A Poem

Hello, sweet friend.
Can you hear me?
I am hope --
with a lowercase “h.”
Can you find a quiet place?
You’ll find me there.

Hello, dear friend,
I’m glad to meet you.
Although I have been with you
since the day you were born;
you just didn’t notice me until decades later.
It wasn’t negligence, so don’t you worry.
You were lucky --
you didn’t need me until you were 32.

Good morning, dear friend.
I am here.
Can you feel me?
I’m a hidden lump, discovered.
I’m a doctor’s appointment that you didn’t cancel,
a phone call to your husband from the nurse’s office,
and the strength it took to tell him --
despite your shattered universe --
They think it’s cancer.

I am hope.
Can you hear me?
I’m an explanation to your mother
from your porch
so your kids wouldn’t hear you cry into the receiver.
I am the first first flight she could catch home,
a long embrace on your front step,
tears on your shoulder.

Hello, my precious friend.
I am here.
Can you see me?
I am an appointment on the calendar.
I am Monday,
a plan,
a starting point.

I am hope.
Have you heard about my superpowers?
They are immense,
wait ………….

Did you feel my presence while you waited?
When the phone rang with results?
When the doctor opened the door
and looked down at his clipboard?
I sat beside you then --
strong, like Batman,
fragile, like a one-year-old missing her mother.

I was there while you slept --
did I wake you?
I sat right there, like a loyal watchman
in the depth of the night.
I tip-toed upon the prayers you whispered
over the humming of the house --
foreign thoughts of desperation,
a language never spoken.

Good morning, sweet friend.
Can you hear my footsteps?
I am your family pacing in the hallways,
the surgeons’ steady hands.
Did you feel my hug?
We embraced when you first woke up.
I am your chest --
and wrapped in gauze.
I am a sample in a laboratory,
a scientist,
a lymph node removed,
a tumor extracted.
An Intruder

Hello, sweet girl.
I am here.
Can you feel me in the ridge of your scar?
I healed you there, and elsewhere.
I’m your sister and your husband,
a pen and notepad of times and doses.
I’m your mother’s nervous scribbles
on those same straight lines,
and her clarity --
that what they called poison
would be your ally.

Dear friend, I am hope.
Did you feel me in the needle to your vein?
In that rush of cool liquid through your bloodstream?
Did you hear me in the buzzer that removed your brown hair?
I am your cousin and your aunt and your best friend
poised beside you
while your reflection morphed.
Did you see me at your mother’s elbow,
softly cradling her wailing question --
Why not me?
without an answer.
I am the stranger at the back of your chair
who understood.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you see me in the dust
that gathered beside the wig you never wore?
Did you see me in the fearful stares
of children and their mothers?
I am your father’s watery eyes
and his anger.
I am your son’s hesitance
and his acceptance.
I am your baby girl’s confused cries
and her recognition.
A hug.
I am their resilience.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you see me in the code blue,
and the angels who descended?
I am the air you breathed,
the extinguisher to the flames in your heart.
I am the plan that followed the shock,
the protocol you never knew existed
to make a mortal enemy a lifelong friend.

Dear friend, you were tired, I know.
But did you feel me in the white covers
of the open hospital bed?
Did you know I flowed
through the slow, thoughtful drip of a drug
programmed to kill
only what it should kill.
I was there
through it all.

Did you feel me in your cells?
I was there, too --
in the good cells, the ones that regenerated after annihilation!
I am a birthday from a hospital bed,
a mask and around-the-clock antibiotics,
a pack of saltines,
crushed ice when your cheeks were flushed.

Sweet friend,
did you see me in the ink that signed the discharge papers?
Did you feel me in the fresh, cold sheets of your own bed?
I am your Christmas tree, lopsided and bright.
I’m reindeer food sprinkled on the front lawn.
I am a fireplace and a family feast.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you feel me hold your hand
over the last insurmountable ridge?
I squeezed tight, I really did.
Did you feel me in the antibody that entered your veins?
Because I am Herceptin,
and every ounce of sacrifice made for its delivery.
I am

I am what I am and I am hope.
Did you see me glisten in the eyes of the friends you met
in the walls you so dreaded?
In their tears and in their smiles?
I am tissues in an exam room
and at a support group.
I am ubiquitous --
there for all of you who need me.

I am here and I am hope.
Did you see me on the computer screen
as you typed your story?
I am a blog and a book and a dream realized!
I am a team and a walk,
yard sales and lemonade stands.
I am a flock of lavender,
sneakers on the pavement of a September morning.
I am strangers who appear as angels.
Can you see me in the movements of young dancers?
I am dancing beside them!

I know I may seem invisible sometimes,
but I’m here,
I promise.
I’m the possibility that tomorrow will be better.
I’m the maybe in a storm of probably not.
I’m the small fraction they don’t anticipate --
the David to your Goliath.

Dear friend,
fear not
in those times
when you can’t touch me
or see me
or hear me.
Because that only makes me
Trust me.
I will help you breathe,
one breath at a time.

Dear friend,
Can you hear me?
Can you trust me?
Because I swear it,
one day,
I will even
help you
Because I am here now
and I am

Sunday, March 27, 2016

For Marisa

Tonight I beg
through guilt and tears,
through pain that grips
my deepest fears,
for a sign that
He does exist
and thought this through
a devil's hiss.

Tonight I scream
why. Why! WHY?
Who decided
she had to die?
Why her, why now?
I need to know
what made the cancer
grow and grow.
why. Why! WHY?
Why left, not right?
Why her, not me?
Why dark, not light?

Tonight I pray
just one prayer
(or pretend there
is a God out there).
Rest in peace
beautiful friend
who never should have
met this end.
Rest in peace
precious soul
who weathered such
a ghastly toll.

Tonight I sleep
here on Earth
defying the devil's
ghastly curse,
wondering why
she sleeps eternal
with angel wings,
a dream unfurled.