Monday, October 16, 2006

Chasing Absolution for Sins Unknown

When I was much younger, I was bulimic. It was an addiction to an idea of who I should be – who I could be, if I was just willing to throw up enough to satisfy my hunger and yet not get fat. But it didn’t ever work. Because the kind of eating you do when you’re bulimic isn’t about filling any kind of normal hunger, and then you just throw it all up, so you’re always hungry anyway.

The hunger that the binging is supposed to fill is the emptiness of feeling…unworthy, ugly, inadequate, disgusting, unattractive…all the tragic things of female adolescence. It’s just the externalization of a whirling pit of endlessly awful feeling. The urgent feeling that you MUST find a place to throw up the donuts before they turn into actual calories…a gas station bathroom, an empty lot, a plastic bag…any place where you can get a second alone to perform this hideous ritual of sticking your finger down your throat, hence negating every bite you’ve just taken.

It’s really a purification ritual – the absolution of eating what is clearly forbidden for girls wanting to be lovely and slender and attractive and desirable and worthy of attention from any boy. It is the duty of every young woman to at least try to be this, and the throwing up is the penance for failing. Maybe you ate the donuts because you wanted them, but it can’t stay that way. They must be banished before your disobedience is known.

And so I continued this way for years, ‘till I went off to college, and decided I didn’t care about the boys anyway. That wasn’t really true, but the price of what I thought was required was too high for me. And I tried to make it so much easier and just care about the girls instead who seemed to care about different stuff, but that didn’t work for me at all…since I didn’t care about the girls that way. And then I ‘found G*d’. It was one of those profound moments of spiritual intoxication – a moment of transformation in a second, where my heart melted and truly I felt something new awaken inside. But it’s not quite that simple.

The thing is, I was still that same person who felt that throwing up was an understandable response to trying to be a perfect girl. And I just transferred my hopes for perfection to my spiritual life. I wasn’t required anymore to have a perfect body – my body didn’t matter suddenly at all. And that was a relief. But now the emphasis was on spiritual perfection…the perfecting of the self, and this was even harder. No shortcuts with this either. Bulimia had never worked to make me the perfect girl – I wasn’t even close to slim or slender all those years when I was throwing up, let alone any other kind of perfect.

You can mostly hide throwing up, but this was even harder to hide – this spiritual imperfection. It was visible to me and everyone else. The scowl of impatience, the laugh too loud and too long, the desires that aren’t supposed to be there… The list of the ways I’m not yet perfect is long and pretty typical of most folks I know, but my diligent effort was to overcome those imperfections.

And as before, I tried to accomplish that transformation with force. I worked so hard to force myself into a mold, making myself fit as best I could, and disowning all the stuff that I couldn’t squeeze into the box. I pretended it wasn’t there, and after a while, I got numb to the pain of this violence I did against myself. I got used to being angry and resentful and awkward and unhappy, thinking this was the price of spiritual effort, spiritual perfection.

I got used to thinking that others knew me better than I knew myself, that G*d had perhaps shown them something about me that I couldn’t yet see. So I trusted everyone else more than I trusted myself, and put myself in situations that weren’t bad, but such an awkward fit. I thought of giving up my sense of fun and freedom as a spiritual sacrifice – some kind of holy surrender. But it wasn’t. It was just another way to try to create a structure that would give me a sense of worth and dignity and value. And from time to time, I’d wake up and realize that the life I’d created didn’t fit, but it seemed still such a good alternative to the mess I made of things on my own that it seemed like the best choice.

My mantra in all this was “I don’t care.” Not about anyone or anything, including much about myself. “I don’t care.” Easy to walk away from everyone and everything when you don’t care. “I don’t care.” And I have walked away. In every way one can walk away, I have. Literally. Just picking up and leaving everyone and everything behind, without a second thought. Proud of myself really for embodying the virtue of detachment. “I don’t care.”

But that’s not true really. I do care. A lot. I care about so many things, and people too, and most of all these days, I care about myself. I care that my heart heals and that I can actually love people without being overwhelmed by the fear that swallowed me up for so long. I care that my life means something. I care that the creative voice inside me finds _expression. I care that I connect with other people and we are both better for it. I care that my kitty is well loved until her last breath. I care that my family and friends know what they mean to me. I care that my relationship with G*d isn’t an idea or a philosophy, but an actual relationship. I care about all sorts of things. And the more I care, the less I can continue forcing myself into a little box that has no room for me.

For a time I needed to walls of that box to protect me and give me structure that I couldn’t build for myself. I needed the vision of others to show me who I was or could be. I needed someone else’s hope because I didn’t have it myself. But I’ve grown out of that space, and instead of comfortable numbness, there’s just pain and discomfort. And now I know that pain and discomfort are not the hallmarks of spiritual perfection, holy sacrifice or divine effort. Pain and discomfort are a good indication that something is wrong.

I don’t have all this worked out yet, but I’ve got a crowbar and at least enough courage to have been extricating myself from this latest box in which I entombed myself.

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