Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
-From The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver
This quote has a way of shattering my reverie and reminding me of two important things:
- Tomorrow is not guaranteed to any of us
- Now is all we have, and so is this life, to the best of our knowledge.
So what, pray tell, are you doing to do with yours?
As someone who sank into the despair of eating disorders for nearly forty years, I can tell you what I did with more than half my life: my entire existence revolved around the locations of all the Krispy Kreme shops, Dunkin Donuts, and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. When my eating disorder morphed from anorexia to bulimia, I planned my days so that I could make the rounds, buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of food, and go sequester myself behind closed doors to do what I wished with my stash.
A Most Competent Liar
Those of us who have ever marched through a checkout line and unloaded fourteen packages of Oreos and every box of Krispy Kreme glazed in the supermarket know the drill.
“I’m having company.” Right. “This is for an office party.” Yup. And that’s what you said every other time you went in there. You started to avoid the same cashier. Then you changed stores. Drove farther away to avoid the knowing looks. At some point your donut run (like mine) took you two hours just to avoid familiar faces. Is there a Krispy Kreme shop in Death Valley?
You lied to your family, your dentist, your doctor. You lied to your boyfriend/girlfriend/partner, your coworkers, your best friends about the amount of time you spent in the bathroom. When someone opened your kitchen cabinet and found nothing but cookies, crackers, cakes, Little Debbie snacks and super-sized packages of Snickers and KitKats, you made up some limp reason that nobody believed.
“Um…I’m expecting company.” Who, the Cookie Monster?
Just to hang on to a modicum of dignity and self-respect. My god, have I been there. Story of my life.
The folks over at Krispy Kreme headquarters should erect a bronze statue of me in their courtyard. I used to buy fifteen dozen donuts a night. Every single night. In Alexandria, Virginia, years after I had gotten my compulsion under control, I stopped by my old Krispy Kreme haunt. A wizened woman, one of the counter clerks who was easily in her eighties, cried out,
“I ‘member you! You the donut lady!”
Indeed I was. I doubt that anyone in the history of that store bought more donuts than I did. I would drive thirty miles, one way, just to get to that store. Krispy Kreme owes me a goddamned statue.
On that final visit, all I got was coffee. She was very disappointed.
The Architecture of Toilet Bowls
You can ask any of us who have been bedeviled with bulimia about how much we know of the intimate architecture of toilet bowls. How adept we are at hiding the noise of purging when someone walks into a public bathroom. The insanity of the stories we have told ourselves and others about what’s really going on. I am still astounded at the shit I said to my friends who loved and cared but could not get me to spit out the truth like I spat out my food.
And all this time that we shut ourselves behind closed doors, life is going down the drain. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. The worst price we pay for this disease is time. It’s not just the cost to our teeth, our digestive systems, our poor beleaguered bodies. Our battered psyches. Our damaged relationships.
Life lost trying to be something we can never be, never will be: perfect. Because the lie we use to continue to justify our self-abuse is that if we can just have the right body, we’ll be perfect. And with that perfection, life will be ever so much better. We’ll have love. Success. Money. People will adore us.
Lies. The cruelest ones, that promise of someday. For four decades that “someday” never came. Nor would it ever.
The Only Truths I Know
I dumped these destructive habits just before my 58th birthday. I recall, as I sat a small hotel desk in Thailand, surrounded by stacks of chocolate Tim Tams, thinking that I could be struggling with this disorder at the age of 95 or I could stop NOW. By that time I had lost my teeth, I had little savings, and my entire life had been constructed to revolve around food: getting it, eating it, purging it, getting more. Nearly forty years.
Four decades that I will never get back. Never.
Money I will never get back. Never.
I stood up, grabbed the Tim Tams, and distributed them to the housekeeping and wait staff. That was the end of it. Forever.
I will happily admit to leaning hard in the direction of Tim Tams at my local World Market, but I’ve not yet succumbed.
Medication didn’t do this for me. I took all the typical meds that were supposed to “help me deal.” They fogged my brain, made me suicidal, and undermined my ability to heal myself. That was a decision no doctor could make for me.
The only truth I know is a deep gratitude that I was able to end compulsions that nearly killed me off. I have a few decades left- perhaps four. It’s up to me to live as richly and intensely as possible.
Out in the sunlight. Playing in the rain. Stomping the mud and the dust and getting animal skat caught in my boot treads in every country possible. Climbing mountains and riding feisty horses, and kayaking icy oceans and exploring hill villages in the wilds of Myanmar.
The only truth I know is that I supremely fortunate to have been able to stop. Because I still have time to explore and run and play and see and smell and talk and live. To push my outer boundaries and challenge all my limitations. To celebrate and love and hike and climb and swim and dance and laugh.
I have a lot of laughter to catch up on.
The Lie of Perfection
I gave societal pressures and body shaming so much power over me that it cost me four decades of my youth. I gave outside forces that did not and never would care about me permission to rob me of more than half my “one wild and precious life.”
We can only speak for ourselves. I have only one life. And I very nearly lost it in the pursuit of something that isn’t available: perfection. There is no such thing. We all have messy lives. Without messy lives we have no funny stories, no obstacles, no challenges. And we will never discover who we can really become without those tangles. They are our crucibles.
“Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?”
What Will You Do With the Time You Have?
A very dear friend of mine who lived for years in a lovely neighborhood of Johannesburg, South Africa, had Nelson Mandela as her next door neighbor. Mandela spent 27 years behind bars. If I ever teeter on the cliff of self-pity, I remember what that remarkable man did with the rest of his life. He changed a country and changed the world. I’m no Nelson Mandela. But I have my life back, and time. Sometimes I wish that I’d never had eating disorders, or had been sexually abused. Yet:
“So do all who live to see such times but that is not for them to decide, All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” as Gandalf said to Frodo in Lord of the Rings.
Having had them I have intense empathy for anyone struggling with their weight, their self image, with food. We pay dearly for our insight, our perspectives, and most importantly, for our compassion.
You and I can only be ourselves. That’s all we have. And as we are, we are already perfect: at being ourselves. When we stop apologizing for being born, for being imperfect, for having messy lives, we can get to the exquisite, magnificent business of living.
While we still have time.