Weekend Reading, 9.11.16
September 11, 2016

Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

Happy Sunday to all of you. And thank you, truly, for letting me ramble a little bit about authenticity last weekend! The topic has stayed on my mind this week, but I’ve been thinking less about spoken communication and more about self-acknowledgment.

One tendency that seems to get me into trouble, no matter how much I believe that I’m working against it, is that of disavowing feelings. This is something I didn’t used to think I did, because I was very much “in touch” with sensations like sadness and sorrow. In my mind, these were the feelings that people usually tried to ignore, so my embracing them had to be evidence that I was fully inhabiting my emotions, right?

Not really. I was in touch with these feelings, but what I didn’t understand was that there is no predetermined set of emotions that constitute the full scope of what can be ignored or pushed away. Some people have trouble acknowledging sadness. And then there are people like me, who have no trouble acknowledging (or even embracing) melancholy, but have a harder time owning other emotions, like anger or resistance.

I’m naming these two because I think they’re the tough ones, for me, the ones that I don’t like to identify with. Again, it’s the good girl thing, the need to embrace any task, any assignment, and even any relationship with an aura of enthusiasm, determination, and competence. It’s difficult for me to feel, and then to acknowledge, anger, and it’s especially hard for me to assert my feelings when their validity is called into question.

The upshot is that it can take me a long time to recognize when I’ve become uncomfortable with a situation or a dynamic. And it’s often the case that I become painfully anxious long before I can bring myself to name or identify what’s really wrong.

I’m learning that there’s tremendous power in remaining open to the possibility of all emotional experiences, rather than pushing away the ones that freak me out or challenge the parts of my identity that I’ve become attached to. It’s certainly not a “solution” to anxiety, which can take many forms and have many causes, but for me, it’s one shift in perspective that seems to help.

This week, I was flipping through the portfolio of my friend Jay, who is a remarkable illustrator (and a pretty awesome human being, too). I was struck by how much understanding and humor he brings to this complicated topic of self-acceptance and self-care. Two illustrations in particular stood out to me. The first is this:

takingcareofanxiety_eisenberg

Jay’s caption, when he shared it on Instagram, was this:

A few years back, I sketched myself sitting with my anxiety, which turned out to be a wiry mess of a monster with googly eyes and scissor hands. Today, when sitting with my dear Anxiety Monster wasn’t enough to appease it, I tried taking care of it, by which I suppose I mean, I tried taking care of myself. It’s a quiet, slow process, but I think it’s worth doing.

When I was a kid, I was often beset by mysterious nausea or stomach pain. To what extent it was a precursor to my hypersensitive digestion versus an expression of anxiety I’m not sure–both, probably–but my mother and I personified the feelings in order to make them feel less scary. My nausea became “Billy Barf,” the clenched feeling in my throat “Louis Lump.” It sounds silly now, but I see that my mom was helping me to do something that can be valuable at any point in life, which is to become more familiar with–to befriend, even–a personal bugaboo. Jay’s illustration brings this process to life so compassionately.

I also was also struck by this drawing:

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I’m working each and every day to sit with uncomfortable and unresolved feelings, rather than fleeing and submerging myself in work or productivity (my favorite hiding places). I love Jay’s gentle reminder that, when we feel lost in a tangle, it’s OK to be lost for a little while. This isn’t to say that it’s not important to examine one’s own perspective on the mess, or to look for solutions. Sometimes, though, tugging too aggressively or hastily at a tangle only makes it more gnarled. Everything changes, both within and without, and there can be comfort in knowing that resolution will come sooner or later.

You can find more of Jay’s illustrations, which address not only anxiety but also sexuality, self-expression, joy, sorrow, growth, perspective, and even food over at his website, or you can check out his work as it emerges on Instagram. Perhaps you’ll find wisdom in it, as I have.

And on that note, here are the recipes and articles I’ve been tangled up in this week.

Recipes

gluten-free-plum-muffins-8

Let’s begin with breakfast! A sweet, seasonal, freshly baked breakfast, that is, from Hana of Nirvana Cakery. Her vegan, gluten free plum muffins are wholesome and packed with fresh, juicy plums–what a lovely morning treat.

cornchowder

I’ve always felt that this is a really special time of year for produce: sweet potatoes and autumn squash begin to pop up at the same time as tomatoes and sweet corn are still in season. Monique’s vegan sweet potato corn chowder is a perfect tribute to late summer/early fall, and I love the addition of curry and coconut milk.

pan-fried-polenta-rounds-with-kale-2

I’m always on the lookout for super fast, super convenient recipes that also happen to be packed with flavor. Lisa’s pan fried polenta with roasted kale and chickpeas is so easy to prepare, but it looks very satisfying in spite of the simplicity. Lisa includes parmesan in her recipe, which can easily be replaced with vegan parm, my hemp parmesan, or some dollops of homemade cashew cheese.

loaded-sweet-potatoes-with-quinoa-tabbouleh-640x9602x

Another easy, hearty recipe idea: Lauren’s loaded sweet potatoes with quinoa tabbouleh–a tasty, complete, and nutritious vegan supper.

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For dessert, I can’t stop staring at Belen’s beautiful beet and chocolate muffins, which are infused with just a hint of rosemary. I’m having a hard time imagining rosemary and chocolate together, but I’m definitely intrigued, and I trust Belen to put together stellar combinations of flavor. (I love the color of these, too.)

Reads

1. Most basically, this is an essay about one young person’s experience working in an ER. I took interest because I myself spent some time volunteering in hospitals when I was a post-bacc, and it’s an environment to which I’ll probably return again at some point, assuming I wrap up training for my RD. To say I had a mixed experience would be an understatement, but I remember each and every name and face of every child I spent time with. I usually take interest in hospital memoirs, curious to discover how others have navigated their time in an environment that’s at the crossroads of so many phases of living and dying.

There’s more than meets the eye in this essay, though: in spite of being very brief, it’s also a meditation on the desire to prove oneself and the funny routes by which we stumble into our vocations. And I like the #firstsevenjobs meme a lot.

2. Also on the topic of healthcare in America, a persuasive article that gives true force and meaning to the expression “social determinants of health.” If you’re not familiar with this phrase, it’s used to describe non-biological, non-genetic factors that have an impact on how injuries and illnesses develop and progress: it includes income, geography, housing, food access and quality, social supports, and more.

On some level we understand that income, access, stress, and culture have a profound impact on health, and those of us who take a strong interest in food might have a particular sensitivity to this issue. This article, though, is a vivid illustration of how one’s circumstances will shape the progression of a medical crisis, how two individuals with nearly identical physiology might experience the same injury in drastically different ways. Powerful and worth reading.

3. Perhaps some of you stumbled on these reflections, written by a former animal researcher, about his experience in an animal lab. It is forceful and honest, and what struck me most about it–from a narrative perspective, anyway–is the author’s description of his continual attempts to rationalize his work in spite of a relentless sense of moral dissonance. He remembers:

…it was impossible to fully quell my repugnance at all that I continued to witness and to inflict. At the same time, in the classroom, I began to face questions from students who had become increasingly concerned about the predicament of lab animals. When one of my graduate students wanted to dedicate his doctoral dissertation to G44, a female rhesus monkey who had unexpectedly died during his research, I thought he was joking; then I realized that to him G44 was an individual with a unique personality, not just an animated object that produced data points. It became harder and harder for me to argue that the importance of my work always outweighed the pain I caused in doing it.

The op-ed will speak to anyone who takes an interest in animal rights and the ethics of medical research. Animal research is defended on the grounds that the possibility of a scientific gain justifies the suffering it creates. As the author notes, however, “we already accept that ethical limits on experiments involving humans are important enough that we are willing to forgo possible breakthroughs.”

On a personal level, this was a timely and important read. I spend a lot of time reading about clinical trials and laboratory findings, and in spite of my opposition to animal research, I’ve come to a point where I peruse scientific literature without experiencing any palpable tension or discomfort when I encounter frequent mentions of animal experiments.

That I’ve become so numbed to this issue disturbs me. It may be professionally important for me to expose myself to research findings, but it’s even more important to do so while holding onto my outrage and sorrow for the animals who are tormented to make such research possible.

4. Also on the topic of medical research, a well-reported article on who gets credit for scientific findings and why. While it’s certainly sometimes the case that one pioneering individual is responsible for a pathbreaking line of research, it’s also sometimes the case that numerous individuals make breakthroughs within a similar field at the same time. Who gets published, who gets awarded with grants, and who is ultimately awarded credit and notoriety?

As the article makes clear, this territory can be distressingly fuzzy, more influenced by politics or personality than we might like to imagine.

5. Finally, I want to share this brave article, which tackles the seldom discussed issue of how chronic illness can impact body image. The title of the article is “Please Don’t Call Me Pretty–I’m Just Sick and Skinny,” and as you can probably guess, the author expresses outrage over our tendency to casually comment upon each other’s bodies.

Most of us, at one time or another, have lost weight because of an illness. For many of us, it’s all part and parcel of having had whatever flu or gastroenteritis or infection we had. We expect not to have an appetite while we’re burning up with fever or struggling to keep food down, and we greet the return of our appetite with relief. If we’re lucky, we don’t give too much thought to the few pounds we may or may not have lost while we were sick.

If you happen to have a very complicated relationship with food, though, or if you are grappling with a chronic or a serious illness, this whole issue can take on much bigger dimensions. And it is certainly not made easier by the fact that our society does nothing to censure public discourse about body shape. Being told that you “look great” or asked whether or not you’ve lost weight during or after an illness is a bizarre experience, infuriating and rewarding and triggering all at once.

Author Jacqueline Raposo speaks to all of these complications and more. Her post is both a furious indictment of how illness and body shape intersect in our society, and also a brutally honest confession of how illness compounded her own fixation on weight. She remembers:

when a girlfriend saw me stepping into the pool at my parents’ home, shivering in the hot August sun, with opioid patches on my chest and braces on my wrists, she looked at my bikini-clad body and said, “Oh my God, I am so jealous of how skinny you are.”
Eight years later, I’m jealous of me, too. Considering how sick I was then, and how much healthier I am now, the fact that I can actually think wistfully back on my incapacitated bikini body is a sad commentary on how prized thinness is in our culture. Not only by well-meaning friends and family whose knee-jerk reaction to a reduced body size is usually a compliment (even if that weight loss came at a terrible price). But also by women like me, who’ve actually suffered terrible illnesses and lived to gain back both weight and health. Deep down, I think we all know that the old axiom, “When you have your health, you have everything,” is true. But that reality is easy to forget when the tidal wave of positive reinforcement around weight loss subsides, and one is left with just a regular, normal, healthy body instead of a super-skinny sick one.

I share a lot of “trigger warning,” ED-related content on this blog, but given how many of my readers have sailed through the waters of both chronic illness and disordered eating, I feel the need to disclaim that the article may be very triggering for many of you. It triggered me.

What it triggered most of all was guilt over my own experience of chronic illness in the summer of 2013, when I was still living in DC. The whole messy post-bacc experience, coupled with taking the MCAT and struggling to finish my first book, had caught up to me. I was worn down and burnt out, and slowly, in a process I barely noticed at first, I became sick. It was easy to deny for a while because it was GI illness, and digestive distress has always been my Achilles’ heel. A few months later, though, it was hard not to see that something was truly wrong.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with a nasty bacterial infection and treated with antibiotics. Feeling better took a very long time–much longer than my doctor’s prognosis and the duration of my meds had led me to expect–but I got there. What I will never forget, though, is the incredulity and shame I felt upon recognizing that I’d spent most of the illness eagerly hoping that I’d lose weight.

Yes: in spite of being so sick to my stomach that I had to spend hours in the bathroom every morning, in spite of hobbling around DC with an anal fissure, in spite of being fatigued and frightened and often in pain, a not insignificant part of me was still fixated enough with weight that I was actually disappointed not to have lost any throughout the course of my illness. And the disappointment vied with an equally strong sense of bewilderment that, so long after my recovery process, I could still feel this way. I can only wonder how much more complex and poignant these feelings would have been if I’d had a more serious or protracted illness.

Reading Raposo’s piece and the quotations of women she interviewed for it comforts me; it makes me realize that what I felt was forgivable and human and probably very common among women who have gotten sick at some point or another. If any of this speaks to you, I hope you’ll take some time to read her words, and I hope that you’ll be comforted, too.

And now it’s time for me to get back to our houseguest and the final hours of this Sunday. Have a good one, all.

xo

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    9 Comments
  1. HI Gena–Glad to be back on “real” internet, and start catching up on things! I look forward to reading the article about social determinants of health–it’s something close to home I’ve been wondering about, so thank you for pointing me in that direction. I loved, too, the return of fall recipes. But most of all, I loved your intro to this weekend reading. Such truth to power in your words. And I really loved Jay’s illustrations, in particular the one about encountering a “tangle.” It’s so very true. And reminds me so much of how even literal untangling cannot take place without a calm and gentle approach. A therapist I saw in my 30’s a long time ago taught me to “thank” the parts of myself I was frustrated with or wanted to change for protecting me the best way they knew how. She said it would soften the defenses I wanted to shift if I acknowledged them that way. These illustrations remind me of that. It was such a surprising notion to me at the time, but it was so spot on. So happy to see others, young people, following that same thread and finding good things come of it. Thank you to both of you for your brave sharing!! xoxo

  2. What a week….damn girl your findings get better each week.

    The piece on social determinants of home hits so close. You know I still feel anger and shame over the fact that 3 years after a simple ankle sprain, I still feel pain and repercussions. While I’m meeting with a rheumatologist, I really think it’s more that I had and continue to have incredibly inconsistent care. That combined with needing to teach dance on the bad ankle because it was my only source of income – I don’t give myself enough credit for what I’ve been through and how far I’ve come. It’s not all my fault, even though I take it on a lot.

    And that last piece – the number of times I’ve thought, “Wow I’ve lost x pounds so why don’t I look it and why don’t these pants fit yet?!” over the last many months is extremely high. And some days I’m fine but underneath it all there’s a sense of, “if I’m suffering I may as well lose weight…” and “not only am I suffering I also look fatter than before.” ugh ugh ugh such complicated intertwined issues.

    And now I’m gonna go reread my body love letter…

  3. Thank you for yet another insightful post, Gena. Lately I have been examining my own negative feelings, so it was an opportune time for me to read it. Like you, feelings of melancholy are easy for me to acknowledge and work with. But I am only now starting to realize the depths of anger and resistance in my life, and it is daunting to face it. Even after years of self-work, I catch myself in negative patterns every single day. Knowing that the tangle of emotion is normal, even expected, and that gentleness is appropriate here, helps. Thank you for your honesty and encouraging outlook.

    This is unrelated, but I wanted to let you know that while browsing your site today I came across multiple ads for animal products (Hillshire Farms, Jimmy Dean, and Johnsonville brands). I know you try to be mindful of the content, so I just wanted to let you know.

    • Thank you for this kind, thoughtful comment, Greta. I wish you strength and patience in your own journey toward facing these difficult feelings — and I commend you on all of the self-work you’ve done already.

      I’ll report the ads to my network right away. Thanks for telling me.

  4. Longtime subscriber, sometime reader, I’m glad I stopped to read your post this morning. This really resonated with me: “when we feel lost in a tangle, it’s OK to be lost for a little while.” I had severe anorexia and depression for about 12 years, then maybe eight years of “recovery” where I detached myself from that label and, to be fair, really transformed a lot of the ways I live my life. I’m much happier, but I still find myself frequently, to some degree, disengaged by anxiety and caught up in eating disorder tendencies. It’s kind of a blow to think that I’m still kind of in that stuck place, BUT it’s been much more helpful to accept those tough times when they arise and then move on using the skills I’ve built in the intervening years. In my older age, I’m much more willing to be okay (at least temporarily) with those perceived flaws and limitations. A life long process, for sure.

    • Thanks for this comment, Lauren — and for reading!

      I’m continually surprised by how many new layers of recovery I continue to peel back. Yes, I think there was a period a while back when I did a lot of “the work,” if you will, but even so, the process is ongoing and deeply tied to other realms of growth and development. So the realizations keep coming. Cheers to you for having the courage to sit with things, to notice, and to accept flaws (and in so doing, accept who you are, because we all have flaws, and they are part of our whole selves, at least the way I see it). And I appreciate your comment today.

  5. I just want to say that your presence on the internet is a blessing, and I don’t say that lightly. Your writing always moves me, whether it’s a recipe post or something more in depth and vulnerable. I really can’t say how enough much I appreciate and enjoy it and how lucky I feel to have stumbled across your blog many many years ago.

    • Liz, I don’t take your words lightly. It has been a real honor to have you as a reader for all of these years, and your comments have always enriched the process. Thank you for taking the time to say something so generous today, and thank you for being a part of this blog.

  6. Another wonderful post. Your Mum was on to something with helping you personify fears/feelings to make them less scary. Therapists working with kids do it all the time to help them process what’s happening. Clever lady. I love reading your weekend posts. Thank you.

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