By CINDY BULIK
Published: December 26, 2014
The season is upon us again, when tradition lures us into believing that we should pledge resolutions for the New Year that will “guarantee” changes for the better in fundamental aspects of our behavior or thinking. Something about the turning of the year compels us to do something to make the both the New Year and ourselves better. We play along with this ruse every year even though we know from personal experience and from science that those changes that we try to bootstrap ourselves into reliably disintegrate by about January 14th. The parking lot at the gym will be jammed on January 2nd, Google searches for the term “diet” will soar before we even take our decorations down, but by mid- to late January, we will be thinking and behaving much the same way we did after Halloween of last year—and not in accordance with our resolutions.
In past posts, I have argued against New Year’s resolutions, but the alternatives I provided were forward-looking. This year, I have decided, rather than looking forward, to look backward and ask myself what lessons I have learned in the past year that can help guide and improve my behavior and thinking in the New Year. Hopefully, by taking stock in this way, and processing what I have been through, I will be able to develop a more rational and carefully considered plan for behavior or attitude enhancement. Typically, many of the lessons from my own life also help me to gain greater empathy for the patients and families to whom I have dedicated my life’s work—this year is no exception.
Lesson #1. Recovery takes time. I had a severe back injury relapse this year. An echo of a 36-year-old incident in which my back was broken, I found myself unable to walk for three weeks in March. Walking to the bathroom felt like an Olympic event. I kept having this fantasy that if only I could stretch my back in the right way, or crack it, or take some magic medication, that the pain would immediately dissipate and I would be back to my physically active self. On one hand, that irrepressible optimism kept me going, “Tomorrow WILL be better!” On the other hand, it failed to respect the role that time plays in the healing process.
I fully confess that I don’t actually know everything that happens over time that facilitates healing—inflammation, muscle repair, and bone realignment all play some mysterious role. I do know that the body can get out of whack in an instant, but it does not spring back nearly as quickly. And, the older we get, the longer it takes. The mind is no different.
This experience made me think about two things related to my work. First, in anorexia, weight can drop like a stone and the anorexic mindset can get a grip on someone seemingly overnight. Recovery, however, takes time. It takes longer to reset the mind and the body after the insult of anorexia has already taken its toll. As providers, we must be patient, but never lackadaisical, as time needs encouragement to speed up. Second, I was reminded of the countless women I speak with who are desperate to return to their pre-baby body immediately after pregnancy. We are not rubber bands. Our bodies are stretched, rearranged, and in hormonal upheaval in order to do the most amazing thing in the world—create another human being. Recovery takes time. Sleep, bonding, and nutrition are all so much more important and they demonstrate respect for what your body was able to accomplish by giving life to a new person.
Lesson #2. I am tougher than I think. I did some things this year that took guts. Despite my fundamental disagreement with Putin’s policies on homosexuality, I went to Sochi for the Olympic games. I memorized the Cyrillic alphabet before I left, learned some basic Russian phrases (it helped to speak a little bit of Czech), took out travel insurance, and hit the road. My adventurous 17-year old who had traveled solo around Europe resurfaced after many years and my survival instincts were all still intact. And that proved to be a good thing. It was almost as if the Russians had not expected any foreigners to come to their party. Navigating Sochi was like an orienteering adventure in a foreign language. But I did it, and by the third day, Russians were asking me how to navigate their way around. That broken back when I was 18 ensured that I never got to the Olympics as a competitor (not that I ever really had a shot at it), but I was there in the stands to see the US team win the first gold medal in ice dancing ever! And I have Sochi swag to prove it!
In April, despite the back injury, I had to do some work-related travel, and was shocked when a colleague told me I looked frail. Frail! That word echoed in my head for weeks. Frail was not a word I ever paired with my self-image. I would not be frail! But that single word propelled me to get stronger and to accelerate the process of time to help my back heal. She did me a favor by calling it as she saw it and reminding me of what I am not. I found the inner toughness that inspired me to do the hard work of recovery.
I have always told my patients (and my kids) to keep a little book in which they record things that they have accomplished, especially under adverse circumstances, that can remind them of how tough they are. When we have moments of self-doubt, we cannot recall those experiences clearly as we are seeing everything through foggy lenses. But going back and reading about the things you have done that take courage can remind you of who you are and what you are capable of.
I think the word frail hit me so hard because it reminded me of so many people whom I have seen in the height of frailty when anorexia had them in its grip. Although sadly anorexia still occasionally wins (and this needs to change), in more cases, I have watched truly courageous efforts of recovery that show just how tough people with anorexia and their family members are. Watching the Olympics was cool; witnessing recovery is miraculous and shows the inner fortitude of the human spirit.
So I have no New Year’s resolutions. I have Old Year’s lessons that I will feed forward into the New Year. I will respect time even if I do not completely understand it and I will not lose sight of my inner toughness.
So take some time to look back and may the lessons you learned from last year help pave the way for a healthy and peaceful New Year.