Last evening, when I was camping out with my husband, I was reminded of the period of time when for no apparent reason my mom slept in a tent in the backyard for an entire summer. We assumed she was doing it because of her mental illness but she never really told us why. As I sat by the campfire last night, looking up into the star-filled sky and listening to the peaceful sounds of the unseen creatures of the night, I suddenly realized that maybe that was a way for her to escape and experience a moment of tranquility. She always seemed to be able to connect with nature in a way that she was unable to do in her every day life, when she felt threatened and bombarded by ordinary events that became overwhelming when filtered through her delusional thinking. This was one activity that seemed to bring her joy.
I realized that I too, can allow the aggravations of life to pile up, interfering with my ability to balance these challenges with the pleasurable moments in life. For far too long, I took my responsibilities so seriously that I seldom took time out to do the things I enjoyed. Eventually I talked myself into believing that as long as everyone else was happy, it didn’t matter what I was doing. Part of that was true. I’ve always placed such importance on relationships, that I felt pretty content just spending time with those I cared about, even if I didn’t care for the activity. But there was another part of this belief that wasn’t true and led to the self-denial that is characteristic of someone with an eating disorder. It left no room for saying no when I didn’t want to go along, or speaking up when I’d rather do something else. At the root of this was my fear of the rejection and loss of someone I loved. If I got really good at ignoring my own desires, then I could avoid this most feared response.
Fortunately I’ve learned that sometimes we all need a way to step back, gain perspective, and feel rejuvenated. Often the best way to do that is to find something that brings us back to those times in life when we were able to experience childlike joy and awe. When we were children, we didn’t question whether it was appropriate to want something and ask for it — everything was for the asking. It was our parents and society who taught us the boundaries of desire, and gradually it became easier to accept someone else’s definition than to ask questions. For those of us who have a difficult time discerning this for ourselves because of mixed messages from a parent with mental illness, it can be a life-long journey figuring out when it is all right to express our desires. Especially if we were chastised and made to feel guilty whenever we were happy.
Lately I’ve been going for long bike rides, hiking, and spending a lot of time outdoors with friends and family, and I remember how much I enjoyed those things as a child. Sometimes I feel a vague sense of guilt, like I should be tending to some pressing matter, but then I remind myself that these are the moments that allow me to come back to my responsibilities with a clear mind and attitude, and I proceed with gratitude.