A Recovery Story
We are reading The Velveteen Rabbit (by Margery Williams, originally published in 1922) in my women’s eating disorder recovery group this week. I find this book to be even more relevant for adults – especially women who struggle with people pleasing, body image distress, or “looking good” on the outside while feeling shame on the inside. If you haven’t read the book, go read it. Read it to your little one; read it to yourself.
In the Jungian dream tradition of Every-aspect-of-the-story-is-an-aspect-of-yourself, I offer the following:
The little boy is your “inner child” and/or your core, essential self. It is the part of you that is not afraid of vulnerability and loves with a fierceness that is clear and unclouded with doubt or fear. This part of the self wants to connect, is playful, and has all of her feelings. This is the part of you that has the capacity to be dependent, interconnected, and fierce in attaching. This is the part of you that is not afraid of love. This part says, “Stop it! He isn’t a toy. He’s real.” This part is fiercely protective of vulnerability and life. This part knows very clearly who and who is not safe, according to a nonverbal heart-sense.
The Expensive Mechanical Toys
This part of the self is very well polished. Most airbrushed magazine images represent this part of the self. Many Politicians present this part of the self. It is an inflated, idealized version of the self often not in touch with its shadow aspects or vulnerabilities. Any addictive or expensive behaviors that feed feelings of “not enough” come from this part of the self trying to maintain its polish. The desire for the “perfect” body (house, relationship, career, Super-mom-ness image) – without having to feel any feelings of inadequacy – comes from here. This part of the self “boasts about [itself] and snub the rabbit for being made of cloth” in order to not experience shame.
The Nurse Maid
The Nurse Maid is an aspect of your critical self, or Superego. This aspect of the self is big on “tidying up,” thinks feelings are “a bother,” is very concerned with being “grown up.” This part thinks the boy (your inner child/essential self) makes “a lot of fuss over a toy” (your feelings and interdependency needs).
Yet another version of Super-Ego-dom, the Doctor is the adult authority who has lost touch with his own body and heart-sense. It is the doctor with no bedside manner who says the rabbit is “a mass of germs. Burn it right away. You can always get a new one.” The doctor may have vital pragmatic information to share, so it is important to take into account. However, it has lost her vital connection with vulnerability, and therefore needs to be only consulted in conjunction with and not at the expense of other parts of the self.
The Fever (Dis-ease)
The fever is any kind of dis-ease that comes with a message for you. Your Eating Disorder is a fever. Postpartum Depression is a fever. Anxiety, adrenal fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and immune disorders can be seen as fevers. Grief is a fever. “Fevers” or Dis-eases, come with messages for creating more ease. They ask that you listen to the bodily and emotional aspects of the self to which you have not been tending. Dis-ease often calls for rest and less achievement-oriented productivity. The fever forces – (or offers the opportunity for) – aspects of the self that are overly-concerned-with-being-productive to pause, so that more contemplative, creative, and wise aspects can emerge.
The Other (Real) Rabbits
Often these parts of the self feel separate from you, because they appear to be others. You may feel ambivalent or jealous toward them, because it appears they have what you want and you don’t have it. However they are actually showing you what is possible for you (to recover, have what you want, be authentic). Although they may appear to be showing off, these authentic beings are actually just being themselves when they dance, whirl and jump. They are showing you it is possible and lighting the way for you to live your way into it.
Some might call this aspect of the Self your Higher Power. Like Quan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, it is born from the tears of suffering. This part of you is always with you, especially when you are feeling most alone or when you “hit bottom.” It is the hope that is born from despair. This part lights the way for you when you have lost your way. to the light. When you surrender to, when you re-member to, this part of your Self, magical and transformative things happen.
The Skin Horse
Last, but not least, is the Skin Horse, the Wise part of the Self. It is kind, discerning, and has an inner glow. It often has a wrinkled face, saggy arms, and love handles, as it is difficult to become this wise in your early years. It is the part of your Self with whom you feel safe, and perhaps a tiny bit afraid. This part is compassinate and also doesnt take any BS. You are not going to be able to convince this part that a new wardrobe, the Paleo diet, or the latest juice “cleanse” will make you feel better/authentic. This part of the Self knows the Real deal and the Real deal is about becoming Real.
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
-Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
Here’s to your Real-ness, Dear One.
I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love author)’s new book Big Magic. It is a fabulous journey exploring the relationship between fear, creativity, inspiration, and life. Here is an excerpt of a letter she wrote to fear.
“Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously…But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way…You’re allowed to have a seat, you’re allowed to have a voice, but you’re not allowed to have a vote…above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
It can be hard to talk back to fear, to allow it, without letting it run the show. Fear likes to be dictatorial. It lives in the land of cognitive distortions, so it is full of globalizing, catastrophizing, shaming, and emotional reasoning. “This will never work,” “If you do this, you will never have enough money to live on,” “Who do you think you are?!” “You are a fraud, and they are going to find out eventually, so why even pretend you’re not?” “This is the way things have always been, so this is the way they should be.”
In my own recovery I had to learn to identify the voice of fear, like a subtle click of the clock, tick tick tick, always whispering in the background of my mind. I had to notice this was part but not all of me. In my work with clients, I help facilitate separating out the voices of fear and also of the eating disorder (sometimes shortened to “Ed”). They are often quite similar in tone. This is an important aspect of recovery, and of cultivating the courage to be your full self, because it allows you access to the other pats of you. Fear and Ed do not like you to be aware that you have other parts to yourself. They speak loudly, and try to run your life. OK, sometimes they speak quietly. Actually, they’re quite sneaky that way: they morph. Sometimes they are so quiet that you can’t even hear them talking to you, because it is more of a niggling, silent belief that colors your whole world view. For example, it might not say this, but rather imply strongly as a silently pervasive belief, don’t even try because you are going to fail. Before you act on this belief, it is important to take opposite action. Jenni Schaeffer, in her book Life without ED, writes about the importance of learning to Disagree and Disobey the Ed voice:
When you are trying to begin your separation from Ed, it is important that you first recognize Ed’s rules in your life. You must be able to distinguish between standards that Ed holds for you and healthy boundaries that you set for yourself. You must realize that Ed’s rules do not make sense. For instance, many of Ed’s rules contradict each other. On one day, Ed tells you not to touch that ice cream or dare drink that soda. Then, the very next day, Ed says, “Eat that entire gallon of ice cream, and drink three cans of soda. Eat as much as you can until you feel sick.” Ed’s rules are designed to harm us.
After you are able to recognize Ed’s rules in your life, you must try to disagree with and disobey them. Even if it seems impossible for you to actually disagree with one of Ed’s rules, you must still try to disobey him. If you are able to break his rules no matter what, you are taking a huge step toward separating from Ed. Disobeying Ed means you are moving in the right direction. Don’t expect it to be easy.
In the beginning of my recovery twenty years ago, I would say this to my ED voice every week when getting ready to attend my recovery support group:
You can come if you want. You are welcome to ride the bus with me to get there, you are welcome to attend the meeting. You don’t get to decide if I go. We are going. I show up, now, regardless.
And then I would go to my support group. Every week. For the record, Ed kept trying to convince me otherwise:
“You haven’t had any eating disorder behaviors in a week (a month, 6 months,…), you don’t need to go!”
“You just had a hard day at work. You already did your job today. You need to rest. Just skip it this one time.”
“You’re fat.” (Ed’s answer to every question and reason for not participating in any and all aspects of life.)
My Ed voice doesn’t do this anymore because it knows it has been banished. It’s not driving the bus, car, or whatever vehicle you want to use as a metaphor for the-part-of-the-Self-that-is-driving-decision-making. However, fear is still here. Fear says
“You don’t need to do your spiritual practice today – just sleep in.”
“You don’t need to write. It is too tedious, it doesn’t pay, your favorite publisher is closing down, no-one reads anymore, anyway… “
But the thing is, writing makes me happy. Not euphoric-happy; but content-happy. Clear-happy. Free of resentments and the cumulative-gunk-of-living-cleared-out happy. My first year of recovery I worked in a recovery book store. Sometimes, when I had to open the store early, I would not have time to write before coming in. The owner of the store (who was also my friend and inspiration for getting into recovery) would know the days I had written and the days I hadn’t. He would say “STEER CLEAR OF HER” and bring me coffee on the days I hadn’t. 🙂
Writing is like recovery, meditation, or any creative practice that you show up for on a regular and consistent basis. It gradually, subtly, integrates the shit (compost, anger, resentments, fears) into new sprouts. And these sprouts grow into plants (or not – some of them die and that is appropriate). And the plant that survives becomes the tree of who you are and who you are becoming. It brings the gift of hard-won persistent and regular work. It makes you more authentically you in a subtle but essential way. It wears down your anxieties, softens your fear. It uses your sadness and grief as a way into the interior of your (and other’s) Hearts. When you show up to the page, day after day, month after month, year after year, you become real. Velveteen Rabbit real. And by the time you become Real, you don’t care anymore what the Ed-voice or the fear-voice have to say. They can’t stop you any more. You have found the Real-ness. That is the Big Magic.That is recovery.