always lent, Fasting, Invisible Illness, Mental Illness, Uncategorized

A Lot Like Love: Mental Illness and Fasting

Today’s guest post comes to us from a mother called Barbara who prefers not to share her personal information for privacy’s sake. She shares her story here in hopes of encouraging other families who face a very different sort of fasting season.

***

a-lot-like-love

It was in the late winter of Sarah’s junior year in college when she told me that she needed to come home. She was very sick, she said. She had lost too much weight. She thought maybe she had anorexia. She wasn’t sure. She was only sure that she wasn’t going to survive if she stayed at school.

When she got home, I was shocked at the way she looked. Gaunt doesn’t even begin to describe it. Sarah had always been thin. She was an athlete. But when she came home, she wasn’t just thin. Her muscles were gone. She had no fat anywhere on her body. Just skin pulled tight over her bones.

And she knew that she looked like someone who was dying. She thought that, perhaps, she was dying. But she didn’t want to die. So we found a therapist and a physician who specialized in working with young women with eating disorders.

The therapist said that, even though Sarah met the clinical criteria for anorexia nervosa, she didn’t think that’s what was causing the disordered eating. Instead, she had obsessive compulsive disorder. Her mind had created ever more elaborate rules about what she could eat, and when, and under what circumstances. And if she couldn’t eat “right,” then she couldn’t eat.

That was good news; the therapist treated someone with an OCD-related eating disorder once or twice a year. The odds of a complete recovery were much better. But there were no hospital-based programs that were appropriate for someone like her. And she was in such dire shape that a hospital might have been the best place for her. There, if her heart or her liver failed, she’d be exactly where she needed to be for emergency intervention. But Sarah would have to fight this thing as an outpatient, living at home.

When treatment began, the OCD controlled everything she put in her mouth. To survive, she had to wrest control back from the disorder. She had to be in charge of what she ate, and when. She had to fight the rules that OCD had created, and she had to win, if she was going to survive.

And her therapist and her physician were both very clear: she might not survive.

She had to eat enough calories every day to keep her brain working and keep her body from shutting down. Even if she survived, she was already at risk of permanent organ damage. Her body had already broken down all of her fat and most of her muscles. Her heartbeat was irregular. Her skin was dry. She was growing a downy fuzz over her body. She was cold all the time. She couldn’t stay warm; staying warm requires calories, and there weren’t enough calories available to keep her warm. She was easily confused, because thinking requires calories, and there weren’t enough calories available for her to think.

She saw her physician every week, and her therapist two or three times a week. And most nights, after she had gone to bed, after I was sure she was asleep, I checked on her to make sure she was still breathing. I had to be sure she was still alive.

Over the first few weeks of therapy, it became clear that my Sarah’s OCD had taken her regular Wednesday and Friday fasts, and the patterns for healthy eating that she tried to follow, and had twisted them all into something ugly and dangerous.

If she was going to survive, her therapist emphasized, she had to control what she ate. She had to starve the rules the OCD had created. She had to weaken them, fight them, destroy them before they destroyed her.

At some point during that conversation, I broke down in tears. I told her that I had to keep my child alive. She responded bluntly: “That’s not your job any more.” It was Sarah’s job. It was Sarah’s fight. Nobody could do it for her.

And if I tried to fight the rules for her, it would make the recovery longer and harder.

“But she might die,” I said.

“Yes. She might.” But if she was going to survive, Sarah had to win.

That didn’t mean that there was nothing that Sarah’s father and I could do. In fact, there was one thing we had to do. We had to avoid giving aid and comfort to the enemy. We had to avoid feeding the rules, too.

That meant that our house had to be free of rules related to food. Until she defeated the rules, there could be no breakfast foods at our house, and no dinner foods. There was just food. We couldn’t suggest that tomato sauce would go well with pasta, or that curry should be served with rice. We could eat it that way, if we wanted to. But not because it was supposed to be that way. There was no supposed to. There was no should.

And there was no fasting.

The physician and the therapist both told us that fasting would endanger her life. Not just her fasting. Our fasting, too. Because our fasting would feed the OCD rules that were binding her.

We had to starve the rules. So we didn’t fast.

On Wednesdays and Fridays, that wasn’t so hard. But Great Lent was approaching quickly.

We talked to our priest, told him what Sarah’s care team had told us. We told him that our fast that year was apparently to eat without rules. To eat without regard for the day or the time. To eat in a way that would save our daughter’s life.

I can’t say for sure that our priest understood. I honestly don’t remember that conversation now. I know we had it. But memory is a funny thing, when your child is mortally ill. There are some memories that are crystallized, frozen in time, and you can go back and replay them over and over, in excruciating detail. You can see the colors, the play of light and shadows in the room, hear the sounds around you. And some memories seem to vanish in the mist.

But the long and the short of that conversation was that, whether he understood or not, we had a blessing to do what we had to do for Sarah.

And that was the most difficult fast I have ever experienced. If you think that giving up meat for Lent is hard, you’ve never been told you have to eat meat to keep your child alive.

Sarah saw her physician at least once a week, and her therapist twice. At first, she wasn’t allowed to drive, because of the risk of fainting or seizures from starvation. My employer granted me a flexible schedule for the duration, and I drove her to appointments three or four days a week.

And I said nothing, not a word, about what she ate or didn’t ate, or when. My husband and I had odd meals at odd times. We snacked when we got home from work. We had a late supper of bacon and eggs. We made grilled cheese sandwiches for breakfast.

And Sarah could eat with us, or not. It was up to her.

Sometimes she would scream at us, ear-shattering, heart-rending screams, because we weren’t following her rules. Sometimes she would tell us that we were trying to kill her, because if we didn’t follow her rules, she wouldn’t be able to eat, and if she didn’t eat, she would die.

The rules knew. The rules understood that, by ignoring them, we were making them weaker. And they fought. Oh, how they fought.

And sometimes, I would lay in my husband’s arms at night, and cry.

But Sarah stopped losing weight. And by Pascha, she had gained a few ounces.

She was learning how to feed herself again.

And I was learning, too. I was learning that sometimes the fast we’re called to doesn’t have anything to do with what we eat or don’t eat. In Isaiah 58, we hear this:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

That year, my husband and I chose a fast that would break the yoke that bound our daughter. We chose a fast that would help free her from oppression. We chose a fast that didn’t look much like fasting.

But it was a fast that looked a lot like love.

always lent, Auto-immunity, calendar concerns, Chronic Illness, Fasting, food allergies, Invisible Illness, Spoonies, Uncategorized

Guest Post: Alana’s Fast

always-lent

What does a fasting season menu look like for people with food allergies? We all have different needs, but from time to time, we will share what works for some of us. May these posts encourage you in your journey and to give glory to God in all things!

Today’s post is from Alana Sheldahl, who shared her soup recipe with us earlier this week. You can find Alana at her blog, Morning Coffee.

***

My Lent with Food Allergies and Health Problems

Man does not live by bread alone…”–Jesus Christ, spoken in rebuke to Satan who was attempting to tempt him to passion.

I am not a well person, and when I am feeling well or doing well, it is in part because I am taking very very VERY careful care of my nutrition.  I have multiple food allergies, fibromyalgia and autoimmune thyroid disease and reactive hypoglycemia.  These conditions are being treated and managed and part of that treatment is through nutrition. In addition to all of this, I am in recovery for disordered eating.  As such, traditional Orthodox fasting has, in the past, put me in a place of greater ill health, and has gotten me in trouble with compulsive over-eating as well:  All my binge foods are lenten!

I realize that anything I share is not going to universally apply to ANYONE else, unless you also happen to be allergic to dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, sunflower seeds, shrimp and chocolate, or must be gluten free for health reasons (doctor’s orders!), or you ALSO must avoid all sugars and baked goods for health and eating disorder purposes.  But with such a long list of food restrictions, I hope I have some relevant things to share with others and hopefully some encouragement to offer those in similar circumstances along the way.


Let me start by sharing how I fast.  Since I am ‘always fasting’, I do modify my fast that goes with the Church calendar.

There are other health issues in our family (young adult people with autism spectrum issues, hypoglycemia, anxiety and a husband with terminal cancer) and so we do what we can to keep ourselves stable and able.

Furthermore, allow me to state up-front that because of my eating disorder recovery, I do weigh and measure all my food and share daily my intake with my 12 step sponsor.  But that’s my asceticism, and yes, I do this even on Pascha or the Nativity Feast…no days off from abstinence or avoiding my trigger foods, even if they are wildly popular for feasting purposes.  There are also no days off from avoiding the foods I am allergic to.  I have epi-pens.  I never want to use them.  

So at our house, we ratchet the fast down to not eating red meat…along with the other things we must avoid.  And I also will mostly forego the sheep’s milk cheeses I am not allergic to.  About once or twice during a long fast I find myself getting run down and I do need to have a beef meal.  But I do it prayerfully and carefully and unapologetically.

The only bread I ever consume is the Eucharist.  I don’t take antidoron or Lytia bread ever at all.  No Koliva because it contains wheat and sugar (and often nuts). No exceptions.

When I was first Orthodox, and learning the fasting routine in a parish that was 100% converts where there were no babushkas or yia yias to feed us and show us how it was done in the old country, I did it ALL WRONG. I ate SO much bread.  All the bread.  I binged on bread.  It is, after all, lenten. Lenten cake, cookies, cinnamon rolls…all of it went into my body, much to my detriment. And Oreos and Frito Pie…ridiculous.  One cannot eat that way half the days of the year and stay healthy.

There was one Pascha where I had to wear a maternity top because I was so bloated and distended.  I was not pregnant.  I thank God for my health care provider who set me in the right direction!!!  I used to think that there was no way I could follow the fasting rules and not gain weight, but now I see that much of my problem was in the types of foods I was choosing, and the quantities I was eating.  As it is, I do not perfectly or strictly follow the fasting rules, but I am doing as much as I can, and am the better for it.

Nowadays, I try to more closely  follow the whole fast at least two meals per day, and then have some poultry or fish for that last meal.  I think in terms of “one meal at a time”, and I do what I can.  For myself personally I have a measured portion of carb food (grains or starchy food like sweet potato) at breakfast and at dinner, but all other meals and snacks are grain free.

A common breakfast is half a cup of dry oats, w/ 2 T. hemp seeds and half of a T. of coconut oil, for instance.  Lunch usually looks like veg plus protein:  steamed broccoli and  can of tuna is a common choice.  Dinner often finds us eating beans and rice, with a side salad.

So, strictly lenten pantry items that can help keep a nutritious fast, which Ihappen to not be allergic to:  

Hemp hearts-I find these at costco and they are wonderful for adding protein to one’s whole grain breakfast cereal, or fruit.

Gerbs Pumpkin seeds (Amazon)

Gluten free Rolled Oats or Steel Cut Oats (Amazon)

Canned Coconut Milk-excellent for creamed soups. (Trader Joe’s or Amazon)

Lower calorie boxed unsweetened coconut milk (most any grocer)

Unsweetened Flax milk (good luck finding this, but it’s nutritional variety)

Vanilla Vega One Protein and Greens vegan shake mix.  (Amazon or Costco)

All fruits and vegetables…seriously.  (any grocer)

Lentils

Black beans

Navy beans

Garbanzo beans

Rice

Broth.

Nutritional yeast flakes (so good!) (Amazon, I like Now brand).

Organic Cornmeal for polenta

Coconut oil. All the coconut oil. (Costco prices are nice.)

Spectrum butter flavored palm oil shortening  (Whole Foods, Meijer)

Stevia

Truvia (yes, I’ve done my homework, it is acceptable to me, YMMV)

Guilty pleasure:  Smart Balance margarine (it has canola…hence the guilt). (any grocer)

Lemon Juice

Curry Powder (must have), chili, cumin, cinnamon…all the herbs and spices, yes please!

Tomato sauce (check for sugar!)

So that’s my list.  Any of the starchy foods I have to limit in quantity and frequency so as not to feel ill.  In addition to this you will find chicken, canned tuna and fish patties and ground turkey on my table during the fasts…because we are run down, stressed, deathly ill or chronically ill, and it’s the best we can do. What you will not find on my plate:  bread, anything I am allergic to, any baked goods, sweets or pastries, or anything with sugar or fried foods.
Glory to God for all things, even food allergies, which teach me abstinence and help me to stay humble.  

***

Thank you, Alana!

always lent, Auto-immunity, calendar concerns, Fasting, food allergies, Lent, Uncategorized

Fasting From Perfectionism

fasting

I like to look good on paper. Growing up as the oldest child in a dysfunctional home, I became an overfunctioning powerhouse. Straight A averages, community service, extracurricular activities, helping with little kids, polite manners, respecting my elders, memorizing scripture, saying my prayers: If it was what one was “supposed” to do, I did it. Even though I’m decades along in healing from that past, I still really, really like to do things the way I’m supposed to.

Nowadays, instead of aiming for perfection, I sometimes think of doing the things asked of me by the Church in terms of obedience. Obedience is a shortcut to wisdom, and I love wisdom. 

So what’s the problem?

I can’t fast.

If you’re thinking, “So what?” you weren’t listening. I can’t fast (!), and did you see the calendar with its demarcations of fasting and not fasting and strict fasting and less strict fasting, fish or oil and wine fasting? Anxiety attack. How can I be a good Christian if I [mostly] can’t fast?

When I find myself spiraling into the desire to look good on paper, I stop and remember what fasting is supposed to be for.

In Philippians 3, {<-Click to read the passage} St. Paul points out that if anyone could be considered righteous (good on paper) according to the flesh, it was he. Here’s a man who had everything going for him, but thanks be to God, laid aside his claim to righteousness so that he could press toward the true calling of Christ, who will one day “change our humble body.”

In Orthodoxy, whenever a pattern repeats itself through scripture and the tradition of the holy fathers, we pay attention. Here’s the pattern that catches me up in the Spirit’s net when I start to despair:

Humility is more important than outward piety. True asceticism is known by its fruits, not by its appearance. 

Again and again, we see apparently unjust people -those who for some reason don’t look like they’re doing the righteous thing- revealed at last as the ones who have obtained the gifts of humility and mercy.

I’m not writing this to say that I’m one of those perfect ones. But I want to encourage you, dear brothers and sisters who struggle with me under unusual dietary prescriptions, to see that our goal of growing in God is not out of reach just because we don’t look good on paper. 

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.

-Isaiah 58: 6-9 (NKJV)

When I talk with Orthodox friends about fasting {<-click for a recent podcast discussion with Angela Doll Carlson}, especially when they have health issues that keep them from the traditional fasts, we usually conclude that we can do works of mercy and call it even. Now, of course those who can fast in the usual ways can also do works of mercy. We’re not saying otherwise. What we’re saying is that God has still given us paths to know Him.

Whether we fast with the calendar, or whether our lives are Always Lent, God is still with us. We can still lay aside every earthly care to welcome the King of all. Why? Because fasting -or living an Always Lent life- makes us see that God has already given us everything we need by giving us Himself. 

How do you make sense of not being able to fast in the usual way? Please comment with your ideas and insights so we can all be encouraged.