Living Moderation in a City of Extremes, Part 2: Guilt and Negative Self-Talk in the Lower Ninth
This is one person's story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors or symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.
By Clare Harmon, a former Emily Program client and woman in recovery
Recently, I interviewed for a teaching job in the Lower Ninth Ward. After a grueling set of questions, an assessment of my tenacity, my ability to weather verbal abuse, and the telling query "are you comfortable crying in public? 'Cause these kids will test you," I exchanged thank you's with the two-person committee. The corridors that led to the exit were thoughtfully adorned with process art, collages, and outlines filled by vibrant crayon. A scrappy Pomeranian licked my heel and at the threshold of the Walgreens-turned-community center, I accepted a "don't call us, we'll call you."
Minutes later I sat catatonic in my car. I've lived in New Orleans for almost two years and never once have I been past Poland Avenue. I circumscribed my immediate surroundings: parts of the Lower Ninth look like Wisconsin. The open space and unkempt, overgrown lots are idyllic in comparison to densely packed Uptown blocks until you remember why this part of the city looks the way it does. I am an outsider, I paused: my index and middle fingers flanked my forehead; my thumbs buttressed a tensed jaw. Not only am I not from New Orleans, I'm not even from the South. I'm a stupidly educated, middle-class Midwestern white girl whose greatest accomplishment is overcoming a disease inexorable from my bourgeois malaise. Anorexia is the affliction of the rich. How dare I apply for this job. How dare I exist in this city.
In that moment of internal reflection, I noticed my relatively-affluent-outsider-guilt turn to paralyzing self-loathing. In short, it was an extreme reaction fueled by a lingering "you are bad" ideology—the very same that fed my eating disorder in all its iterations for twenty years. Self-harm thoughts bubbled and symptom use became a tangible temptation. I felt myself descend. I need to stop this. How can I stop this? The answer came quickly, a reflex the result of repeated practice. Use your skills. Check the facts. What is out of your control? What is in your control? I made a list:
Check the facts.
1. This kind of negative self-talk, this kind of "how dare you breathe you blankety-blank-blank-blank" discourse is linked to an eating disorder mindset.
2. Eating disorders of every type afflict people across cultural, class, and gender divides. The "rich" may be more inclined/able to seek treatment but for every person who seeks treatment there are countless others who are unable to do the same.
3. It is the extreme—a thought process that ignores shade and nuance, that espouses the either/or viewpoint.
What is out of your control?
4. I cannot change that I was born into a family with means; one that encouraged me to become an intellectual.
5. I cannot change that I have never known poverty, that I have only eight-years-after-the-fact connections to Katrina.
What is in your control?
6. I can proceed with humility, flexibility, and grace.
7. I can actively work to treat this city with respect: For the moment, I am a guest here.
8. I can learn about the city and its history, pre- and post-Katrina, in an empathetic rather than fetishizing capacity.
Not hopeless and not futile and not powerless, I had a plan and my emotions—my guilt—a place. New Orleans is an extreme city, one where (as I wrote previously) wealth and poverty rub right against one another. But. This doesn't mean that I don't deserve to exist. This doesn't mean the answer to discomfort with my social position is self-harm.
That said, honestly, I don't know what the answer is—days later and I'm still agonizing about this little essay. What if I said the wrong thing? What if I come off as a disrespectful gentrifying elitist? Or opportunistic—as in "Why don't I put myself in this position to practice my recovery skills?!" I do know, however, that as I start to make my life here, it is not enough to live in my renovated Magazine Street studio, walk my little white dog, maintain a monthly fine-dining budget, and teach expensive violin lessons on the North Shore. Not enough to assume this is a universal experience, to pretend that my relative affluence is not causally inextricable from another person's poverty. I don't want ever to—in a moment of magical thinking—believe that New Orleans is a carefree paradise, a life-long vacation where the St. Charles Streetcar is "quaint" and "charming" rather than a woefully unreliable mode of public transportation. No. Reflexivity, fluidity, openness: from humility comes empathy.
It is one thing to say "I know nothing about your experience but I want to learn from you so I might be more equipped to help" and quite another to proclaim "I know nothing about your experience and it would be an affront to your suffering for me to even attempt to talk to you." And here is where paralyzing self-loathing becomes pretty damn useless. If you're not open to communication, then no practical effort will ever reach fruition. You're closed and unwilling and this rigidity in congress with self-loathing makes change—dare I say, "growth"—impossible. It's the double-binding extreme, one that reifies difference to make cross-oppression coalition impossible.
There is a wealth of information on the Lower Ninth available. For a recent discussion of post-Katrina gentrification, go here.
A little about Clare: She is the author of two books of poetry, The Thingbody (Instar Books, 2015) and If Wishes Were Horses the Poor Would Ride (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming 2016). You can read her first post about Recovery here.