Living Moderation in a City of Extremes, Part 5: Neither “Big” Nor “Easy”
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
A dear colleague recently pointed out to me—in a conversation regarding this experience—"you're right you know, New Orleans ain't that big and it ain't that easy." Indeed. I might start calling the crescent city the "Lil' Arduous."
We're in the throes of the summer. Every day seems hotter and more humid than the last and just when you think you're going to get heat stroke you acclimate enough to reach the next air-conditioned building. Everyone sweats through their clothes and even the most seasoned veterans of New Orleans summer look to months-off October for a respite. I wear booty shorts and tank tops or barely-there backless maxi dresses; pay endless gratitude for the luxury of not having to wear a bra (why bother with an extra layer if it's not a necessity?) and accept as much as I can the fully embodied habitation of my own skin. And in the heat everything seems "arduous," personal, assaultive. There is something about high humidity in triple digits that makes you vulnerable, precarious like your fate depends on the passing whim of the city and its people—every late bus and streetcar, every cat-caller, every drunken Bourbon Street reveler, every power/water/infrastructure failure seems quietly afflictive like a lurking tacit menace.
It ain't that big and it ain't that easy.
Since I moved to New Orleans, I've generally been pretty confident in my recovery. Even though it was only two years ago that I found myself hospitalized and desperately ill, the now-versus-then interval seems like a lifetime. In New Orleans, recovery is integral to my daily life—every meal, every morning walk, every disordered thought, every urge and impulse gets filtered through mindful practice. Non-judgmentally, I ask myself "is this thought/action/impulse conducive to wellness or does it support a skewed vision of my body, my self, and/or the world at large?" I proceed aligned with the former and in doing so, I stay safe, healthy, and happy. But in this suffocating, vulnerable-making climate, my mindfulness practice drains and slogs; anything but easy. The heat makes everything harder and stress—about new job(s), the impending completion of a terminal degree, and a relationship that becomes more important and special with each passing day—can turn to depression in the blink of a sweat-drenched eyelid.
I think it was a few nights ago when I realized that "I'm worried about work, my relationship, and what I'll do after my MFA" had turned to "I'm depressed, paralyzed, and afraid." I wept for an hour about nothing and everything—the damning recent and seemingly unending rash of gun violence, conspicuous consumerism, class disparity and reification, a non-specific unidentifiable malaise. Tainted water and unjust parking tickets and a city on the edge of ecological collapse; lost loves, lost souls, and the inevitable entropic disintegration of any meaningful relationship. A few nights ago, I realized I'm a little sad.
But yesterday, I woke from my depression-induced somnambulism thinking only of a line from a recent Rilke translation (for the entire poem, go here) http://www.onbeing.org/program/wild-love-world/feature/go-limits-your-longing/1448 : "Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final." There are a lot of words I might use to describe New Orleans when I'm feeling a little low (hot, broken, corrupt, dangerous, putrid, etc), but "beauty" and "terror" articulate the city—and my life in it—at its best. Yesterday, I decided to take the tragic with the transcendent. The heat will pass. Yesterday, I decided to believe that I have the ability to acknowledge and work through my depression. In practical terms, yesterday I decided to use my skills: I reached out to my support network, checked the facts (what is objectively good and positive; what can I do right now to make myself feel better?), made self-care a priority, made choices opposite to emotion/desire, and chose to believe, facile as it may sound, this too shall pass. "Just keep going. No feeling is final."
It's been a couple of days of practicing the above and I already feel a bit better. It's still hotter than hell, my jobs are still stressful, and the stakes of my romantic relationship continue to mount. I'm still trying to figure out how to be empathic without losing myself in endless local and global atrocities. At the same time, I'm hopeful. "No feeling is final." I will be joyful again; I refuse to compromise my health. Life in recovery—even when I feel a little blue, a little defeated, even when New Orleans is hot and broken and the tap water is tainted—is too good to give up on or retreat from.
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). For more posts from Clare: