Skills: Gratitude, Make Beauty Not War, Recovery
from Contributor: Laura Eshelman
In the words of OutKast, every day is another [expletive]in’ holiday when you don’t have a regular job, but I still wanted to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. Since I missed the parade, I decided to do some individual community service by splurging a little on groceries and spend an hour or so distributing them in areas of Durham where the city’s homeless frequently gather. With a big paper bag full of apples, oranges, and breakfast bars, I hit the streets near the main library first, hoping that I hadn’t bought more than necessary.
I needn’t have worried. After I greeted a sizeable crowd on the curb, the bag didn’t survive a minute before it was torn apart and everyone divvied the contents among themselves. Suddenly, there was nothing left for me to do but shrug, bid a happy day to a couple of people who thanked me, and figure out something else to do with my afternoon.
Even as I drove back to the “comfortable” part of the city (scarcely five minutes away), a growing discomfort eclipsed my Good Samaritan glow. I’ve learned some cold realities through various interactions with people affected by poverty for equally various reasons, and thus wondered why it was at all bewildering to see those groceries disappear so quickly. Reflecting on this encounter naturally brought up guilt about my own socio-economic privileges, but the shame seriously kicked in when I thought back to the breakfast bars I’ve personally consumed, only to intentionally throw them up afterward. “You’re an asshole,” I told the rearview mirror.
By now, I can usually dismiss the myopic rhetoric about eating disorders as “privileged illnesses” sparked by vanity. To use them as a buttress for an argument about social stratification is, to say the least, misguided. That’s not to say the criticism does not get still under my skin, because it does carry an icky element of truth: white, middle class women such as myself do make up the majority of those diagnosed with anorexia and/or bulimia. Curiously, I’ve also met a number of such women through treatment who experience the same moral conundrums that rattled me. They have doled out meals at soup kitchens, witnessed famine firsthand in Africa and Asia, and still fear the thought of pasta for dinner.
I guess part of me that day did want to get my jollies by proving that I am a “good person”, despite all the rotten stuff I’ve pulled over the years. But as I continued to mull over this issue, I realized something else: I also know what it’s like to be really hungry. The visceral sensation of hunger blended with feelings of overwhelming sorrow and abandonment laced too many of my not-so-distant memories. I left the library street corner with a recurring image of the first person I made eye contact with, a young woman whose seemingly flat stare couldn’t conceal the depths of the pain behind it. It was a stare I became quite familiar with in the mirror a year ago when I had given up, impatiently waiting for my eating disorder to hurry the hell up and kill me off. I do not know whether the woman was as resentful of her life as I was, but I did know enough to understand that as much as her body needed an orange, another part of her desperately needed a hug.
No one can quantify suffering. But an important variable in different types of whether one has the gift of choice to change their situation, whether they take the opportunity, and what they do with it.
Part of why I eventually revived my interest in social justice, once my thinking cleared up, is because my change in outlook forced me to find significance in my blessings: a safe and quiet home, access to transportation, freedom from daily violence, a great education, indoor plumbing, etc . I often compose little lists like this, but “food security” has always been conspicuously absent. It’s not as if I don’t understand what that means. Recent CNN footage broadcasted images of kids in Aleppo scraping the bottom of pots just for residue of food. Scores of Latin Americans travel for weeks and risk death to migrate to the U.S. for the sake of feeding their families at home. In this same country, most states deny food stamps to many of the neediest citizens due to have non-violent criminal records for drugs, a trend with an alarming ripple effect on whole communities. In fact, Americans are the leading researchers in urban “food deserts”, a term describing zones where residents must cobble some way to get to the opposite side of town if they want to buy anything not found at a convenience or liquor store.
Before I turn this blog into a soapbox forum, what I am trying to get at is this: by ignoring issues and behaviors that make us uneasy, we let fear override our inner wisdom. The lesson I eventually contrived from my somewhat ironic act of kindness was that my set of values does not make good bedfellows with an eating disorder, and that peace with one of them precludes practicing the other to its fullest. I finally got out my journal last night and wrote: I AM GRATEFUL FOR FOOD. Although the words did not come easily, I made sure they got out because someone with a much greater gift for eloquence gave me a push:
“My friends, all I’m trying to say is that if we are to go forward today, we’ve got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind.”
~Dr. Martin Luther King
About the Contributor: Laura Eshelman is a 2008 UNC Asheville alumna with a BA in mass communication. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in criminal justice from UC Denver and holds a master’s certificate in domestic violence studies. Laura is an avid writer, political junkie, and an advocate for various social justice causes; at present, she is an intern with Witness for Peace Southeast and volunteers with NC Harm Reduction. She enjoys travelling, cooking, hula hooping, and long walks up steep mountains.