Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Illusion of Control

I've spent the past two days, and more time into the night than I should, poring over a fascinating book about a family's struggle with anorexia nervosa. The author's daughter suffered from this terrifying illness that caused her to imagine herself fat, and prevented her from eating, even though she was wasting away.

The book, called Brave Girl Eating, is interesting in part, because the family found little success and much blame and shame from 'traditional' therapies for anorexia. Their experience led them to try family-based therapy (FBT), otherwise known as the Maudsley Approach. Rather than viewing the parents as being part of the problem of the patient's illness, FBT recruits them as a vital part of the solution.

There are about 1,000 angles from which I could write about this book, but the one preying on me most at the moment is author Harriet Brown's honest account of the shame, guilt and fear of judgment she felt surrounding her daughter's illness.

Historically, eating disorder specialists have laid the blame for the disease at the parents' door (specifically, the mother.) Brown owns her family isn't perfect, but they had been pretty highly functioning before anorexia began exacting it's destructive toll. More than once, she notes that by the time a family ends up in a therapist's office, they have become dysfunctional--fear, anxiety, alienation are often the by-products of anorexia, not necessarily the antecedent.

Her observations remind me how often we are inclined to blame the victim.
Surely, he/she/they have done something.... something must be wrong over there. Why else would this have happened?

It isn't just mental illness that gets this harsh treatment. I remember when I read that Dana Reeve, actor Christopher's widow, had died of lung cancer. "Oh, she must have been a smoker," I thought. The subtext being, 'she brought it on herself.'

In fact, no. Dana Reeve was not a smoker. She contracted lung cancer anyway. And even if she had been a smoker, should that short-circuit my compassion? I'm ashamed to admit how callous I found my heart to be.

Why did I think this way? Because somewhere deep within me, I like to think if I live right, and raise my children right, it couldn't happen to me. It couldn't happen to us. If I eat my vegetables and do my workouts and refrain from too much drink or Krispy Kremes, that I will somehow escape hardship, disease and suffering. If I encase my children in bubble wrap, no harm will befall them.

A friend of mine lost a child in what some might call a 'preventable household accident.' After seeing a tasteless Superbowl ad about such events, she clicked over to a home child-proofing website. Turns out, the recommended measure had been taken in my friend's home, but her child died anyway.

She told me, "losing my daughter actually made me less of a control freak because I finally realized how many things are truly beyond my control."

And that's it, really. Control. Author Anna Quindlen writes,
"The illusion of control is the besetting addiction, and delusion, of the modern age. We now have so much information, so many safeguards, so much statistical data about everything from car crashes to investment formulas that we've convinced ourselves we can control our environment.... And then the randomness of events intercedes, and the illusion of control crumbles."
Do we improve our 'odds' by living wisely? Certainly. Even if we don't, the quality of life in the present is usually greater for regularly choosing eggs over doughnut, moving over sitting. But we still get sick and suffer. In fact, we'll almost certainly suffer. Suffering is part of life this side of heaven. We can't shoot the wounded.

To be well is not something to be smug about. I see this attitude in myself, and I see it around me. Good health is a mysterious cocktail of effort, blessing and mercy. How much of each go into the shaker is highly individual.

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