I was adding water to my tea the other morning at the office coffee station when Sara D. came up to pour herself a cup of coffee. I said hi and asked her where she’d been the past few days.
“I’ve been in bed,” she sniffed. “Mark was kind enough to bring his kid’s cold to work with him, and I took it home with me.” She still sounded terrible, and I moved away quickly, hoping to avoid catching the cold and recycling her sniffles in my own sinuses.
One of the drawbacks of working or living closely with other people is that when one person catches a cold or flu, you can bet the virus will make its way through the whole group before too long. Of course a healthy immune system is key to warding off illness, and they say that living socially is one of the main ways to bolster an immune system. Maybe being exposed to other people’s germs is a good thing as it gives your own immune system something to practice on, keeps it in tune or something like that.
But then I started thinking about how ideas can be like a virus too, and sometimes are just as communicable. This can be a good thing if you live in a community where healthy ideas predominate—where people are interested in eating healthy food, or living a simple productive lifestyle. But if you find yourself in a community where unhealthy ideas have taken hold, you can be in danger of getting sick with them. For example, in a high school where one young person takes his own life, a rash of suicides may follow. It seems suicide can be catching. Another example might be a group of friends where everyone’s weight creeps up and up, and before too long, no one thinks twice of being 40, 50, or 100 pounds overweight, never mind the aching joints, diabetes, or heart palpitations. Obesity is an infectious thought disorder with physical symptoms, and it is epidemic in the United States today.
I believe in a social lifestyle as a healthy and natural way to live, and I think the readers of this magazine will certainly agree. We have chosen to make community a central part of our lives, often chosen to live among people who share our ideas about what a “good life” is, and are willing to sacrifice some of the comforts of an isolated existence for the greater good of our principles. But there are times when unhealthy ideas also come out, and since we live so closely with one another, they can take hold and spread throughout the whole community. The solution is for each individual to maintain his or her own discernment, and to be willing to confront other members when they are not living up to the agreed-upon standards of the community—or to leave if they do not agree on the direction the community is heading in (admittedly, sometimes easier said than done).
There are also times when a person in the midst of a healthy community is hiding a destructive mental state, and despite the best of intentions, nothing anyone else tries to do to help has any effect. I mentioned these two topics, suicide and an unhealthy relationship to food, because they are both mental health issues that I have had to deal with in the context of the community I grew up in, and within which I still live.
The first time I really understood that someone could die and not come back was when I was seven years old and I came home from elementary school to hear that Carol was in the hospital. She had driven herself to a hotel in the city, ordered a “last meal,” and then swallowed a bottle of pills, with the intention of never waking up again. Before she lost consciousness, she regained a moment of clarity and knew she had made a huge mistake, calling the front desk and saying she needed help. This saved her life, but for a few days we did not know if she would ever come home. We had just moved into the communal apartment building, and we kids were still attending public school.
It was a regular October afternoon, and Janet picked us up at three o’clock in her Volkswagen bug with the broken door latch as she always did. Janet was the lovely teenaged woman who watched us after school and my favorite role model at the time, but that day I could see that something was wrong. She was distracted and strangely sharp-toned with us. Her eyes looked weird. We piled into the car, fighting over who got to sit in the front seat, who got to sit in the way back, and just being loud and unruly as kids can be. I stayed as quiet as I could, hyper aware of Janet. When we pulled into the apartment building parking lot, she told everyone to meet her in 306—the apartment that we had converted into a meeting room. This was not an unusual event, since it was where she often watched us after school, gave us snacks of macaroni and cheese, and helped us with our homework if we had any; but something had shifted, and I felt dread. As soon as we had gathered, Janet told us that Carol was in the hospital and might not come home.
A picture of Carol in happier times hung on the wall of the main room in 306. She was smiling, in a white dress with flowers in her hair, surrounded by other smiling faces. For hours that afternoon, I kept looking at that picture, at Carol’s face, and sobbing at the thought that I might never see her again, that she could die. And though I don’t think anyone told me directly, I also knew that she had done it to herself.
Carol’s attempted suicide was a major event in the development of my community. As a group of people, we were already psychologically oriented. Many of our original members first knew each other in the context of encounter groups in the early 1970s, and that style of honest and open communication was what originally attracted the group of friends to each other. When they decided to live together, a psychological orientation was the cornerstone of the new lifestyle. That was 35 years ago, and this group became the de facto intentional community of 75 to 100 individuals who have continued to live, work, travel, and experience life together, and which I call Orinda in my writings.
James, a therapist and Carol’s close friend, worked with her for many years to understand the way her thoughts drove her to want to end her life. Carol’s recovery from her suicide attempt contributed much to his understanding of how self-destructive thinking can blossom into self-annihilation. Janet went on to graduate school in psychology, and became an expert in the field of suicide prevention. She now gives trainings to therapists and laypeople throughout the country about how to recognize when someone is in danger, and what to do to help. Both James and Janet have written extensively about suicide and self-destructiveness and their work is well respected in the field of psychology. Carol’s openness about what happened to her was a gift to our community, and through her work with James and Janet, a gift to the society at large. We were fortunate that Carol was not successful in her attempt, and that since then no one else among our group has reached that point of despair. Other communities have not been as lucky.
I was a young child when Carol tried to kill herself. She was not a direct family member to me, but she was a person I lived with and saw on a daily basis, and her actions had a deep impact on my own development as a person. I spent many hours wondering what could make anyone want to end her own life, and I was always looking for signs of trouble in my friends and family members. The event also colored the environment around me, as the adults in the group were always alert to how each person was feeling. There were many days as I grew up when someone or another who seemed in a bad state of mind would became a topic of conversation for the whole group, draw unusual amounts of attention from everyone, and until their internal crisis was resolved, would be on my mind as much as anyone else’s. There were even times when I was that person.
As a young teenager, I developed a serious eating disorder. In the beginning it was just an overblown affection for sweets and too much self-consciousness about my developing body. I was 12 years old when I went on my first diet, after a woman who took care of me made some critical comments about how I ate. She offered to help me by monitoring my food, and telling me what and when to eat. I agreed to her offer, but almost immediately began sneaking food. This began many years of crazy behavior around weight, food, and eating: obsessively weighing myself, being weighed by people who feared for me, binging on sweets, and then purging them through the secretive use of laxatives, excessive exercise, or multi-day fasts. I was afraid of looking too fat, but equally terrified of giving up the secret eating that made life feel manageable. I was unconscious about what my behavior around food was doing to me. I led an elaborate double life, and nothing anyone could say or do would convince me that I was playing a dangerous game. My friends and family in the community became very involved in trying to stop me from destroying myself, and there were times when I was watched 24 hours a day so that I would not have the opportunity to act out with food.
There were also periods of relative normality around food. When I left for university, I stopped binging, and slowly stabilized at a normal weight. For many years I thought that the restrictions my friends and family in the community put on me were the cause for my deranged relationship to food. I still had significant body image issues, but at least I was not engaging in secretive or self-destructive behavior. I felt I had overcome my eating disorder. I was wrong.
About 11 years ago, I started getting out of control in relation to food again. By this time, I was back living within the community, though now I was a fully independent adult member, and not anyone else’s responsibility. I felt awful that my childhood disease was back, and though I tried to be open, honest, and real with my friends about what was going on, nothing was working. I tried therapy, weight-loss clinics, holistic healing, and even did a few months of kickboxing training. Most things worked for a time: I would regain control over my behavior, feel healthy, get acknowledgment, and think, “Never again.” But then I would slip back into binging, lying, and feeling disgusted with myself. In the midst of this, I had my own child, and I wanted more than anything to be a good parent to him. But I was losing it in the way I always had—and using food as a drug to numb myself out of my mind. Things were not going well for me with my son, nor frankly with anything in my life.
I was horrified at my behavior, but I could not find the willingness to stop it. For the first time I was beginning to understand that what I was doing was a kind of suicide, not so different from Carol all those years ago. I was acting against my body and my spirit with violence. It may not be as immediately lethal as a gun or a bridge, but every time I started a binge, my mind and spirit would shut off, and I would become a ghost of a person. “Suicide by silverware,” I once heard someone say, and that phrase still rings in my head. I was scared for myself, and terribly guilty in relation to my friends and family who were pained by my self-destructiveness. I was in despair because despite their love for me, their psychological sophistication, and their absolute willingness to do whatever they could, my friends in the community were not able to help me resolve my problem.
When my son was about one year old, a woman I knew started to go to FA (Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous), a 12-Step program for food addiction, based closely on Alcoholics Anonymous. I saw her developing grace and serenity around food, and I got hopeful. I went with her to a meeting, and found a different sort of community than the one I had grown up in. At first I was wary of the things this program demanded of me, especially the emphasis on developing a spiritual life. The practical suggestions in relation to eating and how to manage my food made complete sense to me, as did the emphasis on communication and honesty. These were exactly the sorts of things my friends had been suggesting to me for many years. What did not make sense was the idea that I be willing to believe in a power greater than myself, and be willing to get on my knees and ask this power for help. I did the program anyway, but it took some time for me to come to terms with a conception of God, however vague and idiosyncratic it might be for me. It took me even longer to agree to get on my knees and pray. It turned out that this was the missing piece. As soon as I took this final suggestion, things started to shift for me, and I was able to find peace and recovery in relation to food and weight.
Now I am a member of two distinct communities, and I love what each offers me. I am grateful for both. Orinda is my home and here I live among friends in a family tied to each other by bonds of affection rather than blood. FA is where I go to find recovery from my food addiction. In April, my son will be five years old, and he is happy and adorable. I feel very lucky to be able to raise him within a community of people I admire. Most times now, I am one of those people.
This is the greatest gift of all.