When I moved to South Africa, as a small-town girl from Michigan, I was intimidated. I saw myself as an easy victim in a dangerous country. I told myself that I would probably get mugged at some point. Accepting that possibility didn’t make it more or less likely, but it limited the potential of that event to traumatize me if it did happen. I had only marginal control on whether or not I was attacked, but I did have control over my attitude about it.
I had many fearful moments driving alone on a remote road, pumping gas in a tough neighborhood or walking with friends from a bar at night. I often thought “if it’s going to happen, this is it” but I went without incident for months.
One day my friends and I were visiting Cape Town and we took the chance to climb Lion’s Head- one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. The trail threads up and around a large hill, offering a spectacular view of the city from the top. The day I was there was incredibly foggy so visibility was low. No view means no hikers so my friends and I were all but alone on our hike that day. Nearly finished with our walk, two men jumped out of some bushes and robbed us at the point of a dirty rusty knife. It finally happened.
There was no part of my brain that had been expecting this to happen at that moment. The whole experience was scary, disorienting and humiliating. It lasted an impossibly long time- maybe 10 minutes- and when at last the muggers ran away with our cameras, wallets, jewelry and sunglasses, I was shaking with fear and anger. But even then I remembered that I had always known this could happen. And that understanding softened the blow of the traumatic experience.
I have bulimia. It has been a part of my life to varying degrees for nearly 10 years. I am committed to my recovery, and on countless occasions, I have led myself to believe that I will never make myself sick again, despite all past precedent to the contrary. I frequently give myself ultimatums that “this can never happen again.” So, when it does happen, when I make the wrong choice, my whole world is rocked. I am just as surprised as if two malicious men jumped out of the bushes at me. Without fail each time I become defeated, devastated, depressed.
Every time I tell myself that I can’t-ever-must-not-will-never engage in those self-defeating behaviors again, I set myself up for incredible disappointment. I may even make it more likely that I will do it again because it is so daunting to face that inflexible prohibition.
I am starting to see that my wisdom in facing a possible mugging could apply to facing this addiction. You may say “but it’s different, you have control over whether you make yourself sick or not, you can’t control other people who want to hurt you” and you would be right in a way. But I could have tried to control whether I got mugged by never moving to a dangerous area, by never leaving my home, by never taking any risks. Instead I not only took the risks, I accepted their consequences. And by doing so I limited their power over me.
I am not advocating for expecting disappointment or for lowering standards. I don’t go through each day expecting to be mugged or to make myself sick again, but I don’t close myself off to the possibility that they will happen because I don’t want to be crippled by them if they do. I expect the best but accept the worst and try to learn from everything in between.