Tuesday Tribute: Erika Napoletano

Today’s Tuesday Tribute is Erika Napoletano. There are a lot of ways to summarize her personality, from ass-kicking public speaker, motivational coach to Gen X laggards like myself, esquisite and judicious potty-mouth, and heart-forward strong woman.

Erika doing something she does really well - not having a lot of f*s to give.

Erika doing something she does really well – not having a lot of f*s to give.

Technically, including Erika is a little bit of a cheat – I actually have not met her in person, but we have conversed over email and I’ve devoured much of what she’s wrote in the last 6 years.

So, who the fuck is she? (Yes, for this installation I’m bringing out the bombs.) Her bio lists off her attributes: the things she can do for her clients like get people UNstuck in whatever thing their life is presenting, her choice in bicycles, her appreciation for warm coats in Chicago winters, and her published works both online and in hardback.

BUT. To me it is the last bit of her About page that is actually important and what makes her work so useful:

And she is happy.

Ridiculously happy.

Because it is happy people who ooze that juju out of their pores, out of their sparkling eyes, out of their manners and way of speaking. Watch her TEDx talk in Boulder. At the end she does a spontaneous victory dance – the only indication in the whole video that she was terrified all along.

How do people become happy? That’s a ridiculously difficult question that occupies many a writer and thinker. Many people seem to have a default happiness “set point” that they come back to even after periods of trajedy or prosperity – that is, if you lose your job you’ll come back to the same level just like you will if you win the lottery. The “amount” of happiness that set point represents varies from person to person. But that doesn’t mean you are doomed to your default level – I believe that a measure of grace and happiness can grow from terrible loss. We all know someone who only really started living after their cancer diagnosis or scare.

For Erika, it was the death of a new love, a potential soul-mate, if you believe in such things. When she first met him, he was a fan of her work and they became quick friends. Then, she says, “And that night, a friendship began that grew into something I never expected: the beginnings of a relationship where I never had to be anything but myself.”

Jason died four years ago, on Halloween, after two months of joy building that relationship with Erika. Two months. But here is why Erika is here on this post – it is what she did publicly – the very next day, in fact – when it happened. She ripped her heart open bare on her blog, grieving in real-time for the world to see.

Today is day one. Tomorrow is day two. I’m scared shitless of days three and four. Five is horrific. Six – incomprehensible.

She had nothing to lose and – perhaps – had a glimmer of a thought that in the long-term this kind of vulnerability would help someone who chanced into reading it. She was right about that, even for people who didn’t suffer as deeply as her. I felt sorrow reading her Jason story, even though I’ve never lost someone in that way. It drew me in and added to the respect I’d already built for Erika’s work.

That’s why I chose her, this week. She along with writers like Brene Brown and Ella Francis Sanders and Cheryl Strayed (in her Dear Sugar days) are all trafficking in pure openness of heart. You gotta love that.

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**Tuesday Tribute is my way of showing off the women in my life who have done something to influence me for the better, through direct advice, great example, resilience, strength, bad-assery, or any number of things. Almost every week. Always Tuesday.

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Eating Disorders Can Kill Your Body OR Spirit

Pop quiz: which clinical mental disorder has the highest mortality rate? It’s not bipolar disorder. It’s not schizophrenia. Rather, it’s that heady place where out-of-whack brain chemicals meets up with out-of-whack societal beauty standards and renders a person incapable of eating enough to maintain their physical existence: anorexia nervosa.

Everyone knows that anorexia is horrible-tragic-shocking, but one thing it does have going for it – it is VERY visible.

Do you have any doubt that this person (who is in their 20s, by the way) has a problem?

Ilsa Paulson

That’s Ilsa Paulson, who looked pretty normal in high school, only to turn pro after college and got lean. Really, really lean.

On the other hand, how about this person?

Hollie Avil

Yep. That’s Hollie Avil, who retired from triathlon at age 23 because of trauma from eating disorders, depression, and general breakdown.

That’s the rub – in a strange and bizarre way, anorexia is easier to spot and therefore intervene. I’m not saying that such interventions are successful – there’s a good reason why those mortality rates are NOT falling – but for some sufferers who have hope of recovery, it can make a critical difference to hear someone say, “I really care about you and I think you might be harming yourself. Please know that I love you and want you to not die.”

But for every obvious case, there are likely hundreds who suffer almost in silence. Ironically, they can suffer more because if they don’t look the part of the eating disorder patient it can be internalized as a failure – a failure to successfully execute this disease that they identify with control and perfection.

That’s the gist of this post, during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, to get you to contemplate people in your life who might be on that edge. Those who could be slipping into habits that lead to a real problem, or those that simply spend years and years and years just under the threshold of a real diagnosis. They can eat just a tiny bit less than they really need (instead of eating a LOT less than they need), while bones are weakening, muscles are atrophying, organs are shrinking (!!!), metabolism is shutting down, the brain itself is undergoing structural changes under one’s skull.

This is not as ludicrous as it sounds – I have weighed 25 pounds less than I do now, and honestly you could look at me and be like, “Ok, yeah, she’s a little smaller, but 25 pounds smaller? She’s not scrawny, like real eating disorder scrawny!” Those pounds came from skin and fat and muscles, yes, but they also came from my organs, and my bones, and my glycogen stores.

Here’s the thing: you can’t help if they are not ready. But I do believe, strongly, that if you care about someone and you tell them you care enough about them to want them to stay in your life, at absolute worst, it CANNOT HURT. Awareness of self is one of the first steps if recovery will happen.

I lost someone recently who “successfully” managed their level of disorder for more than 20 years. It’s true that you can ‘get away with’ a great deal of abusing your body with lack of food – we are remarkably resilient creatures. But not forever. She was a talented runner and no doubt helped by a very low weight (a subject for another post), but in the end her systems were too beat down, taxed, and on the edge to make it through acute dehydration due to the flu. It’s a fucking shitty way to die. My friend loved helping other runners achieve their goals and loved helping kids get excited about running. If a car came barreling down on them while on a run, I have no doubt she would have gladly shoved them aside to take the impact herself. That would have been an O.K. way to go, especially at 46 years old. How she did die should not have happened. But. It. Did.

Finally, she was not just some anonymous friend that I need to hide. She was Susan “Sus” Brozik.

Find your little-bit-skinny, little-bit-obsessive, little-bit-food-paranoid friends and tell them you appreciate every part of the good things they do. If you think it’s not too much, also tell them that their healthy body is the thing that lets them do those awesome things, and you’d love it if they kept their body around for a long time.

Loss Changed Me, and You, Too

I went a long time without tragedy or loss in my life. Almost 40 years; how’s that for being lucky?

Sure, I had fights with friends, I lost grandparents, I saw friends of mine lose loved ones. All of that was somewhat detached or expected, so it was manageable.

Friends that I’ve known for many years have been through their own losses whether or not I was aware; surely they must have changed as a result. Some of those friends are very private, with well guarded emotions. Did they get that armor after suffering or was that part of their makeup all along? If something terrible happens to them, do they cope on their own time and put on a good or neutral face when out in the world? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I did that – stuffed it all in – with all of the mundane hurts and disappointments that came my way. I fought outward displays of emotion for many years, and still have a hard time with it. No one – NO ONE – got to see me cry in public. That was not OK. But then that changed.

Losing a close friend last fall, and then a beloved pet very suddenly over the holidays (where I felt at least partly culpable), and now another friend at a far younger age than is right or fair, changed me. The magnitude of those losses meant that the bottleneck had to give, and it has helped to not just show that “I’ve been crying all day” face in public but to reach out and ask for support from my wide network of friends and acquaintences. It really helps, despite any doubts I had.

What has changed in me?

Love.

I love more. I use that word more frequently. I used to think you can only use that word for someone you would step in front of a train for or devote your life to. Now I see that love is that big, and can be that powerful, but it is much more encompassing. Saying “I love you” to a friend takes nothing away from the big loves in my life like family or my partner.

All I can see for myself is that the more loved ones I lose, the more love I have and show. Of course, I’d not choose to lose anyone else. But loss clarifies emotion and helps to grow the bonds between the survivors and that is nothing but good.

The Way to Know Life is to Love Many Things