“Hi, my name is Mike, and I’m a recovering pagophagist.”
You know, I’m going to have to stand up some Friday night at a Celebrate Recovery gathering and say that.
And you call yourself a pastor.
What am I doing posting this here for all the world to know, sullying reputation, endangering career, status and name? But it’s out now. The pillow is now ripped open, its feathers fluttering irretrievably in the wind.
Or rather, the ice falling to the floor.
You see, pagophagia is the pathological consumption of ice.
In retrospect, it was the first sign, unbenownst to me at the time, that I had some significant and potentially life-threatening issues developing deep inside. Last June – or was it July? – all of a sudden, when I went to refill that lunch drink before heading back to work, it felt really, really good to fill the cup to the top with ice. Up to that moment, howls of protest would have greeted such service at a drive-thru window – bumping up the ice and skimping on the soda. Cheapskate. But suddenly the ice looked wonderful. Topped to the brim with ice with just a flavoring of Coke or Dr. Pepper. It called to me.
It was divine.
I thought at the time it was just the hot summer weather. But the habit continued on and deepened into the cool fall and cold winter (well, as cold as it got). I started looking forward to that refill of ice, to chewing each cube. I began rating which fast food establishments and gas stations had the best ice (essentially it’s matter of cube size and consistency: large and flat, please! Too crushed, no thank you! Jack in the Box and Carls Jr. are tops to this ice chewing connoisseur). I started making trips out just to fill a cup with flavored ice and savor the chewing. Heaven in a cup. My wife started noticing the habit, as did my girls. Maybe it was just fall-out from crossing the fifty barrier. Maybe it was just Mike. There are worse things.
But then around December I began noticing increasing fatigue, dizziness, and being totally wasted after normal exertions. Heart palpitations were noticeable in January, and then weight loss – twenty pounds in a month. I didn’t mind losing the weight, I just wanted to know what the weight loss plan was. At a friend’s insistence, I bumped up my annual physical to hopefully discover what was going on. Everything checked out fine – except the red blood cell count. I was highly anemic. Following a pill cam and endoscopy, the source of blood loss was uncovered: essentially I had a screen door in the form of a donut shaped cancerous tumor in what’s left of my intestines (colon removed in ’78). The pagophagia was merely one of the symptoms of the anemia caused by a cancerous tumor, a form of pica that frequently accompanies iron deficiency related to anemia. Could have been much worse. Some people eat chalk, dirt, rocks, or even glass – or drink urine. Any of those would definitely have gotten everyone’s attention sooner.
Then came the surgery a few weeks ago (how positively marvelous to be able to say that). My only diet following the surgery for 48 hours? Crushed ice. No problem. I asked my surgeon how long it would take for my red blood supply to be replenished and the anemia to fade (I had been given two units during surgery because my heart was struggling). The answer: six weeks or so. Okay, I can live with that. Energy again. No dizziness. Vitality. Perhaps no longer as dopey (I’d like to think that’s anemia related rather than being a deeper personality issue). And then, hopefully, I could kick the pathological ice consumption. Might take awhile – I mean, I was over six months into a habit that was a natural as breathing. Probably just have to wean myself off it, resist the urge, join an accountability group for pagophagists.
But here’s the thing.
I realized it four days past the surgery. I had absolutely no desire whatsoever for ice. In fact, it sounded, well, blech. This past Saturday, my wife and I were enjoying some reading in the large sun-filled windows of a KFC, sipping on a cup of soda after a bite to eat. When she left the table for a moment, I had to try it. I slipped off the lid. In went one cube (KFC’s ice is right up there with Jack in the Box). Crunch. Tasteless. Another. Same. Okay, one more. Nothing – in fact, blech.
Total appetite removal, reversal. I have never experienced anything like it before. I’m still amazed. I mean, it tasted so good before! And now, nothing.
And all they had to do was cut me open and remove six inches of intestine.
Perhaps you can see where this is going. I’m tempted to stop right here with the Lord’s line: “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”
But I’m not Jesus, so allow me an ever so brief session of my own dot connecting. At the risk of oversimplifying, you can take the vast array of addictive possibilities from which we all can and do chose – some destructive, others more an annoyance, others not only acceptable but even lauded in religious and cultural circles. We fight and fight and fight to be free of them – or if of the latter variety we groom and parade them. But mostly, we struggle to manage them, control them, subdue them, as well as hide them when we just get too weary of it all. And should we manage to overcome them, we struggle to avoid the dreaded and shameful relapse.
I could have wrestled with mighty wrestlings with the dreaded foe of pagophagia, resisting the urge, listening to the counsel of my dentist telling me it was terrible for my teeth, heeding the pleas of my wife that she was tired of the crunching. But such a victory of willpower, while sounding impressive behind a microphone (as long as no one caught me chomping ice late some night at a Seven Eleven), would have only been a victory over a symptomatic behavior stemming from a cancer deeper within that other hands still had to deal with. Just how much time and effort do we in religious circles spend battling with symptomatic addictions, slapping each other on the back with each behavioral symptom subdued. It’s as if we believe that only former addicts will be allowed admission through those pearly gates. What if our greatest addiction isn’t to becoming addiction free?
But I firmly believe the new heavens and earth will be filled only with a humanity that has learned to entrust itself to Christ, to love, to mercy, in the midst of its addictions to sex, drugs, alcohol, those dreaded fire sticks, to wealth, to status, to religious posturing and preening, or how about books and blogging and the accumulation of impressive degrees to pride and achievement and performance – even as we have undergone the beginnings of significant appetite change. God really has something much bigger for me than to stop chewing ice. Fill in your own blank.
The appetite change is the key. Biblically it’s the removal of a stony, cold heart and the implanting of a tender, “fleshy” heart that moves to new divine rhythms reverberating from the inside out. Or as Jesus put it, make the tree good, and the fruit will be good. Now if it could only be as instantaneous as that sounds – like Jesus cursing the fig tree – only in reverse. If only a three hour surgery would suffice. Or a three hour evening retreat with a powerful altar call. And sometimes it does, I hear. But for most of us, the full effects of such an appetite change are hardly instantaneous. It comes on slowly, daily, hourly, often imperceptively by ourselves or to others, as we in holy and unholy human company allow other hands to touch what we cannot through ways and means as creative (and often as painful) as each of us is unique.
Oh to trust those hands, those methods, that timing. It is sheer gift received in measure small or great now – from thimble to teaspoon to huge draughts of deep change; or received in full measure when we finally stand before Love’s naked eyes and are fully changed in the seeing. Whatever success we find in the latest peeling away of our own inner addict’s bane, it is deepening trust that causes us to stand in the midst of multiplied flaws now, and to be fully embraced then.