Gentle Note: I ask that you please read on with care, this content deals with the topic of eating disorders & may be triggering for some but I believe the more light & love we shed on these issues through honest story-telling can only lead to more healing, love & awareness around these difficult to read & live-through topics. Love, Amanda
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Me and my body: a love – hate – love story
There was a time when my relationship with food was not complicated, a time when if I was hungry I ate, and that decision did not include a lightning-fast calculation of food intake versus energy expenditure. Back then, there was nothing seductive about the physical stab of hunger; no obsession with the numbers on a scale; no vague, unattainable, ever-shrinking body shape ideal; no split-second biological impact analysis of a decision to eat. Or (far more frequently) not to.
I know for sure there was a time like that. I just can’t remember it.
I was nineteen years old when I began starving myself.
I’d just gotten a job as an administrative assistant at a semi-conductor company – my first real, grownup job. Within months of landing that position, I would move out of my parents’ house to live with my roommate and her 5-year-old daughter in a 2-bedroom condo. I started drinking coffee. I commuted to work, bought my own groceries, scheduled cable and phone line installations, and somewhere in the midst of all that grownup activity, I became obsessed with the size of my body. I know now that the enormous girl I saw in the mirror didn’t actually exist in real life, but I didn’t know it then, and my efforts to shrink that shameful mass were relentless and extreme.
In the mornings, I would stop by the cafeteria at work and buy myself a bran muffin, bring it to my desk, and cut it into eight pie-shaped slices. It was the only thing I allowed myself to eat all day, so I spread it out, a slice every few hours. The goal was to have pieces left over. The more pieces I threw away at the end of the day, the bigger my internal gold star. Sometimes, I threw all eight slices away, and on those days, despite the raging fatigue, headaches and chronic stomach pain, I felt happy.
Sometimes, self-preservation would kick in and I’d make myself a meal when I got home. Rice or soup, lettuce inside a tortilla. Occasionally, I’d keep the meal down, but not usually. Usually, overcome with guilt, I’d force myself to vomit it back up, most of it undigested. I cried through the whole process – making the meal, eating it, painfully vomiting it out. I cried as I hurried back onto the scale to see what damage I’d done.
This went on for almost two years, until finally I got sick and went to a doctor, and he told me I had an ulcer. He said that if you don’t give your stomach food to digest, it gets confused and starts digesting itself. I remember him as scary; maybe even more scary than my self-digesting stomach. He looked at me sternly and a little dismissively, a look I was used to getting from authoritative men in my life. “Do you eat?” he asked, more accusation than query.
“Of course, I eat,” I said, and then I went home and cried because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d thought of food as anything other than the enemy. I already knew I was fat. Now I was sick, and part of the cure was to eat.
I was five foot six and 100 pounds.
I don’t talk or write about this part of my past very much. It’s uncomfortable not only to navigate my own shame and embarrassment, but the extreme reactions of people who don’t understand what is essentially inexplicable.
Or at least it’s inexplicable to me. I don’t know how to explain it. Societal pressures, body image, perfectionism, control issues, they’re all part of it, but I don’t understand the alchemy myself – why one girl channels all that anxiety into positive action, going to law school, graduating cum laude, championing social change and setting the world afire with her awesomeness… and another girl cuts a bran muffin into eight pie shape slices, relishes the sharp edge of hunger like a (cruel) lover’s touch.
But it’s more than not being able to explain my past. It’s been decades since I first went to the doctor for stomach pain. How do I tell people that, for me, it’s not just my past, it’s my present. It’s like being an alcoholic. I haven’t survived an eating disorder, I’m continually surviving it. It’s always here. I always feel it, a current flowing silently, just under the surface of things.
Unlike before, I can eat without anxiety. I can relax with friends over grilled pizza and red wine, eat and drink, gaze into the faces of people I love, and feel nothing but gratitude and joy… but only because I’ve already done the math. Before I sat down. Before I took my first bite. I always know how much I’ll eat. I know what I won’t eat the next day and how long I’ll work out to compensate for this moment of freedom.
Intake versus output. The calculation is constant, as natural to me as breathing.
In the decade that followed that doctor’s visit, thoughts of my body consumed me, my distorted view of it informed every single decision I made.
I met, fell in love and moved in with the man who would eventually be my husband. I got promoted, lots of times. I learned sign language and how to drive a stick shift. I got married and had a son, and then another one. I quit my job and went back to school to learn how to be a programmer, then took my first creative writing class and decided in an instant, in the space of my professor’s notes in the margins of my first short story, to change the course of the rest of my life.
In short, I lived my life, an utterly normal, forward-moving life. Except for the part where I always knew exactly what I weighed, right up until my husband and I, fighting over my crazy, reached a peace agreement that involved my agreeing to throw away our bathroom scale. Except for the panic attacks that not knowing the exact number caused, the subsequent bouts of frenetic, obsessive exercise. Except for the countless restaurant restroom stalls I threw up in because I knew it would be easier to get away with it there in the restaurant, than to stick my finger down my throat once we got back home.
Today my boys are nineteen and twenty-three. I think they saved me. I think they made this thing I live with into a thing I live with, instead of a thing that destroyed me. I wanted (still want) to be someone they love, look up to and admire, someone who makes eating decisions based on my health and the health of our planet, and someone for whom those decisions are easy, casual, not exercises in punishment and denial.
I think of my eating disorder the way an ex-smoker thinks of smoking or an alcoholic thinks of drinking. Once you quit, you can’t start up again. You can’t have just one cigarette or just one drink.
I still don’t own a scale.
Instead of weighing myself, I eat vegetarian, limit my intake of dairy and processed foods, and measure my progress on my yoga mat. I get exercise by hiking and biking and racing my dog up hills. I’m grateful and awed by all my body does, how it runs and dances and makes love and sends me coded messages – the braille of goosebumps, the Morse code of my pounding heart. I consciously celebrate the intricacy of me: my miracle of a central nervous system; my pale, freckled aging skin; my amazingly dependable eyelids; my shoulders, my hands, my feet, my wrists and ankles and hips.
I wish I could say that it comes naturally, but it doesn’t. I consciously decide, every day, to love myself and my underappreciated, extraordinarily resilient body. And I consciously reject our society’s narrow definition of beauty. I believe that beauty lies in the part of us that insists we get sane for the sake of our children; the part that dares to create and dance and reach out to each other; the part that risks being hurt, then gets hurt, then loves again anyway… the part that refuses to believe beauty has anything at all to do with the number on a scale or the size of our jeans.
There was a time when my relationship with food was not complicated.
I’m slowly, surely, working my way back.
|Judy Clement Wall is a writer and artist whose short stories, essays, reviews and interviews have been published in numerous literary print journals and on websites such as Huffington Post, The Rumpus, Lifebyme, Smith Magazine, and Used Furniture Review. You can read more of her work at JudyClementWall.com and browse her Etsy store to see her art cards, doodled in the service of love, soul and shenanigans.|