Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Story 2

As women, how often do we expect our lives and our bodies to perfect? As I was reading through this next submission, I found a lot of the fears and warped realities that I've experienced both during and after my eating disorders. Although I realize now that I wasn't born to look perfect or be perfect, I do try to make a constant effort everyday to be perfect in loving myself.

My eating disorders, at their roots, have had little to do with eating. They are the product of a fantasy which follows me around everywhere I go in the back of my brain, penetrating my perceptions, even when I don’t notice it there, even when it peeks into conscious view and I am ashamed of it. 

"My fantasy is simple, though it has infinite incarnations: in my fantasy, the world is about me.

Because the world is about me, all persons and events bend to my will. I am happy and successful, receiving rewards and recognition for my Ph.D. research, landing a writing job that is lucrative, stimulating, and world-changing (and somehow, simultaneously, effortless). Though I have many fans and admirers abroad (never the type to interfere with the comfort of daily anonymity), I am firmly anchored by love in my most intimate relationships. Each and every guy I meet wants to be with me—how could they not? They find me drop-dead gorgeous, the just-right type of thin, but also smart, witty, and insightful. I am both their erotic dream come-to-life and the only one they can bear their soul to (though they never burden me with more than I can handle, perhaps because I intuitively know how to handle all their troubles). In my fantasy, love has no aches or growing pains; it comes to me like a resplendent, overflowing fountain, because that’s just how stellar I am. With time, after having innocently broken many hearts, (causing me a very-virtuous-though-not-scarring sorrow), I will choose from among them someone both humble and ambitious, minimalistic and wealthy, gentle, sensitive and ruggedly assertive. We will marry on a blissful 75-degree day in my parent’s backyard.  He’ll never leave my side, for just the thought of being with another woman will make him gag. Our children, if we have them, will be beautiful, bright, and well-behaved. My pregnancies will never change my figure. When we travel to Egypt, Europe, and the Marshall Islands as a family, somehow my children will acquire extraordinary educational experiences while never seeming to be there, always allowing me plenty of space to enjoy romantic time with my husband. I’ll age slowly, if I do at all. When I age, I won’t feel it—I’ll be one of those surprisingly fit and lucid grandmothers who never has to pee in a bag, never forgets anyone’s name. In my fantasy, all the good that the world has to offer, usually unevenly, haphazardly distributed across lives, is directed towards me.

This, more or less, is my fantasy: a life where I get everything I want, with all the thorny bits of life cut out. What do you think happens when this fantasy sits in the back of your mind each day? It makes me interpret everything in the world—from a piece of bread to a person—in terms of my fantasy. In the ways that life aligns with my fantasy, I’m ecstatic. In the ways that it doesn’t, I am pouty and frustrated. Obviously I try to temper my fantasy with service to others, learning, and grounding spiritual practices. Whenever I notice my fantasy is rearing its head, I recognize that it needs to be put to sleep. But sometimes it leaks so sneakily into my life so I barely even notice when it takes over.

And so it is that one summer, I developed an eating disorder. I got this idea that I ought to have a slim and attractive, “perfect” body, like in my fantasy—none of those curves or cellulite spots like normal female bodies had. Brownies, ice cream, peanut butter, and soda came to be “evils” to me that I should shun and avoid, unworthy of the body I envisioned for myself. In my fantasy, I was good. I was disciplined. I always said no to evil. For over a year, I delighted in my capacity to restrain myself from food, sticking to stringent rules about what I could and could not eat. Each meal time, I played a pleasurable, masochistic game with myself, seeing how little I could eat to feel full. Though I kept my distance from food, I thought about it often, as if I had to keep my eye on it so as not to trip out of control. When I received compliments for having lost weight, I knew I was on the right track. Guys asked me out at about the same rate as before, but I strode proudly down the sidewalks of campus as if everyone admired my new thin body. As if my fantasy was theirs, too, and they knew I was succeeding.

The problem was that my fantasy was a fantasy. It is not possible to cut out the thorny bits of life, to maintain the body I wanted without all sorts of costs and ill effects. I developed such high anxiety about food that after months of turning my head from it like a pious saint from sin, my discipline broke. I began eating in their entirety the mashed potatoes, boiled carrots, and rolls my mother scooped gratuitously onto my plate.  I began saying yes to pistachio ice cream and Oreos. I woke up to the pleasures of eating, again—but this was no easy thing. Food was cruel, for how it leered at me--that rich ganache frosting on my brother’s birthday cake, the dense, chewy blueberry bagel that settled like a bulbous water balloon in my stomach. I wanted to be disciplined like I was before, but there was no going back, no un-forgetting of tastes and textures in my mouth and the satisfaction of a full stomach.

Still locked in my fantasy, I continued to overthink food and eating, but this twist in my lack of discipline bred different behaviors. If food would not keep its distance, then I must consume every last bite of its nearness. When I was alone in the kitchen, it was as if the world, all its people, and time itself disappeared. The pantry, fridge, and cupboards were chests of treasure bestowed from above. With the rules gone, each bite was an ecstasy of personal anarchy in my mouth. The chocolate chips, the cold pizza, the banana bread—each piece was mine, mine, mine, even when it wasn’t mine—when it belonged to my roommate---even when it wasn’t mine for the moment—when I had intended it for a late afternoon snack— there was always more, and more, and more—and when I finished eating one thing I’d move quietly on to another, unquestioningly, like turning a page in a long, long book.

After these shameful evenings alone in the kitchen, I tried various techniques to stuff my life back into my fantasy. I’d say to myself, “I’ll skip breakfast the rest of the week, and cut out sweets for the next month” as if restriction could overwrite my hours of indulgence. Or I’d take a different tactic, “It’s not that big of a deal. Everyone pigs out on occasion,” as if I could still be the girl in my fantasy even if I ate a lot. I began meeting with a therapist and dietician, wanting help to regain control. To my frustrated surprise, they tried to tell me that I didn’t need control—I needed self-acceptance. My therapist gave me stories to read of people with binge-eating disorders far more severe than mine. After looking over my food log, my dietician tried to persuade me that I only felt I was out of control because I was letting go of my restrictions, learning to enjoy food again. “It looks like you just overeat on occasion,” she said with a tone somewhere between consolation and condescension, “These aren’t abnormal amounts of food.” I was doing nothing wrong, they insisted. Nothing wrong.

I listened to them. I carefully set down my goal to eat less. But the food wasn’t the problem. Nothing really changed until my fantasy was slowly uncovered to me.

One Spring term, I signed up for a yoga class on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. In a bright, broad room I spread out my mat parallel to the rows of other women and sat cross-legged on top of it. When our instructor came in, she directed us to rise to our feet, to begin the adjari breathing, and off we were for an hour of stretching and elegant straining. A floor-length mirror covered the left wall, which I peeked at furtively each time a pose allowed us to face it. I pretended to use the mirror to adjust my posture or the position of my hands, but really I was checking the size of my arms, legs, and waist.

One afternoon our instructor led us into the tree pose—lift your right leg, bend you knee, and place your foot gently on the inside of your left thigh. Keep your hands at heart center, or stretch them high above your head. We turned to face the mirrored wall, but my view that day was obstructed by several bodies in front of me. My eyes tried to seek a way past the shoulders and torsos, but suddenly I saw—
--I saw all these women, their arms outstretched, their calves trembling to balance; I saw a few of them glancing in the mirror as I was prone to do; I imagined them in front of other mirrors, in department store dressing rooms, trying on their yoga leggings, or in their bathroom mirrors, glaring themselves into make-up’ed beauty each morning.

“Is each of them as worried about their appearance as I am about mine?” I asked.
And after I asked, I saw more: I saw these women looking both ways to cross the street, trudging their way to the testing center, slipping on snow, frowning as they entered a class they didn’t like. I saw them fighting with mothers, forgiving their sisters, nervously delivering talks in church. I saw them crying when they received rejection letters from programs, jumping up and down elatedly when they received scholarships.  I saw these women and I cared. In a moment of shocking and liberating clarity, I saw how wasteful it was for us to persist in our individual fantasies, which blinded us to each other. Each of these women seemed overwhelmingly good and beautiful to me. As my arms reached high above my head, tears sprung to my eyes and I dropped my fantasy, for their sakes. I wanted to enjoy and participate in the rich, lovely, and important world buzzing all around me, and I wanted them to, as well.
Nearly two years later, that moment serves as a lighthouse in my life. Recovery from my eating disorders has been a slow and stilted, often painful process that will likely continue throughout my life.  I see now, however, that the problem is only marginally related to food. The problem is when I give reigns to my fantasy, when I want to run from the imperfect, thorny life I have for the blissful life of my fantasy. I remind myself that the blissful life isn’t real—even when I was at my thinnest, when I was supposedly doing everything “right”, I was anxious and miserable. And I remind myself what I learned among those women in my yoga class that day, that this imperfect life has a strength and loveliness all on its own which is actually more gripping, compelling, and grounding than the ridiculous life of my fantasy. The struggle is not to control life, or my body, but to see it more clearly for the lovely thing that it is."

1 comment

  1. I like your post very much. It is well written. Thanks for sharing with people.