Tag Archives: Eating Disorders

The Watch-Fires

images

Damn, it’s been hard to know what to write here lately. I shut down completely for the two weeks or so following the election–not proud of it, but every bit of energy and strength I had was going into not doing stupid and irreversible things to myself. Then there was Thanksgiving to get through.

I’ve been writing and discarding multiple essays in my head. There’s so much I could say, about so many subjects. So many populations for which I fear. But the thing that is helping me sit down and write today is a return to my most basic principles: what is the purpose of Not This Song?

Well, the main non-selfish purpose is trying to make others feel less alone in navigating difficult lives, with an emphasis on a few particular conditions. If I go back to this, I can rein in the part of me that thinks I have to write everything. I don’t need to discuss specific issues right now. I need to support those that are doing so, but my work has a different focus. I don’t need to change anyone’s mind about anything outside the confines of their own psyche.

So what I want to say is: Are you okay?

What are you doing to take care of yourself? What is helping you? If you are disabled, what is helping you resist the voice that makes you feel guilty for not being able to do as much as others? If you are an addict, what is helping you resist using? If you have a history of suicidal thoughts or actions, what is helping you not go there?

What I want to say is: if you have things that are helping, do them. Do them as much as you need to. Don’t you dare tell yourself you have to earn them by doing things you aren’t able to do at the moment. If you don’t have anything, seek help in finding something. Easier said than done, I know, but just keep the option in mind. Don’t you dare tell yourself that you don’t deserve it because others are suffering more. You can’t help them if you aren’t here a month or year from now.

I won’t tell you things are going to be all right. I’m just continuing to operate on my basic premise that giving up is not a good option. Given that, it makes sense to do what is necessary to stick around. We will all operate in different ways and at different speeds. Some of us find action is the best soother and we’re already out there. Others, like me, are taking weeks or more to get back to a non-dangerous level of functioning. It’s okay. Yes, I admit that’s much easier to say to you than to myself, but I mean it.

One of my favorite metaphors for the inside of my mind is a small village, in a jungle, at night. This particular jungle is full of terrifying creatures that attack the village frequently. The creatures stand for any malign influence on my psyche, whether external or self-created. Messages of shame, terror, despair, envy, compulsion, apathy, nihilism, and everything else destructive. It doesn’t matter if they are from childhood, from media distortions, or from real-world catastrophe…if they get in, the effect on my psychic strength will be the same. The village is circled with a defensive ring of watch-fires and a guard of warriors. The warriors will fight whatever gets in, but they need the fires to be able to see it. The fires also keep much at bay just with their light and heat.

When things are not going well, I imagine the attack. I can almost hear the cries of the warriors and the snarls of the beasts. As I consciously concentrate on generating opposite thoughts to combat the destructive attack, I imagine positive turns in the battle. Most of all, I imagine the fires blazing more and more brightly.  If I am taking good enough care of myself to do any regular meditation, I visit the fires and add fuel to them. Fuel, of course, is made up of things that make me remember why I want to win the battles. Music, poetry, experiences of love, beauty, every non-linear belief I have…the fires need them to burn.

Right now, the fires are low and the jungle is crowded with danger. And I know that, too far away for me to see, other villages also fear the darkness. I hope you’ll try to feed your watch-fires, as I try to feed mine. Only if we survive the nights of our spirit will we be there to give anything during the days.

At the Core

unknown

I said I was going to work on unpacking some of my core beliefs about weight and body image, and I’ve been doing this. I have not been enjoying the process.

“Core beliefs” is a term I picked up from cognitive-behavioral therapy. It refers to deep, underlying convictions that we’ve picked up from somewhere. Usually we don’t realize the extent of the role they play in our lives and thoughts.

So, enough intellectualizing on my part. What do I believe about my weight and its meaning, and can I look at it honestly and see how messed up some of it is?

Core belief #1: I am not really “me” unless I am below a certain weight. 

This is one of the deepest, and I know I am not alone in it. Many who are overweight see their bodies and selves as a work in progress, aided by a culture that encourages us to see our lives as something that will be completed by a better body–or a house, or a job, or a partner, or any other kind of “carrot.”

The weight at which I am “myself” has become more reasonable than it used to be. It’s thirty or forty pounds less than where I am, as opposed to eighty. The problem is that the line exists at all; that a high weight has consequences not only for my health but my very sense of self.

Core belief #2: There is no point in exercising, or doing other things that are good for my body, unless I am currently losing weight or maintaining a very low weight.

This inner tape has done me an incredible amount of damage. It’s often caused me to miss out on not only the health benefits of exercise, but the elevation of mood and self-esteem moving my body brings. If I have a period of healthful eating and some exercise, breaking the streak of the first behavior requires me to give up the second one as well. Never mind that moving my body would help my mood and make me able to return to better eating sooner–nope, it’s all or nothing.

Core belief #3: Being fat and/or eating more than a certain amount is not spiritual. My spiritual self is thin, abstinent, and free from all compulsions. Contact with the Divine as I know it is something I have to earn by not eating.

This belief started to form in my twenties, when I was first exploring my spirituality in the context of a recovery program for compulsive eating. If I was eating in a way that wasn’t on my (very restrictive at the time) plan, I was resisting God’s will. Being on the diet equalled being surrendered to my God’s will. When suffering a relapse into my self-destructive bingeing, and wanting to pray for help, I felt that I had no right to pray until I cleaned up my act. It was a vicious circle.

This belief gets reinforced today by some aspects of my bipolar disorder. Starting a diet tends to make me hypomanic, and hypomania can bring heightened mystical feelings as well as heightened creativity. Similarly, overeating or eating too many starches and sweets has a sedating and depressing effect, making me feel less in touch with the mystical aspects of myself.

Core belief #4: I cease to be a sexual or romantic being when my weight exceeds a certain amount.

It’s natural for me to wrestle with my sexuality as I age; most of us do in this culture. Even when I was younger, though, this pattern was there. I was always thinner in my fantasies: good sex was only for people with good bodies. Times spent in the lower parts of my weight range were the times I took sexual and romantic risks. Somewhere, within a relative narrow weight range, I change from a sensual and sexually awakened woman to one who sees herself as sexually invisible and dormant. I don’t ask for sex, physical intimacy or romantic attention.

Core belief #5: Someday I will conquer my eating disorder for good and never again suffer a relapse. I will achieve “normality” in this realm and maintain it for the rest of my life. This, more than anything else, will mark me as a success in life. 

I don’t need to go into how unrealistic this is. It’s as ridiculous as the idea that I’ll make myself not be an addict any more. I’ve got this issue, and I’m going to have it for the rest of this lifetime even if my health improves. I have to ask myself how much of my life I want to devote to this one area of struggle.

I’m sure there are more of these core beliefs, as well as the many surface thoughts that come up when I deal with doctors and other people. I have no intention of giving up on my health–but what would happen if I stopped defining myself by my weight?

Doctor, Doctor

I must go to the doctor again. This particular appointment is with the endocrinologist, but I realize that the feelings I’m having are not specific to her. They are part of a pattern existing throughout my adult life: a visit to the doctor is a visit to the land of judgment, silence and apologies.

There was a span of years when I was making this worse because of my active addiction to painkillers. Some doctor visits were preceded by anxious reviewing of my desperate exaggerations or even outright lies, combined with the ever-present shame. One of the blessings of recovery is freedom from these dishonest machinations.

There are also times when my apologies are about not taking my meds properly, as during a severe depressive episode, or failing to carry out some other assignment designed to help me.

However, for most of my adult life, the dragon I face in the doctor’s office has been the same one: being fat. Fat, whether to a greater or a lesser degree, in a medical climate that places almost any ill at the door of one’s weight regardless of other health parameters (and it must be admitted that, although I believe in the Health at Every Size philosophy, it is usually clear that my body would be happier near the lower end of my weight range.)

No doctor, be they primary care or otherwise, has ever failed to inform me that I should lose weight, with the exception of the rare few I only met while at the extreme low end. They tell me this as if I do not know it; as if I have somehow managed to reach middle age without being aware that I am overweight.

Any explanation I might give about why losing weight is not working out at the time, or about regaining it following a loss, sounds like excuses. And I don’t want to make excuses, anyway. I’d really prefer it to be taken as read that I’m aware of the issue and doing my best, even if my best is not what they would like. Still, not an appointment passes–no matter what the presenting problem or how unrelated it might seem–without me having to answer for the size of my body.

This problem is neither new nor unique to me, and I know many awesome people who could give me advice on how to stand up for myself more effectively. I realized lately that much of the problem resides in myself: I don’t present my situation unapologetically because I have not come to terms with it. I haven’t unpacked and dealt with a lifetime of internalized fat prejudice I didn’t realize I was carrying.

The doctor I’m going to see, who wanted me to have lost weight since our last appointment, is one for whom my weight really is a relevant parameter: we are dealing with blood sugars, hormone levels, and other things that are affected by it. I can’t present her with the results she hoped to see. I have to show up as I am and ask her to treat the patient she has, not the patient she wants. I have to be honest with her, and ask her to ally with me in treating my conditions on the assumption that my weight is not going to go down right now.

I would like her to give me advice about focusing on fitness, with the understanding that I may or may not be able to do as much as she wants. I’d like her to pleased with what I do accomplish, even if it’s only managing to take my meds properly and go on a few walks.

Yeah, and I’d also like a pony.

Some of what I want isn’t going to happen. My longing to be understood and respected by those in the medical profession could be a classic example of going back to that dry well. Even as I long for it, I identify with the doctors themselves and the frustration they must experience when patient after patient sickens or dies for lack of following  a few “simple” instructions. I feel unworthy of their time. I feel unworthy of the medical care I’m privileged to have available. (The fact that they are providing a service for which I’m paying gets lost in this self-recrimination.)

There’s one thing, however, over which I do have power. That’s the baggage I mentioned above. It’s time for some major unpacking, and the more I think about the topic the clearer and more extreme some of the buried core beliefs are becoming.

Why I Cannot See You Again

I miss you too, whoever you are. Maybe you’re an old classmate that I haven’t seen in years, or maybe it’s only been a month since we took a walk together. But you see, it is not possible for me to see you again. More precisely, it is not possible to let you see me. It is not possible for me to let you see me because of my weight.

Never mind that, if you’ve known me for a while, you have seen me at this weight before. You’ve probably seen me at higher weights–but you may have recently seen me at lower weights too, and that’s what I can’t stand.

Ever since I was 13 years old, I have been defined by my weight. Much of this definition happens in my own mind, although it is helped by some aspects of our culture. Going to college, working at jobs, having a child–all of it was secondary. The mark of my success or failure as a human being was a number on the scale.

The weight gain of the past year, capped off by yet another weight gain in the last couple of months, has me convinced that if I see you, what I will see is a look of horror and disgust on your face as you compare me to the last version of me that you saw.

Every desperate attempt at dieting during the past year has been “rewarded” with a weight gain rather than a weight loss. On the advice of my new psychiatrist, I am switching to a very basic mindful eating plan designed to prevent the extremely destructive binge eating episodes. This means that I have no idea what will happen to my weight–and therefore, I have no idea when I will be able to see you again.

Intellectually, I know that if you consider me a friend of yours, weight fluctuations are nothing new to you. In your mind, it’s probably a part of how you view me. You have seen me everywhere on the spectrum of weight, and you have seen me be inconsistent in how I deal with food. To you, it is probably just a personal characteristic of mine. And, if we’ve been friends for a while, this characteristic of mine is not a dealbreaker for you. You have your reasons for valuing me, and those reasons don’t have to do with me winning some kind of permanent victory against my eating disorder. I know this, intellectually.

Nevertheless, some sort of line has been crossed in the last couple of months. I just cannot see you again until I have somehow met the requirements. It doesn’t matter how many poems I’ve written recently. It doesn’t matter what else I might have done that is interesting. It doesn’t matter that you might enjoy having me listen to you about your life, or that we could laugh and play together.

Now, you know me well enough not to believe 100% of what you just read. You know that I don’t always let that voice win, and that I am capable of facing it down to make contact with another person. I will keep trying, because you matter to me.

Across the Chasm

Making some kind of authentic contact with you (and you can be anyone) is hard for me these days. Not that it’s ever been easy, but in the past I’ve sometimes been in settings that help to break the ice.

Right now, I’m aware of a visual metaphor for what happens when I try to meet you. I picture our place of meeting–the place where there is some real, non-bullshit exchange between us–as a small plateau on a rock spire in the middle of a vast chasm.

That’s where the magic happens, but first I have to get there.

In my metaphor, I start out in the swamp. Call it the swamp of shame. Why not? The very first challenge involves shame, because it’s what taking any action requires me to face. To wake up, to pull myself from inertia, means facing shame. The shame of seeing where I really am; the shame of what have I done and how could I have gotten here and why didn’t I do something sooner.

The squelchy ground tries to hold on to my feet with every step, but if I persevere I get to firmer ground at last…Wait. Why can’t I see where I’m going?

Right. I’m out of the swamp, but onto the plain of mental fog.

The mental fog of sleep deprivation. Of a screwed-up metabolism or poor self-care or the damn psych meds so necessary to keep doing my best. Trying to block my path, trick and exhaust me into turning back, or just remind me of how pathetically slow and uncertain my steps are.

But, if I persevere, I reach a place of clearer air and fuck, that’s a big mountain.

Even though experience has taught me that its height and steepness is partially illusory, it’s hard not to be intimidated. The mountain represents the amount of effort needed to take an action in the face of depression, not to mention more mundane resistances such as laziness or procrastination. It takes juice to tackle it, and humility to accept the necessity of one uncertain or scrabbling step at a time.

But, if I persevere, I ascend far enough up the slope to see the entrance of where I need to go and oh god, I do not want to go in there.

Did you ever see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? My condolences. Anyway, picture the bug-filled tunnel from that. Bugs squishing under my feet, my ears filled with the clacking of millions of tiny mandibles, and my skin crawling under the brush of millions of legs.

I’m making my way through the tunnel of resentment. Resentment, envy, jealousy, self-pity…all trying to keep me separate from you. Trying to make you other, or keep me other, or just cause me enough pain and frustration to make me think it’s not worth the trouble. Trying to click and squelch and slime away the love I feel for you and the truth of our human connection.

But, if I persevere, I reach the other side of the tunnel. I’ve left the bugs and enclosing tunnel behind. The ground is firm rock beneath my feet, and the air is clear. I can see the spire ahead of me, and the small plateau where we will meet–and the bottomless, black chasm between here and there.

You probably guessed it. What’s the most primal, deepest barrier to experience? It’s fear. It’s the chasm of fear, and it yawns between me and you.

Fear of rejection. Fear of judgment. Fear of things we don’t have names for, fear that makes no fucking sense in the face of a logical weighing of risks and benefits. Fear ingrained, to a greater to lesser degree, into the most primitive structures of our brains.

I must weave a bridge from gossamer-thin filaments, made from the only materials and power I have. The same materials that made up the rocks my feet found in the swamp, or the handholds on the side of the mountain. The same power that guided me through the fog and illuminated the tunnel.

The materials and power of my self, my stories, the things I believe and the grace that animates them. As thin (but strong) as spidersilk, the bridge they create will make the terrifying journey possible.

Here is the story I tell myself about our meeting. I tell myself that even though I don’t see it, you have gone through a journey of your own to get to that plateau. I tell myself that you’ve got a swamp and a foggy plain and a tunnel and a chasm too. I tell myself that we are kindred, and that we must be pretty important to each other if we go through all of this to meet.

Yet I know I could be wrong–maybe, for you, it really is just going out for a cup of coffee.

Baby Steps

Unknown-1

I went for a walk yesterday. A short one, to be sure; calling it half a mile would be generous. But I went. I went the day before too.

People who have been in severe depression know this is important. Doing anything is important. Commercials for antidepressants know it–as annoying as I find them, they are on target with this. The patient is out doing simple things like walking a dog or watching a child’s soccer game, and this is progress.

The other thing I find on target is that the actress in the commercial (why is it always a woman? Men suffer from depression too) usually still has a faraway look on her face most of the time, as if she is not quite present. She’s still at least partially phoning it in, but she’s showing up and trying.

Since starting my new meds, this is how I feel. Not sure about any of it, but a little more able to show up. So I am taking my meds, and going for walks.

I’m carrying a heavy emotional backpack on my walks, because taking this body out and moving it means being acutely aware of the damage it has suffered recently. Various parts of it ache, and I need to sit down and rest sometimes. I feel frail, and am careful where I put my feet. I miss the freer and stronger stride of even 30 pounds ago.

Intellectually, I know that if I continue to move my body it will get stronger. I want to be strong, not only for practical reasons but because it would be a kind of acceptance. I want to say all right, I accept the weight I am now and everything that goes with it. I accept that, right now, I must carry this weight, and I want to be strong to carry it.

Gratitude is important too, and the lack thereof is dangerous for me. I need to appreciate that I can still walk around my apartment complex and sit on a bench and watch ducks. Not everyone can do this; I have many privileges mixed up with my problems.

Positive Feedback

What has happened to me in the past year, and especially in the past few months, is really not hard to understand from an engineering point of view. It’s a classic positive feedback loop.

If you’re in marketing, positive feedback means people like what you are doing. In engineering, not so much. “Positive” just means that the output of a system is feeding back into it in such a way as to produce more of that same result.

More snow on mountaintops melts as a result of global warming. The snowmelt exposes more dark material where snow would have been. More dark material absorbs more sunlight, causing more warmth, causing more snow to melt, and so on. Science is full of examples of such positive feedback loops.

My recent visit to the endocrinologist (who had a cancellation and saw me within a week, much to my surprise) has me trying to think about where I am in a more logical and solution-oriented way. My metabolism developed a serious problem, we don’t know exactly when. I put on weight, which raised my blood sugars, which affected everything from mood to immune system to energy levels. The thyroid issues got worse, which led to more weight gain and more blood sugar issues. The sicker I got, the crazier I got. The more tired and dumb I felt, the more I neglected my self-care and got sicker. Sometime in the past three months the process sped up.

It is painfully obvious that if I’m going to have a chance to survive this phase of my recovery, I have to accept where I am and try to set aside baggage about how I got here. The endocrinologist has given me meds that will address my issues, but it’s up to me to take them. She has told me my sensible food plan should be adequate once the meds have had some time to work, but it’s up to me to practice patience and not go back to self-destructive eating.

I have to take an active part in healing this body, the one I have at this moment. I can’t wait until 10 or 20 or 40 pounds of it is gone. I need to take this body for walks, and feed it well, and give it its medicine.

I don’t talk much about it on this site, but I used to be a scientist. My first degrees were in the field of biological science, and I used to work in labs. I was trained to think like a scientist…and I have to try.