Tag Archives: OA

At the Core

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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?

Goldilocks

I have come to the conclusion that Goldilocks is not an addict.

It’s not a difficult conclusion, really. It’s not that she is without issues, most notably a lack of personal boundaries or respect for those of others. But her behavior is clearly abnormal when observed from an addict’s perspective.

Come on–she samples two bowls of porridge and and finds the third one to be “just right.” She eats it. Satisfied, she goes and finds a nice place to take a nap.

What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she rummaging through the bears’ kitchen, trying to find more of that perfect stuff? Or trying to mix the hot and cold porridge to capture that “just right” again? Or just gulping down the hot and cold porridge, because it’s better than nothing? How is it possible that she is moving on?

As I write this, I’m several weeks into a food plan I’ve been resisting with the mental equivalent of kicking and screaming for many months. You see, in the past year I’ve alternated my very low-calorie weight loss plan with episodes of uncontrolled binge eating…and, after a lot of suffering, I weigh almost exactly what I weighed last January.

I have longed for sanity…but I wanted it on my terms. I wanted to take off some of the weight I had gained in the previous year, and then eat sanely. In early December, I admitted it wasn’t working. No matter what I want, I have to hear what my body is saying to me: I demand to be accepted and dealt with exactly as I am, and every time you starve me I will torture you with cravings until they bring on a balancing binge.

So I gave in. I wrote down a plan every day, involving specific amounts of healthful food. Real food, not weight loss shakes and artificially sweetened protein bars. I ate what I wrote down, no more and definitely no less.

In a week, I was virtually free of cravings. I felt stronger, calmer, my body ached less, and I seldom thought about food in between my planned meals. I had found the circle of grace…and it has lasted for nearly a month now. My body and mind have continued to send me messages amounting to “About time, dumbass!”

Great news, right? There’s just one problem–I am nothing like Goldilocks. The concept of moderation, of just right, of enough…my addict brain squirms in discomfort.

No quick gratification from fast weight loss? No resolutions to starve virtuously after the latest episode of overeating? No “tomorrow will be different?”

Weird.

I’m not new to this idea. I’ve written often about how foreign consistency feels to any addict, let alone one with bipolar disorder thrown into the mix. Acting too normal for too long; struggling to keep my self-care away from any concept of virtue or vice…yeah, that’s my strong suit.

Embracing, again, the severity of my eating disorder and my need for structure and surrender without discounting or sabotaging my other recovery…yeah, I’m great at balancing acts. My brain doesn’t ever whisper that food would be less of an issue if I took painkillers again, or that I wouldn’t be hungry at night if I took sleeping pills.

Accepting that this process will never end, and loving myself anyway? Sure, I don’t have any critical voices shouting that I should have done this years ago and stuck with it.

Being willing to write honestly about this aspect of me, no matter how much I am sick of dealing with it and no matter how much I fear being boring or repetitive? Sure, I don’t have any egotistical qualities urging me to make my struggles look cool or edgy.

Who am I kidding? There’s no way I can do this alone.
Oh, wait, I remember now…I’m not alone.

Still In Recovery?

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a special women’s recovery event. Part of me didn’t want to show up–what else is new? I always want to wait until I can present the best version of myself. I want to wait until some magical moment of good health and behavior arrives and appear then, proclaiming “Look, I’m here, this is me! None of those other things are me!”

But I’d been invited, specifically, by a friend who knew I had no money for a ticket and offered me a place at her table anyway. It meant a lot to me, and I was determined not to flake out. So I showed up as I am, carrying the extra weight from my latest bout of self-destruction and the extra weepiness from my latest bout of depression. I did a load of laundry, and washed my hair. I couldn’t wear my jeans comfortably, but at least the yoga pants I did wear were clean.

Hearing women chat about their lives and the people they know, I felt the usual welcome shifts in perspective. My own problems felt a bit less overwhelming as I listened to those of others, and I had the usual–yet somehow always surprising–revelations about how little these women care about my own standards for myself.

Yes, I’d been struggling with food and money and depression. I wasn’t the only one. Others had been struggling with relationships, or battling cigarettes, or had new and serious health problems. There was just one battle we were all still winning at the moment: being drug addicts who were not using drugs.

On my keychain, I carry the medallion I got on my four-year anniversary of getting clean from drugs. If I stay the course, I’ll get a five-year one next May. Lately, it’s been harder and harder to take any joy in these things because I am so aware of the insanity I’m experiencing around food.

I’m well aware that in a different fellowship I’d just be considered in relapse, period. Periodically failing with the food would mean I’m no longer clean and shouldn’t be counting any anniversaries. I don’t choose to go by these rules for a few reasons, the most important one being that it’s nearly killed me in the past by creating a “might as well” attitude and encouraging me to use drugs again. Now, I choose to keep my anniversary, despite the eating-related insanity I have experienced off and on in the last four years. I choose to believe that staying off of drugs matters enough to be acknowledged.

That being said, it’s important for me to admit to myself when I’m in relapse mode. Insane behavior with food is diagnostic for me, and it’s not very compatible with the values of recovery. If I’m binge eating to punish myself or drown my anxiety, I’m probably not using a lot of spiritual tools at the moment. So even as I hold on to my accomplishment of staying clean, I need the humility of admitting that my life is in relapse mode lately. That I need help, need to put my program first more often, need to admit I don’t know what I’m doing.

It’s said that abstinence does not equal recovery. I, like any addict, can be free of my best-known demon but making myself insane with another behavior. Looking around that room at the tables of women, I knew that each of us fell somewhere in the gray zone between living in our disease and living fully in recovery.

Am I still in recovery? Are you? Where is the line?

I can’t tell you the answer, but I can tell you about the moment I let go of the question for the rest of the day.

“Have you seen ******** lately?” a woman asked.
“She went out,” another woman answered sadly.

Out. It’s what we call it when a person disappears. Stops answering their phone. Eventually, maybe, someone hears something. Friends might try to track them down, but there’s often not much that can be done until the time is right. We wait, and pray we will see them again.

I felt the usual wave of sadness, the woman’s face vivid in my mind. I looked around the room and wished she were here with us instead of where she was.

The Apple That Time Forgot

Bad things happen when I try to be too good for too long.

It’s a theme I’ve written about before…Bounty Hunter and The Perils of Good Health are a couple of examples. But today, I’m thinking about a certain time and a certain scene that captures the feeling for me.

When I was twenty-two, I got engaged to a graduate student in mathematics. He came from a wonderful European family, was wholesome and innocent in his demeanor, and was quite gorgeous as well. I was his first serious girlfriend.

When we got engaged, I had recently finished college. More relevantly, I had recently begun my first attempt at applying the principles of recovery to my eating disorder. I was aglow with a fire of self-improvement, and I’d lost about 50 pounds, bringing me from my (formerly) highest weight down to a pretty healthy 160. Throughout our engagement, I felt that this version of me was the one he had asked to marry him.

The months went by, as he did his work and I attempted to find some of my own (I had been accepted to a graduate program, but it would not start for a while.) It seemed the course of my life was laid out–continue my education, get married, move to Europe or wherever he got a job in due time and use my skills to get a job nearby until it was time to start having children. Be a good wife, a good daughter-in-law and a good mother; be the woman who was good enough to be chosen by this admirable man.

On many days, we would eat lunch together in the campus cafeteria. From the limited choices I would assemble pretty much the same plate every time: 4 ounces of chicken breast, half a cup of brown rice, some green beans and an apple. Nothing wrong with that meal, but it got monotonous.

For some reason, the apple always took me the longest to finish. I’d cut it into quarters, and there would be two or three left when all of the other food was gone and we needed to get going soon. Getting all of it down, day after day, became a real chore. We jokingly called it the “Apple That Time Forgot.”

I remember those lunches so well, in the way a few selected memories stand out as a full visual. The sunlight slanting through the high windows, the scattered groups of students talking, and me a part of the young couple near the window. In those meals, I was playing the role of what I appeared to be; every bite of those nutritious meals felt like a promise I was making to my fiancé.

I was promising never to get fat again, and I was promising everything that went along with that in my eyes. Promising not to be lazy, or ill-mannered, or behave in any way that would embarrass him in front of his family. Promising to be good and never make him regret asking me to marry him.

There was just one tiny, itsy-bitsy problem with those lunches, that relationship and that plan.

When we were not in each other’s presence, I wandered the streets of that college town and I ate. God, how I ate. Novels in hand, I would go from one fast food place to another so as not to spend hours in one spot and draw attention with the amount of food I was ordering. I’d go home with a stomachache and spend the rest of the day in a fog of self-loathing. Periodically, I would try to stop. Reeling from withdrawal and hunger, I’d drag myself to a recovery meeting and cry, only to be out there again in a day or two.

I am a compulsive eater; I’ve known myself as one since long before I practiced any other kind of addiction. So my behavior was not that surprising, but there was something different about it during that year. It wasn’t just me using something because it’s what we addicts do–it was me having a secret life that screamed, over and over, that what I was trying to be wasn’t me.

How loud did it have to scream? Well, in the ten months until the engagement’s end, I gained ninety pounds.

Yes, bad things happen when I try to be too good for too long.

I’m Not Like You

The last time I was in rehab, I had a very nice roommate. A woman slightly younger than me, who was friendly and obviously relieved that I wasn’t too scary looking. Alcohol was her thing, and it was her first time in treatment. We chatted and got to know each other, and I felt comfortable with her, which for me is saying a lot.

Almost every night, downstairs in the main room, meetings of the most populous recovery fellowship were held, open to the community as well. But on Thursday, things were different. On this night only, there was a meeting of a different group; one that talked about drugs as well as alcohol. When my roommate looked at the day’s schedule, she asked if everyone had to go to the meeting. “I imagine so,” I replied, “since we have a mixed population and everyone’s had to go to all of the other meetings.”

“But there might be a lot of drug addicts there,” she said nervously.

Oh, honey. Who do you think you’ve been sleeping next to for the past five days?

She knew pills were my thing, but she hadn’t made the connection. In her mind, a drug addict still meant a toothless thug roaming the streets. In her mind, an alcoholic and a drug addict were two very different creatures.

I encounter it all the time. I call it the “I’m Not Like You” phenomenon. It existed in that rehab facility, as it does everywhere else. And it doesn’t have to be about what type of addict we are; it can be about background, age or anything else.

I’m not like you. I’m just an alcoholic. You drug addicts are way worse.

I’m not like you. You’ve never been on the streets or in jail. You’ve had an easy life. You have no idea what I’ve been through.

I’m not like you. I’m a successful professional. I just have a problem, which I will solve and get back to success.

I’m not like you. I just took those pills because my doctor gave them to me. I would never do the things you’ve done.

I’m not like you. You have no idea what it’s like to live with mental illness.

I’m not like you. You’re old and out of touch. You don’t have to cope with any of the problems I have.

I’m not like you. You’re young and don’t have the responsibilities I have.

I don’t belong with you.
I don’t belong here.

Yes, it’s a form of denial, but it goes deeper. You see the denial form of it in detox or early in recovery. There’s a certain cognitive dissonance about listening to someone rhapsodize about their successful life and lack of serious problem when their hands are still shaking. But even if someone has found themselves to be in need of recovery, and accepted this about themselves, these judgments go on.

We argue about which recovery groups are better than others. We judge each other, and get defensive when we feel judged. We feel superior, and when we feel inferior we fight this by finding things to criticize.

In other words, we act like the microcosm of humanity that we are.

Sometimes it frustrates me, until I remember the last thing I just wrote. It is the human condition, and while I can work toward unity I can’t make it happen. But I want to. I would love it if all those in recovery would embrace the fact that Death comes one to a customer no matter who we are; that we are nothing more or less than fellow addicts no matter what our specific poison was.

I’d love it it if we never forgot what the real enemy is.

Wanting to work toward unity is another reason for me to work on myself. Strengthen my recovery, fight my social phobia, lay my ghosts to rest and become someone who is a little less afraid to reach out to someone I might be tempted to think is different from me.

Hunger Shames

I’m hungry, and it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing because it means I’m trying to start a more intense repair of the damage I’ve done lately, and I’ve been doing it long enough for my body to start protesting the absence of the junk I’ve been pouring into it.

But oh, being hungry fills me with shame.

Let’s go back many years, to a time before drugs, to a biology grad student caught in the grip of her eating disorder. She lives in cycles of the bipolar disorder she doesn’t yet understand is part of her, and she goes through cycles of her eating too. After days of bingeing and missing classes and work, she near-fasts and puts in long hours at the lab and drags herself contritely to an eating disorder support group to talk about how this time she’s going to stick to a plan.

Repeat. Repeat again. And again.

One Saturday morning, after being awake all night with Pop-Tart toxicity, she skips breakfast and gets on a trolley to a morning meeting of the eating disorder group. She gazes dully out of the window, separated from the fresh autumn. Halfway there, the trolley stops and stays stopped at an intersection. She looks out of the window to see what the delay is, and sees a huge crowd of people in lettered white T-shirts making their way across. “Walk For Hunger,” the shirts proclaim.

The emotion of that moment is what comes back to me at times like this. I’m not talking about it to beat myself up, just to acknowledge that voluntary hunger–and me being in a situation of needing to choose it in order to balance unneeded food I’ve eaten–feels twisted and wrong in this world of so much involuntary hunger.

It’s called an eating disorder for a reason, I guess. It’s not the natural order. The natural order is that hunger is bad and eating nourishes the body. My sickness, originating so young, has twisted and warped one of the most basic human drives.

I’ve done a lot of voluntary hunger over the years. I’ve lived on water. I’ve lived on protein shakes. I’ve lived on plans where every morsel is weighed and measured and consumed at exact times. I’ve done stupid and extreme schemes and I’ve done reasonable ones that still felt like starvation at first because it was such a contrast. I’ve gone through “junk food detox” and its accompanying headaches and mood swings enough times to draw you a schematic of what to expect when.

Becoming willing to tolerate hunger is part of my surrender when my food needs to be changed, and I also need to be willing to tolerate the emotions that hunger brings to me. The shame is one of them, but there is also fear–the fear of not having enough, the fear of not getting enough sleep, and the fear of the hypomania (already beginning to build) that always accompanies the detox phase.

Why do this? Why choose hunger and discomfort? There are those who would tell me that it’s better to eat what I want when I want it and let go of all guilt and judgment. For me, that hasn’t worked for two reasons. One, there appears to be a weight beyond which I suffer serious health problems. Two–and even more significantly–I don’t appear to be capable of unboundaried eating without traveling into binge territory and producing pain instead of pleasure.

Enduring this hungry phase–and occasional bouts of hunger that crop up later–leads to a place of less insanity. Less insanity is good. My readers know I would never, ever claim that I know what I’m doing where food is concerned. I’m just trying not to harm myself today.

Thinking About Freedom

We are all inherently biased. The old saying of “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” is quite true, and in the absence of special thought and effort we act according to that bias. Thus, when I contemplate this holiday that celebrates freedom in my country, my bias leads me to think more of internal freedom than external–freedom from fear, freedom from shame, freedom from active addiction.

Last year on the Fourth of July, I wrote Can We Ever Be Free? and speculated on the origins and implications of the word addiction. This year, after another year of recovery and a year of writing more than I have in the decades before, my thoughts are centering around what it’s like to have our creativity set free.

This, after all, is what working recovery truly promises–not happiness, not a smooth life, not money or approval, but only human life itself, leading to human death. Our life, our death, the life cycle of the person we are when not ruled by addiction and the qualities that feed it. And I believe that we are all creative.

We can’t help it. If we know ourselves–who we were, who we are, what we want, where we want to go–we can’t help creating some kind of response to that condition of knowing. A response to the feelings it generates. A response to whatever authentic pain we have. A response to our experience of the world around us when that experience is no longer dulled. A response to the mysterious energy we contain.

Freedom comes with a price, as all freedom does. In my country’s Declaration of Independence, the writer spoke of pledging “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” We do this too, when we bargain for freedom from our internal chains. We are ready to give up our lives–the lives we knew before, even the lives we think we want in the future. We bow to the unknown and stand ready to accept a life that might be quite different. We are ready to give up our fortunes–give up the idea that any external riches are worth not being ourselves. We pledge our sacred honor, an honor we may be just beginning to discover, and place some principles higher than our own desires.

In return we get truth, creativity, authenticity, and many other things that carry the potential for incredible joy and wholeness. But they are so, so hard to hold sometimes that we become consciously or subconsciously willing to lay this freedom down. When we discover truth, it usually wants something from us. (Like in my poem Alpha.)

My friends, I wish you freedom on this day–and I wish you a degree of progress toward it that you can hold. I wish you the grace to win just a little bit more, and the courage not to give it back, and faithful friends who share your journey.