The body tries to tell the truth. But, it's usually too battered with rules to be heard, and bound with pretenses so it can hardly move. We cripple ourselves with lies.
Yesterday, I went for a walk in the woods with my good friend Jen. Brilliant sun, cumulus clouds, deep blue sky, glittering leaves. A day to tip your face up and receive the warm blessings of the atmosphere. A day to spend in gratitude for the small incidentals (sleeping through the night, mood relatively stable, fingernails finally painted Plummy Purple) as well as the BIG THINGS (family, love, forgiveness). A day for a walk and talk with a friend.
Except IT wouldn’t leave me alone. For the walk, I’d given up a run at the gym. This should have been a no-brainer: beautiful day, exercise outside and with company over the monotonous treadmill in Ipod isolation. But IT had other ideas. Rule #1. A morning off from work means a 4 mile run at the gym. Rule #2. 4 miles must be completed in 36 minutes. Rule #3. At least 400 calories must be burned. Following these initial rules was the only way I’d get to eat and sit with my food (i.e., no purging) later in the day.
Of course, I’d already started my morning mired in ITs rules. Rule #5. Breakfast (and lunch) must be: ½ cup of yogurt, ¼ cup of granola, ¼ cup of blueberries. And no estimating. Measuring cups are mandatory. Rule #6. When possible, make all measurements equal zero. That is, given the chance, DO NOT EAT. Rule #7. That’s not a hunger pain; it’s an emptiness pain. Believe this is good.
And then there are the more intangible rules. The ones that begat all others. Rule #8. Do not let anyone see your pain. Rule #9. Do not ask for help. #10. Do not accept help. Aren’t these last rules at the very at the heart of IT? Pain and suffering must be concealed, masked over by cheerful energy. When I cut my arms as a teenager, I kept it confined to my wrists which I then covered over with makeup and covered over that with a stack of bracelets. I’d flex my wrist, feel that necessary, damning pain. “All mine,” IT said. “You can’t tell anyone.” And I didn’t. Not even my therapist at the time. For two years I sat on his couch talking about art and books and self-loathing, all the while keeping my arms buried under sweaters and long sleeves, even in the summer months. No one was safe, not even someone charged with keeping my secrets because IT convinced me that if I told any of the people charged with my safekeeping they would think I was disgusting, reprehensible, crazy, not worth helping at all.
Jen began our walk with a statement aimed at the heart of the matter. “You’re looking a little thin these days,” she said. "I'm worried."
Not a question: “Are you?” Because that would suggest that my perspective, my sick-with-IT answer, might be legitimate. But a statement: her rational mind holding incontrovertible physical evidence and offering it to me as a declaration. You’re growing (the terrible irony) smaller.
I/IT said, maybe even convincingly, “I’m okay. It’s just the running. I’m not dropping too low. If I was, my dietician would step in. And I’m sticking to my mealplan.”
Remember Rule #8? No way would IT allow me to let on that I was feeling desperate and out-of-control, that I knew I needed help. Instead? Tut tut! Stiff upper lip! Shipshape! Of course, there was the hidden fact that I hadn’t seen my dietician in a month so she might have something say after all. But, I rationalized, she was super-skinny, too, so she obviously doesn’t eat enough. How can I trust her assessment of me?
Jen said, “Let me just say, from an objective point of view, you’re looking like there’s less of you.”
IT and the Eating Disorder, the deadly tag team, hold as a truth that Less is More—more of the (veneer) of control, and Less is Less—the body whittles away to what is only essential. So this was exactly what IT likes to hear.
“It’s so hard,” I said, “because I look in the mirror and see Fat Pig. And when other people tell me I look too thin, I can’t really trust their perspective. Christopher mentioned something the other day about my losing weight, but here’s a guy who prides himself on being about the same weight he was in high school. Besides, he doesn’t have weight issues like me.”
“You don’t have those kind of weight issues,” Jen said.
“But I do. I feel overweight, too big. When I was at my lowest weight, I was thirty pounds less than I am now. So being here, where I am today, I just feel enormous, like there’s too much of me.”
“Can try to listen to your healthy, clear-headed self?” she said. “Because I know that self loves food. I know that self wants to get well.”
“I try and fail. Just the other day I had a piece of cheese. A stupid little piece of cheese because I was hungry. But IT doesn’t allow snacks, nothing but the official three meals. So I purged. This tiny piece of cheese had absolute power,” I said. “Every meal is a battle of wills: Mine and ITs.”
“You know that you’re still in a place where you can stop the slide,” Jen said. “You don’t want to be in that place again, do you, back in the hospital? You want to stay home with your family; you want a summer at home; you want your life back. Don’t you?”
Of course. Of course. But also, because of ITs magnetism, I’m not sure. I’m not sure. Because to find my way out of this morass, would mean I’d have to start breaking the rules. Which is odd because I’m a girl well-versed in rule-breaking. Dying my hair navy blue? Drinking in (and I mean in) high school? Sneaking into Manhattan via the Long Island Railroad to hang out in the Village, drinking beer on streetcorners? Okay, maybe this was just adolescent rebellion. But IT? I prostrate myself to ITs dictatorship all day long, every day without regard for my own welfare. Here are my arms, I say. Cut them up. Here is my body. Starve it. Here is all of me. I am yours. ITs. Enslavement. Bound by rules. Dr. B. said to me, “Why not break ITs rules which are surely deadlier than any others you’ve come up against?”
So here is the plan: I’m going to stage my own small act of civil disobedience this weekend. Two days lived without rules. No counting calories, no measurements, no specific food groups; exercise only for enjoyment; asking for help when anxious or when urges arise. IT will yammer at me the entire time: you’re getting fat; you’re losing control; you’ll fall apart. So I’m going to have to practice tolerance and patience and surely I’ll be listening to DR. B’s white noise machine. Most importantly? No shame, only hunger deeply felt and rightly fed.