“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” -Winston Churchill

Part II.

So I found myself at the base of this intimidating mountain, the summit extending infinitely skyward, obscured by clouds; up and up it goes, rudely puncturing the atmosphere on its way. Straining my neck, I knew the peak must be in the darkness and calm of space, if it is there at all. And to my right is this deep gaping ravine, threatening to swallow the earth around it and all the little things clinging to the soil. I wondered, if the infinite ravine got hungry enough, would it swallow up the mountain?

I knew I was going to face this conundrum at the beginning of college. Do I climb or should I just jump and be over with it already? I wanted to climb so badly and yet the part of me that was the disease teased me, telling me I could not succeed so why should I waste time trying, only to fall even farther when I did.

And this is when the periphery of my assertion began to form. If health was not my ultimate concern, I would stumble.

I had the privilege of backpacking for two weeks before the beginning of my first semester with other incoming freshmen as a sort of orientation trip. I flew across the country and found the strange statue in the airport, our meeting point, and looked for the other confused kids with oversized packs. I looked forward to the adventure, the new places and new people, yet the greatest discovery I made were pristine territories inside myself.

When you hike for a very long time, even with people you do not know, there is eventually the inevitable silence of people in deep thought. Even having just met, after a few days we had exhausted our inquisitions, songs, and stories for each other and turned inward.

I examined piece by piece how it had come to this. How I was here.  The truths I unearthed terrified me. The mosaic of my disease ceased its formlessness. I was not alone in intense reflection on this trip.  One day, we intentionally hiked alone, spread out along the trail, for a mile.  I went first and when the second person caught up to me at the meeting point, I asked what he had thought about. He replied, how much I hate myself. It was strange to see this person later at school, living so boisterously and so hard, appearing so big and confident, unable to forget what he’d said.

The universe conspired, in a fit of synchronicity that the trip’s leader, the head of the outdoors program at my school, would who I needed to meet: this tiny wild man, an ultra-runner with aspirations of being a missionary. Our first morning in the mountains, we awoke having camped in this beautiful meadow, saddled between two peaks.  He got our whole group running around the meadow, leaping into the air to “catch love.” And we did this for about twenty minutes and it was wonderful.  During the course of the trip, he continually yelled at me for constantly apologizing. He said it was like I was apologizing for my existence, and suggested that when I felt the need to apologize that I instead say “Fuck you.” In fact, he insisted on this. I felt so uncomfortable not apologizing, and even more uncomfortable saying this, I kicked my habit.

It was filtering water one day, using my inner thighs to push the pump, in and out, over and over again, the soft sloshing sound of this activity hypnotizing, speaking with him, that I dissolved all my boundaries. I told him everything I could think of about my eating disorder. I told him how scared I was to go into this new place where I felt something so forcefully trying to push me into the ravine once and for all.  He told me it would be okay, he told me knew I could overcome it. He revealed to me eventually that he too had at one point been an addict, and that I too could reclaim myself.  And there in the woods I knew I could climb, forever if I had to.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” -Winston Churchill

Part 1.

By the summer after my junior year of high school, the delusion that what I was doing to myself was going to end well was gone.

I had spent five years of my life entrenched in anxiety and the hope of somehow overcoming the laws of physics while remaining a functioning inhabitant of the universe. Not that I had done nothing but develop and nurture this eating disorder in that time, I had done a great many things, had some wonderful friends, and succeeded in a variety of other ways. I was going to be perfect someday, after all. But my other successes, my time spent with those I loved, was all under a black cloud. When I was happy, it was brief and fleeting and always replaced by the thought of how much farther I had to go until I was thin and perfect and everything was finally okay. Then in a rare instance of providing myself with enough time to think, I asked, what if it wasn’t okay when I got there? What if I was never okay? Why was I so convinced of the okyaness that lay before me? Did I feel owed something by the universe for my suffering?

These questions dissolved the delusion that my eating disorder was in anyway going to help me. I felt, I knew, I would never get to the promised land of perfection and okayness unless it was by the hand of death, and perhaps not ironically at all, knew that my current behaviors would cause just that. But I did not want to die. I wanted to live.

I wanted to live.

And this desire meant a huge flood of cognitive dissonance. If I wanted to live, then I must like something about being alive or know that I could find something to like in being alive. And since I could not experience living except through myself, then I must be able to find something enjoyable about being me since I am me, I am myself, inextricably.

This realization, though paramount to successfully recovery, was very difficult. It forced me to admit how much damage I had done to my self and how much I hated myself, and at first I hated myself even more from being so awful. I was both sadist and masochist. I wanted to punishment for waging this war, this cycle of self-hate and punishment making such a perfect circle. The part of me that was my eating disorder did not want to die. More and more of me, it wanted to consume, until at least together we reached that pyrric victory, death and perfection. But I saw that circle. I saw my eating disorder trying to trick me and I said no!

I have this really distinct memory of telling myself I was going to eat normally, swallowing two grapes and one of those tiny preztel sticks, and feeling so full I was convinced my insides would explode and that would be how I died, a bloody mess of wasted organs on the kitchen floor. I kept trying to recover for the rest of high school. I’d get slightly better and then silently fall backwards. But I kept going. I wasn’t gonna feel my heart flutter painfully in the middle of the night, I wasn’t gonna have purple lips and fingertips, and if I was lucky, I might even work up the courage to talk to people I didn’t already know.

I would not be successful in trying to recover until my freshmen year of college. The universe was giving me a chance. I could leave behind that shy little girl trying to erase herself, trying to become a shadow. I could leave behind the environment so entwined with my deadly habits. I could begin anew. This chance was terrifying because I also knew it was an opportunity to throw myself over a cliff and get worse than I’d ever been before, if I let myself.

“No longer will we agree to protect the hearth at the price of extinguishing the fire within ourselves.” -Celia Gilbert

All that time spent in elementary school, the careful arrangement in rank and file, the endless slideshow of what it might look like, the inadequate explanation of what it might feel like, wasted. No one attended the parade. Yet as my classmates traipsed bravely forward in their new bodies, I tripped, relieved as I was trampled.

Not eating retarded an already slow march through puberty and then reversed it. This slow campaign against myself left my body with no resources to contribute to potential reproduction.  My barely developed breasts deflated then diminished, my nipples receding back into my rib cage. The monthly hemorrhaging from between my legs stopped. When my friends all complained about having to buy new jeans when their hips grew, I laughed. I was invincible to biology’s cruelest joke. Avoiding puberty, I knew, would help me reach perfection.

Of course I read about the damage I was doing to myself – increased risk of osteoporosis  possible infertility, a whole host of digestive issues, heart damage, death. Of course I felt the damage – withdrawal, damaged relationships, fatigue, OCD, the weight of all my lies, and so fitting and reflective of everything else, a coldness that would not leave. My lips and fingertips maintained that bluish hue. I shivered as the sun shone on me in 80F weather. I had nothing to say to anyone and everyone had nothing to say to me.

I was not consciously trying to avoid my sexuality through my eating disorder, albeit this was another change I did not know how to cope with. Your whole life you just get to be a person and then one day you grow breasts and hips and you’re suddenly both more than a person and not even a person. We are cruel.

I distinctly remember being sexually harassed in 8th grade in my shop class. One of two girls, we received a lot of attention. The other girl, bizarrely ample, showed her body off and seemed to welcome being grabbed and pinched, to revel in the salacious rumors of after school blow jobs behind the building. I wonder now how she actually felt. Was it an act, an attempt to regain control over a treacherous body? I’ll never now. I shyly completed my projects, trying not to make too much eye contact or talk to much.

This was also the year I had my first boyfriend. It was one of those odd, we only go out in a big group with other middle school couples, we got pushed together since we thought the other was cute situations. I wouldn’t let him kiss me. I thought I was too ugly and didn’t want him to go through with that. So after the movie this big ground attended, when we all made our way to the top level of the parking garage to clumsily kiss, he’d try, and I’d dodge and dodge. He finally asked what was wrong and I admitted the situation, my unbearable ugliness. Dumbfounded, he pried further until I explained that I had stopped eating and that perhaps at some point in the future I’d be up for it. He was very sweet and tried to help, but I wouldn’t budge, eventually breaking up with him as I pushed away anyone attempting to fix me.

I continued awkwardly through high school. As a freshmen, more than a few upperclassmen boys felt bold enough to inform me that I’d be hot once I filled out. I did not have the know-how or spirit at that time to respond appropriately: as ferociously as possible. Instead I’d giggle an awkward thanks, briefly lament the state of things, then remind myself of how perfect I was going to be one day. I was terrified if I ever recovered that I would not fill out “correctly” and that in this worst case scenario (of recovery) even this mysterious hotness I was promised would be forfeited.

An echo of the terrible boldness of those upperclassmen reverberates each time I am made uncomfortably aware of my sexuality, each time I am made into both less and more than what I am, a person.

Through my college, I took two week summer trip to the Middle East. The fact that I can be seen as meat to be fucked was most prominently made there. Men in the streets harassed my travel group constantly, asking us how much, shouting pretty, sexy, beautiful at us. Two men ever argued over how much they would pay to be with us. One of the guys in my group tried to laugh it off, telling us we’d been offer six months of their salaries. A tour guide who took us through a certain area had to be dismissed for creeping out myself and other women in our group. We all wore baggy pants or shorts that fell to below our knees and t-shirts with sleeves covering our upper arms, if not something more conservative. I envied the native women who walked, protected, by force or by choice, in their obfuscating clouds. With even just our hair covered we might be harassed less. But then our ankles might have been emphasized…..

When we returned to the US I was extraordinarily self-conscious at first when I wore my usual short shorts. I re-acclimated to my native land eventually, but I was enlightened. Every bit of me was vile, dripping with taunting feminine charm. Every bit of me and every female.

No, I am just a person, I am just being. No one has the right to make me feel like any less or any more. But I will always be guarded, just a little. When I am dumb enough to let that guard down, I find myself sitting on the steps outside a party, someone I barely know pushing forcefully on my leg as I try to leave. I do not want to sit and talk. And I have this braveness to leave and yell, but still I have to call a friend, because I am just not sure how it will turn out if I do not. When I am dumb enough to let that guard down, I find myself stuck in a room multiple nights a week trying to pretend I’m not being stared at until I am crying at 2am on the phone, feeling unsafe. When I am dumb enough to let that guard down, I find myself noticing the stares and catcalls as I walk innocently, dressed conservatively down the street with a female friend.

I have had many wonderful, amazing, respectful male friends and boyfriends. But there is this arsenal of memories of being helpless to my sexuality body ready to erupt at a moment’s notice.

Just yesterday, a male friend and I walked through a shopping center passed a restaurant. He informed me a bunch of men had given me some really intense stares, looking me up and down to see what carnal pleasures they might derive from my carcass. As my guard was up, I had not seen it myself. I do not want to see it. I do not want to know, this is the best way to be. Upperclassmen, I would say, when I fill out, you will not hear about it. This is how it works, my humanity is stolen, so I dissolve that of the onlookers as well. Together we can stop existing.

I did not start my eating disorder with a need to be thin, beauty was not in my initial musing of perfection. It just fit so naturally. The dehumanization furthered my drive to rid myself of my flesh. Avoiding puberty was in a way a bonus, but I knew well enough to realize this was can added incentive to approach for some.

When girls and women are universally not forced to be more or less than they are, then the force of body image will recede.Our bodies will not being something to drag around shamefully or with pride due to some outside reaction. Our bodies will be for ourselves and to the world we will be so much more than flesh.

“Leaning from the steep slope,without fear of wind or vertigo” -Calvino

My tastes are changing. I sucked the juice from half of a regular lemon, something I’d normally find repulsive. But the sourness was delicious and there was this faint incredible sweetness (it was definitely a sour lemon, not meyer, etc). I had plain steamed broccoli and again experienced this barely apparent sweetness. I have no desire to eat anything besides that which has been prescribed. I have no food anxiety.

My energy continues to be incredible in that I am focused and motivated. However, all of us on this challenge experience a slump at the gym today. We back squatted and the weight I used for my work sets 5% lower than I had anticipated. The trainer said this was to be expected and should subside next week. I should also admit I was very sick and had to take last week off, so I’m still getting back into it. I am patient.

“I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into others things before I have understood that.” -Plato’s Socrates

I toyed with the idea of invisibility first in elementary school. I had just enough self-awareness to be crushed by embarrassment resulting from my autistic brother. The cruelty of children is infinite. To be able to just disappear at these instants seemed so wonderful. I loved my brother but was too young not to resent him. Crudely trying to explain this to my friends, I was accused of being mean and heartless. I pleaded for sympathy but they did not understand. I could not sort out my emotions, I saw no way, so I daydreamed more and more of silence, of stealth, of freedom.

By the time I was a seasoned anorexic, I had learned many things: to combat hunger pangs, to lie, to hide, to sneak. Most useful of all and also most disturbing, I had learned how to dissociate -to pull apart my mental experience of existence from my physical experience. This technique is an ontological nightmare. Disembodied, I escaped not just my physical pain but was able to halt torrential anxiety. Disembodied, I wondered why I dragged that terrible thing without me in the first place. And then the wonder inevitably creeps into your mind, can you be without a body? And I tried to be. Impossibly, I neglected my self further. 

I was saved in high school from self-isolation by a busy schedule, but this was not the case in early college. I knew no one and it was a time when I knew I had to get better or I’d get much much worse, but I couldn’t resist. Then, the more I dissociated, the less I felt able to interact with the physical world. I was ineffectual and moved around campus floating barely above the ground, sliding around the imposing stone buildings. This dissociation was dangerous but also provided me with a place where I could think of escaping my disease without being distracted by it.

It is strange to remember this time now, as I push myself through workouts, encouraged to ignore sensations of exhaustion, my brain telling me my body can do no more. Turn your mind off. If you are still breathing, then you are fine. And so again I find myself dissociating but this time to prevent my thoughts from interfering with my physicality. (Of course my mind still commands my body what to do, but it is still quite a thing to ignore the exasperating cries of discomfort from deep within.

Dissociation is a strange and powerful skill.  There is little danger in engaging in it now, to  help my body overcome my mind, and my mind to help overcome my body so the two together, so I, may progress.

“You and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough…You and I wear the dangerous loseness of doom and find it becoming.” E.E. Cummings

This was my third full day of eating strict Paleo. Already, I feel different. I do not know if this is a result of my endeavor or merely a side effect of endeavoring anything at all.

The most striking difference is my steadfast energy. I feel alert, as though I have drunk coffee, but also calm. I have a strange sense of enveloping optimism and an unfamiliar hopefulness. I have a clear head during my work and feel motivated during my workouts and open to new challenges (I broke my ankle last spring and learning to box jump again has been uncomfortable, but today I asked for a higher box)! Amazingly, I went through three whole days without any food anxiety!

To contrast this with my usual state…I am normally quite volatile and have often wondered if I have cyclothymia (a condition similar to bipolar disorder but moods swing at subclinical levels), and if not this then just wildly emotional and passionate. I have cried at the cuteness of kleenex commercials, exploded into uncontrollable tears while deadlifting, and become overwhelmingly excited at nothing. The alertness and energy of the past days is different. It is peaceful. Indeed, on occasion I find myself almost becoming very upset but able to release this negative energy and continue on unaffected.

This energy may be the result of not eating sugar. Fruit, starchy vegetables and nuts all fall within the Paleo boundaries, but my trainer has asked us to abstain from these as much as possible, eating only berries and starchy vegetables post work-out, and almond butter before bed if we are hungry then. Thus, most of my meals consist of something with a face, a lot of non-starchy veggies, and olive oil, lard, or coconut oil. This food is delicious when I am hungry and unbearable boring when I am not (this may be the point).

Our trainer also asked us to keep a food journal so he could check that we were eating appropriately. This immediately struck a foul chord as a possible trigger. I will attempt it anyway. Brick by brick, I take down this fortress of fear in which I buried myself alive. I will acclimate to discomfort until I am no longer afraid.

“Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” -Japanese proverb

Changes: Part II

After attempting recovery through a variety of paths, and failing continuously, I forged something that worked. Paramount to this success was the decision to believe that my eating disorder was a symptom of something greater. This belief asked “What else is there, What else am I?” I was able to separate from my anorexia in a way I previously could not. I cannot emphasis adequately the gravity of this subtle mental shift, how crucial it was to my recovery.

There are two words in the Spanish language for the English verb “to be”, ser and estar. The latter is used to describe states of being, physical and emotional, while the former is reserved for that pertinent to identity: personality, age, nationality. That decision to believe my eating disorder was just a symptom separated it from my identity. My association with my disease changed from ser to estar.

With this separation in mind, I sought the help of a non-ED specific psychologist. After two months of therapy, I forced myself through a refeed (not medically supervised), attempting to repair my metabolism and hormones. I stopped restricting so severely and instead began to exercise compulsively. I would eat near maintenance but feel unsafe if I had not completed that day’s two hours of cardio. I know this damaged my body in other ways, but I was no longer starving. When I could not work out I would experience extreme anxiety. I still sought perfection, but separated this more and more from my identity.

Many previous attempts at recovery had failed because I had tried to fix my mind without nourishing my body. How naive, to think the two are disparate. These obsessive workouts were how I made myself feel okay about eating, and I took comfort in the knowledge that, if I was patient, my body would eventually trust me and let me stop thinking about food.

So I developed this terribly unhealthy relationship with the gym. It is always miserable to act out of the of compulsion restlessness, and every second I spent in the gym I knew it was just so I could eat, so I might continue towards perfection. The obsession would continue for years, waning slightly with time. I thought this was all there was.

And then serendipity guided me to a gym with wonderful and caring trainers who introduced me to intelligently designed strength training and conditioning. Our progress is measured with tangible metrics so I actively experience myself becoming stronger and fitter. It is not that I stopped caring what I looked like, I still want to be the best version of me that I can, but that lithe little girl who floats so angelically, I saw how sick she is. I saw that she is weak. I saw that she is not me, who I was, or who I want to become. I dismissed aesthetics for the first time in my life, and now train making every workout a celebration of being alive, a celebration of life.

Doing this while nourishing my body, I do not worry about what I look like. No one is ugly when they act out of love and respect, but this love and respect must be applied to the self as well.