“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. I lift my eyes and all is born again” -Sylvia Plath

What does it mean to view one’s self accurately? Is there a difference between a self-image that is positive and one that is accurate? Does either imply the other? I must think not.

As we self-reflect we quickly face the limit, the native language of the sensual information from which we cannot deviate. We cannot even conceive of fluency in another. We cannot even imagine what that other might be. The territory of logic is neither exception nor refuge. It is equally problematic. We trust it similarly because we have no choice, and yet it betrays us. From a single contradiction, everything follows. And over and over again we contradict, and then we revise, and nothing is steadfast.

I am no longer dysmorphic, which is to say, I am no longer preoccupied by some part or whole of what I see in the mirror. This is not to suggest that what I see in the mirror corresponds to the way strangers and friends see my body, The point is I am not preoccupied. I know I must base my self-image on the empirical. Many people are attracted to me, therefore I am attractive. It is uncomfortable to exist this way. Perhaps more poignantly: Imagine you do not have hands. You look down and have stumps. Yet you when you try to do things which require hands, you are miraculously successful. You tie your shoes, you grip things, you play the piano, you make your lover come. It is impossible and yet it happens over and over again. But you do not have hands. But it as if you have them so it does not matter. And if you try to explain to someone that you do not have hands, he or she looks at you in sheer disbelief. Clearly you have hands, look at all you can do. And then you look down at the stumps at the end of your forearms. The are unsightly and useless.  If only you had hands. Think of all the things you might do!

From a single contradiction, everything follows.

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“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.

“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.

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer” -Camus

The nascent stages of my anorexia I experienced as almost fun. Not eating got me high.

Once I developed body image issues, I suddenly had goals! My very own goals, not prescribed by some outside agent but something I wanted to do for myself. I did not see that it was self-harm to which I aspired, or rather I did not believe what might come of the games I started to play. Some part of me must have recognized my goals as unacceptable to the outside. Seduced by the high from restricting and this promise of silent rebellion, I began my descent. And down I went until I could not remember a time before. Even when I knew it was horrible, I convinced myself it was for the best, that if I worked hard enough and was just patient enough and good enough, I would be perfect. I was married to this image of a pale little girl so lithe she leaves no footsteps in the snow. Once I got to perfect, everything would be okay.

When things were clearly not okay, I’d just restrict further to get high off of nothingness. Not only did this calm me down, but it brought me ever closer to my goals.

That is part of the sickness. Mental illness doesn’t mean you necessarily always feel ill. Remember the insurgence of pro-ED websites when the internet was a bit younger? Eating disorders were touted as conscious choice, a lifestyle which one ought to be free to practice autonomously. We can stop any time we want.

And so I went chasing impossible goals, believing that if I moved ever closer and one stood far enough away, my convergence on perfection might be glimpsed.

“The only people for me are the mad ones….desirous of everything at the same time…” -Kerouac

My eating disorder was always about control. I developed depression, body image issues, and OCD along the way. These have gradually all but disappeared over the course of my recovery. That drive for control, the need to perform and constantly challenge myself, is still alive. Am I mad to be this way?

I was anorexic (restricting sub-type) for 3 years with a strong intention to stay that way. I then spent 3 more years figuring out how to approach recovery, getting slightly better only to relapse again and again. With a bit of therapy and a lot of universal will to become, I spent the next 2 years recovering, teetering often on horrendous relapse. Eventually these frightful episodes diminished in both frequency and severity. And then they stopped almost entirely. A good portion of the end of what I consider my recovery was learning how to eat again. Learning what hunger felt like, and overcoming extreme phobias I had, for example, to chocolate cake. So here we are now. I spent 8 years entrenched in anorexia and recovery, and have been relatively free for 3 years. The main remnant is anxiety when I eat many of the foods that I considered “unsafe.” But I am at a healthy weight, I do not restrict, I am strong and happy. To me, this is recovery.

I am doing a 28 day paleo (no grains, dairy, legumes, sugars, or alcohol) challenge with my gym. It is a bit tricky for someone with my past to engage with such restrictions. However, if I do not, because I am afraid of relapse, then my eating disorder still rules me. I am also drawn to the acknowledgement of the underlying assumptions of paleo -that there is something wrong with the modern food system and the standard american diet.

Already, I find freedom in these restrictions; the knowledge that I will fuel and nourish myself, and can avoid simply those which induce anxiety. Paleo is perhaps extreme, and after this month I will of course add back in many of the restricted foods. But I must wonder, if I had eaten this way my entire life would I have developed an eating disorder in the first place? Are eating disorders a stress response that emerges not just due to western media, but also because of the standard western diet?