As I stand in the washroom each morning dressing, I look in the mirror and see a body that is, in my mind, substantially larger than it once was. It isn’t - really. Over the course of this year, I have probably gained 15-20, though I wear it better than I once did. Possibly, because I choose clothing that fits better, or perhaps this is my body changing like my therapist keeps threatening will happen. Either way, it is there, staring back at me each morning. I feel like I am the biggest I have ever been. (Though, if you were to see me, you probably wouldn’t have a clue what I’m talking about. But I know.)
This is an area I haven’t really talked much about, even with my therapist (there have been so many more pressing matters, that this seems insignificant… at least until now). Among my other issues, I have body image problems. Since I started this experiment, they have been improving. I look in the mirror and have good things to say to the person I see. I like who I am and how I present myself. Even when the weight started to build, I was okay. My therapist had said it was normal to gain weight through this process and eventually it will all come off again. I trust her implicitly – when I’m not doubting her. Either way, she has always ended up being right.
The first 5 pounds had little effect. 10 started to be noticeable, but I figured I would round out there. Now at 15 or 20 (these are all approximations, I gave up having a scale years ago for reasons that will be explained shortly), the dialogue has changed. I look at myself each morning and see a fat person. I think “gah, you’re fat.” I’m not. Not even really close, not even what you would call plump. But that is beside the point, I see a fat person and that is what I am telling myself.
Now, I’m fighting desperately to change that conversation, but it is difficult and it is ingrained in much deeper sources than just body image. I still think I have a nice body. I know (on a conscious level) that I’m not overweight. I’m hoping that sharing this struggle will help. Much like with the rest of this blog, it may give me some external accountability. If I can’t convince myself to change my thinking, perhaps making it an expectation from my readers that I need to achieve will.
Twice in my life I have suffered from eating disorders. Never severely enough to be hospitalized (I was always in control of it… yeah right?!). The first time was after my first years of university. You hear about the freshman 15, well for me, it was the freshman 30. A year spent on a diet of pasta and beer had not been kind to my waistline and I couldn’t seem to stop myself from overeating. I devised a solution – bulimia! I wouldn’t throw up all the time, just the times I ate too much – which was often… practically all the time (except breakfast). It seemed genius, I could eat as much as I liked and not have to worry about gaining a pound. I know, I know – stupid, but I was young and I really wanted the weight gone. It worked. You know, for a couple months, and then the weight started coming back again and I had to actually change my behaviour. I knew at the time that it was a bad decision, but it was also so simple – and isn’t that the problem right there?
The second time was when I was when I was 27. I had been unemployed for about 6 months, I was months away from the end of my relationship with The Ex (though I didn’t know it at the time) and I was more depressed than I ever had been before. The previous year, I was teaching overseas and in the best shape I had ever been. I was active, I ate healthy, I treated myself well (and it showed!). I had abs for the first time since I was a teen. It was great. I returned to Canada at the start of the recession, there were no jobs (even part-time doing anything!) and winter was coming. I spent the winter essentially on the couch and, of course, the weight started to climb. This was back when I had a scale in the washroom and weighed myself religiously every morning. Even the increase of a pound would send me into a tailspin. (This habit is how I know how much weight I’ve gained despite not weighing myself – after years of study, I can tell you how each pound sits on my body.) This time I tried anorexia. It did not start intentionally, like the bulimia did. It came out of the depression. Some days I would just forget to eat. Then after a while, I noticed the weight dropping, so I would intentionally not eat some days. Then I would see how many days I could go without eating. It became like a race against the scale. Every pound you lose is like a point and you try to achieve as many as possible. (This is why I no longer own a scale.) I might eat a couple crackers or something when I was really starving, but nothing more. Looking back now, it is exceptionally clear how distant I was from my partner because he didn’t even notice that I hadn’t eaten for days even though we lived together. It wasn’t until we were on vacation with his family and I was throwing up in the washroom (after overeating at dinner) that I drunkenly told him that I hadn’t been eating.
Growing up my mother was obese. Everyone would talk about how thin and beautiful she had been in her youth. It wasn’t until after she had me that she moved away from all her friends, quit her job and became a recluse, then put on all the weight. I had never known my mom when she was thin and blonde and a regular bombshell. That wasn’t the person I knew. My mother was always a large woman uncomfortable in her own skin. When I reached high school, my mother went through a metamorphosis. She lost 200 pounds in 8 months (unhealthy, yes, but she kept it off for a couple years). She started riding a bike – everywhere! She bought nice new clothes, started reading – avidly, and going to various social groups – she even started dating! She had a life. She was meaner than ever, but that was not so terrible. At least she was out and doing things. She looked great as well. Then I moved away to university. Within months, she had gained back all the weight and some to spare. All other activities ceased and she sold her bike. She gave up on being alive.
In my perpetual fear that I will become my mother, I equate weight gain to surrender. I know this is false, but it is true in my mind. Especially these days, I am the furthest I have ever been from giving up, but all the same, I see the weight and it terrifies me. What if I put on so much weight I become unlovable? Which is an irrational idea. Weight has nothing to do with being lovable. Yet, it is difficult for me to separate the two thoughts. I see it as defeat.
My mother had a habit of eating while on the phone. To this day it is one of the most disgusting aggravating sounds I can think of. I get angry at the thought of it. I used to get furious with her, but it did little good. She would try to disguise it or stop for that conversation, but do the exact same thing the next time. I wanted to scream “Can’t you put the food down for 20 minutes while we talk!!! 20 MINUTES!!” It was such a dependency. It made her feel good. I do the same and that scares me. My therapist at one point said that I should reward myself after long days or particularly hard days – to give myself a “treat”. I expressed concern with this idea – my fear of using food as a reward sounding alarm bells in the background. I have always found comfort in food and then I have found myself at the bottom of an eating disorder.
This is where I find myself now. I have been using food as a reward, the weight has appeared and I find myself longing to purge. It has become a conscious effort to ensure I am eating regular meals and at the end of them, I feel nauseous. I eat, but no food looks desirable. I am disgusted by the thought of it. I can feel the food inside me and the growing urge to cleanse myself of its taint. I have to fight against every impulse to run to the washroom and find respite at the bottom of the porcelain altar.
Now that I’m in my 30s, I would like to think that I have outgrown eating disorders, but I am coming to realize that it isn’t so simple. I have always known that my behaviour was unhealthy. Like with all my other issues, it has come time to stare this one in the face. It’s really hard. It means changing my thinking, behaviours and habits. It takes a lot of effort and concentration. And mostly, it means doing battle with yourself.
The tricky thing about going to war with yourself is that the person you are warring against knows all your weaknesses and you are essentially armed with a bunch of untried lofty ideas. Balls!
I keep repeating a mantra which has been helping me through this year, “Every responsible decision counts.” Breaking old habits is HARD. Especially when they are rooted in deeper problems that may not be as accessible to address. It is really easy to get down on yourself each time you slip or backtrack. That’s why this mantra has been so important in my life. I am one of those people who wants everything now (hence eating disorders being a quick fix for weight gain). But, as my therapist has been drilling into my head: it is important to take things slowly (even walking down the street). You miss a lot of the journey when you are rushing. You move so quickly, you miss how you got there and it becomes impossible to find your way back again if you lose your way. So, instead of beating myself up for all the things I didn’t do, I have started celebrating each little things I did actually do. It helps.
You have to be kind to yourself. I’m trying to learn how to be kind to myself about the weight gain. This time I’m taking it slowly (and slightly driving myself crazy by doing so), but I think that it may yield lasting results this time. Instead of imposing strict dietary rules and rigorous workout regimes that dissipate the moment my routine changes (which is at least every 4 weeks – because I do contact work), I am looking for simple changes that can be easily maintained under any schedule.
- Eating slower (especially at all-you-can-eat sushi – it is an option, not a challenge!)
- Putting conditions and limits on certain foods (1 banana consumed means I get a cookie)
- Smaller portions with greater diversity (having a little bit of all my favourite things)
- Charcuterie (this helps incorporate a wider variety of foods into single meal without elaborate preparation)
- Walking (exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise and can be done anywhere at any time – also a great way to unwind)