That’s my assignment? Seriously?

I want to love myself. I want to quit caring about my size. I don’t even care about my looks, guys, it literally is just my size. I’ll go to the grocery store with no make-up, wicked bedhead and no bra and not even think twice about it. But if I thought my love handles were noticeable I’d wear a snowsuit in July to cover it up. And I’d think about it all. Day. Long.

In the above photo, my friends and I got together to make these wreaths.They’re cool, right? And these ladies are the very best. The best. I couldn’t really enjoy them, though. Wanna know why? All I could think about was how much weight I’d gained since I started therapy. I pictured myself as a goliath next to them, and it made me uncomfortable. Around people I love. Now I want to be a hermit and not be around anyone. This is a huge problem.

I go to my dietician. She’s mean, but she does it so nicely. Always smiling. I ask the question. How in the hell am I going to get over this chasm? This mammoth division between what I know to be true about human worth, and what I believe about my own? She asks how my meals are going.

Fine. They are going really, really well. I have no more guilt about food. I don’t squirm at dinner time. I don’t hyper-focus on macro-nutrients or calories. I don’t skip meals. I don’t over-eat. I’m comfortable.

 Except I hate myself. And I want to quit therapy and go on a diet. Like, now.

She looks at me long and hard. Probably to assess whether or not I’m lying about the ease with which I ditched the eating disorder behaviors. But I told the truth. I’ve been going to group therapy. I’ve been doing my one-on one sessions. I meet with her weekly. And yet….

“I’m so huge. I’ve gained so much weight.”

“That’s the body dysmorphia talking.”

“My eyes aren’t broken.”

“I know. But your filters are.”

Great. My eyes aren’t broken. My brain is.

She thinks it’s time to address the body image issues. This, people, is the real heart of my eating disorder. The behaviors are not the issue. I don’t starve myself, or make myself throw up, or punish my body with hours of ruthless work-outs. The ideas about myself are doing the real damage. She makes me buy a workbook. That’s right, I had to spend my own money on the next new torture device.

Assignment number one: Assessments. A series of tests designed to tell me whether or not I have a poor body image. Uh. Why else would I buy the book? It wasn’t pretty. They took an hour, and I was a mess for several hours after. Results: I have poor body image.
Assignment number two: Stand in front of a mirror and describe yourself head to toe, out loud, as if you were describing a stranger to a sketch artist. You may not use any subjective or critical language. You must use unbiased and objective language. Describe a stranger to a stranger. 
From head to shoulders was ok. After that, it hurt. That exercise was to be repeated daily for four days, alternating toe to head and head to toe, and eventually wearing nothing but underwear. Not my fave. But, on day two I noticed that describing myself in a non-judgy tone was a relief from the constant barrage of disapproving messages I typically send myself. Huh.
Assignment number 3: Go back to your childhood and revisit significant memories that shaped your body image. Memories of elementary school flood my mind. Really, flood it. And in every one, I felt so inadequate,  and so determined to hide it. I was in a constant state of competition. It was as if I didn’t believe I had value, but that I had to prove it to others. Or earn it. Prove, prove, prove. Earn, earn, earn.  Always on stage. But I couldn’t pinpoint where or why it started.
I talked to my mom about it, and she told me that when I was three people would come up to her and say, “Your kids are so cute. Rachel doesn’t look like them.” They meant that my older siblings were blond and I was brunette, I’m sure. But little me didn’t take it that way. One day I tearfully apologized to my mom for not being cute. I apologized. That means at three, not only did I feel badly about not being cute, I felt a responsibility to my mother to be cute. I owed it to her. 
I still don’t really know what to do with that information, but it’s pretty obvious that we’re trying to undo more damage than I thought. And I don’t know how. I asked my therapist. I told him the story and asked what I’m supposed to do to get a better body image. In case you thought the therapy world had any better answers than the rest of the world for basically any problem you can let go of that right now. He gave me the two worst ones. Practice. And time. 

More assignments.


The power of dismissal

GUYS! I had a breakthrough last month. Break. Through. I’m so excited I can finally share something positive, here.

Last month my brother Dan was in town for this big old two-day family event. THE biggest annual gathering on my father’s side. A family tradition from backwoods Virginia over a hundred years old, I think. Cousins, aunts and uncles, lifelong friends, random friends, and the offspring come to eat, talk, and take turns stirring an 18 gallon copper kettle full of applebutter that has to boil constantly for eight hours over an open open flame. It’s intense. We call it Applebutter Day because our ancestors are creative.

The canning of the applebutter after it’s been boiling all day. The kettle is at the far end, and my sister, Jen, is stirring, just for reference.

The thing is, in order to fill a giant kettle with applebutter, you have to have gallons and gallons of applesauce, which is made the day before on Applesauce Day. That day is a much calmer, more intimate gathering of my parents, my siblings and all of our children, cutting up apples, listening to Guster, and making the sauce.

Two of my brothers, Jimmy and Dan  on Applesauce Day

This year my parents weren’t there. And we ran out of apples. I swear these two facts are unrelated. Anyway, Dan and I had to high-tail it to the farmer’s market before they closed.

Uncle Dan and my son

We got talking about my relapse, and how things were really going. I explained about the constant battle in my mind over my looks and my worth. Then he told me a very powerful story. When we were young, he remembers my mom saying that she was going to start a new diet. In his precious 3 year old mind, he pictured my mom waltzing into church or somewhere, all skinny and different, and him not being able to recognize her.  He was terrified. He said, “I was so worried that she’d look like someone else, not Mom. And that really worried me, because her size was completely irrelevant to who she was to me.”

I saw it. I saw it all through preschool-Dan’s eyes. His mother, my mother, how we adored her. How she was our entire lives. Our foundation, our safety, our stability. Her size was 100% irrelevant. I see my kids, how they adore me. How I am their entire lives. How they need me to be someone to build on, shelter under, and discover things with. My size is 100% irrelevant to them. To all my relationships, actually. Except the one with myself. But, here’s where the magic happened. I latched on to that one word: Irrelevant.

It’s such a powerful word, don’t you think?  Plus it’s fun to say. And if I think something is irrelevant, I immediately dismiss it. I give the word that much power. And if my size really is irrelevant to my children, and to my friends, maybe I could teach myself to think of it that way. For the whole last month, every time I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, or my reflection in a window, and the negative emotions and thoughts rushed in, I said, out loud, “my size is irrelevant.” All day. Every day. For weeks. And when I looked at other women and analyzed their looks, or wondered if I was bigger or smaller, I stopped myself and said, “her size is irrelevant to who she is.”

This is me and my nephew on Applebutter Day. My size is irrelevant him. He loves me because I’m aunt Rach

I can’t do affirmations quite yet. I can’t look at myself in the mirror and say things like, “you’re strong,” or “you’re beautiful.” I just can’t take myself seriously doing that. But this one feels totally authentic. No nonsense. Just taking an immature and dangerous train of thought and turning that thing right around. It’s working. I’m not perfect. I’m not completely happy with myself all the time, but recognizing what is relevant about me and what is not, and labeling it, has been a very successful beginning to stripping off the bindings of this disorder.

I don’t have to wallow in the thoughts. I can dismiss them. They’re irrelevant.

Instinct vs. Intuition – The battle’s in your head

Why does therapy suck?  I mean, an objective professional who sits and listens while you talk about yourself? Where’s the downside to that?And yet, it’s excruciating. You have to face the two sides of yourself that are in conflict.I’m in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. That’s right, I just used dissonance in a sentence. Probably even correctly. Boom.

Anyway, at the Center for Change they have several inpatient and outpatient programs to help with eating disorders. They’ve got therapists, dieticians, groups, classes, and reading materials. Oh, the eternal supply of reading materials. The first day there, I was assigned to read a book called Intuitive Eating.

 It looks exactly like a diet book. Which is the opposite of what I was looking for, right? RIGHT? Well, I read it. I’ll give you the quick version. You go through a re-feeding process. Basically, you have to look at all food as the same. It’s fuel. Period. Sure, some fuel might be better than others, but it’s all fuel. And, in order to let go of any shame and/or guilt you have about eating food, you have to literally see a piece of chocolate cake the same as you see a cucumber. They don’t even address nutrition until the end of the book. Problem number one. In my brain, and most people’s brains, there are forbidden foods. I am to ignore this completely, and lose any moral price tags on any food.

Then, you have to give yourself unconditional permission to eat. You listen to your cues. You eat whatever you want, whenever you want it. You have a hunger/fullness scale 1 being absolutely starving, and 10 being so full you might throw up. You don’t allow yourself to get hungrier than a 3, and you don’t eat past a 7 on the scale. The dietician outlined what an appropriate “meal” looks like and what an appropriate “snack” looks like using fist sizes. You keep a record of your meals and snacks for a full 7 days or longer if necessary. Problem number two. Charts give me guilt and anxiety. Also, whatever I want whenever I want it? I’ll only eat ice cream. Seriously, lady, if allowed, I will only eat ice cream.

They smile and tell me this is my assignment. That it will be difficult makes no difference.

At first it was fascinating. Liberating. I ate ice cream, sure, but I also wanted healthy food. The first day I realized the “unconditional permission to eat” exercise was working was when I woke up craving grape nuts and a banana before a run.  I was terrified of both those foods, but I honored my craving, ate the stuff and ran. My quads, which usually feel fatigued the first mile or two, felt amazing. Seriously, I felt nothing. I had so much energy. Not one step of that run was difficult, not even the hills. I was a believer.

Then I gained weight.

Those morons.

What were they trying to do to me? Make me a happy fat person? I didn’t go in there at an unhealthy weight. I didn’t need weight restoration. I charged back into that office in tears. I begged my dietician to tell me my weight because then I could fix it (yeah, I get that I’m adult and I could have driven to Target right then and bought a scale, but I forgot). She calmly told me that re-feeding is not the same as weight restoration, and that re-feeding was necessary to get my body back on track. I could yell at her, blame her, do anything else I thought necessary, but she wouldn’t tell me my weight unless I could give her a compelling reason why that would be to my benefit. Then she awarded me with a super smug smile. SUPER SMUG.

This is where the real difficulty in facing my creepy demon marched in. I crumpled. I mean. You guys, I came undone. How? How could I do this to myself? Allow myself to gain weight? That’s why I have the effing disorder in the first place. How long would this go on? They told me my body could fluctuate a great deal over the next while, but would find its own set-point. A healthy one for me. Uh, yeah, ok, but what if “my body” chooses a set-point I disagree with?

They gave me more reading material. This time on metabolism. If anyone wants to read it, I’ll give it to them. It helped me. But, it didn’t make the tight pants easier to wear. It didn’t make the giant in the mirror any more attractive.  I slept better, and on the inside was internally more comfortable than I’d been my whole life. I wasn’t ever hungry, and never too full. But, emotionally, mentally, oh man.I died a little inside those few weeks. I had failed. I’d allowed my value to be stripped from me, and like a pitiful creature with no other choice, I allowed others to see it by walking around in public! I watched friends on social media with their super-diets and workout challenges and everyone was so happy to have taken charge of their health and lost weight. And there I was, allowing myself to gain weight all in the name of my health. My mental- freaking- health.

I know inside that I can’t add to or subtract from my value by losing or gaining weight. I know it. But then, I can’t make myself believe it. I embraced my eating disorder because it gave me a set of external controls. A false sense of control, actually. And eating like this new program, using my body’s cues, and good sense for what it needs is actual control. It truly is intuitive. But my instinct is to buck it. I want to go on a diet so bad I can’t stand it. I need to fix it. To mend my value. My very worth is being threatened because I have a false idea of what my worth is based on.

It’s exhausting. I’m not quitting. But it’s exhausting. And that was just the tip of the crap hill.