**Trigger warning: This post is about eating disorders, the hell they produce, and everything that goes along with them. If you are currently suffering from an eating disorder, or are afraid one might be brewing, please realize that you are not alone, you are worth the light that is found in the vast gorgeous ocean that is recovery, and that it is up to you to seek out the proper team of professionals to help you define what recovery means for you, and then help get you there, if you so choose.**
I won’t get into the details of my childhood; that job is for the pen of the memoir I am currently writing. What I will say is that I live with complex PTSD, which is the result of what I experienced in childhood. I have a good family. I have phenomenal parents, without whom I would certainly, CERTAINLY, be dead. I was raised well and I do not take that for granted. The details from whence my complex PTSD diagnosis stemmed are actually irrelevant to this post. Those who intimately know me know these details by heart, in their hearts, and that is where they will stay until future notice. I will say that I was psychologically, emotionally, and behaviorally tortured and abused for the duration of my childhood and young adulthood. It was bad. It was severe. No one knew it but myself and my abuser. And that is all you need to be aware of at this point.
When I was in 5th grade, someone called me fat. Then another person. Then another person. They were like flies. I’d swat one and another would pop up. That sticky tape shit that you hang from the ceiling never really worked. They were everywhere. Even in winter. I hated them. I wanted to be them with their neon hair scrunchies, their hightop Reeboks, their plastic necklaces, their stupid boyfriends. I also wanted to die. Coupled with the uncontrollable, constant, horrific abuse I was receiving outside of school, I ended up literally wanting (and very diligently trying) to disappear. I started starving myself. It worked. I got thin. Very very very thin. Lanugo, amenorrhea, dizziness, the works. But what I also got was a sense of control amid a life that felt so OUT of it. I really was trying to die. I was eleven. Parents got me help I wasn’t ready for. They really did the best they could as they loved (and still love) me with something even bigger than their whole heart. But telling an anorexic she must eat is equivalent to telling someone to jump out of a plane without a parachute and trying to convince them that they won’t die. It really is like that. IT REALLY IS LIKE THAT. The fear and panic that lives inside the mind of an anorexic or bulimic is so big and vast that it is untouchable by anyone but the sufferer. So it is, quite honestly, indescribable to an outsider. It’s why this disease is so difficult to treat. That fear becomes its own entity until its voice is embroiled within the person’s mind, woven like patchwork into a quilt of rule and ritual that seemingly make the sufferer feel like she has control but, ironically, create more chaos. “If I hit this number, then I’ll be ok. If I only eat that at this time, I’ll be able to.. If I go just one more day without food I’ll be on top of the world.” But those goals come and go and the beast lives, is fed by adherence to rule and ritual, and then it comes up with others to follow. Pretty soon a person is a complete literal prisoner of her own mind. (I will use the female pronoun here even though males are afflicted as well. But I am a female and so it is just simpler to write this from that point of view.) Also, the actual dialogue inside the mind of the sufferer is poised content for a different post. I have other things to say today.
I was driving to work this morning in my huge SUV that we’ve procured as our children (and their stuff) has seemingly multiplied over the years via the magic of exponents. It was wet out. April showers. Of course, I was running a little late and was (naturally) behind a slow truck who was behind a slow construction vehicle. If you know me, I have a deep love for construction workers or any laborers for that matter. I quietly thank them all the time for building and maintaining the world I live in, use, and break on the regular. I think about how my life is made easier by a well-locking door knob, or a sturdy deck, or a paved road (even the ones with potholes), or power lines that connect me to ALL THE THINGS. I often bake them pumpkin bread and homemade lemonade which I drop off to them on my drives while they work. I am thankful for them. But this truck was moving so damn slow and, “doesn’t he know I have a patient??” I started thinking about my jobs, all the various jobs I do, which are many. I am a housekeeper, a chef, a chauffeur, a tutor, a chef, a doctor, a nurse, a sleep consultant, a chef, a secretary, a personal assistant, a voice mail interpreter, a party planner, a chef, a baker, a chef, an acupuncturist, a swim coach, a chef. Did I mention chef? The majority of these jobs I do for free because, hey, I’m a nice gal. (‘Ok, Steph, where are you going with this? How is being a ‘nice gal’ related to having an eating disorder? Surely you must connect the two lest your writing suffer from fractured tangents and insensible guffaws of varying topics.’) Well, reader, I’ll tell you how.
Eating disorders are about control but, more, they are about perfection. There is always the next goal, the what-if, the not-enough, the too-much, etc. We struggle in all sorts of ways and we attach our sense of worth to these achievements, which are never really achievable in the first place. We actually know they aren’t achievable in our right minds. But Ed tells us they are. He tells us we will die if we don’t reach every one of these goals, or that life will FINALLY get better when perfection is mastered (and remastered). That is a small nutshell of a very large complex ever evolving personal disease that slowly destroys every definition of sanity that the mind once thought it knew. I could go on and on, but…again. Back to center.
As women, I have learned, we’ve been conditioned to be nice gals. You’re correct; I didn’t put that in quotes. We are taught to not rock the boat, to not really ask for or demand that which we deserve in appropriate compensation and, at the same time, take on professional careers and wifely motherly roles for which we may or may not have signed up. We are taught to “Lean In.” You’re correct; I put that in quotes. But there is trouble in paradise.
Women get so many messages about their worth from cultures all over the world. I’d like to imagine this fact was less so, or that it was more easily tolerated, during the time before the information age. That time when women only knew and saw each other, the ones that physically surrounded them, the ones who made up their village. Mostly, as here I think I can speak for the gender, a lot of our self worth is tied to our bodies. Body image and perceived self value do go hand in hand, no matter how you slice it. Some women are lucky to evade this mentality and I’d like to pass them the superhero torch right now. Others tie it in to every.thing. We are constantly apologizing. ‘Oh, yeah, I stayed in my sweats for the school drop off today (nervous-I-hope-this-mom-will-still-like-me-and-her-kid-won’t-ostracize-my-kid laugh). I had an afternoon cup of coffee (head in shame-hang position while looking at foot trace lines in the dirt). I’m late to the meeting because my right breast wouldn’t let down fast enough while I was pumping in the bathroom (cowered cross-arm stance in awkward moment of being slightly ashamed that breasts weep with milk). Sorry!!!’ We are conditioned to wonder if we even HAVE a place in the world, let alone if we deserve (yes, if we deserve) to explore and figure out where that place might be. And all of it is riddled with shame. Shame for being a good wife, a bad wife, a good mom, a bad mom, a mom, not a mom, a good professional, a bad professional, a professional, not a professional, for eating a donut, for not eating salad, for complaining, for asserting, for laughing, for crying for dot.dot.dot.
For me, I was told from a young age that I legitimately had no worth, that I shouldn’t be here, that I’m a burden. Day in and day out I was blamed for my mere existence on this planet and shunned from any semblance of self worth I naturally would have begun to develop. I was shot down time after time. And the worst part was that I didn’t know this was abnormal, or that I should tell someone this was happening. I believed it. I owned it. The shame grew a big fat beard. So having control of what I put in or kept out of my mouth very quickly connected itself to my sense of value. Being able to trick everyone into thinking I was a-okay got me high. Really high. It’s like that. I mean, for me it was.
The bulimia took hold of me when I was 13 and kept a tight grip until I was 27 when I got pregnant for the first time. No one knew my secret. I was high all the time. I managed to stop, I guess, because I stopped purging. But I was just as crazy. I was in graduate school at this point, shoulder deep in clinical rotations all over the city of Los Angeles. I was navigating the great divide between motherhood, professionalhood, and personhood and I was blurring all kinds of lines in between. I ended up completely losing myself in my attempt at what I thought at the time was a normal “leaning in.” Sheryl Sandberg told me I should be doing this. She seemed smarter than I was so I figured this was “the next right thing.” I leaned. Far. While pregnant, things stayed pretty normal. I got fat. That was pretty much the long and short of it. I kept working and actually took one of my midterms while I was in early labor. I gave birth the day after Michael Jackson died. I vividly remember thinking, ‘the king of pop is lying in a morgue at UCLA in Santa Monica right now’ while I was pushing my baby out of me at Cedars Sinai in Beverly Hills. Then. I learned what ‘to lean in’ really meant. What it really meant was that I couldn’t do it. At the time I defined “couldn’t do it” as being synonymous with failure. I didn’t realize it ACTUALLY couldn’t be done. I finally had this motherhood job which I so desperately wanted but it was now coupled with this doctor job that I so desperately needed to finish. I didn’t take time off. I didn’t want to. I needed to lean in. Keep going. Don’t stop. Other women were doing it. Surely I’d be worthless if I didn’t follow suit and join the popular culture I had spent my entire lifetime avoiding at all costs.
Long story short, I leaned in, up, around, down, and back out over the next decade. I completely lost myself (again! Even more!) in the process of the leaning and I didn’t build any kind fortress to catch me when I fell. So I fell. Hard. And I hit the pavement of relapse with serious force. I was filled with deep shame that I hadn’t succeeded like “the other women” (none of whom I actually ever met because, ahem, they don’t exist). I was catapulted into the epiphany that women, try as we might, CAN’T have it all without some sacrifice in one area or another. There is no clear definition of women’s liberation. We are just told to “do and demand that which we feel we deserve in order to be equally viewed by humanity.” When you have no clear definition of the job description, you are expected to do it ALL. When you have no clear definition of your compensation you are expected to be a (you guessed it) nice gal (again, no quotes. Ever.) and not ask. We are constantly pulled in both directions when we choose to lean in. Motherhood and professionalhood really have nothing to do with it. Womanhood does. And what does all this boil itself down to as a result? Our sense of self worth.
I have had to do a lot of learning and growing this year. Most of it was very uncomfortable and it literally left me bedridden on some days. I learned very quickly how to effectively lean out, without attaching shame to that, and with actually feeling pride around it. I’ve begun to finally trust that I am allowed to be proud of myself. Read that again. I allow myself to be enough, to have enough, to have done enough. I’m just as fervently involved in the women’s lib movement as the next nice gal. But parts of it are slowly killing us. And we are conditioned to not talk about it because we are told we must “lean in,” that talking about it makes us weak, and that relating to each other is a threat to our strength and individuality as women. But I will tell you that never have I felt stronger than when I’m surrounded by other women, leaning in and out, suffering and laughing, talking about it all around tea, wine, beer, pipes, TOGETHER. I mean, the word together actually says “to get her.” Come on.
I could end here by proclaiming “we need this and we need that! We need, we need, we need.” But that is angry pop culture and my computer keys don’t type that way. What I will conclude is this: Go deep. Deep inside to your inner knowing. We all have it. Trust it. Sometimes what you think might be your inner knowing is the table of fear tempting you to dine with it. Throw that away and bravely go back in. Find her. Find that self. Look at her. I mean REALLY LOOK. When I looked, I had majestic wings with big tan feathers in cape form. Like fucking Maleficent. I now see her with my eyes open or closed and I speak to her in glance form whenever I need clarity. She doesn’t use words. Doesn’t need to. Find that woman. Be with her regularly. Write her letters. Pick her flowers. Take her to dinner. Make her cozy. Because with her you have the power of choice, conviction, and acceptance at your fingertips. You will be guided down whatever path you choose as long as you keep looking for the path while looking at her. This isn’t about leaning in. It’s about leaning OUT, about giving yourself permission to do so, and about actually making that a goal so that you can come back to center as whole as you never thought you’d be able to be. And then you can go out with your whole self into the whole world and do whole things. I’m certainly enjoying my ever evolving wholeness. I look forward to enjoying yours.