When recovering from disordered eating behavior, we often feel ashamed and alone. In hope of fighting shame for myself and others, I’ve decided to slowly start sharing My Body Story. This is another chapter in that story.
MY FIRST BREAK UP
Ironically enough, the first time I ever went through a breakup I was in the best shape of my life.
I had just started formally training for my first marathon. I’d been running three or four times a week. Lifting two or three times a week. I hit a stride in terms of my food: that perfect balance between healthy eating and “cheat” meals (this whole concept is dumb, but I was in the midst of it then). I think every successful dieter can think of at least one period of their life like this. When they thought “I’ve finally cracked the code. Now I know how to be thin and fit and healthy without feeling like I’m working on it all the time.”
And the fact that I had a friend, turned friend-with-benefits, turned boyfriend during this time somehow seemed to confirm my belief from college: that there is a direct relation between being thin (or fit or whatever) and having a boyfriend.
Suffice it to say when we broke up I was extremely confused. Firstly I was heart-broken. The actual break up was not a clean one: brought on by a drunken fight and ending in a daze of confusion.
But to be honest, one of the things I struggled with was not understanding how a guy could break up with me when my body was looking as good as ever. (I know, this sounds extremely shallow, I’m just being honest about what was going on in my very brainwashed brain here).
After a few more weeks of post-break up success I finally succumbed. I started eating a lot of food again. I’d sneak it in after work before my runs. After running before bed. I slowly covered my almost visible abs with the fat that I’d been proudly melting off the months before.
I was back to my old ways. Back to eating away my sadness and fear and anger and frustration. Back to finding comfort in food, even if it was making me sick to my stomach.
And this brings me to the meat of this chapter: food as a coping mechanism.
This is one of the things that we talked about at the Body Trust retreat a few weeks ago. We humans use a lot of things to cope with hard times. A lot of kids who don’t easily have access to say drugs or alcohol, use food as their coping mechanism. And I’d like to preface all of this by saying something that was repeated that weekend: the fact that our bodies, even as children, find ways to cope with bad things is a miraculous thing. Sure we may come out with years of issues, with non-ideal bodies, but we come out. Our bodies find a way to get us through the storm and to the other side.
WHEN I HIT BOTTOM
So how does this relate to me? No I was not abused as a child, I was never exploited, or sexually mistreated growing up. But there were times in my mostly privileged childhood that were difficult. I specifically always point to the time between the ages of 8 and 11, 1998-2001.
In 1998, at the age of 8 years old, my parents moved my middle sister and me to Phoenix, Arizona for a three year relocation stint through my dad’s employer. My two oldest siblings who were 20 and 22 stayed in Israel.
Later that year my mom’s mom, who had had Alzheimer’s as long as I was alive, deteriorated. My parents alternated traveling to Israel to take care of her. She passed away that winter.
A couple of months later, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Being 8, my parents tried their best to steer me clear of the treatment and the impact it had on her. Luckily, the doctors caught the cancer early and my mom never showed obvious visible signs of her treatment. For example, she never lost all her hair. I was aware of the generalities or what was going on, but I was also protected from the worst of it.
The April after my mom’s diagnosis, my only uncle, my dad’s brother, passed away. I think I was told it was cancer. Or maybe the cause was never explained to me. He had been a quadriplegic for most of his life.
In December of ’99, likely partially as a result of grief over losing a son, my dad’s mom passed away as well.
In the summer of 2000, my parents, my sister, and I moved from Phoenix to Portland, OR. Once again I was made to leave the friends I had and start all over. My sister started college that year, and while she came home pretty regularly, it was my first year alone with my parents. I had a hard time making friends this time around.
That year also marked the beginning of The Second Intifada. My oldest siblings were still in Israel. My brother was still in the army. Whenever I look back on this time, I remember my parents always being stressed. I remember the television always being on and blaring the news. I remember getting a TV in my room so that I could shut all of that out with The Powerpuff Girls and other Cartoon Network shows.
I got my period the day before Halloween that year. I remember calling my best friend in Arizona and telling her, in horror, what had happened. I wasn’t in any way prepared for my period, for the transition into womanhood. My mom tried to comfort me, saying I probably wouldn’t get my period regularly for a few more years. But my body had other plans. In November I got my second period and they haven’t stopped since.
I can tell you for a fact that this three year span of my life is when I started using food as a coping mechanism. I remember eating a lot. I remember getting chubby. I remember starting to sneak candy and food into my room. And trying to hide all evidence of it being there. Although I’m sure there were times I cried and screamed and yelled and shared and felt and emoted, there were more times that I didn’t. There were more times that I buried my feelings and put on a brave face.
The problem is, most of us are never taught how to feel bad. Most of us are never really taught that negative feelings are OK to have. We, as a society, exalt happiness and optimism and positivity and shun anything on the other end of the spectrum. And that inherently leads to shame. People who have negative feelings but have been told all their lives that happiness is within their reach if they just choose to refocus the lens, to change their perspective.
Most of us eventually find that something external, be it food, or drugs, or alcohol, or a sense of control, numbs those feelings just enough that we don’t have to face them at all.
None of this is new. Most of us are aware that we use food (or something else) to cope. We are told that all the time: when you feel sad or upset…don’t use food to cope, exercise instead! Who of us haven’t gotten this piece of advice. How about instead, we try to understand why we feel so bad? We lean into the emotion instead of turning away from it? We let ourselves feel even though we’re scared the feeling might consume us? What would happen? What would we learn about ourselves?
At the beginning of the retreat, one of the leaders read the following poem. I cried and cried and cried. When it was my turn to introduce myself, I did so quickly, so I could go back to my crying. So often we are taught to bypass what makes us uncomfortable, but what would happen if instead we walked right through it? Fearfully, trepidatiously, sure but through it all the same, to an unknown ending that we hope is better than the one we know.
Sangha by Danna Faulds
Teach me what I cannot learn alone.
Let us share what we know,
and what we cannot fathom.
Speak to me of mysteries,
and let us never lie to one another.
May our fierce and tender longing
fuel the fire in our souls.
When we stand side by side,
let us dare to focus our desire on the truth.
May we be reminders, each for the other,
that the path of transformation
passes through the flames.
To take one step is courageous;
to stay on the path day after day,
choosing the unknown,
and facing yet another fear,
that is nothing short of grace.