The recipe was complex. It wasn’t the product of any single ingredient; chaotic poverty, violent neighborhoods, a biological rejection of breast milk, my father’s drinking, a decade of sexual abuse, ballet, track, modeling, cheerleading, gymnastics, being the smart, good, catholic girl who could babysit, clean, cook, say helpful things, the girl who got beat up, the girl who protected her baby brother and sister, and a mother who was as tough and relentless as a Nor’easter. I cultivated my eating disorder with the same merciless determination I gave to everything else. You couldn’t be tender and survive inside my family so anorexia became part of my armor. My mother had taken to calling me ‘masculine and stringy’, that worked. I got to be cold, turned off, sexless, genderless, feelingless, numb and completely useless. I even got to be cruel and selfish. It was this, more than the fear of actually dying which forced me to drag myself out the first time.
Anorexia is an addiction. Initially I was just trying to find a way to cope. I thought it was my secret. Convinced my massive pants and sweatshirts were doing a fine job of keeping this secret. Then I gave myself a staph infection from using a dirty pair of scissors on old cuts. Then I fell down the stairs from the attic bedroom, twice. Then arrhythmia was waking me up at night, landing me in the ER hooked up to tubes and machines. I knew we couldn’t afford what I was doing to myself but I couldn’t stop. This little thing I’d played with which had once helped me stay calm and feel strong, was now in control. I was lying, sleeping, hungry, exhausted, terrified and powerless.
I was punishing my body for things that weren’t its fault. I didn’t want to be real person in front of anyone. Starvation is a full time occupation. The farther away I needed to retreat the more intricate my rituals would become. There is a veiled awareness of why we’re doing it but the veil is impenetrable. You can’t take this away from me because you don’t get to decide when or how I face what I can’t face.
We don’t accept reality until we’re sure we’re prepared to rectify it. It’s true that much of it really is all in our head. The body is keeping score, but the head is the door.
The markers of assurance were the number of bones I could feel, count and see. They were the visible veins and the line on the tape measure. Only then we don’t realize how much it all truly costs us. As a recovering adult I can tell you it’s roughly 2-5k a year, depending on how many bags of I.V ferritin I need. At some point our lives call us and we decide to go live them. When it’s bad I think of sending the bill to my uncle. Here are my broken organs, fuct head and the price tag for your perversions. But mostly it’s all too good. I live with those memories and the remaining ebb and flow, a tide pool really, of my illness. I beachcomb the shores looking for everything beautiful that remains. Like a coast after a massive storm, I look different too. I don’t want to go back to any of those ways. I’m this now. Sometimes it still doesn’t feel like enough.
Other bills come in the form of comments from family; “Go eat until you grow your breasts back please…the bones are showing through your face…don’t want you to be a big fat girl…you should look like a grown woman…I’m begging you to see what I see…love you.” I relapsed 7 years ago and decided to put a new cap on my weight. Some people disagree with my decision. Anyway, there’s enough calories stored in my trunk to keep me alive at least through the new year. It’s not like other addictions. You can live without touching heroin or alcohol ever again. I’ve got to face the fridge 3-6 times a day and live in my body full time. Self-starvation is a silent eff-you. It was the only way I knew how to tell people I was angry at them for failing to protect me or what I perceived as failing to love me; a combination of blaming myself for being revolting, disgusting, sloppy, unlovable and a volatile aversion to and fear of ignorance. I see it and they don’t which makes me responsible because if I don’t do something there will be danger. That was 100% true when I was little, but then we grow up. Recovery began when I decided and had the efficacy to demonstrate that my life and body now belonged to me. It’s not a lack of love or gratitude that keeps me clutched to whatever degree it is now. The line is simply blurred. You say you’re doing your absolute best and everyone has a different image of you they reflect back. You have to know and see your own truth. Their point of view is connected to ego-ties as if addiction is a kind of energetic circuit board. If you get better I’m okay.
What does cutting ego-ties in recovery look like? Maturing, growing up, forgiving, letting go of a need to have people see you a certain way and constantly rechecking what is real and what is someone else’s hook. Reclaiming the rights to my body requires practice; every ad, the comment of a friend, a wonky mirror in a dressing room, a conversation that takes a wrong turn, another picture to add to a pile of images I want to burn, the failure of my body to look or feel how I need it to feel or a congested work day which I allowed to suck the last drop of tolerance from me. A process that starts in my head which I turn in to choices. If I’m not vigilant some days get the better of me. You have to trust yourself enough to know who and what to avoid and when, to be honest about what’s bothering you and brave enough to deal with it. (#bebrave) A while ago I decided the truth loves me better, even if the truth is scary, terrible or isolating. I also discovered that everything I wanted was on the other side of all those fears.
I do still fantasize about working at a bookstore or coffee shop. Part of me would really love a lobotomy and a trust fund. I sense there are still pieces of me that push people away. Some of it’s intentional and likely a byproduct of my profession. Do you want to know a secret? I’m not a saint. Sometimes I get tired of listening to people. I get tired of caring, of the work it takes to dive into the depths of my heart and fish out compassion. I get mad, frustrated, inappropriate, insensitive, sarcastic, hopeless, fussy, impatient, critical and sad. It doesn’t last long because I actually believe in that saying ‘be the change’. Allowing myself to be a real, human person who makes mistakes, says and does the wrong thing, is transparent and yet continues to pull myself back up and make the better choice helps me prove there’s reason to have hope. It doesn’t have to perfect, it just has to be honest; a constant process of knowing when to keep pushing and when to pass.
People want to see us in the ways that serve them best. Part of my recovery has meant finding and staying connected to serving a purpose greater than myself. More of you and less of me. It’s comforting to know I’m a fleck of dust on the pale blue dot; inconsequential, tiny, impactless. I also like discovering how immeasurably powerful love truly is. It’s the place I go when nowhere or no one else feels safe. It’s always the right answer, more or less.
Where there’s love there’s freedom.
I will give you rest.