Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fat Is Not a Feeling

Tuna salad with mayonnaise on white bread, one can of Coke, one bag of potato chips, one chewy granola bar, and one banana: my very first "diet lunch." January of 1995. The spring semester of my freshman year of college. I'd packed on the “Freshman 15” and then some. When I whined that my jeans seemed too tight, no one disagreed. So I made a New Year's resolution: lose weight.

Tuna salad with mayonnaise on white bread, one can of Coke, one bag of potato chips, one chewy granola bar, and one banana. With 20 years of perspective between me and that lunch, I can laugh about it now — the token banana, the doom.

New Years' resolutions can be a sly and dangerous bunch. If not given proper forethought, they'll compel you to sprint toward some vague achievement before you've even laced up your shoes, before you even know which way to run.

For the record, in 1995, I ran hard and I ran blind. I didn’t know how much weight I wanted to lose. I didn’t even know if I truly needed to lose weight. Obviously, my grasp of good nutrition was tenuous bordering on delusional.

I didn’t know where my mad dash would take me, I just knew I needed to get as far away from "fat" as possible. My resolution to “lose weight” was really just shorthand for “I feel fat,” which was really just shorthand for “I have lost control of my life, but at least I'm still the boss of my own body.” It’s amazing how quickly a tuna salad with mayonnaise on white bread can turn into coffee with a side of diuretics when you never look past your own nose.

A year later — after I’d been released from the locked unit of an eating disorder clinic but long before I could face a meal without crying — a therapist would repeatedly remind me that “fat is not a feeling.” I would counter by saying that, “Fat feels like shame. Fat feels like sadness. Fat feels like failure.” To which she would respond, “Then what you feel is shame. You feel sad.” But that was never quite right. Even the word “shame” lacked the proper weight of self-loathing, the particular shade of disgust.




There is a small, strange comfort in kneading a wound, in nursing pain. Like a sore tooth that you prod with your tongue. In the pastoral days before social media, I clipped photos of heroin-chic supermodels from magazines and tucked them into my notebooks so that I could taunt myself during classes. Nowadays, there is a World Wide Web of hurt, always just a click away.

Every January, my Facebook feed is packed with friends’ New Year’s resolutions. Everyone is “gonna lose the baby weight in 2015!” or “drop 10 lbs this year, so help me God.” The vast majority of those folks just want to be a little healthier, to feel a little better about how they look. But who, I wonder, among them, might be sitting down to her version of a tuna salad with mayo on white bread? Who, come summertime, won’t be able to look at the token banana without fear of its devastating effect on her thigh gap? Who is clicking through red carpet photos, dissecting the actresses, lingering on a clavicle or slim hip, prodding her secret hurt with their bones?

If that person is you, this post is going to be a disappointment. Maybe you’re hoping that I’ll tell you what I ate or refused to eat. You might be combing through the essay, wondering when I’ll get to the part where I tell you how much I weighed or how often I exercised. You’d like to know what size I wore and how many pills I took.

No.

I’m not going to be the weapon you use against yourself.

I did not want to write this post. I do not want to be a woman who, 20 years out, still “feels fat,” even as she goes about her bland day — parenting, cleaning, writing, not starving herself, not puking until she bursts the blood vessels in her eyes. I don’t want to admit that the self-flagellation of an eating disorder still tempts me, still sometimes tricks me into thinking of it as a purifying rite rather than a death march.

As an adult, as a feminist, as a mother, I still “feel fat,” and that makes me feel ashamed, sad, like a failure, like a snake eating its own tail and regretting the calories. But self-destruction doesn't care how old you are, how liberated you are, or who you have to tuck in at night.

When I was hospitalized, there were 15 other patients in my unit, give or take 2 being admitted or discharged. If you came here for shocking statistics, here they are:
  • They ranged in age from 12 to their mid-50s
  • 3 were nurses
  • 1 had a PhD in physics
  • 1 was a physical therapist
  • 1 was an artist
  • 5 were gay
  • 1 was a straight man
  • 3 were Black
  • 1 had just moved to the U.S. from Iran
  • 4 could no longer control their bodily functions
  • 2 had heart attacks
  • 1 had permanent brain damage
  • 3 were mothers, of which, 1 died

How's that for thinspiration?

I am not who I was 20 years ago. The hurt still lingers, yes, but I don’t starve it into submission: I walk the dog. I take a nap. I read my son a story. 

So this year, for the 19th year in a row, I resolve to read at least one book per month, to put money in my rainy day fund, and to write — to sit at my computer, slowly putting one word in front of another, carefully plotting a course toward healing. 

Need help? Click here for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

20 comments:

  1. It takes a long time to accept who you are--for better and for worse. I have come to accept that I will never have a flat stomach, that it will always stick out and, yes, that will always be deemed unattractive. But I also have nice eyes, and my skin isn't completely wrinkled yet, and my friends say my laugh is infectious. So, yes, I had a salad today, and yes, I would love to win my office's "Biggest Loser" pool. But I will probably go back to ramen noodles tomorrow and be okay with not winning. All in balance and moderation. Beautiful post, as always!

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    1. All in balance indeed. And, yes, feeling good about the way you look is nice, but I have yet to make myself so thin or so wrinkle-free that I've spontaneously become happy. Writing the blog, having good family and friends -- that's where it's at for me.

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  2. Back with powerful words, ripped wide-open sharing and potentially live-saving message. Damn well done, you beautiful, healing woman.

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    1. I can't say I feel powerful, but I will admit that it took a great effort to hit publish on this one. Thank you, Carisa.

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  3. Great post, as always. I'm still contemplating how to operationalize my 2 possible new years resolution... one has to do with increasing my patience and one is to teach my daughters through example NOT to be superwoman but rather to set boundaries and practice self care... but I'm not your normal resolution setter...

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    1. I LOVE your resolutions. Setting boundaries and learning self-care are, I think, at the root of what makes people happy. Oddly, fitting into skinny jeans rarely seems to change anyone's life.

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  4. Your courage and honesty is humbling and life-giving....

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  5. Wow Jessica, this is a powerful and moving piece.

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    1. Thanks, Teri. A tough one to write, but I'm glad I did.

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    1. Thank you. It's funny how, as bloggers, when we feel really powerless, our words are sometime pretty damn mighty.

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  7. I remember that time, Jess. It was frightening....your family could and did give you all the support in the world...but in the end it was you, and you alone who won that battle. You are a strong, beautiful and courageous woman, and I am so proud of you.

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    1. I'm glad that time is behind me. I'm sure the whole family is. There words: Never going back. :)

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  8. I had to watch this battle in my daughter, today she is a healthy 29 year old. Watching from the side IInes was hell because I couldn't "fix" her as her mom I should've been able to do something. All I could do was be her constant as I still am. Good days and bad days....everybody has them... And I'm still here when/if she needs me. The bad days are getting farther and farther away, so very proud of her.

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    1. For the family, it is hell. You're right, no one can "fix" that kind of problem. Now that I'm a parent, I can finally appreciate what my folks must have felt, the desperation. Good for your daughter for making the long march toward recovery, and good for you for supporting her. It takes real courage.

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  9. Ah, now I see. So strange b/c I see you as a brilliant & funny writer, but we all have our demons I suppose. Glad you found the help and courage you needed and you continue to do what is healthy. Very powerful piece.

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    1. Yeah, this certainly wasn't my typical post. I like to laugh. I like to make people laugh. But I realized that I needed to get this off of my chest before I could get back to the fun stuff. Thanks for the kind words, friend.

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  10. This is beautiful. My only food related resolution is to stop eating until I'm uncomfortably full. My other resolutions are similar to yours: more reading, more writing, more doing what I love.
    Hugs to you!

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    1. Thanks, Lisa. And, honestly, if I had made that kind of resolution (stop eating before my stomach hurts) back in 1995, maybe things would be different. Who knows? But I'm with you now: More doing what I love!

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