The crunches. 200, 300, 400 crunches every morning. On a cold floor in a dark room. I knew that I wouldn’t stand for even one less rep.
I remember the morning dedication to the elliptical, the calorie number goal I would not stop until I reached. The way my quads burned, and the rest of my body went essentially unused. I remember hunching over, exhausted. Promising myself that if I just torched through a bit more of my body, I wouldn’t have to move for the rest of the day. Unless I ate too much, that was. Then I’d have to go through the whole process again in the afternoon.
I remember food phobias, so many food phobias. Fear of beans, fear of quinoa or avocados or sweets or nuts. Fear of oils. Fear of eating too much, and alternately, fear of not eating enough. I remember being afraid to have too much food with me, so packing very lightly and then I remember the gripping, panicked fear of a creeping hunger with nothing to sate it.
I remember, at some point, my body separating itself from the trauma that was occurring and sealing itself off. Shutting down connection with my physical form and pressing forward with whatever plan I had NO. MATTER. WHAT. I remember the day I started checking out completely whenever I stepped into the gym or the kitchen, and I remember how I was happy to be leaving my body at those times because I didn’t feel safe in it anymore.
Then, I remember that I stopped checking out on purpose, and it became a reflex.
It has been years since I participated in the above mentioned eating disorder behaviors, but disassociation lingered. Sometimes I would overeat (as most people do) and panic, hating the feeling in my stomach so much that I would leave my body completely. Sometimes I would reach to write about the specifics of certain moments and I would excavate my brain for information and find a resounding pile of nothing. Sometimes I gave talks to huge rooms of people about positive body image and self-esteem and how to get more of both. After, my partner would ask me how my talk went, and I will reply with a furtive “…okay, I think?”.
I simply couldn’t remember. Every time things got a little too real, I peaced the fuck out of my body as preservation, even when whatever was going on was, objectively, not that big of a deal. I knew this was leftover from the trauma of my ED, that I didn’t need the tool anymore, but I also didn’t know how to stop doing it.
So I searched. I asked friends who were survivors of trauma how the re-associated with themselves, and I experimented. Here are the tactics I used that actually seemed to work:
1. Try one mindful breath. When I asked people how to re-associate with my body after years of actively checking out of it, almost everyone said mindfulness was the key. I know meditation is great for me, but I consistently set myself up for failure with a 20-minutes-a-day-seven-days-a-week goal. Meditation (and mindfulness) are really challenging for me with such a background of trauma and- just like with lifting!- I needed to work up to the heavy stuff.
By giving myself permission to take one mindful breath, multiple times a day, I set myself up for constant success. My one-mindful-breath-a-day challenge added up quickly, and became the fastest way to check back in with my body. One mindful breath acknowledges that I am indeed *here*, standing in the middle of the world, and taking in air. One mindful breath is a perfect set up for building self-satisfaction and self-esteem, too, because I usually remember to do it at least once a day, and often more.
2. Wake yourself up with something you love. You know what brings me back to my body? Listening to queer fronted punk bands. Knitting tiny stitches to make up whole hats and scarves and sweaters. Writing letters. Singing in my own punk bands. Masturbating. Taking a long shower. Getting a massage. Wrapping myself in a blanket like a burrito.
Incidentally, these are all things that I think of as safe, warm, comfortable, or just plain nice. Different sorts of trauma will cause disassociation around different things, and what you do to feel good and get back to yourself will undoubtedly be different than what I do. That’s okay! You do you, I’ll just be over here with my records and my knitting needles and my vibrator.
3. Go outside in the cold. This works particularly well if you’re in a place that is experiencing the dawn of winter.
So, little known fact, my best friend, Koji, is my first love and also a buddhist monk. Him and his partner, Michaela, own Mid-City Zen of New Orleans, and are wonderful incredible people, that are literally chock full of wisdom and good vibez. Once, in the very early moments of my recovery, I was talking to Koji about my depression and how it made recovering from my eating disorder feel almost impossible. I felt a complex and pervasive sadness no matter what the fuck I did, and it was hard to find the point of getting physically healthy when my brain just didn’t feel well. In response, he suggested I try to get cold.
When one is outside, cold, a host of physical things happen. Our fingers and toes go numb. Our eyes tear. Our skin changes color, A simple warm hand on the back of a neck suddenly feels amazing. Essentially, the physical reminder that one is alive snaps us to, brings us out of our feelings and into our bodies.
I use this tactic constantly, even though it has been nearly TEN YEARS since the conversation (Koji, do you even remember suggesting this?). Point is, it works. There is even an extra bonus in the ecstacy of warming up after the cold.
4. Practice. When the mind disassociates it is protecting us from some shit that is almost certainly completely terrible. I am grateful that I don’t remember all the details of my various traumas. What I *do* recall is just plain sad and I honestly don’t like to focus on it too much. BUT! I am aware that I got very, very good at disassociation with practice, and now I will need to practice staying right here in my body to get good at not doing it.
When I find myself disassociating, I practice trying to stay put instead. I say nice things to myself. I thank my body and I thank my mind for serving me as they have and I challenge myself to stay present, just a little bit longer. I practice being present all throughout the day, so that in moments when I feel triggered I am well versed in the art of sitting with it. I give myself props, daily, for all the times when I stay right there with myself.
I go for progress, not perfection. Because I think it is worthwhile to be awake for my life, and I trust that doing the best I can do is bound to be good enough.
Every week I meet with my friend, Holly, on Monday afternoons to record Rise and Resist podcast. Each week we talk about what we’ve been up to, what we are eating, answer some listener questions, and then usually we meander our way to a topic. Nine times out of ten, we talk about fitness, of course, because that’s what we do on R+R. Deadlifts, burpees, gear. You know- just your average thing 30(ish) year old women obsess over, right?
This week we talked about something a little deeper than our squat (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) We talked about how to be ally to a friend with a (confirmed or suspected) eating disorder. When we finally hit stop on the recorder, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a really long time. Raw. A little scared. And like I knew this was a topic that both needed more attention and needed to be out in the world. I also felt unsure that everything I said was right, and like our opinions were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what could be a larger conversation.
Here are a few tips Holly and I came up with for how to be an ally to a struggling friend.
If you notice someone’s body has gotten smaller, try not to shower them with compliments. This is perhaps a given if someone already has a confirmed eating disorder, but I want to talk about before that happens.
When I first started restricting my food, it wasn’t because I was necessarily aware that I was about to have an ED. I was heartbroken and unable to eat or sleep, I was a crying mess, and weight was literally falling off of my body. MANY people (doctors, people I was close to, strangers) told me I looked great, and that seed planted in my head and was really hard to get rid of.
I believe we can be an ally to people with eating disorders everywhere by not thin praising, or bringing up someone’s weight loss as if it were their paramount achievement in life. I know a lot of people work really hard to lose weight, but I stand by the assertion that in general, unsolicited body comments run the gamut between downright tacky to just plain damaging. We can do better!
If you see something, say something. This may seem contrary to my previous suggestion, but I truly believe it isn’t, because asking someone what’s up when you notice a change isn’t the same as blindly praising it. I suggest being gentle with your approach, but also using logic around whom you’re speaking with. (IE make sure the level of friendship that you’re at with the person can hold the weight of such a complicated conversation.)
If someone seems to have increased anxiety around food, social eating, or body image, a “hey, how are you doing lately? I’ve noticed XYZ behavior” may be a good idea. Physical changes can be really sensitive to approach, and I often tend to steer clear of them, but my experience has shown me that usually eating disorders can be identified by far more than how a body looks. When asking someone if they are having an okay relationship with food and body, try to be open, honest, and forgiving. Accept that they might not want to talk to you about this thing, but also that they might be waiting for an opportunity to open up to a trusted confidant. When you ask someone about this subject, don’t have expectations around their response.
If someone does indeed have an eating disorder, its time to decide your boundaries. Supporting someone through an ED is an incredible thing to do, and can also be incredibly draining. It is okay to offer support in some ways, and know that you can’t do so in all ways. In my recovery I had friends that would offer to eat with me, but were not willing to listen to me trash my body. That is a perfectly acceptable, reasonable, and okay boundary. We all have to take care of ourselves and our hearts, and having boundaries is a great way to do just that.
Direct communication works best. No one likes to hear that they’re looking sickly through a long and winding game of telephone. If you have concern about someone’s health and well-being, it really is best to talk with them about it directly instead of talking to someone else. (an exception to this would be talking to someone with a confidentiality agreement, like a therapist!) It can totally be difficult to not discuss someone’s situation with others, especially if there is a drastic change in appearance, but I swear that no matter how good your intentions are, its very painful to hear that someone has something to say about your body or your behavior that they haven’t said to your face.
Be prepared for rough days, and be prepared to be forgiving. Eating disorders are physical, sure, but they are also mental illnesses. They trigger depression, anxiety, and PTSD and, alternately, depression, anxiety, and PTSD can also trigger eating disorders. Often, the last behavior to leave someone with an eating disorder is obsessive thoughts about food, numbers, and calories. Those obsessive thoughts can make it really hard to always have good days.
Even when we look fine, ED thoughts can continue to plague us, which sounds scary, but is mostly just something that those in recovery eventually learn to work with. When your beloved eating-disorder-havin’ friend has an off day, it is your responsibility to treat them with the same tender kindness that you would someone struggling with other mental illnesses. You’re friend will get through this, and if you let them know you have their back, it will be all-the-easier (though, still not easy of course.)
Eating disorders thrive on both guilt and shame, so if possible, do your best not to contribute to that. Confronting someone about having an eating disorder may very well trigger shame, and that’s not anyone’s fault. But I think stressing that you are approaching the scenario with love and support and that guilt is not the aim is important.
Openness, honesty, forgiveness and understanding…if your actions fit into at least a couple of those categories, they are likely to help in some way. Sometimes the way that supporting someone with eating disorder helps them is not immediately apparent, but that’s okay. Recovery takes time, and for all the brilliant, amazing, and incredible people I’ve met who’ve also struggled with food, I can almost guarantee the investment will be worth it.
I’ve had a lot of people in life during my recovery, that have used a lot of tactics to help support me. Just as eating disorders are entirely uncomfortable and complicated, allyship can be too. These suggestions are merely from my experience, and as everyone is different, they might not work for all people.
What did I forget? What would you like to add? What’s the best way you support or have been supported?
I own a mirror, in my room, for the first time in years.
It happened kind of by accident, because I moved into a room with my partner last week that just so happens to be a master bedroom that is gigantic and has a big-ass mirror mounted right on the closet door. I was kind of surprised when I saw it, and honestly a little bit dismayed.
I see myself in work out gear in gym mirrors all the time, but I hadn’t seen myself naked in front of a mirror since 2010, when I moved to California from my mirror-containing apartment in Portland, Oregon. The last time there was a mirror in my room I checked it constantly, pinching fat around my waist and holding my arms over the outer edges of my thighs to imagine what I’d look like if there was no curve there.
Because I will always be a person in recovery, no matter how good I feel, I worried that my new mirror would make me feel weird. I did not have the desire to pick myself apart while staring myself in the eyes, and I had honest concern that the urge might sneak up and overtake me. That sort of thing simply waits in the wings for me, always ready to pounce when I feel weak or overly tired.
The suspicion I felt when I saw my mirror made me remember a journal entry I wrote in my LiveJournal (yes, LiveJournal!), dated April 16th, 2013. I had been doing Crossfit for just a little under a year when I wrote this post, and my body had changed drastically. The entry reads as follows:
“I am having some real body image crap come up lately. As I’ve said, Crossfit was the thing that stopped me from being bulimic, but sometimes I feel really confused about the results of that for my body. I stopped puking and I started lifting really heavy weights, and- shocker- I gained weight. My thighs are basically giant (This is seriously not like, me being body dysmorphic. They definitely got much bigger due to muscle from lifting and eating more). I am well aware that people find my body attractive when I am more curvy, but I really feel self conscious about it, especially as a high school teacher. I feel like when I have more curves I can’t help but be seen sexually, when in reality I don’t always want that to be my M.O. Adding insult to injury, my body image really keeps me from feeling excited about myself at all and I never EVER look in a mirror. I mean face mirror, yes. Full length, no fucking way. I am sure my body is fine, but it is kind of intense to have gained at least 40 lbs. in the past few years. I am just not used to taking up that much space.”
HOW SAD IS THAT?!
Since I moved into this room with the mirror I have thought a lot about my relationship to myself both in physical and emotional ways. My capacity to acknowledge that I am a good, positive person doing good, positive things in the world has grown exponentially since 2013. The fact that I approach my life with a baseline level of self-care and self-compassion has changed how I interact with the world around me. I no longer contend with hating myself on a daily basis. I have learned to navigate my body and it’s sexuality outside of other people’s perceptions, or even numbers for the most part. I do not assume I am flawed and, what do you know, that makes my life way more enjoyable.
I do believe that choosing to avoid the mirror for a spell of time was good for me while I was doing the work to get here. I had grown so accustomed to using a mirror as both a tool of torture and a tool of validation that I needed to step away, do my best to put on clean clothes and brush my teeth and hair, and hope that the way I looked was good enough without constant spot checking. But as I ran past this entry in my old journal, I knew it wasn’t right for me to avoid the mirror anymore. I wasn’t exactly afraid of what the mirror would show me any longer anyway, and there was no use hiding from something that was right across from my new bed day in and day out.
So, I did what I had done all those years ago, in the darkest days of my sickness. I got buck fucking naked, stood in front of the mirror, and took a peak. What stood before me was something kind of amazing.
It was the body of a woman that had changed her relationship with herself through serious years of hard and consistent work.
A body that had been many weights and sizes, and showed signs of such struggles.
It was the body of someone who worked hard. At her business, on her mind, at her ability to be a partner and a friend.
It was the body of a woman that was getting really damn good at olympic lifting.
The body of a woman that looked a lot like the body of some other women I deemed really seriously important. My grandmother. My mother. My sister. This body was not the same as theirs of course, but it was very, very similar.
I have the body of a well-nourished woman.
A body that I respect.
And most of all, I have the body of my friend.
Someone that I love, and someone that I trust.
And so, with that acknowledgment, I high fived the mirror, and put my clothes back on.
Good job, body.
Thanks for baring with the process.