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.
As I have mentioned, the basis of my recovery from anorexia, bulimia, compulsive exercise, and negative self talk was learning to like myself.
First, I had to learn how to like myself in very logistical ways:
I had to eat.
I had to not exercise for more than an hour a day.
I had to not puke.
I had to not lie to manipulate my schedule in order to meet the needs of my eating disorder.
I had to not cancel plans because food was involved.
Just these five goals took years to accomplish.
There is nothing quick about unlearning a series of behaviors developed to make yourself feel as if you are an okay person. There is no easy way to completely change your mindset about very basic survival skills.
It was the less logistical ways that I began to treat myself well that got me well enough to eat, exercise moderately, not puke, quit lying and keep my plans. Those were as follows:
I started to change what I did to treat myself well depending on the circumstance: This is perhaps the first way I learned to honor myself. I accepted that different activities (self-care things, foods, exercise, etc.) would be appropriate depending on what was going on in a given day. I stopped demanding that I journal by the ocean when I felt bad when I actually wanted to watch documentaries about Tiny Houses and Ocelots. I stopped insisting I run as fast as humanly possible when I actually needed the kind of slow sweat that a hike brings. I taught myself to tune in to my needs in each given moment by practicing doing so again and again and again
I tapped into my dreams: learning to like yourself means acknowledging that sometimes what you think you should want to do with your life is different than what you actually want to do. In my case, I thought I should want to be a teacher because that was a very viable career given my degree, it had a stable income, and it looked respectable on paper. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy my teaching position and I knew I wanted to make money by writing and helping people to treat themselves well. I also knew I wanted to be able to be completely transparent about where I’ve come from, and to cuss whenever I wanted to.
When I quit teaching to start Super Strength Health, it was the best thing I ever did in terms of treating myself as if I were of value. It is likely you will want to do something different than what I did, but no matter what, I think you should start taking steps to live your dream. Go for the mother fucking gold. You’ve got this.
Take walks: lots of walks, slow walks or fast walks, or any kind of walks really. In a previous life I refused to exercise unless it wrecked me. Spin class and CrossFit yes, yoga and walking: waste of time. This ignored the fact that there is a whole big wide cool world out there, and that it is very informative when you open your eyes to pay attention. I walk as much as I can now, with no goal in mind, because I like to see my community and my town. Treating my environment with reverence has helped me to treat myself the same way.
Show up for other people the way you used to show up for your eating disorder (or other annoying, shifty, selfish behavior): Listen. I want to take the judgement out of the word selfish. It took me a long time to acknowledge that my eating disorder behaviors were selfish because I felt sad that I did the things I did, and I felt that I didn’t WANT to be doing the behaviors. How could doing something I hated be selfish? It just didn’t compute.
Now that I am able to see my eating disorder with more of a bird’s eye view, I have the perspective that I was searching for. My eating disorder was selfish, because the behaviors I had were designed to soothe my own anxiety about being a human in this world in a body. Watching my eating disorder go down was extremely painful for the people around me, and was actively hurting my friends and family. Once I started showing up for the people in my life as if they had the same power the eating disorder did, I started to gain self esteem. (Remember, self-esteem comes from esteemable acts, which can often be helping your loved ones out when they’re in a bind.)
Other acts that can help you to like yourself are as follows:
Say innumerable nice things to yourself. With every moment be your own cheerleader. Say “you’re doing great, you’ve got this, I love you” 100 times a day if you have to.
Practice a hobby: Get working on something that is funny and fun and doesn’t have a lot of emotion wrapped up in it. (origami, skipping, cursive, rearranging your room, sewing, bouquet arrangement, etc.)
Buy yourself some fucking flowers, goddamnit. Or plant a garden. or just go sit under a tree. Plants are visually awesome and they truly help.
Stick up for yourself when need be: Don’t let people talk down to you, ask for money when people owe it to you, etc. Taking the emotional charge out of sticking up for yourself is good, too. When someone cuts you off you can speak up about it without being pissed and have a whole different experience of self-advocacy.
Perhaps most importantly:
Write a gratitude list: When I weighed 95 pounds, was almost unable to finish my studies in a subject I loved, and was dead fucking broke I found a thing or two to be happy about. Noting that I was stoked on my apartment and a movie I saw that week kept me alive, and built a momentum that I carry with me, even years later.
Living in gratitude is the #1 way to like yourself, I think.
What are your tools to treat yourself well?
Anorexia is not being able to look in the mirror. It’s cranking up the air conditioning in an already-cold gym and lifting tiny little weights again and again and again with your head looking to the side because the sight of the bones and veins protruding from your arms looks scary and wrong, and even you yourself don’t want to face it.
It is extreme panic paired with extreme banality, life as a choreography of musts that take all of your time and every ounce of your energy. It is day in and day out, wake, weigh yourself, measure your soymilk, drink your coffee, feel hungry, so incredibly hungry that there is no point in eating because you will never not feel hungry when it gets down this deep. It is eat your vegetables, remain hungry, eat your pear, remain hungry, drink your diet soda and remain hungry. It is closing your eyes to try to breathe through the hunger and wondering why you don’t just eat.
It is your mom calling you on the telephone and begging you to be well.
Anorexia is a fight, an extremely stupid fight, a selfish fight. You know this, but you’re brain chemistry is all fucked up and you’re scared of very very basic things.
Anorexia is embarrassing.
Anorexia is a severe fear of actually living a life. A life includes food, rest, running around, fucking hot people, focus, drive, friends. Life is showing up to birthday parties with gifts in your hands and celebrating other people. Eating the cake or not eating the cake and it not mattering either way. Life is quiet time, sinking into hot tubs and letting your mind go blank, enjoying the way it feels to be in your body. Life is waking up and knowing there is both purpose to your day and a chance of mystery.
Anorexia will have none of that.
There is no “enough” for anorexia. There aren’t enough sit-ups, or measurements, or regimens, or restrictions. There certainly isn’t thin enough, because eventually every moment is fraught with the reality that you will either gain some of the weight back or you will die.
Anorexia has you believe that both options are on an equal plane of terrible, and you will not know which one to choose.
I remember my entire recovery as making deals with myself.
I will get to 100 pounds, and then I will stop.
I will get to 110 pounds and then I will stop
I will get to 120 pounds, and then I will stop
When I see that eating makes my weight go up in a way that isn’t about the deals I make with myself, I will stop weighing myself.
It’s just too painful.
I will eat enough, but I will exercise manically.
I will take rest days from exercise, but then I won’t eat much.
I will sometimes eat a little too much, but then I will throw up.
I went like this, in my recovery, for years.
I couldn’t see that to truly recover, I would have to learn to like myself. I was so deeply ashamed of my actions that I couldn’t imagine a world where I had any sort of self-esteem at all. I felt guilty about my behavior, disgusted at myself in the face of my crying friends and family. I started trying to recover for them, to make them happy, to stop the tears.
One day I wrote down every negative though I had about myself or my body for an entire day. I filled six pages in my notebook and asked myself how I could recover while constantly telling myself I was a piece of shit.
One day I promised a close friend I would help her to set up her thesis exhibition. I hadn’t eaten enough in a couple of days and when the time came to show up I was so exhausted I couldn’t move from my bed.
I asked myself how I could recover when I was continually disappointing people that I loved.
I asked myself if the negative things I spent all of my time saying to myself were perhaps sparked by how disappointing it felt to let people I loved down.
Then, I asked myself a question, a question I consider the first real step of my recovery for me, the first question that spawned the recovery that stuck:
What is it that I need to do to like myself enough to be well?