I can’t remember what it’s like to live without constantly and compulsively self-checking and measuring. It’s an aspect of eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder and I rang the bell on both of those.
Non-eating disordered people do it as well, of course. But for them, mostly, it isn’t as frequent or as intensive, the record-keeping isn’t as meticulous, and the emotional consequences of “failing” aren’t as harsh though they’re still unpleasant.
Still, for the most part, “normal” people can shake off the negative self-talk and the disparaging comments about their hair or double chin and move on with their lives. It would be better if they didn’t spend time hating themselves, but it doesn’t halt their forward momentum.
With eating disorders, a shrug when you don’t measure up isn’t an option. You don’t get to go on with your day. The thoughts of failure batter your brain and there are unpleasant consequences, physical and emotional, that come from failing to hit the targets.
Self-checking started for me when I was eleven. Every morning after I woke up and before I got out of bed, I would check my hipbones. I would check to see if they were visible. I’d check the level of protrusion. I’d make sure I could balance a ruler across them without hitting my stomach. I’d put my hands at my side and make sure the flesh didn’t spill out too far to the left and right.
The results were never right. I never measured up. Even meeting the self-established criteria was not enough; I still judged myself as falling short. Still imperfect.
That’s an important thing to know about neuroses and measuring: the goalposts are always shifting. It’s simply not possible to successfully achieve results. If your thoughts tell you that you can, they’re lying.
I used to keep lists. I loved little coil notebooks, they’re perfect for the task. I’m not sure what else they’re good for besides shopping lists, to be honest, for all that they sell them as a three-pack of “college notebooks.” I can’t imagine scrawling the copious notes I took onto a surface that small.
Every day, I entered a new set of data. Every day I judged myself and found myself wanting. Even my penmanship was scrutinized and criticized. How could I be an acceptable human being when my writing looked like chicken-scratch?
I started with my weight, always the wrong number. Nothing like being miserable before you get to the more specific results. The measuring tape came out next. Ankles, calves, thighs, hips, waist, chest, neck, upper arms. I dutifully recorded the numbers to see if they were moving in the right direction. Woe were the days where they didn’t decrease or even worse, got larger.
I’m grateful Excel wasn’t a thing back in the day, otherwise, there’d have been charts and bar graphs and trend reports. I’d have had a dedicated desktop folder for results along with pictures of perfect bodies downloaded to torture myself with.
I tortured myself old school. I ripped out pictures from magazines and trimmed and pasted them into a scrapbook I used to hide in my hope chest. I find the location mildly ironic – a hope chest is a plan for the future, an eating disorder is a plan for the grave.
Next was the mirror survey and I still spend too much time with that. Thigh gap? Visible bones? Evident ribcage? No superfluous flesh? Oh, and since you’re in front of the mirror, don’t forget positive affirmations. Love yourself – you’re totally worth it.
It’s not always easy to believe the things we say.
I also still have markers I use to tell me I’m okay. I can’t remember the last time I went to the bathroom without poking and pinching the flesh on the backs of my thighs. Is it too much? Is it sagging? Are my legs still too fat?
“Too fat for what” is a question eating disorders don’t like to address.
I also compulsively check mirrors throughout the day, making sure nothing has changed since the last time I looked. I lose mental cohesion when I can’t confirm what I look like. In my mind, I become skewed and freakish. In my mind, my thighs assume ridiculously epic proportions. My body becomes altered; the proportions go wrong and in my head, I assume the appearance of a freakshow exhibit.
The solution to not obsessing over these things is simple; most solutions are. That is not to imply that it’s easy. It’s a universal solution that applies to the neurotic and neurotypical equally.
Stop doing things that cause harm. It’s that simple and that impossible; at least “impossible” is how it often seems.
It’s one thing to say, “stop checking out your ribs”. It’s one thing to say, “stop being hypervigilant”. It’s one thing to say, “stop with the negative self-talk”, another rather universal flaw.
It’s another thing to follow through.
There’s something important to remember when you are making changes, however, when you’re following the simple advice and the thing to remember is this: discomfort passes.
It’s a truism but it’s a hard one for people to get their heads around. Discomfort doesn’t kill you. You might think it will, you might hope it does, but it’s temporary. Discomfort passes. And, it doesn’t take the hours or days I assumed it would, that my anxiety told me it would.
It’s also an entirely bearable feeling.
I’ve been doing some philosophical reading and that idea comes up frequently: everything is bearable no matter how horrible or hideous or unpleasant it seems. If it’s truly unbearable, you’ll die, and the issue will cease to be a problem.
Look at me, sitting here typing all not dead for all I thought discomfort would end me.
Enduring it is miserably unpleasant, to be sure. Thoughts and urges are challenging to resist. I still want to pull up my shirt and inspect my ribs every time I enter my room. Eventually, however – and eventually is measured in minutes not hours, days, or weeks – the urge passes.
The first time I tried to live through the discomfort was following a binge. I wanted to throw up the food I had eaten more than anything else. It felt unbearable. The food in my stomach, the food that was making me fat had to come out. It was the only thing I knew, the only thing I could think about. But I had a plan. And the plan said wait. So, I did. I sat, I rocked, I held onto my friend’s hand, and I thought about going insane.
And then it was over. I was still full, still physically miserable, but the panic in my head receded. The thoughts went away. Colour me shocked. I figured the therapists and counsellors were lying. Or, and this is common, that for some reason it would be different for me.
There’s that whole “special snowflake” thing again. It’s hard to embrace the truth of our universality, at times.
I don’t resist the urges every time. I forget. I choose to give in. The negative behaviours are ingrained by virtue of a lifetime of use. But I’m getting better. Two or three times a day versus twenty. Even better, I don’t think about it as much during the in-between times.
Eating disorders are very much all-or-nothing neuroses. We tend to take that mentality with us into recovery. We are perfect at it or we are nothing at all. Failures. The truth is more complicated. Change is gradual, and we all have ups and downs as we try to alter our direction.
Change is not one and done. It is, for all of us, “sick” and “well” alike, a process.
What behaviour, thought, or habit would you like to change?