Trigger warning: it’s long. Also, it’s possible I’m blunt.
I was eleven once upon a time, though it’s far enough in the past to refer to as a lifetime ago. Eleven was an important year in my scheme of things. Much happened. I realized my fat legs were destroying any hope I had for a good life, for one thing. [i] Of lesser import was the sexual molestation by my gym teacher, the second or third such incident, depending on how one interprets things that happened when I was two.
But I digress. Mostly because of my hippocampally-impaired brain, but there’s a dash of depression as well. It now sounds like something one might find on The Food Network. I’ve been aware of my incipient depression, but I’d hoped the tide would turn. It’s decided to surge instead.
It’s sad that makes me aware of the severity of the flare. Sadness is one of the last benchmarks I hit. I used to be bothered by the way my depression presents: I can’t believe you do depression wrong, too. I find that as I move further and farther (because who the hell can remember which one it is) along recovery road, I judge myself less. I’m starting to relate to my body in a non-pathological way and the decrease in self-loathing and judgement extends to more than just the aforementioned thighs.
Perhaps I still obsess a smidge there. On the flip side, I no longer worry I’m doing my mental illness wrong. It’s a nice change.
When I was eleven and realizing that my body was a defective monstrosity preventing me from happiness and success in life, it was the eating disorder’s early days. The more aggressive thoughts were there, but just gaining a foothold. The eating disorder that would become my attempt to cope with distressing realities and a near-paralyzing anxiety disorder was in its infancy. I still had space for other interests in a non-pathological way.
Once upon a time, I loved to exercise. I liked to move it, move it. I liked feeling strong and flexible. I liked the sense of accomplishment that came from completing a run or perfecting a move. My family was very supportive of my effort and interests in an overt way. They often praised the achievements I worked hard for. Wait – no they didn’t. That wasn’t how things worked for me.
But I digress. Again.
Once upon a time, I loved fashion and beauty. Puberty was heading my way and I got interested in clothes, makeup, fashion, and style. I was all about the books and the magazines. My mother wasn’t that woman, so there wasn’t going to be direct learning in a mother-daughter movie montage kind of way. Being interested in it felt a little wrong and her reactions at times I now recognize as being problematic.
It’s hard, isn’t it, to love people who are human rather than perfect? But I digress. Again again. Perhaps I should stop keeping track?
Seventeen was my magazine of choice. I read Teen for a few years as well but the former had better content. It had a new recipe to try every month, for example. I don’t remember them all, though the stuffed Cornish game hens with orange sauce stand out. There were advice columns, articles about puberty and being female, and lots about beauty and fashion. The stories about confidence, self-esteem, and mental health might’ve helped if I hadn’t already sold my soul to bulimia nervosa, though the disease appreciated pictures of very thin models.
Because my eating disorder was in its infancy, I had free time. I played with the makeup in ways the magazine suggested. I tried styling my clothes. But time marches on and for every two steps I took forward, the disorder would drag me one back. It eats you up from the inside and I’m not talking about the loss of flesh.
Why try with the makeup when you’re hideous? Why make an effort with clothes when you’re disgustingly fat? The voice got stronger and more persistent with time, aided by concurrent bullying. Mentioning this feels like a humble-brag, but it’s germane to the development of the eating disorder. School administrators avert their eyes and cause significant harm.
And suddenly, here we are, nearly forty-two years later, with me two years plus sober from the eating disorder that was a big part of so much bad including multiple suicide attempts. This is less humble brag and more words offered in wisdom and warning.
Two-years-sober was a milestone that took a long time to reach. It’s been six years since my last inpatient treatment stay. And by “sober,” I mean I’m sober from most of the actions. Thoughts are harder to consign to oblivious, though they’re weakening. As my time in abstinence increases, other things change besides the amount of time spent vomiting. My relationship with eating and my body is an evolution. [ii]
How I am with other people is also changing, but that digression requires an essay of its own.
The eating disorder is a thief. It stole time, money, and big chunks of my life. It stole my nascent love of fashion, beauty, and self-care. It didn’t make me let it go. It took it and corrupted it. Self-care became the carrot, something I’d deserve when I became like the images in the magazines and books. What I’d started to love became a stick to beat me with each time I failed in comparison.
When you have an eating disorder, you aren’t allowed to have nice things.
But I’ve been abstinent, and so my brain and soul are coming back online. When you’re deep in your neuroses, you operate in safe mode: you have limited options available. [iii] I’ve also changed my medication schedule. I used to take my antidepressants with every meal, I now down the whole handful at breakfast. This means that once the morning meal is done, I have a freedom from food I’ve not experienced since the double-ones. I don’t have to have lunch if I don’t want to. I can have crackers and cheese at two. I can nibble and not panic. Food is becoming a sidenote. You can’t imagine the relief after decades of having it centre stage.
Being able to not think about food is making other changes possible.
Because honesty is a good policy, I must confess that I occasionally look up stories about the Kardashians. Their relationship with their bodies fascinates me. The way they show up and show all, the way they manage their clothing and makeup draws the eye. The idea of being that way compels and repels. But, because I look, I get suggestions from Alphabet for more. Which is how a Vogue Beauty video by Kourtney Kardashian appeared as “what to view next.”
I watched it. I watched her cleanse, tone, serum, and moisturize. I watched the makeup application for a subtle daytime look. Then YouTube’s auto-play feature took over. Next up was Bridgerton’s Charithra Chandran. Then I spraypainted some metal trellises for the garden. But I was back for more videos the next day. After I got ready. I did a good job by my skin that morning. I cleansed, toned, serum-ed, and moisturized. I ordered some eye masks. [v]
Did you know you aren’t supposed to scrub your face like you’re trying to remove all the skin at any stage of the process? Did you know patting your face dry with a soft towel feels nice? Punishing “self-care” is an eating disorder thing. Perfection through mutilation is a contradiction it doesn’t acknowledge.
I didn’t hate the video by Gwyneth Paltrow either. I thought I might, considering my feelings about GOOP, but she seemed like the Sliding Doors Gwyneth of old. I even enjoyed the one by Kaia Gerber, though I’m aware of the irony of receiving instruction from someone who seems to me to be a child.
I’ve started using my pink jade facial roller. Being allowed to buy and use pink things has been nice. It wasn’t an eating disorder-approved colour. Light colours make you look fat.
I’ve started using the sheet masks that were gathering dusks. I’m playing nice with my eyebrows (I flirt with trichotillomania). I’ve been doing self-care almost every day and I think I’m feeling good about it.
It’s hard to let yourself feel joy when life isn’t perfect. Eating disorders are about waiting until things are perfect but that day never comes. I’m facing hard times. Thinner thighs can’t fix that. Neither will self-abasement. It is what it is. Finding moments of joy for yourself does not cause harm.
I’m going to try very hard, on a going-forward basis, to not let the realities of life rob me of moments of joy.
Sometimes, life is hard. Sometimes, you need a bath bomb and a sheet mask.
[i] Fat legs are something my eating disorder focuses on, for various reasons. I’ve never been fat in any real sense of the word.
[ii] Bits and pieces of my brain want to turn this into a failure. I’m almost fifty-three. I gave the eating disorder a lot of my life and those bits and pieces that I assume are ED-related are trying to sell the sunk cost fallacy. I gave so much. Shouldn’t I try harder for perfection? I shut that voice down pretty quickly these days.
[iii] Safe mode is the operating system that starts the computer without most of its drivers and software.
[v] I’m going to have to stop spending money I don’t have. Visa is going to want it back eventually.