"If only our eyes saw souls instead of bodies, how very different our ideas of beauty would be."
Inside I knew. I knew I had a problem. But I didn’t tell anyone for quite some time. It wasn’t till I found myself hospitalized that I had to admit it out loud to myself. After an overnight stay at the hospital and being questioned by the nurses and doctor, I first told my sister, then I told my best friend. As I told each of them, I knew implications would follow; and as I told them the heaviness in their voices told me the alarm they felt, and it reinforced the concern they had trepidatiously expressed to me for some time. “Oh Barbara, I’m really concerned about you.” said my sister. “Barbara, you need to see someone about this,” said my friend.
I had developed an eating disorder.
As some might naturally wonder, how did this happen? It stemmed from a few factors. But the root physiological reason was control, rooted in ego - as my therapist has come to help me understand.
It was the one thing in my life at the time I felt I had control of. In the trenches of ACL recovery and physical therapy I was constantly being told no. No Barbara, you can’t take off your brace yet. No Barbara, you can’t do cardio yet. Knee health aside, I also lost some control as a teacher amid the countless and ever changing COVID school/classroom regulations that left my hands tied and powerless to do many of the activities I loved doing in my own classroom. Again, it was a “no Barbara, you can’t do that.” I felt like a kid in an oldies film reaching for anything on the kitchen counter and having my hand smacked by some older family member at every turn, and in turn shaking their finger at me in a patronizing manner.
Aside from the constant regulations that affected my classroom, I also battled with a handful of rambunctious 5th graders. A class of 34 of them with no aid, in the middle of COVID rules and mask mandates, coming off the heels of a year and a half of social isolation because of Zoom teaching, and eight problematic students whose behavior was constant and often explosive. Bear in mind, every teacher deals with one or two “problematic kiddos” but I had eight in my class of 34 students. I often felt like I was playing a game of Whack-a-Mole at a carnival; whenever I’d deal with one student’s behavior, another one acted out. A colleague described it as trying to predict an earthquake or an aftershock. It was exhausting; it was maddening; and I often felt deflated and defeated. There was no time to catch up on grading or lesson plans, since all my prep time was monopolized by office visits and parent emails to follow up on whatever shitshow decided to happen that day. I’m not proud to admit I suffered a few emotional and mental breakdowns in the staff bathroom or my colleagues’ empty classrooms away from any sign of students because of the mental and emotional strain that school year posed on me. I would leave work completely empty or anything left other than pass out on my bed at the end of the day. Between my ACL recovery and my classroom situation, I was in survival mode. Hence control was what I was desperately grasping for.
You might ask, why didn’t you do something that you love; you know, self care? Well, I would’ve normally been eager to, but remember all the things I love most - dancing, skating, running, hiking, biking were off limits per doctor's orders for my ACL recovery. And if I can’t have an outlet to beat the pavement (so to speak), I can’t really tap into my creative side either; ie. blogging, drawing, making jewelry. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains it well: if my psychological needs aren’t being met (and attacked even) how could I reach my creative side, or as he puts it, self fulfillment. And so the vicious cycle continued. Again, I was in survival mode.
Here’s where the control came in. While I couldn’t control how long my ACL recovery lasted; and I couldn’t control classroom/COVID regulations; and I couldn’t control any other number of things going on in my personal and family life (whole other blog entry and story for another time), I could control what I ate, how much I ate, and when I ate. It was the one thing I felt I had control of.
It started with intermittent fasting, and it quickly turned to an obsession; this was the one thing amid my chaos I could control. I dropped 30 pounds in less than two months; and continued to drop weight. Most days I would go 17 hours or more not eating, and ultimately dropped about 40 pounds through this illness. I'm not proud to admit I became addicted to how much MORE I could lose. Inevitably comments started coming in from all ends:
“Wow you’ve lost a lot of weight, you look great.”
“Have you lost weight, you’re looking good.”
“Geeze Barb, your whole frame has shrunk.”
Then the other end of the comments came…
“Are you okay? You’ve lost a lot of weight really quickly.”
“Barbara I’m really concerned about you, you look really thin; you need to stop.”
“Barbara, don’t lose anymore weight, okay.”
The latter end of these comments, I have to admit, had me silently in my head, saying: “oh you think I’m thin now, watch me drop more weight; see how you like that.” “Who are you to tell me what to do?” “I will be damned if someone else is going to tell me ‘no Barbara…’ When I look back on my mindset then, it’s fascinating how that sense of ego was so prevalent - but just behind my facade. All the while on the outside I was everything a well mannered woman should me: respectful, gracious, and thankful for their concern. But on the inside I was stubborn, I was strong willed, I was grasping for straws of that control I thought I had. The psychology of the situation still fascinates me.
It wasn’t until chronic muscle and stomach cramps paired with lightheadedness led me to get some blood work done. Frantic calls from Kaiser the next morning told me I had critically low potassium levels, and could go into cardiac arrhythmia. For those unfamiliar, it’s heart failure; ie death. So I found my stubborn, strong willed ass in the hospital - hooked up to IVs to address the deficiency. Loads good that stubborn spirit got me. Pride is a powerful emotion, and in this case it was my demise and near death. Again, up until that point I hadn’t admitted I had a problem to anyone - silence truly is at the heart of eating disorders. With my eating disorder, a lot of it was presenting a front of 'everything is okay' as I was slowly killing myself. Gone were the days when I was just a happy 30 something year old who was running, dancing, hiking or skating, and suddenly I felt this inability to interact with people and to nourish myself. The irony is, the thing I thought I had control of, eventually took control of me.
After being forced to take a hard look at myself I got myself set up with a therapist. And being no stranger to therapy, I honestly welcomed it. It’s been refreshing to talk to someone about my load, and to have someone both validate all that I’ve borne, but also hold a mirror up to me and my ego. It’s been both affirming and humbling to say the least.
Months after my hospital visit and months into therapy, I wish I could say that I’m cured; that my urge for control is healed, but it’s not. It's funny, my best friend asked me after my hospitalization, "okay so you're gonna stop fasting altogether, right?" But that's just wasn't the case. With any illness, is it as simplistic as just shaking an etch-a-sketch like it never happened and stop cold turkey? More often than not the answer is no.
And this likely goes without saying but body dysmorphia definitely played a role in my eating disorder. Any woman I know can understand the impossible beauty standards we’re held to, and constant attacks on any part of our body that’s not conventionally attractive also played into the equation for me. On my own account, after having open conversations with close friends and family, a friend mentioned she would love nothing more than to shove a cheeseburger down my throat because she was concerned with how thin I became. I, on the other hand, saw nothing but thick thighs and internally and immediately started self criticizing my body. Hell, even the models we see in magazines wish they could look like their own images. That’s textbook body dysmorphia for ya.
However, I can say that I’m getting better. I don’t go days in a row fasting, and I certainly don't go as many hours at a time in between meals, and I don’t beat myself for indulging once in a while - especially this time of year. I listen to my body when it’s hungry; and when I’m hungry I eat, and when I know I’m satisfied I stop. One thing that’s helped me realign my mindset is looking at old pictures of myself when I wasn’t as thin, and recognize the beauty I still held. Make no mistake, prior to this eating disorder, I know I wasn't overweight, but I’d describe myself as filled out - curvy if you will. And so, in my journey of recovery, I find myself remembering that there’s nothing quite more attractive than strong confidence, ambition and a friendly smile. And I can look no further than the plenty of examples of women in Hollywood that exude that confidence in a size that’s not rail thin: Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah, Demi Lovato just to name a few. As cliche as it may sound, I find a shared sense of women empowerment in these examples of strong bold women.
I wish I could say that was enough to cure me, but this like I’ve learned is an illness; a mental illness that requires daily practice. There is no magic cure, no making it all go away forever. There are only small steps upward; an easier day, an unexpected laugh, a release of control, my mind that doesn’t distort a mirror; and even a mirror that doesn't matter anymore.
Because at the end of the day the size of my body has nothing to do with my worth as a person. Nothing in the least. Losing weight or maintaining weight is not my life’s work, and counting calories or meals or hours that I’ve fasted is not the call of my soul. I surely am destined for something far greater and profound.
"She was beautiful, but not like those girls in the magazines. She was beautiful for the way she thought, for that sparkle in her eyes when she talked about something she loves. She was beautiful for her ability to make other people smile."