the hardest thing I’ve had to write

Posted by on Jan 26, 2017 in Blog | Comments Off on the hardest thing I’ve had to write

the hardest thing I’ve had to write

It’s hard for me to pin-point exactly when my body issues began. It seems I have always lived with a nagging, navel-gazing disdain. I have seen photographic evidence of me living at ease, snapshots of me at three or four years old, happily playing on the beach with my little round Buddha-belly hanging out, smiling and waving at the camera. I believe there was that time, I just can’t recall it. 

I do, however, have early memories of feeling embarrassed or ashamed of my physical form. I can remember skipping with a friend who lived on my street, and the feelings that welled up as she joked that I jiggled as I jumped. I remember, at 6 years old, the ache I felt as I pulled on my leotard for ballet class. And I remember playing outside, my father chuckling, calling out to me that I shouldn’t run or my rubbing thighs might start a fire. At 9, he took me with him to some after-dinner Weight Watchers meetings. I was to accompany him on his evening walks/jogs while my sister got to stay behind and relax at home with Mom. I think they were just worried about me and wanted me to be healthy but I felt targeted and sad.

Growing up, my family get-togethers were rife with body commentary verging on the obsessive. Every birthday, holiday or celebration, we’d all get together—my family, my cousins, and my aunts who were more like older sisters—and they would talk about all the things they weren’t eating because they were on a diet, or complimenting one another if they had successfully lost a few pounds. It was a boost to have them say I looked good, and it hurt to be overlooked. There was this implicit message that a fast track to feeling loved and appreciated was to be thin. Not smart, not even pretty. Just thin. It felt like harmless chatter while I was young and I participated wholeheartedly, but what surfaced with adolescence was a frighteningly dark self-hatred that is hard for me to think about.

I’ve kept all of my diaries, and they are filled with page after page of some of the most cruel self-directed language you could imagine. All teens seem to go through an insecure period, but I’m pretty sure that not all of them sink to this level of despair. My hair was frizzy, I was thick in the thighs and insanely boy crazy. I hated the body I had and wrote about how I couldn’t blame the boys for hating it too. With puberty came more weight gain and even more darkness. In Grade 9, I was sitting at the lab bench in science class when one of the guys came up behind me and whispered in my ear, “lose some weight.” He walked away like it was nothing, but I died a slow and painful death by the heat of the bunsen burner. 

In the summer between grades 10 and 11, I magically lost some weight. I started to get noticed by boys for the first time, and my friends complimented me more with every pound I managed to shed. Having never before received any kind of affirmation, I functioned as if every compliment were a punchline meant to hurt me. Any attention sent my way was met with a sour “fuck off!”, intercepted before it could infiltrate and hurt me. I still wait for the other shoe to drop when someone says something nice about how I look. It’s a terribly uncomfortable experience, and my defences take me straight to humour or self-deprecation, though I’m now trying my best to say thank you and move on. Hearing a stranger’s pop of laughter can still trigger a haunted feeling of humiliation: they must be laughing at me. I’m working on it.

By Grade 12 I was restricting calories and doing pretty well on the social front. I grew my hair long and had a boyfriend and developed a serious fuck-you attitude. I started making music and playing in a band, writing poetry and creating art and generally expressing my frustrations in different ways. I became a vegetarian in part because of my love for animals and my desire to be political and counter-cultural, but I can see now that this choice was also because it allowed me to become even more restrictive about what I could eat. It was much easier to tell my friends that I couldn’t share in the pizza they were eating because it was covered in meat, or that I couldn’t really have anything except for a few fries when we’d go out drinking. It made life easier because it empowered me with NO. I was thin but felt enormous and out of control. Standing, I would pull absently at my shirt, willing it away from my body; seated, I would compulsively rub at my thighs, wishing that my hands were erasers.   

When I moved away to Toronto for university things got more complicated. Back in London, I was used to being out most of the time with my friends, eating bits of food here or there, or pecking like a pigeon at whatever leftovers were in the fridge. But here I was home a lot studying and didn’t have many friends in the city to distract me. One night I’d have a can of chickpeas for dinner, and the next I’d be eating pasta noodles covered in a can of cream of mushroom soup slathered in cheddar cheese. I started to put on weight again, and compounded with the stress of school and the sweeping drama of a new relationship, my emotions were out of control as well.

It was during this first term away that I came home one weekend to see my family. I had been out visiting with friends, and when I got back, there was a sheet of freshly baked cookies sitting on the counter. I thought I’d just help myself to half of one, but it quickly became a few. After I had downed three or four, I stood in the kitchen and panicked. I already hated myself when I was this fat, what the hell was I going to do with the added load of calories on board? My heart raced and I knew I had to do something about it, and that’s when the lightbulb came on. I’ll just throw up and then I’ll be fine. I went upstairs and my sister was watching TV in my parents’ bedroom. I closed the door to the ensuite and tried again and again to throw up. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to make it happen. Eventually, after some coughing and choking, I was successful. When I came out of the bathroom, my sister said, “did you just throw up?” and I told her I was just coughing. I felt ashamed, but also incredibly relieved. The relief part is unfortunately what changed my life.

I returned to Toronto with a new tool. Any time I felt anxious about food, I could just slip away and slide a finger down my throat and all would be well again. It took a while to get the hang of it. My eyes were always bloodshot, the glands behind my ears were enlarged, and my eye bags (which are already a prominent genetic feature bestowed to me) would swell from the shift in fluids. I was never classified as bulimic because I never binged on huge amounts of food before purging. I could eat an apple and it would make me feel terrible. Five minutes later I’d throw it up. Ten minutes later I’d be hungry again and would go eat a sandwich. Then I’d throw it up. Somedays it happened so frequently I lost count. Eventually, about two years into an increasingly frantic cycle, I got scared. I inexplicably put on weight and was puffy all over and I couldn’t focus on my studies. I was anxious all the time, and I could not get a handle on a way to move past it without help. I went to see the campus doctor who told me stories of girls dying in their bathrooms, having heart attacks over toilets. She told me about their rotten teeth, their scarred hands, their skeletal bodies, hospitalized. But I looked too big to be of any real concern. I had no scars and my teeth were fine. I was simply sent to see a nutritionist who explained that my body needed 1400 calories to maintain normal systemic functioning, and that was pretty much the extent of it.

I told a few friends, and my boyfriend knew. Everyone seemed to accept that this might just be the way I was. No one seemed particularly concerned, and again, I think a lot of it came down to my weight. I never appeared to be on death’s door, in fact I can see retrospectively that my heaviest times were the times I was purging the most. My metabolism had plummeted, and my body hung on to every single calorie it could. This only made me more miserable and unable to keep anything down.

In 2002, I moved to Sudbury and I thought that things would get better because (snobby assumption ahead) there was less pressure to look a certain way or be a certain weight as I’d no longer be living downtown in a big city. What I didn’t expect was how little that mattered. The same waves of anxiety would bubble up to the surface after I’d eat, and every time it was like being confronted with the drowning feelings for the first time. The “what do I do” thoughts did eventually quiet, though. At this point I was able to eat, get up, walk to the bathroom and throw up without needing to hide it. I would always visit the bathroom before we would leave the restaurant because my anxiety wouldn’t even allow me the ride home. My husband at the time knew what I was doing, but we just didn’t talk about it anymore. I would always cry. I would have to wipe away tears every single time. Sometimes I would actually say to myself in the mirror, what the fuck are you doing? but when the panic would rise up again, I would buckle and my legs would take me to the toilet faster than even I could intervene.

This is the hardest part for me to admit, and I’m cringing as I write it. Yes. Even while I was pregnant. Even while I was nursing. Even after helping my beautiful son blow out his first birthday candles and sharing in the cake. Even then. This is how I know that what I deal with is bigger than me. It’s not about me not caring about what’s happening, or not wanting to stop, or being too weak to put an end to something as simple as a finger down the throat. (After all, you might think, don’t you just have to stop doing it?) The best way I can describe it is that as anxiety rises, everything becomes frantic and unclear, like static. As my feet carry me to the bathroom, there is no thought. It’s as if there is no “me” in it anymore. It’s behaviour and action amidst a mental chaos that is both deafeningly loud and eerily silent. Only when it’s over do I return. I become fully aware of what’s splattered in the porcelain. I cry again. I lean on the sink and wait for the onslaught of emotion to pass. A while later I’m me again, though maybe less so each time.

I’d love to say that I’m cured, that I never feel this way anymore, that I could never again give in to the behaviours. But that wouldn’t be true. I was never medicated and therapy was fruitful in terms of bringing me to a point of understanding and accepting, but it didn’t help me to make much of a dent in the behaviour. Yoga helped with this, though. When I started practicing Ashtanga, I was able to trade off an intense 90-minute practice for a head over the toilet. Though still dysfunctional, I considered that a remarkable step up. In later years, as I developed a more regular yoga practice I also made healthier food choices, I felt strong and purged less. I’ve had really encouraging break-throughs: extended periods of healthy movement and eating without even a tingle of panic. Even more encouraging, though, are the spells when I do feel anxious after eating, but manage to overcome my tendency to fall back into old patterns. 

I believe that my results with yoga have a lot more to do with reducing the onslaught of anxiety than they do with making me feel better about my body. I don’t think I’ll ever really be happy with my physical form, but I’ve also given that fact less importance. Maybe it’s just my cross to bear. I may never be fully over the complicated thoughts I have about it, but I can at least appreciate it for being healthy, and I know that the other areas of my life feel easier when I treat it well. I keep up with a regular practice so that my anxiety remains within a more functional realm; I have to or it will shape-shift and manifest in some other guise. I’ve had anxiety-triggered IBS, I’ve had panic attacks. I’m agoraphobic. These grooves are carved like canyons into my cells, and they will be my default settings if I’m not careful. Yoga is now a lot less about burning calories and earning food, it’s about survival. I need to move. I need to be strong. My anxiety is a vampire, and it waits for the right time to come in and drain me. My practice is my wooden stake, my holy water.

So why am I talking about this now? My life has shifted dramatically over the last year. I’ve made strides to face both myself and the scary unknown with courage, and I’ve felt something akin to being proud of who I am and what I’m capable of. I’ve been lucky to meet people over the last while who have spoken openly of their broken places without shame and with a strong sense of ownership, and I’ve thought I want more of that in my life. I’m thinking that maybe it’s okay to know that you may never be okay in the way you’d hoped. I’ve also decided that this is going to be the year when I will reach out from a place of experience, to see if some of what I’ve learned might help others to stave off their own vampires. I think about what I really needed, what I was looking for when I reached out for help all those years ago. This is why I’m speaking up and owning it; this is what I have to share. There’s no shame in that.

All content by Lisa Veronese. Please do not publish or copy my material without my consent.