I’d just snapped the above picture and punched the button in the side of my earbuds to silence the music, thinking, “I just want to listen to nature,” when a familiar voice filled the momentary void.
“Jen, is that you? Girl, you’re looking skinny!”
There it was: The sweet yet shattering sound of my sickness. I know it so well.
Turns out the speaker was an old friend from two gym memberships ago. I hadn’t seen her smiling face in years, and she was pausing her run to pay me a compliment.
It’s not her fault I still struggle to accept one.
Let me just be clear from the jump: This post isn’t about blaming others for my own deep-seated issues.
It’s actually about progress in the weakest part of my recovery “game.” It’s also about messages — the ones we send others, and the ones we tell ourselves. It’s about stopping that cycle of skewed interpretations, where we assign meaning to what someone else says based on our fear, insecurity and need for external validation, instead of our own unshakable personal truth.
I guess, then, it’s really about shaking out what’s true.
I’ve taken stabs at this topic in many different ways over the past two years, but like anything else in the journey of life, the truth is more an ever-evolving process than something to pin down.
Fact: Obsessing over my appearance, and more specifically my size, was the very first addictive “symptom” I ever displayed. What ended up as alcoholism — because drinking your face off is a much more sustainable method of abusing your body than starving or binge/purging on the daily — started as anorexia at age 19 and crossed over into bulimia (sans vomit) during my 20s.
I long ago “quit,” or maybe it’s better to say “replaced,” most of the disordered eating behaviors that plagued my messy-as-🤬 early adulthood. Still, even at 43 and with 2+ years of honest-to-goodness recovery under my belt, the “you look skinny” stuff has the potential to be irresistibly intoxicating.
It was a powerful gateway drug for decades of harmful behaviors; it always has the potential to send me spiraling backward.
The first time I heard those pivotal words, they came from an elderly member of my childhood church. You’ve probably heard me tell the story before: I had come home from college at the end of my freshman year, about a month after the official end of my varsity athletic career. I’d been hit in the face with a ball on the softball field and broken my jaw, and because I couldn’t eat solids for 4 weeks, I proceeded to lose weight — against my will, believe you me! — for the first time in my life.
The woman hadn’t seen me since I entered school looking like 👀⬆️ — a robust, Size-10-wearing, three-sport-playing, cheesecake- and egg nog-loving, clearly-clueless-about-nutrition, taught-to-clean-her-plate teenager — the previous fall. That girl never thought twice about her weight or her size because she was too busy hurling and smashing and running around trying to make everyone proud with her brute strength and fierce competitive drive.
The comment came in the midst of what I now know to be a serious identity crisis; I simply wasn’t emotionally strong enough to handle the transition from big (high school) to little (college) fish. Something inside me snapped when I heard:
“You look great! You’ve really slimmed down!”
The words went in my ears, and my confused, grasping-for-control brain garbled them up and spit out: “Skinny=good! …OK, I got skinny by not eating food. …Hmm, well, I might not know who I am or WTF I’m going to do with my life, but I now know people will approve of me if I stay thin by not eating…and if people approve of me, that means I…am…good!”
(If you need comic relief, imagine that said in Groot voice.)
So, this (👀⬆️) is what happened next. The photo on the right is the aftermath of only eating rice cakes and lettuce (give or take a calorie) for the entire summer of 1997; on the left is the result of full pizzas and pitchers of beer — as in, there were many times I had two of both, by myself, all at once — consumed in the spring of 2000, my first few months out of school and on my own in a different state. I arrived back at NU for graduation in June, glad for that flowing robe you get to wear when you walk, because nothing else fit. 😳
The flip side of “Skinny=Good” is “Food=Bad,” and once you draw such an extreme line in the sand, once your relationship with a basic necessity switches from life-affirming to love-hate, it can take an entire lifetime to untangle the web and unstick yourself.
You can’t “break up” with food like you can with booze, so even after many years of working hard to find balance and learning to feed your spiritual hunger without shoving/pouring things down your throat…it’s still complicated. And sometimes, it’s painful.
Unlike with alcoholism, this part of recovery has been a long and lonely road, because I never asked for help and I never really looked like someone with an eating disorder. Even at my skinniest — and heaviest — you’d have to really know me to know something was wrong.
Facts: No one knew that the girl in the righthand picture had stopped getting her period at 130 pounds, or that the lefthand girl was swallowing Ex-Lax like candy to try (in vain) to counteract the sickening thousands of calories she was consuming at dinner every night.
Pretty sure laxative abuse contributed to the gnarly digestive issues that plague me today, so here’s another fact for anyone who needs to hear: It’s not worth it, and furthermore, it does not work!
I should also say that addressing a co-occurring substance abuse problem goes a long, LONG way toward…not so much “fixing” core issues as making them seem a little less unmanageable, and mentally and physically equipping you to manage them.
For me, that has been the ultimate truth.
Because I don’t drink anymore, and after 28 months of letting my body, brain and spirit heal, I can hear those triggering words: “You look skinny!” and pause to recognize my visceral reaction. When my brain starts to translate that message into something it’s not, I can catch myself. I know how to process triggers in a healthy way. I do not have to instantly, instinctively convert them into fuel for the fires of self-destruction.
Facts: Just because “society” equates size to success doesn’t mean that has to be true for me. And I, knowing the tremendous power of words, can personally choose never to remark on another person’s weight.
When I feel triggered now, I think about how far I’ve come and all the good in my life today, and if my appearance is pleasing, it’s truly a reflection of my reality.
Fact: Right now, I feel amazing.
Do I always do all of the above? F^ck no! Like I said, this happiness shit is a lifelong work-in-progress. You never “get to heaven.” You just deal a little bit better with what’s happening on Earth, moment to moment.
I am no expert on eating disorders or addiction, just a laywoman with laundry list of issues who’s finally gained a little bit of self-awareness, maybe even some self-control, and a smidge or two of wisdom on the side. I’m stronger now, that’s for sure.
The next step is to try to use my newfound power for some greater good.
When I was in the park the other day, and I decided to shut off the noise in my head to listen to nature, the universe piped up to test me. Suddenly, there appeared an old friend I hadn’t seen in years, and I had a chance to connect with something besides my own thoughts for a change! Normally, I would be blasting music and plowing down the path, wrapped up in worries with no regard for my surroundings.
There she was, all smiles and compliments and friendliness. She was a ray of sunshine, stopping her workout to shine on a random passerby. When I texted her later, it wasn’t just a meaningless pleasantry.
So, the truth I’m arriving at is this: Spending your life trying to “get skinny” because you think it’s the only way to “be seen,” is really the way to stay stuck and stay sick. When you shift your energy from hungrily, greedily trying to devour positive vibes any way you can, and instead look for ways to give them off, to brighten the view for others, that’s when the true beauty in life is revealed.
Thank you for all the messages, universe. I think I finally see the light.