Beauty and Terror

I am changing. I am changing so quickly I can hardly keep up. It makes me dizzy, sometimes, to think about all the change.

Sometimes I look at a photograph, and I want to crawl inside and stay there. Frozen.

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You don’t feel much, frozen. Frozen is a slippery slope.

I think that throughout this whole detour, the single most important thing anyone ever told me was this: you can’t selectively numb the bad. You can’t direct all the things you don’t want to deal with into one lane, single file, and wave the rest right on through.

Numb the bad — numb the scary — and all the good’s going to go, too.

I don’t remember which day that really penetrated. For a while, very little came through. That is what happens, when you are so very hungry.

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I think what really happened is one day I woke up and realized I could not get warm. Short of sitting on top of the radiator, in the middle of the summer, I could not get warm. And then a flurry of other things happened — time off, time with my mom, a lot of therapy, a lot of yoga, a lot of emails to friends far away, visits to the [damn] nutritionist and help, help, more help — and I started to chip away at all that I’d created, to keep myself safe.

It’s been hell, coming back up to temp. (Hell, along with every other feeling under the sun.)

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But here we are: I am finally warm. You’ll have to forgive all the italics I’m tempted to put everywhere, but warm is still so novel, warm is still so new. I’m warm, and getting warmer all the time!

Sometimes people ask me what happened. What on earth happened, to make me get so sick. And sometimes I think I know, sometimes I think I could explain it perfectly. I could say I was susceptible right out of the gate — because there are genetic temperamental traits that seem to make some people more prone to eating disorders. And I have them ALL: anxiety, perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, risk avoidance, and sensitivity to rejection.

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I could say I was vulnerable in other ways, too: I grew up in a family with food issues, I’m high-achievement oriented, I have low self-esteem, I have an intense fear of not measuring up, I have difficulty expressing my feelings, I have a hard time trusting, I need to feel in control. But it is more than that. In a lot of ways, anorexia was a strategic retreat. It was the best way I knew how. It was the best way I knew how to cope, whenever life didn’t pan out as I’d planned.

Let’s just say things rarely went according to plan. And over time, I started exercising and restricting almost preemptively — almost as if in preparation for whatever bad would happen next. Until I was doing this so often that it just became…normal. Habitual. Do you see what I mean? I wasn’t just resorting to the disordered behaviors when something rocked me. And all of a sudden, when I didn’t do them, I felt rocked. Really rocked.

The day I realized I had lost all control over my eating disorder was horrifying. I felt sure it was the one thing I had under control. I might not have control over whether or not I could succeed — in work and love and life — but I could control what I ate. [Didn’t eat.]

No real red flags went up in college, although oh, how I wish they had. I was able to manage my symptoms “well enough”. But after I graduated, all of the things I’d feared and felt so paralyzed by — they happened. They actually happened.

I wasn’t able to support myself. I hadn’t figured what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a skill. I couldn’t get a job, and then I couldn’t get a job I felt I could continue doing. And then I couldn’t get a job I felt reasonably proud of, and THEN I couldn’t get a job at all. I was alone; I was the only one. I’d failed. And I was falling further and further behind.

(All of which still feels true, FYI. This is why we delete Facebook and try reallyyy hard to stop comparing ourselves to other people. And spend more time outside!)

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What I felt the most acutely was failure. All of the failures, big and small.

These are the things I tried valiantly NOT to feel: fear, anxiety, shame, anger, guilt, and envy. Restricting what I ate became a way to shut down and distance myself from my feelings. It also became a way to punish myself for failing. No dessert. No job. No extras. No fun. No joy.

And it gets even more convoluted than that: anorexia became a way for me to literally take up less space. I felt absolutely horrible for needing to live at home. And then I felt miserable about still needing parental support, after I’d moved out, and it became a way for me to cost a little less.

It was more things, too. I felt this consistent internal pressure to work hard and achieve, and I’d lost my confidence that I’d ever be able to do that at work. (But I could do that, in the gym. I could be good at staying in shape — I could be good at being thin.) I was convinced I would be successful, happy, and desirable…if only I were thin.

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I also didn’t have a safe place I felt I could go, and following my imposed rules so rigidly allowed me to feel safe. Over time, it became easier to trust my eating disorder rules than to trust myself or anyone else. And eventually, when I had to stop working and stay home, my eating disorder allowed me to avoid taking on adult responsibilities. It was a way to stop the clock. I even looked younger.

Now I look older; now I look like a 23-year-old again. I thought gaining weight would be the hardest part of recovery, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think the hardest part might be now.

“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going — no feeling is final.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

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2 thoughts on “Beauty and Terror

  1. Hannah, keep writing and keep going through, I can feel our pain and your growth.
    Also, your photos are beautiful ! Be gentle and kind to yourself as always.

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