It’s warm today. Sunny. I don’t think the Pacific Northwest does winter; I think it just rains some and then skips straight to spring. Toasty warm rays of light push past the OPEN sign still glowing in the shop window, pool like spilled syrup across my table.
I feel like I should say this: If you didn’t like Part I, you’re really not going to like Part II.
The oats I ate an hour ago continue to feel lodged in the back of my throat. I’m gulping my coffee. Too hot, too fast.
Every once in a while, I succeed in sidetracking my therapist and get her to open up about her own story. Her own recovery. It’s been years for her, but she says she will always associate anorexia with two things: unbearable cold and excruciating pain. I know what she means, now.
At first I only understood the first part, the freezing part. I understood it on two levels. One: the actual, physical reality of being so starved that my body started having to struggle to stay warm. And two, more metaphorically speaking: the way I unconsciously turned to anorexia in an anxious bid to stop time, as the adulthood I didn’t feel ready to face hurtled closer.
I thought I’d gotten a good read on the pain piece the first month of the re-feed. When I would sit down to eat and just cry and cry. Wondering if someone I wouldn’t ever be able to evict had recently taken up residence in my head, hammer in hand.
But oh boy, that was just the beginning. This is just the beginning.
If you’ve ever had a close encounter with hypothermia, then you know that it is not the initial freeze that hurts the most. Our bodies are exceptionally good at doing what needs to be done in order to help us support insupportable pain. You know what we do: we go numb. That is exactly what I did, too.
It is really only when we come back up to room temp that things start to set in. And let me tell you — it is all starting to set in.
1. My inability to land a “real” job right out of college, and what that did to my self-esteem. My outlook on life.
2. The ramifications of my decision to break up with the man I’d planned on marrying. A decision which should have rocked me to the core but instead left me feeling oddly as if the whole thing had never happened, and then months later, weirdly mourning a previous (and long-dead) relationship.
3, 4, 5 and 6: My second decision (taken too lightly) to turn down a pretty dreamy job in France, and a fairy-tale future there, afterwards. Then my uncharacteristically impulsive move to NYC. Then my three months of indentured servitude (surrounded by amazing people, granted), followed by the general trauma of nine more months of feeling overworked, over stimulated, over everything.
7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12: Then there was my grandmother’s death, my mother’s grief, my parents’ divorce. The too-long two months I spent back at home, trying not to get in the middle, before picking up and moving again. This time clear across the country, to try again, start fresh. More or less alone (although: LOVE YOU SO MUCH, MAMA!), and without a job. And then (predictably enough), there was the awful understanding that so much of what I’d been eager to outrun had stayed hot on my heels the whole time.
13, 14, and all the rest: When any optimism I’d had went up in smoke. When I became all too aware that my new start was not, in fact, a new start. When I realized I was starring in the same old story, only this time battling an infinitely more severe case of What Have I Done. There was more culture shock to contend with. Other long periods of unemployment, along with more confidence-crushing stints of underemployment, which I never thought felt much better. But I’d never felt like so much a failure. I’d never thought I would feel so dependent, so seriously doomed. So full of despair, so wracked with guilt, and so utterly unable to see beyond how depressed I felt. I was so lonely and so ashamed. And so sick, suddenly. And so far from any support I’d had.
There was only one thing that stayed constant throughout those three years: how hard I was on myself about food and exercise. Three years — that’s the time it took for me to go from sick but kind of coping, to REALLY sick and REALLY not coping. In the end, it felt like it happened overnight. I was too obsessed with exercise and too rigid about what I ate but otherwise outwardly normal, and then all of sudden I was not normal. Not even close.
I’m four months into recovery now, and it’s like I’m just beginning to really experience all of those things. Everything I tried so hard not to feel while it was actually happening.
I finally realized what’s going on yesterday, when I called my mom crying for the umpteenth time, wondering (again) why I am thinking about him so much now. So many months later.
Oh sweetie, she said. You’re grieving.
And it makes sense. That must be what this is. That must be what’s happening, what I am feeling.
It’s probably no less than I deserve. If I can tell you an awful truth — I honestly didn’t feel much of anything when I broke up with him. It was the strangest thing. It had me questioning the depth of my feelings for him, whether I’d ever really loved him at all. My life just seemed to resume. Without his emails, without our trips. Without his presence, without our plans.
I’ve noticed that it’s whenever I don’t fill my life full that it all filters through. I see truffles on display at the grocery store and I wonder how I ever went without thinking of him. How did I manage to keep from replaying all the times we spent passing a box back and forth in bed, kissing in between bites? Figuring out flavors, setting aside favorites, talking about recipes it’d be fun to try.
It’s ridiculous, really. I’ll be completely alone, sitting on the lat pull down machine at the gym, and I’ll swear I can feel his gaze hot on my back, his hand pressing between my shoulder blades. Patiently waiting for me to squeeze.
I’ll be fighting sleep on the bus ride home from the nutritionist, and the half-awake/half-a-goner feeling will transplant me right back to the south of France, when he’d catch me nodding off in the backseat of his father’s car. Every time we went anywhere as a group, I’d wake up to see his eyes crinkling up at the corners, smiling back at mine in the rearview mirror. To find the two of them laughing up front, making me blush with the kind of good-natured ribbing ordinarily reserved for family dinner.
I think about him now, and it’s as if all of the floodgates have been opened. I remember it all; I remember everything. (Rapid-fire French notwithstanding.) It’s as if we broke up yesterday.
I’m able to distract myself remarkably well during the week. By the time I exercise in the morning, work all day, cook at night, clamber back into bed — the days just go by. But it’s the weekend that I’m finding hard. When I have more freedom to stray from my routine, and there’s more room to think. More time to feel.
Don’t think for a minute that I’m forgetting what a privilege that is. What a sign of progress that is. Yes, I have all these feelings I don’t know what to do with. (The biggest one being too late.) But it’s so nice to be acutely aware of the rest, too — all of the good parts. The coffee tastes richer. The music sounds clearer. The grass honestly looks greener than it did yesterday.
More thoughts, if you’re up for it. Since I can’t seem to stop this train.
He loved me when I was hollow and hungry. Selfish and small. When I had approximately zero sense of self. When I needed him primarily for the peace of mind he gave me. He loved me when I wasn’t at my best and bubbly, when I was wound so tight and stretched so thin. When I didn’t give nearly enough thought to how he was feeling. He loved me when I was terrible to take out — when I would be so disappointed by whatever we’d ordered, after having snacked on celery and soda all day to save up for it. He loved me when I was simply impossible to please. When I wasn’t producing half the hormones I needed to have any kind of a sex drive. He loved me hardest when I pushed him away, in the end.
Do I regret that we don’t have a chance to see what it could be like now? When I actually have the capacity to be compassionate, to be brave, to be big — in all the ways that matter? I know we’re not supposed to have regrets, or at least not admit them publically, but that is one of mine.
This is unchartered territory for me. This business of having to sift through stuff I adamantly do not want to deal with. Without giving in, without reverting back to “coping” the way I did before.
What I do now is cry. Think about restricting, about retreating again, and resist the urge to do it. What I do now is continue to try out different ways of sitting with feeling so sad. I pay attention to what works; I make a note of what doesn’t.
Do you know what works? Writing about it. Even though it’s probably too personal, too private. I’m always toeing the line of too personal. It’s a strength, I think, not a weakness. Every opportunity I take to actually TALK about what hurts is big. Is good. Is another giant baby step forward. It makes me feel better, as I go about the rest of my day. Or understand better, anyway.
“Do you think that anger is a sincere emotion or just the timid motion of a fragile heart trying to beat away its pain?” -Unknown
“You can observe a cloud or a tree or the movement of a river with a fairly quiet mind because they are not very important to you, but to watch yourself is far more difficult because there the demands are so practical, the reactions so quick. So when you are directly in contact with fear or despair, loneliness or jealousy, or any other ugly state of mind, can you look at it so completely that your mind is quiet enough to see it?” -Krishnamurti
“What do you call the monsters who’ve made a living off your bones? By their names, sweetheart.” -Ashe Vernon
“[Eating disorders] are a wonderful tool for helping you reject others before they can reject you.” -Stacy Pershall
“The anorexic operates under the astounding illusion that she can escape the flesh, and, by association, the realm of emotions.” -Marya Hornbacher
“People with eating disorders tend to be very diametrical thinkers — everything is the end of the world, everything rides on this one thing. It really seems to you that the sky will fall if you are not personally holding it up. On the one hand, this is sheer arrogance; on the other hand, this is a very real fear.” -Marya Hornbacher
“Eating disorders are like a gun that’s formed by genetics, loaded by culture and family ideals, and triggered by unbearable distress.” -Aimee Liu
“Take a shower, wash off the day. Drink a glass of water. Make the room dark. Lie down and close your eyes. Notice the silence. Notice your heart. Still beating. Still fighting. You made it, after all. You made it, another day. And you can make it one more. You’re doing just fine.” -Charlotte Eriksson
“Of course it’s exhausting, having to reason all the time in a universe which wasn’t meant to be reasonable.” -Kurt Vonnegut
“The more I wonder, the more I love.” -Alice Walker