Sunday, May 15, 2011

I "Feel" Fat Part 1: Fat is not a Feeling

When I was 17 years old, after about four years of nightmarish bullying, depressing social isolation, and a traumatic family death, I discovered that I could solve all my problems by not eating. Instead of feeling hurt, depressed, angry, or sad...I could just feel blissfully empty. I could pour every unhappy feeling into an obsessive cycle of emptiness, exercise, and hating myself. It was the solution to problems I felt overwhelmed, trapped, and consumed by. And it was also the solution to being told I was fat and disgusting every day for the better part of two years. I was so horrified with myself, so afraid of being called names, that denying myself what I needed to live seemed like a fair trade.

This cycle of self-loathing and starvation continued for the next 13 years. My weight fluctuated up and down depending on whether my sense of self-preservation kicked in enough to force me to eat sometimes. Which I always hated and resented and felt guilty about. A good girl should be able to survive on a yogurt and apple a day. But I was never good enough, and I never "felt" thin. Since I never stopped menstruating and did not get down to an extreme "enough" weight, I guess I would fall into the EDNOS category of eating disorders. That is: Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. This is generally reserved for people who think and act in the same patterns as those with anorexia and bulimia, but don't quite meet all the criteria. Which usually means that you've been able to successfully fool people into thinking you're not ill by not looking obviously sick on the outside. Inside, you're still really fucked up, but you haven't quite hit bottom. Maybe you aren't self-hating enough, maybe someone in your life keeps you in check without knowing it.

Or maybe you're just really, really, really lucky. By some miracle I never lost enough weight to "look" sick, unless you were paying very close attention. Which almost no one was. Mostly because thin = good and no one really cares how you get there so long as you don't mess up and actually look ill. It was especially easy in college when I was commuting to school and was just "saving money" by not eating and walking 40-60 blocks in NYC, then another few miles at night. Which were then followed by a thousand jumping jacks and hundreds of sit ups. I had a set number of distances and exercises I had to do in order to feel like it was okay to eat something. And it increased all the time.

I want to make this clear: exercise is not a bad thing. I like walking and biking and roller skating when I'm able to just view them as "fun". And many people can work out for hours and be completely healthy mentally. I was not. Because I was not doing it because I liked it or wanted to be healthy, I was doing it because I was "morbidly" and obsessively terrified of being fat. If I missed a day of exercise I would be miserable, consider myself a failure, and emotionally wreck myself for my lack of discipline. And then I would starve myself for days to "make up for it". That's not a healthy way of being fit.

This is the distinction that I think people misunderstand when someone is talking about being mentally ill with an eating disorder. Your way of thinking is distorted. It's not normal or balanced and things that other people do just because they like to are often torturous, self-abusing cycles of hate when you have an ED mindset. You don't view food, exercise, or your body's relationship to them in any normal way. You can't.

Also, the "morbid fear of fatness" that is one of the markers of an eating disorder can manifest in a lot of different ways. For me personally, I judge myself by a set an impossible standards I have never expected any one else to ever meet. I do not find fat people disgusting, I find myself and only myself disgusting for having body fat. I can't speak for anyone else with an ED, but I'm only obsessive about and judgmental of my own weight. I honestly don't judge other people's bodies, maybe especially when it comes to thinness and fatness. I cannot imagine subjecting other people to the way I think about myself. That, among many other things, was one of the most important breakthroughs I had when I finally realized I needed real help.

I sought out therapy a few months before I turned 30. It was one in a series of decisions to make real changes in my life. My partner and I moved cross country, which was a huge adjustment. I was freelance for the first time and it was extremely challenging. Moving to the West Coast from the East Coast was a much bigger culture shock than I had expected and I was really depressed for a few months. Sometime during that I realized that I was slipping into more extreme eating and exercising habits again because I was working from home. And because I was stressed, sad, lonely, and didn't really know how to express those feelings anymore except by burying them in restriction and starvation.

For me, feeling empty was the cornerstone of my ED. It was the feeling I sought out, craved, and in some ways became addicted to. Being so hungry I felt sick and then, as if by magic, it would shift and become almost euphoric. This blissful hollowness. It was a consuming emptiness that shut out feeling most anything else. And it meant I was being "good". By that point everything was divided into very stark lines of what it meant to be good or bad...but I rarely ever felt I was "good". In any way. Whether it was creatively, intellectually, or physically...if it involved me, it was ultimately "bad". Wrong. Awful.

I'm not entirely sure what made me realize that I couldn't go on like that anymore. Maybe it was because, for the first time, I was really able to see how stunted my own work had become. I'd fallen into that trap of believing that depression and self-loathing were where my creative impulses came from. I'm pleased to say that while they sometimes are, most of the time they aren't. In fact, I'd say I'm much more creative and productive when I'm not feeling like shit about myself. That was a revelation. But at the time I was having trouble making anything work and I wasn't able to finish projects I started, whether it was a painting or a story. And that scared me because art and writing had always been a place I could go to, to get out of myself. They were the one thing I felt like I could count on and apparently they'd been starved to death.

The first few months of therapy involved a lot of crying, a lot of personal revelations, and a lot of challenging exercises to reshape the way I think about myself.

One of the first things I had to do was write down my emotions throughout the day. I thought this would be easy. I'm an artist, I am very sensitive, I have a lot of feelings! So I wrote down "I feel fat."My therapist kindly but firmly said "Fat is not a feeling. What are you actually feeling when you say that? What does that mean to you? What do you associate with that word?"

I think that question and the subsequent exploration of my actual emotions are, without exaggeration, where my life changed. Once I started articulating the actual feelings I was having, the tangled web of self-loathing judgments, impossible expectations, anger, sadness, and just years of feeling like I had to remind myself that I was a worthless nothing every day...oof. Getting at those was hard and involved a lot of dissolving into tears that wouldn't stop, and days that felt like things were getting worse. Mostly because I had shoved those feelings so far down I'd forgotten what it was to actually experience them. What I had to relearn was that feeling was a good thing, even when it was a "bad" feeling. Because acknowledging it and dealing with it took away its power. Instead of feeling terrible for weeks, if I just let myself be angry and hurt when I was angry and didn't have the same hold over me. And when I "felt fat" I would sit down and ask...what are you really feeling? What's actually going on here?

Being able to ask and now answer that question has allowed me to do things I never thought I would. Creatively, I've been anything but blocked and stagnant. I've become more assertive and much more proactive now that every second isn't dedicated to telling myself I should never want anything, that I will never accomplish anything, that I should just not eat because if I'm not starving and thin I'm a terrible failure.

I want to be clear: I still have really bad days. The sort where all I want to do is sleep and hate everything I'm doing and myself in the process. But I've come to understand those days better, and the reason they don't become weeks (or frankly, years) is because I don't judge myself for having them like I used to. Feeling like shit and then judging yourself for having that feeling is a cycle of self-loathing that will consume your life. It'll eat everything you are and strangle anything you want to be.

I have learned and am still learning how to be kinder to myself. It's not easy. Sometimes it feels indulgent, like I'm some hippie Special Snowflake type, obsessed with telling myself I'm good enough and smart enough. But more of the time I'm able to talk to myself the way I would a friend who was struggling with something. Because I'd never tell a friend they were a worthless failure for gaining weight or feeling discouraged. And I have to ask myself: why is it okay to tell myself those things? What will happen if I, I don't know, don't do that? If maybe I'm encouraging and remind myself that my expectations are generally impossible for me to meet, so I should perhaps take them down a notch and be a little more realistic? Will the world collapse? Will I become an ego-maniacal nightmare the instant I'm not reminding myself that I'm terrible and awful at everything? So far, no catastrophic personality changes have occurred. The world is going about its business as it always does, without worrying about me at all.

It may sound strange that realizing that nothing is going to blow up if I don't hate myself was a big deal, but it was an important moment for me. The fear of being a terrible person was something I used to justify everything from my ED to shutting myself off from most people. Not feeling like that all the time has, for obvious reasons, made life a lot more fun. And it's been a relief to re-discover myself. I'm as capable of being ridiculous and goofy as I am being serious and sad. I'm becoming more of a whole person, where my flaws are not insurmountable, but just aspects of who I am.

I have no idea if I'll ever feel really "normal" about my body or food. I just know that I don't find starvation and self-loathing to be much of a solution anymore. Which is scary. But in that good way.

Next up: I "Feel" Fat Part 2: When Weight Gain IS Being Healthy, But You Still Hate It


  1. Coming from someone who's just learning how to untangle his own problems, this really resonated with me. I always knew that there was something up with my pattern of getting into bad relationships, but it took me awhile to find the word "codependency" for it.

    I've just this year started to seek therapy for it, and it's been tough untangling these complicated feelings of "I'm not important", and "your problems are more important than mine". Whenever I feel like I'm struggling, there's one piece of advice my therapist gave me that always inspires me; "if you don't feel selfish, you're doing it wrong."

    So hey, I know it's easy to feel like a lame self loving hippie or what have you, but if you don't, if you didn't have to resist your old impulses of self loathing and guilt, then you're just spinning your wheels. So OWN that feeling, because I'm learning how to own being a selfish prick when I need to :)

  2. Thank you for this...I cannot begin to tell you what reading this has done for me. I am always seeking comfort and familiarity with others who have suffered in ways that I am suffering now. I want to find help. Thank you, for reminding me that I am not alone in this.

    1. You're very welcome. And please do find help. I had a wonderful therapist and it made the biggest difference. You are definitely not alone.