This summer, our big, optimistic home project was to fix up some glaring problems with our basement. As chronicled here before, the monsoon spring that we experienced made it abundantly clear that we had drainage issues that probably shouldn't get put off any longer. (oh, the joys of living in elderly abodes...) On the list of concerns were the total absence of a sump pump, weeping tile that had clearly retired, a heaving floor reminiscent of the Swiss alps, some mysterious gravelly, damp areas, corroded pipes, and a secondary set of drainage pipes mounted along the wall.
Never guilty of being called a minimalist, Brian attacked that thing with a jackhammer til his nails turned blue and his blisters blistered. The children and I carted out a basement's worth of concrete rocks and gravel. Enough to fill a 22 foot long dumpster. Plus.
And even before all that began, we had filled a large garage with stuff from the basement.
I have a penchant for collecting stuff.
The last thing to come out of there was my cedar lined hope chest. A long ago Christmas gift from my parents, now filled with decades old photo books and spiral bound diaries dating back to the angst of my teen years.
I began to read the words of this lost soul and my heart went out to her. I wish someone had known how depressed I was. How at risk. But I was then as I am now: pretty happy,and finding lots of good in life, but with relapses of painful depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and crippling obsessive thought patterns.
I know there's no value in "what-if's".... but. What if? If I'd been intercepted at eleven or fourteen, would my foundation be different now? Would my mental system be more reliable? Less vulnerable to the seemingly unstoppable chain of thought patterns that is my reality? Of course, we'll never know. These days when I obsess, it's mostly about a time twenty years ago when I did carry out what I could of that old foundation, and with the help of some good advice and a lot of really, really hard mental work, I poured a new floor. One that for an amazing five years, really didn't leak, or heave, or sprout weird looking bugs with way too many legs.
But it's been about twelve years now that I've been longing to recapture the relative peace of mind that I enjoyed for those years. I've done lots of reading, and some more hours of therapy. I've tried to re-do the exercises that worked for me when I was twenty-two. I've tried to accept myself, I've tried to change myself. I've worked on believing all the stuff that I believe is healthy and true.
But I'm still nuts.
I don't actually accept myself as I am. I hate gaining four odd pounds a year and can't get used to thighs that rub and a stomach that falls over the band of my pants. Cellulite frightens me. Chunky bits that hang over the tops of my undies make me want to cry.
I don't want to be like this, but the truth is that I am. I want to be free, but I'm half crazy, and half sane. I study diets and fantasize about them, but I CAN NOT - WILL NOT- MUST NOT. I know that the moment I do, I'll be regressing even further and "free" will be several more degrees beyond me. I imagine being a runner, my thighs becoming firm and beautiful. But I hate running. I know that it's unsustainable and will only result in me hating myself more for failing yet again. I fantasize about being thin. I love it. I want it.
But I'm too much sane to actually believe it. I know that all this crazy thinking is symptomatic. My brain has kicked itself into auto pilot again and it's travelling all those infuriatingly familiar neural pathways. Like an addict who knows that the drug is killing them, I am lulled by the very thoughts that I hate and resent.
Thin. My brain insists that thin would mean no excess, no discomfort, no problems with favourite clothes. No bloated feeling, no "too full" feelings. No rubbing, no muffin-topping. (is that a verb?!) Thin would be that secret pathway to being enough and not too much. Thin would be that safe place to fall back on. Feeling stupid? Well, at least you're thin. Not fat and stupid. Feeling guilty? Well, at least you don't look guilty (gluttonous, greedy, selfish....).
Somewhere around grade six (thirty-one odd years ago...) I started this inventory of lies. At the age of eleven, I began to manipulate my food intake and plant seeds of a lifetime of obsession. I studied diets. Skipped meals. Had weight loss contests with a similarly skinny friend. Felt success in this small arena of life. It was my thing, and I was pretty good at it. I know now that eating disorders are chronic and progressive, and by the age of eighteen, I was really out of control. This thing owned me.
By twenty-two, I'd had enough. I'd really begun to feel like my life would either have to end or change drastically. So, I blistered my heart/soul/mind/will/emotions and had at 'er with a mental jackhammer. I've never done anything more difficult in all my life. But after a few years of drainingly difficult mental work, I was different. I had a healthy relationship with food, and a pretty decent understanding with my body. My mind still occasionally had tantrums about size and weight, but it was fairly easily calmed. Food no longer frightened me. I no longer lived in fear of becoming fatso in a floor length mu mu.
I think it is important to note that the predecessor of the eating disorder is mental illness. Food and weight manipulation become the drug of choice to cope with the overwhelming feelings of despair, anxiety, sadness, and fear. And now when my mind begins to clamour loudly, I am aware that the "auto pilot coping button" has gotten pushed. It's not really, entirely about the weight. It's just where I automatically go. A sort of "home base" for worry, guilt, fear, and self blame.
These days, I still have most of the really good parts of that hard earned foundation left. I avoid female conversations of self-derision. I work at appreciating what my body is capable of accomplishing, regardless of its size. I don't join diets. I try to avoid weighing myself. I wear clothes that feel lovely instead of restrictive. I like to compliment women on aspects of themselves that don't hinge on body size. I fully enjoy food, and label nothing as "good" or "bad". I don't suffer from imagining that everyone has noticed every nuance of my imperfect body and is struggling to contain their disgust and revulsion. (they are more likely to be worrying about their own perceived imperfections) I notice women who've slipped over that invisible line into obsession and I avoid getting drawn in. I seek relationship with women who are strong, and wise, and if they do have these monkeys on their backs, they are always in search of resolution, instead of in line for Jenny Craig and liposuction.
Still. It saddens me to be in my forties and still struggling as I do. Not entirely free. Does the answer lie in further excavation? Can I gain back more of that mental freedom that I once, briefly enjoyed? I know that this freedom exists in the form of intentional, methodical, dogmatic awareness. The full engagement of each thought, fear, and emotion that arises. Each one provides whispers and clues towards the cracks in the foundation. Being willing to feel each fear, pain, disappointment, joy, sadness, frustration and inadequacy instead of internalizing and blaming fat cells.
After all these years, and lots of hard work and commitment, it is good to be well. But if I am to be honest, I don't feel well enough. I want to live life more clear headed, more content, less preoccupied. I want to be fully convinced that as a woman I am so much more than the shape of my silhouette, the dents in my thighs, and the mysterious appearance of cellulite on my midriff.
When I think about my younger self, and about young girls who are just now picking up the tools for a lifetime of neural pathways, I wish for intervention. I wish for a foundation that won't easily crack and leak. I wish for a footing that isn't shifting and that remains the same regardless of life's hurts and joys and surprises.
And do I have hope? Absolutely.
I'm not still that insecure girl filling journals with plans for getting thinner.
Now I'm a forty-something year old woman who strives for a whole new way of looking.
An entirely new way of seeing.
I'll keep excavating and discarding, if it takes a hundred and two 22 foot dumpsters.
I'll learn to leave shame behind.
I will become bold and honest, and by the time I'm seventy-four, I'll lead a parade through town. Me, and all my liberated women friends.
Hope to see you there.