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Tuesday, August 17, 2010


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.


Anonymous said...

I would proudly join in your parade of liberated ladies. I love reading your ramblings Joyce, they make the rest of us aware we are not alone in this thing they call life.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful and honest. Thanks.

janice said...

Sweety, you are so lovely, body, mind and soul. I can relate to all that you say here. I am in my 50s and still struggle with such negatives - I think it ends only when we die.

BUT, my daughter has NEVER seen me look in the mirror and say 'does this make me look fat?' It appears she has a great body image and self image. There lies my success.

internet hugs

Karla said...

You know I'm with you for the parade. I want to march down main street in the Niv with muffin top exposed. I want to so desperately.

You're my comrade. You're my partner. You are so stuck with me it's not even funny.

Judy said...

I'm starting to get the picture that so much of what I 'go back to' is just my default setting. It would SEEM that it cannot be changed, but I can choose a different setting - although to do so takes a lot of work. The MINUTE my mind starts to slide, the default setting takes over.

I hate that.

Anonymous said...

If only our brain had a "delete" button : ( L-lew

jenn said...

I will drive the float!

Fascinating post Joyce! Tell Brian that the beans were AMAZING.

Anonymous said...

Eat, Pray, Love...Eat, Pray, Love! that is my new mantra. I just saw this movie tonight with a great girlfriend and we both spent silent moments weeping at the bits that touched too close to home and laughed lots too. It really spoke to my soul, all of it. If you enjoy it, eat it, without guilt and if you get a muffin top get bigger jeans. (Good in the movie, but in real life, I am tired of getting bigger jeans...) Pray, find your balance. Simple. Love. I have just realized, an epiphany really that the reason I am unbalanced is because I eat to soothe. Overeating has succeeded in keeping my loved ones away, keeps me from being vulnerable. No more hugs from behind while washing dishes, no more cuddling before bed. One person in this equation stays up way past the best before time, "I am not tired, I will stay up abit later" and then sneak a "small" bowl of crackers and cheese a way too late at night. I thank God everyday that he still makes me laugh everyday and still tries in our relationship. Now it's my turn, my time to get balanced. It's all one big simultaneous puzzle - I have to be balanced in my life to eat properly and love properly.... I fear that if I wait any longer that I will be available to take that year long self soothing trip...all on my own.

The Naked Chef

Leanne said...

I deeply admire your strength and courage.

joyce said...

thanks, Vicki, Bria. When I get scared after writing something like this, I always remind myself that this voice represents many women.
We could blame our culture, or we could just stand together and decide to believe other, more wise and empowering things about ourselves.

Janice, I know what you mean. It's so important not to pass this curse on to our daughters.

karla, let's practice on that street you've been telling me about.

You first.

Judy- awesome quote for you: "who I am is not who I used to be. But who I am is all of who I used to be. Even when we change, our histories do not".

L-lew, so true.
Jenn- you could RUN, and pull us all behind! (yay for runners!)

Oh, Naked One: wise words of vulnerability. Awareness, that's where it all begins. Read some of Geneen Roth's work if you want to learn more about that.
It's true that the way we (mis)treat ourselves affects the way we love others around us.

Leanne, I thank you.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic post and so very from your deeply intelligent heart. I know I will come back and re-read it frequently. Could say so much more, but will just let it all simmer quietly for now...VB

Anonymous said...

Wow cousin Joyce, your honesty is beautiful. Just last night I was laughing at my giggily self and singing "baby got back" and "I love big butts". Then this morning I was alreay thinking the dreadful thoughts about how I might get thinner, and I read your post I was excited at the fact that it is not the size we are or the number on the scale, but definately it's all about those thoughts that ring in our heads. I really hate those on going thoughts that we as females are just never thin enough! YUCK!!!!

I loved how you mentioned neural pathways because here where I work we study that kind of stuff every day. And in scientific studies they have proved that it is very possible to form brand new neural pathways of thought. That is hope right there. I often self soothe with food, and whenever I feel heavy and oppressed by my thought life, I am always the heaviest in my body. I lived in Switzerland for a couple of years, and the year I was the happiest, I was at the most comfortable weight. I ate heavy cream, cheese and chocolate, drank good wine and had th time of my life . And still my weight was maintained wonderfully. I didn't step on a scale at all, and yet I was feeling so good in my body! Later I found out that the hypothalamus, the genral in charge of the brain, sends signals to speed up our metabolism, and sends messages to give our bodies lots of seritonin(Happy hormone) when those neural pathways are filled with thoguths that bring us good cheer. Isn't that interesting? My whole life I have battled thoughts of depression and heaviness, and only as of late have I really had a desire to do what you did to your basement and rid my mind of those thoughts. It is a blistering process like you mentioned. But with the hope of new pathways of thought, I truck on with great anticipation in my steps. I join you in your parade of happiness, and look forward to a life of brand new thoughts. I love you cousin, and thank you from the deepest wells of my being for this very encouraging post.


joyce said...

VB- warm thoughts of you, and for you.

C- well said, I've read it a few times. I like the bit about the new pathways, and the part about your happy time in Switzerland. That totally makes sense to me.

Kiss your sis for me too, ok?

Anonymous said...

I will give her a GREAT big kiss from you! She's doing great and her hubby just got a job at Home Depot so they are very excited about that.

I didn't want to waste any more time with getting moola for the darfur purse to you, so my mama offered to bring it over to you to speed up the process on my end, since you dilligently finished it in the middle of your summer(Super thanks by the way) So she should have that over asap.

I love reading your post because we are family and whenever I read your stuff it reminds me of who I am and where I came from and where I am going.

Love you,