Saturday, 30 August 2008

feeling and healing

I am doing well. It's funny to say that. It's rare to say that, mostly because I am extremely pedantic about the truth, and tend to assess every possible thing that could come under the heading of "well" and conclude that, actually, I'm not doing that well. I'm "okay", or "bleh", or, if we're really lucky, "fine".

But with specific reference to my eating disorder, I'm doing well. Actually well. This is radical news. I pointed this out to my husband last night and he said, "yes, I didn't like to say anything, but you have been."

Like this: I actually do not remember the last time I had a binge. Oh, I've eaten a couple of big meals, I suppose, but they've just been meals, and I'm becoming much more conscious of when my body is saying "enough food" and actually stopping at that point. There's been no compulsion (apart from the compulsion to clean my plate, but that's another issue), and no desperation. I just don't remember the last time I wanted to eat like that. Well, I suppose it was probably when I wrote this entry. And that was only the desire – it didn't result in any action. Actually, I'm planning a bit of a greedy lunch, but for the first time in possibly ever, I am just going to tell my husband what I had for lunch instead of hiding the evidence.

Like this: the other day, I was violently nervous about something that was happening in the afternoon, and yet I felt no desire to eat.

Like this: yesterday, I was extremely bored in the afternoon, and yet I felt no desire to eat. I had a cup of tea. A cup of TEA, people. I didn't even think about going to the canteen. I mean, sure, I'd had a late and fairly big lunch, but being full doesn't usually stop me.

Like this: I've been very distressed and stressed about certain family situations in the past couple of weeks, and yet I haven't felt the need to binge.

To be honest, this is pretty weird and confusing. I am so used to a particular, if painful and depressing, way of dealing with things that when I notice that I'm not doing it, I'm startled.

I have to put it down, mostly, to the fact that I have changed (am still in the process of changing) my habits in relation to dealing with my feelings. Instead of trying to remedy my bad feelings by stuffing them full of chocolate till they shut up, I've just been sitting down, saying "it's okay for you to be here" to whatever feeling it is, and letting it run. So sometimes I cry a bit, and that's okay. And it's okay for me to want to stab things or people (note: as long as I do not carry out this desire). It's even okay for me to feel really bad about myself and my body, as long as I just sit there quietly with it and feel whatever it is.

And here's the cool part: the feelings go away. Amazingly, when I give my full attention to feelings that I normally run from, they seem to lose momentum really quickly. I have no idea why this is.

The thing I've been realising is that I have invested a hell of a lot of time and energy over the years in trying not to feel things I don't like, and yet not one single thing I've ever done to avoid feeling bad has ever worked. Every time I've felt bad, I have been in a mad scramble to get back to this state of mind I call "normal", to just not feel off-kilter, and yet that scramble always seemed to make things worse, and to spark eating habits that weren't healthy and made me feel desperate and crazy.

And more than eating like a fairly normal human person, I feel...different, about my body, about myself. I'm up and down on most things in my life – I still don't like my job, or the town we live in, and there's always crap. But I feel...taller. Does that sound crazy? But I do. It's not like I'm waltzing around singing "I love me, I love me...", but I feel both more and less bound up in my body. I feel more connected to it, more aware of how it's feeling, but less concerned about its appearance or what people, including myself, are thinking about it.

Consider: this morning, I passed a couple of men in my workplace and walked up the stairs. As I did, I heard them laughing. In the past, I would assume they were laughing at my fat bum, which may be ridiculously self-involved, but is representative of the kind of paranoia I have felt about this, and felt depressed. (And yes, of course, this is an entirely internally generated issue – neither today nor at any other time did I have any real basis for the assumption that I was the object of the laughter.) Today, I thought "they could be laughing at my bum", and then I thought, "oh well, whatever makes them happy, why should I care?"

It's funny, actually, because I haven't really been noticing this as it's been going on. I've been thinking, hm, must update the blog, but wasn't really sure what to talk about. And then I realised, well, that's because things are changing.

This has only been going on for a couple of weeks, to be sure. But you have to realise that, in twenty two goddamn years, this hasn't happened. I don't recall a time in twenty two years in which this wasn't a constant, every-day battle, when every shop I passed wasn't calling my name, where every thought of food brought guilt and shame and yet a desperate desire that I couldn't control.

So here's what I've learned which is helping me a huge amount, both in relation to my eating disorder and other aspects of my life:

1. It is okay to feel how you feel. It's okay to be sad. It's okay to be angry. It's okay to feel desperate and out of control and full of the compulsion to shovel food into your mouth to temporarily numb the desperation.

2. There are no bad feelings, there are just feelings. Some of them feel better than others, sure, but there aren't any morally superior ones. You are not a bad person because you feel however you feel, and you don't have to feel bad about feeling what you feel. Pretending you don't feel it will not make you a better person, and it certainly won't make you a happier person.

3. Avoiding your feelings doesn't make them go away. Even if you fill them up with KFC and chocolate, they will still be there, and if you refuse to recognise them as yourself, they will come back as an alien intruder. (Thank you again, Stephen Cope.) You're way better off giving yourself permission to be where you are. I'm not saying that you should wallow, or talk endlessly about it. You probably aren't feeling it properly if you're telling the story about how miserable you are. But just, when you can, take a few minutes to sit quietly and feel it, only feeling, no talking and no action.

4. Bad feelings are almost certainly not as bad as you fear. Seriously, I know some bad feelings. I have a lot of them, and really facing them is not easy. But for me at least, I've been astonished by how hard it is to hold onto misery when you're really giving yourself permission to be as intensely miserable as you can.

Now, of course, the issues are not gone. I still look in the mirror and want to be thinner. I am still worried about my health. I still am in the habit of eating more than I actually need because I'm not attuned to when I've had enough. I don't know what tomorrow will hold in terms of my desire to be thin, and I don't know how I will deal with it. That's okay too.

A lot has happened, really, in just a couple of weeks.

(Note: This has been completely helpful for me, and I'd strongly recommend it as well worth a go, but I don't know your emotional states or if you're suffering from any other emotional disorders, so I can't guarantee that it'll work for you like it has for me, especially if you're suffering from depression or something similar.)

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

fat acceptance and compulsive eating

I got some great comments from people on yesterday's post, and one basically triggered another post, so thank you, lovely people, for being encouraging and smart.

Here is the comment that resulted in the following mass of words:

The compulsive eating behavior has absolutely nothing to do with being fat. You could be thin or average weight with compulsive eating, and your feelings and reactions to it would still be the same. Being fat and being a compulsive eater are two separate things.

This is true. And then again, it's not really the whole picture, especially in the FA community.

I understand why fat acceptance activists, who are usually trying to disrupt the stereotyping of fat people, harp on about health at every size and how fat people don't eat more than thin people and all the rest of it.

The thing is, though, if you have a person who, like myself, is inclined by nature to be less thin than other people (if not fat), and who then goes on to eat compulsively for twenty years, you'll get yourself a fat person, who probably got fat by trying to not BE fat. And although I love to hear that being fat is not the end of the world, that it isn't the end of your health, that the stereotypes don't hold up, etc etc etc, I am still a fat person who got fat, primarily, by eating too much. And there is a strong tendency amongst FA activists to reject that as a reason for a fat person to be fat. It doesn't have to be the reason they are fat. It doesn't have to be the reason most fat people are fat - as I say, even if I wasn't this fat, I still wouldn't be exactly thin. But it is a reason that some of us are fat, and pretending that we're not part of the fat spectrum kind of hurts.

It's kind of like if you got a bunch of gay activists together, and one of the things they wanted to do was bust the stereotypes of gay men as "effeminate", and so they spent a lot of time proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that that you can be gay without being effeminate, that gay men are, on average, no more effeminate than your average straight man, and that there's nothing wrong with being a non-effeminate gay man (replace "effeminate" with "unhealthy" and "gay man" with "fat person", and you'll see what I'm saying). Those things may all be true, but you can imagine the feelings of gay men who actually are camp.

And that's without considering the feelings of any effeminate man who isn't actually gay (who would be the thin compulsive eater). I'm not, by the way, trying to draw comparisons between anti-gay and anti-fat prejudice, to engage in comparative suffering, nor to imply that there's anything wrong or self-destructive with being a camp gay man, because obviously it's an entirely different thing from having an eating disorder. I'm just trying to highlight that any group exists on a spectrum, which includes real life realisations of identifiable stereotypes, even if those stereotypes are representative of only a small proportion of that community, and other members of the community would prefer that people did not assume that everyone in the community is the same way. Fat people are not a homogenous whole, and, just as there is a section of the gay community which is identifiable as being stereotypical, there is a section of the fat community that is that way as well.

Fat people who got fat by compulsive eating are not necessarily naturally fat, and are certainly not healthily fat. But we're still fat. And a lot of us got that way by behaviours which our culture identifies as "fat person" behaviours, i.e. eating too much, regardless of the mental illness which drove us to develop those behaviours. And yet the only place we can come to which tells us it's okay to be fat still emphasises the notion of having the habits we recognise as "thin person" habits (even if that's not true) and which we know we don't have.

Now, I get it. If you're a fat person who lives a very healthy life, it must be frustrating and depressing to feel like the compulsive eaters at the other end of the spectrum are dragging down your public image. And I understand that healthy fat people would love to stop being stereotyped and suffering from prejudice because of those stereotypes, and that part of doing that is educating themselves and others about the fact that fat =/= unhealthy and/or greedy.

But becoming fat accepting is, in my experience at least, a vital part of recovering from an eating disorder, because we can't really release this problem without accepting that our bodies are going to end up where they end up, and that getting better may not equal getting thinner (this is not easy when you're obsessed with that notion). And yet being immersed in the "we are healthy fat people" culture in the FA community can actually be just as freaking depressing and alienating as reading a magazine with five articles on how to lose weight, and two photo spreads on how Posh Spice and Lindsay Lohan are too skinny.

The thing is, of course, that those of us who got fat via an eating disorder aren't REALLY stereotypical. We're not "just" gluttonous – we have a mental illness. But it looks exactly the same from the outside. That guy watching me eat my donut at lunch isn't thinking "well, I bet she spent an hour thinking about that before she ate it, and I bet she'll be agonising over the decision for the rest of the day, and that must be very hard". He's thinking, "wow, no wonder she's so fat". And you know, part of me, even while I'm acknowledging my issues, is thinking the same thing.

And more importantly than that, we're people who already have a tendency to beat ourselves mercilessly with our supposed moral failure to control our eating. So sometimes, being surrounded by fat people who have exemplary eating behaviours and an agenda to demonstrate that you can be fat and yet completely "good" (even while they decry the moralisation of food, as they should) results less in feeling better about being fat and more in feeling worse about being such a bad example of a fat person.

Please understand, I am absolutely on board the FA train in theory. There are a lot of really important messages that everyone needs to hear about what constitutes actual health, and how thinness is not the only or even main goal of health, and I don't want the train stopped at all, not least because the external pressure to lose weight would be significantly reduced if people would stop going "OMG U R OBESE U WILL DIIIIIIIIE".

But. That doesn't mean that I'm unaffected by the fact that the people I look to for a reminder that my being fat doesn't equal hideous, worthless and on death's door usually defend fatness with the (perfectly true on average) weapons of "fat doesn't mean being unhealthy" and "fat people are not greedy".

As for the thin compulsive eaters, yes, absolutely, we share an illness and I have no doubt that it is as destructive for them as it is for me. But, as is often discussed in FA circles, thin people with terrible eating habits are not subject to the same scrutiny as fat people, because thin and healthy are so equated that no one pays any attention to the five donuts being devoured by the 95lb girl at the next table. She may be eating a lot of donuts, but it can't possibly habitual, because, hey, 95lbs. (This is probably a bad thing, actually, because it means that compulsive eating disorder is harder to identify amongst the thin, because it's culturally okay for thin people to eat like horses as long as they don't gain any weight, and less support is likely to be available, because eating too much, even in a crazy way, doesn't seem that abnormal as long as you don't end up fat.)

But you see, thin people with compulsive eating disorder are unlikely to seek out fat acceptance, because they're thin. They don't need it. They certainly will need some of its principles, IMO, if they're going to recover, because they'll need to learn to accept and love their bodies whatever weight they turn out, but they don't need to learn to personally accept bodies that are culturally unacceptable. I'm not saying that they are at a particular advantage in that by any means - I'm sure there's a whole other bundle of troubles for the thin compulsive eater - but they don't need to seek out an environment where people will say "there is nothing wrong with your body", because most people will say that of a thin person – even if the eating disordered person doesn't believe it. Those of us who are fat, on the other hand, often find comfort in FA blogs and communities because here, at last, are people who are telling us that it is really okay to be fat, which we, in the midst of our war with our bodies, really need to hear.

It's just that sometimes (I do note significant exceptions to this, such as Meowser's excellent post about mental health counting as part of Health At Every Size) the framework for it being okay to be fat is that it's okay to be fat as long as you're healthy, and you defy greedy, unhealthy fat person stereotypes. And, you know, I just don't.

Of course, the thing about any movement is that there's always a need to raise public awareness, and change public perceptions which are based on harmful stereotypes. I even agree that that's a need. Activism and individualism are an uneasy mixture at best, because any activism is about a group of people who are disenfranchised in some way, and, outside of the one thing disenfranchising those people, they may have little in common. What we fat people have in common is that we're fat. Some of us lead healthy lives, some of us don't. At the moment, in an effort to try to have our existence legitimised, a lot of FA supporters are emphasising the fact that you can be both fat and healthy, and that's fine, because it reverses a lot of assumptions held by society at large.

I suppose just, as a minority within a minority, I occasionally want to put my hand up and point out that the unhealthy amongst us are still people. Occasionally crazy, self destructive people, sure, but we're probably trying really hard, even if we're failing.

So yes. Two different things, fatness and compulsive eating, but when you're a fat compulsive eater, quite often you have to deal with them as part of the same package. For me at least, I'm this fat because of the way I have eating for decades. I need, badly, to know it's okay to be fat, because it's only when I stop warring on my body that I stop eating like this. And maybe that'll result in me being less fat and maybe it won't. But I also need to know it's okay for getting better to take awhile and for me to not be able to be "healthy" at the moment, because the last thing I need is another weapon against myself.

Monday, 11 August 2008

a portrait of compulsion from earlier today

I don't know much about blog entries being triggering myself – I can't say I've ever read anything that has triggered me – but I suppose it's possible that this could be one. So be aware.

I want to eat.

I really, really want to eat.

I'm not hungry, I had a perfectly good lunch a couple of hours ago. I just want to stuff food into my mouth until it crushes down all the things that I'm feeling because they're just unbearable.

I'm conscious of the fact that if I do that, I will then feel guilty and ashamed, like I do every time I eat in public, even if it's not crazy eating. At the moment, I don't care. I feel like the Hungry Tiger in the later Wizard of Oz books, whose hunger was never satisfied. Even when he was eating, he was never satisfied.

I just want to fill my mouth and throat and stomach and just keep on filling until my jaw aches and my stomach aches as though filling every hole in my insides will crowd out all the things I just don't want to feel.

It's almost as unbearable as the feelings I want to bury in it.

And this, I suppose, is the time when all that talking about feeling my feelings comes into play, and it would, except that I can't sit down and have a good cry right now, because I'm up to my elbows in work that I loathe.

I wonder what would happen if I just did that. I don't know that I want to find out. It's the kind of thing I could write a story about, one of those very modern short stories that doesn't really go anywhere, is like a snapshot of an event. Woman in office cries, and refuses to explain herself.

This is interesting, though, because usually I don't have this conversation with myself. I usually just zone out as much as possible and go looking for the nearest thing with which to stuff my face.

This is the part that non-compulsive eaters don't understand, and usually mock, and non-eating disordered fatties outright reject as fat person behaviour. I understand why they do that. This is pitiful and contemptible and, while from the inside it's just as painful as the desire to starve yourself until you don't feel anything any more, from the outside it just looks gluttonous, as though it has something to do with whatever you're eating, as though it was the same kind of luxurious, enthusiastic consumption of food that you see, for example, when my six year old niece is faced with a plate of pancakes, syrup and berries. I wish I could eat like her. I wish it was as adorable for me to eat like that as it is for her. I wish it had anything to do with what I was eating.

I remember years ago watching The Nutty Professor with Eddie Murphy, and at one point there's a supposedly hilarious scene of Sherman crying and pouring M&Ms into his mouth. I've never quite gotten over that scene, because everyone else in the cinema was laughing their heads off, and I was sobbing, because, oh God, it isn't funny. We don't do it because it's fun. Christ, I wish it was fun. I wish people understood that gluttony may be fun, but compulsion really isn't.

It isn't funny that this feeling, this desperate desire to consume, resembles most closely the urge I had years ago during a deep depression to take razors and slice up my arms. It wasn't even a desire for death, just the urge to make cuts because that was me making them, that was me taking what control I could in a situation where I felt there was no control.

So what's the difference if it's food, instead of a razor, if it amounts to a destructive physical urge to distract myself from something I just can't cope with? The difference is only that people pity the girl with the razor cuts on her arm (unless they think she's doing it for attention), and despise the woman with the bag full of Mars Bars.

One thing is that I'm writing, and while I'm writing, I'm not eating, and while I'm writing how I'm feeling, both the feeling and the urge to eat have died down a bit, if not completely.

I suppose this is what I was talking about in my previous posts, really. While I reject whatever I'm feeling – and I do that a lot – there is a need to manage that somehow, even if it's destructive.

This may not look like progress, but I assure you that it is.