Below is one in the series of reader submissions called “If You Really Knew Me.” This piece is shared by Britta, a clearly introspective and gifted writer. I hope her story touches you as it did me. If you are interested in participating in the series, check out the details.
If you really knew me…. you would know that I’ve been struggling to love my body for 22 years. You’d know that beneath my calm countenance rages a storm of stress hormones, a warzone of nerve misfirings and shortages. Through years of therapy and self-conducted research, I’ve learned that individuals with severe anxiety often present in this way – as collected, grounded. It’s a mask we put on unconsciously to manage the reactions of people around us. No one will know notice that the world inside is imploding if you appear meditative or, rather, detached.
If you knew me, you’d know that I’m still working to navigate my path to self-love. The course is circuitous. These last few weeks, for example, the steadily growing number of hash marks on my face taunts me, trying to persuade me into believing that growing older is growing ugly. My 36th birthday is coming up and I’m ready to sell my soul for a minute or two, buying into the chance to punish my body for its betrayal. My body has never really met my demands aesthetically; even its basic functions have quirks. I receive treatment for hypothyroidism, insomnia, osteopenia, mood disorder and anxiety. My body is aging. The lines pronounce themselves boldly across my forehead and at the corners of my eyes. My smile lines, at least a mile deeper than last year, frame my mouth so clearly that one might image a highly skilled construction worker had excavated them. I look like a freaking elephant!
Ahhhh…But then I catch myself. There goes that mind of mine again. Those thoughts. That punishment. I have been marked. I’ve marked myself. My body, my beloved me. I love my body; it’s an expression of my being in the world. If you really knew me, you would see.
I could write a book on the battle I’ve waged with my body from age 13 to the present. Perhaps I should. But what I want to tell you now is that – if you really knew me – you would feel in yourself my total belief that love conquers all. I know you’ve heard that a thousand times, but the message is not undermined by its repetition. When you love yourself for the first time, the feeling, knowing, that you are worthwhile just as you are, will likely occur in your body. At least it did, does, for me. But first I had to deal with the trauma that came with running 50 miles and biking 60 every week without taking a day off in … years. The consequences of my lifestyle are both unsurprising and startling. I faced injuries, illnesses, lost relationships, all-consuming horror at every minute change in my body – any increase or decrease in size or shape – and the belief that cycle would never ever stop. I grew into womanhood in the body of a malnourished, scared little girl. Later, I was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure (POF). I had to drop out of graduate school. I’m still working on finding my core self, that part of me that knows that no matter what happens, I’m OK.
It all started when I was 13 years old when my relationship with food, body and exercise took a sharp turn the summer before my first year in high school. It was as if a light bulb went on in my head: I stumbled upon a way to manage the chaos around me. I was vacationing my dad and stepmother at the beach. We’d rented a condo with my uncle’s family. After a week of spending hours in the ocean I realized that my clothes hung a tiny bit looser and I felt lighter, freer, lovelier. It was a natural, seasonal change, but the transformation set off a ticking time bomb. Returning to my mom’s house, the house from hell.
Mom would say she could never feel full. I believe her. For much of my life she’s been obese, though I think the disease had its onset not long after she remarried. She would go on these diets back in the 80s and 90s, the era where fat-free was the rage. We’d have fat-free cookies, butter (!), Cool Whip, TV dinners, everything. My stepdad would try to follow a diet too, but he would only last a week or so. And my mom would criticism his weakness. He’d yell back, and I’d run to my room to hide. She strove to achieve a level of scarcity – less food, less fat, less body, less of herself. And she began hoarding, spending untold amounts of money on everything from hats to books, CDs, pets, plants and collectibles. You name it, she bought it. And my stepdad, well he supported the behavior, accompanying her on these spending sprees to purchase LPs, books and clothes, their savings. In hindsight, I suspect he did so to be closer to my mom. I’ll never know for sure. As their marriage worsened, the piles of crap grew, filling the house from top to bottom. It was filthy with pet hair, dirty litter boxes, towers of stuff too tall and mounds too wide to sort through. The more crap that accumulated and bigger my parents’ bodies grew, the smaller I wanted to become.
I reacted with precision, as if I had been working for years on a plan of defense. I started running. I cut down on my food. The changes were slow. It took a while before I could run two miles without stopping, and some time before I mastered a method to restrict my food in such a way that gave me the results I desired. For the first time in my lift my thighs didn’t brush each other when I walked. My collarbones became more visible as did my pelvic bones, and my period – gone! Even better, I got attention from my mom. She was as impressed with my discipline and restraint as she was worried about my health. We’d go for walks together like we did when I was little. I was getting my mom back – losing my body, finally getting some attention. I felt more confident, stronger physically and emotionally. My room was my sanctuary, but I still ate my tiny fat-free dinners at the dining room table. The other two ate separately, both in front of the TV in different rooms.
One aspect of my past which truly fascinates me is that I maintained a true love for exercise, specifically intense exertion – interval running and heavy weight lifting, the challenge and release – but also learning new lifts, workouts, running routes. Such a double-edged sword. These activities bring me joy, but I use them against myself, to control anxiety and my body, the battleground on which I waged my bet against reality.
My body is a curious thing. While my bones developed osteopenia and my thyroid rebelled, my muscles were used as fuel. Even so, I looked ‘normal’ on the outside. No one really knew that I had an eating disorder. For me, it took reaching the very bottom of the deepest pit, alone, a place where fear for my health outweighed my fear of the changes that healing would undoubtedly involve.
Decades later and with greater knowledge of the physical impacts my actions and thoughts have imprinted body, with years of therapy, reflection, and effort to change – I have hope. It’s still a tiny seed that I often lose, but I’ve felt its glow often enough to recognize it. I’ve actually experienced my body relax in Savasana (‘corpse’ pose in yoga). A miracle for me! I’ve stopped in the middle of a run and walked home crying because something inside saying ‘no more!’ was too loud to ignore. I’ve even dared to take baths, facing one of my ultimate fears – being still with my naked body to soothe the parts I’ve mistreated and loathed. I’ve given my body permission to be. So hard. And soooo wonderful with Epsom salts!
At this point in my life, I feel that learning to love my body will be a life-long course. But this realization is no where near as terrifying as the fear of having to run endlessly from my body, losing my mind and my dreams as I flee. I’m still standing at the doorsill to healing. The door’s open a crack and I sense a warmth and lightness on the other side. I accept that I’ll teeter back and forth there, falling to the one then the other side. I have a hundred times before, but now I’m better friends with that speck of light inside me. It’s love.