Body Image is the Last to Go…?

Posted by on Dec 5, 2014

It has been a somewhat difficult week, which means that it has also been difficult to write.

I find that my inspiration and motivation to write (not to mention my ability to concentrate) are very much bound up with my mood. Moreover, in my borderline-desperation to fully recover, I catch myself hesitating to write anything but positive, encouraging entries on this blog. But, as I need to remind myself fairly often, recovery is not a straight line. It has its ups and downs, its forward movement and backward tumbles. I would not be accurately portraying what it is like here in the middle ground of recovery if I weren’t honest about the moments I’m struggling.

On the whole, things are going well. I’ve now been out of treatment for two weeks and am focused on staying out. And I haven’t slipped behavior-wise. Rather, what I’m struggling with is internal — fighting off that voice we all know so well.

Weight restored

It started with a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday. I hadn’t seen this particular doctor in a year in a half (I missed my annual appointment last winter because I was in residential). Before the doctor came into the room, a nurse came in to take my vitals and to chart my height and weight. (Despite being tempted to look at the number on the scale, I didn’t.) The nurse weighed me, went back to her computer to look at my chart, then looked back suspiciously at the scale before turning to me and asking, “Did you gain weight?” I nodded, to which she replied, “Oh okay. I thought something was wrong with my scale.”

In the moment, I handled the comment well. I told her that I had actually been weight restored, since I had been treated for an eating disorder that year. After that, the tone of the conversation changed. The doctor also was thrilled to hear that I had undergone treatment and even congratulated me on the achievement.

bodyI was able to laugh off the nurse’s comment and leave the office in a fairly good mood. What I was not able to laugh off was seeing my weight and BMI printed on the discharge papers I was given after the appointment. And I was definitely not prepared for the numbers to be higher than I expected.

Seeing them sparked the old familiar panic — the tightening in my chest, the shallow breathing, the racing thoughts and feeling like I had lost all control over my body. I tried self-talk: I reminded myself that nothing about me had changed between the moment before I looked at the number and the moment afterward; I assured myself that the number didn’t matter — I am significantly more than a relationship to gravity; I even tried some tough love, telling myself to let it go and refocus on things that matter.

The self-talk helped — I managed to get through the day without any eating disorder behaviors. However, although I kept my behaviors under control, I was not as successful with my thoughts. All day I fended off intrusive thoughts about the number and the food I was eating, which also caused a constant feeling of physical discomfort, as if I were gradually expanding, taking up more space, becoming more conspicuous. Then again, I know by now that the eating disorder voice rarely responds to reason.

Body Image: The Song That Never Ends

There have been many frustrating challenges throughout this recovery process, and body image has proven to be among the most frustrating of all. I know the treatment mantra, “Body image is the last to go,” but quite frankly I don’t understand why. My particular eating disorder has had little to nothing to do with what I look like. It has been a way to manage difficult feelings. (Obviously, it is also a biologically-based illness, but I won’t get into that here.) So why, after all this time, do I still have such intolerance for and even shame about my own physicality?

During this year of healing, I have learned that my body is a vehicle to obtaining the experiences I want in my life. I cannot write, study, make a family, or achieve anything that I want if I do not have a healthy, functioning body. When that goes, all of my other pursuits go with it. Likewise, I’ve learned to make peace with food by looking at it as necessary fuel to keep experiencing. But it’s not connecting food with a healthy body that gets me through the act of eating — it’s connecting food with my hopes and dreams. In other words, I skip over body altogether. I have yet to make peace with — let alone love — my actual physical presence and allow myself to take up space (and own that space) in the world.

There is an upside, however. I don’t know why I still struggle with body image. But what I do know is that even though I have struggled this week, I proved to myself that I am a changed person. One year ago, seeing an unwanted number on the scale would have triggered weeks or months of restricting, over-exercising, and more. It would have been my signal to shed weight as fast as possible. This week, though, I endured that very same trigger without doing any of that. The urges were there, but I didn’t act on a single one. I fought them, and I won.

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