Part one of this series can be found here.
TW: weights mentioned
I wanted to address one issue I skimmed through in my blog about food, and that’s the issue of being underweight as a result of mental issues. How eating disorders are, often, a result of a disjunction between mind and body, of mind depriving body, or of body being disconnected from mind. Often, a depletion of spirit (a drainage of humour caused by depression and/or lack of purpose) creates a fission between mind and body, and this manifests in various physical ailments. Similarly, depriving the body of food substance can also be a gesture of denying world with all the myriad implications buried within it.
I feel that, in our current cultural climate, food is a volatile substance that we like to dodge around. Ironically, it has become a taboo subject in a society that prides itself on being liberal and open to its own inhibitions and desires. As a result, though, certain constructs that we take for granted- puritan ideas about ‘deserving food’ or ‘not letting yourself go’- are taken as irrefutable facts and proof of some kind of strength of character, even though these very ideas are founded upon flimsy assumptions and misconceptions about the mind-body connection. For example, that deprivation, declining the physical realm (because greed, obesity and hedonism), is somehow an act worthy of praise. This mindset, I argue, fosters an attitude of not listening to the body’s needs and letting it guide the mind into what is good for it. Similarly, eating disorders have become often a scapegoat for those who have ‘fallen off the wagon’ from the societal ideal of what is good and proper. People have various misconceptions about eating disorders; many think that it is a choice, a result of wanting to be thin (only a percentage of people with EDs have fat-phobia), or a selfish, narcissistic gesture. Eating disorders, to the contrary, are an anxiety disorder. They are not a choice or a result of dieting but rather an inept coping mechanism, a maladaptation to anxiety when faced with various external life-stressors.
When I was eighty pounds and a pit of hunger, I wanted nothing better than to disappear from life; to not engage in it but to build a wall between me-and-it. I felt like I was unable to be normal, to don my human mask as everyone seemed to be able to. As such, I tried to deny my physicality to seem more normal. I felt like I was unable to provide my body with the substance it needed to be fully-present and embodied in the world because that meant giving it to its hungers and needs, so I instead ignored my physical body completely. I never knew how I really looked like at this period because I stopped caring about how I dressed or looked; a passing glance at the mirror would shock me because I was skeletal but for the most part I harboured a practiced ambivalence. I walked through life in a state of detached numbness, a zombified near-corpse going through the actions of being alive while somehow not participating fully in it. In actual fact, I was escaping my physicality by delving wholly into mind, and my body did not appreciate it. It hurt, too, that everyone was ‘congratulating’ me for being a proper person. I gave up all my needs of body and soul– a petrified zombie, an inarticulate doll– and my family was for the first time satisfied with my perfect performance of human ‘being’. To all outward appearances, I had my soul trimmed and cleaned within perfect perimeters. There was no excess of self, no untidy appetites, no unruly thoughts. I was the ‘lady’ that I was supposed to be.
I did eat properly- three perfectly balanced meals a day at set times with dessert, but I was also unable to eat outside mealtimes and I was neurotically food-obsessed about the next time I would be able to eat. Delaying mealtimes by a few minutes would leave me dizzy-headed and faint or uncontrollably hungry. I felt all the effects that one would have with anorexia despite having a more-or-less stable diet, but the hunger was partly mental, partly physiological. I was depriving myself of world, of being in life, of being in my body. As a result, I was always cold, hungry and detached. I was also death-obsessed. I wrote poems to/about death constantly and I dreamt of what it was like to be freed from my physical body.
When I moved out, however, my body desired food and more food. I ate more-or-less constantly every hour, every day for weeks and months. Some would call this ‘binging’ (or extreme hunger) but it was just a natural response of starvation. I made it a point to listen to my body’s every craving and to fulfill it, and my body’s machinations were very precise: in the beginning, I would crave tons of fats and carbs, but after a few months I would crave ‘cleaner’ (although ‘clean’ is subjective) food such as vegetables and protein. I gained weight very gradually and plateaued below the 100 mark for a few months despite being always hungry and eating constantly. I ate twice or three times more than everyone else, but my period was absent and hormonal levels were still irregular. It took about 8-10 months in total for me to gain from 85 pounds to 108 pounds, after which my period arrived and my weight dipped down again by itself. I was still consuming a jar of nut butter a week at that point. It took about two years for my body to not occasionally feel the urge to consume copious amounts of food because of an inbuilt fear of famine. Trauma takes awhile to exit the body and the brain takes at least two years to rewire with diligent re-conditioning. Nowadays, I am not physically able to eat so much, although I still have the occasional binge when I am close to my period. I choose not to think of it as a binge, though, so much as my body’s way of getting the energy it needs.
However, now I feel more-or-less ‘normal’, I still have to deal with constant debilitating anxiety that often hits me out of nowhere when faced with any perceived obstacle (and the key word being ‘perceived’ here as something as simple as having a dirty floor or too much laundry can provoke anxiety in me if I let it). Now I cannot ‘numb’ myself by withdrawing from life, I am having to create new software to process environmental stressors. I am aware, in part, that this maladaptation is a result of a deeper failure of spirit, body and mind to integrate, to successfully converse and work out issues together. (I have not, after all, mentioned much about the actual physical causes that resulted in my ‘eating disorder’- much of it was beyond my control. I did not choose to be in that situation). As such, I had to be methodical about my approach towards solving this problem.
I like to think of the brain as hardware which we have to constantly update to adapt to new situations. Buggy software has to be uninstalled and new, more seamless programs have to hardwired for optimal function. Similarly, I try to approach my issues around anxiety, food and physical-being in such a methodical way. I had mentioned in my previous blog that the Emperor card has suggested structured routine as the ‘hardware’ to found my mental chaos upon and I have found this to be true. Concise, concerted action does help a lot in keeping the mind/body in dialogue to work out anxiety and break it down into bite-sized pieces. The trick, here, then, is to find out what program or concise action plan works to keep the mind and body in steady conversation. As my body has had a history of trauma, intuitive eating- listening to the body’s needs and feeding it- can be trusted only about 60 percent of the time, because its signals are often bypassed by mental distress signals that confuse or override hunger.
Instead, I try to enforce certain ‘non-negotiables’ in regards to food and eating. In this case, the establishment of ritual is vital in making sure mind, body and spirit are in constant dialogue. I think of this in itself as a yogic practice, since yoga is the philosophy of creating space and connection with one’s self. My action plan comes in two-folds:
1. A five-breath breathing exercise before all mealtimes when possible (snacks not included as one sometimes just needs to eat for energy)
This approach forces me to ‘tune in’ to body and the physical realm each time I eat. It’s also a time I can thank the food for giving its life force and nourishing my body (a little like saying itadakimasu before meals in Japan). In such a way, I am using mealtimes in a yogic fashion to be present with myself and those I love. Because I am in general so hyperactive in mind and body, it’s important for me to take space and be present. Mealtimes are as good an excuse as any, because food binds body to world. If I’m not feeling particularly hungry and eating is physically painful (as it sometimes is during group meals), this also helps me to calm down a bit and access what my body may really be saying or if I’m misconstruing anxiety with appetite.
2. Eating enough throughout the day
I realize recently I have a tendency to eat less when I fall back on ‘intuitive’ eating. A few days of recording what I eat forces me to be accountable for what I do eat and make sure I get enough throughout the day. For the most part, my body craves the same amount each day, and this knowledge also helps me to trust my body a little more. If I eat less unconsciously on one day, my body will crave more the next.
For the most part, the relationship between body, mind and spirit is a dance. No day is seamless, because life is a series of chaotic and unpredictable, although often beautiful and synchronistic events. One can only ride the wave, to flow. And to be able to surf the sea of life, one has to learn how to tango with each element of one’s self. Sometimes, practical action is needed- cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, meditation, yoga- in order to be able to even establish a channel of communication between body, mind and spirit. However, I am making the effort and intention, and that’s really all that is needed to move onwards and beyond.