I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why — despite all I’ve learned — I still haven’t completely let go of the eating disorder that has been following me around for the past 20 years. I can clearly see how much it holds me back. I can see that it makes me miserable. And unlike some people who struggle with an eating disorder, I can even see how it makes me look — and I don’t like what I see. So what’s it doing for me that makes it worth all that? I honestly don’t know.
Sometimes I think it’s just that after living more of my life with it than without it, the eating disorder is simply second nature. It’s what I’m used to, and despite how much it sucks, I don’t really know how to do anything else. Or perhaps more accurately, I do know how, I just have a very hard time doing it because it feels so foreign, wrong and uncomfortable. Other times, I’m not so sure. After all, if I’ve learned anything about myself through all of this, it’s that I have the ability to make myself do just about anything no matter how difficult it is if I really want to. And if there’s anything I want for myself, it’s to live the rest of my life without an eating disorder. So I’m not sure the “it’s just habit at this point” explanation is entirely correct.
I do think it plays a role, but I think more powerful than that is my extreme aversion to uncomfortable feelings. More specifically, uncomfortable emotions. Interestingly enough, I can handle physical discomfort pretty well, but emotions are another story. I’ve gotten better at it since reading Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart, listening to Tara Brach’s talks about the concept of radical acceptance, and begun practicing meditation and mindfulness, but it’s still something I struggle with a great deal. I remember when I first came across the concept of accepting and allowing thoughts and feelings to arise without grasping on to them or letting them overpower you, and it was like a whole new world opened up. That notion, as simple as it seems, was not something I had ever even considered. Up to that point, I had lived my life either running like hell from difficult emotions or doing something to numb myself out. Sitting with them? No way. The entire notion of impermanence found in Buddhist teachings remains a challenge for me too. Pema talks a lot about the fact that we live in a world where we can never really have ground under our feet — that since things are always changing and evolving, we’re essentially groundless and we might as well get used to it. As someone who has spent the bulk of her life trying to control things, this is simply unacceptable. Nevertheless, I’m trying make peace with it because I can see the wisdom in allowing things to be as they are and not fighting them so much because, well, they are that way. It’s like fighting against the fact that the world is round or the sun is hot. This is basically the serenity prayer line “allow me to accept the things I cannot change.” Acceptance? Not exactly one of my strong suits… My problem has always been my insistence (some people would call me stubborn…) — that “No, dammit; I CAN control this and I WILL.
Anyway, I digress. What I’m trying to say is that I’m beginning to realize that my difficulty in letting go is directly connected to my difficulty in sitting with uncomfortable feelings, the most pressing of these being the almost constant anxiety that bubbles beneath my surface. I wrote in the previous post about my struggle with this, but unless you’ve really experienced it, it’s difficult to imagine how powerful it is. I’m not sure how to describe it except as a visceral feeling that overwhelms me at almost every waking moment, as though I must always be vigilant against an impending attack. My body is constantly sending out signals that I’m in danger and that I need to protect myself. At times, I’m able to notice it, see it for what it is, and move on, but at other times, the feelings are so strong that they overpower my logical, rational brain and I find myself scrambling madly for whatever I think will calm the panic. This typically presents itself as me attempting to control something, and one of those “somethings” just happens to be food. There are other things, of course, but that’s the only one that also ends up hurting me as much as it seemingly ‘helps.’
The funny thing is, I’m not so sure it actually helps anymore. As my last therapist pointed out, it’s likely more of the fact that I believe it will help than that it actually does. It’s my Dumbo’s feather, if you will, or perhaps more accurately, a placebo. Except in this case, it’s a placebo that carries with it some pretty wicked side effects. But in the moment, when I’m panicky and scrambling, I don’t have access to that higher part of my brain that knows the truth — I am not rational. Eating disorders are not rational. One could argue that in some weird, twisted, messed up way they kind of are, but not really. They’re really just one big delusion after another.
And that’s where mindfulness comes in. The more I practice it, the better I become at seeing the panic for what it is and catching myself before I spin off into old destructive patterns. I don’t need to run from the anxiety. I don’t need to numb out. I can greet the phantom anxiety, tell it hello, remind myself that it’s just some random chemicals in my brain doing their thing, and move on with my day. Granted, it’s not quite that simple, but you get the idea. In the end, I’d much rather sit with anxiety, fear, loneliness and all those other perceived monster emotions than with an eating disorder. In truth, they’re much kinder.
So that’s what I’m going to do. Bring it on anxiety. I’m ready for you.