I did some math recently and was dismayed to realize that, at thirty-five years old, I’ve spent the better part of the last quarter century battling depression and body hate. A quarter of a century.
During that twenty-five years, I’ve experienced extreme lows, recovered, and then entered the depths again. I’ve hated the way I look and scanned every room I have been in to find someone, anyone, fatter than I am at that moment. Both struggles have been such an important part of my everyday world that I frankly just didn’t realize how much of my life they had influenced…consumed, even.
The two battles have similarities and differences.
I’m predisposed to both. I come from big, depressed, and anxious stock. How I’m wired is, in some ways, out of my hands. Like Gaga says, I was “born this way.” I remember the first time I ever used food to calm my nerves. I was around four or five years old, and I poured my brother and I a glass of milk to drink while my parents were in the middle of a fight. Depression and food addiction fuel each other in my brain and body, and always have. Both are destructive, joy-killing, and lead me to feel isolated and helpless.
But while I still feel shame over the numbers on the scale and the food I put in my mouth, I wear my depression like a badge of honor. I’ve worked hard to understand my mental illness, to work with it, to make my life work with it. I’m eager to share my story of dealing with this disease, because I am confident in my ability to flourish despite its best efforts to bring me down and because working through those valleys has strengthened and humbled me in exactly the right ways. Hell yeah, I go to therapy! And sometimes I need an SSRI and a sleeping pill to function! It’s all good, it ain’t the end of the world, and this weakness really is my strength.
My depression has also forced me to reckon with God and reconcile my childhood faith with my adult reality. I have lived through the darkest days only because God’s hand protected me. God is with me when I am in a blind rage, when I can’t drag myself out of bed, when I can’t stop crying, when I want to run away, when I do run away, when I hate myself, when I hate God, when I scream at people I love, when I try to hurt myself, when I am exhausted, when I give up, when I ask for help, and when I start to heal. And God is there when the cycle starts again. Maybe it’s the Lexapro talking, but I don’t feel like I need to escape depression. I have learned so much about who I am, who I can be, and have felt so loved and held through these experiences…it sucks, but it’s also a gift.
I can’t say the same about my body or food, my enemies.
There are parts of this battle that I can own. My choices are my own. My failures are my own. I decide what goes in my mouth. I decide how much I move. I choose. I don’t want to play the victim or improperly assign blame.
But at some point, the disease of food addiction began to take over my mind. I no longer made sane choices. I told myself if I just had enough willpower, I could stop eating potato chips and lose weight…but what I didn’t realize was that I had loads of willpower. If I wanted food, come hell or high water, I was going to get it.
I was…I am powerless against this drug, food, and I am not my will. I am more than my will.
Here’s what food addiction is like for me: I obsess over food. It is always on my mind. Though I have never experienced food insecurity, I worry constantly about where my next meal is going to come from, if it will be enough, and whether I will enjoy it. The idea of food is often much more delightful than the real experience. Dissatisfied, I will continue to eat, hoping for satisfaction. When I am anxious or angry and put food in my mouth, there is nothing like the instant calm that flows through my body. My heart stops racing. I can breathe deeply. My muscles relax.
This addiction is fueled by the messages that I’ve heard for so many years and internalized on the deepest level, the subtle and overt ways that usually well-meaning friends and relatives have participated in my shame. Here are a few that I remember:
- Being called “thunder thighs” by a peer in middle school, while waiting for the bus.
- A middle school PE teacher standing in a crowded hallway, hands on my shoulders, telling me she was worried about my weight.
- The picture of a JC Penney model my mom kept on the fridge as a reminder for herself that she wanted to lose weight.
- Going to Weight Watchers before I was a teenager, and then again, and again, and again.
- Going to my first nutritionist and keeping my first of many food journals in high school (and yeah, I wasn’t a stick, but I look back at photos now and want to weep at how deformed I thought I was as a size 12).
- Being told that I could have a pair of designer (acid wash!) jeans if I lost a certain amount of weight.
- Getting complimented on how I looked only in the context of weight loss.
- An uncle who offered me the “jumbo” piece of cake and my partner the “sliver” …to correspond with our body sizes.
- Being congratulated for not eating dessert by an employer.
- Watching a fat girl walk down the street being followed by a group of boys and my mother wondering aloud at how sad she was for the girl.
- A friend laughing at a fat girl riding a ten-speed bike down my street.
- The countless times my dad told me my fingers weren’t the fingers of a fat girl; hearing him talk about how beautiful other women and girls were; sitting in a grocery store parking lot as he remarked of a patron “she has such a pretty face, she’d be beautiful if she just lost weight, it’s too bad she’s so fat.”
- Girlfriends who I thought were half my size constantly talking about how fat they were.
Maybe there’s more. I don’t know. I do know that my parents and friends love me. I’ve no doubt of that. And I should also make it clear that if I didn’t pick up these messages from these people who loved me, I probably would have heard much more damaging ones from folks who didn’t.
No matter the source, I soaked all those messages in. They became a part of me. They began to define me. I avoid photographs now like the plague. I manage to forget that I’m fat until I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, or see a photograph. The disgust I feel is overwhelming. I don’t own a full-length mirror, I rarely go shopping, most days I try to hide my body in baggy clothes and when I wear something moderately fitted, I feel like an imposter…a toad trying to dress up like a princess. I gobble food in secret. In public, I try to eat small portions, to avoid real or imagined judgment from others.
There are a few things I haven’t resorted to in my effort to shake the fat off my body: I’ve never taken pills or had surgery, gone on a cabbage soup or grapefruit diet, or made myself throw up. I’ve never starved myself. But I have tried groups and books and plans and specialists and spanx. There have been so many gym memberships, VHS tapes, DVDs, and personal trainers. I quit them all and every time, put another point on the “Sarah’s a failure” board.
It’s a bizarre thing, this kind of failure. In other areas of life…in school and work…I excel and achieve. And while it often takes hard work, some of it comes pretty easily. I don’t quite know what to do with this trying, half-assed trying, and failing cycle I have going on here. But maybe it’s not working because I’m trying for the wrong thing.
I’m a work in progress. I feel really lucky to have met a wonderful friend this year who has helped me to connect the messages I’ve received from others to the way I think about myself. She’s helping me take the first baby steps towards believing that I really am fearfully and wonderfully made, and that my body size is not my beauty or my worth. I can do things that make me feel better, that make me hold my head higher, that remind me that I am strong. And those things aren’t directly related to my size. When I shave two or three minutes off of my mile time, when I can lift five more pounds than I could the week before, when I can sprint faster…I feel amazing. I want to capture that for its own sake, not for a result it may or may not bring.
And the OA mantra “progress, not perfection” is emerging from my brain in new ways.
When I was in middle school, at the start of every summer, I would make myself a very detailed daily schedule and resolve to follow it. The schedule included time for all the things I knew I should do: hygiene, exercise, daily bible reading and prayer, and Scarecrow and Mrs. King watching. A day or two later, the schedule was out the window and I was just reading novels all day, yet another failure.
At other points in my life, I would make these strict lists for myself: no more sugar, exercise every day for an hour, eat two pounds of raw vegetables a day, no more animal products (I took at stab at this one for years before finally going vegan, which I also assumed would be a phase – I really have very little faith in myself, I am coming to see). I have always loved me a to-do list. Little boxes to check off = worthiness to live another day!
This remarkable college kid who did weight-training with me this fall told me something that has stuck with me. He said, “I like it when you fail. It means you’re trying really hard.”
I like it when you fail. It means you’re trying.
I can’t remember the last time I wrote New Year’s resolutions. I think for years, I’ve just assumed that I would fail to keep whatever ridiculous and overreaching resolutions I made, so I never bothered. But this year, I’ve got Jordan and Nicole and Lexapro and Rachel and Beth and Paul and Grace and Giehl and Isaiah in my head, and I want to give them the microphone instead of the lame-ass crap I’ve been listening to for the last quarter century.
The first draft of my 2014 New Year’s resolutions read like the old middle school schedule. A bit strident, a bit negative, a bit too much. But I wrote until I stopped writing, and then I paused. I prayed. And Jesus sat with me and helped me write a second list, and then a third.
What I have now are two lists: one of resolutions and one of goals. The resolutions are the few things I’ve discerned are valuable to me, will feed me spiritually and physically. They are as much internal processes as they are external actions. The goals are where I hope to be by the end of 2014. In the past, I’ve wanted to do something “every day” and the first day I miss ruins everything. I hope these lists honor the reality that my growth is not predictable, that it won’t come in specific increments, and that there will be bad days and better days. I hope they give me something to reach for, not something to live up to.
Resolutions for 2014:
- Wonder well.
- Take risks. Fail.
- Eat and drink mindfully.
- Listen for God.
- Bask in the sun.
- Write more. Watch less.
- Move and strengthen my body.
Goals for 2014:
- Walk while working.
- Run a 5K in less than 30 minutes.
- Do 30 pushups in 1 minute.
- Write 4 blogs per week.
- Finish my first book on evangelical animal liberation theology.
- Enjoy eating.