When I got sober, especially within the first year, people emphasized that I should focus on my primary problem–alcohol. A lot of people want to quit smoking when they quit drinking. Many others figure they might clean up their diet while they are at it and get healthier. All of this is fine, as long as it doesn’t compromise our success in tackling our primary objective: staying sober. And for many, it can. I remember when I was really struggling in the beginning my sponsor actually encouraged me to keep smoking and to “eat the damn ice cream”. I only had to slay the shark closest to the boat if I wanted to keep on paddling.
I am fortunate that for several years now, the compulsion to drink has been lifted from me. Alcohol is not something I think about all the time, it’s not a struggle to stay sober day to day. There’s a certain amount of work that I do to keep things this way, and I’ve accepted the fact that I will have to continue to do this work the rest of my life if I want to be at peace with my relationship with alcohol.
All that said, slaying the shark closest to the boat stopped being “enough” a long time ago. It was fine for early sobriety, but now I’ve paddled out further. I want more from life and I’ve found that I encounter more demons that need conquering as I wade into deeper and more wondrous waters. It’s no longer enough to just not drink–now I want to be happy, and be in love, and have good relationships with my family and friends, and set physical and professional goals and meet them. Survival mode was essential in the beginning–but it’s not the lifestyle I can or want to sustain. I want to have peace. I want to flourish.
I know that I’ve told you guys before that I am actually really grateful that one of my vices is alcohol. There is a solution for the disease I have that has worked for hundreds of thousands of people all around the world, and it has worked for me as well. One of the things I appreciate most about the 12-step model is that while there is an understanding that the process of recovery is never-ending, there is hope, and a strong belief that life can get better and better if we continue our personal growth.
I was thinking about this getting “better and better” idea when I was listening to a segment on NPR last week that featured a conversation between two women who were both battling eating disorders, but were at different stages of their fight; one had just left treatment and the other had been in recovery for seven years. At the end of their dialogue, the younger girl asked the older one if the voices in her head would ever go away. She wanted to know if eating, her relationship with food and exercise, and just life in general, was always going to be this hard. I felt like I could hear the older girl’s gentle smile through the radio waves. She told her counterpart that things would get better, a lot better, but that unfortunately, a little bit of that voice would always be there. She gave her the tiger analogy which is one of my favorites. She told the girl she had two cats inside of her, and that right now, her eating disorder was a ravenous tiger, and her recovery was a smaller, weaker cat. Then she asked her the question that my sponsor asked me in the beginning of my sobriety: Which one are you going to feed? Both cats might always be there, but you get to make the decision about which one of them eats and thrives inside of you, and which one you let wither away.
I found myself nodding my head in agreement with everything the veteran in recovery was saying. I also started thinking long and hard about the idea that my eating disorder would always be with me to some degree. It was something that had actually been on my mind a lot lately after having just recently completed the process of training for and finishing my first marathon. When I look back at the photos from that day (which was just two weeks ago now), I feel an enormous amount of pride and happiness; running 26.2 miles was something I had wanted to achieve for a very long time and my friends and family made it a weekend I will never forget. What stings me a bit though is that there is something else I feel when I look back at the photos of myself from that day: I think I look out of shape, and even a bit chubby.
I achieved this tremendous goal–this dream that I had carried around in me for seventeen years. And when I look at the evidence of me realizing that dream, a sliver of my happiness is dampened by my body dysmorphia–this obsession I have with never being thin enough. That fucking blows.
Participating in the behaviors of my eating disorder literally never crosses my mind anymore. Purging or starving myself is not an option; no matter how I look on the outside, I’m not willing to ever go back to the misery of that life. I’m also considerably less obsessive than I used to be. I’ve let go of the idea of being a certain size or weight and I’ve spent years building a relationship with my body that centers around love, appreciation, and trust. I also LOVE food. As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, that’s something I’m most proud of. Food is truly one of the great joys of my life and learning about different people and different cultures through food and sincerely enjoying eating is something I hold dearly.
All that said, I’m still nodding in agreement to the girl on the radio saying this shit never totally goes away. A little over a week ago, I told my husband how sad these thoughts were to me. I told him what went through my mind when looking at the marathon photos and how bummed out it made me. I wondered if the size of my body would always be my achilles heel. I thought, no matter what I achieve, or how badass and confident I get, will there always be this little part of me that feels weak, vulnerable, and unable to grasp a clear sense of my physical self?
I’ve got hard evidence from years of data that tells me that despite what I sometimes think, my actual weight or size has little to no correlation to my happiness. I’ve had enough thin and miserable time in my life to know that being smaller will only temporarily fill that hole that keeps me feeling insecure and incomplete. Training for the marathon definitely dredged up a lot of old thoughts and ideas that up until now, I never realized I hadn’t let go of. I knew getting into the shape I needed to run 26.2 miles meant I would get really strong aerobically, but I think I also always thought it meant I would get really thin. Interestingly, in the past year of extending myself endurance-wise, and really falling in love with the long distances, I’ve found that more running does not equal thinner for me. There was a time about 18 months ago when I felt strong and healthy and radiant–I felt like I was living in my “best” body. At that time, I never ran more than 10-12 miles a week, I was heavily focused on strength training, and I was super consistent in my yoga practice. Now, just a few weeks off from running 40 miles in a week, I feel softer and even out of shape. Factually, I know this is not true. I am not out of shape. In fact my aerobic endurance is through the roof and it’s been excruciating to hold back and give my knees and hips the rest they need. Still, it has been educational to learn about how my body reacts to different types and amounts of exercise, and it’s been invaluable for me to to start to really understand it’s true form and the conditions under which that form thrives.
A little over a week ago I felt sad and even embarrassed about what I started to call my achilles heel. I rhetorically asked my husband, “Fuck, what if I can never see my body clearly? What if weight issues are always going to be my kryptonite?” Ten days or so later, I am here to report that this sadness and defeatist attitude has mutated into anger and motivation. I’m not willing to let this be the stone in my shoe for the rest of my life. Fuck that. I’m not satisfied. I want more. I see other bodies all around me every day that are small and large and everything in between, and I think they are beautiful. I am declaring now that it’s part of my life’s mission to be able to view myself just as clearly.
I get the idea that these voices are always there and can be heard at some level–that things can get better but never totally go away. But I’m starting to feel like this idea is more prevalent in eating disorders than other mental and behavioral illnesses. Even if you’ve never engaged in disordered eating, you’ve undoubtedly thought about your body image. I think about the fact that I am an alcoholic everyday, but I do not think about alcohol everyday. In other words, I very rarely have the actual desire to drink, and there’s very little I see out in the world that tells me that my life would be improved if I could take a drink. Alcohol is not something I have to confront every day; physically, I, and everyone else, can live without it. Food however, is a part of daily life. As are reminders of what our society has deemed an “ideal” body. For so long I wanted to think that I was immune to these images, that surely I must be so intellectually sound and strong that the glossy pages in the grocery aisle and the sex scene in my latest Netflix obsession could have little effect on me. Now, with all the work that I have done to move past my fixation with all my imperfections, I’m convinced that like it or not, societal forces have penetrated my armor, that I too have been conditioned to see my body as bigger and softer, because it is in comparison to the advertised ideal. I know now that I want to begin to reject this ideal with more fervor than ever before. I want to feed my recovery feline till it’s a fat but insatiable beast. And I want to starve my eating disordered voice so that it withers away into dust, to provide it the same nothingness that it has offered me these past twenty years.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve come up with some magical solution to all of this, that I might enlighten you all and lead you on the way to a positive and realistic body image. But I’m not there yet myself. I think all I can do is share my experience and be honest about each step of my journey. It looks a lot more badass to put up photos of my marathon body and pretend that the enormity of that achievement covers all the flaws I believe are there. But it doesn’t. Instead, I must with some shame admit that those perceived flaws were able to diminish some of the pride in my achievement. That may happen again. But today, more than ever, I know that I don’t want it to, and that I am willing to do the work and fight to see that it doesn’t.
The 12 step process has worked everywhere else in my life, I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to apply it here. I’d say I’ve taken my first step already by admitting all of this to you guys. I’m a strong, happy, and confident woman–but I have been powerless over my body image for too many years. Powerless. Somehow that word can be so freeing. It releases me from all the “shoulds” of life and allows me to have acceptance over where I am; it creates hope for a new path forward. I no longer accept the old path–the patriarchal and societal construct developed to keep all women in a lesser, more subjugated position. Men may have created this construct but we women have held it up. Every time we nip and tuck and shell out the big bucks for eye creams and hair dye, we reiterate to ourselves and the rest of the world that gaining weight or getting wrinkles or going gray makes us less beautiful, not as desirable, and not as valuable. This is a lie. The truth is, as we age, we can gain more wisdom and more compassion and even more vitality–life gives us life. We have even more to offer the world than our youthful good looks. If we live out loud and unafraid and in our truth–and outside of this societal construct, we can expand the face of beauty so that every person can see themselves clearly, and recognize the depth of what their magnificence and strength can bring to the world.