Everything Takes Forever: A Story of Waiting (Part 14)

iceskating

[Continued from Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7,Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, and Part 13]

It’s bright and early in my condo gym and I feel good about carving out a quick 30 minutes for myself before the madness of the work day begins. Given my ED history, exercise is something to be approached with utmost caution. Notwithstanding some five years into my recovery, I remain easily triggered. The mere act of slipping my feet into running shoes or placing my hands on a treadmill’s handlebars often bring me back to a time when exercise was a means of purging what I ate, and the gym was my torture chamber of choice. Nonetheless, each time I manage not to awaken the sleeping dragon is an inch closer toward normalizing exercise, and an achievement unlocked.

This morning, I’m pedalling away on the stationary bike while meditating with a rosary app on my phone. However, the gym’s usual peace and quiet is interrupted by the cries of a baby—sounds I don’t expect to hear in a place like this. Craning my neck to trace the source of the discomfiting wails, I spot a pair of chubby legs sticking out of a stroller. They belong to a baby girl seeking her mother’s attention. Bored with her rattle and chewing toys, the infant is presently tossing them in the direction of a thin lady who’s pounding the treadmill with dogged determination. Twice, the toys bounce off the machine and land on the floor, making the baby more hysterical, but the mother—still plugged into her headphones—only casts a perfunctory glance over her shoulder. She’s scrawny and bears an uncanny resemblance to Jennifer, down to those hollow eyes and protruding cheekbones, and the sight of her instantly makes me uneasy.

When the baby’s mother finally gets off the treadmill, everyone around seems to heave a unanimous sigh of relief, but that’s until we realize she isn’t quite done with her workout. The stroller gets moved to another corner of the gym, where she proceeds with an intense routine of crunches and weights. Meanwhile, her baby is squealing in amusement at a man doing burpees, much to his irritation. I spot one or two fellow gym-goers stifling their giggles, but I’m not laughing. In that moment, memories flood my consciousness and I feel a deep sadness.

Because I used to be her.

Anyone who’s struggled to recover from addiction can tell you the aftermath is like skating on thin ice. A glass of wine may seem harmless to the average person, but the sight of it could spell the undoing of a recovering alcoholic. Similarly, what may come across to most as positive pursuits of healthy eating and exercise can be a slippery slope down a sinister path for ED sufferers wont to use health and fitness as smokescreens. Though an ED isn’t strictly an addiction, its addictive nature locks you in a vicious cycle you feel powerless to break free of. When your mind’s taken over by the workings of compulsion—a formidable force no amount of willpower can come up against—compulsive behaviors such as fastidious calorie-counting and excessive exercising manifest. Years go by and one day, tired from running but getting nowhere, you wake up and wonder when you became a hamster on a wheel, locked in a cage.

For most addictions, the straightforward approach is to identify a trigger and go cold turkey on it (i.e. abjuring the very substance you’ve been abusing, such as alcohol or drugs). But how do you ever cut out food, the very thing you’ll die without, but which is killing you? I learned quickly that in regard to ED recovery, the cure lies in the poison—not only do you not get to escape your demons, you have to learn to live with them. Like it or not, it was time for me to call a truce with eating and my body.

Very much like uninstalling programs on a computer, I had to empty my brain of all “knowledge” about food and exercise that I once held as sacrosanct. Like an infant who identifies a hunger signal and knows to cry for milk, then settles down when sated, the new rule was to only eat when hungry and stop when full. Suffice to say this was no walk in the park for someone so accustomed to denying her hunger pangs and gorging to the point of pain. In the process, I came to view food through a different lens. Whatever I used to believe were “good” and “bad” foods seemed irrelevant when I applied the principles of moderation, be it in terms of consumption or my attitude in general. When food wasn’t abused in abnormally large quantities to trigger a chemical reaction (binge eating), or withheld and constricted to keep my body weight unnaturally low, this betwixt-and-between state was where food and I learned to peacefully coexist.

The gym door closes with a thud, and I realize the mother and her baby have left. I hop off the stationary bike and decide that I too am done for the day. It hasn’t been a vigorous workout by any means, though all the baggage unlocked over the course of the morning has exhausted me.

As I exit the gym, I look back at the man on the floor, still doing his burpees, and I can see how that might look funny to a baby. Perhaps there is much wisdom to glean from infants: eat when hungry, stop when full, laugh when funny.

Sometimes I think we forget to do any of these things.

[to be continued]

SWF Afterthoughts: I fell, and then I flew

eric-hanson

Once upon a time, there was a girl who went to bed and had the same dream every single night. In it, she sat on a swing in the sky. She had no idea what held the swing aloft, nor what lay beneath her feet and the layers of fluffy white cloud that stood between her and the great unknown. With each swing, she felt an increasing urge to let go of the ropes and take the plunge to find out. But each time her fingers loosened their grip, fear would seize her. What if the world under the clouds was a terrible place, and she could never return to the sky? She’d be ‘safe’ as long as she held on, she reckoned, albeit forever wondering.

One day as she sat swinging and wondering about the world beneath the clouds, she heard a creaking sound. The seat of her swing was giving way and its rope handles were unraveling. Before she knew it, she was diving headfirst into the clouds, and about to find out, once and for all, about that place she’d longed to but never dared visit. The fall was terrifying, and she feared the extreme pain she’d feel from a hard—possibly deadly—landing. All the way down, she kept her eyes tightly shut.

However, she had a sudden thought. Since she was about to die, she might as well catch her first (and last) glimpse of this mysterious new world she’d been so curious about. Better that her final moments be filled with awe and wonder than terror and dread.

But as she began to open her eyes, the girl would be jolted awake from her dream.

___________

During yesterday’s session at Singapore Writers Festival, I finally found out how that dream ends.

The girl didn’t die. In fact, she’d been flying all along—with wings she never knew she had. No longer did she need rope handles to grasp on to, nor whatever it was that kept the swing suspended, and her safe.

As for the world beneath the clouds? It was more beautiful than she could imagine. She’d landed safely, and with her feet planted firmly on the ground, she realized how much prettier the clouds looked from where she stood.

So there she decided to remain. On earth.

___________

Thank you to everyone who came for my storytelling and/or sharing, and those who supported me in your own unique way.

With all my love and gratitude,

Rachel

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This was taken after yesterday’s sharing. I’m here with author and friend, Melanie Lee, and the session moderator Pamela Ho. Both beautiful souls. This is a day I’ll never forget.

Everything Takes Forever: A Story of Waiting (Part 13)

Image via Pinterest

Image via Pinterest

[Continued from Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7,Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, and Part 12]

I don’t know her name, but for all intents and purposes, let’s call her Jennifer.

A fleeting glimpse of Jennifer is enough. We exchange a glance for about two seconds before I break away. As if I could ever forget.

Everything about Jennifer—and girls like her—triggers me. I have memorized her gaunt face, protruding cheekbones, hollowed eye sockets, and pronounced collarbones. I see how she piles on the makeup to soften hard angles and mask the perpetual fatigue. I feel the effects of her sleep deprivation: migraines, brain fog, and lightheadedness. I hear the drag in her step and feel sympathy for those bony legs—subject to acute cramps that jolt her awake in the dead of night.

When was the last time she’d had a decent meal and good night’s sleep? Jennifer hasn’t the faintest idea, nor does she care. Hunched over in hunger, her skeletal shoulders flinch defensively everytime someone touches her. Most of all, she harbors an abject hatred for mirrors, unable to recognize or face the monster she’s created. What is happening? Why do I no longer look like me? Can I ever go back?

I may no longer look like Jennifer, but there’s no fooling her. For neither my fleshiness nor her litheness can disguise the fact that we’re two peas in a pod. Branded by our common experience and sporting the same battle scars, we belong to a category of people hardwired to live in our heads and never feel comfortable in our own skin. Right now she’s hiding behind excessive makeup, and me extra layers of fat, but the second our eyes meet, the jig is up.

ED recovery is hard enough without triggers like Jennifer. The way ahead has been paved with frequent indigestion, perpetual abdominal bloat, uneven distribution of regained weight, the vengeance of two years’ worth of PMS, and constant confusion that comes with still thinking I’m a thin person but no longer inhabiting the body of one (and the redundancy of almost two-thirds of my wardrobe). It’s well and good to talk about rebuilding a loving relationship with food and your body, but know this, ED recovery is no walk in the park.

I long to make Jennifer, and all other triggers that threaten to derail my ED recovery, disappear with the wave of a magic wand.  So I do that—in my head. I mentally compose a “Trigger Box,” into which go Jennifer and the rest of my “trigger list,” including (but is not limited to): thinspo blogs, celebrity magazines, weighing scales, food labels, calorie-counting apps, cooking, baking, my running shoes and weights, the gym and treadmill, and all “petite”-sized clothes I once starved myself into. The Trigger Box is sealed (and reinforced) with duct tape, and I scribble with a red marker “DO NOT OPEN” before hurling it down the basement, i.e. the deepest recesses of my subconscious.

As Jennifer’s gaze bores into my back, I can feel her desire to reach out and connect, but I refuse to engage. She’s silent but the cacophony of her thoughts is deafening. You busted your ass to be thin, only to throw it all away? How could you? What will you do now?

“Excuse me! Wait!” she calls out, her low, gravely voice stopping me in my tracks.

I have no choice but to turn and look her squarely in the eyes, which are wide with a strange mix of curiosity and fear. “Were you talking to me? How can I help you?”

Jennifer bites her lower lip nervously, before launching into spurts of short sentences. “Yes, you. Thanks for stopping. I’m sorry if this is abrupt. I’ll make this quick. I just wanted to know … what’s recovery like? I mean, what’s it look like?”

“You’re referring to … ?” I mouth the words ‘eating disorder.’

She nods, her eyes fixed intently on mine.

“I don’t know,” I reply, “but I hope that if and when I get there, I can tell you.”

“I don’t wanna do this anymore,” she mutters in a low breath, “but I’m afraid.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“Being fat. I could never let myself recover unless someone could assure me a hundred percent I wouldn’t get all plus-sized. D’you know what I mean?”

“I do. But I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything. I don’t even know where this is heading.”

“So you just jumped in? With your eyes closed?” Jennifer asks, incredulous and taken aback. “You’re so brave!”

Am I? Until she mentions it, I hadn’t really thought about how I’d cope if I settled into a post-ED size of anything that fell outside my comfort zone of a US 6/UK 10. Suddenly aware how swiftly I’m edging toward a US 8/UK 12, I feel seized with a newfound fear of the unknown. Gee, thanks, Jennifer.

“I have to go. Can I give you my number? You’ll call me when you get there?” she asks.

We part with awkward smiles, her cell phone number programmed in my mobile as a personal reminder to get better, even if not on Jennifer’s terms.

Does a huge part of me hope my ED recovered size falls within a range that isn’t too hard to accept? Of course. But being called brave is something new. Maybe there’s something to be said about having “jumped in with my eyes closed”  and representing a fragment of hope for someone else who’s still contemplating.

And just like that, Jennifer escapes from my Trigger Box.

[to be continued]