Today I made myself grilled tomatoes, topped with bresaola, bearnaise sauce and scrambled eggs for breakfast (yep middle class fridge or what!!!!). Gyozas with lime and coriander edamame bean rice for lunch…. how lovely, or not depending on your taste buds, I hear you cry, why should that be worthy of writing about???
For the last 20 years until perhaps the last year, I would say I have had disordered eating. I comfort ate through my twenties gaining a lot of weight, losing a bit to get married thought the usual diet options available at the time, put it all back on again and then some, had a baby and was most definitely clinically obese. Having never thought I was worth looking at the best of times, but with a husband who couldn’t care less how big or small I was, it was something that just sat alongside other shameful things in my head, as my inability to control myself, taking up too much space and the assumption being whenever I walked in a room that was the first thing people thought of me – that I was ugly, fat and lacked willpower.
In my early thirties I had a major period of anxiety and depression and lost 5-6 stone when I discovered ‘not eating’… I became borderline anorexic. The anxiety was so bad it caused me to lose my appetite, I then felt those physical sensations that go with feeling empty and liked them, being off work for 7 weeks with my employers thinking I had some lingering stomach virus, when I eventually made it back to work 4 stone lighter the weight loss was proof of my ‘made up’ illness because I wouldn’t let the doctor put depression on the sick note. I carried on not eating and falling pregnant was sent to the nutritionist at the hospital… I didn’t need to know what to eat, I just didn’t want to eat, I come from a family full of feeders and love cooking and feeding people myself. I cook from scratch most of the time with a wide variety of foods and ingredients, from all cultures… this had nothing to do with nutritional knowledge or lack of interest in food – this was an active choice to starve. I lost the baby (just wasn’t meant to be, something I’m still surprised I didn’t add to the things to blame myself for) and carried on not eating until I reached my lowest weight ever in adulthood. Then as I got some proper help for my head… it seemed to ease away, I marked up 2007 to a pretty rough year the only silver lining being I lost 5 stoneand enjoyed being smaller, constantly fearful it would all come back… the anxiety, the weight, the fear… all of it.
But the habit had formed and whilst I had come to it later in life, it was still definitely something I was now stuck with. Something I would turn to ever since, on and off when everything else seemed out of control; restricted eating always about trying to find some level of control, self-harming someway of releasing overwhelming feelings of anger, fury or despair that I “shouldn’t” be feeling, I am lucky, nothing awful happened in my life to make me be like this so I just need to get a grip and sort myself out…...
Roll on nearly 10 years and I find myself in the same place again, this time much worse. This time the habit was on and off around just prior to starting therapy, I lost my appetite as my anxiety really took hold driven by an issue at work and was alongside other self-harmful activity as a way of releasing all those feelings I ‘shouldn’t have’, couldn’t control and therefore made me useless, inept, pathetic, worthless, unable to get a grip, ungrateful….. to name but a few. It’s just work, you should be able to deal with this, logically and practically I thought I should be able to separate – doing my job and all the feelings I was having that were being fed by self doubt and totally dismissing the fact this situation was extremely challenging. One of my team, was also struggling, I could support her and give her empathy, time, consideration and practical advice – I didn’t’ even believe I should have that as I was one step removed and should literally be able to ‘stop feeling’.
Yes I sought help, this was progress on 10 years before, but I hadn’t equipped myself the last time round and even thought I had started therapy, it just got worse and worse and worse…. I now understand this decompensation is ‘normal’ I had held on for so long, working flat out, being ultra busy, taking on more responsibilities, training for a sports event… ‘if I can train, I can work, if I can train, I can work’…. that alone kept me at work for 6 months more than I should have been – 8 weeks after I celebrated a big sporting achievement for me, I fell off a cliff and was a sobbing wreck on the floor of my office. I was literally exhausted and by that point, terrified of the world – the phone ringing, opening the mail, email the outside world full stop ……. what attack would come from where… I got depressed because I was so hard on myself for not being able to deal with my anxiety … exhausted, depressed and anxious …. old habits are hard to break and it was almost ‘When’ not ‘If’ I would stop eating really seriously.
Having got so low and so desperate, I’d started therapy as I had realised I needed help but instead I had got worse and whilst wondering was I in the right therapy, was I not trying hard enough, was I not fixable, was I just a write-off? Things were so unbearable and I was so desperate I decided to take medication. Having read more on the level of doses some people need to get through the day, I know I was at the mild end of things, but the potential side effects said weight gain so I made a conscious choice, I started them and immediatelystopped drinking and eating at the same time… there was no way I was going to be Anxious, Depressed and Fat as well! That would just make everything even worse… this disgusting, ugly, frightened person in the world at least could be small and hide in a room rather than be ‘too visible’. And the same pattern emerged, the days become dominated by how little I could get away without eating, I’m off work and I’m not exercising and because I’m not at work I mentally have decided that means I almost can’t leave the house … if you’re physically ill you stay home, if I can go out of the house I should be at work…. it didn’t matter that work was the major cause of my anxiety or that I worked from home…. .
It gave a focus, a sense of achievement that I was “doing”something to “help” myself, planning how at the meals I had to eat with others I could hide how little I was eating, how I carried Haribo’s in my bags at all times just in case the sugar drop was too low and I got shaky. I was exhausted and unable to sleep at night anyway, so napping in the day, not eating meant 2–3 meals I didn’t need to consider unless it was the weekend, something less to do, less to make a decision about, less to prepare…. and yet I was achieving something. Daily weighing, watching the numbers tick down, having a goal in mind from the 10 years before I knew how small I got then, could I get smaller? Would that feel better? And on and on and on……
When people observed how ‘well’ I looked, on the school run, at kids activities I couldn’t avoid, how “You’ve totally changed your body shape”, How slim you are now, What diet have you being doing, It must be so amazing to be able to buy new clothes …. all that positive re-enforcement that society piles onto ‘slim women’ … no one (other than those very close to me) noticing I was literally the furthest from well I’d ever been in my life. I was literarily shrinking, bones starting to stick out, unable to lay in a bath comfortably, feeling the cold, wanting to be wrapped up all the time….. and yet at times dammit, I wanted people to see how fragile I was… almost screaming at them with my physically posed questions…”CANT YOU SEE???? WHY CAN’T YOU SEE AND RESCUE ME???? I HATE MYSELF AND MY LIFE SUCH THAT THE ONLY DECISION I CAN MAKE IS TO STARVE…
However, I’m writing this today because I genuinely don’t feel that way anymore. I hope forever, I’m prepared for forever being big challenge but one of my life goals is to never ever go anywhere near a set of weighing scales… EVER. And not just because I’m out of that acute, long period of illness, I have had two or three situations in the last 6 months which have caused me immense anxiety, beta-blocker type episodes that I have struggled to deal with – I absolutely lost my appetite but I didn’t see ‘not eating’ as an option, a solution.
None of that change happened overnight and it was ultimately cultivating compassion that led me there and in no way did I see it like that until now as I reflect on that journey. Two years ago, 18 months into CFT following a random link a friend had posted on FB, I found the slow down diet. Before anyone thinks this is a blog about a diet plan or the perfect way to lose weight, I will stop you right there! It has nothing to do with dieting, I will not be telling you what I do and don’t eat, what I weigh, my exercise regime or anything else in anyway related!!! For me reading that book it was clearly mirroring many of the things I was learning and trying to cultivate in my therapy. Mainly listening to my body, the joy of food, slowing down and noticing, nature and biology, gut/brain communication, chemical reactions in the body – and overall choosing to look after my body rather than continuing punishing it. The reason I have been able to embrace CFT is because I believe the science, I have read the books, been on a course I can test myself with the simple ideas that go with imagining something tasty produces saliva in my mouth, imagining something awful happening makes me cry… the classic Paul Gilbert thinking of something sexy turns me on…. That all makes biological, scientific sense to me… and this book did too.
On the 15 November 2017 I wrote a message down on my compassionate wall inside my wardrobe that said…
“and I said to my body, softly, “I want to be your friend” and it took a long breath and replied “I have been waiting a long time for this”.
I can’t remember where I read the phrase or heard it, it wasn’t about setting a goal or challenge or resolution it was an intention, and intention to care about this physical body that is the gift I have to move around in the world. And it doesn’t deserve to be starved or harmed and I slowly started to try and shift …
Because it wasn’t a goal or a resolution, there wasn’t timescale. It was an opportunity to find things that worked for me that would help. It also wasn’t a stick to beat myself with when I did eat too much or too little, have a mild hangover, feel a bit physically uncomfortable after a rich meal fail or succeed it was trying to define a new way of living when I had spent 20 years beating myself mercilessly for the simple, nourishing activity of feeding myself…. Most importantly it was about noticing, accepting, being kind and in so doing being able to let it things go much quicker. The same tool I am trying to use in other parts of my life to be more compassionate means I am able to ‘get over’ things quicker, a bad anxiety attack I don’t beat myself up for having, means I am able to get on an even keel more quickly, maybe a few day rather than it rolling on for weeks and constantly layering on more and more shame, anger and frustration with my inability to ‘deal’ with it better.
Re food, I took some of the ideas from the book and made them my own, I prioritised cooking meals I wanted to eat, I had the time at that point, having lost my interest in cooking for other reasons I re-energised it and didn’t see the time spent on it as wasted or indulgent. That in itself being a major step forward, over many years I had established feelings that if I enjoyed doing something it was indulgent and I shouldn’t do it! That was a big hurdle to get over. I bought 4 new smaller plates to start relearning about portion sizes, a set of 6 bowls with messages on them, choosing to put food in bowls on the table for everyone to help themselves to, start small, eat slowly and notice when full, making the food more social and slower – the messages on the bowls being encouraging – no one else in my family knew they were messages to me alone. I actually cried when 5 of the 6 got broke by accident but took something from the fact that Nourish was the only one that survived… it was my most precious one and I literally take a ridiculous amount of care over that one bowl 😂😂😂
I don’t stop myself from eating anything, anymore but I also know what things I do and don’t like, what do and don’t like me., because I take the time to notice and eat mindfully. I say no to sweet things because I generally don’t have a sweet tooth, I don’t eat food because it’s there, I know if I want to make myself something I can, at whatever time of day, for whatever meal it happens to be. I don’t have to eat things I don’t like just to find comfort – which I had also done for a long time – binge eating and drinking, anything in sight, in volumes, alcohol fuelling a resentful anger of F**k it! F**k everything and everyone, I don’t care how bad this is for me, what else can I do.. and bitterly resenting it in the morning and feeling waves and waves of shame for my greed and inability to control myself. Slowing down and noticing is like getting to know yourself again. I love cheese, it doesn’t love me… so actually historically whilst it was feast or famine… now I can have it in the house and chose to eat a small amount with pleasure, without guilt or shame because that’s as much as my digestive system can take without going on strike, and I am not counting the calories in it having decided cheese is something I’m not ‘allowed’ to eat.
I try very hard to recognise the impact my monthly hormonal cycle has on my body, how much the calendar year impacts on my body. I always gain weight naturally in the winter and lose it naturally in the summer… the Human Race has been living like that for millions of years… I just try not to kick myself for it.
I don’t do any kind of challenges that are associated with food or drink, dry January, give up Carbs for x months, protein shakes, no snacks after 6pm, fasting, de-toxing etc etc etc…. as my therapist used to say it’s my Compassionate Wisdom at work (I seriously struggle with the word wisdom and myselfin the same sentence so for now I’ve decided it was her telling me it’s wisdom!!!)! It’s not healthy for me to engage in those kind of activities, it has too many connotations that aren’t helpful, instead of me seeing that as weak, ‘I can’t do things, can’t do challenges and see them for what they are’, I am trying to see them as choices I make to look after myself – they have zero impact on anyone else so I don’t need to explain or justify.
I don’t discuss eating in general conversation, I don’t share how I eat or what I eat or discuss diets or anything else other than share lots and lots of recipes if people want them because I love cooking, I always have, (my favourite social activity is a dinner party that I cook for others)…. because this is about me nourishing me, nourishing this body that gives me the opportunity to do lots and lots of things I love and hopefully will continue to do so. Above all else, it enabled me to bring two wonderful people into the world, with the utmost joy and when I think back to my two pregnancy’s they were the times I was most at peace with my body and felt like I and it were doing what we were here to do.
I also know my physical response to acute anxiety will always be I lose my appetite – totally normal biological chemical reaction, you don’t need to eat when you are running from a lion…. but it often lasts for days and then the triggers of the buzz of an empty body which can become motivation. Whilst normally I try to focus on mindful eating, one of my strategies when anxiety hits is to allow the first few days to be as they are, if my appetite hasn’t returned, then make very small amounts of things I really, really like, major comfort food, and mindlessly eat them whilst distracted by the TV or something… it stops the pattern starting and it helps me to not be even more exhausted than the anxiety already makes me.
I spent many an hour asking my therapist, when will I know something’s changed, when will I not have to go through all the activities to make myself feel better when I’m anxious or having many of those ‘negative feelings’, when will I NEVER BE ANXIOUS!!!! – is there a point where my thought process has just changed and it’s automatic?????
I understand now that may never come, firstly anxiety is part being human, I need it, to obliterate it would to wish to be not human … maybe a little bit less and in proportion to the situation….. absolutely! Maybe being able to see it as a feeling trying to tell me something, not something to be frightened of in and of itself. For those people who haven’t experienced acute, overwhelming anxiety that can literally appear over a text message… it’s so hard to explain how physically horrible it feels, shallow breathing, stomach butterflies on steroids, jelly like limbs where you can literally feel your heart beat in your extremities and your mind clouding and unable to think clearly and calmly and you can’t escape it, distraction sometimes worse because then when you realise your not distracted anymore its back…. It’s awful, truly awful.
However, a few weeks back something did change…. I walked into my bedroom and for some random reason the words in my head said, you need to stop eating (the words have always generally been to stop eating, rather than you need to lose weight) and the instantaneous second thought was ‘Hang on, what’s going on? Where did that come from?….. ‘ My head did not immediately jump to, wearily I might add, a plan to minimise my food intake, without anyone noticing, how many things I would feel I was missing out on and then how miserable it would be, but I could do it, I’d done it before…… That simple thought of what’s going on? What do you need? What’s wrong? So, So, So momentous, such a big change and it came when I wasn’t looking, didn’t see it coming. The joy, from that simple thought (even though clearly something was up that I needed to address) was inexplicable to anyone who doesn’t wrestle with a harsh inner critic and negative voices.
That one thing, one small thing arrived at the moment I was processing coming to the end of therapy and trying to see what was different, trying to make sure I had things to hang on to and know I had moved on a bit and without her I wasn’t just going to sink back into the hole I was trying to get out of.I have something to hang on to when I’m working on other things that says if you keep going eventually something shifts.
The voice of my Compassionate Other, is the one I use to talk to my children, especially my daughter. The words I use and believe in the context of talking to her … how can I not feel I deserve the same? If I talk to her and believe it that humans come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, which give them skills and talents for different activities, just like the mental and emotional gifts and skills we are given… then I have to extend that to myself. Cultivating my ‘Compassionate Other’ broughtme back into the same sphere of empathy that I treat the people I care about. If I genuinely wouldn’t berate them because it is detrimental and achieves the opposite than I intend, why would I do that to myself? Would I ever want my Daughter to treat her body the same way I have mine? Of course not…. but for so long that separation of others and myself had put me outside all of my beliefs – not that I have ‘enemies’ but I wouldn’t treat people I don’t like that much,the way I have treated myself over the years, especially the way I have treated my body.
Cultivating compassion has been massively helpful in helping with my disordered eating. I’m not saying that I have been in the grips of an eating disorder for all of my life, I don’t have that experience and I wouldn’t ever presume to know what may help someone in that situation – my heart goes out to them. I am at the fairly mild end of a spectrum I’m sure, and some of the things I have written here may seem trite or irrelevant to someone in the depths of a life-threatening eating disorder. However, I firmly sat in the camp where it didn’t matter what I knew logically or rationally, that what I was doing probably wasn’t helpful, I couldn’t feel differently and in so doing was actually physically harming myself as well as punishing myself mentally and making my mental health worse than it already was. In therapy we never specifically sat down and addressed ‘eating’ or ‘self harm’, it was almost like it wasn’t the main event, it was a symptom, I could talk about it, and we did talk about it, but no one was jumping all over me and telling me it was bad and to ‘just stop’ because clearly it wasn’t in my own best interests. It got addressed by me building up my compassionate other – often reluctantly, with that; ‘WTF am I doing look on my face’, ‘Really, you want me to do what???? Really???!!!’ This is nuts, imagery and compassionate voices… I feel like a knob/idiot/t**t…….. A fairly common statement I tended to make before playfully & begrudgingly giving it a go….
In addition, this blog isn’t saying I’m suddenly at peace with my body, some grand statement of anything goes; fat, thin, stronger, weaker, I’m one big body positive guru who’s going to bang on about not caring what I look like or that anything goes now for me… if I was a celebrity you wouldn’t be seeing some tabloid style photo & article about happy I am with my body now I’ve stopped fighting it… blah blah blah…. It also isn’t a statement about my life is all hunky dory and everything is all now fine. I don’t feel like that at all – not yetand that isn’t in any way what this blog is about. I’m not going to talk about what size I am or have been or pretend that every day I get up bouncing around thinking my body is some perfect specimen that I can be proud of- that’s just another set of criteria to beat myself up about – either that I can’t believe it or that I’m waiting for someone to tear me down because I finally tried to think I’m ok…..
This blog is about the next step I hope I’m about to take, before 2019 is out which I will be honest having started this blog over a week ago as the end of the year looms into view, post Xmas I am struggling with all of it, life feels like Groundhog day and I feel physically a little umconfortable in my skin right now, but I am noticing and trying to be compassionate towards myself for all the reasons I know that is happening
Firstly, I want to be able to destroy any records of my weight over previous years without reading it…….and yes I have a log on my phone with dates and weights, plus paper notes in various hidey holes, and even a couple of photos….. – all of it, destroyed, deleted and with a memory like mine apart from remembering that lowest number I know I will forget the details of the ups and downs of the last 20 years. A couple of years ago I moved onto kilos rather than pounds to try and break the negative connotations that went with certain numbers it helped a little but now I genuinely have no idea how much I weigh and I don’t want to – partly because I don’t know if I am capable of knowing and not setting off a chain of behaviour I don’t want to engage in.
Secondly, I need to have a wardrobe clear out, I have clothes that I fitted at my most fragile and lowest weight, even without scales they are a barometer for whether I might consider myself fat or thin, and therefore by association good or bad. I need work clothes that suit the armour of the person I want to be now, not the person I was 10/12 years ago. In addition, I’m older my body changes simply because of that and the particular sport I happen to be doing most, at the time. It’s time to let go of all the associations with certain items of clothing in the same way that the scales went too… losing mylast barometer has massive elements of fear associated with it, but I hope it’s the best next step, it’s been on my mind for at least a year. I have found the Charity that supports women through interviews and helps provide them with clothes when they are trying to get themselves back to work. Clothes at times have given me armour, I hope they can provide others with the armour they gave me at a time I needed them. Having also investigated the Charity, I am considering volunteering to help people with interview preparation – linked to my other blog #365GoodEnoughGratitude, my Lykke book talks about Community, I want to help my community especially with the current social and political climate… so perhaps I can do something for me and something for someone else all at the same time… who knows!
I stopped doing resolutions a few years ago, but 2019 has been tough, perhaps the New Year is an opportunity to make positive choices to set the tone of 2020 with something celebratory I can choose to mark as progress on this journeythat is my life. It’s had enough abuse from me over the years, I don’t make grand statements that load on pressure, but dear body I am going to do my very best to continue to be your friend and nourishing you is the best way I know how.
Schapa- December 2019
Schapa is the pseudonym of a member of the #365DaysOfCompassion community who is kindly sharing their experience with the hope of supporting others and through writing to help with deepening their compassionate approach to themselves.