39: Listening to my body
And living in fear of criticism from other people
CW: eating disorders, body image
I have grown to be very bad at listening to my body. I get up when my body is telling me that I need more sleep. I move when my body is telling me to rest. I eat when my body is telling me I am full, or I may resist eating when my body is telling me I’m hungry. It feels like my brain is arguing with my body, trying to override it, to control it, or perhaps to disagree just for the sake of it. My body and my brain are like a dysfunctional political body in that sense - continually making bad decisions because of an inability to listen and make reasonable compromises. Or it might be different. Perhaps my body and my brain are not speaking the same language, and so they misinterpret each other despite having good intentions. I used to speak French quite well, and I had a passable conversational Spanish. But I can’t understand those languages any more, and I am no longer able to articulate meaningful sentences in them. I wonder if my body and my brain are like that. My body is still speaking the same language, but my brain has lost its ability to understand.
This wasn’t always the case. I don’t think I was ever happy with my body, but in my youth I didn’t judge my body, or resent it, or try to manipulate it, or pretend it was confused. I followed its guidance, its urges. If anything, I had a tendency to willfully ignore my body when it was sending me direct and clear signals to get outside and feel the sun on my face (I blame the TV for that one). It never occurred to me to think of my body as separate from any other part of myself, notably my brain.
It began in high school, but developed more strongly in college, that I started to doubt my body. I grew suspicious of what it was telling me, of the signals it sent so clearly and unambiguously. What if my body has been misleading me this whole time? I thought. What if my body has been manipulating me? I was so naive, I started to think, to blindly trust my body the way I had. Looking at all the other bodies around me, and seeing how their owners used them, harnessed them, guided them to achievements that they and others could admire, my doubts grew deeper.
“I hate fat people,” a classmate said casually, one day as we sat around the back room of the A/V center where we were employed by the work-study program. It was a sweet job - we drove TV monitors, projectors, screens, and sound systems in little electric carts to different classrooms that had requested them for various presentations and events. In between jobs we all just sat around and talked. The guy who hated fat people was thin, tall, handsome by the understood standards. Most of my work-study colleagues were thin - some outrageously skinny - there were just a couple of us who were not.
“Yeah,” I said, following my typical pattern of agreeing with whatever someone else said because I assumed they knew more than I did. The classmate who hated fat people looked at me.
“You’re one of them,” he said. I felt the physical sensation of shame spike behind my eyes, tears building up inside them, and in my cheeks, burning red, and in my stomach, sinking at his words. I would have been shocked at the casual brutality of his remark, if I hadn’t been so used to that kind of comment.
“I know,” I said, reflexively looking down.
That might be where it started, or it might have been long before that with smaller incidents and observations that I don’t recall. I came to understand that it was my fault, that I was doing something wrong, that I hadn’t been following the right set of directions (or any directions at all), and that I was destined to a sort of second class status in a world of higher ordered people. Other people were smarter, more attractive, funnier, nicer, stronger, more athletic, more talented in numerous ways. I remember once, as an adolescent, running two miles at track practice (eight laps seemed like an unbelievably long distance). I felt mildly proud of my accomplishment until my brother, when we were climbing into the minivan to head home, said something like “It’s funny to watch you try to run around the track. Slowly plodding along while everyone else runs past you.” The fact that I remember these comments tells me how much of an imprint they left on my brain (I know my memory is malleable, but the version of events I recall here reveals the real impact even if it didn’t happen exactly as I remember).
The shame of being inadequate fueled behavior that made things worse. Instead of trying to get better at running, I stopped trying to run at all. Instead of listening to my body (or my fat hating classmates) explain that I did not need to eat an entire family-size bag of ginger snap cookies and wash it down with a two liter bottle of Coke, I stocked up at the grocery store across the street from campus and kept that bag and bottle next to me while I did my homework, consuming it all over the course of a morning. I had a kind of resolute hopelessness - if I’m in the second tier group of people, I felt, why bother aspiring to live among the others?
That attitude carried me for a short while. I made friends despite being who I was, and started to have fun. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that I was trying to imitate the people I hung out with. I wasn’t being myself with them, I was trying to copy them so that I appeared to be more like them than I was. I adopted their hand gestures, their intonations and ways of speaking, even one of their accents. I bought clothes that looked like their clothes, and I listened to the music that they said was cool. I watched the movies they recommended, and I liked the ones they liked, and didn’t like the ones they said were bad. I didn’t have any opinions of my own, or at least none that I thought were valid, so I was happy to adopt their tastes. This group of people didn’t seem to care at all about the way I looked, which was refreshing, and I could change myself to be more like them in aspects that didn’t involve my weight or complexion. It worked great in the sense that I felt like I had friends. I had fun. I was no longer isolated. The falseness of the situation I was either oblivious to, or able to pretend I was oblivious to. (I recall once having a casual conversation with a dorm hallmate while waiting in the checkout line at the convenience store. As we were talking he said, “Do you know Todd?” I nodded. “You sound just like him!” he exclaimed. I knew it was because I was actively trying to imitate Todd, but my hallmate seemed to think it was a genuine coincidence).
But then I moved on, transferring to a different school. I thought that if I kept acting like the friends I was leaving behind, I would find new friends who liked the person I had become. I had figured out the code, I thought, to being normal. I had found a blueprint to work from. I had the right instruction manual, and I would be OK now that I was clued in. (In retrospect, it’s clear to me now that I was learning how to mask my true self, a common experience for autistic people. At the time, I didn’t have the knowledge of my neurological difference, only my sense of otherness).
My new college was much different than my old college. Students like the ones I had befriended the previous Spring wouldn’t come to the new place. They wouldn’t have fit in. Over the course of my first semester I began to realize that my new classmates, for the most part, did not seem to like the person I was pretending to be. But, I was sure they wouldn’t like the person I really was, either (and neither version of me seemed to like most of them, either). As I grew into deeper and deeper isolation, I started to try to actively change my body, rather than just the superficial pieces that were easier to control. Instead of adopting different mannerisms, which didn’t seem to be working, I started to alter my physical appearance, mostly through restrictive eating. I had become convinced that my weight was the source of my problems finding acceptance with others, and I grew determined to change it.
The objective reality is that I was not overweight at all - before I developed an eating disorder, I had been a normal weight. I know this now because I found a letter I had sent my parents in an old box of papers that my parents had saved. I wrote the letter as I was working with the campus doctor who identified my eating disorder. I shared with them the doctor’s note - which included my weight from my physical the previous year, and the weight the doctor was recording after my restrictive eating had peaked. The second number was 20 pounds lower than the first number. The low weight was considered unhealthy. But, the heavier weight was normal - it wasn’t anywhere near “overweight” (understanding that the medical designation of “healthy” and “unhealthy” weight is flawed). In fact, the pre-eating disorder weight is the same weight my current doctor recommends for me. It’s odd to see this now, because my feeling at the time, which I still hold in my memory, is that I was a fat person.
My memories of childhood are that I was an overweight kid, based both on my memories of being teased and insulted, but also on the photographic evidence. But, as I grew taller in highschool, I now realize that my weight normalized into what is commonly considered a healthy range. It wasn’t until after that, however, that my feelings of being overweight began to take control and drive my behavior. I can’t explain this - other people much heavier than I was didn’t seem to get teased, or rejected by others, and they certainly didn’t seem to develop eating disorders.
Recently, I’ve listened to interviews with multiple late diagnosed autistic people who also went through years of struggle with eating and body image. Looking at it through this lens, it makes more sense to me. I felt different because I was different. Unable to figure out why, I latched on to the idea that it was my body. As it happens, bodies are changeable if you have enough determination to change them. And so it was a convenient explanation, because I felt like I could do something about it. This sounds logical, but I also feel it is too simple. It doesn’t explain, for example, why I still struggle today. I think, in addition to the social isolation and the feeling that “something is wrong with me” that I experienced in my youth (and to some extent, still today), I’ve also turned to restrictive eating and exercise as a way to sooth the anxiety and stress that I feel on so many levels of life today. It doesn’t help, I’m sure, being tired and hungry all the time. But at least it feels like I’m doing something. And perhaps I take some comfort in that.
Today marks three weeks that I have been unable to run due to pain in my leg. I miss running - I miss the way it makes me feel, the sweat, the speed, the breathing. But I’m really appreciating walking instead, and using the walk as an opportunity to think, and to process, and to come to realizations. It doesn’t feel like exercise, it feels like mindfulness. I think it’s helping.