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As I feel myself rounding some important bases in defining who I am — especially as the calendar turns from 2012 into a bold, new year — I am thinking that maybe it’s a good time to share with you my personal story of my relationship with food and my body. This is especially the case because 2012 was the most pivotal year for the “healing” of my relationship with food, and it may have some decent insights in it.
I don’t know what purpose this endeavor might serve this community or any of you, but I hope very much that it delivers feelings of hope, reason to believe in yourself, and camaraderie as you move forward in your own journey, wherever you may be.
I do my best skim lightly through my earlier years, and then get more serious about key turning points in my recent life. I err on the side of detail rather than brevity, but I figure it better to be inclusive and truly “tell all” than skip a piece that might be helpful to someone. I break it apart roughly by year if you’d like to scroll to the more relevant bits.
My personal story with food starts before I can ever really remember. It is rooted in the core of my personality, as well as in my psychological needs. I have been an obsessive over-thinker and over-categorizer my entire life, largely because I perceived a need to control as much of existence as possible. This manifested in things such as hyper-ambition and an addiction to achievement as well as to more mundane minutiae such as counting ceiling tiles, knowing all of the facts about history and geography I could get my hands on, and most importantly with keeping religious track of time. The more I knew about the world, the better mastery I had over it. My last boyfriend’s living room had 167 ceiling tiles on it. Kathmandu is the capitol of Nepal. Macomb mall is 2.4 miles from my house by way of Masonic boulevard but 2.7 by way of 14 mile road. That would take me one hour and seven minutes by my leisurely pace in my regular boots with a backpack or fifty eight minutes if unburdened or walking with my friend Liz whose mile pace is approximately 4 minutes faster than mine.
This hyper-vigilance I believe is rooted in my earliest problems and some events that may be rightfully called early-childhood trauma. I was terrified of dying and a complete nihilist who had panic attacks about non-being by age five. (A Sartre-ian by first grade… thank you post-modernism.) I filled this gap with ambition and achievement, and also with that profound sense of knowledge about the world I just mentioned. This meant that I have always been a bit of a perfectionist. I have a feeling this is a story at least a bit familiar to many of you.
This isn’t to say that I’ve been necessarily compulsive or freakish, though I’d happily adopt and in fact often use such pejoratives. Instead, I think, however, we are all just human and we all cope with existential anxiety in one way or another. We are all normal-ish, and my methods of coping with existence have served me well for most of my life.
I also grew up a bit of a professional dancer, and later a participant in the competititve dance circuit. I was always just a bit bigger and a bit less pretty than the other dancers. This is just true, and it’s fine. At the time, however, it meant that I missed out on some of the good stuff like scholarships, pageants, and competition invites, and also that I wished very much that I could be as hot as the other dancers.
But whatever– all teenagers want to be more attractive. I was one of them.
It also doesn’t help growing up in a home of constant dieters. Atkins, Weight Watchers, Juicing. Many of us can relate to that. If you grow up in an environment in which food intake is regulated by something other than natural hunger drives– by anything other than natural hunger drives– I think we are predisposed to become out of tune with our bodies and their needs. Being very driven, at this age I started working out twice each day–biking a total of at least 20 miles and lifting weights– and eating a specific diet. And then I’d go horrifyingly off the rails, because who the hell wouldn’t on a diet based on Special K and lettuce?
Then came college, in which I continued to struggle. Many women do. The majority of emails I receive are from women who develop self-conscious behaviors while in college. It just so happened that I went to a school in a sea of sexy valedictorians. I was a perfectionist among perfectionists, and we lived as ambitiously as we did wildly.
Anyway. The efforts I had made throughout high school and college were unsuccessful, and I felt so alien in and hated my body. Within a few years I finally hacked calorie restriction, however. On about 1000 calories a day with significant cardio exercise I lost 30 pounds in 3 months. Talk about hunger. It was at this point in my life that I discovered food porn. I looked at pictures of food and read food blogs religiously, maybe for an hour or more a day. A few years after this period in my life I read studies about severely calorie restricted men who did the same thing. They also hoarded food (check) became defensive and possessive about food (check) and drew pictures of food, made souvenirs, collected nuts to look at, etc. People are who are starving obsess. And rightfully so.
This was also the time in which I stopped menstruating.
A little bit later I was introduced to the paleo diet. While I resisted heavily the idea of eating meat for environmental and animal rights-based reasons, I capitulated. I began listening to podcasts, reading all of the books and blogs… the same sort of radical conversion story a lot of you are familiar with. When you discover the paleo diet, it just sort of makes sense in that basic way, and you leap head first into an orgy of statistics and science and success stories. But for me–as probably for a fair portion of paleo dieters–my excitement was mostly at the promise of being effortlessly thin. With the paleo diet, I wouldn’t have to feel so restricted. The “satiation power” of fat and protein would make the burden of my weight maitenance efforts slide off of my shoulders. I’d eat sardines. I wouldn’t feel hungry. I’d be skinny. Life would be perfect. Hooray!
Needless to say that wasn’t quite how the story went down at all. As a matter of fact, it was at this point in my life, for the first time ever, that episodes of overeating became real food binges, in which I might eat half of a pumpkin cheesecake after a whole Thanksgiving dinner, a whole serving tray of gourmet desserts on my birthday, or a few loaves of dessert bread at Christmas parties. The fact that I had forbidden carbohydrates of nearly all forms from my diet meant that I needed them all the more strongly. This phenomenon is one of the great monsters I try to tackle with this blog: macronutrient restriction. If your diet is actively restricting you and making you feel deprived, chances are quite good that food intake, choices, and willpower will all domino behind that.
This also meant that eating a “paleo diet” didn’t heal me at all. It made my struggle all the more difficult, and precisely because the diet was supposed to work but didn’t, I felt even more like I was doing something wrong. This was frustrating and discouraging on several levels. What was wrong with me that it wasn’t work? What did I need to do? Did I need to do the diet even more “perfectly”? I tried. I think a lot of us know what that’s like.
This was all also on the heels of several decades of struggle to be thin, topped off with the achievement of that weight. As Stacy of Paleo Parents talked about at length on our podcast, sometimes maitenance really is more difficult than active progress. This is probably rooted in the fact that human beings can often approach an upgrade such as an additional twenty bucks (or five pounds weight loss) with a fair bit of relative indifference, but become horribly neurotic and possessive of those benefits once they are already ours. We hate losing what we have far more than failing to obtain those things in the first place.
A bit later I started the Paleo Pepper blog, and at that site I had originally intended to just write about the paleo diet. That very quickly morphed into a disordered-eating centric blog, however. Turns out we all write about what we know and what we care about, and this happened to be something I knew quite intimately.
That blog ended up being… I think an exploration of how to cope with disordered eating, and how to keep ourselves from overeating. It was in no way a blog aimed at restriction or at negative behaviors, but I didn’t quite get it yet, either. I was trying to stop overeating without considering the radical psychological shifts that needed to happen. For this reason, I am ambivalent about the blog. It has helped and it continues to help a lot of women, but I don’t endorse approaching any of the content there without knowing that at that time I was an author who hadn’t quite “made it” to that point.
Wow, this has become quite the story.
Because we haven’t even gotten to some of the most important part yet.
Coupled with my history with disordered eating was a growing concern over my acne and my PCOS. Food had to be related, but I just couldn’t figure out how. The information on the internet is — holy hell — as confusing as Beijing public transit, and nothing I ever tried to hack my acne worked. For several years I fought that monster, with virtually no relief. What the hell was going on?
Coming into 2012, I decided to try drugs. It seemed like the last solution left, though in reality the true final solution was one that was too hard to accept, more on which in a minute.
I got on metformin first, which caused anxiety attacks and even worse acne than I had had before, and then I tried spironolactone and T3, for my acne and hypothyroid together. Spiro is well known to cause an initial outbreak, though a few cases never get past it. I didn’t. The Spiro gave me the worst cystic acne I had had in years, and on top of that it caused in me profound dehydration, insomnia, and anxiety. The thing about anxiety is that it begets anxiety. Pharmacological reasons for anxiety add to and sort of cause to fester already present anxieties– bringing to the surface anything that had ever worried me in the past two decades. I won’t tell you about that specifically, but I will tell you that this anxiety capitulated the most terrifying and difficult twelve months of my entire life.
I was also completely thrown by my inability to overcome acne and PCOS with the powers of my brain (remember the 5 year old categorizer). In January of 2012, right after I started taking the drugs, I realized that I was addicted to perfection, and that that was the root of most of my problems. I realized the depth to which I had been married to my problem solving abilities. I was dependent upon my apparent life-long ability to make everything as excellent as I wanted it to be. Perfectionism might not be the right word. But a constantly improving excellence in many aspects of life with ceaseless fervor and a refusal to give up… that is perhaps the best way to couch my own personal brand of perfectoinism.
So in one swift and terrifying week, I let go of it all.
I embraced weight gain, I told my life-long academic dreams to go fuck themselves (oops), and I endeavored to be nothing more than nothing, a lovely, floating being at peace with existence and seemlessly living in life and in love. It didn’t work, obviously– far too much of my personality was shaped by my earlier life to be completely overthrown. And while I loved my body radically, I still wanted it to be a certain way; I still desperately feared fat. I lived in a state of constant body awareness feeling totally trapped. I needed to gain weight possibly in order to be healthy and to save me from acne, but if I gained weight I’d be fat. In one direction I had acne and was ugly, in the other I had fat and was ugly. I couldn’t win– I just couldn’t win, and that fact tortured me. This meant that I continued to meticulously monitor what I was eating, and even while including carbohydrates in my diet, was fairly scared about what they might do to me.
I got off of the drugs and that helped a fair bit. But the anxiety returned. This was still in part a physiological issue, but much of the psychological pieces that had come to a head with these issues refused to be put away.
I moved forward with tackling anxiety first and foremost on my to-do list. Acne no longer seemed like the enormous monster it had been before. It was still a big issue, but what’s one zit compared to existential peace? And weight status… whatever! What’s my body weight compared to my will to live? Not a whole lot. So even while I was meticulous about eating cleanly to mitigate the remnants of my acne, and even while I still participated in “disordered” behaviors such as emotionally relying on food, fearing fat, and purging with exercise, over the summer, in my attempts to hack my anxiety, I ran up against the limits of my brain and my body. I needed to accept them, and to relinquish my hold on perfectionism. I discovered trust, and I discovered radical love.
What I realized is that my existence doesn’t have to be terrifying. For me, my journey with food sits inside of my journey with perfectionism, which sits inside my journey with anxiety, which in turn sits in my journey with metaphysics and with the Universe. My whole life, I needed to be the best because that was the only thing I could think of that would make my life meaningful, worth-living, and somehow, in the tiniest way, immortal.
Perfection–or excellence–would save me from existential despair. It used to, in any case. But in 2012, in the last twelve months, I realized how so, very empty that endeavor is. This is, perhaps, another familiar story to you.
I had thought that I needed to be so extraordinarily excellent because that would make me worthy of love, and love is the only thing other than my fervent pursuit of academic achievement that might fill that existential hole sitting deep in my soul. Improvement, optimality, perfection, achievement, validation… these were the things on which I predicated the iota of meaning I could salvage from my nihilism.
In 2012, I finally made peace with my existence. Even while I’ve typed far more than I intended here, I’m still leaving out whole pieces of my career, my studies in metaphysics and theology, and dissertations worth (literally– I’m working on them) on atheism and theism and what it means to be a human being in the cosmos as we understand them today. All of which is to say that I found my way to be at peace with the Big Questions, and that has been a big, big piece of this all.
This piece enabled me to unearth a serenity in myself I had never known, and to scratch an itch that so desperately needed to be scratched since that poor, afraid, and isolated five year old girl first got scared of dying. I still want to be attractive. I still want to achieve things. Big time. I remain eternally devoted to improving my life and my works and the lives of others as I move forward. But I am no longer being chased by a rabid pack of dogs. I refuse to be.
I float in serenity; I float in lightness and freedom; I stand firm (for now) on a foundation of assurance: everything is okay. Everything has always been okay. Everything will be okay.
Things perturb my serenity all the time still. I am human. This happens. And I am healing from a fair bit of trauma. We all are– we are all always being hurt, and we are all always healing. The world doesn’t stop and wait for us to catch up– it spins and spins and spins. We have the option of trying to master that spin, and to stay a precisely balanced top throughout our lives, but we also have the option of letting go of our grip. What if we let go, and let the winds carry us, and live our lives suspended in the atmosphere, in a spirited dance with kites and clouds?
It’s a lovely idea, in any case.
And, moreover, it’s entirely tied to my relationship with food.
This is about body acceptance, yes. That part is self-explanatory. But it is also about mystery, and it is about trust. I have, over the last few months, come to terms with the mystery of the universe.
All of the answers to the Big Questions are ultimately unknownable to us. The trick is to understand that the answers to small questions are always mysteries, too. We have science, and it’s a decent description of what’s going on in reality, but we are rather kidding ourselves if we think that we ever really know anything for certain. Scientific theories evolve, point blank. And so much data out there is unknown, the very fabric of our beings being completely mysterious to us. Who am I to say whether or not our actual thoughts live in our cells and affect our physiological health? They very well might, and a fair bit of evidence seems to point towards the fact that they do. But we cannot know. And much as I know that soy and dairy cause my acne, I’m not 100 percent sure why. Maybe 98 percent, but not 100. And other hormone flucutations occur all the time that I just cannot ever know the truth of.
Things happen, and it’s important to think about and to troubleshoot why. But perhaps the most important skill in life that I have unearthed so far is learning to discern the line between what we can know and control and what we cannot.
Let go of what you cannot, and be free.
“It’s all the marvelous play of God,” says Lao-Tzu. “Wake up, you are already free!”
I like that very much.
It also has to do with trust. Much as we have to acknowledge our inability to control everything, we also have to trust things outside of our mental selves. This has been the most recent portion of my journey with food. As I have begun to comes to terms with the ultimate mystery of the universe and of my body, so have I come to trust my natural hunger drives.
I ignore a lot of what I can find and read on the internet. I don’t want to hear about what macronutrient ratios are best for mental health or weight loss or anything like that. I eat when my body says eat, and if I do not restrict myself or worry about what I am eating, then I am completely and easily capable of stopping when my body starts to be sated. Then I eat again, and guitlessly, when it wants to eat again. Without restriction, without perfection, without fear, and with love, and acceptance, and trust, I eat well. Sure, I still keep distant track. Sure, I still am thin. Hell yes I get tripped up from time to time. But decreasingly so as I move forward, and as always, I bear in mind my years-long saying to my audience and clients: “Progress is made in baby steps, not in leaps. We can never ask for a cure, but for love, and for progress, even if we step back from time to time.”
When I turned toward trust and away from fear, I was able to let go of my heavy reliance on vegetables as a source of grazing, overeating, and calories. This heavily reduced my fiber intake, as well as my intake of goitrogens. I began eating truly as much and of whatever I needed at the time. I did not write off any paleo foods, I did not restrict, I did not confine myself arbitarily based on perfection. This lead to a somewhat natural falling out to three to four meals per day of equal macronutrient intake, but that came after a long road of peacefully accepting and eating high fat, high carbohydrate, almost exclusively fruit, and some totally oddball diets–whichever ones my body and soul were needing–for quite some time.
The coupled effects of these physical changes as well as my mental changes led to natural ovulation for the first time in three years.
And thus I sit today.
Which brings to me a final point, and one that was raised in the comments. Patti commented on self-esteem, and how important certain works have been for her in coming to realize her own worth. This is, gratefully, a piece of the typical disordered eating puzzle with which I have not had to wrestle too desperately. This was enabled by the fact that I had predicated my worth on my holistic person and pursuit of excellence. I had never actually sold my soul into my battles with acne or with my body, so I remained firm in my love of myself and my lack of apology for who and what I am. I believe that we are beautiful for so, so very many reasons. And I do believe that we are always worthy. I struggle with food as I have restricted and medicated in the past, but that relationship is just one aspect of who I am. It’s something that I’ve worked on, and, hell. I have always been as proud of that as I am of everything else that sits in my soul. I do not see any reason not to be. I am a woman, doing what I can, and I’ll be damned if I am ever going to relinquish my worth or my sex appeal or my ability to be loved based on a particular struggle of mine. They do influence it, but that is an important distinction. For this reason, I believe very strongly that we need to contextualize our relationships with food, and even while we are honoring them, as I am here, to constantly be aware of how little they define who we actually are.
I share this abridged but enormous story with you without any trepidation. I remain, as always, shameless. Yet more importantly, vulnerability and openness I believe are some of the most important virtues around, and I want us to be united in our journeys rather than divided. I am hoping that what I have shared, as with what all of my podcast guests and brave community members have shared, resonates with you in a way that is helpful. That is all.
I believe in life, and I believe in love, and I believe in myself, and I believe in you. The world is a terrifying place, but capable of holding us if we let it.
Spin blissfully on in the laughter of the winds, and leap, and laugh. Dance on the edge of life. It’s a journey, my friends, and we are doing it.