When I was deep in the throws of the eating disorder people often asked what would bring on a binge. And at the time I didn’t know--couldn’t say, which was a very particular (and crippling) sort of frustration. I knew that mostly it was a feeling, but I couldn’t say what that feeling was.
The truth is I was mistaking many, many feelings for one. And so the process of getting better was the act of untangling each--one at a time--holding them up to the light and giving them a name: anxiety, which is different than fear, which is different than sadness, which is different than frustration, which is different than anger. Altogether the tangle of them resulted in discomfort, which is a very boring word for an experience so few of us are equipped to handle, making it, actually, a pretty dangerous thing.
I ate to supplant the very physical feeling that is discomfort with the the very physical feeling that is food and it’s associated pleasure-reward system.
Now, of course, I can also say that I was hungry on a cellular level that was large and unfathomable and took many, many years to satiate. Turns out, that’s something that happens when you starve yourself (clever, clever evolution and its insurance policy that we actually eat).
Sometimes, while walking home, or standing on the subway, or sitting at my desk, I am still struck by how physical a feeling can be, and I’ll think: existing in this physical form, in this particular moment, is nearly unbearable. I used to think, I hate my body. But as it turns out “I hate my body” was reductive. My thinking brain was attempting to make something incredibly complicated and nuanced, easily understood. But it was wrong--I was wrong; I didn’t hate my body, I hated the experience of inhabiting my body, which is an altogether different thing. But because I didn’t understand that, or didn’t have words for it, I said again and again, I hate my body, I hate my body, I hate my body. And when you say something enough times, it tends to become true. Because actually words do matter--in fact, few things matter so much. Language is an abstraction of experience, which means it both explains and informs our experience. How we talk about the world--and the things or people within it--informs how we perceive and then interact with others or how we process an experience. The single best thing I did to get better was to remove any language that described my body or anyone else’s body in a evaluative way. Removing that language quite literally changed my behavior (so calling it locker room talk (cough, cough) may be an excuse, but it doesn’t make it any less dangerous--because those words inform the speakers' actions outside of said locker room).
The very best thing that came from six brutal years of grappling with an eating disorder is the ability to sit with my own discomfort. This may seem like a pretty basic thing, and it should be, but it isn’t. I have my own ideas about why this is--about how technology and the premium we put on convenience has enabled us to avoid the sensation. We swipe or purchase or mindlessly scroll so as to avoid and absent. But it also manifests in larger, more important and more pressing ways. I’d argue that one man this election cycle has climbed to dizzying heights by projecting a collective discomfort onto external sources: Mexicans, Muslims, women--anyone who might be considered other in some fundamental way. And that the real danger of Mrs. Clinton’s deplorables comment was that it turned the mirror--for a brief and terrifying moment--on ourselves, and a huge chunk of us simply don’t like what we see. But real change--which is what so many people are after--comes from this alone--from facing who we are, from untangling our feelings, and having difficult conversations--from sitting in and with our own discomfort.
For me it was food, for others it’s alcohol or shopping or sex or serial-monogamy. But it’s also not showing up and not telling the truth and shrinking one’s life. It’s allowing fear of discomfort--and the resulting avoidance--to influence our decisions and alter the course.
The past few months I’ve been struggling with some of the physical symptoms of depression, all the while feeling mentally quite well. Did you know that can happen? I didn’t. I do now. I am tired in a peculiar way that is bone-deep and comes on like a wave. It hits me while standing in the middle of the aisle at a grocery store, or while putting on makeup. I feel it at work when sitting at my desk--a band that twists and wraps its way around my torso. Often I think I can’t breathe, which on an intellectual level I understand as nonsense, because of course, I can. And yet, such is the feeling. Discomfort. Made up of anxiety and fear and frustration. But it's also worth saying, I am fine. I am actually, really, quite fine. I am sometimes blue and sometimes not. Emotionally I feel light, easy, even. I am not despairing or angry or overwhelmed. I am aware that my life is good and lucky--and I don't just know that, I feel it, keenly. But I also occasionally feel a pain middle of my chest and I think about the story of the princess and the pea and I can’t help but think there is a pea and it’s not under twenty mattresses, but rather hidden behind my sternum, embedded in my ribcage. And if I’m really honest I think that dam pea it is a question of What life do I want? What life do I think I deserve? And so the question of what is now worth the inevitable discomfort that comes from living well and courageously is pressing and immediate, and my body's call for change.
Sometimes I fear I’ve spent the last ten years writing the same damn sentence over and over and over again: Who I am and what am I worth?
Well now I must write this: What comes next?