the body and growing confidence

I’m really excited about a development I want to share here. I’m feeling something growing in me that has been hard to find before. It’s the feeling of self-confidence.

As I’ve been writing here, I’ve been thinking about things that make me unhappy or are taking up mental space or are complicating my life unnecessarily. Each time I write them out I feel the pressure of them lift a little, and I see a little bit more of my unburdened self.

I’ve spent so much time trying to do the right thing, to make my body the right shape, to participate in activities that validate my existence, that I forgot that I am a human who deserves to be treated with respect regardless of my health status.

That is the most freeing concept and I finally believe it. The first time I heard it, I thought it made sense, but I couldn’t internalize it. “That’s okay for people who’ve really struggled or are disabled,” I said to myself, “but I need to get my act together.” I kept encountering this idea, because I’ve been working on surrounding myself with positive voices that affirm my existence, even if I don’t quite believe the positive messages they share. Over and over again, I heard people I really respect saying “You are worthy no matter what. You are.” And slowly I started to say it to myself. “Maybe I am worthy. Maybe I am.” It was a fragile thought at first, my self-esteem ready to be toppled by the slightest off day, the casual sideways glance interpreted as judgment, the latest look at my clothing size.

Now, though, I’ve really been able to believe this thought. I tell myself “No matter what I do today, I am still a worthy human being. I don’t have to feel shame for just existing. I am fine the way I am.”  This is a revolutionary thought, especially as I am coming out of a depressive episode.

The best thing about thinking this way? It’s motivating me to make healthier choices in a positive way. When I respect myself, I want to treat myself well. I care about taking care of myself when I accept myself. I’m motivated to work hard at PT, to focus on my healing, to shower and brush my teeth (depression is real, people), to go outside, to do my pushups, to jog a bit, to think about the food I want and need with minimal judgment (still work to do here).

This is a place I never imagined I’d be. I’ve heard countless people say that this exact thing has happened to them–they started to hear these messages and after a while, they believed them. I still struggle with the believing I’m okay the way I am sometimes, but it’s nothing like the constant shame and self-loathing I battered myself with in the past.

I’m not saying this idea will work for everyone. There are millions of online authors, thousands of people in my community, heck, even a bunch of people in my family, who say that self-acceptance at my size is self-deception. But I’d tell them that if they’d lived these two distinct experiences, they would understand that there is a clear choice of what is better for me. I’m better believing I am worthy, no question.

the body and reinforcing the brain

Recently I took a day off of work because depression had been kicking my ass all week and I just could not make it out of bed again. It’s a frustrating part of being this low–I have no energy to do basic things and fulfill my responsibilities, but enough energy to feel horrible about not doing those things. Still, a day off is sometimes inevitable during these periods, and I do my best to accept where I am.

Often when I have to take a “sick brain” day, I end up doing nothing. I sit on the couch and watch TV literally all day. The only thing I’ll do is walk to the convenience store or order delivery food so that I can binge while watching TV. It’s really not healthy or productive to making myself feel better. It’s just a pattern of behavior that I’ve settled into and somehow convince myself will make my mood improve. When it doesn’t, which it never does, I feel like shit for wasting a day, but I often don’t have the skills to interrupt the pattern.

This day, though, I did it. I walked out of the house this morning with the plan to go immediately to the convenience store to buy things to binge on and then rush home to eat them. For some reason, this time I decided to take a bit of a walk first. The weather was nice and cool and moving slowly but consistently seemed to be helping my mood. So I walked.

I walked right past the convenience store, looking at it, but thinking I could stop there on my way back. Then I decided to try to find another store to go to, maybe further away. I kept plodding along.

Eventually, I was about a mile from home and I thought of a coffee shop that I really like. I thought it might be nice to get breakfast and coffee there and sit in the sunny window and read. So instead of worrying and being embarrassed, I walked in and I ordered the things I wanted. I got a savory scone and a cup of coffee without thinking about who would be watching me while I ate or if it was a healthy enough choice. It was what I wanted in the moment and I got it. I sat down at a table and read, pausing to take slow bites of my scone and savor my coffee. I stayed for about an hour and half, indulging myself mindfully. After a while, the shop filled up more, so I decided to leave.

I walked out, not feeling good, my mood still down and a bit judgmental, but feeling more human and much less impulsive. I thought, “Maybe I don’t want to binge.” But I also was afraid to give up the opportunity, so I walked in the direction of the convenience store. By the time I got there, I realized something amazing: 1) I didn’t really want to binge and 2) I wasn’t required to follow through on that behavior even though it’s my habit. Whoa, that thought was revolutionary. So I walked home, still slowly, still feeling down, but proud of myself for treating my desires with respect and treating my urges with careful skepticism.

As my therapist always says, every time you act on an urge, it reinforces the routes in your brain that make that behavior easier. So when you make a choice to pursue a positive behavior, you are literally helping your brain to make this choice easier in the future. It’s hard, but it works.

I’m going to work on reinforcing this pattern. My depressed brain is slower and less able to learn new things, but it doesn’t mean it can’t do anything. I think maybe next time making a choice like this will be slightly easier.

the body and the past

A note from me: This post contains negative body talk, diet talk, and discussions of mental illness and disordered eating. If that will be triggering for you, I encourage you to skip this post!

I wrote in my last post about how I’ve spent 20 years feeling uncomfortable in my body and feeling like I need to change it through diet and exercise. I want to delve into some of the past that shaped that worldview. This is not to blame any one person or myself, but rather to consider and forgive my past experiences so I commit to my body in the present.

In that spirit, I present five memories:

1. When I was growing up, my mom was “very heavy” (as she would put it), and incredibly ashamed of it. My brother was a bit of a chubby kid, and I could tell that it worried her that he was. At doctor’s appointments she would look at our weight charts and make comments about how big my brother was getting. I was smaller when I was young, so I got fewer comments, but I feared facing Mom’s concern. I never wanted to upset her, and it was clear gaining too much weight would do that.

My most poignant memory of this time is of us sitting at the kitchen table together, her looking at me with intense pain in her eyes and saying “Don’t ever be like me. Don’t ever get fat like me.” This phrase cut through me. It still rings in my ears.

My mom went on to join Weight Watchers and lose a lot of weight, then gain it back, then lose it again. She’s kept it off for a while now, though she watches what she eats incredibly carefully. I hope she’s happier with herself now. I’m not sure what she feels about her body because we never talk about it.

2. As a kid through my early teen years, I was a gymnast. There is nothing like wearing only a leotard to make you suddenly self conscious, especially as a 12-year-old. I was constantly comparing my body to the other girls on my team. I was stockier. I was shorter. Where I got the idea to compare myself is pretty obvious, since one of my coaches particularly encouraged it. She told me that I was getting to be the biggest on the team and I should think about eating healthier. She told me I wouldn’t be able to tumble like I wanted to (my favorite part of gymnastics) and that getting heavier would only make the bars harder (my least favorite part of gymnastics). It was a targeted attack and it worked. I went home and cried and promised myself I would not get fatter.

The thing is, I wasn’t fat then. It’s not that this would have been okay to say to me even if I was fat at the time, it absolutely would never have been okay. But this experience just shows how even the perception of fat is feared, judged, and criticized. I was an incredibly muscular, incredibly fit CHILD. I was bigger because I was strong as hell and my muscles are short and bulky. But I still feared being “fatter” than my teammates more than anything. The fear consumed me and fueled constant comparison. I started wearing shorts and a t-shirt to practice over my leotard. I stopped eating breakfast and lunch. I devoted myself to losing weight.

3. When I was 14, I injured my back badly because of gymnastics. It was bad enough that I had to quit. My whole world was turned upside down. So much of my identity was tied up in being a gymnast and suddenly that was ripped away from me. I was pissed, just so unbelievably angry, and mostly I was angry at my body for betraying me, for taking away this thing I loved. In a bid to get control over my body again, I severely restricted my food intake. I weighed myself three or four times a day. I walked and ran for hours. Once, when my mom asked me if I was trying to lose weight, I shouted “I’m just trying to be healthy!” and ran out the door to go on a run. I was so afraid that she would try to stop me and take away my control. I lost more than 30 pounds. I still hated myself and my body.

4. In college, in a desperate attempt to regain some control during a particularly bad depressive episode, I began seeing how long I could go without eating. I ignored all emotions and pitted my mind against my body. I used deprevation as the ultimate distraction. I demanded full willpower. I thought about eating constantly and feared “slipping up.” I started going to the gym at night, working out until I felt faint. I never lost weight. I hated my body for holding on when I was telling it so clearly to let go.

5. I moved to a new city and gained weight. I weighed more than I ever had before. Now I was undeniably fat, there was no escaping it. I vascilated between dieting and bingeing; signing up for gym memberships and health plans and sitting on the couch watching TV and eating; reading self-help books on weight loss and telling myself “I’ll start on Monday.” Slowly, I realized that none of these things would make me happy. Slowly I realized I wasn’t paying attention to the world around me because I was obsessed with this one thing. Slowly, I realized this was not my fault. Slowly, I realized that I am worthy and wonderful just the way I am.

I’m still in experience 5, learning, always learning, about how I am valuable and how I can be better. I’ve written these experiences not because I want to be a downer or get pity, but because these experiences are so common. They are also so unnecessary.

As I said in the beginning of this post, this is not about blaming anyone. I love my mom deeply and we have a great relationship. My gymnastics coach helped me train for a sport I loved. I don’t resent them for what they said to me. They grew up in this messed up society too; they were just trying to protect me.

I don’t blame myself either. Societal pressures are tough to resist, especially when the people around you are reinforcing them. It’s hard to know how to handle problems when you have undiagnosed mental illness and think there is something about you that is irreparable. Society says “Have a problem? Try diet and exercise!” and if that doesn’t work you must be lazy or lying.

The thing is, though, that is bullshit. Some days it’s easier to remember that than others. But we have to try. These experiences are real and they are common and we owe it to ourselves and the people we love to fight them.

the body and my brain right now

I’m not going to lie, I’m going through a tough time right now. Depression has snuck back into my life and has settled right in my home–my body.

I feel exhausted all the time. I feel unmotivated. I’m falling behind at work. I avoid tasks because they just seem too hard. I don’t help around the house. I feel flat and unfunny when I see my friends.

This isn’t new for me. Unfortunately, I’m used to this feeling. I’ve dealt with periods of depression since I was 14, and periods of hypomania from 16. I have a mood cycle that is an inherent part of who I am. My body and my brain ebb and flow with energy and optimism. I’m fortunate enough to have medications and support that really help me out and keep my head above water pretty much all of the time, even when I’m having a super rough time. The rough times are never as bad as they used to be and I am incredibly grateful for that.

Still, I have a moderate depressive episode pretty much once a year at this point. I guess now is my time. Sometimes it’s triggered by extra stress or by the winter (hello, seasonal depression), but this time I’m just not sure. It sucks to have to accept this about myself, but fighting that this is happening only makes taking care of myself harder.

I know part of the problem is that with my injury I just haven’t been able to exercise. Exercise is a huge help in boosting my mood and reminding my brain that it can make happy chemicals. It’s also a good reminder that some things do still feel good, even if not everything does. But right now I’m pretty limited in what I can do. That doesn’t mean I can do nothing.

I am strong, and I have survived this so many times before. Every time I get through a depressive episode I realize how wrong my depressed brain is in perceiving the world and myself. I just have to keep reminding myself that my judgments are coming from an impaired brain and that it will not always be like this.

Here’s to taking deep breaths, trying to stay in the moment, and doing the best I can with what I have.