How Illness Taught Me To Love My Body at Any Weight

1st-bodylove-comicLife’s funny like that. Recently I lost weight after experiencing a flare up of Lyme Disease symptoms and I was reminded of this irony.  I used to be devastated by weight gain, but now its losing weight that can worry me! For most of my life I’ve had a turbulent relationship with food and body size.

I’d struggled with disordered eating ever since I was a young child, possibly due to food intolerances and early autoimmunity and certainly influenced by the psychological stress of being raised in an abusive home.

Growing up I had unconsciously learned to direct my anger at myself and my body.  Even thought I had valid reasons for feeling angry, I wasn’t able to safely feel or process those emotions. Emotional expression was often shamed in my family and I wasn’t “allowed” to be angry with anyone but myself. As a result I grew up either internalizing or repressing my feelings and my inner dialog shifted into something critical and cruel.

By Middle School I had already been living with symptoms of chronic illness and PTSD for a number of years. I suffered from body dysmorphia and a debilitating lack of self-esteem. Adolescence is a difficult time for anyone and mine was further compounded by illness and trauma. The more stress and sickness I experienced, the more I sought a sense of control. I soon discovered that critically monitoring what I ate and weighed provided me with the feeling of control I so desperately desired.

By the time I entered High School I was in the grips of a serious eating disorder. Obsessed with unnatural thinness I dieted, starved, binged and purged, and excessively exercised. Throughout it all I despised myself and my body. No matter what I did, I struggled to loose weight. My body’s perceived stubbornness felt like a revolt against my best efforts and fed into my already heightened sense of insecurity and inferiority.

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For years my relationship with food was self-destructive. I hated my body and felt like a failure because I wasn’t thinner.

Looking back I realize that even at my heaviest I had a good figure with va-va-voom curves. Unfortunately, the culture of the early 90’s idolized the gaunt-looking Calvin Klein models of Heroine Chic. By comparison I was grotesquely obese and that’s how I felt.

This breaks my heart, but I also thought I was hideously ugly. The self-hatred I experienced as a young woman was a near constant source of emotional toxicity. Every time I saw my reflection I saw a monster.

I have a lot of compassion for my younger self and the challenges she faced. My self-destructive behaviors were in fact strategies for emotional survival. I took all of the rage, fear, and shame that I was unable to process, and distilled it into precise numerical goals to obsessively strive for: calories and pounds.

Eating disorders offered me a way to cope, and I wouldn’t be here today were it not for my resourcefulness. Understanding this has allowed me to forgive myself for the harm I caused during those turbulent years, something that’s been crucial for moving forward.

By the time I hit my 20’s I had made some real progress with my mental health thanks to talk therapy and a growing number of self-care practices, but my physical health remained poor. I’d grown used to the aches, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, indigestion and sleep deprivation that had become daily companions. In a way they’d become “white noise” discomforts. Then suddenly around my 24th birthday everything shifted, and my health quickly went from bad to worse.

I still don’t fully understand why my health nose dived the way it did that year. Perhaps my body finally reached a point where it could no longer support the burden of long term illness, and perhaps it was just time for me to start healing on a deeper level.

Around the time that my illnesses worsened, I’d begun to include more wheat, eggs, nightshades and dairy. My intentions were good (I was striving to eat more locally) but now that I know I’m highly intolerant of wheat and autoimmune, I think my decision to introduce bread, among other foods, was a disastrous one.

A few years earlier, after a decade of high carb (and let’s be honest, high sugar) vegetarianism and veganism, I’d fallen madly in love with traditional Japanese cooking. It’s simple flavors and elegant presentation had inspired me to cook and eat in a whole new way. 

My Japanese inspired diet was primarily unprocessed, plant based, and almost entirely gluten-free. Eating this way didn’t stop the progression of my illnesses, but it did help me to gain some much needed food sanity. I was still weight conscious and mindful of portions, but I no longer counted calories and I’d found greater peace with my self-image.

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I loved eating traditional Japanese foods,  but ultimately they didn’t stop me from feeling increasingly “unwell.”

The inclusion of more inflammatory foods like wheat seemed to trigger my old disordered thinking and eating. Chronically puffy and highly anxious, I began to weight my food and count calories again. In order to loose weight and manage the fearful agitation my mood medications failed to sedate, I joined a gym and began manically exercising.

From there I gradually relapsed into patterns of food restricting and binging and purging. Once again, food and I were at odds and my body had become an enemy, something alien and vindictive, set upon sabotaging me. I was back in the throws of disordered eating and body loathing.

As I developed an increasing number of medical conditions, I began to unexpectedly loose weight. I’d stopped being able to properly digest solid food, my stomach would fail to empty, and ingesting any fat resulted in painful gallbladder attacks. My fiancé and I used to joke that my life was like a Medical Mysteries marathon because of all my strange new ailments. 

Along with my new GI problems, I had terrible daily migraines, vertigo, crippling boydwide pain, muscle weakness, and a mental health status of “crazy pants.” Obviously none of these encouraged a normal appetite or eating habits. In and out of hospitals and emergency rooms, I was prescribed a multitude of medications to ease my symptoms, but the various pills often made me feel worse. 

I ended up with a long list of “incurable” disorders and was told I’d be on prescription pills for the rest of my life. Not only was I a wreck,  but the medical establishment was telling me I’d no hope of ever getting better.  Heavily medicated and seemingly out of options, I was equal parts shocked, frustrated, and devastated.

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By the time “chronic and severe nausea” made my list of symptoms, I’d settled into a cycle of accepting I couldn’t eat and abstaining from all food and alternatively giving in to my overwhelming hunger and gorging on the contents of the fridge. Only to have it all immediately come back up. After years of battling bulimia, the irony of my new situation wasn’t lost on me. But this was differentI felt scared and confused and the pounds kept dropping. 

I could no longer work or go to school, I was clinically depressed, and increasingly dependent on others for help with day to day living due to impaired mobility. Life, and I quote, sucked. Yet, I remember a strange surge of elation when I first fit into a pair of size 1 jeans. For so many years I’d dreamed of being that skinny.

And finally I was. I recall thinking: I may be seriously sick with a mystery disease, but at least my thighs look great! I guess I’ve always had a knack for finding the silver lining, even when it requires a somewhat warped perception.

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All my life the media had told me that this look was beautiful. Unfortunately it felt awful. And it was about to get much worse.

As time went on, my health continued to deteriorate. At first it felt fancy to be model-thin. But I couldn’t really enjoy it because I quickly become to sick to go out. Or even get up. Within a year I’d become bed ridden and gone from celebrity-lean to shockingly skeletal.

My bones protruded through ashen goose-pimpled skin. I was too weak to hold myself up and had to be carried to the bathroom and then propped up on the toilet so I wouldn’t topple over and badly bruise. It seemed unbelievable that this was my life and I frequently felt helpless and hopeless.

All in all I’d lost over 40 pounds by the peak of my illness, which was quite substantial on my small frame. I’d dropped well below my old anorexically inspired ideal weight and it’d brought me none of the triumph or confidence I had falsely assumed it would.

More than the incessant blinding pain, the increasingly frequent neurological symptoms, the deterioration of my individual organs, or how my consciousness would spontaneously punch out, as if on it’s own private schedule, it was my wasting away that truly terrified me. 

Again I’d become afraid to look at myself and would avert my eyes as I was being helped to bathe or dress. There was no way I could witness my frail, greying body and ignore the truth that it was failing me.  Over and over I had the startling realization that my body was actually dying all around me.  The systemic pain that I felt was this: the slow death of my physical self. “Wait, wait!” I pleaded with my body, “I’m alive in here, you can’t die or I’ll die too!”

I realized that my whole life I’d taken my body for granted. I had pushed it and punished it.  I had assumed that I could could continue ignore it’s pleading cries for rest and nourishment and kindness indefinitely, and still survive. Because I’d always had a body, I didn’t occur to that it was something I could loose, that it could collapse into decay all around me and eventually take me with it.

The reality that I depended on this one and only irreplaceable body for my very existence was a brutal shock. And it meant one thing: if I was to live, and I didn’t know if I would, I had to learn an entirely new way of living. I was going to have to learn to work with my body not against it.

I was going to need to develop the love and appreciation it had always deserved. I was going to need to learn how to take care of myself as if I was precious, and by doing so I came to understand that I am.

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No matter what I weigh, I’m now healthier and much, much happier!

For the next several years, as I slowly healed myself from that severely critical state, I remained underweight. Two years ago I celebrated my first weigh-in at the Doctor’s office where I qualified as being at a “normal” weight. I was so happy I cried. Even through I’d already been declared medical stable by that point, having finally put on weight seemed like a sign of true progress, and of health regained.

As I’ve healed and learned to love myself I’ve undergone a profound shift in how I relate to my body, food, and weight. I no longer engage in self-destructive dieting or cycles or binging and purging. At long last I am free from the disordered eating that had long plagued me.

It’s taken time, and a commitment to choosing nourishment over numbers. My dedication to cooking and eating whole foods, as well as avoiding the processed stuff and foods I’m intolerant to has been an important part of my recovery.

I’ve also had to practice sitting with my feelings, find internal sources of comfort, letting myself be vulnerable, and when I need it, reaching out for support. I may not have had the resources I needed when I was younger, but as an adult I am empowered to seek help when I need it, and from multiple sources.

Empowerment isn’t about increasing self-sufficiency, but cultivating a willingness to seek help even when it’s scary and an having an openness to receiving it in all its forms.

2nd-BodyLove-ComicLearning to take care of myself and listen to my body has been a process. With practice self-care became easier until now its second nature. Because I no longer take my body, or the life it enables me for granted, I make a conscious choice to take loving care of myself.

It’s not about adopting a new health-based form of perfectionism, but letting go of my need for control, accepting what is, and being my own best friend no matter what arises. Ultimately, it’s been about Love and lots of it.

Healing happens when I accept my past, my body, and the illnesses it struggles with. I welcome healing by releasing shame, fear, and anger and choosing love, forgiveness, and compassion. Lots of nourishing food and the appropriate medical support have been necessary for rebuilding my body and restoring my health. But were it not for the radical shift in the way I relate to myself, my body, and my experiences this is certain: my healing would not have been possible.

Ultimately, here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Weight isn’t an indicator of health, happiness is.
  • Being excessively skinny feels awful. There nothing glamorous about how it feels to be in an emaciated, malnourished body. The media hype is just that: don’t believe it.
  • It’s cliche, but seriously, be careful what you wish for! Instead of having specific body goals, visualize having vibrant health.
  • I was never the “monster” I saw in mirror, just deeply insecure and in need of a ton of self-love; The antidote for self-critical thinking is always more love and compassion.
  • Recovery from eating disorders is absolutely possible. There is always HOPE.
  • No matter what you’re going through, there are others who’ve been there and who can help. You are never alone and it’s okay to share your story and your struggles. They matter.

Can you relate to any part of my story? Have you struggled with hypercritical body consciousness or disordered eating? Has trying to loose or gain weight been a source of suffering for you? I’d love to hear from you so leave me a comment and let’s talk!

I’m wishing you wellness!

“This very body that we have, that’s sitting right here right now…with it’s aches and it’s pleasures…is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.” ~ Pema Chodron

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4 thoughts on “How Illness Taught Me To Love My Body at Any Weight

  1. Great post. Wonderful walk through and what an encouraging display of courage. Keep on. Love your blog and your writing.

    CJ
    Tumbling Gluten Free

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to not being satisfied with weight and appearance. Prior to being diagnosed with Lyme, I was by no means overweight, but I was so focused on the idea that if I lost 5 pounds I would be the perfect size. I could not lose the few pounds no matter how hard I exercised, and little did I know the gluten, eggs and other food intolerances I had were contributing to that. Then I got sick, and quickly lost 20 pounds, looking so thin and bony. Of course I wasn’t satisfied with this. I never ever imagined being underweight and the increase in self criticism that comes with that.
    So I wasn’t happy being a few pounds overweight, and definately not happy with the “skeletor” look.
    Over the past year and a half, I have spent a lot of time working on my emotions and discovering my true self. I have learned that I need to be happy with myself and who I am, in order to accept my appearance. And like you said, focusing on healthy eating, living and thinking will get you there. It takes practice, patience, positivity, and a never giving up attitude. I have put on a few pounds and look healthier, but am still underweight. I accept that and know that it will come with time.

    Oh and I have a story that relates to our society’s current picture of being “perfect”
    -I went to a my friends wedding and the photographer had taken a few photos of a group of my friends, including me. He later walked up to me and told me I had the “perfect” jawline. My face shape has definately changed with the weight loss. I politely said thank you, trying to hide my sarcasm and humor I found in the irony of it all. I so wanted to say “do you want to know my trick…get Lyme disease which makes you extremely sick and lose so much weight you are 90 pounds. I guess that’s the secret to the perfect jawline. I wouldn’t recommend it. But thanks for the compliment.”

    1. Thanks for sharing Megan, I totally get it. When I was underweight I’d have women approach me and comment on my thinness in a way that revealed jealousy and contempt. I really had to bite my tongue, and then I’d kindly reply, “yes, I’m living with chronic pain and illness which does result in unnatural weight loss.” It’s so hard when you’re struggling to eat and people say “OH, you’ve lost weight, what’s your diet?” Ummm, dying? Haha! I’m really glad to hear you’ve found greater self love and acceptance. I’m wishing you wellness. ❤

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