Trigger warning: Eating disorders
I love birthdays. I think it’s so fun. I love to celebrate the existence of my family and friends, and maybe I’m self-absorbed, but I think it’s good practice to commit one day a year to self-celebration, too.
But this morning, that of my 24th birthday, I rose anxious, my body tight and my head already full of thoughts. Not good ones. And the thought dominating all of the others, yelling louder than any other voice in my head, is the one whose throat is coated with seemingly endless, awful words. Slick with rigidity and fear, it lives to undermine joy for the sake of control. I wake to it already sinking its teeth into my excitement because it knows that birthday traditions involve food, and it doesn’t want me to have any.
Dinner has always been my celebration of choice, whether for my birthday or anything else. Long evenings with friends, dressed up or in sweats, out or staying in with a few large pizzas. Languishing around a meal, chatting, reminiscing, wine flowing. It’s my favorite kind of evening. But I struggle now to hang onto the joy these evenings bring me; it feels distant and nostalgic, the idea of not caring, of being able to relax and just enjoy.
It’s not for lack of want. It’s this voice that keeps me at arm’s length, and the deep want I have to fully experience this joy again is what really makes it hurt.
I like to think of the voice as separate from my own thoughts because I know I wasn’t born believing that I wasn’t enough, and I certainly wasn’t born believing that a path to achieving enoughness was restricting food in order to be thin. These are taught ideas. This voice in my head is manmade, not innate, cultivated in me by a culture that benefits from me feeling terrible about myself. It’s anti-human, anti-nature, to starve and restrict to control one’s appearance. But regardless of the fact that I understand this intellectually, the second I wake up, I’m more than likely already thinking about food. What to eat, when to eat it. Then, when and how I’ll work out and for how long.
It’s the anxiety that’s kind enough to let me know that my rigidity is a problem. We all need some discipline, and most of us probably need more than we have in some areas. In the right dosages around the right things, discipline bears beautiful fruit. We should be disciplined about following through with promises, around what deepens our connections and commitments to others and to ourselves, and sometimes the disciplined decision is the uncomfortable decision in the moment. But there’s a fine line between discipline and disorderment, between real and unreal, between human and artificial. Between what you want and what you convince yourself that you want, lies you tell yourself so many times that you sever yourself from the kind voices that I promise still live somewhere in your head.
Discipline is doing your homework. Disorderment is hyperventilating looking at a menu or making yourself throw up because you swear you don’t feel good.
Disorderment is waking up crying on your birthday because you can’t be in the kitchen that evening, measuring out the exact teaspoon of olive oil you’ll eat at dinner, thinking maybe you just shouldn’t go, suggesting you get sushi (a safe food) and eat at home even though you desperately want to go out, already planning breakfast and lunch and counting calories in your head to balance the anxiety of dinner plans, watching your partner’s face fall because all he did was ask you to go for a walk and you want to but you have to do at least 45 minutes of pilates first thing in the morning, every morning, or else your entire day will crumble and the world will end, or something like that.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about space. How much of it I have, how I should fill it. It’s a privilege to be in a body at all, and it’s a shame how much space I’ve filled with neuroses and calorie counting, the time spent examining myself in the mirror, whispering evil things to my stomach and thighs. That time could have been spent scribbling into a journal, staying in bed, dancing, cooking with a friend, breathing in fresh air, having one too many drinks because the conversation was too good to leave quite yet. How many times have I stayed home instead of allowing myself to experience the pleasures, big and small, that bring me to life?
When we give space, we give power. It’s funny, once you’ve given so much of your space (and with that, time, money, physical, mental, and emotional energy) to the bad stuff, it gets really, really hard to do the same with anything good.
For the majority of my life, I’ve granted fear much more room than joy. Low self-worth has covered me like a bad bruise and the voice and I are constantly fighting. Some days are better than others. Some days I can hardly hear it at all. But it’s lurking, always, and the deep truth of why I can’t quite snuff it out is because I know that I’m scared of who I might be (AKA how I might look) without it.
So instead I succumb. I manage a nagging injury and offer bits of appeasement to the Beauty Ideal instead of letting myself heal.
My partner leaves for work, and there I stand in the ruin of the last two hours, feeling alone and sad knowing I can’t take anything back, and the voice suddenly spits one last hurt at me.
“Look what you did.”
My first instinct is to scream and kick and cry and probably crumble to pieces, because of course it’s not me, it’s you—I don’t want you here and you know that. And today maybe I’m just worn out, but instead of leaning in and giving the playground bully exactly what it wants, I feel a defiant peace filling the spaces the voice has lived in for over a decade.
Strangely, that peace is actually because the voice is… right.
Accountability is a tricky line. Eating disorders are a mental illness, addictive, compulsory behavior rooted in trauma, culturally bred notions of beauty and enoughness, and the self-to-self relationship. I’ve struggled with food and beauty anxiety since I was 12, and I don’t blame that little girl for anything; the voice in my head has been carefully written into the world around me, and it’s not her fault that it made its way into my head.
But accountability and blame are different. Blame, especially self-blame, is a short road to victimization and shame, while accountability is a tool of understanding and agency. There’s peace in agency because agency is a path to true control, and that’s at least part of what I was looking for all along.
I sat there this morning, on the edge of the bed, quietly sitting with this thought, wondering what role I’ve played, knowing that continuing to only ever let my wounds half-heal will just keep me small. The voice has been circling me, a predator to prey, however I’ve been the one handing it a microphone and building it a stage. Getting better doesn’t happen overnight, I know that. But the more I flex that muscle to stand up for myself and not care what the voice tries to tell me, the easier it will become. One small kindness at a time.
Humans are finite. There’s limited time, and again, limited space. Which begs the question: What do you want to fill it with?
I’m learning, I’m always learning. I’m learning that taking care of myself and enjoying life are not mutually exclusive. I’m learning that food fuels the body, but pleasure and connection fuel the soul. I’m learning that being conscious of what I intake also means being conscious of whether or not I’m making room to life-givers instead of life-takers and that using my life’s space well has much less to do with how much physical room my body fills and much more with my capacity for joy, because if I don’t, it gets smothered, like a foot on a fire. Life is very serious but it’s also very fun, and I may not have found the cure for cancer or climbed Mount Everest in the time I’ve dedicated to picking myself apart in the mirror and watching models’ What I Eat in a Day videos, but I would have cleared the smoke around prettier thoughts. Been more present. At the very least, I’d have had more peace of mind.
Regardless of anything I’ve missed or lost, holidays and pastries and mornings I should have let myself sleep more and nights where I locked myself into a cage and forgot to live, I’m here now, and it’s my birthday. I intend to have my cake and eat it, too.