Monthly Archives: January 2012

If You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going

Still struggling to pull out of the past few days of big binges and extremely negative thoughts. It would be so easy to slip back into living like this every day, retreat inwards, harm myself, spiral deeper and deeper into depression and isolation. Bulimia is oddly enticing for something so horrible- because to feel horrible is familiar, you know? It’s the idea of feeling even mildly OK that is new and scary and making me freak out right now.

For most of today, I stayed in my room and was bombarded by the negative voice. You’re fat. You’re disgusting. Nobody likes you. What a waste of space. Why are you still alive? I didn’t eat anything and that turned the head noise down ever so slightly. I felt lightheaded and dizzy and sleepy, all of which were preferable to feeling full. But I also couldn’t do anything.  And that made me feel a million times worse- I really was wasting time and space, useless, lazy.

So I forced myself to get up, get dressed and honour my commitment to play netball with the women’s team that I am a member of. We had a game at 7, training beforehand at 6, and I had to literally put one foot in front of the other until I made it there. The train ride was torturous- too big, too fat, too visible, clothes are too tight and show too much skin and fat, taking up too much space. My head was SCREAMING at me. Blasted music through headphones to try and drown it out. Head down. Don’t look at my reflection in the window. One foot in front of the other.

I made it. I participated, I trained, I played. I made conversation and came across (hopefully) as a fairly normal human being, despite what was going on in my head. And I felt better afterwards than I had all day. Endorphins are bloody great, a far better natural high than the vague, dizzy feeling of starving.

I’m so glad I managed to push through and achieve this one thing today. It’s not a big deal, but it’s no small deal, either. It’s one more step towards living a real life, a life full of the people and activities I enjoy and value, rather than being a slave to the negative voice.

And all it requires is to keep going, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.

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Beautiful You 5: a vision of the future

I haven’t written in a few days. I’ve been binging and listening to my negative head-voice, instead. Surprise! It’s made me feel pretty awful. When the binging takes hold I tend to get stuck in my head, not want to go out, not want to talk to anyone, not be seen in public. It takes a lot of energy to resist the voice that’s going, ‘Just kill yourself, you useless piece of shit.’ So doing a practice like this one- imaging my future and how I’d like it to look- had to be put on hold for a bit, until I was able to look out the window, take a deep breath and gather up enough stregnth to give it a go.

These are the things I want for my future:

I want to contribute to positive change in our world. It sounds a bit wanky and ‘privileged white do-gooder’ ish, but it’s true. By utter chance, I belong to the tiny minority of people on this earth who have access to education, housing, healthcare, social support and a neutral justice system- I want to make the most of these privileges. It’s part of why I am studying social work, why I volunteer time and other resources to activism, why I stay engaged with local and international politics- because I see it as my ‘rent for living on this planet’. (That’s part of a quote from Alice Walker, by the way).

I want to spend less time obsessing about food, eating and weight. All of the time I spend up there in my negative headspace is time that could be spent doing something else- something for me or something for others. Food has become the main way that I nurture myself, but also a huge source of tension, isolation and punishment. I don’t want to look back in old age and think, ‘Well, I didn’t achieve much, but heck, I know the calorific value of every food on the planet, and I’m ace at throwing stuff up without making a sound!’. What a huge waste that would be.

I want to nurture and support people. This is connected to the previous two points. Once people get past how I present physically, they usually come to describe me as warm, generous, compassionate, empathetic, strong-willed, protective. On my good days, I can see past my body and recognise these traits in myself, too. I want to use these attributes in my personal and professional life. I really want to be a parent/ carer at some stage in my life- through birth, fostering, adoption or a mix of these. I’m very aware though that in order for any of the above to happen, I’ve got to get a handle on my own shit first- including learning how to nurture and support myself in non-harmful ways.

Those are the big things that come up when I think ‘future’. I feel more on track than I used to about achieving these goals, and I know this because my responses to ‘hiccups’ along the recovery/ acceptance journey have changed. For example, I used to binge and sink into a thought process of ‘I’m doomed. This is always going to happen. I’m never going to get better, don’t deserve help, may as well keep doing it, all the quicker to harm/kill myself.’ These days- like the recent past few days I mentioned up top- it’s m,ore along the lines of ‘OK, you slipped up and it feels awful. But it will NOT always feel this way. There are other things in your life and the world besides the eating disorder. You’re gonna get through this.’ To which my inevitable grumpy reply is, ‘But wheeeeeen? Why can’t everything be wonderful NOW?’

Patience, grasshopper. One day at a time.

In 2012, I am doing a daily practice in self acceptance, guided by Rosie Molinary’s book ‘Beautiful You: A Daily Guide To Radical Self Acceptance’  Click through to her website to learn more about the book and join in yourself.  


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Beautiful You #4: Body Image

Warning: See that word-cloud image above? It gives an indication of what this post focuses on. There’s a bit of swearing, too. Don’t read on if it’s going to be harmful to you. 

23/1

I feel like this post might just turn into a continuation of yesterday’s rant on how (fucking terrible) I feel about myself and my body. I will try and answer all the elements of Rosie’s question though, which are: how has body image impacted your daily life and outlook? Challenges and triumphs in body image over time? What have you denied/ allowed yourself because of your perception of your appearance? How has your personality been affected? What have you gained or lost?

Geez, settle in comfortably folks, this could be a long one!

25/1

So, as I wrote in the previous post, my sense of self is almost entirely eclipsed by my sense of my body. And I absolutely loathe my body. We weren’t the greatest of pals before the entry of bulimia, and after 10+ years of a seemingly endless binge/purge/starve cycle we’re even less keen on each other now. The ways in which binging and purging physically screw with your body are widely documented- go do a google if you’re curious, please DO NOT engage in participatory action research!- but as a long-term bulimic I think the biggest fuck-up for me is that it has frozen my metabolism. So my head is constantly screaming, ‘You must lose weight, RIGHT NOW, you fat piece of shit!’ but my body is physically incapable of it, and is in fact prone to stacking on weight in case I betray it again and starve/purge (which, being bulimic, I do, frequently).

This is ironic, because like many eating-disordered folks I was initially sucked in by the massive, rapid weight loss that restriction and binge/purging produced. I had about 8 months in my early teens where I lived on Coke Zero, chewing gum, air and the occasional binge/purge episode. I was delirious with hunger and exhaustion (remember, early teenage years are when body is supposed to be growing, plus I was playing heaps of sport, hence was always wrecked with tiredness) but I loved feeling this way. It was like a high and it was all-consuming (pun intended). Home life was pretty awful and being able to escape into this world felt, at the time, like the best gift I’d ever received. And- for the first time ever- my body fitted into social standards of desirability. I had reached the holy grail: I was thin. 

Not that I could ever see it, of course. Bulimia fucks with your body perception like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I would grab at my skin and cry and scream with frustration at how fat I was, for hours. There are few photos of this time- I couldn’t stand being in photos- but those that there are show a normal/slim-ish girl, not the disgusting obese monster I saw in the mirror whenever I looked at myself. I got around in massive baggy jeans and jumpers, anything that I thought might hide the fat shame of my body. I would constantly grab at my bones- wrist bones, collarbones, hips- as if to seek reassurance that they were still there. I must have looked like a freak, certainly I felt like one.

Spolier: it didn’t last. I still struggle with this. What do you fucking mean, the body needs fuel and will go to extreme lengths to get it? What do you mean, I would gain back all the weight I lost, and more, even though I was now purging multiple times a day. I was (am?) SO ANGRY that this ‘magic’ that I had discovered stopped working, turned on me, and made me more hideous than I had ever been, with the added ‘bonus’ of a mental illness firmly lodged in my brain. RIPPED OFF.

And so it is from this place- of long term bulimia, yo-yo dieting, weight loss and weight gain, and of the elusive starvation-induced high that I can never seem to recreate nowadays no matter how much I purge- that my current body image comes from. I have such strong feels of betrayal and disgust toward my body that I want to hurt it. It’s a daily struggle not to. I don’t want to feel this way but I also feel like I have no control over it. I wrote a few posts back about the things I value and the way I want to live- well, I feel so far removed from that, so obsessed with all this body shit, and that makes me feel even worse about myself, and the cycle just rolls along, stronger than ever.

I am trying- really really really trying- to break the cycle. Bulimia is the challenge, and the triumphs are every small victory I have in dismantling the power it holds over my life. Victories like being able to eat in front of others, or in public- I can do that now, most days. Victories like donating clothes that are too small for me, instead of holding onto them for ‘when I get thin again’, like not watching ‘reality’ weight loss shows because I know they will trigger destructive thoughts and actions.

I had a pretty major victory last year when I allowed myself to be photographed for a feature article in The Age (daily broadsheet newspaper in Melbourne) about a project I was working on, developing inclusive sexuality education resources for secondary schools. I was able to get past the fact that people would see me, see my fat body and potentially judge it, because I was passionate about the work and believed in its power to make a difference in young people’s lives. That decision- to put my values and passions ahead of the internal eating-disorder voice- was one of the most rewarding and empowering things I’ve ever done. Fucking scary, of course. But- the article came out in print and online, and few people ever mentioned the photo, because the work was more important. One small step for Catherine…!

I’m still not at peace with my body. I still feel awful, ranging from disgust to despair to suicidal, when I look in mirrors or at photos. Because of how my body looks, I don’t consider myself worthy of loving or relationships and as a result I often feel very lonely. I endure people judging me by my weight, offering unsolicited advice, taunts and abuse. Every time I eat, I have to contend with a voice in my head that says I don’t deserve to, that I should starve, that I should vomit. Sometimes I manage to ignore that voice, sometimes I give in to it. I live in a body that I neglected for ten years and am now trying to reclaim, and it’s hard work.

But you know what? I am wired for hard work. I have survived to this point, and I have achieved a lot, almost in spite of myself. I have excelled academically, won awards and scholarships, done great work as an advocate and educator, moved out of home and lived independently. I have kept going when almost every part of me wanted to give up or give in. The whole time I have been battling my body, I have simultaneously nurtured my authentic self. Just imagine what I will be able to achieve when I can reclaim my body and unite both these aspects of myself. Bring it ON.

………………

26/1 Note: This post was a long and difficult one to write, taking shape over many days. My decision to include the last paragraph came only after thinking hard about what it is I want achieve through these practices. I realised I already have substantial strength and determination and that rather than channelling them into destructive weight obsessions, I need to use these qualities to move me towards body & self acceptance.

In 2012, I am doing a daily practice in self acceptance, guided by Rosie Molinary’s book ‘Beautiful You: A Daily Guide To Radical Self Acceptance’  Click through to her website to learn more about the book and join in yourself.  

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In the meantime…watch this!

So, I’m working on my forth Beautiful You post re: body image, but it’s big and scary and taking a while. in the meantime, I went and re-watched this amazing TED talk by Dr. Brene Brown on vulnerability. Sounds cheery, right? Well, surprisingly, it is. So if you haven’t seen it, check it out. If you have, watch it again and share it around. Also have a look at her blog and broader website, Ordinary Courage, for great writing on vulnerability, shame, compassion and all sorts of other life matters.

Full disclosure: I tried to embed the video into this post. I got angry at my computer and banged keys to no avail. Technology has defeated this Gen Y kid. The shame! So, y’all gonna have to click through the link. Sorry.

 

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Beautiful You #3: How I Feel About Me

Wow, what a huge question. Today’s practice questions how we feel about ourselves, why it is we feel that way, and what would be different if we felt more self-accepting. This might be another rant-post. You’ve been warned.

The pic up the top of this post comes from a Google Images search of ‘multiple selves’ and I used it because I love trees and the things they represent: growth, strength, deep roots and connections, renewal, LIFE. It also resonates because I often feel like I have multiple identities- girl/woman, daughter/sister, victim/survivor, lesbian, activist, epileptic, student, worker and others- and they all feed in to who I am and how I feel about myself.

And yet- there’s always an ‘and yet’, dontcha know?- the first thing I think about when I think of ‘myself’ is ‘my body’. The multiple, complex, intersecting bits that make me ‘me’ are reduced down to this one thing. A body that I live in and live with, but loath so much and am so desperate to change that it dominates my day-to-day thinking.

Most days I look at myself in the mirror and I want to cry, or hide away from the world, or kill myself. I look in a mirror and I see a body so far removed from what society considers beautiful, or even ‘normal’, and I know I have to present this body to the world and it just feels awful. I also see the body that many others have ridiculed and abused over the past 22 years, and much as I want to move on from that stuff, it remains etched under my skin, a body memory that rises to the surface each time I am confronted with the sight of myself.

It’s the hot flush of shame that rises when I think of insults hurled out of passing cars, ‘Go on a diet, lard-arse!’. Or, far more hurtful, insults delivered from family members and friends. Sometimes they are veiled in concern, ‘you’d be so much prettier if you just lost some weight’. Sometimes they are outright nasty. It doesn’t make much difference because the underlying message is the same- I am only the value of my body, nothing else counts. And my body- short, fat, clumsy, disabled, an object for others to abuse- is not one that deserves to be valued highly.

I have felt this way- that my body, and by extension myself are disgusting and unworthy- for such a long time. It feels like the default setting but a very small part of me knows this to be untrue- I have not always felt this awful about myself. I was born, as we all are, with no judgement upon my body or my self. I think I held onto that neutrality until I was about five years old. And maybe- just maybe- there’s a tiny particle of that still floating within me, and I can get it back, nurture it and grow it strong again.

There’s a lot of contributing factors to why I feel the way I do now. A whole series of blog posts! Perhaps they will come. But in a nutshell- I lost the sense of my body being OK when I lost the sense that my body belonged to me, and saw instead that it was something often used/ abused by others. By the time of my diagnosis with epilepsy at 9- see the previous post- any sense of autonomy and control was fairly eroded.

My sister, older by four years, was emotionally and physically abusive towards me from her adolescence onwards- about ten years in total, until I stopped living at home with her when I turned 18. I now recognise this as ‘family violence’ but back then, in my kid-brain, it was as simple as, you are not worthy of protection. I spent over ten years being told, never tell anybody what’s happening at home. Thinking, it’s only happening to you so it doesn’t really matter. Seeing on TV, ‘real’ family violence is a man bashing up a women. Thinking, if you were different she would stop doing it. Thinking, it’s your fault.

Of course, this impacted hugely on how I viewed my body/self. My sister told me I was fat and ugly and useless, nobody stepped in to stop her, I had no reason or evidence not to believe her. My own puberty hit, my body developed, she treated me far worse than before- therefore I blamed my body, did not trust it.

I initially developed bulimia as a coping tool. My sister could yell and torment and hit but she could not control what I did or did not digest. And- in the beginning at least- it felt good, to have this secret part of my life. It felt good to test my body, see how long I could fast, see myself shrink away signs of puberty. Life might have been hellish on the outside but I could find calm in the rituals and control of bulimia, retreating from violence into a place where the biggest issue to face was the number of calories in various pieces of fruit.

Here’s the thing though- bulimia is a fickle friend, short-lived. No sooner was I hooked on it before it turned on me. And now I had not one but two tormentors- one in my sister, the other inside my head. Together they made a powerful, looping soundtrack to constantly remind me how shit I was. I could escape home and my sister temporarily- throwing myself into school and exercise- but there was (is) no escape from my head.

Wow. I’ve just sat her for a good half hour, deleting the text above, re-pasting it, deleting again, putting it back. It’s amazing how much the silence and shame of the abuse still has a grip on me. I’m not in physical danger anymore but my body still reacts as though it may, at any second, be attacked. The idea of posting this part of me that so few see- but which is so integral to how I see myself- is incredibly scary.

Like I said at the start of this practice, there are many aspects to my identity. Like a tree, I grow and change and grow again. I hope one day to be able to move past my body- and the traumatic memories it holds- when looking to define myself. I hope that in doing this, others will also be able to look past my appearance and see the truer, more important parts of me. It feels like that time might be a long way off but each day of thinking, reflecting, writing, sharing- breaking the silence- is bringing it closer.

Tomorrow’s practice is on body image, so strap yourselves in folks, because it will another long one, featuring ‘Bulimia- The House Guest Who Has MASSIVLY  Outstayed Her Welcome’.

In 2012, I am doing a daily practice in self acceptance, guided by Rosie Molinary’s book ‘Beautiful You: A Daily Guide To Radical Self Acceptance’  Click through to her website to learn more about the book and join in yourself.  

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Beautiful You #2: Pledging Allegiance to My Body

Having just written a rather long post-rant about the impact of chronic illness on my ability to value and respect my body, it was strange to do today’s practice. But good strange. In reading the list of pledges, I was pondering what it might feel like to even start to consider some of these words as applying to my body, when previously I have simply written them off as ‘not for me’. It was good to do a little head check, as in ‘Get over yourself, girlfriend. You’re unique and special AND SO IS EVERYONE ELSE. These words of self-resepct and body love apply to you just as much as they apply to everybody else.’

Rightio then! Here are some of the lines I like best:

‘I pledge…to stop berating my body and to begin celebrating the vessel I have been given. I will remember the amazing things my body has given me: the ability to experinece the world with a breadth of senses, the ability to perceive and express love, the ability to comfort and soothe, and the ability to fight, provide and care for humanity.’

I love the idea of seeing my body as something that can care for and protect itself and others, rather than simply being a collection of deficiencies and deficits.

‘I pledge…to change the inner monologue in my head to one that sees possibility not problems, potential not shortcomings, blessings not imperfections’

‘I pledge…to love my body and myself today…I have worth just as I am, and I embrace that power.’

I think the two above might be the hardest of the lot for me. I wrote yesterday about my reliance on that negative inner voice as a distraction from thinking about more painful things, and I feel so exposed without it. As in, if I’m the one putting myself down first, at least nobody else can beat me to it. Exposure is scary. But so too is the idea of being locked inside my negative, inauthentic headspace for the rest of my life. So I guess it’s time to take the leap…!

In 2012, I am doing a daily practice in self acceptance, guided by Rosie Molinary’s book ‘Beautiful You: A Daily Guide To Radical Self Acceptance’  Click through to her website to learn more about the book and join in yourself.  

The image at the top of this post- of that awesome looking strong woman- is a magnet from a range of merchandise by folk singer and all-round superstar Ani DiFranco. Click through the link to go to her site. 

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Chronic Illness and Body Image

It’s a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for ages: the impact of having a long term medical condition (in my case, epilepsy) on my body image and self-perseption. Well, now I’ve got me a blog, and I’ve got the time to write, so here goes!

At Diagnosis

I was diagnosed with epilepsy at age nine, after a major seizure while I was playing the piano. One minute, scales. The next minute, bang, Catherine’s on the floor! The onset and diagnosis felt very sudden at the time- I went from being a pretty regular kid who had their fair share of bumps and bruises, to having to undergo all sorts of tests and assessments, and try a seemingly never-ending combination of drugs in the hope of ‘controlling’ the seizures.

I remember a couple of strong feelings from this time. The first was a sense of shame and embarrassment that my body was ‘playing up’: epilepsy is not generally a genetic condition, and nobody else in my family has it. Prior to diagnosis, I was a very ‘good girl’, independent and responsible. My parents- who had three children (including me) and a fairly unstable relationship- suddenly had to worry about me, and attend to quite serious medical needs for me. I remember constantly feeling like I was making my parents more stressed and unhappy than they already were, and feeling very guilty about this.

The other thing about epilepsy is that- like many neurological conditions-  it’s a bit of a guessing game to treat. The brain is such a complex, individual bundle that you can try drug after drug, and none of them will work. Or they might work for a while, then stop. Or (commonly) the drug might be fairly effective, but any benefit is overridden by horrible side effects. I felt like the epilepsy had taken away any control I had over my body, and I was at the mercy of the condition (and of doctors and their many drugs/ side effects).

I can look back now, over ten years on, and see all the warning signs: Shame. Embarrassment. Guilt. Lack of control. Mistrust of my body. And smaller things, like having my weight mentioned more than ever before (to calculate drug doses, to see if I was growing ‘normally’, on every form for every new doctor). My autonomy over my body was frequently taken away and given to others: doctors who rarely spoke to me but talked over my head to my parents instead, nurses poking and prodding, machines taking readings, drugs having all sorts of impacts and seizures which would not be tamed.

I think the hardest thing about being a child with a chronic illness is that nobody ever took the time to explain what was going on; to clarify that this was a medical condition with a random cause, not a personal slight on my character or something that I could control by being ‘a good girl’. I was treated at a specialist children’s hospital but I never once remember being spoken to directly, or asked if I understood what was happening. Nor was there any effort made to see how the diagnosis and illness was impacting on other areas of my life, like self-esteem or coping at school.

After the epilepsy diagnosis at nine, I was beginning to hoard and binge on food by ten, and had started vomiting and laxative abuse by eleven, which would eventually progress into full-blown bulimia. Is this trajectory purely a result of the epilepsy? Of course not, there were plenty of other contributing factors. But, I do believe that those feelings of my body being ‘wrong’ and ‘out of control’ that arose with the diagnosis- alongside no effort by professionals or family to ever challenge these thoughts- had a big impact on what has happened since.

What it’s like now

I still struggle with the reality of having a body that is not under my control; and that in fact is frequently totally uncontrollable. Seizures are random events that can- and do- happen at the most annoying times. Important meetings, a gig I really wanted to go to, a close friend’s birthday- epilepsy doesn’t know or care about these things. Epilepsy doesn’t care about making you look like a drunken fool on the train, or causing you to fall asleep in public and expose yourself to danger.

I feel a great deal of shame, and expend a lot of energy worrying about what people think of me. Do they think I’m lazy or rude or unreliable, when I don’t turn up to events because my body’s just not up to it? Do employers look at me as a liability because I can’t drive? Do I really deserve support from the government, in the form of a disability support payment? This extra layer of shame/guilt/worry sits on top of an already rather full ‘internal voicemail’ that picks apart and criticises how I look/ walk/ talk/ act as a fat woman.

I also have the ongoing battle of trying to educate neurologists and other epilepsy specialists about my co-exsisting conditions of depression, PTSD and disordered eating. All anti-epileptic drugs have a depressive effect, and many cause increased suicidal tendencies. Some take a few hours to absorb, or only work if taken with food, which becomes problematic if I’m fasting or purging. Many a neurologist has looked at me with disdain, as if to say, ‘Stop your terrible behaviours at once, naughty little girl!’. Well, it’s not as simple as that, buddy. And the drugs you’re asking me to ‘try and see’ may not be helping, either.

Epilepsy can be isolating and frightening- despite it being a rather common condition statistically, I know few other epileptics, and many people say I’m the first they have met. Having to ‘out’ myself as epileptic, to explain the first aid procedures, to combat the myths and stereotypes- NEVER stick a spoon into a fitting person’s mouth!- can be exhausting. When I’ve already got an internal voice telling me what a fat stupid cow I am, having to stand up in front of a whole room of people and expose another vulnerability can be…challenging! Or downright painful, depending on the day.

At the same time, I value the relatively high level of freedom and independence I have, in spite of the condition. I live independently, I work and support myself, I go out and have fun. I get dizzy and fall down and then get right back up again. I have a voice that I can use to advocate for myself, for others and for the epilepsy community. Sometimes I have to work hard to remind myself of these positives, but they are there and I am grateful.

Ending thoughts

I feel like this post has been a massive rant, and yet there’s a lot more I want to say on this topic. Maybe it’s something to revisit during this year. However I’m glad to have made a start at mapping out how these two aspects of my life- the chronic condition I live with, and the way I perceive myself and my place in the world- intersect and impact on each other.

The image above is from the wonderful tumblr ‘Chronic Illness Cat’ and gave me a giggle when I searched ‘chronic illness + body image’ on Google. 

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