When I turned twenty, I remember sitting at a white wicker makeup table in my yellow bedroom, and holding dark eyes in the mirror. In the terrible stillness of suicidal contemplation, every notion of the future hanging over a precipice into nothing.
I was fresh out of an abusive relationship that would haunt me and every effort for another eight years. I had left my straight-A scholarship in shambles, having been deemed mentally unfit to finish exams and papers. I was inconsolably bulimic, depressed, anxious and alone. It was my champagne birthday – twenty on the twentieth – and I was dead, trapped in a living corpse.
For a long time, birthdays reminded me of dreams I made over birthday candles in my childhood and teens, and the dissolution of those dreams in my twenties.
At long last, with a most recent and twenty-seventh birthday, that time is over.
This time, I had a birthday free from the grips of an eating disorder. Those neural paths still fresh in my mind, I heard my disordered thoughts around food and waved them aside. I wouldn’t say I’m 100% better. Definitely not. At this point, when I look in the mirror I don’t know if I’ll see a chunky tree trunk, or a lithe fairy. Depends on my mood and energy.
But in terms of the food choices I make, I have a keen sense of what I like, dislike, and love. On this birthday, with the company of a supportive boyfriend, I prepared and ate my favourite foods. Apple pancakes with sliced strawberries, topped with whipped cream, maple syrup and strawberry jam, and bacon on the side. Thin-crust, homemade pizzas with lots of cheese, meat and veggies. Fettucini and tomato sauce with big juicy meatballs and parmesan cheese. Triple-layer chocolate birthday cake.
Pleasure truly is the absence of pain. Thankfully most people will never understand the pain of having so many sticky webs of fear and judgement around food that simply selecting items of food to make a meal is a terrifying prospect. I had a few dewey-eyed moments during my birthday meals, soaking in pure gratitude for such culinary liberty. Oh, the pleasure of food!
The final piece in my ED recovery can be summed up in two words: shame, and empathy.
I’ve been reading this fantastic book my therapist recommended to me, all about shame, how to feel and deal with shame, how to see and respond to shame in others, and the critical importance of empathy in these matters. Shame is just a feeling, like anger, happiness, fear, anxiety. It can’t be allowed to singularly control my life, though it has been rooted deep in many self-destructive behaviours for years. You see, when I feel shame, I try to hide – from people, and from myself. I binge on everything – TV, food, porn, exercise, sleep, awake, alcohol, drugs, music – anything to fill my shameful head with noise. Distractions and entertainment are fine and well, but when I’m binging on these things, I don’t feel good. I feel anxious and numb.
The author of this book keeps talking about how much people hate and avoid shame, due to its very nature as a painful and isolating emotion that convinces people they are flawed and unwelcome. The solution to shame is therefor the connect with others, to practice empathy. Shame thrives in darkness. Where it is shared and forms a basis for caring connection, it diminishes, and even disappears.
For a moment, I almost deleted these paragraphs, but that was shame speaking. (Don’t tell people you binge on anything other than food, it’s too much! They’ll know too much, they’ll see, and reject you, and you’ll be alone!) Thanks, Shame. For your information I have tons of friends and they know everything about me, so screw right off.
Anyways I am too tired to keep writing. Perhaps I’ll edit this ramshackle post in the morning.
PS – here is a pic of the book below.