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A few nights ago, I had dinner with some friends at a barbeque restaurant in town. It was crowded and noisy, and downstairs, a country band was warming up for their evening gig. The whole place smelled deliciously smoky, like a house heated by a wood fire; it’s a scent that, when it hits your nostrils, makes you feel at once comforted and ravenous. I sat with my friends at a heavy wooden table and we talked over our plates of brisket, sweet potatoes, and mac and cheese. Not long into the meal, though, I zoned out for a few moments. While my friends were chatting to each other, I closed my eyes, felt the brisket fairly melt against my tongue, and thought: I am so glad I stopped starving myself.
The precise reasons I started are complicated, and not all that relevant here. Suffice it to say, I was very, very unhappy. I didn’t starve myself because I wanted to look like Gisele Bundchen and I didn’t do it because I’m weak or too stupid to know what denying yourself food does to your brain and your bones and the rest of your body. As I wrote earlier this year, I’m a feminist writer with training as an eating disorders awareness and prevention peer educator. I understood the political and the physiological implications of what I was doing to myself. But I did it because I was unhappy, and sometimes when people are that kind of unhappy, they eat too little or drink too much or slice themselves open. What I can tell you is that last December, after almost two years of hurting myself, and of hiding that hurt from almost everyone in my life, I stopped.
Late last year, I went home to see my family, and a few days after I arrived I arranged to have lunch with my grandmother. I called her the morning of our lunch date – we still had to decide where to eat – and when she didn’t answer the phone, I was concerned. I drove to her house to check on her.
Later, I would grimly joke that rigor mortis is pretty damn rigorous.
I wish I hadn’t found my grandmother dead, and I wish I hadn’t found her on my own, but I’m also glad that no one else had to experience it with me, or in my stead. And I’m grateful that she went the way most people hope they will: in her sleep, after a long and healthy life. No nursing home, no hospital, no life-saving medical interventions. It was a good death. And as is often the case, thinking about a good death made all of us, in our own ways, think about what makes a good life.
For me, her death was a reminder that you only get so long on this planet, and you might as well spend as much of it as possible being as happy as possible. For an almost-ninety-year-old, two years might not have seemed like a long time. But it felt like a long time to me – far too long a time to spend aching with hunger and castigating myself when I dared to take a day off from the gym.
I wasn’t happy. I was hurting myself, and for what? In the two years that I’d been eating as little as I could and exercising far more than I wanted to, I had lost perhaps five kilos. One dress size, maybe two. I was inflicting that much suffering on myself for five measly kilograms. I thought about what the rest of my life would be like if I spent it fighting genetics, fighting my body, forcing it to stay skinnier than it was naturally meant to be. It was a pretty bleak picture.
I don’t want to minimise the seriousness of eating disorders and disordered eating by claiming that you can simply snap out of them. An eating disorder is a mental health condition, and it’s not enough to just decide to be happy. I had professional help, as all people who are unhappy enough to starve themselves should. But asking myself Is this a good life? Does this make me happy? What will? shifted my thinking, and then, my behaviour.
I started eating again, bit by bit. I started questioning the cruel voice in my head that commanded me to run and run and run until I had purged every bite of food. Again, I want to be clear: eating disorders, disordered eating, and compulsive over exercise are not, at the core, about food or exercise. They are symptoms of a larger problem, just like eating more and exercising less were, for me, side effects of a larger solution. They were the result of asking myself, over and over again: Does this make me happy? What will? What difference has five kilos made? Am I healthier? Am I better person at this weight? Am I smarter or funnier or kinder? Is this worth it?
When I got back to New York, I broke up with the man I’d been dating for over a year. He was lovely, and he loved me a whole lot, but I didn’t feel for him in the deep, intoxicating love I knew I was capable of. And maybe I hadn’t been capable of it while I was so unhappy. But if you only get so much time on Earth, why spend any of it with someone you aren’t head over heels for? Some might argue that there’s a moment for “settling,” but if there is – and I don’t think there is – it’s not at age 25.
In case it sounds like I had one moment of clarity and then solved all my problems by going grocery shopping and changing my Facebook relationship status, that’s not how it happened. The road I’m on is a long one. As I wrote earlier this year, this was a hole that was very easy to fall into, but it’s very hard to climb out of. You cannot simply will a mental health condition away, and recovery is often a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process.
My grandmother lived a long and interesting life, one that, like all such lives, included its fair share of suffering and unhappiness. I plan to have a long and interesting life, too, and I’m not naïve enough to think that it will be free from pain and misery. So why would I inflict additional pain and misery on myself? Why would I waste a single moment being cruel to myself, when there’s already so much cruelty in the world? How could I be kind to others when my own heart was twisted and cowed by that unkind voice in my head?
All of this flashed through my mind as I sat in that noisy, smoky barbecue joint, savouring my brisket. Two years of suffering was enough. Five kilos wasn’t enough to justify that kind of self-inflicted pain – no number ever would be. I am enough. Despite everything we’ve ever been told, I am happier at this size than I was when I was skinnier. And holy crap, this brisket is amazing.
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