Content Warning: disordered eating, excessive exercise, and self-harm
I’ve been working on this post since December 30, 2016. It’s time to share this aspect of my story even if it’s making me shake as I write. There will be more time to unpack and reorganize my thoughts later. The beauty is in the imperfections. The beauty is in naming my lived experience even if I’m scared. Thank you for reading.
2016 was a remarkable year – literally.
As I was reflecting, I realized that for someone who isn’t very good at math, I did a whole lot of mental gymnastics and complex calculations in 2016. I measured nearly everything – even when I didn’t realize I was doing it.
So, in that spirit, to reflect on 2016, I’m asking, “how do you measure a year?”
Really though, what’s going to make a difference when you look back? What matters for days, weeks, months later? What’s memorable enough? What’s quantifiable? What’s not quantifiable that’s still important?
I could measure 2016 by the number of Tweets I posted, the number of good things that happened, the number of bad things that happened, the number of times I didn’t feel guilty about the food I was eating, the number of amazing conversations I had, the number of trips to the ER, the number of friends I lost, the number of friends I gained, the number of pounds I lost, the number of miles I ran, the number of times I dropped everything because someone needed me, the number of dollars I spent on therapy, the number of hours I spent in therapy, the number of articles I wrote, the number of “accomplishments” I earned, the number of days I over-scheduled to occupy my mind for every single waking minute, the number of fights I had, the number of moments I actually felt present, the list could go on, and on, and on, and on.
The truth is, it’s a miracle I made it through this year, and I’m not sure how I did it. I was crazed and compulsive, and my brain NEVER shut off! I mean it. I woke up exhausted from how many ideas and conversations my brain entertained while I was “sleeping”.
In 2016 I was out of control; even though the one thing I felt like I could count on was control.
Control for me is the ultimate goal. Perhaps it’s because I can recall so many times when I didn’t get to be in control of my life [read: abuse & chronic pain – although I can’t get into that right now]. I always fight my environment and circumstances to feel in control; it’s comforting, reliable, and trustworthy – except not really. It’s actually so deceptive. It’s a made up, abstract concept. Control reveals it’s malicious self when I’m not looking. When I feel like everything is finally manageable, the perception of control laughs in my face, and shows me how wrong I actually am [read: every excuse I ever had about compulsive exercise and not being hungry – more on that soon]. Control is a falsity. It’s a mirage. And, since I’m compulsive I literally get trapped in a vicious cycle of catching and chasing control. Striving for control manifested in a lot of ways for me in 2016. Since as early as I can recall needing control, I can identify how almost all of my attempts to ascertain control were various forms of self-harm. Most recently, it looks like excessive exercise and compensatory, disordered eating behaviors. Craving control isn’t glamorous, and any threat to that poses a likelihood for a compulsion to kick in – a false sense of manufactured control.
I started measuring 2016 by counting calories and miles – obsessively [Thank you Under Armour You Vs Year Challenge] . I ended the year the same way. I ended 2016 weighing myself twice a day, working out 6 days a week, eating one full meal a day, and purging when I felt too full or overwhelmed. I spent 2016 calculating how many miles I’d need to track to erase every indulgence, and every slip of self-control. I ended 2016 feeling “okay” if I ate the same thing every day, and being both proud and fearful every time I lost more weight. It was never about weight, size, or body image; it was always about control. I ended 2016 convinced that these behaviors were typical and not disordered.
In 2016 my identity was contingent on my accomplishments; my identity was consumed by how far I could push myself [read: attempting to run a half marathon while being malnourished and completing an intensive one year Master’s degree while working four jobs]. I tracked my the miles I ran (see below), and if you ask me I can tell you how my mileage totals correlates directly with the chaos in my life. When I felt most out of control, I ran more. It was so simple.
Side note: Melissa A. Fabello suggest it’s bests to “Never, Ever Use Numbers” when talking about fitness on social media. While I tend to agree and realize it can be triggering, I’m using numbers right now. I’m using numbers to illustrate and own my experience. I’m using numbers as literal data to tell my story.
I once described my feelings about running like this,
“pounding the pavement, counting each step, each throbbing step. Endure, push through, don’t stop. Determination. Thud, pound, pound, breath, keep going, don’t stop, sigh, sigh…”
I’ve also described running like this,
“I started running because it was the most brutal, ruthless, clearest way, aside from being a competitive gymnast, I could think of to tell my chronic pain that it isn’t in charge. Running is how I’m reclaiming my body. When I’m running I’m in charge. I’m strong, powerful, and triumphant.“
I channeled my mileage into training for two half marathons. The first race, I ended up in the hospital. I said I didn’t care, but I cared a lot! I was convinced I could push through anything but, my body had a different reality. If I was healthier, stronger, and had better intentions, I would have finished.There was a disconnect between my mind and my body. [Side note: There still is.]
So, the second time I trained for a half marathon, I trained smarter. I decided to think about food as fuel. The second time, I did finish! That was an accomplishment in 2016! In 2016 I ran more than 1000K! I ran nearly the distance of 24 marathons, and with each crazed, obsessive step I gained clarity, pain, agony, energy, and strength – depending on the day.
I ended 2016 both in denial and with a plan to tackle these perfectionist driven behaviors, and dangerous habits. I ended 2016 with a plan to be stronger – both physically and mentally.
I should mention here that living with OCD and overcoming compulsions or obsessions is not a linear process. I’ve had several bouts of compulsions in my life, and even if I’ve resolved one, it’s likely another will reveal itself or I’ll relapse – this is super context dependent (I learned this in 2016). Acknowledging this is a really important step.
In 2016 I graduated with my Master’s degree. Now I have two degrees – count that! I am among the nearly 9-12% (depending on the source) of people in the U.S. who hold an advanced degree. That’s pretty cool.
I also got a job! I love my job, and I love getting to say that I’m a researcher! My team is an amazing group of nerdy, collaborative, intelligent people. Each day my strengths are recognized. I’m trusted and respected. Our work is important. I feel productive and valuable. I feel empowered and supported. I’m appropriately challenged, and I’m always learning new skills. I feel happy at my job every day (even when it’s stressful)- that’s a relief. I am so lucky!
Many people have asked me if I think that graduate school was worth it especially because I love my job and learned so much, and most often my response is overpowered by my own ambivalence. Usually I don’t even want to be entertaining such a question. However, if I’m being honest, I hated graduate school. I have been working through a lot of issues such as complex trauma, impostor syndrome, and anxiety because of it. I do not think that it was worth it. Merely surviving should never be the objective. Although, it’s always an accomplishment. As much as I try to convince myself it wasn’t “that bad” the more I listen to my friends and recall several of the worst nights of my life it’s tough to deny how severe it was. I wouldn’t say that struggling for a year, being suicidal at times, and acquiring an eating disorder as a result of my unrelenting OCD was worth it no matter how amazing my job is now. In 2016, I learned how academia doesn’t take mental health and self-care seriously, and that it’s too easy to pretend you’re “fine” even when you’re struggling immensely.
In 2016, I also found and joined feminist writing spaces. In first publication on Ravishly.com I came out as asexual. I recognized my values and my identities were reflected in the topics other people were writing about. These writers and activists exemplified for me how to elevate and insert my voice into important conversations. My queerness is not the most prominent aspect of my identity, but being queer and owning it afforded me both a sense of connection and exclusion. The connectedness was electrifying. The exclusion made me feel enraged and small. And so, I wrote!
I was enamored with the connection and the energy! I became addicted to saying things, and having them matter to someone. I wanted to be seen, and to belong. I wanted people to recognize my identities, relate to me, and engage with me! My feminism burst out of me once I gained knowledge and started writing, and allowed myself the privilege of being recognized for and confident about who I am, and how my life works. In 2016, I became a writer, and found my voice – which I still think is really cool!
Awareness, Acceptance, and Action – Next Steps
I measured 2016 in events, logistics, and numbers. I allowed my emotions to be in charge when they made sense and they were manageable. Otherwise I silenced them. I convinced myself most feelings were too big, and too intrusive. I learned to retreat instead of express myself. In 2016 I mostly felt complacent – which felt good. Conversely, I often felt out-of-control happy, out-of-control sad, out-of-control angry… and those feelings didn’t feel good. I learned that numbness can be an everyday, acceptable feeling, and that being numb can carry you for a really long time.
I’m still doing the work to recognize, respond to, and feel – literally – what emotions feel like. Sometimes that means getting on a soap box ranting about how frustrated I feel when women at my office complain about the actual, never-ending supply of candy, and the perpetual body shaming and food shaming. Sometimes that means saying when someone hurts me, and calling them out even if it’s uncomfortable. And sometimes that means, recognizing when I’m happy, and sharing that joy with others!
The point is, once I started allowing myself to feel, I allowed my opinions to be valid, and spent time cultivating self-awareness – including learning about myself and my opinions about feminism. I realized there were so many injustices that made me absolutely livid inside, and I charged toward advocating for justice and equity. I also gained some personal insight into what emotions mean for me – which is definitely a work in progress.
I rounded out 2016 by signing a lease for an apartment in Cambridge, MA. I found a wonderful, accepting community of social justice minded, Jewish, young professionals to share Shabbat with. I am in love with the intellectual capital and the culture of Cambridge. I’ve enjoyed sharing the camaraderie of running in this compact city! When I’m feeling really good, I’ll even admit there are a lot of incredible restaurants to try too! I’m excited for the opportunity to thrive in a new, invigorating space.
I could measure 2016 SO many ways. I did measure 2016 SO many ways. Now, in hindsight, I’m finding it most helpful and fulfilling to measure 2016 by recognizing all the opportunities for growth and all the potential for the coming years. I’m happy. Really. I’ve got a good thing going for me right now, and I have an incredible amount of hard, hard work ahead of me.
2017 will be about embracing being simultaneously a masterpiece and a work in progress! I’m ready!
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.