Invisible Things With Which I Still Wrestle
Posted by asher
I was going to write a more positive kind of post. In fact, I couldn’t sleep last last night night to save my life, and wound up writing most of one. But, honestly, I’m not feeling it today. Instead, I’m wrestling with the little corner of my mind that refuses to stop having anorexia. So, erm.
So, content warnings, I guess? Abuse, anorexia, attempted suicide, body shaming, rape.
I did not grow up in a body-positive family.
Probably most of us didn’t. Mine was almost certainly no less body-positive than usual—but things were complicated.
(More behind the cut. This one gets dark before it gets light again.)
My Mom is small and muscular—not Petite Lady muscular, but Closet Bodybuilder muscular; Female Superhero muscular (I honestly think this is kind of awesome, but I still feel weird saying it without asking her first if it’s okay). She also, like many human beings with insanely busy and stressful lives, tended to be a little on the fluffy side.
As such, she was eternally on a diet. This was before white people learned about beautiful women in sizes greater than 6.
My sister had the face and coloring of Snow White—and a thyroid that basically did nothing from the time she entered grade school, and a legitimately fat-phobic pediatrician who refused to test her for hypothyroidism because he felt that it was “overdiagnosed.”
Note that we’re talking about a disease that’s empirically measurable, here: a simple test would have revealed—and later did reveal—that my sister’s thyroid level was in the category of “What the actual feck.” But instead of doing his job, our first pediatrician essentially prescribed my sister essentially the same diet that I, years later, would impose upon myself: the one that left me weighing 85 pounds at 5’4″.
On the other hand, my sis excelled in school, and I didn’t, and as such I felt like our parents (both avid readers and unabashed intellectuals) valued her more.
I meanwhile, was everything my family didn’t know what to do with: smart, but bad at school; a natural athlete; gifted with a ridiculous set of eyelashes; and, above all, thin.
I seriously thought I was stupid for most of my childhood—but I was lean and strong and could trust my body to do what I asked it to do.
Unfortunately, the only one of these things that seemed to correspond to anything my family cared about was that I was lean.
Somewhere in my Mom’s house there’s a picture of me at five or six, not in any way the pudgy little kid people expect at that age, but whip-slim and seriously defined. That was noticed, commented on, and reinforced.
It became part of how I defined myself. A big part.
In fact, for a long time, it was the only way I knew how to succeed.
Is important to note that, in the midst of all this, my family wasn’t cruel about body size—at least, not that I saw. Mom is a good feminist, and tried hard to walk the “you’re beautiful the way you are, but for your health you should lose weight” line for my sis. At the time, that was about as close to body positivity as one was likely to get.
The thing is, actions speak louder than words—and it was clear that the whole situation made Mom wildly uncomfortable, no matter how hard she tried to keep that under wraps. And, in the end, my sis heard more about her failure to shrink to an acceptable size than she did about her incisive mind, her facility with the written word, or her fabulous design sense.
The same model applied to my failure to function at school: I heard constantly about how I could excel if I just tried harder. I knew that was incorrect, because I was trying so hard I wanted to explode. It didn’t seem to really matter that I was legitimately gifted in dance, music, and visual art—my family embraced the arts, but didn’t seem to regard them as viable career paths. It only seemed to matter that I was an unmitigated disaster in the academic sphere.
Thus, unconsciously, I picked up on the fact that what I had to offer the world was a nice body and beautiful eyelashes. I was a gay boy who grew up in a house full of women. My role models were young ballet dancers. In my mind, a “nice body” was thin.
I was thirteen when I spent a summer at a well-reputed gymnastics training program. Ironically, this would be the experience that ended my aspirations as a competitive gymnast: I was light and strong, but everyone else was hitting puberty and I was, essentially, still a kid. I was already taller than both my parents, but reedy in build. In terms of upper-body strength, I could no longer compete.
On the other hand, I returned home with the kind of lean, attenuated physique that one attains by five or six hours a day spent in hard physical training—and suddenly I was very attractive to a certain subset of the male population (read: the kind of assholes that find underdeveloped middle school kids attractive, ugh, but what the hell did I know? I literally didn’t know what what the word “rape” meant.). As a young, socially awkward, queer kid, the effect of this kind of attention was profound.
I fell into a flirtation with one such individual. I thought I could handle myself, until suddenly it was all too apparent that I couldn’t.
I’m not going to discuss the details. The end result was basically a year of hell, a solid case of Stockholm syndrome that would take years to undo, and a conviction that the only, only, only thing that made me worthwhile was my lean, bony, androgynous body.
I think you can see where this is going.
I don’t usually tell people this, but this is why I stopped dancing (and also the reason that, when I returned to dance in high school, it was through modern first, no matter how badly I will yearned for the order and beauty of ballet, literally because you can wear looser clothes). This was the reason that I didn’t apply, as a rising freshman, to the dance program at the arts magnet that would later very literally save my life. I no longer trusted my body—and at the same time, I felt it was the only thing of value I had to offer the world.
I believed I was stupid, but I also believed that I was desirable as long as I stayed thin.
But being desirable also felt dangerous. My whole world was terrifyingly out of control, including the only thing I regarded as an asset.
So I basically stopped eating.
Remember the diet my sister’s pediatrician prescribed? It was 800 calories a day. At one point, that was my goal (it later dwindled to 600, which is still the number my brain settles on when things get bad). My sister was forced to count grapes. I counted them myself.
For a year or more, I could wrap my own hands around my waist. I remained convinced that I was getting fatter.
I find this almost inconceivable now: I mean, not the delusional sense that I was getting fatter, but the fact that I was that freaking thin.
From where I stand now, I can see that a lot of my anorexia was, predictably, about controlling the only thing I could control. I had discovered, terrifyingly, that I couldn’t even control what other people did my body, but I could control its size. I could remain lean and sleek and androgynous—though increasingly I must have just been bony, even cadaverous.
I convinced myself that I was not, in fact, really anorexic because I thought it was fine if other people were big (in fact, big guys are still kind of at the top of my list, though it increasingly seems that I find the vast majority of adult humans attractive to varying degrees). Clearly, that meant that the problem wasn’t with my perceptions of body shape, but with my actual body.
Awesome logic, there, amiright?
In other ways, I retreated into a world of fantasy and delusion for a while. When you can’t talk about what’s happening to you, but you have to offer some account that explains why you aren’t doing your homework and why you never wear shorts or short sleeves, you quickly learn to lie, and to lie well. You learn that people don’t, on the balance, really want to know that things are, in fact, unspeakably bad.
You learn learn to control the two things you can still control: the story the world gets about you, and what you put in your mouth.
I was fourteen when I used a broken pen—the clear, hard-plastic kind that you can literally use to shank a mofo—to drill a hole in my left arm. The intent was to cut a neat little hole into the large blood vessels in each wrist, one centimeter square. The ultimate goal was death.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
My Mom wasn’t home. My sister was living with our Dad. My grandmother, who was legitimately gifted with a kind of second sight I can’t explain away, happened to be staying with us (in retrospect, I assume this was because I was such a mess).
She interrupted me before I could finish the job. We had never been allowed locks on our bedroom doors, and I wasn’t aware you could wedge a door shut with a chair. I had made an effort to jam my door with a heavy bookcase, but I don’t think anything would’ve stopped Gram. She was around eighty by then, but she she was a force of nature, and she loved my sister and me so much.
I told Gram I had cut myself by accident. She didn’t believe me, and I knew she didn’t believe me, but we pretended that she just really needed my company. I don’t remember what else I did that night, but obviously dying wasn’t involved.
The next day I went to school. Predictably, my arm started bleeding during art class. I tried to hide it, but the girl who shared my table quietly called my teacher’s attention to the problem.
I was hospitalized before dinner.
Even in the hospital I maintained that I couldn’t possibly have anorexia because the other anorexics thought fat people were disgusting. I liked fat people, so I couldn’t be like them. Again with the logic.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t so much be the actual treatment, but the side-effects of medication that broke the back of that first episode of severe dietary restriction. The medications I was given made me retain water and temporarily destroyed my metabolism. They also disrupted my balance and equilibrium. I had lost control even of my body, so there was little point in trying to control it.
I’d like to say that cured me, but it didn’t. As soon as I could manage it, as soon as I moved out of my Mom’s house, I starved myself back down down to a BMI of 17.
Since then I’ve struggled intermittently with this thing. Ironically, ballet helps—first because you can’t actually starve yourself and expect to dance well for long; second because it has taught me to trust my body again and to appreciate it for something other than androgynous leanness.
At my “fighting weight,” I’m just a dancer, like other dancers: lean but strong, possessed of a kind of masculine grace I didn’t used to appreciate in myself.
Right now, though, I’m six pounds up, the world is on fire, and I’m struggling with this beast again.
I recognize that a lot of of it is this: things feel insanely out of control.
My country seems to be steering full steam ahead for for the nearest dangerous rocky shoal. People I care about are standing on precarious slopes. Decisions being made by people in power threaten all kinds of civil liberties for all kinds of people. They also directly threaten D’s livelihood (he specializes in treating adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, whose Healthcare is government-funded) and mine (I’m an artist; of you crash the economy, artists feel feel it fast). That’s part of it.
But, just as much, the life that I’ve carefully constructed like a divided dinner plate is losing its barriers. People I take class with are becoming friends. My facebook is connected to my Instagram, which isn’t connected to my blog, but since they share a title I’m terrified that my dance peeps are going to roll up in my blog and tell me I’m insane (and be really, really annoyed with me for writing about class).
That’s also part of it.
And this thing with being a performing artist is sort of weirdly taking off, and that’s both thrilling and terrifying. It’s like stepping out onto a high wire, knowing there might be some asshole on Terra Firma with tin snips and a grudge. Oh, and then there’s the housework. And the book-keeping. And the fact that I’m still in limbo about surgical correction for the whole Dances with Moobs problem.
All of that feels pretty out of control.
Likewise, for me, the six pounds makes ballet technique harder: simply put, my thighs are already big enough that a little extra fluff can hose up my fifth. Sure, it’s still pretty good, but I was closing in on reliably perfect.
And, ultimately, like so many people who struggle with anorexia, I am by nature and by training a relentless perfectionist.
So that little gap in my fifth?
It fecking well drives me mad.
Experience has taught me that this, too, will pass. I know my body well enough to know that it’ll get back to its “fighting weight” soon enough.
Just, right now, I’m wrestling the furious frustration of not quite being able to put this anorexia thing to bed once and for all.
I’m not giving in to it. I’m still more or less driving the train.
But the internal struggle is on; the one between the voice in my head that calmly informs me that if I don’t shed six pounds by Thursday, it’s because I’m weak, and the other, newer voice—a healthy, logical voice that reminds me, “You dance and train like twenty hours a week. Relax.”
For what it’s worth, this—for me—is still about me. Like I said: I like all kinds of bodies: all kinds except the one specific and unique kind that is this body; my body. On somebody else I’d look at it and go, “Hey, he’s cute.”
On myself, though?
Check back with me in a couple of weeks, when things start to feel a little calmer (or don’t), when I’ve adjusted to the latest subspecies in my ever-evolving schedule.