A snake in my head
We all have memories that stand out in our minds for some reason, moments we can recall and feel like we’re in them, even years after they’ve happened. One such memory for me is my friend Danica telling me about her 100+ lbs weight loss. No doubt, for many of you reading, that sentence made you think something along the lines of, wow… that’s impressive! How’d she do it? But this isn’t one of those stories.
We were on the phone, as we lived across the country from one another. I was in my tiny New York City kitchen making dinner after a day of classes. My then boyfriend (now husband) was still at work.
Danica had recently been diagnosed with scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease that causes hardening of connective tissue. I pride myself on being very medically savvy and knowledgeable, but I’d never heard of the disease before that day. She was talking about some of the ways in which the disease was affecting her health. They included, she told me, losing over 100 lbs in a very short time.
In fairness to my younger self, I need to disclose how Danica and I knew each other. We’d met via the Weight Watchers online forums. Specifically, she and I were part of a group of women who all posted on a board called “100+ Pounds” or something like that. It was what it sounds like: A board for people with over 100 pounds to lose to hit their “goal” weights. We formed a small email group (yes, those were a thing once), sharing details of our lives beyond our weight loss efforts. I knew Danica had been unwell but didn’t know the cause until this phone call.
“Well, at least that’s a silver lining!” I told her cheerfully, as I swallowed the bitter taste of envy that she’d managed to somehow magically do this thing I could not do, had not done despite trying valiantly for many years.
“Trust me, Jules… no one wants to lose weight this way,” she replied sadly.
I do, I thought. I’d take it in a heartbeat, a voice in my head whispered. Just magically make me thin. I’ll sell my soul to the devil. I’ll give my voice to Ursula.
About six months later she was dead as a result of the disease I’d envied.
I wish I could say her death was my wake up call to just how twisted my thought process was. It wasn’t. I didn’t realize for many years how utterly fucked up what I’d said to her was, let alone how sick my inner voice was on the matter.
This is the voice of an eating disorder. It is contumacious. It is Machiavellian in its persistence that it is right; that you are inherently wrong and fundamentally flawed. It is a viper hidden in tall grass, watching its prey and waiting for the moment to strike. You do not see it coming. At the moment you even think you deserve it for being careless and wandering off the path. You believe the whispers it tells you.
And so, I did truly believe I’d rather have cancer than be fat or that I’d rather have a disease that was slowly and painfully killing me than be fat. There are those who would try to claim that my fatness itself is a disease that is killing me (a discussion for another time), I am still here - nearly two decades later and just as fat -and Danica was gone a mere half a year after her “magical” weight loss.
The worst part is, had you asked me at that time, I’d have told you I was “recovered” from my eating disorders. I was first diagnosed at 15 with non-purging bulimia, but my behaviors had manifested far earlier. Sometimes I fit the criteria for binge eating disorder, but that wasn’t even recognized as an eating disorder yet. Other times, I binged and then restricted my food intake or (far less often) exercised compulsively to “make up for it.” That is considered non-purging bulimia. However, I tried to purge. I tried desperately to make myself vomit, but I never managed to succeed in doing more than tearing up my throat with my fingernails. I am grateful for that now, but at 15 and 325 lbs I was much less so.
Today, I wouldn’t claim to ever be “recovered” from my EDs. I don’t think you are ever really fully recovered from an eating disorder. I think that recovery is like winter, and the snake has merely gone underground in a state of brumation, awaiting the spring.
In a weight and diet-obsessed culture such as ours, that snake has good reason to hope for a thaw in your defenses. With pervasive, outdated paradigms of what beauty or health look like flooding our social media and entertainment, it is hard to not feel less than, even for people who no one would ever call “fat,” even for people who, in actuality, look like the definitions of perceived health and societally approved beauty.
We are simultaneously made to feel like we’re not enough and too much.
If you are, as I am, actually fat it is worse. Fat is, as has become a popular expression on social media, not a feeling. It’s a descriptive term, not an emotion. It is, like many words, an insult because we let it become one, a word without an intrinsically negative meaning. Being actually fat means not finding clothes in your size easily (or at all). Being fat means getting substandard medical care. Being fat means you are constantly told your body is a ticking time bomb. You are on the verge of death every moment of every day. And when you die, no matter the cause, it will be because you were fat and you won’t even deserve mourning because you did this to yourself. You are a burden on society and the world will be better off once you’re gone anyway. In fact, maybe you should just kill yourself now and save the taxpayers (something a troll once told me on YouTube).
No matter how emotionally strong you are these messages have an impact, and it’s not a good one. Fat shaming does not lead one to health. In fact, it often has the exact opposite effect, making fat people less likely to take care of themselves. What’s the point when even an appointment for strep throat turns into a lecture about your weight? Why take care of something you’ve been taught to hate, something so reviled and feared that when you see yourself represented in the media at all it’s either as a joke (and almost always portrayed by a thin person wearing a fat suit) or as the headless bodies used to warn others of the horror that awaits them if they don’t take whatever means necessary to prevent it. They are stripped of their humanity and used as a warning label against fatness, propagating the idea that there is nothing worse than being fat.
This does not just hurt the actual fat people who have to hear this kind of fear-mongering rhetoric, who have to watch people pretending to have bodies that look like theirs be laughed at and mocked. It also hurts people who are thin, who internalize these messages and, in some cases, go to extremes to prevent themselves from ever becoming fat. Or who, thanks to their own unwanted inner voices, already think they are fat.
The world has to protect us fatties from ourselves, and so now calorie counts, fat grams and carbs need to be labeled in ginormous text on menus and packaging for our own good. It was hard enough to resist looking at nutrition labels in the early days of my eating disorder recovery, but I learned to do it because it was better for me. Now, though, I can frequently see the calorie count from halfway across a room. It’s on menus. This does not help me or anyone else in the recovery process. You may think (and some will even say it), but look at you. Clearly, you need that information, so it’s better that you can’t avoid it.
Yet, even if you truly believe people in bodies like mine “deserve” this information whether or not we want it, there are others in ED recovery you’d certainly not think are somehow “better off” because they can see those numbers; the young girl who starved her body to 85 lbs, who has worked so hard at recovery, only to see the caloric content of something she’s eating as part of the recovery process and panic, or the bulimic who throws up after eating the Big Mac because it had too many calories, even though the last time she had a binge/purge cycle she wound up in the ER from heart irregularities caused by dangerously low electrolytes. And she doesn’t even look “sick” to you, by virtue of being thin — but not too thin.
If it were just a one-time thing, it might be easier for them (and myself) to battle. But it’s a relentless bombardment of information that is dangerous to those of us with that snake lying in wait inside us.
When I consider all of this, when I take into account the ways in which the world has screamed be anything but fat at the top of its lungs, how is it any wonder that I told my dying friend her weight loss was a “silver lining” of the disease that would claim her life?
I wish I could go back and at least unsay that, even if I know the person I was back then truly believed what she was saying to be true. I think of the unintentional pain such a comment undoubtedly caused my friend, and I wince at that memory. But I also recognize that I was still very sick. Given that I’m currently dealing with a relapse of sorts (more on that in a later piece), I’m even more acutely aware than usual of that inner voice’s twisted mentality.
Now, when I hear whispers in my head like these I recognize them as my eating disorder’s machinations. I just wish I didn’t have them at all. For almost a decade I rarely did. Sadly, I’m not sure I’ll ever know that kind of inner peace again.
At least I know that, despite what others might think, I do not deserve this hell simply because my body, which is my home, doesn’t meet societal ideals. Since I most definitely didn’t always believe that, it’s growth and I’ll take it while I try to guide myself back onto the path, out of reach of the snake’s venomous bite.