Monday, April 30, 2012

The Story of My Body: Allison

The Story of My Body series is currently published on Mondays and Fridays here at Contentedly Crunchy.  Would you like to participate in this series? Email me your words and pictures!


This body is barely 32 years old and it’s already been pretty beat up.  But it’s also had some pretty amazing, could-jog-all-day times too (which, fyi, is exactly what happens when you follow someone else who clearly doesn’t know the course during a half marathon in a teeny town in Belgium that, in my defense, was very poorly marked). 

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the past few years lying on the couch wishing I could get up and go for a long run, when the reality was more like being pushed in a wheelchair by my mom.  That does wonders for putting things into perspective.  And there have been other times where I’ve kept running even after feeling like I couldn’t go another step, wishing I was still at home on the couch. 

The past decade or so has been filled with a push-pull of wanting to exercise and not being able to, or exercising and wishing I could stop.  And it’s given me a few scars—some directly a result of my own doing, some just bad luck of the draw.

The worst visible scar I have is one that I can’t really see.  After I had back surgery for the first time in 2002, that scar haunted me—I couldn’t see it in mirrors very well, didn’t really want to, but could feel the divot where they had removed bone, knew you could see it when I wore a bathing suit, worried about what my boyfriend thought.  Worried it was hideous. 

By the time I needed surgery again on the same area in 2010, I had stopped caring—I realized that chances were, it really wasn’t the worst thing if people focused on that 4 in. scar when I was in a bathing suit instead of on all of the things I was far more insecure about.  Which was good, considering the next 2 surgeries made that scar a whole lot worse.

The knowledge that degenerative disc disease will ultimately result in more scars up and down my spine doesn’t bother me anymore.  When I had surgery again last year, but on my neck, I finally had a scar that everyone can easily see all the time.  Part of me doesn’t mind that, either, and when people stare, it lets me give them snide looks in return (except for the lady in whole foods who rejoiced in the fact that my suicide attempt had failed, amen.  There wasn’t really anything I could do with her). I could probably have someone take a picture of them, but they’re pretty boring as scars go.

Because of the back issues, and some other autoimmune problems like type 1 diabetes, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with living in a pretty crap body while wanting to be an athlete.  I grew up wanting to go to the Olympics (I know, I know), and even when my interests changed, it was hard for my body to completely forget the habit of 6-hour swim practices everyday. I realized it was more how being active makes me feel that’s important, not what I’m doing to be active. 

When I lived in France after we got married, I threw myself back into long distance running, something I hadn’t done in a loooong time, to combat boredom and loneliness.  It was the healthiest I’ve ever been, for a time.  But the best part was using running to feel so victorious over running itself.

Running has resulted in some not-so-fantastic things a number of times over the past 18 years, so it felt amazing to kind of kick running’s ass.  I’m convinced there have been times where I could actually feel my shins crumbling into tiny stress fractures up and down my legs while I jogged on with the skeletal strength of an 85-year-old. (Though I’m pretty sure my grandma was stronger at 85 than this osteoporitic body has been at times.)  Sometimes it hasn’t always been so easy for me to say "maybe it would be okay if I stopped now." 

For me, running is tied up with a number of scars—some visible and others not at all.  In general, I secretly hate to exercise, which some people who know me would find hard to believe.  But I started exercising one day in 1995 and could not stop.  After years of being teased by students at a Catholic school where the faculty sang the praises of being good Christians—but who did nothing to stop the relentless taunting—I gave up and stopped eating.  And started running.  Outside.  In my bedroom.  Anywhere. 

In 1995, after losing over 50 lbs, I found out I was being taken out of school for a hospital program.  That Sunday, after already running twice that day, I decided I needed “one more chance” to exercise before leaving the next morning, not knowing that everyone there would tell me how to do jumping jacks in the bathroom, and which stairwell was always unlocked.  So I headed out in the darkness and ran.  And was assaulted.  At the time, it kind of seemed appropriate to me.  It somehow made sense.  And I packed up the next morning and didn’t look back. 

By the time I got to college it had started to hit me, and to deal with how terrified I was in retrospect, I started running at night again just to prove to myself I wasn’t afraid.  Even though I was.  In grad school, every time I got an email from campus security saying a woman had been mugged running at 5 am, I would wonder if they were out there for a reason, or if it was simply because they hadn’t realized it was dangerous.

I’m a very different person now.  I don’t tell new friends about “that time in high school (and college) (and grad school)” because it changes how they think about you and you lose a lot of the privileges “normal” people have. And now usually when I say "thanks but I already ate," I actually mean it, so I’d rather not feel like I have to convince you (no really, I ATE).  My weight still goes up and down sometimes, is still hard to deal with sometimes.  But I’ve gained over 60 pounds from that worst point, and I think I have a better understanding of why I’m having a bad week now, what the underlying reasons might be, and I worry now when I realize that I’m in trouble. 

This spring, in the midst of some major stressors, it snuck back up on me very quickly, and it was terrifying.  There is still that brief moment of exhilaration, (I’ve lost 20 lbs! I didn’t even notice!) but then there is heart-pounding doom (please do not let this happen again) followed by doing what it takes to make that slip not become a relapse.  I know that I was wrong when I was 16 and thought I was invincible.  My crumbling shins know that too.  I have a different relationship now with exercise and eating and not eating.  I exercise now because I know it makes me feel strong and healthy, not because I have to (because I spend plenty of days watching horrible tv, too).  I eat when I’m hungry, but I also don’t eat to make other people feel better (except my mother-in-law, because that’s just too complicated). 

There are very few photographs of me from the hardest points; or at least I’m well-camouflaged in them, wearing enough layers to look totally normal.  I say photos of me, but there really aren’t pictures of that.  There are, though - or were - pictures of arms and ribs and thighs and collar bones and hips.  But never with my face.  Anorexia is lonely, and isolating, and terrifying.  And in the thick of it, the only ones you think will understand you, how sad you are, who will congratulate you on how fantastic you look even when everything else is crumbling around you, are girls in the same spot. 

Even in the late '90s and early 2000s, the internet was already home to many, many girls in this position, and the photos that are being banned now on pinterest and tumblr are not new.  And I’m embarrassed to say some of them were mine.  I never used my real name, never showed my face.  I wasn’t bragging, I was searching for some sort of approval.  Not encouragement exactly, but maybe support?  But soon after that time, even though I continued to struggle, I completely turned away from all things eating disorder on the internet—I deleted all my “bodyshots.”

It wasn’t until around 2005 or 2006, while I was reading an article on the growing problem of “thinspiration” photos (a phrase I hate), that I realized how much sicker I must have been than I ever thought.  The article discussed the posting and subsequent glorification of horrifying images of very malnourished girls, the same types of girls whose pictures I (as an indication of what trouble I was in) had seen on bulletin boards and lifted up to saintly proportions—they had reached levels of starvation that I couldn’t ever imagine; I would never be that thin. 

But the thing about the internet is, nothing ever dies.  At the end of the article, several photos were included that had been reposted on numerous websites, and circulated across chat rooms, some apparently for years.  One was mine.  It had been taken by a friend for a senior project in a photography class, and was definitely not the worst, as those pictures went.  It doesn’t have the raw, painful quality that the others had, and seems softer and less scary when taken out of context.  At the time, I had exacted a promise from my friend of fancy techniques and development that wouldn’t make me look fat.  What I saw in the mirror at the time that photo was taken was not just layers of shameful fat, but the body of a girl who wasn’t even human anymore, no matter how fast or long she ran.  I was living a very split life—perfectly together on the outside, but completely cracked on the inside, and I didn’t know how to make those polar opposites into one girl anymore.

10 years later, that same torso is a bit (ok, a lot) plumper.  Rounder.  Um, Rubenesque?  Healthier maybe?  I don’t know what the “average” woman really looks like, I don’t really think there is one.  But maybe it’s more like this?  And now my insulin pump usually lives there—I know people stick them on their arms etc, but I walk into stuff way too often for that to be practical…  Under fitted clothes, it does sometimes look like I have some sort of very strange tumor, but at the end of the day it keeps me alive without me dragging out insulin and syringes 10 times a day (are you sensing my laziness yet?), so stare on, folks. 

It is very hard for me to see these two photos together and think that they are of the same person.  Are they?  Am I 100% cured and totally okay?  And do I love the way I look, do I love this current body? No.  Definitely not.  But do I feel compelled to get up off this sofa and run up and down the stairs 100 times right now?  Definitely not. (the dogs would start howling, and the husband would wake up, and I’d have to explain a lot. But mostly, I’m too tired and it just sounds awful.)  This is the way it is.  I know in the future my weight will change, my lifestyle or habits or abilities will change, at times better or worse.  But everything in life changes.  And sometimes those changes are good, right?  I am learning that the best I can do each day really just is whatever my best happens to be on any given day.  Realizing that has made me kinder, more grateful, and a whole lot happier.

Would you like to participate in this series? Email me your words and pictures!
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