I am afraid of getting better.
What kind of illogical statement is that? I wrote that down the other day in my journal at one of Jen’s workshops in England, and kind of baulked at what it even meant. I know that I don’t want to continue the way I am, I definitely don’t want to get worse, but I am scared of getting better.
What is the other option? Is there even another option?
For the past three years I have been battling with anorexia.
I can’t really believe I just wrote that down. I don’t think I have ever actually written that sentence down before.
I’ve never had a happy relationship with my body. I always felt like I was too podgy. I was the girl who used to forge her Mum’s signature to miss out on swimming lessons because of a persistent ‘ear infection’. Really, I just didn’t want to put on my swimming costume and have to suck my stomach in, sit up really straight, and not put my legs all the way down when I sat down so they didn’t expand to look twice their normal size. The thing is, I know looking back at photos of myself, and remembering the other girls at school, that I wasn’t actually big at all.
I was pretty normal, I just never felt it.
When I was about 17, we had a succession of illnesses and deaths in the family. It was tough – my Uncle died of lung and brain cancer, my Nanna of lung cancer, my Grandpa of heart disease. Simultaneously, it was time to start thinking about university applications. It seems like what you pick for university is going to change your life. You have an enormous door opened for you, but what lies on the other side is almost too much. I was afraid of making the choice.
I felt if I did the wrong thing, I would mess up my whole life.
I decided that I would go to university to study law. I did the typical: ‘it’s going to make everyone proud, and I will hopefully make some money and that will make me happy’.
When I got to university, I realised that I was so unbelievably wrong! I was studying something that seemed so pointless, so dry, so soul-sucking. I would walk past English classes and hear people discussing poetry and linger for a second outside the door. I wanted to be inspired by other people who had found beauty in life and made it their mission to let other people see it too. I wanted to go out into the world and see it myself, and help other people find their own version of it too. I didn’t want to be stuck in class learning about wills and trusts, or how to transfer property.
This general dissatisfaction manifested itself as anorexia, I suppose. As always with “these things” though, it’s kind of impossible to say exactly what caused it to happen. It just seemed to creep up on me without me realising.
One minute I was Emily, and the next minute, I just, wasn’t any more. That’s what this disease seems to do to you. You lose your grip on yourself, your values, what you love, what you want to do. Everything, and I mean everything, becomes about how you can eat less.
I felt a lot of anger in the first year. I felt this underlying rage all the time, especially when I was eating. Every time I ate I would be telling myself: ‘You don’t need that, I bet you could go without that’. Things I used to enjoy became disgusting. Totally vile, triggering that throat-closing ‘I can’t believe you have that in your mouth’ feeling. But mostly, the first year has kind of blurred out into a freezing cold, blackened haze.
I went away to Florida after my first year of Uni. I knew that there was something wrong. I hadn’t realised quite how bad the situation was, yet. I spent a month over there and gained about 20lbs. My Aunty and cousin were absolutely amazing and formative in the shift thinking I needed. I just felt so free there. I could explain how I felt, I could do what I felt like doing, I had all these new experiences, and I felt the old ‘me’ coming back again.
The ‘me’ who actually loved cooking, and crafting, and reading poetry and English and writing and dancing and singing! I bought some new clothes and dyed my hair. When I arrived home in London, Mum didn’t even recognise me! I felt amazing. It’s like in savasana, when you let the whole weight of your body down into the floor, and only then do you realise how much tension you were holding before. I didn’t realise how restricted I had felt before until I let everything go and let things be.
I think the whole thing about America is that dreams aren’t frowned on so much. If you want to start up your own business selling jewelry, you’re encouraged to do it. But over here in The U.K., people just say: ‘Oh, well, that’s never going to work, why don’t you do something more realistic? Like work in bank?’
I don’t want to work in a bank, OK?
When I got back, my second year of university started. By now, people had started noticing there was something wrong. The family had an enormous fight over it, and only now have they started trying to speak again.
I felt unbelievably guilty.
The truth is, with anorexia, until you are ready to believe you’ve got it, you can’t start addressing it. You can hold the situation, but you can’t actually get better until you want to. You’ve got to be ready to get the help.
So, things at home were really strained. To make matters worse, I had stopped gaining weight, which meant my parents felt really awful. ‘Why could you gain weight with your Aunty but not with us?’ ‘Why would you try for her, but not for us?’ And then I felt really awful.
I had stopped feeling that freedom I felt in Florida. I didn’t know how to get it back again.
Everything fell into place as it was before. I would go into Uni, try my hardest to eat as little as possible, and then come home to eat a select portion of whatever there was for dinner. But things got harder because my family was now making a concerted effort to make me eat more.
Mum bought these steamed puddings once and I remember sitting there with this thing in front of me and all I felt was this overwhelming flood of hatred for this piece of food. It’s as if a torrent of emotion just pours in through the top of your head and fills up your whole body with red, angry, disgust.
And then shame and guilt for feeling like that.
You know, deep down, your Mum is trying to help you. But you just can’t eat it. You just can’t. You put one spoonful into your mouth and you can’t taste anything and your head is screaming at you and you’re just disgusted by yourself. Then you’re crying at the dinner table and everyone is visibly worried and upset and shocked at your reaction, which just makes you more angry and guilty.
And the worst thing is, you don’t know how to get out of it.
In the summer between my second and third year of Uni, we went away again, this time to Spain with my other Aunty and Uncle. I found myself just eating whatever everyone else ate. Freedom! I don’t know why, I couldn’t seem to do this when I was at home. I just settled back into that safe ‘restrict’ mode.
The thing I also noticed between the second and third year was my need to exercise. If I didn’t do something every day I felt like I had failed and did not deserve to eat anything with fat in it at all. Fat was and still is my ‘fear food’. I think this is linked to the heart disease my Grandpa had. The advice for heart disease patients is obviously to eat a low fat diet. The cancers in the family made me want to be as healthy as I could possibly be, so that inadvertently my family would also be healthy. And then we would avoid death.
Like this is possible.
In the last part of my degree I started to try and change my thinking. What was ‘healthy’ for person X, isn’t necessarily healthy for person Y after all. It’s a personal thing. I started to get more into yoga. Yoga was the one thing that actually made me feel OK about my body.
It made me realise that for the entirety of my life, I’m going to have this body, and it’s going to have me. Wow. Isn’t that an amazing thought? And doesn’t it make you want to be friends with it? I had spent virtually my whole life fighting against it and hating it. It made me feel like my body was amazing. I was happy to be in it, for what felt like the first time, ever.
I still struggle with eating properly. The worst thing is the guilt.
I’ve just gone through a stage where right before I went to bed I would eat three biscuits. Every night. I would walk down the stairs justifying it, saying ‘well, you probably didn’t eat enough today and you like the taste of those biscuits’, or, ‘every little thing you eat is just helping at the moment’, but then I would eat them and feel like I was binge eating because I wasn’t really hungry and it was just a habit and they weren’t a healthy choice to have made. And then I would have to go to bed quickly before I got angry and guilty at myself and started grabbing handfuls of skin on my stomach and pulling at what I thought was extraneous fat on my thighs when I sat down. I still feel like that sometimes. But I’m working on it.
The weirdest thing is that as much as I want to get better, the process of getting better is so so scary. I don’t know what’s going to happen. How my body is going to feel. How I’m going to look. Where all the extra food is going to go! How I’m going to feel. When do I stop? When am I healthy? When am I healed? All these uncertainties are so unbelievably frightening.
I am afraid.
Just writing this though, has helped me remember that ease and freedom are there for me, and for everyone. I have experienced them before. We just have to learn to accept and surrender ourselves to them. That’s my project and my goal.
In Jen’s workshop in London, we had to write the things we wanted for our lives on a post-it note and put it on the wall. We all picked up someone else’s sticky note and then sat there with someone else’s dreams stuck to our hearts, sending them love and hope and goodness. Jen asked us to keep the post-it notes in our journals. It’s such a comfort to think that someone somewhere has my intentions stuck to their heart.
It’s my goal to make these into my reality. May they forever be a part of your life, too.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She has been featured on Good Morning America, NY Magazine, Oprah.com. Her writing has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, and more. Jen leads her signature Manifestation Retreats & Workshops all over the world. The next retreat is to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day/New Years. She is also leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 30-Feb 1 in Ojai (4 spots left.) Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Miami, London, Tucson & The Berkshires (guest speaker Canyon Ranch.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.