Nineteen Voices: When Will I Arrive?
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Please go here (https://www.shaktiyogaathens.com/blog/nineteen-voices-1) and read the Prelude before you continue.
See you back here soon. - Em
Nineteen Voices: When Will I Arrive?
*Keep yourself safe: this post contains recollections of eating disorders and sexual assault. This post contains recounts of ED mentality + patterns that could be triggering.
From my senior year of high school to my sophomore year of college, I had an eating disorder (ED). I realized that I had an eating disorder 2 years after the fact. I never received a diagnosis.
To sum up what my ED looked like: calorie counting, cayenne pepper pills (to “speed up my metabolism” - they also gave me terrible heartburn and upset stomach, but “it was worth it”), exercise [2-4hrs/day], vegan, no cooked foods until 4pm.
How I felt: fatigued, chronic migraines, weak, depressed, apathetic, constantly thinking about food.
How I thought I felt: strong, happy, in control, desirable, still too fat.
At my lowest, I weighed 110 lbs. To give you some context, that’s a “normal” BMI for my height. To give you more context, at that “normal” weight, I was withering away. (Also, fuck a BMI. Moving on.)
One memory sticks out. My senior year of high school, I ate carrots and almonds for lunch (the usual), and later that day, I sat on the steps of my school because I didn’t have the strength to walk home. It’s a 4 minute walk. I nearly fainted, and my mom had to come pick me up from school. But the pieces weren’t put together in my mind or anyone else’s. I lived within those practices for another two years.
Recovery started with eating cooked foods again, turned into eating eggs, shifted into reducing exercise, came to a close when I ditched the calorie counting app. And in all honesty, even though he probably didn’t know it at the time (probably doesn’t even know it now), meeting Cason and falling in love (so gushy, I’m sorry, I know) probably saved my life. Yes, because I felt valued, seen, and loved for who I really was. Yes, because love saves and all that happy-go-lucky good shit. But really, I think it was because I didn’t have the time anymore. Either I got to be with Cason or workout. Go on dates, or eat in secret. Etc. etc. etc. My ED was a full time job, and I got tired of working so hard.
Five years later, and I would consider myself recovered from my eating disorder. AND. Body image healing is still a constant process. I’m not sure if I’ll ever “arrive” at a place in my body where I look at my stomach and think, ‘That layer of fat will never go away. It’s protecting my organs. It’s holding my story. And that’s okay.’ No end in sight to the healing... that’s terrifying. The idea that I can be “recovered” but nowhere close to being done with the work fucking sucks.
But I’m not alone. Neither are you.
“From November 2016 Emily to who I am now... I don't recognize her. I don't know that person, the one who disliked herself so much.” -- Emily Pateuk
Emily Pateuk has been making a difference at Shakti for a while now. (Check out her blog post with Maggie.) Emily Pateuk had an eating disorder. Emily Pateuk is hilarious, wicked smart, and honest. Emily Pateuk helped me heal.
In highschool, Emily was on the cross country team, had active girlfriends, and didn’t think much about boys and bodies. When she went to college, that rapidly changed. “I went to California, I had an internship, and while I was there I was like, ‘I'm going to have this transformative summer and lose weight.’ And it's just me, working all day, not eating anything. That's where that pattern became comfortable. Then I brought it back to school with me and got more obsessive with it.”
I asked Emily the question I ask myself all the time: Why do you think your eating disorder started? “Feeling inadequate, like I wasn't enough on my own. Being a twin, you’re fighting for equal approval and wanting everyone to like you just as much as they like your sister... It was definitely more than just weight and body image.”
Emily’s family intervened. “It was from my mom being like, ‘You are dissolving into yourself.’ We were standing in my backyard and my mom was sobbing and sobbing and I was so sad because I didn't want help. I didn't think anything was wrong with me. It took such a long time to realize there was.” At the height of the disorder, Emily remembers thinking, “I'm always going to have to live like this. Every single day I'm going to wake up and wait until as late as possible to eat. I'm going to continue to punish myself and I don't know how to get out of it.”
Emily started treatment, but the first year was a mixture of doctoring food recalls for the dietitian, disengaging with therapists, and eventually not going anymore. “The first year I was trying to run away from it. I felt so safe in [the ED]. The idea of even trying something different…I hate it but it’s comfortable.” But eventually, Emily became weight restored (which basically means she got back to a weight appropriate for her body). “After I got weight restored, I was like ‘Okay, I don't want to live like that anymore.’ But I had so much social anxiety, because I had isolated myself so much. Even going to yoga classes gave me anxiety. What if I have to talk to someone when I get there?”
Emily’s family was incredibly supportive in her journey, and they even went to family therapy sessions to learn the tools to help Emily feel safe in her home environment. But the real world isn’t friendly to people suffering from EDs. “It took time to realize that you can't expect everyone else to understand what this feels like.
It's given me a lot of empathy, because you have no clue what someone's going through. I know what a prison it is to live in my own body. So trying to be kinder, more gentle with people. I'm getting better at being nice to myself. I'm the only body or person I'm ever going to live with all the time.
But it's fun and easy to be mean to myself.”
Again, even though Emily is recovered from her eating disorder, the thoughts are still there. It’s not hard to understand why. “Society and the world tells us we're supposed to be as small as humanly possible.” The work continues: “I’m trying to get used to my stomach and the new places it holds fat or weight and not shitting on myself.”
And typically, yoga helps with that. But even yoga, a sanctuary space, can provide fodder for self-hatred. “I don't know why, but in some yoga classes recently, I find myself comparing to other people in the room. And then having to stop myself. That's not what we're here to do. I don't want to live like that again. I've gotten a lot better at questioning myself and not believing everything that I think.” It looks like a restructuring of thought: “It's not bad that you have fat on your body, because now you get to be a person and have friends and experience things rather than hide.” For me, so much of my healing has been a similar questioning and building myself up. Asking, Why? Why? Why? But from a place of curiosity, not judgement. Far too often, it feels like the latter.
“I could not even say out loud, ‘I have an eating disorder.’ I remember my therapist saying, ‘You have to say it.’ I'm like, ‘No, you say it!’” And now, Emily is open on social media about her experience. That’s incredible growth. “I remember the first time I posted something about it on my Instagram. I posted it, put my phone down, and didn't pick my phone up for four hours. I was so scared of what people would think about me. Talking about it made it more real.”
Getting vulnerable with people about my story has been a massive part of my healing. Emily says it best: “Everyone is walking around with this internalized hatred of themselves.” And I think, when we share our stories, we not only make people feel less alone, we also call attention to every cultural and societal structure that tries to keep us silent.
“All of this comes back to power structures trying to keep women inferior. Because we're in a society that's trained us to, first and foremost, obsess over our bodies, hate ourselves and other women, and look at them as competition, not as people to help you and support you, that keeps the system going. That keeps old white men in office and minorities and people with different life perspectives, experiences, and opinions out of office.” Say it louder for people in the back!
*Quick side note: Change is not just voting. We have to dismantle oppressive systems from the ground up. Go to the ballots and vote in the next Stacey Abrams, Deb Haaland, Ilhan Omar. AND. Be a model for the work. Aka. I need to call myself out when I fall into trained biases and prejudices. Do the work on myself. Yourself.
We feel like our country is failing us. We feel like we’re not heard. We feel like our stories don’t matter. And it’s been incredibly validating to hear this from other women, too, but so disheartening. So I lean into the work and uncomfortable conversations.
Especially on the topic of sexual assault. “My freshman year at the College of Charleston,” Emily says, “there's a boy who I met. Our friend groups overlapped. I didn't really know him, and I went home with him but didn't want to do anything. I had a very similar experience [to Dr. Ford]. On top of me, hand over mouth, screaming at me in an all boys' dorm. I remember feeling so trapped, and getting out of there, running down King Street and honestly fearing for my life.”
“He's apologized for it. His friends apologized for it. I don't have any proof other than knowing what happened to me.”
“One in four women in college will experience sexual assault. So now we're telling all of these new freshmen girls, ‘Don't bother reporting.’”
True: Among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (1).
“I don't know how big of a role [the assault played], but a lot of my ED of revolved around control, wanting control. And that's one of the times in my life I felt the least.”
So I’ll keep talking & keep supporting. Because that’s a step in bringing the whole system crashing down. “It feels so good to just say the word ‘eating disorder.’ [Saying it] takes the stigma away. That’s who I am, and if, because I don't know how to feed myself sometimes, it’s a reason to not be my friend, then that's fine. I felt so much more competent and comfortable in myself once I started talking about eating disorder stuff. I have nothing to hide anymore.”
And in having nothing to hide, space is made. Emily is filling it with her own righteous power.
“I feel hopeful for presence and compassion” -- Sylvia Rose Novak
Sylvia is a musician, yoga teacher, & all-around kind and quirky person. Lifelong learner, receiver, giver, and resilient spirit. We miss her dearly at Shakti (she recently moved to Birmingham, AL). Her presence is still deeply felt.
For Sylvia, body image issues have deep roots in her sense of musical worth. “If I looked different, maybe my records would sell better. It’s been really, really bad with the release of this album. It's a way to deflect. Deflect in a way that I don't have to acknowledge that maybe I'm not happy with the direction that my musical career is taking, so I can just be like, well I hate my thighs.” I harkened it to, you can direct the self loathing to a safer place and a physical place. You don't have to internalize it with your creative baby. So in a way it's almost like a protective mechanism. “I can channel my emotional hurt into something I can see versus the confusing mess inside.”
This isn’t a new development, either. “When I was 16, I developed really bad anorexia and exercise bulimia. It took me a couple of years to dig myself to a place where I was like, ‘Okay, I'm healthy now,’ and then I was going to college.” Sylvia felt like she’d made it through recovery. Like the work was done. “And when everything started to kind of come back in, I was like, wait a minute. That's not fair.”
“I put a bandaid over what was really happening. I never thought it would take more than the initial period. And every time I have, I don't like to call it like a relapse, but a moment where I realized, ‘Oh hey, you haven't been eating enough,’ I get really frustrated, which is probably not the best reaction: Why are you like this?” Shame creeping in.
Sylvia’s story starts when she was a teen. “I was just being a teenager, and there was a lot of scrutiny from [my mom]. She was always on the South Beach Diet, no carbs in the house, and I fought it really hard. And then one day I was finally like, ‘Oh, I don't feel good in my body.’” (Sylvia lost weight.) “Then she started to praise me for being active and looking great, and [eating] took a nosedive off the other end. And then she was really upset with me for that behavior. I was like, ‘Well, whatever I do, you're going to get upset. I'm wrong. All the time.’”
The thing is, too, once I actually realized these patterns of thought, years had gone by living inside of the self-hatred. Living inside of the eating disorder. Same goes for Sylvia, I think. “When you spend everyday of your life looking yourself in the eyes, in the mirror, looking at your body up and down and going, ‘God, you're fucking gross,’ your body responds to you. I get nauseated and I can't eat. I store horrific, crunchy, cracking tension in my shoulders and my knees.”
For lack of a better term, shame feeds itself and continues to spiral. I gave this example to Sylvia: Think about our periods. Our bodies have the ability to cleanse themselves monthly so that we can produce life. That's incredible. Women's wombs are amazing, but we are shamed into thinking it's disgusting and dirty from day one of menstruation. So for me, age 13, I knew I should feel ashamed of my body.
Sylvia and I listed some other things women are shamed for: being successful, being entrepreneurial, being a mother, marrying young, being single, speaking in a group of people, speaking loudly, having a point to make, talking as much as the guys… “Shamed for trying to make a friend in a bar this weekend who legitimately got angry when he found out you were married and all you want to do is have a buddy to get a beer with.”
What would Sylvia’s life be like if she dropped the shame? If her body image story changed? “I'm perpetually reaching for presence. It's letting go of, ‘Ugh, you're bloated. these pants aren't flattering.’ In those moments there's a lot more going on than just the way that my body feels or looks to me or seems in that moment. I feel like I miss a lot because I’m thinking about my body. So I would like to be more present in my day to day life. It feels dark and dirty and scary, and I just want to see what that's all about.”
And with yoga, with teacher training, becoming more present showed up in a new way for Sylvia. “I've always been passionate about other people but misanthropic at the same time. I want to save the whole world, but I'm really bummed out by the way people behave. But my compassion and humanity has expanded deeply. I feel hopeful for presence and compassion.”
Sylvia talked about seeing a quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and how it stuck with her for so long. And part of what Sylvia is getting present to is her own experience of comparison.
“I want to see beauty in other people without going, ‘Well I don't have that,’ because I feel like that cheapens the way that I feel for that person and that's not fair to them.”
I’d always seen comparison as only detrimental to my own happiness. But how can I have authentic, loving, compassionate connection while cheapening my value in the relationship? I can’t.
Life would be brilliant, vibrant if I valued myself. Valued every part of my body. I asked Sylvia to tell me a body part she loved.
“My hands. I'm a musician. I play bass. I play fiddle. Aesthetically it's interesting, because this is the one part of my body that I’m so tuned into all the time, and they're really big. I have enormous hands for a woman. My favorite party trick in bars is holding my hand up to dudes and them being like, ‘Whoa, your reach is huge!’ I love the way they look in pictures. They look alien and drippy. But I love them intrinsically.”
What’s the part of your body that holds little of your self-critical story? What I mean is, my stomach holds all of the shame I feel about what I look like. But I love the freckle smack dab in the middle of my forehead. That freckle refused to hold on to my shame speak. I spent years and money on lightening creams to make that freckle go away. Defiant little bastard.
“I spent so long, and I'm still struggling with this, hating my quads, hating my legs. Because of something terrible. I would wear shorts to play gigs, and people were like, ‘Your quads are huge!’ For a while, I shut down, I cried. I looked up exercises on how to shrink my thighs. Eventually it hit a point of, why? These things carry me around all day. I want them to be strong.”
Thank you, Sylvia, for your strength.
“It’s hard to do 12 wheels in a day and then be like, ‘Oh no, I don’t like my body.’ [Yoga] feels so much like a celebration that it's hard to be mad at myself” -- Maggie Scruggs
Maggie’s got a few titles (other than Emily’s Best Buddy): Manager of Shakti, Amazing Artist + Writer, Star Athlete, Rock-Solid Yoga Teacher, Talented Dancer. I’m not sure when Maggie and I got close or why, but damn I’m thankful. Which made this conversation difficult to have and write about. Not only because of the subject matter, not only because she’s so close to my heart, but because I remember being--and still am, some days-- in the exact same place she is with food & body image healing. It’s a highly uncomfortable place to be.
“I go back and forth. Everyday feels different on how I feel about my body. Lately if I go a day or two without really doing anything, I just feel shameful. It feels like a balancing scale all the time.”
Going into the conversation, Maggie and I had talked a little bit about her body image/disordered eating past, but I hadn’t realized those concerns were firmly rooted in the now. “I don't count calories in an app anymore, but I think about it in my head. But now it's more a feeling and less about numbers and measurements.” I asked Maggie, do you feel like that limits your freedom?
“It’s putting me in a box. I'm being critical for no reason. Am I going to live the next 80 years of my life feeling like this? There's attachment to an image or feeling or even a function. And then, what if that's gone, then what? If all of a sudden I wake up one day and I can't do yoga? That would be terrifying. Does that mean that I'm attached to my body?” Maybe so. Yoga teaches non-attachment, but it also teaches non-harming. Another time to balance the scales: is yoga as body attachment a form of ‘do no harm?’ Something to think about.
Similar to so many women’s experiences, Maggie’s understanding and awareness of her body came at a young age. “My first distinct memory was third grade. [Some kid] called me thunder thighs. And I'd always known that I had strong legs. But then it was vocalized, and kids heard, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Then it was reinforced through me being good at sports. Even till this day, my pest control guy was like, ‘Oh, your legs, what do you do?’” *Again, the audacity of men to think they have unconditional permission to commentate on women’s bodies.*
Around sophomore year of high school, Maggie potently felt like she had an eating disorder. (I’m not a doctor, I’m not going to diagnose Maggie’s experience, but, similar to me, a lack of diagnosis doesn’t belittle the pain and reality of disordered eating.) “I don’t know what triggered it. All of a sudden I was only eating 700 calories and exercising for 4 hours a day. I lost 10 lbs in a month and a half. It looked drastic. And then I couldn't maintain it, and so that was frustrating. From then on, it wavered.”
Maggie was a competitive dancer, and that also played a role in her ED. Before an injury took her out of dance, she was cast in the nutcracker. “I had watched this nutcracker video of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Kelsey Kirkland, and she's [tiny]. And I watched that over and over again to study how she was dancing. So for those four months, I literally didn't eat. At the end, I got injured. I was totally done, and it was terrible.” (Maggie tore her achilles tendon. So yes, terrible.)
I danced competitively for 12 years, and during the height of my ED, I ate a handful of almonds before a duet performance at a competition… & nearly fainted on stage. But 17-year-old me thought it was worth looking thin in a crop top and spandex shorts. “The mirror, the costumes, the measurements,” Maggie says. “We went to an audition for Boston Ballet and The School of American Ballet, and the first thing they did was come around at the bar and measure us. And I was like, well I'm fucked.”
Even with the injury, Maggie continued working out. “They put me in a cast for a while, and I did my own workouts in my room, anything I could do to move. If I heard someone come upstairs I would pretend to be doing something else. It felt like hiding.” It probably was. Like Emily P said earlier, with recovery came re-entering the world, where before there was a deep, drawn-in, cut-off reality that is living with an ED, a voice that feels louder than your own.
With the quieting of that voice, I feel spaciousness. I asked Maggie, and I think you should ask yourself, reader: If you freed up the headspace from all the food and body balancing, what would be possible?
“I could put my energy into something I love. That's why I feel so good teaching yoga, because I simply can't be judgmental of my body. I have to be here and present. So some days I feel resistant coming into the studio because I'm like, ‘Wait, I need to be doing this [exercise].’ And then as soon as I'm in there I'm like, ‘Okay. No, this is where I have to be. Check in.’ I would have a more peaceful inner world, and I would have so much more time and energy.”
Maggie talked about how relaxation feels conditional, like she has to deserve it. E.g. Getting in X number of miles to feel deserving of rest. Diving in head first, I asked, “Does love feel conditional for you?” She answered yes. Where’d it start? “Possibly as a kid, I don't know if it was love or value. I was always compared to my sisters and what I was doing with like school, everything really. The snacks I ate, the movies I liked to watch. I felt like I wasn't enough. It made me stronger, work harder, but at what point am I going to choose? Am I always going to feel like this? Is this normal, or is this something I'm suppose to fix? What am I supposed to do? Because it feels comfortable and it feels like this is my life and I love exercising, but how do I do that in a way that's not to feel like I'm in control or I'm succeeding or I’m punishing? Am I going to feel like this forever?”
Hearing this broke my heart in half. At this point, both of us were crying. Needing to fix, to help, my first instinct was to reassure her that the first step is complete: noticing those thoughts. That it took me being really far removed from the actual eating disorder to notice like that the ED + subsequent thoughts weren’t normal, and then having to deal with healing the aftermath of still hating my body. So, it seems like from our conversation, that first really huge step is complete for Maggie. She knows what that pattern looks like, what it feels like visually and emotionally. That's big.
Me to Maggie, Me to You, Me to Me: You're on the path, so have a little grace with yourself. I love you.
I talked to Maggie about this interaction, about how thoughts affect feelings, affect behavior, affect thoughts… on and on. And that, basically, we are going to fail at changing the behavior, fail at noticing the thought, fail at processing the emotion. Over and over and over. “Fail” in that we won’t break the pattern. But in that “failure,” we’re succeeding in creating a dissonance. And eventually, over time, the dissonance between our knowledge and action will create such a fissure that we’ll have to make a choice: keep up the pattern, or break from the mold.
I never get it right, but, well, who the fuck cares? I’m just working, trying to do my best. Same for Maggie, same for you. Honestly, it’s exhausting. All consuming. Just as much as a full time job as the ED itself. Maggie says, “I don't want to fight this forever. It's crazy. I want to be able to feel like this is crazy. We're on this planet that is spinning in the middle of nowhere and we're worried about [food]. Why?” My response: Don’t run away with that. Because that's shame thinly masked. You have every single reason to cope the way you did. You’ve gone through a lot of pain, and this is how you've dealt with it for 23 years. Food is completely insignificant, entirely frustrating, but don’t let that thought run away with you. Because EDs aren’t a choice, and healing is a lot of work, but it's not more willpower to be exerted.
“It's frustrating because I feel like I have the discipline to get over it.”
Do you feel like you have all the compassionate you need?
“I feel like compassion is accessible and I don't always have it. But it's accessible.”
And that’s beautiful.
Healing and Moving Forward
When will I arrive? Never. And I arrived 23 years ago, I’m complete, & I’m growing. There’s not an arrival, and there’s no destination. But in the work, in my life, I am not alone.
You’re reading this, which = in the work. And there are some next steps. Like the Intuitive Eating Workbook, maybe the Intuitive Eating Workshop tonight (Nov 12th) @ 715pm (another shameless plug, sorry not sorry!). Personally, conversations and storytelling are the best tools I have. The more I tell my story, the more it makes sense. The more my body can memorize it. So, maybe tell your story over and over and over again.
Sharing it = no more lies, sugar coating, or make-believing. It's out there. You're having this thought. You don't have to stop it. You don't have to do anything, you just have to tell someone. In the moments where your dark, alienating shell feels warm, comfortable, and contained... Text someone. Call someone. Reach out.
I’ve been pulling out of the discipline well for a very long time, but compassion is waiting for me. And there’s other stuff I can do until I find it:
Set myself up for success in a world that is designed for my oppression by surrounding myself with supportive people also engaged in the work -- they won’t be perfect, but are they open to change and generous listening?
Stop following people (+ friends!) on social media who make me feel like shit about my body - maybe also ditch those ppl in real life *shrugs*
Write down my triggers and write down compassion exercises I can do when these sorts of thoughts come up
Make every trip/vacation/holiday a NO BODY TALK ALLOWED zone
Stay in bed all day, or get out of bed just 1x (what do I need, really?)
Lift up the voices of those who are torn down because of their marginalized identities
Stand up to racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semitic/etc. people
Stop buying into the corporate diet bullshit that looks like community but acts like another way to pit women against each other
Finally, I’ll let a piece of my shame go, even if that means my community needs to shift. That I need to shift. It’ll feel lonely, but I have authentic connection waiting for me on the other side. Maybe some compassion, too.
It takes guts.
When will I arrive? Never. But I have 18 warrior women at my back, and I feel stronger for it.
References: (1) https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence
The ASPIRE Clinic: schedule a free nutrition consult with me! (or 20!)
Rachel Cargle, activist, writer, and lecturer: https://www.rachelcargle.com
Therapists in Athens, GA: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/ga/athens
Every single resource UGA offers for victims of sexual assault and partner violence: https://eoo.uga.edu/sites/default/files/sar_resources_chart_1.pdf
More information on the US’s government’s failure to protect Native women: https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/mazeofinjustice.pdf
A beautiful proclimation: http://hillarylmcbride.com/dear-body-im-sorry-i-love-you/