My brain starts breaking a little bit if I get below a certain weight.
It doesn’t even have to be from losing weight on purpose. Because I don’t do that anymore. I haven’t done it in years. I’ve vowed never to be on a diet again, I don’t talk about “good” or “bad” foods in our house, and the very idea of cutting out desserts makes me shudder.
But sometimes people lose weight. Whether it’s because of an illness or an unusually active period in life, or, in my case, breastfeeding, sometimes people lose weight.
Breastfeeding pretty much sucked the calories from my body. (Yes, I know, there are people out there cursing me right now. I’m not writing this to brag, only to tell the truth. This isn’t a value statement, it’s just what happened.)
I didn’t notice myself being that much hungrier when I was breastfeeding, though. A lot of my friends complained about their insatiable hunger, about how they had to keep piles of snacks and gallons of water within reach at all times, but I never sensed much of a change.
Maybe it’s because there was some subconscious part of me, buried deep inside, that was used to denying hunger. Maybe it’s because I really wasn‘t that much hungrier.
Either way, I didn’t compensate for the lost calories. I ate the kind of stuff I ate before there was a ravenous baby attached to my breasts. Then another, even more ravenous baby.
So I dropped weight. I didn’t lose enough to be in any sort of danger zone, but I did lose enough so that my pants hung off of my hips. Enough so that people commented on how skinny I was. Enough so that, sometimes, I felt an eerie sense of déjà vu. You know how in spooky stories, people are always talking about how when they walk through a ghost, it’s like an ice-cold patch in the middle of an otherwise warm room?
That’s what losing the breastfeeding weight was like. My life was warm and happy. Yeah, newborn babies are no picnic, but my mind was happy. (Or, I thought it was). Then, all of a sudden, ice-cold water was running through my veins.
Ice-cold. That’s how I used to feel all the time. Both in body and in spirit. Losing weight brought me back there. It brought me back to how my body felt back then. And it brought back faint echoes of the voices that used to live in my head.
These are not nice voices. They’re mean and cruel and calculating and oh-so-clever.
But they’re so enchanting. So melodious. So very, very pretty….They’re the mythological sirens that Odysseus had to plug his ears against, after forcing his shipmates to tie him against the mast.
For so many years I didn’t want to plug my ears.
Then I tried to plug my ears, but lost my nerve.
It took me ages to learn how to ignore that siren song.
But now the voices were back.
“Look at all that room in your waistband”
“You don’t need the cake everyone else is having. You never needed it before.”
“It’s only an hour until dinner. Why have a snack?”
The voices were softer than before. They weren’t as insistent. They didn’t tell me to starve myself. They didn’t tell me to exercise for hours every day and beat my body into the ground.
They did tell me not to eat, though. They told me not to rest. The siren song was back. It was muffled, but it was quieter. And my eating disorder voice did a little happy dance to have regained that elusive “super skinny” status again.
(No, I don’t really have a voice booming out inside my head. It’s not literal. It did feel real sometimes, though. It was visceral compulsion from deep within me, a dictator living inside my brain.)
I didn’t know why the voices were back. Part of it was stress, of course. (Imagine that, being stressed out after having a baby!) But part of it, strangely, was because I had lost weight from breastfeeding. It was a strange “chicken and the egg” type scenario. I didn’t lose that much weight and I didn’t lose it on purpose, but the end result was that my brain reacted as if I had done it deliberately and that voice started to creep back in. My head started yelling at me that I shouldn’t gain anything back. It started screaming that I shouldn’t eat certain things. It started thinking about calories and numbers and my body.
It started being a asshole again.
Even if it didn’t tell me to starve, the voice was telling me to do things that I knew were wrong. And with eating disorder recovery, at least advanced eating disorder recovery, there is no “continuum of eating disorder thoughts.” Whether your illness is compelling you to skip breakfast or to put back that extra roll you want, to run ten miles or to do ten more minutes on the elliptical, the reality is that as long as you’re doing something because you’re compelled to, because your sickness wants to, then that’s a time you’re falling backwards.
I don’t want to move backwards anymore.
There’s something about my brain chemistry that reacts if my weight dips below a certain level. I’m vulnerable there. I start to like it a little too much. My armor slips off and my skin starts to show. It’s a pit of quicksand that can suck me right in.
For me, that teeny bit of extra fat isn’t just protection for my organs. It’s protection for my brain. I need it to survive. I need it to thrive.
One thing the reemergence of my eating disorder voice made me realize, though, was that it had still been there all along. It had just been telling me different things over the past ten years. Things that I had convinced myself were normal. And that throughout the years when I had proudly labeled myself “recovered”, I had still been sick.
I’d only been a little bit sick, but a little bit sick is still a lot bit sick.
My jeans fit now. All of my pants do. I have some curves now. I have some muscle. I look more like a woman, rather than a girl. I didn’t just gain the weight back because I stopped breastfeeding, though, because my body stopped burning calories as it made milk for my children.
I stopped breastfeeding and I also made a conscious effort to gain weight. I relaxed my “oh, this is how I always ate so I shouldn’t be hungry now” rule. I ate more than I used to, because it was okay to. Because I gave myself permission to.
I probably shouldn’t have had to give myself permission. I probably shouldn’t have had rules in the first place. But I did.
I did a lot of things that I regret. But now isn’t the time to bemoan that. Now’s the time to fix what I can work on now and to move forward.
Now’s the time to keep eating what I want so my body can stay at this place where it wants to be and so that my brain can stay sane.
Because once my body hit that point, I felt better. I don’t know exactly what weight it was, but once I got there, consciously gaining didn’t seem weird anymore. The larger size of my thighs isn’t an issue now. Years ago, it would have been cause for tears and long runs and feeling bad about myself for weeks.
Sometimes I do feel self-conscious. Sometimes I get stuck on the skinny label that I inhabited for so long. Because even after I “recovered” more than ten years ago, I still stayed skinny. So skinny that people commented on it and made me uncomfortable.
Now I realize that’s because I was still holding myself back. I was holding back the entire time I called myself recovered. I still had rules for myself and I still hadn’t given myself full permission to live life and listen to my body. I hid under the “recovered” label and told myself that if I truly let go, people would think I’d let myself go. People were used to me being skinny so I shouldn’t disappoint them, shouldn’t change the image of me that I was presenting to the world. The image of the “recovered but still skinny Jen.”
I don’t care about those people anymore. I’ve gained some weight back. This is who I am now and this is what my body looks like. I am finally okay with being bigger if it means being truly happy, truly myself. I might even gain some more. That’s not up to me. All I want to do is follow my hunger–for food, for life, for everything–and see where it leads me.
This is recovery. This is life.
I’ve been projecting a false image for way too long. It’s time to show the world who I really am.