I have been shamelessly honest throughout this journey, to protect myself from going backwards, but today I am struggling to find the nerve to write what I need to say. Because what I need to share is the toughest piece of my recovery puzzle.
Imagine putting a puzzle together. But in that puzzle you are missing one piece. It’s that one piece that sits flipped upside down under the couch in the shadow, laughing at you while you get frustrated trying to get the picture to come together. Your anxiety rises, your anger churns, you have that feeling of incompleteness, that frustration of seeing a beautiful scene you’ve spent hours piecing together only to have one small hole right in the center, breaking up the continuity of what you’re trying to create. You think, “What a waste of time. I’ve spent hours putting something together that was never going to be finished anyway.” It seems hopeless. One little puzzle piece could be anywhere; it could be dumped in with another puzzle or thrown in the garbage by someone who only saw a lonely puzzle piece without a home. And you figure since it’s not going to be complete anyway you might as well scrap the whole thing, crumble the beautiful picture that was almost a finished product, and throw it back in the box. What’s the use of a puzzle that can’t be finished? If only you’d hunted just a little longer, a little harder, been persistent enough to want that puzzle finished no matter the cost. But instead, it’s back to nothing but a picture on the box with the fragmented reality of what could have been rattling inside. Today, I need to talk about my toughest piece. I need to talk about body image.
I don’t know what a normal brain does with body image. I know what my ED mind does. I scrutinize every inch of my body, critique and criticize, analyze, worry. When I was my ED size, I feared gaining even a pound. It sounds crazy, but I could feel if I gained any weight. I knew without stepping on a scale if I had gone up in weight or not. I could feel it. I knew exactly when I needed ED to be back in control to get me down to his approved weight. And that usually meant he’d take me there and then for good measure go a little farther. It became a game, a challenge. Even as I knew I was losing too much, ED patted me on my back for my self-control and “perfect” body. I remember back in Nicaragua when I first started shedding pounds. It was a rush. The waists on all my pants and shorts got looser and looser. Clothes got too big. I was amazed that I could do that to myself. It truly amazed me that I could have that much control over what I looked like. Maybe in a world that seemed out of control to me at times – a language I wasn’t sure of, people I didn’t understand, a culture so different from mine, unfamiliar customs, sticking out in a crowd, being a target for catcalls and robbers, not to mention first year teaching to children whose second language was the class I was trying to teach – control over my body was a relief. It soothed the anxiety the outside world caused me by allowing me to put myself in control of at least one part. My weight. And so my body became my world at peace.
People wonder why it’s so hard to overcome an eating disorder. It’s because ED gives the false sense of security in control. I thought it was me losing the weight, but it wasn’t. It was ED. I let him have the reigns and when ED takes over, there is no way in hell he’s going to give them back without a fight to the death. And so whenever you try, whenever you make those attempts to put all the pieces of your life back together again, ED makes sure there is always that one piece hidden. And that missing piece causes anxiety and fear. And because ED seems to be the only one with the cure for the anxiety, you hold onto him. Even when the ones who truly love you try to convince you different. They love you, but only ED can give you momentary peace. He created and upholds the vicious cycle because in it he has all the power.
And so resignation and depression set in. Why keep a broken puzzle? Why keep trying to put together a puzzle that can’t be finished? You scrap it and put it back in the box, the anxiety caused by an incomplete picture taken away as the puzzle pieces get put back into the box until the next time you look in the closet and think, Hey, I want to put that puzzle together. Only you’ve forgotten that it’s got a piece missing. So again, you concentrate for hours on a puzzle with a missing piece. Again, you get angry and frustrated when it can’t be done. When you fail again, even though that failure isn’t your fault, you get depressed and feel hopeless. You crumble all your hard work and toss it all back in the box. By breaking that unfinished puzzle up once again, you get peace from the anxiety of an undone puzzle, from having to wonder and worry where that dumb piece went, from having to take time out of your busy life to hunt for it and care enough about that finished puzzle to dedicate any of your precious time to the search. But the fact that its still in the closet haunts you even while ED tries to get you to forget it’s there.
No one can tell someone with an eating disorder to just put the broken puzzle into a frame and call it good. Because it will hang on the wall and be a constant reminder of what’s missing. No one wants to live in constant anxiety. No one wants to walk around being unsettled 24/7. Don’t try to tell someone with an eating disorder to just eat, to get over it, that they look fine, that it doesn’t matter if they gain weight. Don’t be logical to an illogical mind, a mind constantly churning with anxiety. ED is anything but logical. Instead, you must help that person hunt for what’s missing. Look with them, search side by side, don’t let them give up, encourage, cheer, get on your hands and knees together, find the magnifying glass, don’t be afraid of the mice in the corners or the spiders under the bed. Fight their fear with them. Push them through their anxiety. Kill any critter that stands in the way of finding that missing piece of the puzzle. When they want to give up and go lay down on their bed, pull the covers off and tell them to get up and get to work. You aren’t going to do this alone. This is their puzzle and if they want it done, they’re going to have to help you look. Even when it feels hopeless. Especially when it feels hopeless. Be a hard nose about it. Take a caffeine break and then go back with renewed energy. Don’t give up on the piece. And never, ever, ever give up on the one trying to put the puzzle together. Never. Never. Find the piece. Put the puzzle together. Take away the anxiety by not being willing to quit.
My missing piece is accepting my body the way God created it. If I felt that pound go on, my anxiety rose, and the only way to get back to peace was to lose the pound. But now I’m recovering. And in order to finish my puzzle, I have to live with my anxiety until that acceptance is concrete. It’s so hard living with anxiety and constant unsettledness. But by God’s grace, I’m beginning to know peace and leave the anxiety behind.
Here’s what I’m ashamed to share. But I need to be honest and get this out in the open so I can let it go along with the anxiety. I hate my legs. I hate that my weight lands on my thighs. I hate that my legs are wider at the top than at the bottom. I hate that. I hate that my thighs rub together now. I used to have a fantastic thigh gap. I measured my worth by my thigh gap. I hate that I have creases in my back where my hips come out. I hate that my hips come out enough to cause a crease. I hate that my arms are chubbier than they used to be. I hate floppy arms. I hate wiggly places in general. I used to be wiggle free. Everywhere. These are the things I hate.
There. I said it. And now I can let it go.
Now that it’s in writing, I have confirmed what my heart already knew – that what I hate is not worth the time it takes to hate it. How fickle can I be – thigh gap, really? But ED convinced me those things were life or death issues. They were worth giving up my husband, my family, my time, my job, my relationships, my joy, my faith, my life. ED convinced me because ED is a liar. An evil, illogical, control freaking liar. The words are out and now I can let them go and let truth sink in. ED lies; God loves.
GOD made me.
God MADE me.
God made ME.
I can accept the way my body looks because God took great care in forming me, inside and out. I am beautiful in my shape. I have a strong body that can walk, run, exercise, clean, play, cook, dance, lay down and get up. What I am learning to do is stop the hate from stealing my joy. I am learning to focus on God’s truth rather than ED’s lies. I am learning to spend my days on what matters rather than on what time and decay will take away. I am hunting for my missing piece, and if I were playing the hot/cold game, I’d be burning hot right now. I’m close. I’m so close that ED is becoming desperate. Desperate and dying. I can counter attack him when he starts to draw on my body image anxiety and fear.
ED: You’re getting fatter.
ME: I am a healthy weight that allows me to do everything I need and want to do in a day.
ED: You don’t look good in the clothes you used to wear.
ME: I look good in my clothes now. I can buy clothes that make me feel beautiful and confident. I can make my own style that shows my own personality, ED, not yours.
ED: You won’t look good in a swimming suit. People will see all the parts you hate in your suit.
ME: But when I’m swimming, I’m usually either swimming laps, making my heart strong and healthy, or I’m playing with my boys. They couldn’t care less what I look like as long as I’m spending time doing what they, and I, love.
ED: Stare in the mirror. Look at all your imperfect flaws.
ME: But why would I stand and study my imperfections when I can live my life focused on those around me and what is truly important. I don’t see those imperfections when I’m doing life instead of watching it.
ED: People will notice that you’ve gained weight.
ME: If people care what size clothes I wear, they aren’t the kind of people I want to be around anyway.
ED: You are worthless if you aren’t skinny.
ME: When I die and my body is laying in a casket, the people at my funeral are not going to be talking about what I looked like. I pray that the life I led will be one of joy and grace, of service and love in the name of the God who saved me, and I pray with my whole heart that those are the memories people will share about Rhonda Joy.
ED: You won’t be happy unless your skinny.
ME: But I’m already happier than I’ve been in 17 years. It’s like all my emotions are amplified and deepened. God has given me joy that goes far beyond the temporary happiness of being thin. That’s what the world tells me I’m supposed to look like. God calls me to be much more than that. My life has meaning in Him, not in my weight.
As I gain perspective, as I gain the ability to refocus when ED tries to tell me lies, the easier it is to redirect my thoughts from a negative body image to one that sees my worth in God, not my shape. Truly, when I don’t spend time staring at myself in the mirror, I don’t remember the parts of my body I “hate”. In fact, I learn to respect the body I have. My focus is outward, at the people and tasks before me rather than on myself. That sets my priorities on what matters. I can have an eternal perspective rather than a worldly one. And then I let joy rule my life instead of ED’s voice feeding me lies.
I’m closing in on that piece of my puzzle. I will find it, probably drop it, forget where I put it every now and then, but I will always be able to find it back. And one day, with practice and patience, I will learn to not be so clumsy and forgetful. The piece will stay put.
Today, right now, I can picture in my mind what the piece looks like, its shape, its colors, how it will complete my puzzle. I can visualize the beauty of my completed picture. The anxiety of living with a hole in my finished project fades. I can redirect and refocus my thoughts on eternity. God formed my body. My body belongs to no one else. Comparing another’s body with my own is like comparing apples and oranges. I have curves and lines that belong to me, that make me unique, that make me strong and beautiful to my Master Puzzle Builder. And I know that he does not want me trying to fit this body into a mold that is not mine. I don’t need ED to reshape what isn’t shaped wrong. Anxiety does not have to rule my life. I don’t have to give up my control to ED in order to maintain his vicious cycle. I can visualize my puzzle, completed and whole. And in that completion, God receives all the glory. Joy in me means joy in all the parts of me. Legs, thighs, hips, arms. And heart. My puzzle is framed up and ready to be hung.