Food is Hard

I love the tastes, textures, and smells of food. I love making it. I love feeding other people. I love teaching people how to cook. But food is hard. I struggle with food. My relationship with food is fraught at best.

I have suffered from disordered eating since I was about 15. This isn’t something that I tend to talk about a lot, but I am fairly certain I would have been anorexic in high school if I didn’t get diagnosed with IBS at the age of 16.

For those of you who aren’t aware, disordered eating is having abnormal eating behaviors that are not quite strong enough to warrant an eating disorder diagnosis (like anorexia). There are a lot of different symptoms that can present as disordered eating, and I don’t have all (or even most) of them. The behaviors that I in particular show are: chronically restraining my eating, having a hard time physically eating, obsessively counting calories, and regularly ignoring when I’m hungry. I also occasionally binge and hide the evidence afterward. Even though it’s not as bad as an eating disorder, disordered eating can and does impact my life in a lot of negative ways.

How did this all start? Like a lot of us, my self-image problems began when I hit puberty. Turns out that I was fated to inherit the curviness of my family line. People started commenting on my weight and how if I wasn’t careful I would end up being fat. I was 12. A 12-year-old does not know how to handle that. A lot of adults don’t.

A few years later, I started to restrict the food I ate. It was easy. I could put it in the guise of eating healthy because I had IBS or skip meals because I “forgot”. The one wonderful thing about IBS is that you can’t forget to eat. If you do, a lot of pain happens. More than is worth skipping the meal.

So I didn’t stop eating. Instead, I found that food was something I could control. I did not feel like I had control over much in high school, especially late high school. I couldn’t shake depression, I felt abandoned, and I was suicidal. I took comfort in the fact that at least I had power over what went in my body. I ate about 1,000 calories a day for years. In case you were wondering, this is bad. If you do this for more than a few weeks, you body thinks it’s starving. It is not out of the realm of possibility that I permanently damaged my metabolism by doing this. Not that it mattered from my perspective. I still gained weight.

Oh, yes, the weight. For the record, I’ve never been beyond what you might dub chubby. I’ve never wanted to lose more than 20 lb. But the thing about wanting to lose weight is that usually you’ll eat less and exercise more. That didn’t work for me for a long time. Want to know why? Because when you eat even less than just above a starvation diet, you start to get fainting spells. You can’t exercise because your body doesn’t have enough energy to repair itself from injury. Oh, and you have no energy. At all.

For about 5 years, I convinced myself that I simply couldn’t lose weight. I gave up on having a good body image or feeling pretty or comfortable with how I looked. This may not seem like a big deal, but I care about how I present myself to the world. To give up on that was depressing and sad.

About 6 months ago, I decided to try again. This time around I made sure I ate enough each day and took the exercise in increments to ensure no injuries. It worked; I am losing weight and getting rid of fat. But here’s the kicker: I still have a hard time eating. Sometimes I have to force myself to swallow. I feel sick when I smell food. I feel my body get hungry and I won’t eat until I have no other option. I am terrified that this exercise habit will get out of control and will just end up one more symptom.

I don’t want food to control my life. It shouldn’t be something I obsess over. But it does, and I do. I can’t seem to help it. I am starting to get better but I have such a long way to go. It seems like I will be this way forever.

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Exercise, etc.

About three months ago, I realized that I couldn’t go up a flight of stairs without getting winded. I’ve never been in peak physical condition but this was unacceptable, so I decided to make some lifestyle changes. I wanted to eat better, improve my body composition, and gain some strength.

So far, it’s worked pretty well. I’ve lost 12 lb. and 3″ off my waist, I can exercise over 30 min without thinking I’m going to die, I have more energy, and i’m not constantly cold anymore.

I noticed a thing, though. I have this weird desire to tell people about exercise. It’s as though it doesn’t count somehow if I don’t let people know what I’m doing. It could be habit; I tell people about the majority of my life, and this is the latest facet. I like to share milestones whenever I hit them and complain that my legs feel like jelly after the hated jump squats.

It’s not  evangelistic, really. Sure, I think that everyone should be healthy, but my path to health is not going to be everyone’s and I don’t want to convince anyone that I know what I’m doing. When it comes to food and nutrition, sure, I will give advice. That is something I have studied for years and I try to keep up on the research done in food science. I am not a nutritionist but I’m pretty good for a lay person. Not so regarding fitness. I am still very much a novice at this.

I think what it might be is that fitness is now on my mind. A lot. I spend 30-45 min a day six times a week exercising. I try to use the standing part of my desk 3-4 hours a day at work. My food choices are more considered than six months ago. And my body is sore. All the time.

Yes, I am stronger and have more endurance than I did. I am also constantly trying to push my muscles as far as they can safely go. Note I did say safely. I have not injured myself so far, and I have every intention of keeping it that way. But muscle soreness means that i have tiny constant reminders that I am in the process of changing my body composition.

To tell the truth, I kind of hate exercising. I know that there are people who supposedly like it. At times I get glimpses of what that must be like. Mostly, I like having exercised. I like the sense of accomplishment once I’m done, and I like seeing the progress I have made.

To me, fitness is an exercise in grit. I do not have much grit (or stick-to-it-ness) naturally. I get frustrated and discouraged very quickly. A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Hidden Brain podcast and the subject was grit. One of the tidbits that I pulled from it is that while some people do have more naturally, grit is something that is cultivated. So that’s what I’m doing.

It has most definitely occurred to me that I could just be obnoxious in talking about this. It’s a legitimate concern. I don’t really want to bore or alienate my friends by talking about something that truly only concerns myself. I’ll try to rein it in. In return, please understand: this is my life now. I’m trying to adjust.

Doing Better?

Today a friend of mine told me she was worried about me because I seem to be constantly stressed. On the one hand, she’s right. We’ve had a family member die and two car crashes in three months. Additionally, my vertigo seems to be getting progressively worse. My base stress level is certainly higher than it used to be. On the other hand, I thought I was doing pretty good considering all that.

I basically have had two modes lately: stressed to the point where I think I will have a mental breakdown at any point, and apathy. I’ll cover apathy at some other point.

Many of the worries I am currently dealing with have solutions. I know; I have a list. As I solve problems, or even make progress, I can tick things off my list and theoretically lower my anxiety levels incrementally. For instance, we had a totaled car on our hands two days after Christmas. I knew that I needed to talk to all the insurance companies, get my husband and I doctor appointments, get the car appraised and find a new car.

All but the last one has been done. And it has helped. Some. But it didn’t seem to lower my stress levels as much as it should. Like I said earlier, my baseline seem to be ratcheted up.  This is a problem. I don’t really know how to fix it. What does one do to just stop being stressed about things that I have every right to be stressed over? I’ve started exercising again (now that the whiplash is pretty well gone) and that is helping some. I try to talk to my friends about it, but honestly I end up feeling selfish for bringing up my problems (now there’s a future post I need to write). Prayer and/or meditation do help, but it doesn’t exactly eradicate the stress, it just puts it in perspective a bit. Alcohol was simply a bad choice and I stopped drinking for a while.

Multiple people have told me I am coping incredibly well in the circumstances. But I don’t want to cope. I want to get better. The past week has been better. I’ve been able to cry a few times, and I’ve noticed I am less irritable. I still can’t sleep, though. I can’t focus, either. I am doing better, but I have a really long way to go.

Grief Part Five: Tears

I cry a lot. I’m rather good at it. I cry from distress, sadness, anger, at movies, at books, and sometimes for no reason at all. I cry at least once a week without anything stressful in my life, much less when dealing with grief. So yeah, I’m good at crying. And I hate it. I hate it so much. Ok, that’s not entirely true. I only mostly hate it.

There is a lot of shame surrounding crying in our society. You are seen as weak, vulnerable, childish, or unable to control yourself. This is evidenced by numerous songs, movies and books about how “big girls don’t cry” and how anger or revenge is a better (and presumably more mature) response. The best possible response was stoicism. Just don’t let whatever is bothering you get under your skin. It’s not a big deal. Just whatever you do, don’t cry.

I most definitely internalized this growing up. I tried to learn to have a stiff upper lip and carry on. It did not work. Those emotions don’t just go away. They bottle up over time and then exploded when I couldn’t take any more. I could keep myself from crying for a while, but not indefinitely.

Every time that I did cry, I felt like I was letting myself down. If I happened to cry in front of anyone, I felt so ashamed of myself. I still do. I have an immediate need to apologize to whoever witnessed my failure as a human being. That sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s really not.

Here’s the insidious equation that lives in my head: Crying = being vulnerable. Vulnerability = weakness. Weakness = not living up to my potential. Lack of potential = Failure. 

Please note that this only applies to me in my head. If I see someone else cry, none of the above applies to the other person. And that’s crazy, right? Why would I do this to myself? Am I am so afraid of letting people see anything but the chipper person I am most of the time that I risk not connecting to anyone on a real level?

Now, let’s transfer all this to someone who’s grieving. On average I am currently either crying or tearing up at least every other day, if not more. I was already on the high end of the normal spectrum for crying. We are far beyond that now. My emotions are on overload making them far stronger than usual. I don’t actually know how  to adult in this situation and I feel completely overwhelmed. In all of this, I am trying to be better about crying, because it’s one of the few things I can do to get all these confused emotions out.

I’m working on it. I still apologize to my friends (and even my husband) when I cry, but at least I *can* cry. I keep telling myself that there really isn’t anything wrong with vulnerability. Letting people into my life, letting down my walls, is a good thing. Right now, I don’t really have a choice. There is something strangely freeing about that.

Sure, life is getting back to some semblance of normal, but I get choked up at the drop of a hat at the moment. I’m tearing up as I write this, actually. There is nothing wrong with that. For one thing, I am grieving. For another, I am human. Maybe someday I’ll be ok with that.

 

Grief Part Three: It’s Hugs All the Way Down

Being an in-law is weird. Legitimately weird. You find the person that you want to spend the rest of your life with and that’s wonderful, but there are relationships attached to that person. For good or ill, you get an additional family to the one you grew up with. I am lucky to have lovely in-laws. We get along quite well and like each other. But it is still true that I didn’t grow up with the people that I have been related to for the last five years.

Normally, this is not a problem. Death is not a normal situation and thus weirdness ensues.  But not, interestingly, from the family itself.

I am in the curious position of being an inside outsider. I am close to the family but not intimate with it. In spite of knowing them for ten years, I have less history with my in-laws than any of the friends my husband grew up with. And there are a lot of friends. A. Lot. Of. Friends.

When a bereavement happens, friends tend to hug you. I have no problem with this. I am very fond of getting and receiving hugs. Any of my friends can attest to this. It turns out, I have a caveat: I need to know the person first. Now, there are a lot of people down here that I do know. I’ve hung out with many of my husband’s childhood friends and I consider them friends as well. This caveat does not apply to them; it applies to those I’ve met maybe twice and even then only to say hello.

To me, physical contact is a very important thing and should not be used if you are not already on good terms with the person in question. Part of this is from being an introvert, part from being shy, and part from “oh no, why are you touching me, please don’t do that!” I did not know this about myself, but hugs from strangers cause a stress reaction in me. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Physical contact is one of my love languages. I am keenly aware that it is not everyone’s and thus do not use it lightly. If I don’t feel comfortable around you, or more to the point, if I’m not absolutely sure you are ok with it, I won’t do anything beyond a handshake or a high-five. Boundaries are important to me and I do my best to respect others’. When a stranger hugs me, that boundary is not being respected. And that is super stressful.

Now, I realize that is not the intent. The intent can fall under two categories, as far as I can tell. First, the hugger could be trying to grant some comfort to the bereaved. That is understandable (though I can think of a number of ways to get a better result). I have noticed that no one seems to know what to do for a bereaved family and if a hug is what you can think of, it makes sense.

The second option is slightly more speculative. The hugger might be trying to receive solace from the bereaved. It’s not that I suspect selfishness on the part of the hugger. You have to keep in mind that while the family is arguably the most affected, a death in the community affects everyone. We are by no means the only ones who need comfort. So in the act of a hug, a person might be trying to create a moment of togetherness by which the healing process can start. If this is the case, I doubt it’s a conscious thought.

The memorial is on Friday. I’m probably going to get hugged a lot, mostly by strangers. And I won’t pull away, because I know it’s coming from a place of love. But please, if you tangentially know someone who’s lost someone, don’t hug them. It may not be beneficial.

Grief Part Two: Shock Value

The morning that Molly died, I went into shock. From what I can tell, this is a fairly normal reaction to emotional trauma. My brain was trying to protect me from additional damage by shutting down some of my normal reactions. As a result, I experienced numbness, derealization, fatigue, anxiety and some flashbacks. I was prepared for everything but the numbness.

Shock isn’t all bad. Like I said above, it’s a defensive reaction. It helps you deal with trauma slowly, bit by bit, in a way that’s more manageable (and hopefully not crippling like it would be otherwise). But each symptom has its upsides and downsides. The rest of this post will be an overview of what I was/am feeling, and how that is affecting me in various ways.

Flashbacks were the least frequent problem. It only happened once or twice. I have no idea what the purpose of a flashback is outside of storytelling. In a story, it gives you pertinent information and backstory. In real life, it’s reliving an (often) horrible experience. I’ve had them before, after my husband was hospitalized from an acute asthma attack a few years ago. Flashbacks are not fun. In me, they tend to inspire panic. Happily, that didn’t happen this time.

Anxiety is my constant companion, so I don’t think this can really be attributed to shock. Next.

I didn’t really know that fatigue is a thing that can happen from grief. It makes sense, though. There is a LOT of stress involved with this whole situation. Stress is tiring, Q.E.D. I have had the fun combination of anxiety is keeping me up at night, compounding the fatigue problem, making me take naps, which then makes me stay up later… Yeah. Not awesome.

Did you know that when someone dies, you keep thinking that they are simply in another room or out at a store? It’s bizarre. I know intellectually that she’s gone, but it’s like I keep forgetting. I suppose it helps me not be sad all the time. When I remember, though, it might make me more sad than if I never forgot. I can’t be sure as I don’t have experience with things the other way. I wonder if my brain just can’t accept that she’s gone. I don’t know. Maybe it takes time to change mental habits. Whatever it is, it is jarring.

I said up top that I wasn’t prepared to be numb. Now, I realize that I should have expected that particular reaction, as it’s on all the lists for grief. But I didn’t. Rather, I was desperately hoping that it would not happen.

To understand why, I need to go back a ways. I have what you might call a depressive personality. I don’t have depression, but I do suffer from dejection, worthlessness, worry, guilt, and self-criticism to the point where I probably could be diagnosed with something. Through a lot of therapy, books, and time, I’ve improved to where it’s no longer crippling and I haven’t been suicidal for years. But it’s still there under the surface.

The worst thing was being numb. To me, numbness means that I no longer care what happens to me. It tells me that I’m about to do something very, very stupid because I always got numb when things got too hard. Any time that I feel numb, for any reason, panic starts to rise in the back of my brain. Thoughts start to float through my brain that say, “This time you aren’t going to pull out of it,” “See? You aren’t any better,” “What if you don’t get to feel joy ever again?” etc, etc. It’s an endless monologue in my head of fear.

My mind can’t tell the difference between a normal and an abnormal reason for being numb. So it just reacts as though my world is crumbling to pieces. In a very real way, it is. Everything that I have tried to overcome in the last 15 years gets shattered by one tiny emotion. That is truly and deeply terrifying.

I realize that my reaction is not a normal one and that the majority of people won’t have that particular reaction to being numb. This is teaching me that there are reactions to grief that I never even considered. My past makes my experience of grief different from the other people around me. So theirs makes it different for them. Dealing with grief, it turns out, means dealing with a lot of other issues too.

Grief Part One: How We Speak About Death

I started this blog to have an outlet when I can’t stop thinking about something. Lately, I can’t stop ruminating on death, so consider this part one of my thoughts as they come to me.

My mother-in-law died last week of a long and painful illness.

When I had to tell people that she died, I noticed something: I had a very hard time saying “died”. I wanted to say passed on, went to heaven, fell asleep, or a myriad of other euphemisms. There was a visceral reaction to saying it so bluntly, and in the end I couldn’t bring myself to say it publicly. I would rather have used the same words that we do when someone is fired than be completely forthright.

Why? What is it about death, even speaking about death, that I could hardly even broach the subject?

Part of it is a deep uncomfortability about the whole death thing in the first place. I’ve only had a few people die in my life, and none so close to me as my mother-in-law. I do not know how to deal with this situation. And because of that, I also don’t know how to talk about it.

That part makes sense. But what I realized as well is that actually using the word “died”, even in my own head, made it more real. If I say she went to be with the Lord, it feels like there is a chance for her to return in this life. If I say she died, there is no recovery from that. She’s not coming back. This is only just now starting to sink in. I will never see her again because she died.

I think there is another part to it, too. I wanted to spare other people as much pain as possible. Rather than be blunt, I wanted to break the news gently to all those who have been praying for her and giving us their support. It’s like I wanted to mitigate as much pain as I could by using softer words.

Language is something we use to reveal or hide our emotions. The stronger the emotion, the more there is to hide. Grief is hard to go through, so it follows that speaking about grief is equally hard. I’m only just starting to figure this out. Is it better to be completely forthright, or to cushion my words when talking about her death? I don’t know yet. It probably depends on the situation and the person. For now, I’m waffling between the two and that’s ok. There’s no one way to grieve and therefore no one way to talk about grief. I think the important thing is that I keep talking.