How many rules do you have for your life?
If I think back on the last 13 years of my life, I could probably share a few books’ worth of rules I have followed at one time or another:
Fat people aren’t lovable. Don’t be fat, no matter what.
If I restrict carbs and increase protein, I can lose weight the Atkins way.
If I restrict protein, restrict carbs and eat small meals, I can lose weight the “vegetarian” way.
If I restrict certain sauces, remove all sugar, eat higher fat, I can try to eat “paleo.”
If I just eat “clean” and get rid of everything processed in my house, then I can be pure at last.
Fat people aren’t allowed to enjoy eating. They should be ashamed. I will be ashamed of eating.
Every bite I eat can lead me to ultimate doom (aka weight gain).
Never, ever relax. That’s how you get lazy and fat.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. In any given day, I was responsible for keeping up with some combination of the rules above. And if I wasn’t following them, the critters in my head were warning me of my ultimate demise: you’ll never be loved, you’ll never have a family, you’ll never have a good job. I won’t dive into the Religious Rule Books, the Dress This Way to be Pretty Rule Books, the You Said What? Rule Book, the You’ll Always Be Abandoned Rule Book, and so on
The primary Rule Book was telling me day in and day out that my body and my eating choices were to blame for absolutely everything “wrong” in my life. The only time I wasn’t a bundle of clean-eating anxiety was when I’d go out with friends and get sloshed on beer and margaritas. (Which, by the way, introduced its own set of big, fat, ugly, hide-from-everything problems.)
Notice the Pause, See the Pattern
In 2014 I added another Rule Book to my life: the CrossFit Rule Book! I have to say, some of the nicest, most encouraging people hang out at CrossFit gyms. But they had no way of knowing that I was using extreme exercise as just another possible way to create the Don’t Be Yourself fairytale ending I always dreamed about. It amounted to yet another distraction from what was really going on inside me.
At any given point in the day, I would experience a vortex of crippling, self-defeating voices in my head. My anxiety would spike and turn every friend in my life into a villain. I couldn’t trust anyone. I couldn’t let anyone really in. I was 28 years old and had never been in a serious relationship because I had to pattern-fill anything and everything a man did or said—and my brain could always convince me to run for my life in 3 weeks or less. To make matters worse, if I started dating (or even just talking to!) someone new, my entire life would come screeching to a halt. I thought I was being nice, but really I had a bad case of Anxiety Paralysis. Where anxiety makes you so afraid to do even one thing wrong that you shut down your entire day, all weekend plans, all your friendships, anything fun or distracting, so you can be SURE you don’t miss his requests for your attention. (Because ATTENTION IS WHAT WE NEED TO FEEL BETTER WHEN WE’RE ANXIOUS, YO.)
In the mix of all these Rule Books, I started to see something … it was trying to interrupt the chaos. I was beginning to observe what I was doing, and I give full credit in equal doses to my neuroses and meditation practice. What I had no way of knowing when I began to meditate is that when you work with your mind intentionally (sitting with your thoughts, choosing to gently come back to your breath), some of that transfers to your regular life. Meditation masters call it “the pause,” this split second of SPACE between your experience and your neuroses interpreting that experience.
True to form, in the final weeks leading up to 2015, I made another eating chart. I drew out a calendar for January and made myself tally my total carb count for every day. If I stayed below 20, I got a gold star sticker! But I also noticed that my daily life wasn’t getting so many gold stars: my anxiety was spiking to new heights, and I was hiding in my apartment from everyone. Without hiding, I had no energy for focusing on my carb counts. I couldn’t afford to get distracted.
But one day, there suddenly there was SPACE. Like a space ship’s worth of space.
Wow, you did it again, I said.
Dieting is your answer to everything when life feels unsure.
I had no idea what to do with this, except to run in Rocky-like fashion to take down the carb-counter sheet of paper. I ripped it up and told it a hearty, Get the fuck out of here!
Intuitive Eating Isn’t About Losing Weight—It’s About Living Life in Your Body, Just As It Is
This was probably the first time I had recognized a destructive pattern and rejected it, even though it had historically given me a sense of control and comfort.
So, now what?
What do I do with my life if I’m not counting carbs? How do I stop defaulting to one of my 49 Food Rule Books?
Enter: intuitive eating. Jenna Hollenstein and the intuitive eating community have tons of resources online, and I dove right in. In all honesty, I was hoping to find the Answers in their books and tips and tricks. I was disappointed when they kept pointing me back to my own body as the source of Wisdom. Wait, no rules?!
It was just rebellious enough to intrigue me.
So I played with the ideas. And I discovered a handful of really unsettling things: I had no idea how to shop for groceries without a STRICT list—without it, I didn’t get my Gold Star for Not Participating in Life. I didn’t know what it meant to be hungry or full. I had never really savored all the miraculous sensations in a meal shared with friends. I mean, I had eaten with friends plenty of times, but there was always that side helping of You Are Guilty of Treasonous Eating. I was surely, always and every time, punished in my mind for enjoying anything that didn’t lead to following a rule.
That Cheeseburger Can’t Solve Your Problems—Ya Gotta Feel the Realness
One of the challenging parts of trying to learn to be an intuitive eater is that you’ve likely used food, restriction, rules, as a clever way to avoid the emotions you can’t handle. The reality of a life or a traumatic experience you just can’t deal with. This means that before finding the JOY in eating food and just being in your body, you have to feel the FEELINGS. And I felt all the feelings. They were big and loud and hairy. (They still ARE!)
I remember one particular time I was seething, pacing back and forth alone in my apartment. I was angry. I was pissed. I had developed feelings for a guy friend, and it wasn’t going anywhere. He was the ultimate SAFE, kind man, and my heart wasn’t buying my usual anxiety pattern-filling. I heard my meditation teacher’s voice in my mind, “When you sit on your cushion, you’re choosing to sit in the middle of your life EXACTLY as it is.” So I yelled out loud:
Fine, I WILL TAKE A SEAT IN THE MIDDLE OF MY OWN GODDAMN FUCKING LIFE!
I dragged my pillows into the living room, faced a blank wall and began pounding the floor with my fists. I couldn’t bring myself to meditate or focus on my breath for more than one or two breaths. I sunk into the feelings in my body and I felt tightness in my chest, as if I was waiting for everything to come crashing down. I kept muttering angry, curse-laden expressions of what I was feeling, until finally something came out:
Why doesn’t anyone want to come home to me?
Cue: tears. Cue: sobbing. Cue: snot running down my nose. Cue: gush of emotions all over the carpet and my pillows. I got off my floor with no answers, but I do remember feeling like a door had just opened.
This wasn’t a feeling that food could fix. This wasn’t something exercise could distract from. This was a deeply held fear in my heart from my childhood: that no one wants to come home to me because there’s always something that matters more than me.
Coming Back to Life Takes Time and Therapists
I wish this was the only time I had a dramatic uprising of Every Emotion Ever. But it wasn’t. It was just the beginning of a long journey to address what food can and can’t do; what healing is and isn’t; and how to be in my body without wanting it to disappear.
The mix of body trauma and childhood abandonment issues was acute. And without food and exercise as a silencing force, I had no choice but to turn toward my body and my memories and let them stay. One of the things that you learn when you’ve been violated sexually as a child is that your mind actually creates a safe space to cope. Without proper intervention and help, this “hiding place” becomes like a fantasy where you escape when trauma comes thundering back on the scene. It’s actually quite healthy and remarkable when you think about it—my little six-year-old mind created an alternate universe where I could be safe until the Real World could wrap me up in a safe blanket. As an adult, I knew I couldn’t sustain my “hiding place” forever. I also wanted to come to life. I wanted to know what it was like to actually feel alive.
Fast forward to this morning, where I’m soft tears have welled up in my eyes a few times. I’m listening to Stevie Wonder and tracing the branches of our large pine tree in the back yard. I’m remembering what it was like to have these huge gushes of emotions TAKE OVER EVERYTHING. They would shake me until I had nothing left.
This is incredibly lonely but worthwhile work. No one else can do it for me or you. But as much as this is “Only You” work, I also know that I couldn’t have persevered without an other-worldly, amazing support system filled with friends from college, counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, meditation teachers, fellow meditation practitioners and of course my Nothing Scares Me husband.
Did I mention that I’m pregnant with my first child? I recently wrote about what anxiety and PTSD felt like when we just started sniffing at the idea of having a baby. And how there’s this miracle I’m walking in every day. I have new stretch marks on my stomach. My stomach is growing larger every day. All my pants are stretchy and the fashion industry can officially kiss my ass. I look at my stomach—it is growing but it’s also pushing my belly rolls out further than they’ve been before. My underwear kind of pinches in weird spots and creates some funny looking rolls. But I am at ease. My body is on my side, whether it’s growing a baby or eating cotton candy at the state fair. Miraculously, baby hormones agree with my body, so this means I am feeling joy when I look at my baby’s sonogram pictures.
It’s almost as if my body was on my side the entire time. It was just waiting for me to step inside it, all the way. This takes more courage than I can say.
It takes courage to step away from Rules and step inside your life, exactly as it is.
But I want to stand here and say, it’s worth it.
I will spend the rest of my life trying to stay in it without hiding. This isn’t a won-and-done proposition. It is ongoing, it is intense and it is worth it.
Cheers to being alive and throwing the rule books out the window.