Pulling Away

If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not able of developing compassion for others.

Dalai Lama

It feels like this sentiment has received a lot of backlash in recent years. People are offended when you suggest their lack of self-love somehow eliminates their potential to love other people. This quote is at the back of my mind a lot and I’ve thought about it in different ways at different points in my life. I believe both perspectives have validity to them. I don’t think it’s impossible to have love for other people if you don’t love yourself. I know the love I receive from the people in my life often makes it more possible for me to show myself love and compassion. But I don’t think that was ever the message trying to be conveyed. The message to me was that you can’t love others fully or as much as you would be able to if you loved yourself.

Relationships of any kind are very difficult for me. I do think it stems a lot from the way I love myself, or rather the way I don’t love myself. Throughout my life, all the relationships that have stuck were with people that are extremely open, loving, caring, and communicative. These people are the easiest for me to connect with, because I feel safe with them. And I guess to a certain extent, maybe they have the self-confidence and self-esteem to not take it personally when I am in one of my anti-social moods.

I’ve recently noticed how a lot of my other relationships break down over time. If the other person is not always openly expressing their good opinion of me or how much they value me and our friendship, I slowly start to convince myself that they don’t care about me. Because of this often mistaken perception, I pull away. They notice me pulling away, so they pull away. My suspicions are confirmed, and the friendship/relationship is dead. Without the presence of a palpable and verbalized unconditional love, I don’t ever feel secure enough to maintain a relationship with someone.

This stems directly from the way I feel about myself. I don’t believe I deserve friendship or love. It makes more sense to me that someone wouldn’t like me. I seek out cues to reinforce this belief whether they are there or not. It takes a LOT of weight and evidence in the opposite direction for someone to counterbalance my negative self-perception. Which can understandably be an exhausting dynamic for anyone without the predisposition to interact that way.

This is what I think it means when someone says you have to love yourself first. No, I’m not incapable of having meaningful, loving relationships. I’m fortunate enough to have several that I deeply value. BUT I would be available for forming close bonds with many different types of people if I had a higher amount of self-worth. My self-loathing makes it far too painful to be vulnerable with anyone that I’m not 100% certain will receive that vulnerability with positive regard and support. I’ve already rejected myself to such an extent that seeing that reflected by another person, whether real or imagined, is unbearable.

I don’t think you have to love yourself to love other people. But it does make it a hell of a lot easier.

Trying Too Hard

I can feel myself getting frustrated again. Picking at all of my perceived imperfections. Comparing myself to everyone I see, and feeling like I come up short. This cycle has become so familiar, but it doesn’t get any easier with repetition. One week I’ll feel good, motivated, like I’m making progress. Then the next I’ll feel utterly desperate about the futility of all the work I do for personal growth and self improvement. It’s particularly pronounced when it comes to my life-long struggle with body image.

Despite my best efforts to avoid the triggering, toxic images I used to purposely flood myself with online, somehow they’ve started creeping back in again. Perfect little vegan fitness models and casual yogis. It’s bad enough that they have bodies I could only dream of, but it stings in an especially painful way when I see just how much MORE work I put in for so much less satisfying and aesthetically pleasing results. I know I have a distorted view of my appearance to some extent. And I don’t think I look bad. But after years of diligent, intense, advanced exercise routines, I expected to actually look like someone who prioritizes fitness in their life. Not just someone who works out for 20 minutes once or twice a week.

Even when I’ve felt for years like I couldn’t possibly do any more exercise in a day, I’ve slowly added on more and more things. It never makes any significant or noticeable change though! All it does is make me feel obligated to continue at this more draining routine for fear I’ll somehow gain weight if I stop, even though I didn’t lose any when I started. I’ve recognized for a long time now that this is an extremely unhealthy mindset that impacts my self-esteem, my physical health, and my social life. Still I feel helpless to change it. My fear of looking worse than I do now is all-consuming. I feel resigned to this unsustainable, ever increasing physical workload that will never do anything for me besides keep me where I already am. A place that does not even bring me satisfaction or happiness. It’s no longer about progress, it’s about avoiding an even more pronounced level of self-hatred and disgust.

One thing I have been trying to convince myself of, is the importance of slowing things down/lessening my reps and speed in order to focus on truly good, mindful form and activating the right muscles when I’m moving. Logically I do believe this would be more beneficial. But that disordered, self-hating, fearful side of my brain panics at the thought. But what if I slow down and gain weight? What if I can’t pick it back up again? What if I do go back to what I’m doing now, but am stuck with whatever weight I may put on forever?! It’s these unhealthy thoughts that keep me from changing anything despite my dissatisfaction with my results or lack-there-of.

In the last ten or more years, I’ve never allowed myself a proper “rest” day from exercise. There have only been a handful of days I haven’t worked out, but even those days are not true rest because I workout extra the days before and after to “make up for it.” My ego takes some form of pride in this fact, while also cursing all the people I see taking regular rest days multiple times a week and looking 50x better than I ever have. I’ve just been believing that there is something wrong with me. Their bodies just work better than mine does somehow. Surely if I took rest days, I’d have made even less progress.

I’m beginning to finally open myself up to the possibility that isn’t the case. I was already toying with the concept of rest being valuable and important so that my muscles actually get a chance to heal and build themselves up stronger. I don’t really notice myself gaining muscle mass or strength with the way I’m doing things now. I basically stay where I am. In addition to that, I’ve been reading a lot about the effects of cortisol and weight gain.

I assume I have ridiculously high levels of cortisol in my body at all times, just based on my stress level. What I didn’t realize is that this may not be solely due to my anxiety disorder. Exercise naturally raises cortisol levels, which isn’t a problem in moderation and can even be beneficial. However, excessive exercise can lead to unhealthy levels of cortisol. I don’t think it’s up for debate whether the amount of exercise I’ve been subjecting myself to for the past ten years is “excessive” or not. Have I been shooting myself in the foot this entire time?

It seems too good to be true to imagine that I could do less and have the same or an even better body. My self-flagellating mind simply cannot accept that possibility. Then again, working harder hasn’t seemed to work out at all the way I thought it would. Maybe I really am doing myself a disservice by pushing myself so much. What if I was able to do less, better quality exercise, enjoy my workouts again, have more free-time, feel less tired and stressed, AND look/feel better in my body? It’s so difficult for me to contemplate, let alone begin to test.

I know if I really want things to change in my life and in my body, I’ve got to actually start doing things differently. One of the big road blocks in my way is the fact that to truly know if the changes I implement are working, I need to see where I am right now and monitor that moving forward. It’s so unbearable for me to weigh myself or, god forbid, take photos or measurements. *shudder* But I’m afraid if I don’t, I’ll be too afraid to change anything because I might gain weight without realizing it. Dear god, I need a therapist so badly. Unfortunately I live in the greatest country on earth and that isn’t a feasible option for someone working full-time in the MENTAL HEALTH INDUSTRY!

My sheer ability to ramble on for so long about this topic is evidence that there is a problem. I want to follow that little spark of excitement and curiosity that tells me to switch things up. I know it’s worth it. I know it would be good for me mentally at the very least. I wrote something that struck me as profound last night while I was journaling: Fear is a powerful motivator. I am just afraid of the wrong things.

Opening Up About My Eating Disorder

Until now, I’ve only made vague references and comments about this on my blog. Part of me was hesitant even to do that. There are a lot of reasons that I still feel somewhat uncomfortable sharing this story. Not only am I ashamed of the behaviors themselves and the seemingly benign catalyst to this downward spiral, but I’m also ashamed to label myself as someone recovering from an eating disorder.

Even though I definitely suffered from extremely disordered eating for months if not an entire year, I never felt like it was “that bad.” I know a lot of people internally minimize their own mental health issues especially when eating disorders are involved, but even knowing that, I didn’t feel able to consider myself one of those people. I’ve watched so many documentaries and series about anorexia and other eating disorders. I know how bad it can get. I know it can be life-threatening at times, especially in the cases that persist for years and years. I was comparing myself to those extreme cases and disregarding the suffering and severity of where I was physically and mentally for those months. I felt, like a lot of people do, that I wasn’t “that sick.” I wasn’t extreme enough in my behaviors. I wasn’t thin enough to have an eating disorder. It hadn’t been going on long enough.

It is easy for me to recognize these excuses and minimizing attempts in others, but only recently have I been able to accept that things really had gotten bad for me. And that I’m still struggling to regain healthy eating habits and not fall back into toxic self-talk. I wanted to write about my experiences today for all of those who may be reading that are like me. There is no “sick enough” threshold that you have to meet before you can get help. If you feel there is a problem, there is. You don’t have to reach rock bottom or suffer for a certain length of time before you can decide to love yourself, before you decide you are worthy of recovery. You are worthy of recovery right now. You are always worthy of love. Your suffering matters, regardless of whether or not someone else may “have it worse.”

My eating disorder began at the end of 2019. One of the parts I’m embarrassed by is the “reason” it seemed to have been triggered. I’m sure there were a lot of other underlying issues going on, and the isolation of the pandemic really made it a lot worse, but the day I recall that switch happening in my mind was a day I was pulled over. I am no stranger to speeding tickets, but this one really got to me for some reason. I was so ashamed and humiliated for getting yet another ticket and having to spend over $100 on something so stupid right before the holidays. As I cried big ugly tears on the rest of my drive home, my thoughts were swirling with negativity.

I’m never pretty enough to get out of a ticket I thought. A thought I have basically every time I’ve been pulled over. But that day it stung particularly badly. “I don’t deserve to eat tonight.” That was the thought that played on repeat. And I didn’t eat that night. Or the next. To my surprise, fasting made me feel a lot better. I felt powerful and strong. I felt sleek and beautiful. My mind felt sharp. I felt in control. I woke up more easily. I felt lighter during my morning workout. “This is great,” I told myself.

After those first two days without eating, fasts became a normal part of my weekly routine. At first I was fasting for one or two days every week. Then three days a week. Then it started to become more than just fasting. On the four days a week I allowed myself to eat, I had a very strict diet. I didn’t eat until 6 or 7 in the evening, and then I would basically eat things that had virtually no calories so that I could eat for hours straight without feeling guilty. Each and every day I ate, I would eat the same exact things, in the same exact order. First I would eat four whole cans of green beans with copious amounts of salt and onion powder. Then I would eat roasted zucchini. Then I would eat cabbage soup. Then lima beans. Sometimes these super low-calorie spring rolls. Then I would finish it off by gorging myself on vegan halotop ice cream, or banana nice cream.

Not long after that, I also starting binging and purging two of the four days I did eat. So I basically wasn’t getting any calories besides the few I would keep down two days a week. I continued to workout for an hour every day like always during this period, mind you. If for some reason I ended up eating with family or friends, that would inevitably be thrown up later. I was worried about the purging, but not much else. And even that was about my looks. I didn’t want my teeth to fall out. I knew that wasn’t going to be something I could do forever, but at the time, I still didn’t want to stop.

In the beginning, I felt amazing. I was losing more weight, more quickly than I ever had my entire life. Every week I was meeting new personal goals. I was elated each and every time I took out the scale to see a smaller number. Even so, it didn’t seem to be perceivable in the reflection I saw in the mirror. Even though I reached my lifelong personal goal for the first time ever, I still hated who I saw staring back at me. I still felt the same, worse even. I felt disgusting, fat, like my belly was grotesque, like I’d never be thin enough.

At a certain point a month or more in, my family and friends started to express their concerns. They were not hesitant at all about asking me point blank if I had an eating disorder. Of course I lied and said I was just being very careful not to eat as much as I used to, but that I was completely fine and healthy. They didn’t seem to believe me, but they didn’t push the issue either. Their concern only made me hate myself more. I felt guilty and embarrassed that they knew I wasn’t okay. I felt like a failure that the comments I received were concerned instead of impressed. I also felt immense pressure at that point to keep the weight off. I was horrified at the idea I may gain it back and people would notice that too.

I had always dreamed of being thin. Ever since I was a little girl in elementary school. I still remember that when I found out about eating disorders, I genuinely wished that I could have one. I felt like that was the only way I’d ever be able to get skinny. Sadly, I made that wish come true through years and years of exposing myself to “thinspo” on Instagram and Tumbr. It always felt like the horrible mental side effects of these disorders just wouldn’t happen to me, or that they were an okay price to pay for beauty. After experiencing the mental and emotional agony I went through, I can say with absolute certainty that isn’t true.

I had sold myself the lie that being skinny would make me happy for my entire life. It was absolutely devastating to confront that lie. During these months, my mental health plummeted lower than ever before. I absolutely hated myself. I was utterly disgusted by every part of myself. I hated my reflection even more than I did before I lost the weight. Each and every moment of the day was consumed by thoughts of food and outrageous levels of anxiety. This was supposed to be how I found happiness, but I found only misery. It felt like happiness didn’t even exist anymore, or at least I’d never find it.

I honestly don’t know how I found the strength within me to finally work on more healthy eating habits again, but somehow I did. It was a slow process, and I still haven’t made it back to “normal” yet. But I am so proud of myself for deciding that I was worthy of my own love. Even though my eating is still a bit haywire, I feel like I have a healthier relationship with my body than I ever thought I would. Now when those toxic thoughts about my body come up, I remind myself that being skinny isn’t going to solve all my problems. It didn’t solve them. It just made life a living Hell. I remind myself that I get to choose whether to be happy or not, and it is in no way correlated to my appearance. In fact, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.

If you’re reading this right now and see yourself in any of what I’ve written today. Please get help. Even if that’s just deciding to try to help yourself. Don’t wait until things are unbearable to change course. Because the sooner you are able to turn around, the easier it will be to reclaim some sense of normalcy. And trust me, if I was able to do it, anyone can. You are beautiful for who you are, not what you look like. You are enough. You are worthy of love. You are worthy of happiness. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you’re struggling. I would be honored to answer any questions anyone might have or offer my support to anyone who needs it. Thank you for letting me finally share my story.

Eating Disorder Awareness: Spread the Word - Bayridge Counselling Centres