The Voices of My Past

26 Feb

It is 2:41pm on Sunday, and if I’d been tallying the number of times I’ve thought about having a snack since 9am this morning, an entire 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper would be covered in tick marks– front and back.

Am I obsessed? No. Am I hungry? For something.

I work with individuals who are dieting, who are working toward getting healthy, and who need help finding their inner strength to manage chronic health, as well as mental health conditions. I teach them how to listen to their bodies and minds, to become observers of their thoughts, to manage the negative voices that often plague them, and to understand their drives, desires, and core  motivations. I can do this for a number of reasons, but a critical component to my skill in helping others has much to do with the critical skill I’ve developed in caring for myself.

Many of my clients know I struggled with disordered eating as a young college student. Perhaps it would be more appropriate for me to say that I struggled with low self-esteem, shame, depression, and anxiety. I was distrustful of the world around me, the people in my life, and believed I was unworthy. The scripts that would play in my head often sounded like this:

“You can’t do that. Are you kidding? You’re actually going to try that? You’re just going to be made fun of and ridiculed. Why would that person want to take the time to help you? Of course he meant that you’re ugly, stupid, and not worth paying attention to. You better make sure you do that perfectly, because without that grade, you will be seen as nothing.”

I remember nights spent lying awake, listening to my stomach growl. Images of food dancing across my brain are still so vivid now. Writing this, I just noticed a wave of cold discomfort envelop my  body. I was lonely and deprived. Literally deprived. I know well the environmental circumstances that caused me to begin isolating myself from people, and then isolating myself from food. It’s interesting looking back at what my life was like almost 15 years ago.

Despite the time that has elapsed, however, and having recovered fully from any eating and weight-related issues, the feelings associated with those experiences can still resonate within me. They are resonating today, and I realize as I’m wanting to eat, despite just having eaten a meal,  no threats to my well-being, and no perceivable stressors, the impetus to feed myself is self-protective.

Dieting for a bodybuilding contest can be arduous business. There are days when gnawing hunger is constant. Low blood sugar sometimes comes along and likes to kick up its feet and hang out for a little while. Training and cardio is done despite a lack of energy. I’m not necessarily in a stage of competition prep right now where it’s a grind every second (I’ve been there and know how low I can begin to feel), however, that doesn’t mean that when I am struggling with a craving or wanting to “just have a snack” that I can just respond with, “Oh, wait it out until your next meal and you’ll be fine…” and it’s A-OK.

I’ve realized why it’s pretty difficult for me sometimes. I’ve got clients who constantly tell me they don’t know how I have this mind of steel, how I can just lock it down and when I’m in prep mode, it’s all systems GO. Well, that may be the case, however, all systems GO requires constant vigilance in being mindful, aware, and acknowledging the cravings and struggles. It’s not that I don’t have them! So I’m great at listening to my self. I can easily monitor what’s happening in my body and my mind and use that effectively to refrain from diving into the peanut butter jar. But I, just today, understand why, after years of competing, I would continue to have the same drives toward constantly eating (even though I don’t), despite those years of practicing moderation.

The tremendously uncomfortable anxiety which would manifest physically and mentally, in addition to the physical discomfort, as a result of not eating for hours and hours and exercising more than 3x per day felt unbearable. Well, I bore it. But it was awful while I was. Now, despite the critically different reasons for moderating food, exercising, and the obviously different severity of restriction, my body will still create similar feelings of deprivation, worry, anxiety, and discomfort. This time I’m not dying, what I’m doing is safe, and it has much less to do with negative emotional health, but my body doesn’t know the difference! The year I spent having the same shameful, unworthy thoughts that manifested in physical and emotional feelings, created the circuitry in my brain and body for to me to feel the same things any time I would have even a slightly similar experience. As creatures of habit we strive to make sense of the world, maintain equilibrium, get away from unknowns….because we can’t relate to unknowns!  We make associations with everything we do. We remember things by attaching something new with something we have already experienced so we have “something to go on”– this is the nature of associative learning.  I start to feel hungry while I’m dieting and associate that with what I’ve come to know since recovering from my disordered eating (you hurt yourself in ways you never want to again), and subsequently want to eat immediately to prevent the hurt again.

Am I hurting myself the way I was then? No. Will eating every time I feel hungry or anxious get me to my goals? No. But listening to the voices of my past and acknowledging now what they are telling me to do is no longer maddening– it’s freeing. Those voices are there for a reason- to remind me that I’m safe and will be okay.

If you’re working toward change, whether it’s reducing stress, getting out of a harmful relationship, changing behavioral patterns you recognize are damaging,  quitting an addictive behavior, or losing weight, to name a few, expect discomfort. It has to be there. It will be there. It’s your body’s way of trying to strike that familiar balance, even if the “balance” is what you realize needs to be different. You’ll want to give in when you feel that discomfort, but if you can remember that it’s a signal that you’re creating something new for  yourself, let that be the reminder you  need to persevere.

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