Friday, June 10, 2011

Building on a swamp

"When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England." - Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I no longer read blogs written by gun-ho people (especially women) who are all about measurements. That is, if a blog is about how many minutes one has exercised, how many calories one has eaten, how many liters of water have been consumed, and how much fiber, protein, etc. one has ingested, I don't read it. These blogs are about mechanistic processes that people record because they feel the act of recording them makes them accountable. They flog themselves for "bad days" and applaud themselves for "good days".

In no way am I suggesting that this sort of monitoring of ones behavior is a negative thing, at least not up to a point. I believe that for people who want to make changes in their lives, this mechanistic monitoring is the beginning. You have to start somewhere and it is immensely helpful to begin with what can be easily understood, observed and monitored. From here though, it's important to keep going. I'm not talking about the "keep going" which is about continuously fixating on food and exercise, but about finding a way not to fixate but to still live within certain boundaries. I'm talking about understanding yourself as the next step.

I realize that some people rebel at the very notion of "boundaries" when it comes to food and exercise. They feel this way because there seem to be two extremes for many people: rigid and "in control" and free and "flexible". I believe that a truly self-actualized person lives within boundaries, but those boundaries are the type that promote growth rather than inhibit. Living constantly without structure, and yes, limits, is little more than chaos. It is not unbounded growth that one receives from infinite flexibility, but chaotic movement in unintended and unwanted directions.

True growth can be achieved only by knowing where you want to go and finding out how to go there. That direction is entirely up to the individual and may or may not include various choices of discipline, but some type of boundary will be a necessity unless you simply want to be propelled forward without regard for where you will end up. This is not rigidity or destruction. It is intentional and deliberate growth. This is the middle ground between excessive focus on mechanistic processes and straight-jacketing your life according to socially sanctioned and sometimes arbitrary rules and being propelled by a lack of boundaries into a place you may not flourish in as a person.

Of course, it's not so simple a situation as all of that. Our genetics, life experiences, and particular psychology create the ground on which we can build ourselves. We can't simply decide to make choices and follow through on them because we need to know what lies beneath. Even the best choice can result in negative consequences if there's an emotional sinkhole beneath it that swallows up our best intentions. This is something that my evolving circumstances have lead me to understand.

If you built you house on unstable ground, and it fell down, the next logical step would be to repair the ground itself rather than to build another house on the same spot. People would think you were foolish to build again without handling the structural defects that caused you to lose the fruits of your efforts, yet that is what many people with food relationship problems are doing. They believe that if they keep patching up the building, it'll stop falling down, and refuse to accept that there is any underlying issue that should be addressed.

In this metaphor, the "ground" is the psychological issues that we built our relationship with food upon. The structure is our lifestyle habits. Many people build their "house" again and again on the same swampy ground and find that it falls in (they regain the weight). They refuse to believe that the ground itself has anything to do with the problem. It's about the architecture (their failure to stick to "the plan") or the materials (the food they eat). If they just built it properly, it'd stop falling down. And, you know what, they just might be right. You can eventually build on bad ground and it won't fall down, but it's that much harder and the likelihood of repeated failure is far, far greater.

Right now, what I've come to realize is that I've fixed some of the ground, but the weaknesses have transferred to another area. This is why I lashed out at someone else rather than behaved self-destructively toward myself. It's as if that swampy area over there which was causing the part of my "house" that was creating havoc with my relationship with food oozed over to another area for awhile. It's still there though, and could migrate back over to the food issue if I don't drain the area entirely. The problem is that I'm not sure how to do it, but I do know there's a structural defect (a psychological issue) that still needs some work.

I've been pondering this situation and I know that the roots of the problem go back to my upbringing and the highly insecure and unstable life that I had. The times at which I most need to act out in some particular manner are when I feel that I am vulnerable and need protection. This is because I grew up with a mother who lashed out at me for reasons unrelated to my behavior and who constantly fought with my father. Their arguments, which often resulted in divorce threats on my mother's part, made me feel as if there was no stable existence for me. There was no one I could trust because the adults in my life behaved like children and had no control over themselves. How could they possibly protect me, particularly when they often were part of the group of people that hurt me?

Beyond this, there was the often talked about poverty and the fact that we were on the brink of losing everything. This ongoing stress caused me to seek becoming "big" and perhaps more powerful, or maybe even it fed the illusion that I could have plenty in the face of having nothing at all. It was a reassurance that I had something, a lot of something (anything) and no one could take it away once I had safely put it into my body. The satisfaction of gorging myself may have been beyond comfort.

Finally, since I have been tormented and tortured my entire life for my appearance, I have always felt like someone who walks out the door and has been beaten with sticks by anyone and everyone. I lived the life of the dog people kicked when they had a bad day or a bout of low self-esteem. I was constantly judged and absolutely powerless. Food didn't give me power, but eating whatever I wanted in whatever quantity I wanted proved to me that there was something that I could do as I wanted. The consequences were beside the point. This was something that was mine and no one could stop me.

Though it may have appeared to be an act of defiance of the wishes of society, I think it was more about living some aspect of life exactly as I wanted without regard for the feelings or wishes of others. Since the feelings of others were constantly being foisted upon me, this may have lent me a sense of personal power. You may have the power to hurt me, but I have the power to give myself what I want in this one area. After all, I had no power in any other area.

So, as I start to dig deeper into my issues, I think that the core is rooted in a lack of security, and a sense of deprivation and entitlement. I couldn't have so many things throughout most of my life and no one protected or looked after me, so I acted upon those feelings by eating. The eating served a multitude of purposes, far beyond comfort (though it was potent and effective for that). And, no, this wasn't a rational line of reasoning, but then how much human behavior is truly rational? If I am sick and my mother hugs me, does it make the sickness go away? If I am scared in the dark and I turn on the light, does it really change any threat? We accept some irrational behavior as part of our nature, but we deny it when we want to judge others for their particular line of irrational thinking.

A lot of people may think, quite rightfully, that the security I seek does not exist (in addition to it being unattainable through food). They'd be right. However, we've all heard stories of people who survived the depression and became hyper-frugal and saved every plastic tub their margarine came in and wouldn't toss anything useful away. We've heard of soldiers who starved and later always kept bags of sugar, flour, and cans of food stashed away. Doing the things they do doesn't remove the real possibility of a return to bad times, but such actions provide the illusion of security. I think we all need to have at least a bit of that illusion in order to not feel especially neurotic all of the time. I grew up without so much as an illusion of safety and emotional protection, and I think that's a piece of how my particular swamp was created.