Thursday, October 4, 2012

Backward Slide

Before I get far, I have to make it clear that when I talk about sliding backward, I'm not talking about what most women who are talking about weight are discussing. This is not about regaining weight. It is about mental changes relating to food and the place it holds in my life. That being said, I do believe that those mental changes are where the potential for weight regain reside, so it's important to nip them in the bud now and deal with them.

Since returning to the U.S., my life has been immensely stressful. I cannot begin to make anyone understand the effects of the reverse culture shock that I'm experiencing because one would actually have to have been in this situation. The best way I can say it is that I feel like everything around me is wrong and these differences are a consistent source of stress. I feel tense every time I go shopping for food. Walking along the street and having someone pass by me gives me a tiny amount of anxiety. Getting into the car makes me tense up.

There is no cognitive processing underlying these responses. I am not afraid of anything nor do I have a concern for doing the wrong thing, looking foolish, or appearing out of place. I simply feel like the world is askew relative to how I expect it to be. This is a neurological response issue, not a choice on my part. It's one that I cannot over-write by force of will and has to do with brain chemistry patterns and systems that are laid down by association with situations and people of a particular type. Time and experience are the only things which will make it better as new experiences and patterns are allowed to emerge. I understand the underlying neurological and chemical issues, but I will not trouble my readers by going into jargon-filled explanations.* Suffice it to say, this is not something that can simply be gotten over.

The everyday actions of others that they blithely carry out in the normal course of their days are an effort and stressful to me. The range of "easy" choices for me in a given day are tiny now. The range of "not easy" and "difficult" is huge. I'm exhausted everyday, even when I appear superficially to just be doing a normal amount of activity. Every night, I'm incredibly tired, even when all I've done is the type of thing I did before in the country I previously lived in.

There are, of course, other issues. I don't have a job. I'm not yet living in my own place (that will come very soon though). My husband and I continue to deal with bumps along the road in our relationship as the result of the changes in our lives (as should be expected). I'm not sure where my life is going, but I do know that I'm unhappy where I am. Sometimes, it is manageable as it is today and sometimes I just want to leave and go back to where I was.

Hating it so badly that I am driven to tears is something that I can't say is uncommon. However, I have to accept, at least rationally, that this will change. I have had experience before with this sense of suffering. When I first started college, I hated it so badly that I'd come home everyday and cry. I desperately wanted to quit and abandon the whole idea. Since I'd borrowed a lot of money to go, I didn't feel free to simply walk away. By the end of the first year, it was okay. By the end of the second, I loved it. I hang on to that experience as an indication that things will get better, even if I hate it now.

Yesterday, I had what can best be described as a meltdown. This has happened several times since coming here, but it was the first time that I sat there, alone and crying, thinking that, "if I just ate, this wouldn't be like this." I knew that, if I started to stuff myself again, I'd be both comforted and uncomfortable enough to ignore my feelings, and fall into a pattern that would distance me from the suffering I've been enduring. I could do the equivalent of getting drunk or high to put myself out of my misery rather than sit there just stuck in the pain of the moment (or the hour or two, as was the case).

I didn't do that, of course, but there have been other mental backslides as well as some behavioral ones. One is that I've been finding myself devoting about 400 calories a day to incidental snacks like cookies, pretzels, chips, etc. I'm not overeating, but I am eating smaller amounts of healthy food and then eating these other things. This is not a good pattern. What is more, it is starting to feel more compulsive than mindful. I decided that this has to stop. Sure, I can have my treats, but not like this. Eating 200 calories of "dessert" after both lunch and dinner as well as another 200-400 calories at tea time is not necessary to satisfy my sweet tooth. That is an immense daily calorie dedication to gratifying my desires as opposed to eating nutritious food. I need to get back to smaller, more mindful, and discrete habits.

Finally, there is a return of my treating my body as a garbage can. One of the things that I forced myself to stop doing was eat things which didn't taste good because they were there and I didn't want to waste the money. Since I'm not working and my husband and I are drawing on savings, I have increasingly started to eat things which are old, poorly made, and not especially tasty (but at least nutritious) because I feel they should not be wasted. This is not the end of the world, of course, but it is the start of placing the small value of food above myself. I need to stop doing this as well.

I'm hoping that recognition of these issues at this early point will help nip them in the bud. I'm sure that this is happening because I'm deeply unhappy where I am and with what my life is like at present. However, I knew that things were not going to be easy when we moved and I know that I have to be able to hold my food habits together at the worst of times as well as the best. If I don't have the mental tools to manage it now, then I need to do some more exploration of what is going on in my head and find some other coping methods.

It's not enough to be doing well only when life is good. I have to maintain the same relationship with food regardless of my current circumstances. I believe I can do that, but only if I actively attend to my feelings, experiences, and needs. That's what I'm going to do. The first step is right here and that's awareness.

*If anyone wants the deeper explanation, e-mail me and I'll tell you about it or send reference links.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Price of Change

My life is an unusual one in many aspects. I know a lot of people believe that, but, in my case, it really is true. I have access to my past in a way that few people do because of the unique nature of how my husband and I came together. When people hear that I married a pen pal, I'm not sure what they imagine constituted the content of our distance "courtship". No matter what they may speculate on, it's almost certainly not the reality.

I have a large box of greeting cards, postcards, and letters that my husband and I exchanged over our year of separation. They paint a certain picture of how things were between us, but they are actually far less descriptive than may be expected. Most of them talk less about our thoughts and lives and more about our undying love and missing one another terribly. I wrote to him nearly every day in one form or another. He wrote to me less, but there was a reason for that. The printed material we have is revealing, but not nearly as much as the other materials that we kept.

My husband and I primarily talked to one another on old-fashioned cassette tapes. We didn't merely send a few hours here and there, we narrated our entire lives, played games together (question-based ones), talked about the mundane and the epic details of life, had fights, made up, cried (mostly me), and expressed joy. The full range of a life "together" is on those tapes. We didn't save every one of them, as it would have been economically unfeasible given the cost of tapes at the time, but we saved about 50 of them. This constitutes a broad cross section and hours and hours of our lives at the ages of 22 and 24.

I have been listening to these tapes over time and, while I'm delighted by my husband's old tapes as they bring me such joy, I'm fascinated by mine as well. The truth is that the emerging me, the one that went from being in control of her weight and her lifestyle habits to plummeting back to super morbidly obesity is right there. In fact, she deconstructs herself, tears down the psychological walls that gave her the toughness to make hard changes, and becomes a creature of utter vulnerability. When I finally got together with my husband, I was a nicer person, a better partner, a more rational, productive and constructive communicator, and one small psychological breeze away from utter physical destruction.

There are two instances on tapes in particular which I listened to which were utterly devastating in revealing what I had done to myself. The shocking part is that the process is so obvious, palpable, and can be pin-pointed directly to my technique of mental rewriting. I was actively rewiring as I spoke to my husband, and I was falling apart emotionally as I did so. It was hard, painful, and it tore down defensive walls that were hurting him. Until I listened to those tapes, I had no idea that I had started doing this to myself so early in my life. I also, of course, did not conceptualize it for what it was. I followed the process, but this was me "feeling my way through it." It was a process as it unfolded, not consciously undertaken.

I don't want to be cryptic here, but it is hard to detail the contents of hours of self-reflection spoken into tapes. The first stage of this is seen when my future husband and I suffer a conflict in which I am angry with him and confront him in an aggressive and "attacking" manner. When he asks me if I could talk to him about these problems in a way which is loving and supportive rather than hostile, I respond to him by saying that I want to do that, but I have no idea how. I tell him that all of the role modeling in my life and all of my experiences were carried out in the manner in which I dealt with him and that I would try, but I didn't know how just then to be the better communicator in the midst of heated conflict.

On another later tape, after some particularly stressful and difficult times in my life, I tell my husband that I believe that I am "sick" emotionally and psychologically and I'm not sure that I know how to get well or if it is even possible. I was at an acute turning point at which I realize that behavioral changes alone were not going to "fix" me in a meaningful way.

I was a staunch follower of behaviorism, a psychological philosophy which neatly addressed stimuli and responses in order to change, but it came crashing down on me that this sterile and ordered way of dealing with issues was not nearly enough. Yes, it helped me lose weight and gain a sense of control in my life, but it didn't deal with the deeper issues. I looked better, felt better, and had all of the trappings of external accomplishment, but I was filled with pain and lacked emotional control. No matter how disciplined I was, I was not happy and still dealt with people, and my then-boyfriend-now-husband in destructive ways. Behaviorism was not the answer, at least not the all-healing and encompassing one.

Surrounded by people who were as "sick" or "sicker" than me, I could not see how I behaved as anything but a reflection of "normality". My interactions with him and how I dealt with him, because he was and still is the most psychologically "well" person I have ever known, revealed the depths of my dysfunction. Those issues hurt him, and they hurt out relationship and I wanted desperately not to infect him with my "sickness". At that time, though I loved him deeply and completely and wanted nothing in life more than to have a future with him, I told him that if he didn't want to deal with someone as messed up as me, I would understand if he ended our relationship. Being the person he is, he said that my perspective was that he may catch my "sickness", but his was that it was possible that I might not instead catch his "wellness".

During a long-running conflict over interactions with an ex-girlfriend of his who we were both still in communication with, I engaged in another long and tearful period of self-revelation. It was this tape that was pivotal in the sequence of tapes I was listening to that made it clear to me that I was now practicing the "reflection" phase of my rewiring as well as having an emerging awareness of patterns. While listening to this tape, and realizing what my 22-year-old self was doing, I started to weep. There was a truth that I have been rejecting that was undeniable after what I'd heard my younger self say.

This truth is one that I have not expressed in this blog because I have largely rejected it to date. My husband said to me quite some time ago and on several occasions that he believes that I regained weight because of the way in which I tore down my defensive walls and made myself greatly more vulnerable in order to be a more suitable mate for him. The woman he met was superficially "stronger" than I feel I am now. She exhibited mental toughness that I feel I no longer possess. As my mother used to say, I didn't "take any guff." People were intimidated by me, and that made sure they didn't find a soft spot from which to hurt me. I stood alone, and I made my own way.

Instead of being hostile, defensive, and keeping people out, I became positive, loving, and accepting to let him in. Unfortunately, this change opened me up to a world of suffering. Though he did not hurt me, what was to come when we finally got together physically and moved to his home area, absolutely destroyed me. I had put down my emotional shield and sword, and I got slaughtered.

I resisted this truth for a variety of reasons. One was that I did not want to "blame" him for my weight gain in any way. I felt that even considering his observation as the truth would be tantamount to doing so, albeit in an indirect fashion. Another was that I felt it was wrong to not take full "responsibility" for my fatness, especially since doing so allowed me to hate myself and confirm a poor image of myself.

Another tape revealed the completion of my alteration from the tough and combative "bitch" I was when I was upset to what I was by the time our distance courtship reached its conclusion. I was combative with my mother's verbal and emotional abuse when my then-boyfriend and I came together through our pen pal relationship. By the time I was packing up and leaving to join him in his home area, I was not engaging angrily with people anymore. When my family dealt with me with hostility, I would calmly say, "there is no need to be hostile." They would angrily mock me for having taken on this new pattern of behavior. I had changed fundamentally.

The reason I'm writing about this is that I have a record of myself which is detailed, covers a long span of time, and is historically undeniably accurate. As a record of personal change, it cannot be doubted in any way. I can see how changing to become a better person in one way took away the fragile structures which held my weight maintaining and loss habits in place. When I could not fight back, I had to seek solace and comfort. I couldn't cope by being angry and hostile, so I turned inward and ate and self-hated. The price I paid for the changes I made was that I got super fat again, and I stayed that way for over two decades because I couldn't turn back to what I was without damaging the relationship I had with my husband or hurting him and I couldn't move forward because I didn't have the self-understanding required to build new coping mechanisms.

My husband was right. The changes I made did have a profound effect on me such that I regained weight. Of course, that's not the end of the story, but it is a very important piece of it. This piece reveals that we operate in balance in our lives and that the ability to operate in the world in a particular fashion is impermanent. When a critical change occurs and the balance is upset, the ability to make positive choices can crumble like a house of cards.

The truth is that I let down dark, spiky and hurtful defensive walls before putting solid, stable, protective mechanisms in place. I did not know that I was attempting to address this very problem over the past three years as I have lost weight again, but I had a strong sense of the price I'd have to pay this time when I lost weight if I didn't dig down deeper than simply deciding to "eat less" and "move more". Yes, I needed to change behaviors, but I needed to know why I engaged in those behaviors in the first place and what changing them was going to mean to me emotionally.

A big reason that I explore the psychology of weight loss is that I was terrified of losing a lot of weight again and then regaining and I wanted to make sure that that did not happen again. I knew identity would be an issue and that I'd have to work on building a new one. I knew I was losing a source of comfort and would have to find other ones. I knew my routines would be lost and I'd have to find more productive ones. I knew that I couldn't dismantle one critical aspect of my life (that with food) without building others simultaneously or I'd be at risk again. I just didn't know that I was actually attempting not to repeat a particular mistake that I'd already made 24 years ago.