Nourishment for the Body & for the Soul: Fighting Shame & Anxiety

My seeming unwillingness to eat in high school drove people berserk. My friends constantly tried to bribe me with food from Chili’s, IHOP chocolate chip pancakes, the occasional Big Mac. I took a bite of a few fries (sometimes). Or I’d just languidly sip soda while they ate. I weighed 90 pounds; a strong gust of wind could have blown me away. My stomach constantly ached, and when I did eat, my body rewarded me with excruciating stomach cramps. Food became the enemy for my body, an unwelcome invader. It was miserable. I was miserable.

Now, over 20 years later and at a shockingly normal weight, I am still unsure if I had an eating disorder. I certainly enjoyed being what I saw as lithe and nymph-like (really, I was just shockingly unhealthy). And, later, food became a matter of control to me, a way to regulate my emotions before alcohol became my drug of choice. But, in high school, eating (or not-eating) wasn’t the problem. It was a symptom. One in a mounting number of ways my debilitating anxiety expressed itself. I was emaciated not because I didn’t want to eat, but because I couldn’t eat. Eating around my friends made my stomach swirl and churn until I ultimately threw up. Better to be the skinny girl that caused her friends angst because she wouldn’t eat late night pieces of pizza than to mortify myself by puking in front of my friends.

Two memories keep dragging themselves to the forefront of my mind when I think about high school:

1) I happened upon an article about a girl who had been hospitalized for an eating disorder. She received nutrients through a feeding tube as she began the long journey through recovery. I envied her. I wanted to feel clear headed and present, which I couldn’t do because I was so lacking in proper nutrition. But I needed to be able to obtain these nutrients without having to chew and swallow; the mere thought of going through the process of chewing and swallowing my food was enough to send me into a full-blown panic attack.

2) I once somehow cobbled together the courage to go on a double date. For about one hour, I felt like a totally normal teenager. I didn’t freak out in the car (even though riding in a car with my friends normally triggered my anxiety). I got to walk around, window shop and laugh. And then, shit got real when they decided they wanted to get ice-cream. Doesn’t it sound so benign? Ice cream. I decided to fight back against my anxiety, consequences be damned, and have that ice cream. It was delicious. And then I spent the next 15 minutes throwing up in an alley, with one of my closest friends petting my hair and asking repeatedly if I was okay. I just wanted to sink into the concrete. To disappear.

The situation felt so hopeless to me that I wanted to die. This isn’t even teenage hyperbole. I couldn’t see a way out of my situation. My anxiety raged completely out of control. I once missed a youth group trip (which I’d been excited about for months), because I couldn’t convince myself to board the bus. I couldn’t imagine what I would say to people for the 8 hour bus ride. If I was with them that long, they would see me—and find me completely unworthy. Unlovable. And I would be ashamed. So I played sick. It was better than the alternative of letting them know who I really was.

My senior year, I missed so much school that the administration wanted to hold me back. I watched my world grow smaller every day, constricted by carefully constructed rules I followed to keep my anxiety at bay. I carved out spaces in which I felt (somewhat) safe. I haunted those spaces: the journalism classroom, my part-time job at Target, home. In these spaces I could pretend I was normal, just for a minute. Just to catch my breath.

Mercifully, high school eventually ended. With that end came a rush of relief and a reprieve from the anxiety that held me prisoner for so long. As I headed in to college, I knew something about my life had to shift. I needed space to learn and experience life, without carrying around an oppressive blanket of anxiety like an angsty version of Linus from the Peanuts. And, damn it I needed to eat.

It turns out the cure for anxiety isn’t more fear and hiding, it is vulnerability. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, renowned shame researcher, Brené Brown, notes that shame thrives on secrecy; sharing shame diminishes it, robs it of its power. Sharing shame requires vulnerability. Now, in college, I knew nothing of shame research or the power of exposing secrets to the light. Except that, intuitively, I knew that the secret of my anxiety was only making me sicker. I had the good sense to wait to be vulnerable with just the right person. When I met her I knew she was the right one: with her, I felt like I belonged. I felt loved and worthy (worthiness, belonging and love are all factors that Brené Brown asserts are fundamental to living Wholeheartedly). I was so not ready to love myself, but I could let her love me. And I could trust her.

The unraveling of my shame and my deep sense of unworthiness (which is an ongoing process for me) began so simply. One night, as we sat on her dorm room floor with subs, chips and soda spread out in front of us, she asked me why I wasn’t eating. I took a deep breath. And I told her. I told her about my anxiety, how I couldn’t eat even when I wanted to, that I threw up if I tried. She listened thoughtfully. Then she said, “What about small foods? Like, could you eat just a cube of cheese? What about a grape or two?” Small foods. Oh my God, yes! I could eat small foods! I’d spend years eating only small foods around almost anyone other than her. But I could eat! And I could think. I could breathe. Because, when it comes down to it, nourishing the soul with love and belonging and cultivating a sense of worthiness is just as important for me as nourishment for my body.

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