Thin

January 22, 2013 § 20 Comments

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Well I better learn how to starve the emptiness. And feed the hunger. – Indigo Girls

I am not proud of how I felt when I first read about Asia Canaday. Katrina Kenison linked to this letter on Facebook which Jena Strong posted on her blog. The next day, Christa posted it too, these beautiful writers forming a circle around Jena and Mani and Asia, asking the rest of us for help in the form of a dollar or a prayer.

I am embarrassed to say that instead of joining the circle, I circled around it. I shut my eyes and shut my computer, feeling anger well up inside of me, maybe even fury. Just eat, I heard a voice in my mind say and then I was overcome by an emotion I can’t even name and I had to sit down.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that I was actually furious with myself for doing the same thing Asia is doing now. When I was 16, I ate as little as I could, getting so thin that sometimes my legs became bruised from sleeping. I try not to think about those days, about the pain and helplessness I made my family go through. I try not to think of the way people used to look at me, their eyes wide with a certain kind of repulsion.

I’m angry too that this is still happening. After I clattered catastrophically through my own disordered eating, I turned away from the topic entirely, choosing to believe that childhood obesity was what we had to worry about now, not anorexia. Mani’s letter made me open my eyes, reluctantly, to the truth that in addition to living in a country with epic obesity and great starvation, 24 million people suffer from eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.  Clearly, we are a nation with big issues around food.

And yet, this is not an issue about food or even hunger but about our beliefs of our own worth. Maybe I’m wrong but I think all eating disorders are slightly different manifestations of the same problem: a conviction that we don’t deserve to be here, a kind of longing to disappear, by either literally shrinking ourselves or by hiding under layers of fat. This is how much someone who is anorexic is suffering: starvation is preferable to the emotions she or he is feeling. The feelings are so enormous and out of control that self-inflicted pain feels better.

We can do the usual things I suppose. We can give money and support research and stop asking if this dress makes us look fat. But I think what might be even more powerful is to look at the ways we starve ourselves on a daily basis, even if we don’t have an eating disorder. Every time we tell ourselves that we can’t take a break just yet, or we don’t deserve that job, each time we eat a sandwich standing over the sink or resist the urge to sing out loud. When we tell ourselves that that we aren’t strong enough to enter that race or leave that guy, we send clear messages to ourselves and the world about what we believe we are allowed to have. Every time we ignore what Geneen Roth calls “the knocking on the door of our heart,” we are finding a way to disappear, to stay small, and we are passing this on to each other like a plague.

Of course I am not talking about you but about me. I still have very set ideas about what I need to get done before I can go to bed at night. I want to exercise and meditate and do yoga. I need to squeeze in time to write and time to make dinner, pack lunch. I have to clean the bathrooms and hey, are these pants getting tight? I received an email from a friend today whose family was recently taken down by the flu. She wisely told me she was going to try to find a way to get the space and the time she has when she’s sick so that she doesn’t have to get sick to have it. I felt my heart lighten as I read this and then grow heavy again at the ways I refuse to receive what is always on offer to me like an open palm: a breath, a kind word to myself, space and time, even if it is only a moment.

In Buddhism, there is a character called a Hungry Ghost, a creature with a tiny mouth and a bloated distended stomach, a narrow throat that makes eating so painful, the ghosts haunt each generation with their empty bellies, with their ravenous unmet needs, with their boundless, aching hungers. Some Buddhists leave food on their alters for the ghosts, delicacies that satisfy an unnamable longing. Learning about this brought tears to my eyes. Is it possible that we could be this compassionate to each other? To ourselves?

I am going to echo Jena’s request that you leave a dollar or a prayer here for Asia and her fiercely loving mother, Mani. I am also going to suggest that we take an hour or a minute to honor our own hungry ghosts. Maybe we can sit down to eat breakfast or drink the whole cup of coffee (while it’s hot!!). We can carve out a few minutes to gaze at the sky or down at our toes. We can tell ourselves that we are allowed to dance terribly, that what we write can be awful, that we deserve that job, that we can ask for that hug. We can gently remind ourselves that eating kale doesn’t make us a better person, that we are allowed to go to bed at eight o’clock, that we don’t have to finish the whole thing, that there will be more, always enough if we take time to listen to the delicate thrum of our hearts, if we pause for a second to tell ourselves – even if we don’t believe it yet – that we deserve for our life to be good, that we already are good enough.

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§ 20 Responses to Thin

  • Oh, Pamela – this makes me cry. Not just cry, but weep. The struggle to be compassionate to myself is a daily one, and I know you and I have walked similar roads. Sending you – and ME! – so much love. Thank you for these thoughtful words that encourage me to, at least today, take an extra, deep breath. xoxo

  • Jena says:

    Every time we ignore “the knocking on the door of our heart,” we are finding a way to disappear,

    Pamela. No words. Like looking in a mirror–and grateful for the gift of you.

  • Am with Lindsey — your words were the first thing I read this morning, and I’m still a little breathless. Thank you for your courage. May Asia be surrounded by the likes of you, fierce and brave women who know we must all do better by ourselves and by each other.

  • Anita S. says:

    In my case, my eating disorder was about taking control of the only thing I felt I could control at that time in my life. It was a subconscious decision. I only became aware of how skinny I was getting when I felt my ribs one night sticking out when I was lying in bed. That disgusted me. That was my “edge of the cliff” moment, the moment when one decides to jump off or step back. I chose to step back. I hope Asia does as well.

    • Pamela says:

      Anita you are right. There as many reasons for not eating as there are people. Thank you for reminding me of this. I am so happy you chose to step back from the cliff.

  • It’s rare when I don’t know what to say, but this left me speechless. So much of this hit home; hit right in the gut. Wonderful.

  • Elaine says:

    I’ve been thinking about valuing self a lot lately. It strikes me with your article, that sometimes, not valuing ourselves causes us to destroy ourselves. I’ve been thinking about the other side, where sometimes not valuing our own life allows us to do terrible things to others. In the end, we need to figure out a way to value ourselves, and help others to do the same. Please never doubt that you are valuable, and that the world is better because you are here. Much love, Elaine

  • Having just received emails from Katrina, who is a dear friend and from Jena, whom I haven’t met…I feel like your blog was meant for me today. Eating disorders have affected my life for over 30 years although I never suffered with one myself. Thank you for opening your heart and finding the courage to write about this. I try to tell my children ever day: You are enough.

  • My friend. This brilliant, brave and beautiful piece is one that I hope many, many read. Your honesty and transparency–your INSIGHT–are warm gifts that soothe my own dark heart. Today, I will do something to honor and feed my own hungry ghosts. Today, I hope you will do the same. So much love. xoxo

  • Sweet Pamela, I thank you for your bravery in sharing your words and your struggle and for helping me understand eating issues – both the eating too much and the eating too little – in a new way. Lighting a candle for you and Asia and everyone else who deserves to be seen. xo

  • I just love this, Pamela. Though not in the form of disordered eating, I am a master at self-inflicted pain, and as you so cogently note there are many ways to deny oneself. Personally, I am working this year towards being more compassionate towards both myself and others.

  • Kate says:

    this rang a very resounding bell , so needed. thank you.

  • Suzanne Pilkerton says:

    This is an amazing post. Thank you for writing it.

  • J Pullano says:

    wait – coffee is supposed to be….HOT??

  • Hungry ghosts — what an image, and so spot-on for what I haven’t been able to name when I’m running from one thing to the next because I “ought” to get this done and “need” to finish this task. At the end of the day, feeling empty, I wonder why I can’t let myself just take time to rest and recharge the other parts of me that truly need and ought to receive attention too.

    A profoundly written reminder, yours is.

  • Just perfect. Really, I can think of no better words that can capture so much of what has been experienced by so many. There is so much about the female experience — our expectations of ourselves as mothers, our never feeling quite perfect enough — that is so baffling, even to those who are living in it. You express the heart of the matter so bravely.

  • Thank you for sharing some of your “hungry ghosts.” To many of us, too many of them, too many generations of waste.

    Gorgeous post. And important.

  • Familiar territory indeed… so, throwing my good wishes and hunger into the mix and hoping we all come out more connected, safe and truly nourished through this spirit of compassion and honesty.

  • Wolf Pascoe says:

    I don’t think the hungry ghost is capable of listening, and I don’t think it ever shuts up. I think why most schemes for self-improvement end up dead in the water, mine anyway, is that they begin with this thought: the experience I’m having right now is the wrong one, and I’m wrong for having it. It’s a good moment if I can find one thing I’m feeling that I’m okay with and allow that.

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