Trigger Warnings: Body Dysphoria, Eating Disorders, Abuse, Every Other Damn Thing
Last night I had a series of repetitive dreams where I was on a snowy college campus (possibly University of Michigan [N.B.–It was, because I remembered when I was making an omelet just now that I was trying to get my old job at the Half-Ass back]) walking from place to place. There was some unspecified Bad Thing going on at the college. I came into the dream knowing this, the way you do. And I couldn’t speak. I’m not sure I even intended to speak, in the beginning. I just knew about this Bad Thing. But everywhere I went, random strangers approached me to whisper in my ear: “Don’t tell. You’d better not tell.” No one voiced a specific threat or consequence of telling what I knew, but it hung there in the air, tangible. And as the dreams went on, and I was told over and over again not to speak, speaking became the most important thing to me. Even though I’d had no intent to speak to begin with. Yet every time I thought, “Now. Now I will open my mouth,” someone new whispered in my ear. “You’d better not. You’d better not tell.”
This is the form my nightmares take. People sometimes dispute my PTSD diagnosis because I don’t have the classic kind of nightmare: a reliving of the trauma, from which you wake screaming. I’ve had screaming nightmares, but not often. As a rule, my nightmares are more nebulous, more symbolic, full of this kind of hanging threat. Just like my abuse.
Today, my heart is racing. My whole body is tense, and I feel as if I’m being strangled. I want to make it stop. I want to run and hide in a dark place, pull the blankets over my head and never come out. I want not to be–not only because of my intense desire not to experience what I’m experiencing, but because erasing myself is the the coping mechanism I learned, over the years, to make the abuse stop. Become small. Become invisible. If they can’t see you, they can’t hurt you. Don’t be.
If I had access to narcotics, I would take them right now. Not to feel this terror, this helplessness. This sense that I take up space that I have no right to, that something awful is coming to put me in my place, force me to become smaller and smaller until I disappear. I do have a bottle of Scotch, and I will no doubt drink some later, after I finish writing. Right now, I need access to these feelings, so I endure them.
I’m not sure what brought this on. Yes, the dream. But the dream is a manifestation of a deeper mental distress, something that’s been coming for a while now. Something that’s been poking at my calm exterior, making ripples like a huge, dark creature under the smooth surface of a lake. It’s possible some of it is the result of the holiday season, which is always a difficult time for me, always has been, and this year has been worse than ever for various reasons I won’t go into here. I think a large part of it stems from my recent hyper-awareness of my body. I think this because when I try to explore it–my relationship with my body, the way it feels to me, the things I like or don’t–my heart beats faster and faster and I feel as if I’m going to vomit.
Body and voice: these are difficult things to have when you’re not supposed to exist. I was blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an abundance of both. Voice is the easier one to dispense with. Don’t speak. Don’t question. Don’t put words to your experience. I get around this through writing, obviously. I translate trauma into stories. Or I journal, or I blog. My blog is a way I trick myself into “talking” about important things without opening my mouth, while preserving the illusion that I am anonymous and this is all fiction. The same way, as a child, I told myself stories about my experience and always referred to myself in the third person.
Writing comes easily to me; spoken word is harder. In a group, especially with new people, if I talk at all I stutter, I perseverate, I say words that aren’t the ones in my head. I think this may be part of the reason talking therapies have never worked well for me. While it was nice to have a place to go to vent, I always ended with the feeling that the true things hadn’t been addressed. When you couple this with a therapist’s agenda to look at certain things and not others, well.
If talking is difficult, singing, with music’s ability to connect directly to emotional reality, is impossible. I used to dream of being a singer. Even before I knew I wanted to write, I knew I wanted to sing. I’ve tried it on and off, over the years. And there were always…the messages I got, that it wasn’t permitted. I guess. It’s hard to grasp these things. What I know is, these days when I try to sing, I feel more like screaming. So I don’t sing too much. I envy those who can. I envy their voices and the freedom with which they use them. I think, “I will never be good enough to sound like that.” Probably this is a story I tell myself to obscure the truth.
I feel like I am being strangled all the time.
So that’s voice. You can shut it off. You can’t shut off having a body, not really. At least, I can’t. I’ve always had a peculiarly strong mental and emotional connection with my body. I get stressed or unhappy and I get sick. My body manifests my mood. It’s nothing I can control; it just happens. And when you grow up understanding that you’re not supposed to exist, this is problematic, to say the least. For a while, at times, you can isolate yourself, stay in your room, stay quiet. But then you have to go out. You have to go to school, to work, go shopping, pick up the mail. You have to be seen. And it’s a violation of your internal code. The programming that tells you not to be.
This is extremely hard to put into words. I am sitting at my computer shaking, having palpitations, unable to breathe, feeling like I have to vomit. Tears coming up in my eyes while terror squeezes my heart.
From what I understand from Internet articles and blogs I’ve read, from looking at the body positivity movement and hearing other people’s stories about being fat-shamed and all, most–if not all–fat people struggle with a societal message that they’re bad and wrong for having the bodies they do, for living in fat bodies, for having the gall to exist while being fat. I’ve experienced this as well, almost as far back as I can remember. Certainly when I reached school age, the bullies who targeted me latched onto my body size as the main place to direct their bile. Even at the time this confused me, because in third grade, when it got really bad, I wasn’t particularly large. I was much smaller than several others of the popular girls. Looking at old yearbook pictures confirms this. I bought into it anyway, of course. FAT became the word for everything wrong with me (with UGLY a close second). And if you’ve read this blog at all, you’re already aware of where this led: to the idea that everything would be better if I weren’t FAT, to years of hating my body, to anorexia and bulimia and multiple hospitalizations, to an inability to associate my “self” with the person I saw in the mirror, to various fad diets, food plans, and exercise programs. All the stuff that was supposed to make me acceptable. All the stuff that never did. Being reasonably intelligent and self-aware, I got early that FAT wasn’t the real problem. When your weight falls to 100 lbs, to 85 lbs, to 67 lbs and no miraculous changes occur in your life, you get pretty quickly that weight isn’t the issue. It’s a convenient issue. It’s something you can attach to because it’s something you can control when you can’t do anything at all about the truth. (Until you can’t, because you’ve messed up your body being focused on weight.)
I developed anorexia at the very beginning of it coming into the public consciousness, and I’ve heard all the psychiatric interpretations of violently disordered eating: you’re rejecting adulthood; you’re rejecting developing a woman’s body; you’re rejecting nurturing; you’re exhibiting a need for control; you’re reacting to social programming. Etcetera ad nauseam. But the one thing I never heard, which seems the obvious thing to me–and granted, I’ve been out of treatment for eating disorders for years, so someone may have come around to this by now–is that you’re trying to disappear. To cease being. Because you’re stuck with this body and as long as you’re alive, there’s no way around it. No way around this blatant evidence of your existence. As long as you cart your physical form around, you’re slapping the faces of everyone who wishes you’d never been born. Every time they lay eyes on you.
I’m sure people get this programming in different ways, at different stages of their lives. You can get it because you’re black, or a woman, or gay, or trans, or fat, or anything that doesn’t fit somebody’s idea of WHAT SHOULD BE NORMAL. After half a century on this planet, more than two thirds of it spent in trying to figure out what the fuck is up with me, I’m pretty certain I started getting it because I was born.
If any of my family reads this, no doubt they’ll argue, as they’ve argued with my perceptions about my experience since I can remember.
Before I continue, I’m just going to mention that at this point I paused for nearly twenty minutes, trying to decide if I should repeat some of the arguments I’ve heard from my family, to give my experience more weight. I have decided not to, and this was a difficult decision to make. These are the voices I hear in my head every day of my life, the gaslighting I have absorbed and unconsciously transformed into mantras over the years. The things that make me doubt. The things that make me afraid. The things that make me want to throw up when I take a stand by refusing to give them space, as I have chosen to do. I don’t know whether or not my choice is a healthy one. Is choosing not to speak something, when I am programmed not to speak, liberating? Or is is simply bowing to a code of silence? I don’t know. In the same way, I don’t know whether living in a fat body, taking up the maximum space, when I’m not supposed to exist at all, is a kind of freedom or whether it’s bowing down to the message that I can never be an acceptable person.
This is me between a rock and a hard place. This is where I live.
I have learned so many fucked up things about being, and I don’t know how to unlearn them. There’s always a question. I want to be loud. I want to be seen. I want to dance. I want to shape my body into the person I see in my head. How do I reclaim these things, when all of them defy the most basic program of all? Don’t Be. How do I learn to love myself? How do I learn to love my body, this giant declaration that I AM? Self-nurturing, being gentle with myself and practicing acceptance, looks like giving in to fear. Eating healthy and getting appropriate exercise looks like punishment. Speaking my truth invites comment I have no way to address. Remaining silent is giving in. All my roads lead to pain and trauma that I can’t escape. I’m not saying this as a way of fishing for sympathy; it’s a conclusion I’ve come to after years and years of going in every direction I can think of. I have done ALL THE THINGS, and none of them bring me to a brighter self. None of them enable me to push through and come out the other side. Most times it seems the best I can do is not be in pain temporarily. And yet, that brings a pain of its own. I practice positivity that always seems superficial and hollow because it never sticks. I resist falling back into bad patterns, bad thinking, by not doing. And then nothing is done and nothing changes.
When I was in therapy, something I heard over and over again was, “You can’t change other people. You can only change yourself.” But I have changed and changed and changed. Not one bit of it addresses the essential message, and I don’t know where to go any more. What am I missing? Every time someone trots out that old saw, what I hear is, “the people who are supposed to love and care for you can treat you like shit, and there’s NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT.” You can’t expect anyone to be considerate. You can’t call anyone on their behaviour. You can only change yourself.
This actually isn’t the blog I intended to write. I intended to write something much shorter about how difficult it is for me to relate to my body and how I really wish I could shape my body, drop some of the excess pounds I’ve gained over the past three years–even just a few–and how this isn’t from social programming but it’s because I want it, and how hard this becomes when I am afraid all the time and being seen terrifies me on the best of days and exercise doesn’t feel positive; it feels like a punishment. I guess I kind of addressed all that, in passing.
I wish I could find a way to end this ceaseless war with myself.
I spend every day screaming inside.