Confessions of a Body Positivity Failure

TW: Weight loss, body dysphoria

I have a confession to make: I hate my body.

This is nothing new, but it’s become more and more unbearable in recent months. I hate my size. In the last seven years, I’ve gained a hundred pounds, going from a size 14 to a 2X. I feel terrible. It’s hard to climb stairs. I can’t work in the garden more than about an hour without wanting to lie down. I can’t find clothes that fit. The clothes I used to wear, clothes I loved, no longer go over my boobs, over my hips. I would give anything to be back to the size 14 I once was.

I have another confession: I am not willing to “do what it takes” to lose weight.

There are a number of reasons for this. Partly, I’m just lazy. I hate exercise for its own sake, and because I’m so out of shape, I can’t participate in a lot of exercise anyway. Partly it’s depression. I can’t get motivated to get up off the couch and do anything, much less something I don’t enjoy. The only things I DO enjoy to some degree are cooking and eating and sleeping, none of which are conducive to weight loss. As a survivor of a severe eating disorder, limiting food intake is literally bad for me. The only way I can make myself do any of these things is to beat myself up, making my days an unending round of punishment, which is something I don’t want to do. Even if I did convince myself to do it, I have no faith it would do any good.

Mostly, though, it’s that I do not want to participate in weight loss mindset. I don’t want to give my money to weight loss programs. I know they’re based on bad science. I know that all but 5% of people lose weight only to gain it back–often much more than they lost in the first place, and I’m proof enough of that. I’ve been through the cycle enough times to know.

I remember the last time I found myself in this place of despising myself and hating my body. It wasn’t nearly as bad as this time; I was much smaller and in much better physical shape to begin with. Still, I hated myself. I decided to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, so I went on Weight Watchers. The results, at first, were remarkable. I felt happy and in control. I lost about 40 lbs, enough to get me down to that size 14, but I still wasn’t satisfied. I never did reach my “goal weight,” and even when I was still on the weight loss program (rather than maintenance), I started gaining weight back. Eventually I got tired, tired of the food measuring and the limited portions and the altered recipes that were never as good as the real thing. Tired of exercising to exhaustion, doing things I didn’t really enjoy. So I stopped, stopped it all. And here I am, seven years later, bigger than I ever have been in my life and hating myself again. In worse shape than I’ve ever been in my life, because I can’t bear to do any exercise at all.

I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place and I don’t know how to get free. I don’t know how to come to terms with the body I have, this body that doesn’t work the way I want it to and doesn’t look the way I want it to. The way I see myself in my mind’s eye. I don’t want to participate in a diet culture that shames people of size for being the way they are. I would never, ever even think the thoughts about other large people that I think about myself. I know that fat people have a right to exist, that no one deserves shame, that many factors go into determining body size, that size isn’t a determiner of health or worth, that no one even has an obligation to be healthy at all. But I can’t stop hating myself.

A little while ago, during the course of another conversation, one of my sisters told me she basically lives her life on Weight Watchers and has for years. I don’t want that for myself.

What do I do? I am in such pain right now, crying as I try to write this post. The voice in my head says, “If you would just…” Just what? Try harder? Try at all? Push myself? Why? for what? What do I get? It would help if I wanted anything beyond being thinner, but I don’t. I try to say, “You don’t like that you’re weak and out of shape, so engaging in exercise could help with that.” I try to set goals that aren’t weight-related, like “walk around the block without getting out of breath.” But they always cycle back to weight. “And then I can walk more blocks, and then maybe I’ll finally lose some weight.” Nothing else is valuable for its own sake. And I know this is a fucked up attitude; I know it comes from fat phobia and the way our culture is so focused on thin bodies as a measure of worth, especially women’s bodies. I know that thin equals morally good and fat equals morally bad, and I don’t believe it, I don’t. Still, deep in myself I can’t get rid of it. Not regarding myself. I don’t want health enough to detach it from the pressure to be thin and pursue health for its own sake. I just don’t care.

And maybe all of this is depression speaking. I don’t know. This turmoil has been with me forever, when I’ve been badly depressed and when I’ve been less depressed (for there is never “not depressed;” that isn’t part of my reality, ever). I want strength and beauty and maybe health too, and all those things have a price tag too steep for me to pay. They all come attached to the idea of thin, and thin is too hard to achieve, and ephemeral besides.

I go around and around in circles, and end up sitting and doing nothing. I don’t know how to get off the merry-go-round or where this post ends. I’m a failure at body positivity, and I’m a failure at weight loss conformity. I reject societal standards of beauty and I have nothing to put in their place. I’m an empty person.

Empty, empty, empty.

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What I Can’t Forgive

CW: Infertility, discussion of weight loss and eating disorders

If you’ve been around the fat activist or body positivity communities, you may have heard the axiom “What gets diagnosed in thin people gets prescribed for fat people.” What this means is the medical establishment often encourages fat people to engage in behaviors that would be seen as warning signs in thin people, or overlooks symptoms in fat people that would have them sending thin people to specialists, because ANYTHING is better than being fat, amirite?

For a person born female or assigned female at birth–by this I mean a person in possession of a uterus and ovaries and all those childbearing parts–a BIG warning sign is the cessation of menstrual periods before the age of normal menopause, which, in the United States, is 48-54 years. It often occurs in women with eating disorders, both because of weight loss and the tendency to engage in excessive exercise. Generally speaking, it takes a loss of 10% of body weight to cause amenorrhea.

Let’s look at those numbers. Say a woman who weighs 125 lbs loses 10% of her body weight, or 12.5 lbs. This leaves her weighing 112.5 lbs. If she’s 5’6″, which is an average height in the US, her BMI would be 18. (Personally I despise the BMI as a rating of anything, but it’s what the medical establishment uses, so.) Hey, that’s underweight! Better address that.

Now let’s apply the same reasoning to another 5’6″ tall woman who weighs 200 lbs. She loses 10% of her body weight, or 20 lbs, bringing her weight to 180. Her BMI is now 29. Guess what? She’s still overweight. It doesn’t matter how she lost the weight, or whether she engages in ritualistic eating patterns, or if her periods have stopped. No one will even ask about that. She has to lose over 60 more lbs (achieve a weight of 115 or less) before she hits underweight. I personally know people who started out average, who’ve been hospitalized for an eating disorder at that weight. But if you start out fat, you’ll be congratulated. If you live.

I started menstruating at twelve, and I stopped at fourteen. For five and a half years. My eating disorder hadn’t yet kicked into full force when it happened; I think I’d dropped from 145 lbs to 130. Perfectly within the normal range for a 5’7″ adolescent, despite the way my pediatrician “tsked” over my being “tubby.” No one commented on it. I was just as glad, frankly. Issues of sex and reproduction and sticky fluids disgusted my mother, who left it to the sixth grade film strip to explain matters. When I needed sanitary supplies, I took them from her box of Kotex in the hall closet without mentioning it to anyone. She didn’t hit menopause until after my cycles stopped, so that was convenient. I doubt my dad ever thought about it, despite being the one who did all the shopping for our family. Maybe he believed I got my own supplies somehow. How he thought I achieved this, having no money of my own, I have no idea. My pediatrician complimented me on “slimming down;” later, when I got a bit too thin for his liking, he sent me home with cases of liquid nutritional supplements. They piled up in the pantry, untouched.

Common wisdom is that your cycles are supposed to start again once you gain weight. Mine didn’t. It took a therapist’s intervention and several courses of Provera before that happened.

The reason I rehearse all this old, old information is this: the exact same thing happened the last time I turned my will toward losing a bunch of weight. I was bigger than I’d ever been (though not as big as I am now), and I hated it. More, I hated myself for it. I tried to talk to my then-psychiatrist; I wanted him to understand why it was so difficult and loaded a topic. Despite knowing I’d almost died of anorexia, he just said, “Well, you know how to lose weight. Eat less and be more active. If you really care about your weight, you need to do what’s necessary, not whine about it.”

Deep breath. Can I just take a moment to say how despicable it is for anyone in mental health to use the words “If you really care…?”

Anyway. It took a while, but I decided he probably knew best–he was the doctor, after all. Maybe I was just whining because I was lazy. So, I joined Weight Watchers and boosted my activity. A lot. It worked for a long while. I lost so much weight in the first few weeks that clothes I had just bought fell off of me. And my periods stopped. Again.

That was almost exactly ten years ago; I was forty-four. And while that’s not an unreasonable age to hit menopause, it isn’t quite normal, nor is it normal for women in my genetic line. My mom had cycles well into her fifties, and one of my sisters had her last child at forty-one. I asked my psychiatrist if one of my medications could have caused it; he said no. I asked my primary; she said it was probably perimenopause and my periods would probably be irregular for a number of years, blah, blah, blah, the usual stuff. Which didn’t make any sense to me; they didn’t get irregular, they simply stopped. But no one related it to my weight loss, which, incidentally, they praised. I didn’t bring it up because I was proud of it, and I didn’t want to hear that for some inexplicable reason my body reacts to the slightest weight loss by becoming infertile, which I suspected, and had since I was a teenager. There was still the matter of believing I’d have children some day, despite my age and my mental health issues.

Much later, an acupuncturist told me it probably was the weight loss rather than my age that caused my cycles to stop just then. She may have been saying that to make me feel better, I don’t know. I do know the main reason I stopped “watching my weight” and “let myself” get fat again was that I hoped desperately that, by some magic, it would restore my fertility. It didn’t. The lack of ANY other menopausal symptoms let me hope for a long time, but I’m coming to the place where I think I have to accept that I blew it; I missed my chance for children of my own. It’s hard. I’ve swallowed a lot of bad stuff in my life, but this one…I just can’t seem to get it down. And people suggest adoption (too expensive) or fostering (no space for a person older than three, and I have doubts that we’d pass muster as a foster family), or working with Partners or some other volunteer group, and none of that is what I want. Humility aside, my husband and I are intelligent and educated and self-aware, and I wanted to keep that genetic code in the pool. Too many stupid people breed. I really think that, so sue me.

I can’t forgive my doctors of ten years past for blowing me off. For giving me the easy answers, whether or not they were true (I found out later that Depakote, the mood stabilizer I took at the time and that I’m taking now, has been known to cause PCOS and infertility. I stopped taking it for a long time because of that). For not saying, “Hey, you have a history of anorexia and you’ve lost over 10% of your body weight. Maybe there’s something in that.” I can’t forgive the medical establishment for privileging a specific body size and type over actual health, to the point where the health concerns of those outside that type are routinely ignored. Even at my lowest weight recently, I was still “overweight” by a few points. So obviously there could have been no connection between my early amenorrhea and my weight loss.

But most of all, I can’t forgive myself. As much as I repeat to myself I was in a bad state and in no condition to challenge those with perceived power over me, I can’t forgive myself for not doing it. I can’t forgive myself for not pointing out the correlation between my weight loss and the cessation of my cycles, for not bringing up the similarity to my previous experience. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. At least I would have tried. The thought haunts me, the same way it haunts me how readily I crumpled after two miscarriages when I know women who’ve had three, five, ten, and gone on to have healthy children. Even women in their late forties. As I would have been, had I spoken up.

And sure, there would have been obstacles. Maybe a lot of them. There still would have been my mental health and the financial burden to address, the need to talk my husband around; I might not have been capable of those things. Some people think it’s “selfish” for older parents to have children; there would have been that judgment to face, along with all the judgments parents face. That’s if I even managed to carry a pregnancy to term, no telling what more failures would have done to me. I thought at the time I couldn’t face another miscarriage. Now I see that as cowardice.

Aslan, the godlike Lion in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, always tells the human characters, “You can never know what might have been.” My imagination amply provides me with “might have beens” every day, and none of them seem worse than where I am right now. I’d give everything I have for one more chance.

I think this grief and blame and regret will follow me the rest of my days.

 

 

What If?

A week ago, I had my first physical therapy appointment. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before, but for the last few years I’ve experienced a grinding pain in my right ankle joint when I walk more than a few blocks, as well as moderate to severe back pain when I’m on my feet for any length of time. Once again, because of my background in dance, I know what causes these things. Some of my family, myself included, have a congenital misalignment of the hip joint that causes all kinds of messed up things–knees that turn in and rotated calf muscles and the like. You can see it in pictures going back for years; my dad had it. It causes a person’s feet to pronate (flatten), which, in turn, makes the outer ankle joint grind. The back pain is because I’ve been sedentary so long my abdominal and core muscles have atrophied, so I hyper extend my pelvis. Simple.

Anyway, I asked my doctor for a physical therapy referral, which she was happy to provide. Even when I know what’s going on and what to do about it, I have some idea that those things will be easier if someone else tells me to do them. And it’s often true. When I was more bought in to societal messages about weight and health and all that, it was easier for me to pursue a “healthier” lifestyle. Now I’ve shed a lot of those beliefs, most of the time I simply don’t care whether I’m healthy or not.

The appointment went about as I expected. I didn’t get a lot of new information. My feet are strong enough, but my joints and tendons are looser than “normal,” so, when I gained a lot of weight and lost muscle, they gave way. The PT recommended orthotics, prescribed some mild exercises, and told me to come back in ten days.

While he was writing up my plan (such as it was), I had a thought: “What if taking care of my health is my job right now?” What if it’s what I need to do for myself, whether or not I care or feel interested and motivated? Just because taking care of one’s health to the best of one’s ability is a sensible and objectively good thing to do? Leaving aside complications of the way the Western medical industry is constructed and its tendency to cling to a priori assumptions about what constitutes health, as well as the myth that you can judge someone’s health by looking at them, isn’t that a uniquely human thing to do?

The question upset and terrified me. Trying to explain to my husband reduced me to incoherent tears. In the first place, something about ongoing and seemingly never-ending processes instills me with existential and primal horror. I have no idea why this is. A common selling point of a lot of fad diets and weight loss systems is the phrase, “Not a diet, but a lifestyle change!” Maybe there’s a connection there; I hate that rhetoric because I question the value of the lifestyle it promotes, or I view a “lifestyle change” as… I honestly do not know. When I think about it, I think of the final challenge in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy comes to the precipitous edge of what looks like an abyss between himself and his goal. Remembering the clue about faith, he steps into what seems like thin air; the camera angle shifts to reveal a narrow stone bridge across the gap, its stones so close in color and shape to those of the abyss walls as to provide perfect camouflage. Indy, of course, scatters dust before him to make his path clear, and reaches the Grail. For me, that invisible bridge never ends and no Grail exists. I walk on air forever and ever, only faith keeping me aloft.

Or maybe I’m more like a cartoon character, who can walk off the edge of the cliff, unencumbered by the laws of gravity until they look down.

Whatever the source, as I said, the idea of going on forever and never reaching a destination is intensely awful to me, so awful I had to walk away from this post for an entire day after writing the previous paragraph. No rest, no home, no ability to stop or sit down. Isn’t that the theme of some enduring folktales, like the Wandering Dutchman? Don’t some believe the traveling people were cursed?

Another reason the idea of “working on my health” upsets me is it brings up the eternal question, “What then?” What if I do become healthier? What if I regain the stamina I’ve lost, build muscle, stop having back pain, find a way to regulate my weird hunger issues and all that? Do I even care about that? No one has any obligation to “be healthy” on anyone’s terms, especially not anyone else’s. Do I really think it will improve my life to go through all this? And then to have to keep repeating the same patterns over and over until I die (because you can’t just do any of this stuff once and be done; I learned that in the six years I sat on my ass)? The honest answer is I don’t. I think having a few minimal comforts in my life and not being surrounded by overtly abusive people is as good as it gets.

That kind of leads to the third reason this “what if?” question upsets me: It hurts. It leads into thoughts I don’t want to explore and emotions I don’t want to feel. You wouldn’t think 20 reps of a simple exercise on each leg and 2 minutes of another for each foot twice a day would be so difficult, but it’s emotionally excruciating for me to keep them up. I forget. I procrastinate. I make excuses. ANYTHING to avoid doing them.

I think of myself as an open book, but the truth is, I’ve spent the last 15+ years in stasis, like a person in a Science Fiction novel with an incurable disease, who gets frozen until technology catches up. The stasis wasn’t perfect. I lost weight and gained it. I aged. I didn’t look my age, and maybe I still don’t, but lately I’ve noticed wrinkles beneath my eyes in the mornings, creases above my upper lip. It kept me from dying, though. So far. Now I’m out of stasis, gods know why, because there doesn’t seem to be any cure yet. And things that happened (or didn’t) while I was in stasis still affected me. I’m angry, but I don’t know how to be angry, so I’m just in pain. I want to go back into my box. I want it to stop.

When I was young, my one goal was survival. Sometimes I lost track of that, notably when I was anorexic. Not coincidentally, I think, this was when I lost the ability to care much about anything, but when I “recovered” enough not to need hospitalization, my goal was the same: survive until I could get out of an intolerable situation and be my true self. The older I get, the less sure I am of what my true self is, or if it even exists. I have a consistent feeling the life I have is not the one I was supposed to have, though I’m unable to articulate what “the one I was supposed to have” looks like. I’ve never been career-minded. I’ve never had much ambition. Maybe this is because I lack the capacity to believe that anything I do matters in a real sense. It’s all filling time. People tell me having written seven novels is an achievement; I think I only did it because otherwise I’d have sat on the couch and stared at the walls. It was possible, and preferable to facing the emptiness at my core.

A few days ago, I remarked to my husband that we’ve lived in our house twenty-one years. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I never imagined we’d be here so long. I thought we’d have a couple kids, find a bigger place, do the things the rest of our nominal peer group in town did. I wanted those things, more than I realized at the time. They’re out of the question now, and nothing replaces them. I blame myself; how did I let that happen? It’s impossible to pursue dreams, or even have them, when your very existence depends on forbearance.

This blog post has no tidy ending. It’s all questions, and taking one step after another. Going on and never arriving. Some people do it by choice. For me it’s an unceasing nightmare.

Ugly

Beauty has always moved me. Ever since my early childhood, works of art, music, dance, words and all beautiful things have filled me with ineffable emotion, something between extreme sadness and desire. I remember being five years old and listening over and over to the piano cadenza from Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto on our old record player, because it was just so wonderful to me. I have no rational explanation for my response. Pathos as a rhetorical device is meant to stir the emotional recollection of lived experience, but how much lived experience could I have had at such a young age?

When I experience beauty, I do not want to own it. I want to become it. Not to influence people, or to elicit a response. Just to be it, to embody that transcendent quality. I want to be beautiful.

This is a problem. It’s a problem for numerous reasons, but I’ve come to see that first and foremost, I don’t feel beautiful inside. I feel rotten. I feel tainted with an ugliness that no superficial change can remedy. No makeup, no clothing, no weight loss or addition of muscle can fix it, because ugly is my identity. I feel it as strongly as I suppose others feel their gender identity. It’s the core of my being, my basic nature.

I’ve only spoken to one other person who gets this and feels the same, though I know many who’ve told me they recognized early they could never be beautiful and so never aspired to it. It doesn’t seem to eat at them as my desire for beauty does me. I have a hard time understanding.

Writing about this is extremely difficult. Trying to articulate it brings tears to my eyes and makes my throat close up. It’s one of those places where I wish I could just rip the sensations and emotions out of my stomach and hand them to someone: “Here, try this on and you’ll know.” Because this reality is beyond words, beyond expression. As I can’t remember a time before beauty moved me, I can’t remember a time before the absolute certainty of my own ugliness. I am Quasimodo in a world of Esmereldas. Probably beauty moves me the way it does because I know I lack it.

The pre-verbal quality of this feeling makes me wonder if it isn’t something I absorbed in the womb. I know my mother didn’t want another child by the time I came along, and whatever face she showed to the outside world, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if she prayed to miscarry early. The religion I was raised in doesn’t put much emphasis on Original Sin, but Presbyterians do subscribe to the doctrine of predestination; maybe I somehow caught on to this early enough to understand, to believe myself Not One Of The Elect. The feeling of being flawed goes that deep. The pictures in my book of studio portraits taken between the ages of a few months and six show a cute, blonde girl, but I remember feeling unattractive from about four on–a feeling which worsened over time, as my age peers continued to poke fun at my looks. When I got old enough to recognize that girls objectively less attractive and larger than I were still accepted into the ruling cliques and didn’t face the same derision, the fact cemented my opinion that the flaw in me must be something other. Not a superficial wrongness, but one flowing outward from my heart, poisoning everything about me.

I fear photos and mirrors; I believe they must inevitably show me for what I truly am. But when I do look, it’s not too bad. Sometimes I can critique a specific part of my body; “I don’t like the hanging flab of my upper arms.” Mostly, I don’t associate the images with my sense of self at all. Even gazing at my naked body in a full length mirror, my body with its rounded belly and vast thighs, I see no one in particular. Just a woman. Not one who fills me with distaste. Not the inner ME, either. The inner ME is the sense of wrongness in my stomach, the one I can only ignore but never banish.

I suppose calling this wrongness “ugliness” is something I learned. We’re indoctrinated early on in the truth that a woman’s value lies in her beauty. I have no value, therefore I lack beauty. I guess that’s how it worked.

People sometimes try to reassure me that I am, in fact, not bad to look at. I try to reassure myself. But all the words, all the times people have said “You’re beautiful,” make no difference, because I don’t feel them. You cherish what you find beautiful, don’t you? You nurture and protect it. I don’t feel people show that impulse to me. I don’t feel cherished. I don’t believe anyone thinks of me when I cease efforts to thrust myself into their faces. I don’t believe anyone has held me in their hearts, wondered about how I am and what I’m doing, obsessed over me the way you do in the first throes of an infatuation, when your life hangs on the possibility of a date or a phone call. Outside the boundaries of interaction, I cease to exist. No one works to impress me, no one plans for my delight. And I know, according to some, you are not supposed to require these things. Women especially are supposed to reach for what they want. But it’s hard, so hard, to reach, and reach, and reach, sometimes to achieve, but mostly to fall, and swallow the failure, and move on. It empties you out, after a while, reinventing the self over and over again. Knowing that I operate without a net, that no one will catch me if I fall because no one sees me falling (or worse, see it and don’t care), is not a source of strength. It makes me question why I bother with anything at all.

When I set out to write this post, I meant to address the complex relationship between beauty and value women in our society suffer from every day. It’s devolved into something else, an exploration of the constant pain at my core, where value, and appearance, and the simultaneous need for and fear of regard tangle into a Gordian knot of Titanic proportions. I’ve been trying to untangle it for almost forty years, and always, just when I think I have one thread separate and laid out clean, the others contract into an impossible snarl. I’ve tried the Alexandrian solution, but the problem isn’t one I can cut through. Other people contributed to it; I need other people to do their part. But I can’t count on that. So the question always returns: How can I be okay without other people doing their part? I can’t. I used to try, and once upon a time I was able to salvage a few passions from the ones damaged beyond saving. If not this, then that. If not that, then another thing. I used them all up years ago; I have nothing left. People have taken it all and never put anything back.

They don’t put it back because I don’t matter because I’m ugly. And so it continues.

I write this fully aware that I am in a bad depressive state right now–bad enough that I booked an early morning appointment with my medication manager for Monday, though both Mondays and early mornings are things I try to avoid. This state may have been triggered by lingering physical illness, or by sticking my toe into an ocean of hurt my last therapy session, but I can’t get on top of it. Lately I reduced my antidepressant because the higher dose combined with my mood stabilizer, though it made me feel really good, also caused severe irritability. I would far rather have the irritability than this blackness, where all I can feel is the pain in my heart. I can’t bear to leave the house for fear of eyes upon me, for fear my inner flaw will show plain and even if others are too polite to mention it, they’ll mock it in silence. I imagine voices with the ironic tone peculiar to the Grosse Pointe of my schooldays, where every compliment hid barbs and every glance flayed to the bone.

Ugly. Ugly. Ugly.

 

 

What Has Happened, What I Knew, What I Learned

When I was a preschooler, because my mom worked, she arranged for another woman to look after me in the afternoons, until my mom could pick me up. This woman, Mrs. O, had a little boy about my age. We played together and mostly had a good time.

Sometimes, another little girl who lived in the neighborhood joined us. Those times were not so good for me. The little boy liked her better than he liked me. They were preschool “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” The little girl teased me, because she wanted to make her primacy clear. The little boy joined in, because he wanted to impress her. It hurt.

I knew hurting me meant nothing to them.

I learned people who claim to be your friends can be cruel.

Later, when I was in third grade, my school merged with another school and I met a whole new group of children. They were also cruel. They teased me about my weight, about my haircut, about my nonconformity. It hurt even more than the old teasing, because it was relentless, every day. I wanted to stop hurting, so I tried to get help from adults. Remember, I was eight years old. The adults said, “What did you do to bring it on?” and “Suffer in silence,” and “Just don’t let it get to you.” They said, “If I try to stop it, it’ll only get worse.”

I knew these were all bullshit excuses. I knew the adults didn’t care and couldn’t be bothered.

I learned to endure. I learned my pain didn’t matter.

At about twelve, I started experiencing periods of depression and suicidal thoughts. When I was fourteen, I started to self-harm. I was afraid and wanted help.

My mom said, “It’s just a phase.” She said, “I’m not taking you to a psychiatrist because they’ll just say I’m a bad mother, and I’m not.” She said, “You’re just trying to get attention.” She said, “How can you do this to ME?” She said, “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

My dad said, “Why do you treat your mother like dirt?”

When, after over a year, I did see a psychologist, she said, “You’re a normal teenager with normal teenage problems.” She said, “You just need a boyfriend.”

I knew self-harming was not normal. I knew a boyfriend wouldn’t help. I knew I wasn’t having depression and self-harming to get attention, or to punish anyone but myself. I knew it was NOT “just a phase.” I knew it was real. I have always known it is real.

I learned people are uncomfortable with and afraid of mental illness. I learned people are ignorant and don’t listen, because they’re too uncomfortable to hear it. I learned these things apply even to those who are supposed to be treating mental illness. I learned no one knows more about my feelings and my experience than I do.

I learned to keep quiet and become small, because when people are uncomfortable, they take it out on the thing causing their discomfort. And the cause of the discomfort was me.

I was the grain of sand in the oyster. The grain of sand causes the oyster to secrete a substance to protect itself from discomfort. This is how pearls are formed. A grain of sand, quiet and small, acquires a nacreous coating, which, ironically, makes it much bigger, more valuable, and harder to ignore.

Later, I got fed up with being quiet and small. I got fed up with people abusing me instead of facing their discomfort. I vowed I would speak my truth and take no shit, and anyone who didn’t like it could go straight to hell. I refused responsibility for other people’s dysfunction. I’ve strayed from keeping this vow many times, but on the whole, I’ve lived by it. It’s been freeing to say, “This is who I am.” To say, “I have no responsibility to read your mind when you won’t tell me the truth.” To say, “Help me or don’t; I don’t care. But don’t blame me for the choice you make.” To say, “What I do is what I do. I won’t let you take what small power I have by making it about you.”

It took me twenty-five years, a lot of therapy, and a huge amount of introspection to be able to say these things.

Yesterday, a British news site posted an article about how the mentally ill are not considered a “vulnerable population” unless they have an accompanying physical illness. A friend of mine responded with the #InShadowSelfie campaign for mental health awareness. I am rather in awe of the power of this idea and the huge, positive response. At the same time, I am absolutely aghast that it’s necessary in this 21st century. I’m horrified at how being small and quiet about mental illness is habitual, even compulsory, for so many people, STILL.

Yesterday, my Twitter feed was full of my friends talking about how unsafe it is for them to speak about their depression, or anxiety, or mania, or other mental health problems in certain corners of social media. How friends and family members respond with all the same, old bullshit I heard forty years ago and more. “You’re being too dramatic.” “You just want attention.” “Don’t be so personal!” “Suck it up and deal with it.” All that shit. How they have to keep small and silent because for some reason they can’t get away from these people. Can’t get away from the negative messages, that they then internalize. Now sometimes, they even try to change to be more what other people want. To make other people more comfortable.

I wrote this post for those friends of mine to tell them the people who tell them all that bullshit are oysters. They tell you to shut up because they’re uncomfortable. You have every right to be loud and to take up space. To express your feelings wherever you like. To say what you need to say. You have every right to block harmful words that diminish you and encourage you to stay quiet and small. To divorce yourself from all that crap. Yes, even if it comes from family members and people you love. You have every right to tell them to take their discomfort elsewhere, keep it out of your space. You have every right NOT TO BE HURT FURTHER by people who don’t understand you and have no desire to do so.

You don’t have to do any of these things because I say so. But you do have the right.

And remember, you are more than a grain of sand, causing irritation. You are a pearl in the making. And one day, you will leave the darkness where you grew. And you will shine.

 

“It’s Just Who I Am”

“It’s Just Who I Am.”  I don’t think any of us reaches adulthood without hearing these words from someone in our circle. Someone close, someone not so close. Sometimes the form is different: “It’s just the way I am,” or “I can’t help it,” or “That’s the way I roll,” or any number of permutations of the same concept. And if you’re like most people, you shrug, and accept it, and move on.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is bullshit.

Please don’t get me wrong. I work hard at being non-judgmental and accepting of people’s little idiosyncrasies. This one flips my switch, however. It flips my switch because people usually trot it out when you confront them on a behaviour that they could change without a whole lot of trouble. They just don’t want to. So they tell you “It’s just who I am” to deflect criticism and give themselves an excuse not to take responsibility. And because we have an ingrained unwillingness in our modern culture to confront and challenge, particularly when it’s a matter of internal reality and identity, we let them get away with it. Generally to our own detriment.

This pisses me off.

I had this friend. Not a super close friend, but someone I interacted with on a regular basis. Someone I’ve tried my best to support through various family difficulties. Someone with whom I’ve shared jokes and commiserated over the suckier aspects of life. She’s a person with a personality quite different from mine. I wouldn’t say “diametrically opposed,” but close. This person likes to tease and poke fun. Most often it’s a harmless quirk. Friends share inside jokes and stupid gags and mock each other, and it’s all good as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. But this friend sometimes loses track of what’s out of hand and what isn’t. She pushes things and takes them too far. There’s been more than one occasion when I’ve had to take her aside and say, “Okay, that’s enough.” And she’s responded pretty well, with a “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll give it a rest.”

So I didn’t expect it to be any different the last time I asked her to back off. But it was.

It was a couple weeks ago. I’d been having a string of bad days. By bad days I don’t just mean those days when you’re kind of blue; I mean the days when getting out of bed is a struggle because you can’t see any reason to even try interacting with the world, because it seems like no matter how hard you work, you can’t change a damn thing. The days when everything you’ve ever done and ever will do seems doomed to failure. When you feel ugly and irredeemable in your very soul.

I’m going to pause for a minute here and emphasize the importance of “ugly.” There’s a lot of talk in  feminist communities these days–well, there always has been, but like any fashion it’s come around again–about the pressure women feel to be beautiful, and how we need to reclaim ugliness and have it be okay not to be pretty and what-not. I’m down with that, except when it extends to people complaining about campaigns that put forth the notion that “everyone is beautiful,” because “WHY DO WE HAVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL? YOUR TELLING ME I’M BEAUTIFUL IS OPPRESSING ME!” (Please hold comments on this particular tangent; it’s another blog post.) But my truth is that beauty is important to me. I grew up from about the age of five hearing on a daily basis how ugly I was. I got called “dog,” hag,” “fat cow,” and pretty much every appearance slur imaginable every day. People made barfing noises behind me when I walked down the hall at school; they barked; they mooed. They said, “TASTY!” with that particular Grosse Pointe inflection of sarcasm that told you they meant anything but. And whether it’s social or whether it’s personal, I understood I had no value because I was ugly. I didn’t qualify as a human being. I would never be worth of love. I might be abandoned and left to die alone somewhere, because people couldn’t stand to look at me. And this is a belief system I struggle with to this day, every day.

So this day a couple weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch, intermittently checking in on Twitter looking for something to distract me from feeling like utter shit. And I saw this friend had tweeted about buying chunky peanut butter instead of creamy, and how it was so awful because chunky peanut butter is gross. And I, having a preference for chunky peanut butter myself, responded to this lament with “Creamy peanut butter is the Devil.” Meaning it as a joke, as you do.

A few seconds later, my phone beeped; my friend had responded. This is what she said:

“Your FACE is the Devil!”

Since I am familiar with this friend’s habit of teasing, it didn’t really surprise me, although it seemed an extreme reaction. But it wasn’t something I could really cope with on a day when I was struggling, and it–of course–triggered all my stuff about appearance. So I told my friend,

“I’m having a bad time and I didn’t really need to hear that today.”

In a minute, she came back with, “Oh, hun, you know I think you’re beautiful and I don’t mean anything by it.”

And you know, that ticked me off. Because I would have liked to hear something more like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t know you were having a rough time.” Instead of being told, in essence, “I don’t care about your rough time and you just have to cope.” So I tweeted her and said,

“For future reference, please, I really don’t like being teased about my appearance. It hurts.”

She responded one more time: “Understood.”

And I never heard from her again. I thought at the time that her final tweet had been somewhat brusque. But I wasn’t on-line much the rest of the day, and I don’t always interact with the same people even when I am. So I didn’t think anything about her distance until the next morning. I noticed it because it was a Friday, and this friend was pretty awesome about promoting writers in our circle. I saw that she had tweeted about a couple others of our friends, recommending their books and blogs and whatnot. But she hadn’t mentioned me. And it hurt; I felt neglected and envious. I didn’t like to think that she was trying to punish me for calling her out, but that’s what it felt like. I told myself not to be so sensitive and tried interacting with her, replying to a couple of questions she posted and all.

She ignored me. She ignored me all day, and that evening, thinking, “Oh, no, you didn’t,” I checked her profile to see that she had unfollowed me.

That made me really, really angry. I thought, “Fine, if you’re going to be like that,” and unfollowed her in return. I asked a couple people if they had any idea what was going on, and no one did. I thought I might try to address it later, when I calmed down. But every time I remembered it, I got angry again. Finally, about a week later, I messaged one of my other friends and asked her if she would be willing to see what was up? Because I really wanted to know if it was what I thought or if there was something else going on. My friend was willing. And this is the answer she got:

“I’m not someone who can hurt others in good conscience. It hurts ME incredibly. My only option then was to avoid hurting her further. And I can’t change who I am. This is me. I can’t act differently. So if by being me I hurt her and I can’t change who I am…the decision was one of avoiding causing another person pain.”

Wow. There are so many problems with this, I almost can’t even. In the first place, so your problem was being told you had done something hurtful in words. Did you not know? You’re not stupid, so I have to assume that you DO know, but as long as no one said, “This hurts,” you could ignore it. In the second place, how in the world do you imagine that disappearing without any explanation and refusing to discuss it WASN’T hurtful? You left me wondering what the fuck had happened, wondering if I had done something horrible I had no clue about. Yeah, I felt really good about that. Oh, right–you can’t address the issue because it might be hurtful. Fuck that. Getting stitches hurts, but sometimes it’s necessary.

And then there’s the last thing: “I can’t change who I am.” You know, I can almost accept that having a teasing mode of interaction is part of your integral makeup. But I cannot believe that the freedom to be able to make jabs at another person’s appearance is SO essential to you on a deep soul level that you would rather write off an entire friendship than take a look at that, yo. The reasonable reaction would have been to say, “Okay, Kele doesn’t like being teased about her appearance. Check. I’ll try to remember that.”

The only reason to play the “It’s just who I am” card is that you KNOW this behavior is questionable and you want a good excuse to refuse responsibility for it. You don’t want to do the work, because preserving your dysfunction is more important to you than your friends. Nice job not being hurtful.

I’ve done therapy on and off for thirty-five years, and you know what? You don’t get to play that card if you want to grow. There IS NO “Just who I am.” The collection of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, experiences and all that make up “who I am” is constantly shifting, fluid, and subject to change. You don’t want to make that change, fine. But own up to it, for gods’ sake. Otherwise you’re just wasting the time and energy of everyone who’s trying to be in a relationship with you.

This post is harsh, and I am afraid to publish it. I’m afraid because everyone else in our circle still associates with this person, and everyone will know who I mean. But I’ve never been any good at ignoring the elephant in the living room. I’ve never been good at making nice and keeping up appearances, especially where hypocrisy is involved. These days, when I see that people have retweeted stuff my former friend has said about “being a people pleaser” or posting memes about how “I’ll always have your back,” and it’s all I can do not to explode. Not to say, “Stop lying to yourself. You’re not a people pleaser. You please yourself, and your sense of guilt comes from being dishonest about it.” Not to say, “Sure, you’ll always have a friend’s back until they ask you to face something you don’t want to and you run away like a coward.”

I’m hoping publishing this blog will help me let go and move on. It may take a while, but I expect it will. I’m hoping it won’t let me in for censure from those who think I should have kept it to myself. If I do get flak for it, I expect I will learn to be okay with that, too.

But one thing I’m going to make perfectly clear: I’m not a challenging person because it’s “just the way I am.” If I wanted to, I could have chosen not to speak these thoughts. It would have been difficult, and it would have taken a longer time for me to get past them. But I could have done it. I choose to speak up because it’s healthier for me, because I understand that no one grows by being comfortable, and because I get to have a point of view that people might not like.

And how did I respond to finding out this friend valued her insensitive remarks more than she did our friendship? Two words:

“Her loss.”

Recognizing Toxic Friendships

Last night I stumbled across this Everyday Feminism article on toxic friendships. I ended up sharing it on my Facebook wall–yes, I still call it a wall, not a timeline. So sue me. I say “ended up sharing it” because I wasn’t sure I wanted to at first. I don’t question the writer’s experience, but most of what she said didn’t resonate with me. I don’t believe, for example, that we tend to dismiss toxic friendships because we see friendships as having less validity than romantic relationships. In my experience, the abuse that happens “between friends” is of the subtler variety–emotional rather than physical–and, as such, is harder to credit. I think, too, we actually give friends MORE leeway than we do romantic partners. We’re more apt to excuse toxic behaviors as “an off day,” or “she has a difficult time with criticism” BECAUSE we value our friendships and good, close friends are difficult to come by. I also don’t think negativity is in itself a sign of a toxic relationship, nor is an unequal level of investment.

But toxic friendships are all too common, and it’s all too easy to let them continue much, much too long. So I did share the article, and in the course of discussing it and some of my own take on the subject, one of my friends (Hi, Stef!) suggested I blog about it because she was interested in hearing more about my experience.

I had this friend, and she was toxic, and according to my therapist she nearly killed me. It’s been more than ten years since I cut her out of my life, and I still miss her sometimes. I still wish I hadn’t had to do what I did. I still remember her birthday. And I still don’t quite know how to talk about it.

We’d been friends a long time, twenty-five years. We first met when I was in eighth grade and she was in seventh. Then, she was best friends with a friend of mine’s sister, and as time went on, she became a member of my circle, a group of brilliant, artistic girls who had little use for social convention–or maybe didn’t understand it–and didn’t fit well into the strict class structure of the private school we all attended. Hearing about us later, another friend labeled us “The Original Riot Grrrls.” Maybe we were. It was the 70s, though, and we were all stuck in preppie hell, and we were all targets for bullying and shaming and…well, you get the picture. With one thing and another, we became closer than blood sisters, probably closer than was healthy. We had the shifting alliances and bitter infighting I am given to understand is normal for high-school girls, with all the intensity exponentially magnified by difficult home situations and chronic depression. After high school, the bunch of us split up and saw each other seldom, for one reason and another.

This one friend and I stayed in more regular contact, however. We ended up at the same college, and we were housemates a couple times. When I moved across country, sometimes she’d phone or write. And I was always glad to hear from her; it was always as if we’d never been apart. At the same time, though, whenever we spent any length of time together–I mean more than a couple months–I always ended up hurt and angry. She had these behavioral idiosyncrasies, affected voice and body language, a studied posture of superiority, that set my teeth on edge. But I never saw those things as a real problem, because it was just her way, and besides, I understood who she was under the mask. I understood her deep hurt. I didn’t take it personally, because I knew underneath she was a brilliant, fun, talented, warm person. So we kept enacting the same patterns over and over again.

This should have been my first clue, and I pass it on to you now: If there is a person in your life who keeps doing hurtful things, who doesn’t change, from whom you keep separating and with whom you keep getting back together, for whom you keep making excuses because “You know who they really are underneath,” that person is likely toxic. If you’re always the one trying to fix things and always seem to be the one taking the blame and/or responsibility for problems, you are likely in a toxic relationship.

Later we lost track of each other for years. I heard through my mother that my friend had become engaged, and I figured she had got married and gone off to have her own life. And I regretted a little the loss of friendship, but not enough to go out of my way to pursue it. This should have been my second clue.

A long time later, after I had moved to the town where I currently live, I got a letter from her and we got back in contact. She had relatives the next state over, and she and her then-boyfriend later-husband used to stop by for a few days on the way to visit them. She came for my wedding and stood up for me. My husband and I went east to visit several times. We became close again. We talked on the phone. She confided her indecision with her path in life, which had seemed so clear once upon a time. She called to cry when she lost her job, and when her plans fell apart, and when she didn’t know what to do.

And I began to think about suggesting she and her husband move out west. Well, of course I did! She was my friend. We had history. She was unhappy. And moving west to rural Colorado had been a new start for me and my husband. There was work if you were willing to work, and if pay was low, so were expenses. There was an artistic renaissance of sorts going on in my community. I thought it might be good for my friend to get out of the smothering city. I suggested it.

It took a couple years after the idea first came up, but eventually my friend and her husband moved west. They bought a house down the street from me. We–she and her husband and I and mine–started a Celtic band together. And things began to fall apart.

Almost from the beginning, I found myself having to defend my friend to others. On my recommendation she got a job at the local radio station, where her superior airs alienated the volunteer staff. I told myself she got strident because she felt insecure in a new position and wanted to prove herself. I encouraged her to relax and loosen up a bit; we weren’t in the city anymore and things were different here. People kept complaining to me about her judgmental attitude and her self-righteousness. I told them she was really okay, they just needed to get to know her (this would later backfire on me). Eventually she alienated her way out of a job, when she made hostile demands of the President of the Board. This was something else I found out the truth of later. At the time, I comforted her when she cried and claimed she hadn’t done anything wrong; the new management had got rid of her because she had supported the former manager, who had hired her.

This is the third clue. If, when bad things happen, your friend never takes responsibility for any part of it but always blames someone else, you are likely in a toxic relationship. Losing her job at the radio station was the first time my friend did this, but not the last. In fact, near the end of our relationship, she said, “The projects I get involved in always end the same way, badly. I don’t want that to happen again, but it’s not my fault.”

In the band, my friend wanted to be the center of attention, but she refused to do the work to merit it. She also refused to admit she wanted what everyone knew she wanted. I was invested–I was default bandleader–in everyone having a good time playing music together and playing out on occasion when we could. In every rehearsal, I checked in with the band to ask what people wanted. I encouraged them to come forward with songs they wanted to do. My friend refused to be honest about these things. When I suggested she take a turn as singer, she said, “Oh, I just want to focus on playing the fiddle.” Then she went to other people behind my back to spread the story that I was so controlling I wouldn’t let her sing because I wanted to be the only girl singer (yet another thing I found out later). And I might have been able to deal with that if she had actually done the work to improve her fiddle playing. Instead, she consistently refused to learn tune sets we had agreed as a band we should learn, putting it down to difficulty, or lack of time, or the fact that she didn’t read music well. Then in the middle of rehearsal, she would whip out some tune she had “just picked up”–never one on the list we had agreed upon–and play it in an aggressive manner, challenging anyone to confront her. I cannot begin to describe how infuriating this was. Everyone knew it was going on. But trying to address the issue only resulted in hostility. Every rehearsal became like walking on eggs. She was so unable to handle criticism that more than once she actually stormed out of rehearsal when someone suggested she tune her instrument.

The fourth clue: Lies and Sabotage. Both these things make it impossible for your toxic friend to get what she wants while enabling her to blame everyone but herself for it.

And I still made excuses for her. She’d lost both parents recently. She wasn’t used to working in a supportive group. She expected hostility and criticism and was trying to fulfill her expectation of getting them by manipulating the people around her, but it was because she’d had a difficult time in social situations. If I just refused to become combative, which would prove to her that she was right, if I remained quietly supportive, she’d come to understand that life didn’t have to be the way she expected it to be. She could let herself be vulnerable and grow.

Yeah, that was never going to happen. As an aside, in later years I can to believe that the real problem was that she wanted to be a “rock star;” i.e., she wanted the limelight, the center of attention, the popularity and notoriety, the small-town fame. Yet she had no musical talent whatsoever, and I’m pretty sure she knew it. I hate to declare anyone talentless in any arena, and I kept thinking, “If she just would do the work instead of being so belligerent…” But I’m pretty sure no amount of work would have made a musician out of her.

Well, anyway, I kept trying. I didn’t like the job of booking gigs, so I suggested my friend should take that over. She was all for it. And that’s when the gaslighting started. If you’re not familiar with the term, it means “using systemic manipulation to undermine a person’s perception of reality.” It comes from the 1938 play, Gas-Light, in which a husband drives his wife crazy by dimming and brightening the lights in their house, and denying there’s any change when she questions it. It’s a common technique of sociopaths. Here’s an example: We had two gigs we were considering, one in Durango, about six hours’ drive away, and another in Delta. The Durango gig was at night, and could be expected to end well after two in the morning. The Delta gig was the next morning at eleven. I told my friend I would do one or the other but not both, because I did not want to play until two in the morning and then have to get up at five and drive seven hours back to Delta. She booked both gigs. When I reminded her of my conditions, she said, “You never said that. You told me to book both gigs.” And furthermore, she added, “You know, Kel, a real band would be expected to keep those kind of hours if they were on tour.” Intimating that our band was not real, that if I wanted to participate in a “real” band I was not allowed to have any boundaries, and basically the way I wanted to live my life was invalid.

The fifth clue: Gaslighting and Undermining. If your friend consistently challenges your desires for your life and your experience of reality and supports her own version of events with compulsive lying, GET OUT.

Since this blog post is already over 2000 words long, I’m going to try to cut it short. I got depressed, so depressed. I’d started the band to share joy in music, and by that point I detested music. It’s only recently, over ten years later, that I have begun to sing again on occasion and have begun to entertain the possibility of pulling out my flute. I got sick and was hospitalized with gallbladder disease. My friend books gigs for our band for the time I was in recovery from surgery and evinced astonishment when I told her there was no way I could stand up and perform a few days after my gut had been cut open. She found a couple session players to take the place of myself and my husband, and told them I was too lazy to keep a commitment. Shortly afterward, my therapist told me, “I don’t like telling clients what to do, but if you don’t get that person out of your life you’re going to end up dead.” So I broke up the band and I wrote my now-ex friend a long letter explaining exactly why. I still feel like a miserable coward for not confronting her to her face, but there was no way I could have done it.

A few weeks after I sent my former friend the letter, I found a box of mutilated photographs from my wedding in my backyard. I’m fairly sure I know where they came from.

My friend stayed around the area for a little while, living right down the street. It made me sick to look out of my dining room window. After a year or two, her husband fell in love with someone else and divorced her. She floated around town for a while and many people found her charming. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t friends with her any longer. When I tried to explain, they invariably said, “Oh, bands break up.” And they still didn’t understand. My friend tried being in a couple other bands, but eventually she got kicked out of them all for her hostility and rudeness and no one would play with her. Eventually she burned too many bridges and moved away. She still owns the house down the street, I think. My therapist saw her a few months back. She asked if she could have my therapist’s dog. No one knows why.

All the projects she gets involved in end the same way, badly. She doesn’t think she wants it to happen again. But it’s not her fault. It’s never her fault.

A few weeks after I broke up the band, my husband met this former friend for a beer because he wanted to find some kind of closure with her. He told her, “I never felt like I really got to know you and be your friend.” Her response? “Oh, was that important to you?” And part of it I’m sure came from her having a habit of never taking responsibility for her actions, never being honest, and coming at every conversation from a position of superiority. Turning every attempt to address her honestly into…a contest of wit and defenses. But part of it, I know now, came from the pure fact that she was clueless about how friendships work. She could be a remarkable sycophant–she loved making up to people she viewed as being in power. And she could be a tyrant, a superior, a dictator, greedy for all the privilege inherent in the titles. But she could never be an equal. I’m sure she’s very lonely, and I think that’s very sad. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I did everything I could ten years ago.

If any of this story sounds familiar to you, please get help. Get out. Don’t cling to a friend because you understand where they’re coming from or because you have history. You’re just hurting yourself.