Thin and in Control

It seems odd to think about it now, given my rocky relationship with food over the past five years, but at one time, I was known for being particularly thin. People told me to eat more—when they weren’t praising my asceticism, of course. Women sighed bitterly whenever I ate anything more nourishing than a celery stick. Everyone around me seemed to vacillate between worrying about my health and telling me I looked amazing. My then-boyfriend ran his hand over my ribs, marvelling (worrying?) that he could count them without effort.
Throughout my time in university, as I grew steadily thinner, I fielded a befuddling mixture of genuine concern and envy-tinged adulation. And time after time, I was asked just how I did it. I wasn’t a faithful gym-goer, nor a diligent meal planner; and, as my family members lamented, my genetics weren’t favourable enough to make thinness a given. How on earth was I pulling this off, with my careless diet and nonexistent fitness regimen?
I met these questions with vague references to “being careful” and “trying to be disciplined.” I went no further, and nobody questioned me because, as research has shown us, thin people are assumed to be more competent and more disciplined than people of size. It didn’t add up, and there was nothing about my life to envy or emulate, but even those who knew me well perceived me as deserving of my slender shape. I didn’t work especially hard to disabuse them of that notion.
Meanwhile, my ‘secret’ to long-lasting slimness was a good deal less glamourous, and far less controlled, than you might imagine. The short version is this: I have chronic illness, severe stress, and disability-related isolation to thank for my thinness, and nothing more. One need not run marathons, nor fast for days, nor down diet pills to get skinny. One need only be too sick to eat, too stressed to care, and too isolated to ask for help.
Not magazine-worthy, I know. Harsh truths rarely are.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, it would have been painfully awkward to divulge the desperation behind the scale’s gratifying announcements that I was 125, 120, 115 pounds. It would have been unspeakably strange if I’d admitted that if you want to follow in my footsteps, it will involve a lot of migraines and exhaustion and terrible orientation and mobility skills that keep you from buying your own groceries. It would have been a real buzzkill if I’d said, point blank, “I stay thin because I throw up a lot from the horrible headaches I get three times a week, and I’m too depressed to eat anyway.” Weird, right? Not appropriate lecture hall chatter, and awfully distressing for the poor soul who just wanted to say something nice.
So, people figured I was very good at health management. I let them go on thinking that, even as I waited too many weeks between grocery runs because my blindness skills were atrocious and I couldn’t find the nearest store; even as the migraines got so bad I started having blackouts; even as I lost so much weight it stopped being sexy and started being worrisome.
The alarming thing is, even those who knew something of what was happening to me didn’t probe much, because thin people are in control. Thin people are healthy. Thin people have got this.
Depression had killed my appetite, and migraines had knocked it even further off balance. But my jeans fit like a glove, so all looked well.
As I write, I can say with confidence that I am the healthiest I’ve ever been, even though I’m carrying several more pounds than I did then. My migraines are much less frequent, and they no longer come bundled with stroke symptoms and paralyzing fear. I’m eating regularly and for the most part, nutritiously—no more living on crackers for a week and a half (yes, that’s literal). My mental health is reasonably well-managed, I’m strong enough to work out regularly, and I’m as functional as I’ve ever been.
These days, more or less, I am in control. I am healthy. I am disciplined. I’m not quite so thin anymore, but I’ve got this.
So next time you’re tempted to ask someone how they do it, spare a thought for what might lurk behind that pleasing body shape. It may be good genetics or solid habits, but it also might be a whole lot of misery they’re not ready to talk about.
And next time you’re tempted to work toward being smaller, taking up less space, ask yourself: Will I be healthier? Happier? Stronger? More in control?
In Sara Groves’ Finite, one of the best songs out there about human insecurity, she encapsulates the treadmill-like futility of fighting to stay “younger, thin and in control.” She wonders “where the peace went?”
From what little I’ve known of the journey toward a healthier life, that peace doesn’t come from your scale or tape measure or your friends’ envious validation.
Take it from someone who has been small, and lived small, too: Whatever your size, it comes from eating well, moving when you can, and never being too afraid to ask for help.
You are finite. You are exhaustible. And there’s a lot of peace in that.

Enough With the Sick Day Humblebrags

All my life, I’ve been surrounded—some might say afflicted—by troupers. You know the type: they can work through anything, raging fevers and hacking coughs be damned. Industriousness in the face of illness is a point of pride, and rest is for other, presumably weaker, people. Their insistence on being out and about when they’re contagious does cause some cringing from those around them, but discreet disapproval is nothing to a long-time trouper.

The trouper’s crowning achievement? They haven’t taken a sick day in ten, twenty, thirty years. Perhaps they did, once, but it was life or death, so that’s forgivable—just barely.

I’ve sat self-consciously among these trouper types, growing progressively guiltier as they list the ailments that didn’t stand between them and their work. Shifting restlessly, I’ve listened to them condemn people who choose to take sick days, trading anecdotes about rampant abusers of the system. I’ve begged the universe to disperse my atoms as they called for bonuses that would reward employees for refusing to use their allotted sick leave. No one stopped to consider what that might mean for people like me, even as I sat in their midst. Most irksome of all, no one stopped to admit that not needing sick days said less about their work ethic and more about the privilege of a healthy body—something many of them took for granted.

The idea that we shouldn’t come to work sick is gaining ground, though it’s cold comfort for people who don’t have the privilege of paid sick leave. Employees are encouraged not to expose their colleagues to contagious illnesses, and sick day guilt is finally being acknowledged as a mainstream issue. Doctors are calling for an end to sick notes, citing the valuable time wasted, the germs needlessly spread to vulnerable patients, and the hefty bills employees and students with common colds are left to pay. (A few months ago, my poor partner paid $40 for a sick note.) As a student whose migraines were not well-managed, I dragged myself to walk-in clinics and hospitals when I should have been at home, resting and suffering in peace. I, too, have paid pretty pennies for slips of paper that declared what I already knew: I had a migraine, and I needed bedrest. Hoops must be jumped through, and HR departments must be appeased, but that doesn’t make the system sensible.

Sick day guilt persists. Employees who should be resting will sometimes work remotely. They take calls when they should be sleeping, or answer emails from a doctor’s waiting room. People lucky enough to have access to paid sick time still have concerns about job security, workloads, and cover-offs. Despite cultural acceptance of self-care and work-life balance, feeling terrible about staying home is practically a cliché. Even when employers actively encourage time off, many employees–and I include myself among them–feel more comfortable toughing it out.

Aside from the usual bugs that strike everyone each winter, I deal with chronic pain in my neck, shoulders, and back. The pain typically manifests as nagging headaches, stiffness, and muscle aches. Occasionally, nausea, watering eyes, and disorientation will join in, making it difficult to focus. When the pain peaks, which isn’t often, thank goodness, I struggle to find words, concentrate, and even orient myself physically. Spurred by sick day guilt, I have insisted on working during those severe pain days, even when it meant bouncing off doorways or making silly errors. Anyone with sense could see I ought to be resting, not working, but growing up around all those proud troupers had left a powerful impression.

I hit my lowest point while working a summer job. A combination of emotional stressors and a new medication made my migraines spike, and I woke one morning with a leaden feeling of wrongness throughout my entire body. I got on the bus, limbs tingling, and realized I was getting yet another migraine. I crossed a busy intersection to access my office building, but was so dizzy I couldn’t identify which way was forward. When I tried to climb the steps into the reception area, my feet failed to make the appropriate motions, and I fell. Twice.

When I got to my office, I immediately began working, hoping I’d be able to make it through the day. By the time a colleague found me an hour later, I was draped over my desk, green and shaking. While a kind stranger drove me home, a bucket cradled in my lap, I understood that if I didn’t change, I’d be unable to work at all. An emergency hospital visit a few days later confirmed it: the guilt was unsustainable, and so was the trouper mentality.

Nowadays, I manage my pain much more consciously. I have several coping mechanisms I can use while at work, and I know how to ask coworkers for help and support. I take care of myself at home so I can function well at my job, and take the odd sick day without too much dithering about whether I deserve the time. This approach has meant I suffer less pain in the first place, and manage it more successfully when it does come along. My current work environment is a balanced one, and when I go several weeks without a severe pain episode, I feel lucky, not proud. I am not special for not needing sick days as often as some other coworkers do, and I know it.

Abandon the sick day humblebrags, and recognize that illness is not a moral failing. Avoid bringing that nasty flu into the workplace unless you’re positive your coworkers can’t get along without you. Stay home when you can, and strive for real, lasting recovery. If people take sick days around you, reserve judgment. Don’t treat your lack of need for sick leave like a badge of honour. If you have the option of taking paid sick time, coming to work when you’re unwell means you are either very stubborn or very dedicated. It doesn’t necessarily place you above your colleagues.

We’ll all have days when we feel as though taking a day of rest is not an option. We have too much to do. People are depending on us to be present, and we’re confident we can handle the discomfort. I’ve been there, and I’ll be there again. I’m not going to miss a file audit meeting or workshop because my pain is a bit worse than usual. It’s okay to be a trouper, at least some of the time.

But, as we overcome physical limitations to be present, let’s do so with the awareness that staying home is a valid choice, too. Let’s acknowledge there will always be those who abuse the system, without demanding that everyone lose out because of a few bad apples. Let’s stop expecting people to be impressed by a sparkling attendance record. Let’s shift our focus to performance and productivity.

Oh, and let’s take a crack at conquering that sick day guilt. Health is not a sign of strength, and illness is not a sign of weakness.