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.

Lightning, Molasses, and the Search for a Happy Medium

It doesn’t take long for new acquaintances to notice that I operate at a quicker pace than most. I eat quickly, talk quickly, walk quickly (when I can safely do so), and get through tasks with a speed that stands out. I’m not sloppy, and I don’t like cutting corners, but there’s no denying my inner rhythm is a little out of whack. Sometimes it’s handy, like when clients praise my impressive turn-around time for assignments. Other times, it’s awkward, because when people ask, “What’s the rush?” I have no satisfactory answer for them. All I know is an austere, unforgiving clock has taken up residence in my head, and I can hardly think for the ticking.

I wasn’t always so frantic about everything. When I was little, I was frequently reprimanded for being the last one—the last to finish my dinner, the last to straggle outside for recess, the last to pack up my backpack. My punctuality wasn’t usually an issue, but I did tend to take more time than average with hands-on tasks where my agile little mind couldn’t save me. Give me an abstract problem to solve and I was a bolt of lightning. Hand me a pile of papers to organize and I was a pool of molasses. If the task required work-arounds to accommodate my blindness, that pool froze solid.

Somewhere along the way, I internalized the idea that I should always be in a tearing hurry. Part of it can be blamed on patchy time management skills that only improved with adulthood, but a lot of it can be traced back to my frenetic childhood environment.

“Hurry hurry,” grownups would chide, as I freed a stuck zipper or hunted an object I’d dropped. Never could I keep up, and even when I managed to accomplish something in a timely fashion, it was likely that I’d messed it up. The faster I moved, the clumsier I became, and my anxiety clamped down with crushing force.

Buffeted by duelling forces that insisted deliberate movements were bad but mistakes were also bad, I surrendered to a passive paralysis that froze me in place, unable to rush through tasks or tackle them at a pace that suited me. When you’re convinced that nothing you do will please those around you, standing in place seems safest, and that’s often what I did. Anxiety was mistaken for stubbornness, and I developed a reputation for being the kind of person who would stand gleefully by until someone else did my work for me. This couldn’t have been more off base, but I had neither the guts nor the eloquence to communicate that, and figured no one would listen if I tried.

Most kids would have dealt with this situation by learning by observation, asking questions, and/or finding trusted adults to fill in the gaps. I responded by nurturing an intense fear of failure, to the point where even minor errors seemed apocalyptic. Of course I cried when I got a mediocre grade or tripped in public; I genuinely believed the world was ending, and that judgment, when it came, would be swift and harsh. The vast majority of people in my life would have been horrified by the intensity of that fear, and would have done their best to set me straight. For whatever reason, I kept silent about it, and moved out on my own with the debilitating philosophy that doing something badly was infinitely worse than failing to do it at all.

For a while, I was able to coast along, with no pressing need to question this shortcoming. Eventually, however, after I realized I couldn’t even get a little turned around on my way to the grocery store without hours of brooding, I understood that if I didn’t learn to embrace my inevitable failings, I’d never get anything done. Learning by trial and error is one of the most powerful tools at a disabled person’s disposal, and it was vital that I teach myself to be comfortable with falling off the horse and clambering right back onto it. If I carried on believing that a job imperfectly done was not worth the effort, I was going to find the world an exceptionally inhospitable place.

Five or so years later and this demon is still with me. Every time I make a mess or move ungracefully, the urge to disappear overtakes me. Getting lost still feels like the worst-case scenario, and I hate to cook a new dish in case it doesn’t turn out. I’m still watching my disabled friends treat failure like an old friend or benign annoyance, wishing I could be so relaxed.

On the sunnier side, I’m making progress. When I learned during my first mobility lesson in years that I had been using my cane incorrectly my whole life, my reaction was a fierce desire to kill a decades-long habit and do whatever it took to improve. I didn’t dwell on all the ways others had failed to teach me the right way, nor did I fixate on all the people who must have noticed and thought less of me. Even one short year ago, I’d have collapsed in shame. I never would have responded with a mulish refusal to let my mobility journey end there. Getting lost is still the horror of horrors for me, but once I master proper cane technique, my next project will be to get good and lost, on purpose, repeatedly. I doubt I’ll ever enjoy the process, or intentionally seek out new routes just to challenge myself, but I can at least rewire enough to see failure as a bend in the road instead of a stop sign.

All this scares me silly. I could pretend it’s invigorating, that it feels like my world is opening up, but that would be disingenuous. Mostly it’s making me want to crawl in a cave where no one can find me. It’s not fun, it’s not an adventure, and it’s likely to be something I’ll struggle with for the foreseeable future.

There’s this, though: growth hurts. Growth is hard work, and it’s frightening, and if you’re entirely comfortable, then you’re probably not progressing. It’s lovely and warm here in my comfort zone, but I’m finally getting tired of the run-freeze-run pattern I’ve created. I’m content and confident enough, at long last, to think less about survival and more about joy. That means facing those demons with courage and—yes—a little stubbornness.

My unsolicited advice to you? Slow down, and let the people in your life do the same. Encourage people to try (and fail) on their own. Give everyone, kids and adults, the space to be independent, even if it’s faster or more efficient for you to jump in. Kids, in particular, may fight you on this, but unless an adult has asked for help, stand your ground. Take it from someone who knows all about it: they will thank you. The gratitude may not come right away, but I promise you it will.

And if you take nothing else away, remember that as rushed as we all are these days, there is almost always time to let someone learn.