Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Futility of Grasping at Straws

This week went by in the blink of an eye, but I feel gratitude slipping in to quiet the anxious heart I wore on my sleeve last week. I must apologize for last week's insecure rant about pregnant weight gain. I'm growing a baby. I'm going to gain weight. It's not that I don't know that, or don't expect that, it's just that wow-- my hunger is out of control like never before. It's a little frightening to me. It's a creature all its own sometimes. Over the years I've grown quite familiar with my own body and its needs, but all that packed-away knowledge has been flipped on its head since getting pregnant.

I was listening to a (quite skinny) co-worker discuss her 1200 calorie daily allotment the other day, and instead of making me feel inferior or jealous, it made me sad. When I limited myself to "1200" calories a day, I was a lost, cold, confused high school sophomore unknowingly being eaten alive by the irrational monster that is anorexia.

Even though I'd physically recovered by my senior year of high school, I spent most of college counting calories. Constantly trying to see how much food I could eat to try to fill the gaping hole inside of me, without gaining more weight. I would occasionally binge eat, I would often exist on "diet" foods with little nutritional value, and the worth of my entire day hinged on how "well" I did or didn't eat.

When I went "over" on my calories (set at a much more reasonable goal by then), I usually went way over and then felt a deep sense of shame and loss of control that made me physically uncomfortable in my own skin. It even made me long for the days of self-control and restrictive eating, but the more I tried to restrict, the more I overate.

This isn't to say that these thoughts consumed me all day every day. By and large college was a wonderful experience and I made some great memories with new friends. I learned so much about the world and about myself. I wouldn't trade that time for anything! But alone and at night and when I was stressed out, the food/shame thoughts are the ones I would turn to time and time again.

But by the end of college, I had grown tired of the game. Tired of the mental math. Tired of not tasting my food. I started trying to eat one fruit or vegetable at every meal, and I started to feel better. I also started working out again consistently. It's no coincidence that this phase of recovery occurred once I graduated college. Nursing school had become so... oppressive... for lack of a better word. I'd had some verbally abusive clinical instructors and I, the previous honors student who loved to study, felt like a worthless outcast amidst my intelligent friends by the time we graduated.

Note the recurring theme of disappointment and self-worth based on superficial things like grades and calories. How I wish someone had stepped in years ago and said, "you are worth so much more than what you eat! Your body may be a temple for your soul, but it's not an idol to be worshiped." Because even at its worst, metaphorical self-flagellation is still self-worship, right? It's saying that your body is the most important thing and everything else in your life revolves around how well you can control your physical self. But alas, no one said that to me back then. Or if they did, I wasn't ready to hear it.

About 6 months after college graduation, I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and it really changed the way I thought about food. It brought me back to some of the things I knew in childhood: real food comes from the ground or can be made in your own kitchen with a few ingredients. Fresh food really does taste best. Kingsolver's novel simplified food in a way that had nothing to do with calories or diet plans, and I found a lot of freedom in that. I started going to the farmer's market, making fresh meals, and enjoying how food tasted.

I've been more or less in that realm ever since: focused on how food tastes and how it makes me feel more than how many calories it contains. But I will admit that old habits die hard. When life starts to grow out of control, as life does, I start grasping at straws and trying to control any little thing I can. Sometimes I don't even realize things are getting hectic until I see myself writing out what I've eaten that day. I have to remind myself that even when I did perfectly control my diet and my body, I wasn't happy. That's not the answer.

I may not have been ready to hear that even 3 short years ago, but I'm glad I can see it now. Control, once tasted, is hard to relinquish. Even harder when our society tells us that self-control is king. I'm thankful that over the past two years, I've experienced the most freedom I've ever had from my old disordered thoughts surrounding food. It's not that they're gone, but I've been so busy doing internal heart work that by and large, meals have become rote and body image has become secondary. Which is why I was somehow surprised... not when I got pregnant and the scale started to swing toward numbers I hadn't seen in a long time, but when my reaction to the weight gain was so severe.

I was really hard on myself for gaining 4-5 pounds right off the bat. Then I was disappointed when, early in the second trimester, I reached my previous highest-ever weight before I really had a baby belly to show for it. It led to internal confusion and, sadly, it resurrected that old shame. Not pride and awe in this awesome thing that God had allowed me to participate in, but shame that I wasn't being the perfect pregnant lady and that I was already being a selfish mom, somehow choosing food over the health of my baby. Or embarrassment as I wondered if wishing that I wasn't gaining so much weight was tantamount to being ungrateful for this gift of life.

Ironically, this week has been National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and I read an incredibly thoughtful post this morning that made me think back to where this all began. I'm filled with sadness over the years I lost to such futile, vain thinking, and obsessive calorie-counting. But I also feel gratitude that I've come to a place in the past two years where I don't consciously identify myself as an "eating disorder survivor" or anything like that. I'm so glad that even in pregnancy (and the ridiculous irrationality of the first trimester), I'm eventually able to step back and recognize that those thoughts don't belong to me. Shame isn't welcome here. I am not a machine that runs on calories alone, and my identity is not based on my intake.

I didn't actually sit down at the computer intending to share ALL of that, but there it is, I guess. A 12-year story of a girl's relationship with food, summed up into several tidy little embarrassing paragraphs. What I DID sit down to do was to share this post. Even if you've never had an eating disorder, I highly recommend reading it. The post is about orthorexia, which can be defined as the tendency to assume that every single physical symptom is a direct result of something we’ve eaten.

There is obviously some merit to the idea that diet is related to physical and emotional well-being. We all know that a well-balanced diet will give you energy, and a diet filled with empty calories will leave you drained. As someone who struggles with allergies, asthma, and IBS, I know there is an undeniable tie between certain foods and my physical symptoms. Certain people really don't tolerate certain foods.

But orthorexia is bigger than that, and it's certainly the trap I'm more likely to fall into these days, as opposed to restricting or binging. I'm very comfortable with the fact that gluten and dairy really do have tangible effects on my health. But grains, starches, and sugars have inhabited a gray area for me for a while. They're things I feel like I should eat less of, but I don't necessarily feel better or worse when I eat them in moderation. Ergo, I shouldn't beat myself up about it, pregnant or not!

I love the takeaway points from that blog post: Your body may be more resilient than you think it is. Be discerning with what you read. Variety is healthy. "Healthy" goes beyond nutrition. Eating healthily is not a black or white affair and it can look a little different from person to person.

That was the kick in the pants I needed to remember that my body is doing something it's never done before, and while it's not the be-all-end-all, my body deserves a little respect. I'm growing a baby. He's obviously going through a growth spurt and consequently, I am too. When I'm hungry, I eat what I can until I'm satiated, and 80-90% of the time I'm making pretty healthy choices. As long as I'm comfortable with this, the number on the scale is relative. Since I've not been 24 weeks pregnant before, I really have no idea what to expect. All I can do is try to respect the process and to learn wise freedom as the control I thought I had is taken away a little more each day that this little nugget grows.

To end on a positive note, this week I felt so empowered at the gym. I'm finally visibly pregnant and it's encouraging when people say, "you're awesome!" and tell me that I inspired them to push harder during their workout because if I can do it, so can they. Meanwhile, I refuse to be bothered by the guy who said, "good for you working out and not using pregnancy as an excuse to gain 30 pounds" because, well, I do still expect to gain 30 pounds over the course of a healthy pregnancy, despite working out. Maybe even more than 30 pounds if that's what it takes. But my self-worth is not set at an inverse relationship with the number on the scale. Not now, and not ever.


  1. Thank you for your honesty. It is control, I find, that sparks my tendency to revert back to old ways and habits. I've been studying disordered eating in my PhD program--coming from a very personal place--and it makes perfect sense to me that depression and/or the need for control are usually instigators of disordered eating behaviors. You said what I have often thought, "When everything else is out of control, I try to control anything I can." For me, that is often food, or calories, or something rote and usual and NOT scary, new, uncertain, etc.

    I'm glad you are in a positive place and maintaining a healthy pregnancy! Not having reached that point in my life, I know it can't be easy to have your changing body so forefront in your life.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and empathizing. Sounds like your PhD research will be fascinating. Good luck!