Changing Habits: The Reaction

In the process of treatment and trying to recover from the grab bag of mental health issues I have, I’ve made a serious effort to change many of my habits. Everyone knows that changing habits is hard: adding a meal where there was none requires a fair amount of effort and planning, adding in more socialization requires thought and energy, changing emotional habits is one of the hardest of all. Everyone knows that in order to change a habit you need to do something consciously for many months before it will begin to become ingrained (generally experts say 1-3 months).

And yet despite the amount of personal effort that I’ve put in to changing my habits, the thing that has actually been the most difficult has been the reaction of those people who are closest to me. People act confused, they tease, they joke, and often they make a big deal out of small changes. I’m going to take one example that’s a little bit trite, but sticks out to me as an example of how difficult it is for others to see you in a different light and how that can affect your ability to make changes long term.

I have a sweet tooth. I love chocolate, I love cake, I love ice cream. For most of my life I have never passed these things up. In the process of dealing with my eating disorder, I’ve made an attempt to make my eating more even and balanced: to pay attention to my hunger cues instead of simply eating if something tastes very good or if I force myself to, to stop when I’m full, to eat when I’m hungry. This means that I’ve also been trying to be more careful about not simply asking for ALL THE CHOCOLATE whenever it is offered to me. When I do that, I often feel guilty, unwell, or just angry at myself, and I often feel as if I’m binging if I eat sugar simply to eat sugar.

The other night I said no to a piece of cake at a family gathering. I got stares, exclamations of “Are you ok?”, people feeling my forward as if to imply that I were sick. Needless to say, this was not helpful in affirming my decision to listen to my body that it was full and didn’t want cake. Of course in this situation I didn’t feel I could explain my choice so I muttered something about not liking carrot cake and tried to make myself small.

Obviously it makes sense to comment on something that has changed, or to continue treating someone based on their past behavior if you don’t have an indication that they have changed. However over the top reactions really can make someone feel singled out and belittled for their changes, as if they’re weird or wrong for trying to make those changes.

In general, people don’t want to hear your negative comments about their changes.  Not only do they have to be mindful of making the change, but they have to continue to justify it to themselves every time it’s pointed out, and even if they don’t it certainly feels as if they do. Ideally, changing a habit is about simply doing something different without even noticing that it’s different: it’s habit when you do it without thinking. Drawing attention to it makes it so much harder to have it become second nature.

People expect you to be the same always. When you change habits, you are changing your identity to some degree, and people don’t always take kindly to that. Other people also have to learn to see different things about you, and it’s easy to fall into the mold that others expect of you. You see this when you hang out with someone you haven’t seen in a long time and act in ways you haven’t for years. So if others continue to expect something of you, it requires extra resolve to do something different, to be clear that what you want now is not what you wanted in the past, and to communicate to those around you in a polite fashion that you are different now. Each time someone remembers the old version of you, you’re left grappling with that self as well.

An added difficulty is that oftentimes family and friends may not realize how difficult or serious a choice that you’re making is. They may joke or tease, when you feel you’re doing something important and hard. When that happens, it can feel like you’re stupid, oversensitive, or just wrong about the importance or difficulty of your choices. It feels like you’re going crazy, as if your reaction to things were totally irrational and you should be ok with joking or light-heartedness. Imagine if you made a choice to improve a serious physical health issue and people teased you about it: it certainly would not feel easier.

So this is a general plea: if you know someone in your life is in the process of making some big life changes, let the little changes slide too. It may be better to ask someone about a change when it’s not in the exact moment so that they don’t have to go through the momentary personal crisis that is reminding themselves why they’re not eating that piece of cake. A quiet comment or question when someone makes a decision out of the ordinary is one thing, but it is unnecessary to make a big deal, and can make the person feel as if they’ve been put on the spot or as if they have to defend their actions to you. And for those who are making changes, letting others know ahead of time can take the pressure off of you in the moment, even if you just tell one or two trusted people. It makes it easier for them to run defense and change the subject.

Food: I Love It

The following blog post is a personal challenge for me inspired by the following quote: ‘‘I love to cook so much . . . food represents to me something truly positive, fun and liberated, and sensual and loving . . . it feels to me like being in control, not in the . . .bad and neutralizing sense, but in the sense that I do not let external forces control me and tell me that I cannot eat.’’ In the spirit of this quote, I want to tell you what I love about food, and why I view eating as a radical feminist act.

 

Food is comforting. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but when you get home from a long day, all you want is something warm to put in your mouth. The sensation of chewing something with a good texture, of letting the flavors sink into your tongue, of feeling yourself heat up from the inside, is reaffirming: I am here. I am alive. I deserve this good thing. I can feel myself regaining strength when I eat food. I can feel my mood brightening. Food gives me life. It affirms to me that I should be in this world, not in a far-off intellectual space with no body. When I eat I feel solid.

And food. Food tastes AMAZING. A piece of really good chocolate, fruit, or ice cream? I could eat them all day, letting them melt on my tongue and sink into my consciousness, sweetening up my day. Or the deep, delicious savoriness of a pizza, which you can’t quite replicate anywhere else. Or simply the taste of MEAT. I’m sorry, but as a recovering anorexic, I cannot explain to you how perfect a hamburger is. And salt. Salt and vinegar potato chips, hash browns, FRIED FOOD. These things are delicious. I love the experience of eating them, of tasting them, of gobbling them down. And textures are stellar too. I had some pasta last week that was the perfect kind of chewy, and I just wanted to keep eating it forever so that I could have that texture in my mouth indefinitely. It makes my teeth almost hurt just thinking about it. Or ice cream on a sore throat. Food makes you feel good.

Food can completely change your experience of a day or a temperature. A hot drink on a cold day leaves you shivering as you feel the warmth reach out into your belly. Cold ice cream on a hot day makes everything suddenly ok. Food can define experiences.

Food is a mental game. You wait for it. You get excited while you cook. You see it and smell it before you can taste it and taste it before it’s really yours and in your belly. You can savor every little bit of it. You can build it up and appreciate the excitement of it all day. Cooking is an art and baking is a science and you can create and play and explore the world around you by changing it into something it wasn’t a few hours ago. It’s fairly amazing, and it reminds you how powerful we are. We can change our world in order to make it taste better. It’s a powerful form of creating culture by changing the natural materials we’re given. It makes us more human.

Food is an experience that is hard to replicate. Each meal is the coalescence of a place and people and culture and history, all come together to create what is now. Your food means different things at different times and in different places. It comes together through your culture, mediated by cultural symbols. Your food represents where you are coming from, but by definition it is where you are going because it is the sheer fuel that allows you to go there. Food is time, because what else is growth and maturation and ripeness and cooking and every other process by which our food becomes appropriate for us to eat? Food is all these connections. Perhaps the most beautiful of them is the community. Sitting down to a good meal with a pile of friends is one of the best experiences in life. Everything becomes a bit warmer, everyone a bit more vivacious, more talkative. We move closer to share, to ask about each other’s food. Sharing food is a sign of trust, of care, of closeness.

And food tells us what we deserve. It is something we take for ourselves, something we should never question whether we deserve or not because it is the most basic thing that everyone deserves. It tells us that we have the right to take up physical space, to interact with things and people, to speak, to be in space. Food is our right to a body, and tells us we have the right to exist in the same space as others.

Perhaps my favorite part of food is the memories that it creates. Whenever I want to imagine my childhood and the things that made me happy about it, I imagine eating spaghetti. When I think of my current relationship, I see it in the story of meals that we’ve eaten together. Certain people I remember in the scent of food. Certain foods can reduce me to tears or laughter with their memories. I love how human food is for this reason. I love remembering.

I love food for these reasons. It is hard for me to say that I love food, but I love the experiences of food. Food is not something you’re supposed to love. You’re supposed to eat it for sustenance and health, but not for your soul. Well I call bullshit on that. Food is intimate: it is one of so very few things we put into our bodies, and we are certainly discriminatory about our sexual partners: why shouldn’t we give the same care and attention to our food? I love my food because it represents so much of the beauty of being human, so many of the deeper experiences, because there is so much to question, explore, and learn about how we come to have the food that we do.

I tell myself this over and over because women who love food are Bad. They are out of control. They are self-centered. I tell myself this because I have made myself an imperative. Taking care of myself against the messages that I have gotten that others are more important, that work is more important, that accomplishing is more important, that I can rest when I’m dead, that my happiness is secondary to what I create and accomplish has become my revolution. I am my oppressed minority, and eating is our protests, eating is our bombs, eating is our artwork and songs and stories and essays. “Eating is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of radical “ Audre Lorde. This quote is our mantra. Every beautiful thing I recognize about food as I put it in my mouth is another blow to every message that says “be less”. When men tell women that they exist as objects, I choose to eat something and TAKE ANOTHER BEING into myself. Objectify that. When people call me crazy and say that psychos are just making it all up, I eat my dinner and reflect again on how impossible that was a year ago and know I am stronger than anyone who has never thought twice about their dinner.

My very existence as someone who is mentally ill and female is a struggle to claim as my own. My food is the last symbol that I can choose what to do with my life and my body. When I stop choosing purposively to eat, how to eat, what to eat, and when to eat, I give up the most basic level of control and self-assertion I have. Food is my revolution when I allow myself to take up space, when I refuse to give up on my potential, when I connect myself to my family, to my memories, to my stories, when I write my own narratives, when I deeply experience the world. Food makes me more human. It forces me to recognize my humanity, on par with anyone else’s, no better and no worse. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the power of food to connect people to each other. I believe in how fantastic food is.

Fiction Round Up

It’s been a while since I’ve graced you all with anything other than essays (I sound so full of myself don’t I? Don’t worry, it’s all an act to hide the insecurities I feel about my writing), and so I figured that today would be a good day to put up the bits and pieces I’ve been working on for the past few weeks. Some are drabbles, some are poems, some are…God knows what, but here they are for your amusement.

 

Solstice

Midsummer in the North is surreal. I watch the sky like I’d eye a Dali painting, wondering if something will melt under the impossible sun. I came here to escape. I came here for dark and silence, for the endless cold stretching out before me as if I could see it. I came here because at night I forget. But today there is no night, only days and days contained in 24 hours. It is incomprehensible, this solstice of the pole. It is maddening. I look up at the heavens and yell curses at the sun that refuses to set.

 

 

Pain

They asked her how bad the pain was on a scale of 1-10. She replied that it was an 8. Physical pain or emotional pain they wanted to know. They seemed very serious, as if the answer would change everything.

Without warning, she burst out laughing, and they looked at each other to silently say “72 hour hold”. There was no mind left to this one.

When she caught her breath there were small tears seeping from the edges of her eyes. Her face caught some of their seriousness and they looked at her expectantly.

“You think there’s a difference?”

 

There’s a loneliness to it that you can’t understand until you’ve stood before someone

Claiming they love you

And asking you to climb Everest on a broken leg.

There’s a distance placed between you

That is uncrossable until you’ve gotten the passport stamp of depression.

I try to yell across to you

And give you the details of the landscape

But all you get are echoed words, bits and pieces of a painting

That will never be whole.

The space distorts words.

There may be others with me, but we have no time for each other

Each too busy yelling across the void to someone or other

Wishing they could go home.

Someday I will make a camp here

And forget the other side.

Inviting each new person inside to warm themselves at my fire

And we’ll be together

Alone.

 

The following is a set of drabbles entitled “Food”:

First Day of Treatment

The bowl of pasta was large. It seemed to grow as she looked at it, drowning in alfredo sauce. Reluctantly, she picked up her fork and began to twirl the strands around it. It was a painstakingly slow process. Fork to bowl. Turn. Pick up noodles. Mouth. Chew. Swallow. By the time she was halfway through it was cold, the sauce congealed. How would she finish? She felt eyes heavy on her as she took yet another bite, her stomach already churning. But she couldn’t stop: they were watching. But she knew how to fix it: fingers down the throat.

Love

When he speaks about food, he is intense. She rarely sees him like this otherwise, leaning forward, eyes sparkling, hands gesturing madly. She understands his passion; food can turn her into a different person too, but it’s the love affair with it that makes no sense. It excites her though. She finds herself making up excuses to eat with him, to spend money she doesn’t have on beautiful dinners. She listens with unblinking eyes when he talks, trying to capture the essence of his speech. But every night after they eat together, she goes home to pinch at imagined fat.

Binging

She’s hungry. So often she forgets to feel hungry, or convinces herself it’s something else, but today she feels empty and it is undeniable. There is a gnawing, pulling, dark sensation at the very bottom of her, telling her that nothing will satisfy. She searches for the cure: meat and potatoes, ice cream, comfort food, fascinating flavors, good company. No matter what goes in she remains hungry, until the desperation and calories blend into a shocking kind of nausea, but always an emptiness. Nothing will fill her, so she picks up her phone, hoping his voice will do the trick.

Life

He tells her stories of food. Aztec is his favorite. He tells her how bodies became food and food became bodies and the earth regrew itself out of the gods. Food and memory and existence wrapped together. Her favorite is when he teaches her words. Poutine. Macerate. Cassoulet. Her world expands. Some days he shows her how he likes to cook, dousing everything liberally with truffle salt. When they go to restaurants, he waxes rhapsodic about the foods he loves: oysters, pate, and wine. She tastes his words and his food and begins to eat life for the first time.

Empty Plate

Rule: never eat in the morning. It was 10:30 AM. They ordered a waffle to share. She took a few moments to try to observe it. There was fruit topping it, fresh and plump, but her eyes were drawn immediately to the sizeable heaping of whipped cream. The smell was forceful and immediate, sweet and full, almost golden. She breathed deeply, closing her eyes to take in only the scent. It smelled good. She reminded herself that it would taste good, she liked waffles. Five minutes later, there wasn’t a bite left. It was more than an hour before noon.

Victory

He pushes the plate towards me. I feel a flutter of uncertainty. Rabbit. I’ve never eaten rabbit before. He’s taken a bite of it, and his face tells me that he just ate a bit of rabbit-flavored heaven. Something in me snaps and I grin, pulling the plate closer. A deep desire to be here in this moment, tasting the food before me, sharing the conversation around me, has left no space for anxiety. The rabbit looks juicy and tender, covered in some deliciously unknown sauce. One bite tells me it’s complex, balanced, intriguing. A smile flutters across my face.

 

 

I’m sitting and waiting. I don’t know what I’m waiting for, but I hope that someone will tell me soon. I don’t like to wait. My muscles clench and unclench. My jaw grinds away at itself. My eyes fall out of focus.

But boredom is the kiss of death. My mind has nowhere to go. It runs and grabs and discards ideas at spitfire speed. I begin a thought and it falls away as it’s devoured by something new. What where how do I think? My mind eats itself, a dog chasing its tail, Ouroboros.

I am no phoenix to grow again when I’ve fallen, and I wait. I rip open my fingers, biting at the skin. I chew on my lips. I crack my knuckles. Nothing ends and so nothing may begin.

Where is the exit?

My legs will not stand because I know the rules and someone will tell me what I’m waiting for.

I will not look away. I am eternal and eternally incomplete.

I am a constant reminder of loss.

Why is there no exit?