Weight Weight… Don’t Tell Me!
By Tricia Morel
Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! is a popular comedy podcast produced by NPR, and while I know this post will not be even a fraction as hilarious as that (I am most certainly not a professional comedian!), I hope to keep it as lighthearted as possible. That is to say that yes, I am going to be talking about weight, one of the most sensitive and emotionally charged issues for many women and a hot button issue in both health and politics. But no, I will not be talking about specific numbers, ideals, or statistics, as that is NOT important, especially not in the context of these thoughts. I will, however, be digging deep into one of the most difficult aspects of eating disorder recovery, and one I still struggle with every single day.
I have struggled with varying degrees of an eating disorder for more than twelve years, approximately half my life. My weight has fluctuated significantly over this time, yet I never felt thin enough, despite NEVER actually being overweight. I hit my growth spurt early, which made me an awkward teenager before most of my peers, and the eating disorder (from here on out referred to as Ed, inspired by the book Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer) latched onto that. There were times when I was teased about growing early, and times where my early height and strength was an athletic advantage, but regardless, I felt as though I stuck out like a sore thumb, and that was enough to cause a tornado of emotions in my brain as a young girl. While an early growth spurt is not a sole cause of my eating disorder, it has been something I have had to work through in therapy, and I still sometimes struggle with it, to believe that I am no longer the awkward ten-year-old Patricia who didn’t fit in.
As is the case with many eating disorders, the scale quickly became my emotional barometer. Whatever number appeared when I stepped on it each morning, or at each gym visit, or really whenever I had access to one, was too much. If the number was up from the previous weight, I freaked out and would begin restricting my intake or increasing my exercise; if it happened to be down, I celebrated and would either let my guard down slightly, or continue whatever degree of disordered eating and exercising I had been doing in an attempt to lower it even further. The one goal, above all else, was to get my weight to a lower and lower number, because that indicated success, and in my disordered mind, that was the prize. The lower my weight got, the lower I wanted it to go. I felt the physical ramifications as my weight decreased: I remember the first time a door felt almost too heavy to open, the day I felt like I might blow over in the wind walking across the street, the day my family noticed my lips were blue. Yet, I was too engrossed in getting that number lower that I didn’t care. Nothing could stop me.
And lower it dropped. When I first reached out for help in high school, I encountered about blind weights, which means that the physician or dietitian knows my weight, but I do not. Over the years, some providers would tell me whether it was stable or up or down, but other times, they would simply adjust my meal plan as appropriate. My parents hid the scales at our home, and I was upset; I needed that device to gauge how well I was doing, how much I could eat, how happy I could be that day. But it stayed hidden until I graduated high school, and thank God for that. It helped me detach a little bit from the numbers, to associate wellness with mental health and physical strength, but I still struggled. I still wanted to avoid the inevitable weight gain that came with recovery.
In college, I actually gained weight, despite no longer being on a meal plan and having parents to help me avoid the scale. Living and studying in an environment where food was central to many social gatherings enabled me to realize what normal people ate and branch out from some of my rigid food rules. Still, when I became stressed, I obsessed about the number on the scale at the gym, counted calories like it was my job, and when I realized before my final semester the weight I’d gained over the past four years, was sent into a tailspin and my eating disorder was resurrected full strength.
Fast forward to this past year of treatment and recovery. As soon as I began the comprehensive psychiatric program in Texas, I was once again subject to blind weights and a loose meal plan. I absolutely despised it. I hated the biweekly weights without knowing what they were. I hated that I couldn’t exercise daily to keep the numbers in check. I hated that I didn’t have calorie counts for the foods I was eating. It felt like pure torture, even though deep down, I knew it was good for me.
When I transitioned to residential eating disorder treatment at the Emily Program, it got worse. No longer was I able to select most of the foods I would eat, exercise was absolutely not permitted, and I got weighed. Every. Single. Morning. The rules were strict: we wore a hospital gown and could not have had anything to drink each morning. I felt like I was in a Hollywood movie about eating disorders, but it was real life. Each day I stepped on and off the scale, only to have the nurse, who, bless her soul was one of the nicest staff members there, remind me that I was okay, despite withholding that magic number from me. It was awful. I just wanted to know if all the food they were feeding me and the exercise they weren’t allowing were having an effect on the number on the scale. Were they making me gain weight? Was I becoming the ogre I felt like?
I survived residential treatment and the partial hospitalization program without knowing my weight. It was hard, and each time I encountered the scale, I had to have an internal dialogue between my healthy self and Ed. Yet, I had learned, once again, to trust the professionals and the friends and family supporting me: my weight, while important, was not the only concern. I needed to learn that my self-worth is not dependent on a number on the scale, and that I had more to give the world than a slender body on a skeletal frame. I needed to learn to handle my emotions without withholding food from myself or punishing myself with long bouts of exercise at the gym. I needed to learn to listen to my body, rather than numbers on a label or the flashing screen of a scale.
I was discharged to outpatient care in February. All of a sudden, I was on my own to cook all of my own food and I had access to the gym once again. While there was preparation for the transition built into the treatment program, the lure of Ed is strong, and he grasps onto anything he can. I was allowed to begin exercising again, and so he and I went to the gym together; he was a brutal trainer, but together he led me to the scale each time, then onto the equipment for a workout. I began to weigh myself once a week, then twice, then every time I was at the gym. Eventually I quit the gym to avoid the temptation, even though that might have been one of the hardest decisions to make! I still did not have a scale at home, because I knew better than that, so the gym was one of my only places I could step on a scale. It does not mean I wasn’t tempted to purchase one though! Ed has a way of following me to Target, enticing me to decide whether or not to pick up the scale, put it in my cart, and checkout. A few times he’s convinced me to get it into the cart, but luckily I have been able to fight back, and there is still no scale at home.
A few weeks ago, as I was preparing for my foot surgery, I was required to have a pre-op physical. I had just switched insurances because of my new job, and therefore, the new clinic had none of my health history yet. My height was taken, and I was weighed, just as any other new patient would be. I didn’t want to make a big deal of the fact I was in treatment, and Ed desperately needed to know my weight, so I did not ask for a blind weight. My mistake. I’ll own that.
I was angry with myself, because the number was again, too high. How had I let people convince me that I needed to gain weight to be healthy?! I weighed more than ever before, yet overall, my mind was in the best place in years. I loved my new job and felt joyful at work. I loved living near my sisters and Sunday dinners. I had just started this blog and embarked upon my coffee shop endeavor and I was starting to become who I believed I was meant to be. But the number shook me. I was not prepared to handle it like Ed had convinced me I was.
Even worse, the number appeared on my paperwork from that visit, and later, a nurse called me to review pre-op instructions for the following Tuesday, and she repeated my height and weight to me, as though that was the most important part of my physical exam. She did not tell me my vital signs, or the fact that my lungs were clear or my heart was plugging away at an appropriate rate and rhythm. No, she treated my weight as though it was another patient identifier, similar to my birthday or medical record number. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I’d seen the weight AND had it printed on a piece of paper, it was repeated to me and held as an important part of my pre-operative information. I would love to give her the benefit of the doubt, because she truly had no idea I struggled with that information, but regardless of my past, is it really so important as to be repeated in a pre-op phone call?
Weight is NOT the only measure of my health, and certainly not the one that risked my life the most. My weight was appropriate, yet I cycled in and out of a psych ward for three years before getting comprehensive depression and eating disorder treatment. I have not been to the gym in over three months, yet I am learning to love what my body can do and explore other facets of me that have been hidden in the dark. It is time to change the defining measures of who I am–and who every person is–to shift away from numbers as a barometer of health and instead focus on overall well-being!
It has been almost three weeks since that appointment and phone call, but I am still struggling with that information. I thank God for my amazing dietitian who is incredibly patient with me while we talk about my thoughts, emotions, and fears related to my weight and body. I thank God for Lucy and her constant reminders that I am loved regardless of my weight and that this part of the recovery process is so much more mental than physical. And, even though it is more difficult than it should be, I thank God for creating me in His image, exactly as He intended.
P.S. You are enough.