Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Stories: Part IV

Printed with permission. . .

It does seem true that in our culture it's rare for there to be an uncomplicated relationship with food. We are sooooo fortunate to have plenty, why do we confound it? Perhaps it's a transmutation of guilt--for having and wasting obscene amounts when so much of the world is desperately hungry.

I've been on a project to transcribe all of my old diaries into my computer. Currently I'm on #33, which makes it at least the 25th diary (with a long, long way to go) where I'm dealing with the issue of food, eating, body image, and the western cultural imperative to be thin.

I've studied this and suffered over it for years and I don't feel any closer to understanding the imperative. I know that growing up it was implicit--'diet' was an ubiquitous verb. As a child if I went home from school with a friend my mother would ask when I got home if my friend's mother was 'heavy'. That was the euphemism.

drstaceyny writes under her profile on her blog: My contention is that every woman has an eating disorder-- not necessarily anorexia or bulimia per se, but a fixation on food/ weight/shape that is unhealthy, unwanted, and undying.

And, if I might add, wearying.

Like I said, for years I took on the subject, mainly from the point of view of why I felt so susceptible to it and the ways it jabbed me internally. Why could I not dismiss the perfection hysteria for what it is? Especially since I knew it wasn't rational, I knew it was cruel.

My current working theory is that there is a sort of anxiety-fueled need-to-win dynamic that drives it. I got a clear example of this dynamic when watching a comedy television program about a family. The father volunteered to take on coaching his son's dispirited soccer team. Obviously determined that he was going to be a nurturing coach he admonished the coach of the opposing team who was harshly screaming at his kids: "Hey! Come on, lay off, they're just kids! This is supposed to be fun!" To which the opposing coach responded by sneering to his team: "Hear that? That's LOSER talk!" Similarly, to consider swimming upstream from the main by shrugging off a cultural ideal of beauty was undermined by the idea that I was indulging in sour grapes: loser talk.

This issue has been present for most of my life, in varying degrees of intensity and urgency.

I put it in a bottom drawer for the past 3 years. Shortly after returning to Portland I was very low, very depressed. I met a physician who was confident in her ability to help me manage this medicinally.

The first antidepressant I tried was Remeron. I was shocked 3 months later at my GYN checkup when I weighed more than I had ever weighed not-pregnant. The dr. said confidently: "Everyone gains weight on Remeron. I'll often prescribe it to new mothers, stressed, underweight, and not sleeping." Well, this wasn't a time I was prepared to face down the whole weight issue and I asked my primary dr. if I could switch to something like Wellbutrin, which I'd heard had a side effect of weight loss.

The way the weight-loss side effect worked for me is that the experience of hunger was detached from my emotions. I might still feel hunger, but I didn't experience it as suffering. The eating motivator was thus less potent and I lost weight. So for the past 3 or so years I've weighed approximately my high school weight.

The thing is, the drug didn't have that much effect on my mood. Not really noticeably, anyway. Perhaps there was a subtle change to my background mood base and the alteration was so gradual that I didn't notice it. Last year when I started seeing Sharon, my counselor, I told her that I was taking antidepressants. She suggested that at some point I might want to wean off of them and "see who I was without the drugs." But I really felt I wasn't any different with or without the drugs; I felt like I knew 'who I was'. Time, situational change, and a year with both boys full time in school eased the depression symptoms; the medication didn't seem to have much effect beyond the hunger effect and a mild (not unpleasant) buzz.

It was really only the weight effect that motivated me to keep taking them.

I pushed to the back of my mind the awareness that a day of reckoning was coming where I'd face some questions:

1) What does it mean to be thin?
2) Is it important to be thin?
3) Why?
4) Is it still important to be thin when I'm 49/50/51?
5) Why?
6) What does it mean that it's important to be thin?
7) Is it legitimate to use anti-depressants as a diet pill?
8) Is it dishonest to be slender by these means?
9) To whom do I owe 'honesty' about this? If me alone, why should I feel uneasy about (dis)honesty? If someone else--no that just seems absurd. Should I carry a sign that says, "I'm slender because I take Wellbutrin"? Still, I'm dogged by the feeling of misrepresenting myself. (Then comes the 'puritan question'-- if I don't have a metabolism that makes me 'naturally', 'authentically' thin is the only way I can legitimately be thin is if I suffer to do it--either through eating less than I want or exercising mightily? Why should those means be more legitimate than an antidepressant with a convenient side effect? Who says?)

Of course this opens up a whole other can of worms, too. I can see when I read my journals that there was a lot of fevered energy that I now recognize as biological--the drive for a mate. I didn't know it then but it's plain now. A successfully sexually appealing identity once seemed very necessary.

What is the basis of sexual appeal when one is beyond childbearing age? Again, the question, is it important, is it worth an effort, is it even possible? A certain number of pounds hung on my frame now looks very different than it did when I was 20, 30.

And it's not as if I'm interested in entering the world of trying to attract a sexual partner. I have friends my age who are single, friends who are divorced, Out Looking. After 16 years of marriage there is no appeal in that for me. When I get dispatches from that field I have trouble relating personally--it seems like something that belongs to another age and another time. My friends seem very engaged: I just can't relate.

I suppose having two young children makes a mate search additionally irrelevant. It's rare that children from one man, particularly boys, have a successful relationship with a man-not-their-father who is close to their mother.

I started tapering down the antidepressants in January. It's been several weeks now since taking my last. My mood continues to be stable, but I didn't expect to experience any differences on that front. What I'm nervous about is whether or not I'll be having to confront the old demons about appearance and weight. And whether I'll finally be able to make some peace with them.


disordered girl said...

My goodness, talk about whoever wrote this being in sync with my life these days. Those questions are BIG, and something I need to give some serious thought to, too.

Thank you to who wrote this, and for sharing it, Dr. Stacey.

Anna said...

My own eating problems started because I was overweight and, when I dropped back into the healthy weight range, continued because I was afraid that if I started eating more, I would gain weight.

I guess this is kind of the same thing. And it's made me think...I read through all your blog posts in the last couple days and it has given me pause. I'm trying to eat more and I wish.....that I could look at food normally again. That I could not think 'I shouldn't be eating this' or 'how am I going to get out of eating later to make up for this?' I'm tired, too, of more recently thinking, 'food is fuel and I need to eat this.' I want to be able to trust my own hunger.

It's been about a year since the whole thing started...basically a year since I've eaten as I wanted to.

Heh...I didn't mean for this to turn into 'my story' moment; I was just going to say that I can relate. Oh well...it feels good to get it out.

Thank you for this site. I think it has helped me recognize my own problems and deal with them.

azusmom said...

When I went back on antidepressants a few months ago, one of the things I was looking forward to was the weight loss. I'd lost a bunch of weight the last time I used them. (It wasn't the primary reason; the main reason is they really help my mood and anxiety.)
But this time, there has been no weight loss. Maybe it's because I'm using the generic version, or maybe it's another reason. But the fact is, this time, I'm OK with that.
I've been working on Intuitive Eating for a year, and it has really helped me come to terms with my body and the whole diet mentality. (Getting out of Los Angeles, and the acting profession as a whole, has also helped a lot!)

But I also have to wonder; is the use of Wellbutrin partially as a diet aid any more "fake" than eating small amounts of food and working out like crazy in order to maintain a certain body shape? I don't think so.

men_in_full said...

As far as sex goes during menopause and after - I'm getting menopausal (age 53) and sex is still good; still desirable; still important in my relationship. People can have sex into old age, if they want.

Sex for me doesn't have much to do with body weight (I am fat.)

Nancy Lebovitz said...

I think it's more a matter of a desire to not lose rather than a desire to win.

excavator said...

First, a place called 'happiness' resonates inside me when I can name my own experience. Then, having a place to put this out and then have my experience mirrored back expands this happiness.

So, I really appreciate Dr. Stacey posting my story.

I'm even happier when I find my experience has resonance for others, so I appreciate the responses that you gave me.

So thank you too, disordered girl.

Anna, I loved what you said here: "I wish.....that I could look at food normally again. That I could not think 'I shouldn't be eating this' or 'how am I going to get out of eating later to make up for this?'" That little thought is so ever-present that I forgot about it...until you named it.

Azusmom: Yes, that's my question exactly. It's funny what you say about LA. I moved to Portland from there nearly 30 years ago. When I was still homesick I'd think about moving back, and then feel the pressure to be thin there as a deterrent. Major skin culture.

Thanks, men_in_full. I need to hear this.

Nancy, I think you're right. It *is* more accurate to say it's a desire to 'not lose' vs a desire to win. (Kind of a funny conundrum of words to extend it a little: that to not-lose I felt I needed to 'lose' (weight)).

keshmeshi said...

Perhaps it's a transmutation of guilt--for having and wasting obscene amounts when so much of the world is desperately hungry.

And Puritanism. This country still reviles excess, at least in the form of eating. Consuming too much in the way of consumer goods, even as it destroys the environment, no problem.

What really amazes me is when sexually "liberated" people berate fat people. If anyone suggests that people should deny themselves sexual pleasure, they go absolutely crazy. But they're more than happy to deny others the pleasure of eating.