The last time it was at its worst was when I was a senior in college. I had gained some weight from a previous relationship (maybe ten pounds in total) and none of my clothes fit me anymore. In a fit of panic, I started staring at my body daily. I started to calorie count, a practice I still do today but in a healthier way, in an attempt to help me lose weight. However, if you’re in college, busy, and just starting with counting, it’s going to be sporadic so the weight was coming off very slowly. The weight was falling off but I couldn’t see it. I worked in a gym at a smoothie bar, and I would take long bathroom trips so I could run into the locker rooms and weigh myself. I would stand in front of the mirror with my shirt raised, poking and prodding at my skin.
Only once I lost the full ten pounds did my body dysmorphia calm down, though it’s never disappeared. Over the years I’ve started to eat healthier and look heathier overall as a result. Some days I’m confident, other days less so. My greatest tool to combat my obsessiveness, oddly enough, is photographs. Photographs cannot lie to you; they aren’t trying to trick your brain and they aren’t going to change each time you look. So I take pictures, not for any romantic reasons or for others, but for myself and my own confidence. And it was working for the most part.
Ever since we got engaged, I was worried my body dysmorphia would kick into hyper-drive, but for a while it wasn’t happening. I was grateful. Like anyone with anxiety, I’m more or less constantly waiting for it to flare up like a bad knee. For the most part through early engagement, I wasn’t overly stressed. My plans were all falling into place and I felt on top of everything. For once, I felt like I was going to get through a major life event without a meltdown.
Everything changed when I got c-diff in December.
When I left the hospital, Luke looked at me with a look of fear and concern. My cheeks were sunken in, my ribs were showing, and I had somehow lost ten pounds in three days. I remember his words well: “You look gaunt.” They stung.
He, the concerned and loving partner he was, went out and bought high protein shakes and powders and cookies in an attempt to get me to gain the weight back. But as anyone who has ever had stomach issues before can tell you, eating is usually the last thing on your mind because you’re constantly in pain. Each time I would get hungry, the window would last mere minutes and I would attempt to eat as much as I could keep down. My body never fully recovered each time and I relapsed with c-diff two more times. It took almost two and a half months for me to gain back five of the pounds I had lost.
After a couple days home post-hospital, I was well enough to stand up and look at myself in the mirror for the first time. I stared at my naked body and was shocked; I had never been this skinny in my life. And I liked how I looked. I spent the next couple weeks marveling at how thin my arms were, how flat my stomach was, and how much of a thigh gap I had. A small part of me loved how long it took to regain the weight, but I knew logically there was no way I could ever sustain looking like this without drastically and dangerously altering my eating habits. That I had no desire to do.
It was a weird combination of emotions, knowing being this thin somehow put my body dysmorphia on hold, knowing how fucked up that was as an overall concept, and also knowing the bigger truth: the weight would come back and I would be sad again. I had just become okay with how my body looked pre-c-diff and suddenly I had been offered a body I’d always wanted. It’s like being handed a puppy and being told you don’t get to keep it forever. Not in years had I dealt with gaining weight and I knew I would not react well to it, but something else shifted drastically in me.
Losing control of your body, for someone with at times crippling anxiety, makes you feel like you’ve lost control over your entire life. I began to obsess and fixate more than I had the entire time Luke and I had been together. He was shocked at how I was concerned with xyz when my body was more or less falling apart. Each time c-diff came back and a doctor promised me it wouldn’t again, I began to resent anyone who told me anything about my body. I got mad when Luke told me I looked beautiful because I was convinced that meant I looked like I had gained the weight back. Any compliment I received was a reminder there were more things I could obsess over. Photographs were no longer self-therapy but a dangerous weapon.
I have twelve pictures of my teeth on my phone because I thought my gums were receding.
I have four pictures on my phone of my chin because I thought it was getting large.
I have nineteen photos on my phone of my front teeth because I think there’s a gap forming.
I have ten photos of my hair on my phone because I thought my hair was thinning.
Every day for the past five, almost six months I’ve awoken in fear of what would make me upset that day. I send obsessive pictures to friends and siblings begging them to tell me I’m not crazy. Luke will find me crying randomly as I wonder if I’m losing my mind. And again, since c-diff I’ve had a hard time trusting others, so everyone who tells me I’m imagining it is instantly lying in my head. I feel trapped.
A couple weeks ago, Luke invited me downtown to grab a drink with him since he had been working late most of the week and we hadn’t spent a lot of time together. I went to the guest room where most of the laundry lays and started grabbing at shirts. After putting one on, I stared at the mirror in shock: my clothes had all shrunk. I put on another and same thing. Panicking, I feared my entire wardrobe was now ruined because of a freak dryer accident (we realized later that none of them had shrunk at all). Panic rising in my throat, I got on the train in near tears. By the time I got to Luke I could barely hold it together.
I remember my dirty martini was somehow sour but also too strong. The heavy taste of rubbing alcohol was not masked by the olive juice. He was being so sweet to me, touching my leg and telling me how beautiful I looked. The bar was packed that night and I needed to get out. Soon he suggested we go somewhere else to keep the night going, and I just shook my head as I fought back tears. My clothes were magically shrinking, the room was hot, and there were too many people everywhere.
When the train pulled into Oak Park, I sprinted off and walked quickly ahead of Luke back home. I was sobbing and felt hyper-aware of every muscle in my body. I went into my closet and looked at my veil hung up. I still have mixed feelings about the veil and while it looks great with the dress, it isn’t what I pictured myself in someday. Taking the veil out of the packaging carefully, I secured it to my head and went into our room to look in the full length mirror. The only thought in my head was, “My wedding dress is disgusting. This veil is disgusting. I’m disgusting.” I sat on the bed and sobbed. Luke came in and carefully took the veil off my head and held me.
About an hour later I felt numb and knew I needed to leave the house, even if just for a few moments. I grabbed my keys and told Luke I was leaving for a bit. He looked at me with such fear and hugged me close, breathing into my hair. With my depression, his fears were not unfounded, but I reassured him I wasn’t suicidal; I just needed some time alone. He begged me to tell him where I was going so he wouldn’t worry, and his worry only made me madder. Logically, I knew he was only trying to help, so I said, “Whole Foods.”
It was night in Oak Park and Harlem Ave was lit by streetlamps. I had the radio on but was only half listening as I sifted through the traffic-heavy road. As my focus shifted from hyper-awareness to normalcy and back again, I tuned into James Bay’s song “Let it Go" playing throughout my car.
“I used to recognize myself
It’s funny how reflections change”
I pulled into the Whole Foods parking lot and sat there, staring over my steering wheel, not sure of what to do next.
“So come on let it go
Just let it be
Why don’t you be you
And I’ll be me”
I wandered through Whole Foods aimlessly and remembered how bright and sterile the lighting felt to me in that moment. Grabbing a couple Halo Top ice creams, I paid and drove back. I sat outside of our house staring up at the lit window and saw him putzing around his music studio. The guilt that washed over me was unlike any other; there was no way I deserved this person. I messaged my brother and told him I felt like I was losing control over myself. For the next ten minutes or so, he talked me through it. I told him I felt guilty that Luke always took such good care of me, that I felt like I could never repay him no matter how many kind things I did, and that I wasn’t good enough for him.
“I’m just worried he’s gonna get sick of this shit one of these days, and realize it’s not worth it.”
Nick said many things, told me this was my anxiety talking and that yes, I was lucky to have a guy who will support me through everything, but not to worry about the future.
“Fuck that. Live in this moment. There’s nothing to worry about other than your ice cream melting.”
Finally, especially since my ice cream was melting, I went inside. I looked at Luke and said, “I love you, but I don’t want to talk about what happened right now. Just know I love you and I’m sorry.”
He smiled his adorable smile and said, “You don’t have anything to be sorry about. I love you too.”
This week he is in San Francisco with work and I miss him already. When I woke up this morning, I instinctively reached out next to me to hug him and grabbed the dog’s tail by accident instead. When I showered and dressed this morning, I started to cry when I looked at my stomach. I checked my measurements and sure enough, my waist was slowly creeping back to 26”. My chest started to heave and I felt nauseous. I have six photos on my phone this morning and I look miserable in every one of them. “No one can tell” sometimes helps me, but other days it makes me feel antsy. Today is one of those days.
I don't need people to tell me I'm thin or pretty or beautiful; I need people to reassure me I have control over my body and I'm not falling apart from the inside out.
Right now, I’m taking deep breaths and trying to focus instead of getting rid of this terrible pain in my back. I’m trying to remember if we’ve finished ordering flowers and if anything else needs to be done for the month of April on my wedding timeline. So far so good, we’re still under budget and ahead of schedule. Okay, I’m good.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, repeat.
I’m breathing, at least I’m trying to breathe. Some days I struggle to find my air in my throat, and other days I barely notice my breathing patterns. Today I’m hovering somewhere in the middle. Anxiety is a cycle for me, it comes and goes, and after it feeling like a near constant for about half a year, I’m ready for it to let up soon. In the meantime though, I will just breathe.
Maybe tomorrow I can ignore it again.