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June 25, 2020

How I finally Returned to my Body & Myself.

It took me 29 years to come home—back to my body.

Throughout the years it seemed, at times, that I’d be almost here, almost in the neighborhood of home. I could see self-acceptance or even self-love, but it was still a few blocks away.

Each time I got to the neighborhood and could see self-love around the block, I’d hit a bump in the road, and take a slight detour.

But finally. I made it home. My wish is that this will not be a visit—rather that I’m home for good.

Why’d I leave in the first place, if the trip back home was so maddening?

I mean, I’ve always found value in travel and in adventure. I’ve always learned something new, found new perspectives, and have come home inspired.

Unlike my actual physical travels, the journey away from home and back was mostly about stepping into the darkness—my mind’s darkness—so that I could appreciate the light within my home, within my physical body. And unlike my physical adventures, I left because home felt unpleasant and unsafe.

It wasn’t a choice to set out on an adventure. I’d chosen to run away.

Like so many women my age, I started off with countless tiny messages each day that my physical body wasn’t enough. For many it’s not curvy enough, not feminine enough—for me, the story was always that I wasn’t skinny enough.

When we were kids, this message was quietly received in my mind. Living in Maine, the woods were in our backyard, and it was so easy to go be active—to use my body in ways that had absolutely nothing to do with its appearance. As I got older, it felt like my bodymy homewas the overdone McMansion amongst a neighborhood of post-modern, sleek, industrialized, chic homes.

In the fourth grade, I was the first girl to develop breasts—humiliating. For the most part, when my parents were still together, we’d go hike, mountain bike, snowboard, and cross country ski, so the realization that I was shaped differently carried less weight. Look at all the other cool things my body could do in spite of its shape!

But early adolescence and the hormones that came with it kicked off years of overanalyzing every bit of food that went into my mouth, weighing myself daily, and constantly trying to force my McMansion to look more and more like one of the sleek industrial homes nearby.

I quit dance because being in a leotard felt too awkward to bear and I started playing field hockey instead. I joined the swim team because it was expected of me, and because once I was in the water, no one could fixate on my body the way I was assuming they were.

I was in the dark—far from home. When my body first started developing into that of a woman’s, it was as though it was doing so in defiance of my conditioned understanding of beauty.

As I entered middle school and high school, and stress mounted within my immediate family amidst my parents’ divorce, I found any way I could to travel farther outside of my physical body—abandoning that home almost entirely.

I’d overeat, over exercise, do drugs, drink, have sex. Anything to numb what had become, at that point, glaringly obvious: my body was going to do whatever she wanted, regardless of how I, or anyone else felt about it.

I took to cutting myself when the other numbing behaviors stopped doing the trick. My family had stopped the outdoor adventuring that would preoccupy my mind from the judgement of my appearance. Eventually, I took to the best numbing smoke and mirrors trick: party girl by night; straight-A-student, two-job-holding high school student by day.

I say smoke and mirrors, but I refused to look in the mirror. I was never truly present for anything—not even the partying.

Then came college, and along with it, an actual change of scenery. My body (home) had grown bigger while I was away, and I still hated the very sight of it. It seemed as though it’d gone from garish McMansion status to double wide trailer in a neighborhood of single wides.

Looking back at photos taken then, I can see the toll that the partying had taken on me despite the obsessing over food, and the restricting and bingeing. The drinking and drugging to excess had left me bloated and overweight.

I couldn’t stand exercising. The sports that had once helped me escape had turned to punishment, so I ditched them immediately upon setting foot on my college campus. Occasionally, I’d go to the gym to punish myself if I’d overeaten in the dining hall at dinner. I still hadn’t rediscovered the magic and peace of getting into the woods, or getting dirty and climbing a mountain.

I was firmly in the dark, absolutely dreading anything that resembled a return home to my body.

The decision to abandon myself was reaffirmed a thousand times over when I was sexually assaulted. I’d been roofied by a prospective love interest at a party. I briefly came to while he was on top of me; felt this intense dread, and checked out (in hindsight, maybe all of the numbing behaviors I’d been practicing over the years had prepared me for that moment quite well).

This was an affirmation that yes, in fact, my body was most certainly not a safe place to be.

At the time, there was no #MeToo movement, far fewer resources than there are now, and a culture ripe with shame for those who survived.

In the aftermath, rumors circulated campus. I started losing friends and eventually transferred schools. I journeyed farther from my body any time the opportunity arose.

Not only had my body been betraying me by being too big for too many years, but now it couldn’t even keep me safe from harm. I journeyed farther into the darkness, and abandoned my soul as well, thinking y’all are on your own now, thanks for nothing.

In my early 20s, as I healed from my sexual assault and gradually returned to my soul, I started down the familiar street where home (true self-love inside and out) resided. I started to love my personality, my intellect, and my humor again, but I still cringed hard when I looked in the mirror.

I still used eating as a weapon against myself—either to soothe or punish. Never to truly nourish or fuel. I’d created all these rules. It was okay for others, for friends, partners, family, or total strangers to be overweight, but any chance I got, I was googling the latest de-bloating, detoxifying, “how to lose 10 pounds in 10 days” diets.

The months leading up to my wedding were rife with anxiety around my appearance. What if I look fat in all of the pictures? My face is so unattractive, I’d better get skinny to distract everyone. This was the track on repeat inside my mind. The wedding day came and went and—shocker—people only complimented my appearance. I never knew what any of them actually thought and was too overwhelmed by the events of the day to even care.

As my marriage continued and I found myself feeling disregarded, devalued, and underappreciated, I turned the corner and exited the neighborhood yet again. Partying helped distract, and I’d discovered the newest tool in my pointless-sh*t-to-beat-myself-up-over arsenal: counting calories in and tracking every calorie burned.

Yet the messages kept pouring in: my then-husband didn’t seem to be in love with me anymore, my dress size was only increasing, and turns out working full-time and going to graduate school was equally invalidating.

Not only was my body not worth it, but my whole self was not worth well…anything. I put more stock in my appearance, thinking that if I could just lose some weight, then [insert literally anything good here].

And as my marriage came to an end, I mirrored the same post-assault disappearing act. It had worked well the first time around, so why not give it another go? But this time, the stress was so great—losing who I thought was my life partner, all of my friends, even some chosen family—that I couldn’t eat.

While I wasn’t receiving the emotional support I needed, I had finally started receiving the compliments I’d thought I needed. At that time, I thought I’d come home, back to my body, at last. I’d left the land of overeating, and I thought that overly restricting was where I belonged. While I was wrong (starving myself was at least knocking on the front door, compared to how far from home I’d been) I was actually closer than I had been in years.

Just as with my recovery from my rape, I gradually returned back to my soul. I realized I wasn’t the villain of my story. Instead, I was my own heroine. I wasn’t all bad. I wasn’t all good—but I wasn’t all bad.

In the post-divorce fog, I’d somehow found my way into the gym, and then into competitive powerlifting. Not only did I feel like I’d left the neighborhood my body was in, but I’d left the country she was in. So by the time I woke up, realized how close to my real home—of self love—I was, I was at my lightest, but also at my strongest.

I still kept the obsession of calories in, calories out. So as I gained weight and gained muscle, I hit another detour. In order to compete, I had to stay in a certain weight class. I had to recover well from my workouts, increase my strength, but not overeat (f you’ve ever read/seen/heard anything about powerlifting, the stereotypes of big men in singlets eating ground beef out of Tupperware is probably at the forefront of your mind).

Many of the other women who competed in my weight class were also competitive body builders. Not only were they stronger than me but they were leaner than me. After a few months of panic about not being strong enough, lean enough, or pretty enough, a few friends of mine introduced me to the sport of strongman. Finally, a neighborhood where I was surrounded by McMansions, double wides, and old estates. Now I got to be the small house on the block!

During this time, I did myself the biggest favor I possibly could’ve at the time—I got back into the forest. Hiking, climbing, and playing in the mountains took me out of my obsession over my appearance, even if just for a few hours. I could breathe again within the home of my body, even if just for a few moments.

I also dropped the judgement I’d developed against my brother’s sport of choice: ultramarathon running. I started running in the mountains, and on local trails. It felt like I was running towards home, and I knew there wasn’t much further to go. Because I was still powerlifting, every so often on a longer journey in the mountains, thoughts about my weight (whether I’d have to water cut to get into my weight class for my next competition, or about the value of my body’s appearance) would creep in. But for the most part, I was truly present. For the first time since what felt like childhood.

At last.

At long last, my story changed from what I could do in spite of my body and her appearance, to what I could do when I worked with my body and her appearance.

When I took care of myself, recovered, ate what would truly nourished me—calories, protein, carbohydrates and fat counts be damned. I started to recover better, sleep better. I started menstruating with some regularity. Years of cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR had finally paid off.

I’d flirted with the neighborhood of coming home and back into my body for so long. When I decided to retire from powerlifting because I was unwilling to manage my weight down to the ounce, and unwilling to put myself through the triggering environment that it inherently required me to be in, I walked in the door to the home of my body.

Now, three years later, I’m still nesting, still settling. Occasionally I journey back out—but through the lens of health. This feels like a journey into the light. I ask myself questions about why I’m eating what I’m eating. Not whether I should be eating or should be eating the amount I’m eating.

Now, at the age of 32, I feel like I can finally say that I don’t see a correlation between my body’s appearance or size, and my value as a person. My body is simply the vessel that my soul and mind come in. I’ll care for all three—mind, body, and soul—as best I can in any given moment.

I’ll care for others as best I can in any given moment. Part of caring for others when it comes to food and body image aligns with what’s happening for the collective at this moment in time: we are dismantling the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalistic structure that has kept so many oppressed and repressed for so long. It’s not lost on me that the more afraid we are, the more we hate ourselves (be it for our size, or anything else).

Part of my return home to myself, and to loving myself, means that I start to look at self-love as an act of defiance against the major “beauty industry,”most parts of the fashion world, and most parts of our norms-based culture.

The correlation for so many of us between food and soothing from trauma, body image, and self-worth (or worthlessness) seems so inherent. It’s almost ingrained in us from birth—infants cry (out of distress from hunger) and we feed them. “Comfort food” is a thing for a reason. When we survive traumas, we need soothing and care—we need to nourish our souls and our bodies the most.

If you’ve left home, if you’re wandering in the dark: you’re not alone.

At any given moment there are thousands of others wandering away from their bodies, abandoning themselves. If you want to come home, take your time. This is your journey home and the door is open when you’re ready.

Through finding balance with food, realizing nobody sees you the way you see yourself (for better or worse), and looking at what lights you up and then doing that until your heart is on fire enough to heat the whole damn house, you can come home too.

~

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