The last two times I’ve seen my mother she’s interrupted casual conversation to lament my weight, or lack thereof. “You’ve definitely lost weight, Jess,” she said in a frantic tone as we walked into the DMV, of all places, a few weeks back. “You’ve really lost weight, Jess. Your upper body is gaunt,” she said to me this past weekend, sounding pissed off and scared, as I stood in a towel post-shower.
Each time, I’ve tried to act taken aback, keeping my face as blank as possible and then rolling my eyes to signal my disagreement. “Well I’m not doing anything differently,” I tell her, and it’s the truth. In fact, I believe I’ve been working out less and eating more, but, then, I’m not sure my beliefs count for much here. After all, hiding beneath that blank glare and knee-jerk annoyance was a guilt-ridden smile—the twisted celebration of an anorexic past proving itself to be, in fact, rather present after all this time.
This is not news to me, of course, but I’ve gotten good at self-denial, or what you might call: the acceptance of my fucked-up thinking. It’s not that I haven’t made enormous progress since day one, but that (as I’ve mentioned before) I’ve stopped too short—unwilling or incapable (or, more likely, a bit of both) to challenge myself with any further discomforts associated with full health.
It doesn’t help, ironically, that I am pretty happy these days, enjoying a life that I can easily convince myself is unburdened by the detritus of anorexia. Feeling shitty in the past has helped me, if nothing else, to point some fingers in the right direction—at my need for control and the resulting self-recrimination that comes with it. But lately, there’s less need for introspection, less of an urge to find solutions for the problem that is my life. I feel pretty fulfilled, one side-effect of which is, unfortunately, less-hungry (not for food itself, but the resolution of this ongoing issue).
But whatever smiley feelings her comments brought on quickly melted into a familiar feeling of fear and sadness—that regretful, healthier cocktail that wonders if I’m still sabotaging myself by living a life with so many limits. I thought about a person I’ve been seeing, and how he might see me—confident that it’s probably a little too thin. I compared recent food triumphs with him (eating a breakfast sandwich) to lesser moments (lying to him, for instance, about having pasta for dinner). I’ve been burned by being too open about this issue too soon in romantic relationships, so I’ve kept it close to my chest this time, when perhaps I shouldn’t—why entertain anyone who can’t handle your neuroses (or, at least, doesn’t want to help you “transcend” them), after all?
Regardless, any intelligent person can pick up on the hints, which I drop somewhat blatantly, hoping that people will just fill in the picture without me having to say a word. I crack jokes about not being allowed to fast on Jewish holidays, or make light of the problem by referring to myself, laughingly, as crazy. I’ve turned eating disorder residue into a familiar friend, one who you put up with, no questions asked, irritating flaws and all.
This is not who I am, though, I usually think to myself in these moments, reflecting on my younger (and, surely, truer) self who could demolish a meatball parm with aplomb and eat cookies (all the cookies) with abandon. But it is who I’ve become—the version of myself which now feels most comfortable and the only one that I’ve lived within for years.
“Give yourself the opportunity to be a different person,” my boss and, essentially, mentor, told me yesterday amidst an out-of-left-field but extremely rewarding pep talk. She had been going on about her feeling that I’m not writing enough these days, and the sense she has that I have blocked off other versions of myself: the more indulgent, adventurous shades that I’ve lost touch with as the controlled, perfectionistic one has taken center stage. The writer Heather Havrilesky, my pen-pal-mentor of sorts, said something similar to me via e-mail a few weeks back, picking up on all of this via my digital presence alone. “I wonder if you write enough?” she posed. “I know I’m projecting but you seem like such a writer to me. Or an artist, even? I feel like a side-interest that’s messy and out of control and embarrassing would be really cathartic for you and would help you move toward having less of a vice grip on everything. You know, if every path you’re on is about being BETTER it’s going to be hard to be self-accepting. Maybe one road needs to go into the swamp, where you can let things be fucked and nuts and freaky and you can own THAT. It might teach you some things about the nerves and rigidity of the other paths.”
In both situations, I wanted to cry. It felt (it feels) like they’d pulled a truth I’d been trying so hard to hide from myself out from under the rug: you’re not making the most of your life, you’re not pushing yourself or challenging yourself in the right ways (which is to say, in the direction of imperfection and spontaneity). Of course this extreme self-critique is not what they were gunning for, necessarily, it’s just the unproductive form I turn most advice into these days. What I think they both want for me (and, let me just say, that they care enough to want anything for me at all makes my insides feel like the best fucking S’more you’ve ever had) is to open the floodgates a bit and get out there—both in writing and in my everyday life. Stop simply going through the motions that I’ve assumed are best, and run—waddle in fear, if I have to—towards more unusual pastures: situations and ideas that don’t always fit neatly in a box, a body and mind less centered on ritual and rigor, more open to orbiting what it doesn’t quite know, or can’t predict.
The first step is right here in this post—returning to vulnerable, non-bullet-proof topics that I once shared freely and started to hide for fear of how they came off. Heather reminded me, once more, of how futile that concern really is, both as a writer and, simply, a human. I can’t expect everyone to understand my voice or my perspective, or how rewarding it can feel to just tell the truth to other people, unpacking it for myself as I go. And rather than defend it, which is my inclination (be so smart that the proverbial ‘they’ can’t attack you), I’m going to leave it be—open to opinions and judgments that I can’t control. I don’t know yet that I can turn that same openness towards myself (my authentic tastes and my desires) but I know that all signs are still very eagerly pointing to: try.