The Trouble With Triggers

A few weeks back. A huge setback.

The trouble with triggers is that they’re fucking everywhere. You can be sitting quietly, writing speech for fictional people, in a self-made protective bubble of recovery—feeling better, feeling better—when a trigger shakes the ground beneath you. A sound, a noise. A text, a phone call. A sensation in your body.

Being triggered feels like the mental-emotional version of my daughter’s mess-making: it takes her about four minutes to completely trash part of the house with an elaborate game, and roughly forty minutes for me to restore order.

To do so much mental and emotional work over the past six months, only to have my room trashed again…

I’m the only one who can clean up this mess. And I feel like I’ll never be done.

In a way, I never will be. I will always be someone who has had my experiences, for the rest of my life. Even if my mind forgets, my body will hold the memories.

But when I’ve had moments of clarity, moments of feeling safe and embodied, working from creativity instead of cowardice, only to have it ripped away from me by triggers beyond my control—the feeling left behind is despair.

Because now I have to start over.

Doing Recovery

Early last year, I was doing recovery well. I was moving in non-punishing ways. I was drinking my water, and eating balanced meals. I wasn’t binge-eating. You know what else I wasn’t doing? Anything else.

I’m not kidding. I had no dates with friends. I went to ballet class a couple times a week, and therapy once a week, and to my co-op preschool work day, and that was it. I wrote a little here, trying to be OMG so recovered you guys! I didn’t really watch TV. I didn’t go to the movies. I didn’t read much. I ate my balanced meals and did my balanced movement and drank my water and didn’t binge.

I didn’t go to events or gatherings, so I wouldn’t have to think about not binge-eating while I was there. On the few occasions when I felt like I had no choice but to attend, I didn’t engage with the food at all. I sat at the end of a long table with nothing but a bottle of water while everyone around me laughed over heaping plates of potluck decadence. At home, I weighed every chip. I weighed every lettuce leaf. Because accidentally binge-eating lettuce was a thing I thought I needed to worry about.

That, my friends, is not “being in recovery” from binge-eating disorder. That is “doing” recovery. That’s an eating disordered horse of a different color.

I was doing recovery so hard, that I sort of lost sight of the actual recovery part. And I think I knew that—I could see it, just below the surface of my “recovery”—but my body was inching closer to dominant-paradigm-shaped, and I wasn’t binge-eating. I felt pretty good about myself.

And then I tried to add life back in.

I went to dance events. I had lunch with friends. I went on vacation, first with my girlfriends from college, and then for an anniversary weekend with my partner. I realized (unconsciously at first) that I didn’t want control. I wanted connection. But when I let go of control, I opened up to the fact that I didn’t know how to balance caring for my body and caring for my spirit. Once again, food was black and white. I could have the joy of friendship and connection, or I could have the control of “well, at least I’m not binge-eating.”

I chose friendship and connection. And for a time, that also meant choosing binge-eating.

I’ve done this dance before. If I clicked around in my own writing, I’d probably find a variation of this same choreography. Hold recovery so tightly you crush it. Let it go by hurling it to the ground, smashing it. Either way, it ends up in pieces.

My brilliant friend and yoga teacher, Autumn, often encourages her classes to set an intention but to “hold it loosely.”

Don’t crush it, and don’t toss it away.

It’s taking me a lot of snail’s-pace self-honesty and hard work to untangle connection with others from self-harm with food. Balance doesn’t look how I think “should” look. But it’s where I am now, with food, with friends, and with living: holding my own growth in cupped hands.

This is being in recovery.

Trust

Another yoga-mat word. Goddamn it.

Trust:

  • that everything will work out with my daughter’s change of school.
  • that [_] more pounds on my frame is okay. Good, even.
  • that this too shall pass and all shall be well all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, to quote Julian of Norwich, who might have been a little crazy (and I can say that because I, too, am a little crazy).
  • my body and my intuition.

I had it backwards for so long. I kept thinking, I can’t trust my body/intuition. I have to “portion-control” forever.

But if I’m honest about the situation, my body/intuition hasn’t been able to trust ME. I was hurting it. For decades. OF COURSE it couldn’t trust me!

I’m fatter than I’ve been in several years. “Fatter” as in “I have more body fat than I used to,” not as a value judgement. You know what got me here? Always trying to be thinner.

One more time: I got fatter by trying to be thinner.

Even when I purported to be working on “wellness,” in the back of my mind, it was always there: Maybe this will help me lose weight.

I slide into the headspace of wanting to be thinner so easily—because it’s the primary thing I was taught to want for my body. As much as I truly love what my body is capable of, I catch myself mourning the perceived “loss” of my “old body.” That sense of loss is a red flag.

Written on that flag: “I’m still in it.”

I’m still weighing and measuring and tracking. I’m still worrying over clothing size and body shape. Not every minute, not every day. But I am still in it. I wanted to trust my body, but I don’t like the truth it’s telling me.

My body, to me: “I don’t want you to hurt me. Please don’t hurt me anymore.”
Trust:

  • that my body is telling me the truth.

My paid membership with the app that’s measuring my “okay-ness” via food data (behind the lie-to-myself—”just information”) expires on March 4th. That seems a little heavy-handed on the wordplay—”march forth”—but I’m going with it. I’ll spend the time between now and then slowly, gently stepping away from last of my “diet-y” behaviors, starting with acknowledging that they represent a colossal lack of self-trust and body-love. They’re not “wellness,” or “healthy living”: they’re dieting:

  • weighing and measuring all food
  • worrying about “portion control”
  • having food “rules”
  • (still, on occasion) thinking in terms of “good” and “bad” foods

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I’m almost 35 years old. I’ve been holding this part of myself hostage for way too long.

I’ll never “just not think about” food and my body, because, well, there’s food to be eaten and I have a body—and I wouldn’t want to “just not think about” those things! Food and my body are realities, to be enjoyed.

I also can’t go back in time and unfuck my relationship with food. I will always be a person who has binged, and purged, and starved, and dieted, and punished—in the past. But I can give myself a present (pun so intended) where I have more ease with food and my body, where I don’t worry so fucking much all the time! A present where I have the headspace to think about things other than what I’m eating, or how I could (should) be thinner or “leaner” or whatever than I naturally am. Things like:

  • writing
  • podcasting
  • supporting Ivy with her emotional-intelligence-building skills
  • supporting Westley with game- and story-building skills
  • music
  • figuring out what the hell I want to be when I grow up
  • yoga
  • weightlifting
  • pole-dancing
  • doula-ing
  • loving and supporting my friends
  • hiking
  • taking road trips
  • rock-climbing
  • knitting
  • photography

…and so on and so on and so on and all manner of thing shall be well.

So.
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Trust.

Firm, kind, gentle, no-nonsense, loving, bullshit-free trust.

Knit One Together

Friday, April 8, 2011
Saturday, December 9, 2017

I was looking for a particular circular knitting needle in my box of needles and stitch holders and stitch markers. It wasn’t there. I found it in my box of projects-in-progress, with about an inch and a half of forgotten yellow baby hat hanging from it.

There are half-finished knitting projects all over my house.

I debated over what to do. It was just an inch and a half of work, not representing much time at all. I could easily unravel the little hat brim, roll the mustard colored yarn back into its ball. Forget that I had ever started knitting this particular baby hat. (After all, I’d forgotten about it once already.) On the other hand, I’ve completed a surprisingly small number of projects in my five years as a knitter.

Not even half-finished. Quarter-finished.

Eighth-finished.

Baby hats knit up quickly. I could just finish it.

While I was still trying to decide what to do, I found myself picking up the needles, winding the yarn around my right hand. I could always stop, I decided, if finishing the hat didn’t seem right.

I crave knitting like I crave bread. (There’s something magical about both: honey and yeast transforming flour into loaf; hands and needles transforming yarn into fabric.)

But when I sit with my pattern and my needles in my lap, loneliness descends.

I cannot knit without thinking of my great-grandmother. Most of my knitting supplies used to be hers. I wish she were here to teach me to knit, so I could move beyond scarves and baby hats.

Her name was Irma. I have a picture of her holding my infant mother in a tiny frame by my bed. (For some reason, it’s one of the only family photos in the house.) She had her babies at home and raised four children. And at the end of her life, she was terribly depressed.

The loneliness of being a point instead of a circle.

Longing to have a grandma
or mother
or big sister
or friend
sitting close by, showing me the way.

Here, hold it like a pencil,
not like a baby holds a spoon.
Not so tense, sweetheart.

You don’t need to pull so tight.

That’s a lot of work for just one stitch.

Lately I’ve been fighting off my own depression…It seems to be working, but a dull sadness comes through every now and then. I guess that would be loss. Which everyone tells me I need to acknowledge. But it feels strange mourning something that may have existed only in my mind (and perhaps not even there).

The wholeness of a circle: yarn wound around fingers, stories wound around tongues, center-pull hearts knit together in the creative rhythm of “women’s work.”

I finished the baby hat. Knitting it felt strangely meditative. It was good to create something, to let my hands be hands for a while.

I crave the connection—knitting, weaving, mending, bringing threads together, cloth into blankets, yarn into fabric—like I crave touch.

As I worked, I tried to remember why I had started knitting this little hat in the first place. I hadn’t been pregnant at the time, although I’m sure I wanted to be. Maybe that was it: a little knit talisman. Something to put in my hope chest, if I had one.

Baby Hat 

Here, sweetheart.
Hold it like this.

Gentle

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The word came to me like so many breaths of inspiration do lately: on a yoga mat.

“Set a soft intention,” said the voice at the front of the room.

Gentle, said the voice at the front of my skull.

I was a little taken aback. When I was angry and weepy in my therapist’s dark office, she would say, “Be gentle with yourself” and I’d snarl back at her, “I’m not breakable!”

My ferocity didn’t even ruffle her hair. “Of course you’re not.”

But deep down, I felt breakable and I hated it.

That was spring. I feel less breakable now. It’s partly because I’m sturdier physically. I weigh [_] pounds more than I did then. [_] is not a lot in the grand scheme of body sizes, but it’s enough that my beautifully tailored “date night” dress is uncomfortably snug.

It goes on, I can zip it, but I look “shrink-wrapped,” as my mother says of too-tight clothing.

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I used to say, “I won’t be gentle with myself, but I’ll be kind.”

Unfortunately, my self-kindness easily veers into cruel-to-be-kind, emphasis on the cruel.

Or, you know, unkind.

But the gentle that came up for me recently was not therapy-gentle. It wasn’t the gentle I hear myself using with preschoolers as they reach for a ceramic keepsake or a new baby, a little patronizing, stretched like caramel: “Gennntle…Gennntle touch.”

No. This was a different gentle. It was a refusal to push and pull myself. A refusal to let it my body hurt, to do movements (and later, eat foods) I hate because they’re the “right” ones, the “best” ones, or the “good” ones.

This was the gentle of treating my body like the animal it is. To let it expand out, be soft, and feel good.

In recent pictures of myself, I see those [_] pounds. I see the places where fat and fluid have “puffed” me up, places where I’m filled out, convex. Soft.

And I remember a bit from Carrot Quinn’s memoir, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart. She’s cuddling with a fellow hiker:

“Here is so soft,” he says, touching my hip. He strokes my quads. “And here is like a rock.”

“I’m a girl,” I say. “Parts of me are soft.”

That line has stuck in my head so firmly. I’m a girl…Parts of me are soft.

I’ve been push-pulling against the soft-animal-girl-ness of my body my entire life. I’ve questioned everything about it, and I’ve been so damned hard on myself.

What if [_] more pounds on my frame is all right? What if it’s exactly right?

I’ve learned to appreciate and love my menstrual cycle. Having a period used to be a huge source of shame, but I genuinely love having my period now. I love that feedback from my body that the beautiful animal machinery inside is running smoothly. It was a rocky, winding path to get to that emotional point, but I got there.

The challenge now is to trust that I will get to a place where being [_] pounds heavier than part of me still thinks I “should” be is no longer shameful. Trusting that I can fall in love with my body’s softness.

The only way to reach that place is by being gentle.

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Re-writing My Life

Before my children were born, and when they were babies, I wrote about everything in my life. Writing was the only way I could really wrap my mind around the strangeness of it—or, rather, my strange disconnect from the total un-strangeness of it.

And then I stopped writing.

It wasn’t that I got a better handle on things. Far from it. As I continued to not get used to the way life had turned out (the privileged, “normative,” un-strangeness of husband, house, kitty, two cars, two children, stay-at-home-motherhood, cooked-from-scratch meals, deep emptiness) I turned the disconnect against my voice. I let the shame at having so much and feeling so little take over and shut me down.

I was slowly sinking in a swamp of depression and eating disorders. All I could think to write about was my sadness and the size of my body. I’d prided myself on being authentic, but when I ventured into writing about mood and food, the feedback was vicious. There was positive feedback, too. But that didn’t matter when the comments became questions:

How could you do that to your daughter?

Don’t you realize your children are watching you?

If you knew you had mental health problems, why did you even have children?

The final push was an anonymous comment that I’m almost certain came from someone I know. Someone I thought didn’t follow me, and who I hoped would never hunt me down on the Internet found me. (Which, as I write it now, sounds completely naive. Just because someone doesn’t “follow” you online doesn’t mean they don’t follow you online.)

I knew the answers to all of the above questions when they appeared. The authentic, freeing response would’ve been to write those answers. Not for the questioners, but for myself. Tell the story of generational fucked-up-ness about food, and all the “eat as I say, not as I eat” that goes on between mothers and daughters. Write about the little “I”s spying with little eyes, and my elaborate rituals of sneaking and hiding to evade them. Describe feeling broken in my mind, and in my heart—always, every day—and believing so fiercely that motherhood was the only thing that could fix me. Write about the prayer that having children would transform me into a “real” girl—someone lovable and worthy and good.

Tell that story.

But Anonymous’s familiar tone scared me into silence, long after the sting of the questions had subsided.

I let one person—who I may or may not actually know in “real life”—take writing away from me because I was afraid of getting hurt again.

But not writing hurts me more than that one person ever could.

I’m opening back up to the eveyday-storyteller in me, dragging shame out into the light, and re-connecting to myself as a writer.