Saturday, November 16, 2013

Not Listening to Body Dysmorphia

Today I met some online friends in Manhattan for a 5k run. Afterward, the organizer of the get-together posted some pictures. Here's one of them.

I'm the fashionable one.


Do you know what I said to myself when I saw this one?

God I look fat.

Yup. Seriously. The voice in my head even had a tinge of Valley girl drama 'tude.

I'd like to reassure you at this point that this post is in no way intended to solicit sympathy, or even support. I don't need support. Know why?

I aint' listenin' to that voice any more.

Far from wanting support, I want to express gratitude. I want to convey the bizarre view from inside my head. And I want to write words that might help someone else who, like me, looks at their body and doesn't see reality.

I was morbidly obese for the first seventeen years of my life, and during most of the subsequent twenty-three years I was none too skinny. Finding a sane relationship with food and attaining a healthy weight has been the primary struggle of my life.

A few years ago I got help, got clean and started losing weight. As I approached my goal weight, I was scared out of my mind. It had all gone to shit each time I'd tried before, and it would all go to shit again.

Except this time it didn't. This time I was doing things differently. Despite my certainty that it would all fall apart... it didn't. I hit my goal weight on October 1, 2011. Words couldn't describe my amazement.

Ah, but my life had hardly begun to get weird. At that point, I had no clue how radically my metabolism had shifted as a result of the enormous change in my eating. I added a few hundred calories to my daily intake, figuring that would be enough to halt my weight loss. Didn't even make a dent. I scratched my head and threw another few hundred calories at the problem, and this time my weight loss slowed... a little? Maybe? Huh. More head-scratching, a few hundred more calories thrown in. My weight loss finally slowed markedly, but still didn't stop.

In the fourth round I rolled up my sleeves and, with a mix of disbelief and irritation, added another few hundred calories to my daily intake, bringing it up to well over four thousand calories. Finally, my weight started to go back up.

And I had to let it.

See, I'd committed to a sensible, healthy goal weight, and I'd shot past it, so now I had to gain a few pounds to get back to that weight and then stabilize. Simple, right? Well, if you think so, you've probably never been obese. There's no thrill like the thrill of finally being skinny, and there's always a voice that says "Yeah... I could be skinnier."

But I didn't listen to that voice. I let my weight climb slowly. And if I was scared out of my mind before, now I was scared out of my mind, out the door, into a cab to the spaceport, onto the next long-range ship, out of the solar system, through the nearest black hole and into some other dimension of shrieking, pants-filling horror where no one had ever heard of minds, let alone being in one.

Now here's where the body dysmorphia made itself apparent. In the midst of my fear--in the midst of thinking "No way am I going to be able to gain weight without it all falling apart"--I started to look in the mirror and poke at my face, thinking that it looked too fat. Keep in mind that when this behavior started I had gained at most three pounds.

That's when I started learning the skill of getting a stranglehold on myself. "Dude." I would say. "You cannot look fat. At most you have gained three pounds. And you were too skinny before you gained those three pounds, so there is no way you can look fat. So SHUT THE FUCK UP. And CHILL THE FUCK OUT."

I had to start not listening to the voice that said I looked fat, because every other input, from the people in my life to my own internal logic, told me otherwise. That voice was loud, but it was vastly outnumbered, so I had to let it be overruled.

I overshot my goal weight by a pound or two, decreased my calories a bit, and settled into a groove. Within months I got really good at maintaining my goal weight. I spent two years within five pounds of that mark. Whenever I gained or lost a pound or two between monthly weigh-ins, I tweaked my food intake to compensate. My fear seeped out of me. I no longer believed everything would go to shit.

Then, two months ago, I took a huge step. I'd been going to CrossFit for about seven months, and I knew it was past time to adjust my goal weight. Gaining muscle without gaining weight is the equivalent of losing weight, so if I was going to be honest with myself, my weight had to become a moving target. So I started gaining weight intentionally.

At the beginning of November I weighed myself and found that I'd gained three pounds. I'm happy to say not only that I felt only small echoes of that old fear, but that I resolved to continue. Three pounds was a good start. I was still on the slender side of fit, and my pants were still on the loose side of comfortable. I judged that, if I were to gain another three pounds during November, it wouldn't be a bad thing. So I let it ride.

I'm in the middle of that second month now, and it's... a bit challenging. I still have those moments when I walk by the mirror and stop and examine and poke, and that old voice returns. It's always a negotiation. Which leads me to today. I've looked at that picture ten times, and each time, here's what still goes through my head.

I see my man-boobs and my upholstery. I see that I'm a size 42 frame in a size 52 skin. And I wouldn't change any of that. If I had a million dollars, I wouldn't get liposuction, because that flab is part of me. I like who I am, so I won't deny my past. Moreover, I know the difference between flab and fat, so although I see those flaws, I know they don't make me look fat.

I see that I'm wearing sweats, and I know sweats make a person look dumpy.

I see that I'm running like a spaz because I tore a muscle in my calf a few moths ago, and it hasn't healed yet.

I think of all the times since I lost weight when I've seen a video of myself and I said "Holy shit I'm skinny!" and how bizarre it is that I can look at a still picture and have the opposite reaction.

I think of how people have different body types. I think of my mesomorph frame. I know I have a pernicious tendency to compare myself to ectomorphs and think that I'm fat.

I take all these factors into consideration. I extrapolate and interpolate. I weigh it all like Indiana Jones with his bag of sand. And I come out the other side knowing with dead certainty that I do not look fat.

And still I look at that picture and think "God I look fat."

The cool thing is, I'm getting good at not listening to that voice. It's still there, like the imaginary people in the room in "A Beautiful Mind". It's just that, in the convocation that informs my judgment, I've allowed that voice to be drowned out.

I'm feelin' good about that. I'm amused by my crazy brain and tickled at having learned how to rein in one of its more quizzical aspects. So again, the last thing I need is sympathy or support. What I want is to reach anyone who might find this a bit familiar, and tell you that this body dysmorphia shit is real. As real as it gets.

And you can get help.

One other thing. A few months back, a friend and fellow compulsive overeater invited me to speak at a weekly meeting that focuses on body issues. There were twenty-five people in the room, and I was the only man.

That's bullshit. Come on, guys! I know for a fact that I'm not the only man whose perception of himself is compromised. So that stuff I said above, about how it's real and there is help? Yes. It applies to you, regardless of gender. This whimsy doesn't discriminate.

No comments: