The Last Time I Liked My Body, and Other Things I Hadn't Planned On Writing
An unexpected reflection on healing my intuition
CW: weight, body image, shame
This essay has been started many times in my head.
I’ve been wanting to write about my relationship with my body (which is largely negative), and how I have been trying to come to terms with that over the last two years. To be clear, I am not a person whom society sees as overweight. I mean, I’ve been overweight on the BMI since I was eleven years old, and a cop at my middle school told me once that I weighed a lot (long story), but I generally seem to fall squarely in the middle in terms of weight and height. I’m also in possession of a physically able body, something that does not enter the conversation about our physical selves nearly as much as it should. So my intention with this particular essay was not to discuss weight and health, because I am neither qualified nor in the position to. What I wanted was to explore how hard I have found it to find bodily peace in a society that polices our physical selves instead of cherishing them as miraculous feats (which they are— we’re meat sacks with personalities and it’s fucking weird).
But when I finally sat down to write that essay, I found that I couldn’t. The intended piece about my personal experiences with the pressures of weight and image, plus ingrained practices of withholding food, counting calories, and surveilling my body, never emerged. Instead, what came pouring out was an unexpected reflection on how my body and its chronic issues became a sort of canary in a coal mine for me in 2019.
The reckoning I had that year with my physical self, and its relationship with my mental health, resulted in a series of upheavals that pushed me to change how I live. Upheavals that are still playing out today, by the way. I have the feeling that they will be for the rest of my life. And while, some days, that’s exhausting to think about, I am generally grateful for those tectonic shifts and the change they have elicited.
And maybe I’m generally grateful for me, too. I’ve wondered about that, as I’ve worked and reworked this essay; that for all the ways in which I have let myself down, perhaps I should choose to be grateful for me for having picked myself back up each time.
Something to consider.
The last time I liked my body, it was the summer of 2019 and I was deep in a Something I shouldn’t have been in.
You could call it a romantic something; at the time I certainly did. But looking back, I think that the most accurate adjective was “addictive.” It was an Addictive Something. And for those of you who have had your own addictive somethings— with other people or, indeed, with substances— you know how these things generally go. It doesn’t matter what you “know” or what might be “logical.” The beast swallows you.
I crossed paths with Addictive Something on the Fourth of July of 2019. It was a beautiful day, and I was feeling free for the first time in awhile; the preceding two months had been very difficult at work, but things finally seemed to be turning around. My oldest friend on Earth had roped several of us into having a picnic. Upon arrival, I lay down in the grass next to her knee, and reveled in the summer day while the other guests chatted around us. I distinctly remember how peaceful I felt. Being physically close to someone who has known and loved you for a quarter century is, for me at least, incredibly soothing. Whenever I am near this friend, I feel a warmth extend from her to encircle and hold me.
Addictive Something arrived maybe forty-five minutes after I did. I sat up, and helped him open the cheese he’d brought. Then we started talking. By the time I leaned over and whispered to my friend, “is he single?,” I was already neck-deep.
She considered my question. “I don’t know, dude, but I haven’t heard great stuff. Let me ask around.” Except, of course, I didn’t wait for her to do the asking. For the remainder of that afternoon and evening, he and I swapped numbers, laughed, drank a lot of bad rosé, and ate many tortilla chips. By the time I got home, I knew that I was sunk.
The time that followed was electric, unhealthy, and, blessedly, short; barely a season. There was a “he’s not actually available” period, followed by a “he has changed his mind period.” Then there was a dizzying fall, shot through with evasiveness and playing hard-to-get. Then there was the lying. Then there was me telling him he had to get in or get out, and that he needed to pick now. Then there was him saying “I can’t do this, but let’s talk again in a few weeks.” Then there was me blocking all traces of him from my phone and various social media accounts, committing to never speaking to him again.
In the midst of us breaking things off, I had a doctor’s appointment. I have them fairly often (for reasons of uncooperative organs), but this one was an aberration. I was there, in part, because of that man; then, when I got weighed, the numbers were not what they should’ve been. Standing in that office, I realized suddenly that my body had been trying to tell me how harmful Addictive Something was since the moment I’d met him. And the issue wasn’t just that I had refused to listen to myself; it was the awful suspicion that I had forgotten how to.
I have grappled with chronic illness for most of my life. It might be Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance. It might be somatic damage from a birth trauma. It might be something autoimmune-related. But for now, it is Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This is because, in March of 2019, I was reviewing the results of a recent colonoscopy with my general practitioner, asked him what he honestly thought was going on, and was informed that honestly, he had no idea. So I put in a request: “can you put ‘IBS’ in my records, so I have some kind of proof that something is off the next time I have to switch doctors?”
He said, “sure. Based on the results here and the medication your gastroenterologist prescribed you, IBS is a pretty good guess.” He updated my files, and I left the appointment officially in possession of IBS. When I went back several months later for another checkup, my pretty good guess seemed to be holding water. This was maybe a week before I met Addictive Something. The same doctor weighed me, asked about meds, failed to get blood out of my arm, and asked me to go to QuestDiagnostics to get them to do it instead. In short: nothing had changed. But by the time things came apart with Addictive Something, it seemed that everything had. At that serendipitous medical appointment, just before we broke things off, the nurse weighed me and jotted down my numbers without a word. But I was left frozen, staring at the scale. Even as she told me to step down and take a seat, I couldn’t look away; in the less than 3 months that I’d been seeing that man, I had lost close to twenty pounds.
First, I was pleased; look how small I’ve gotten! Then I was upset; what the fuck has happened to me? I have never been able to drop weight without going to extremes! For a minute or two, I shuttled back and forth between glee and horror. But eventually, the reality of what the scale was saying settled over me; I had been aware of the weight loss, and its probable cause. I had just done nothing to stop it.
My gut issues are, in many ways, a drag. They make my body change size, my moods shift, my sleep get erratic. They demand that my diet be strictly controlled. But my gut issues are ALSO the most useful bellwether on the planet— should I choose to listen to them. The human stomach is inescapably connected to human mind. In many of us, chronically ill or not, anxiety announces itself in the esophagus, stomach, or colon. Our brains and bodies are in constant communication with each other, fighting to identify what is good and what is not-good for us in our day-to-day lives. My brain seems often to scream through my gut, but I have a history of failing to acknowledge what is being screamed. Many of us have this history. This is because, for all that intuitive intelligence zipping around in our bodies, those of us who have grown up in the West struggle with trusting ourselves.
Early on, society taught us to ignore intuition in favor of “correctness,” efficiency, and paychecks. Even if we were brought up to “follow our guts” at home, that rhetoric only held so much water in the outside world. When a police officer asks a teenage girl who has been violated why she left the house in a short skirt (which surely invited said violation), intuition gets burned to the ground. So most of us wind up caught somewhere along an impossible spectrum: on one end, there’s risking personal intuition for a chance at safety within the larger social apparatus. On the other, there’s risking a chance at safety for the sake of following personal intuition. In the summer of 2019, I was trapped somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.
I knew that it was not healthy for me to remain involved with Addictive Something; he was respecting neither me nor himself, and I wasn’t doing much better. But I was not well-practiced when it came listening to myself and my needs. Particularly in romantic situations. My intuition was compromised at a young age, and by the time Addictive Something came along, I had become very good at rewrite painful realities as acceptable existences. But during the summer of 2019, I just could not get my body on board with my mind and my rewritten narrative about how great Addictive Something was.
My IBS kicked so high into gear, I am shocked when I look back; how did I manage to function at all? I retained no nourishment, no matter how much ate. I was hungry constantly. Water went straight through my system. I was often lightheaded. I watched abdominal definition emerge on my stomach, and felt my business casual clothes loosen. My shorts and jeans slid off me on the weekends. But instead of recognizing these happenings as my intuition’s sounding of a protective alarm, I tried to reason with myself. It’s summer, I decided early on. I sweat so much, I’m always a little skinnier. As the weeks passed and as my body continued to change, I updated my logic: Addictive Something and I are both rock climbers, and I’m putting in more time at the gym because we work out together. Another several weeks and bodily shifts later, and I peaked: he’s healthy for me. This is my system recognizing that he’s It, and I’m super excited about it. This is it, for me.
I built a whole narrative that negated what my body was trying to tell me in favor of what I wanted to be true: that I had found a lasting relationship, that I had the physique that had long-eluded me, and that everything was amazing. So, naturally, when Addictive Something exited that narrative, everything collapsed.
Looking back, I am relieved that Addictive Something came to an end. I reached a point of no return, asked him to fully stay or fully go, and will be forever grateful that he chose to fully leave. But at the time? One of my first thoughts was, Oh my god, I’m going to gain the weight back. No exaggeration. I was heartbroken, yes; on the floor, a lot of crying, bottom-of-the-barrel behavior that felt too extreme for how short the whole thing had been, but also felt necessary. But through it all, I also managed to be deeply concerned by the fact that food was going to start literally sticking to my ribs again. That I would be my normal weight once more.
I had acknowledged by then that Addictive Something was the reason for my weight loss, but in the aftermath of the break, I had to face the specificity of the music: it had been the strain of trying to be with him that did it, but I had liked some of the results. In fact, being “skinny” was apparently so important, I had been willing to tell myself that what was harmful for me was not in order to keep the façade intact. It took his departure for me to recognize the damage for what it was: that the lines between my body and mind, keeping my intuition alive, had been cut. I might’ve been incredibly good at telling myself what I wanted, but I had lost the ability to assess what my actual needs were.
The two months that followed are a fog in my memory. There are freeze-frames of moments or events, but very few specific memories. Healing was happening, but it was happening in a dark place for a long time. Patching internal intuition network back together had been decades overdue. I started going to therapy again, and discovered that I had to relearn how to ask myself what I thought, what I felt, or what I needed. Then I had to practice listening to myself for my own answers. It was not unlike getting reprogrammed, or receiving an operating system update. It was also unbearably slow-going: like building a mountain, one pebble at a time.
Slowly, there were small changes. I came to understand that Addictive Something hadn’t ever been my central issue, nor had weight gain. That my historic patterns of body shame and unhealthy romance were actually symptoms of a much larger disease of dissociation and numbing. I saw that I had been absent from myself for many years, and what had happened during my time with Addictive Something had overwhelmed my capacity for rewriting painful narratives. Hating my weight or controlling my food intake might have been easier than asking myself what my body needed in the short term, but it didn’t ultimately make me healthy. Throwing myself into emotionally damaging situations might have been easier than being lonely in the short term, but it didn’t get me a long-term, committed relationship. At best, those choices got me an IBS flareup. At worst, they resulted in a very sick brain and body. The damages wrought by my time with Addictive Something forced me to understand that if I wanted my life to go differently, I needed to start occupying my body and brain, not removing myself from, or punishing, them.
To be clear, my progress was in no way linear; FAR from it. For example, the pandemic hit. I backslid wildly (as I think many people did), returning to some of my worst mental and physical habits. Bodily self-loathing and fear of weight gain reclaimed center stage. My “IBS” (honestly, who knows what it is) made itself very present for weeks at a time. I refused to sit down and examine what exactly might be triggering the symptoms and how I might self-soothe, but I freely berated myself for being sick. I mentally exited my body often, preferring to exist in a numb otherworld instead of experiencing the ups and downs of daily life during a global crisis. I drank more and over-exerted myself via exercise more, trying to silence everything inside me and outside of me. It took another bottomming out, almost exactly a year after Addictive Something ended, for me to come to terms with the fact that I could not suspend my healing while waiting for COVID-19 to end. Good thing, too— we’re in year two, almost year three, of it now, and I don’t even want to think about the puddle I would be if I hadn’t pulled my socks back up. I— we— have to carry on digging ourselves out of our various holes, even thought it’s happening in a context that is totally beyond what we could’ve ever imagined 20 months ago.
This was not the essay I set out to write. But clearly, it wanted to get written. So the exploration of my relationship with body image and health will get trotted out another time. For now, what I’ve done is something much thornier (at least for me): visit an iteration of myself whom I don’t enjoy rendezvousing with, and acknowledge that she deserves the visit just as much as all my other past, less-unhappy selves. And I’ll give me this: in the end, I have made progress. I have committed to healthy romantic love, and healthy platonic love, since 2019. I have worked on communicating, setting boundaries, and asking myself what I need. But at the end of the day, the shit is HARD. I imagine you know that. Or rather, logically, you know that, but you don’t always grant yourself the reprieve of that knowledge. I certainly fail to on a regular basis.
I catch myself all the time, wondering if I deserve a meal, or if I have burned enough calories, or if I am worthy of love, or if I am capable of feeling any emotions at all. I despair over whatever form my chronic illness is taking on a given day. The social media war between “lose the pandemic weight!” content and “fuck the losing the pandemic weight, the world is at fucking war” content is an intense rollercoaster. Sometimes, I find myself wishing that I were twenty pounds lighter again as I stare in the mirror, imagining the sick body that exhausted, heart-worn Abby so clung to in 2019. I have to actively stop those spirals ,and refocus on the gift of having of a healthy and cared-for body to live in now. But it doesn’t always work. I notice halfway through a random day that I have been hovering outside myself, dissociated and numb, since waking up, and have to forcibly pull myself back into my body like a balloon on a string. It’s hard. Learning how to be better is hard.
The last time I liked my body, it was the summer of 2019. But I’m trying to love it, now, in a way that I could’ve never imagined before Addictive Something cratered into my life. In the end, all my body and brain generally want to do is just keep me alive (the fuckery of my ~30 feet of GI tract aside). And having spent a long time ignoring that, I am coming to understand how valuable it is to listen instead.