As you love yourself, a birthday project

Good morning, friends! It’s my birthday today, and I have a (hopefully) fun project I’d love for you to take part in. Earlier this week I wrote about a photograph of people in London clasping the body of a man to prevent him from taking his life, and asked you to study the photo and think about who you identified with. I then shared a passage from Matthew where Jesus answers the question, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ answer was, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” I asked you to notice that there are actually three people God is calling us to love in those commandments: God, our neighbor, and ourselves.

How can we love our neighbor as ourselves if we don’t love ourselves? How can we treat people as we would want to be treated when we often can’t even treat ourselves with kindness and respect? In a culture where women and femmes especially are taught to examine our every flaw, outward and inward, to apologize for everything even when it’s not our fault, to be meek and submissive, to be beautiful but not vain, and to view our own emotions as unreasonable and manipulative, it can be hard to know how to simply love ourselves. (Not to leave out the men-folk — I know you can struggle with this, too.) Self-love is viewed as narcissistic, vain, selfish, or overly-indulgent. But, guess what! There’s a loophole! There’s one time when it’s okay to be self-focused, to pamper yourself and accept pampering from others, and to accept compliments about your appearance — it’s your birthday! So since my birthday is today, I’d like to share that dispensation with you. And since I don’t want to put too much pressure on one day (and since it is going to rain all day today in Boston) I’m claiming the whole month of May as my birthday and ours. Hey la! It’s our birthday month! Let’s celebrate!!!

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you five suggestions of ways to treat yourself, to celebrate your life and practice some self-love this May. For each of you that does one and leaves a comment about it, I will donate $2 to Together Rising. I’m poor right now, so I’ll have to limit it to 15 commenters, but I really want to get up to 15 so please play along. It’s my birthday, after all, and this is what I want for my present. Here are your choices:

  1. Have a selfie photo session! You can put on your favorite clothes, jewelry, and make-up, or snap a picture after a work-out — whenever you feel most lovely and most like yourself. Find your light and your favorite angle, snap several photos and choose your favorite one. Then study it for a moment and tell me two or three things that you like about your face. My selfie is the one at the top of this post. I turned toward the morning sun and took a photo from above. I’m not wearing any make-up, but I love my freckles and rosy cheeks, rightfully earned at playground and parks, and the friendly crinkles of my crow’s feet. You can read more of my thoughts on selfies here.
  2. Eat or drink something that you usually deny yourself. This can be as simple as cream in your coffee when you usually have skim milk, or as decadent as an ice cream sundae (it’s our birthday!). And — this is a two-parter — don’t beat yourself up about it. You don’t have to punish yourself with thoughts of shame and disgust every time (or any time) you eat something the diet magazines tell you you shouldn’t. They don’t know you or your body (and, frankly, their science is pretty shoddy). Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves (thank you, Mary Oliver!). You can read more of my thoughts on eating here.
  3. Take a 20 minute vacation. Leave the dishes in the sink and the emails unanswered and go for a walk, or read a book, or sit on your porch and watch the sunset. Sleep in an extra 20 minutes, or get up 20 minutes early and do some yoga — whatever would make you feel loved and cared for. If you need your significant other’s help to make that happen, ask for it.
  4. Buy yourself flowers, or a house plant, or — what else do people get for themselves for treats? I mostly get plants. If you can’t think of anything else, I recommend getting a tiny mint plant and putting it outside in the biggest pot you have. By mid-June the pot will be overflowing with mint. If you don’t like plants, feel free to substitute your own favorite treat here.
  5. Notice your negative self-talk and replace it with a truth. If we talked to our friends the way we talk to ourselves we wouldn’t have any friends left. Notice if you are saying things in your head to put yourself down. I had a friend who constantly called herself stupid. I tend to say, “What is wrong with me?” when I do simple things like forget why I came into a room. (There’s a scientific explanation for that, by the way.) Think of a truth you can replace it with. I have gotten in the habit of saying, “I’m doing my best, and that’s enough,” to which I often add, “and so are most people.” You might also try, “I am God’s beloved child, made in the divine image” or even Stuart Smalley’s “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

Okay, I have to go pack for a quick, fun, last minute birthday trip to New York City to see some friends. Happy birthday, everyone, and I can’t wait to hear what you got yourselves!

Love,
Jessica

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On eating and rewiring your brain

They say you are what you eat 🙂

Hello, friends! I’ve missed writing here. Life has gotten unexpectedly stressful lately, and all my energy has gone into getting through each day, coping with things as they come up and trying to make plans for changes that will make life less stressful. In related news, if anyone knows of an affordable two-bedroom apartment in or near Boston, let me know.

Today I thought I’d write a bit about eating — eating disorders, or disordered eating — and healing from them. I’ve never been diagnosed, but I’ve definitely had times in my life when I was anorexic-ish, starving myself and exercising obsessively to lose weight, and other times when I have been unable to stop over-eating. My weight has swung up and down 100 lbs since college. I’ve written about how I learned to break the cycle of over-eating–> feeling shame–> starving myself at the shame part of the cycle here. Basically I decided to stop dieting and stop punishing myself when I overate; to do my best to eat healthy foods when I was hungry, stop eating when I was full, and to forgive myself when I did eat too much. The forgiveness, for me, was the key. When I recklessly and completely refused to feel shame for overeating, I found myself feeding myself more lovingly, and stopping when I was full more naturally.

Another thing I’ve done is to try to replace overeating with other, healthier coping mechanisms. Meditation and centering prayer (a particular type of prayer in which you sit in God’s presence without speaking) helped me to learn to be still, to quiet my mind and my hands so that I did not need the activity of eating to soothe myself. Candles, incense, and scented oils (my favorites are peppermint, rosemary, and lavender) helped to satisfy the cravings for comfort and stimulation that I often mistook for hunger. And yoga has been a wonderful way to reconnect with my body, calm myself, and exercise without the obsessive calorie-counting I used to do on the gym treadmill. I’m now at about the halfway mark in that 100lb weight swing, and have stayed there for six years. I could lose more weight by dieting, but then I’d be right back in the cycle, losing and gaining, feeling constant shame and frustration, thinking about food all the time. I’m much happier where I am, eating healthy, exercising naturally, and trusting my body to know where it wants to be.

My friend Arwen Faulkner wrote a few years ago about something called neuroplasticity. It’s the idea that our brains are rewriteable, that even programs of reaction and response learned in childhood can be changed. Arwen writes poignantly about what that has meant in her life as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She says that

Neuroplasticity involves the spontaneous rewiring of neurons, the reassignment of neural pathways. Neurons are able to strengthen well-worn connections while weakening or eliminating others. Imagine, the road less travelled, essentially disappears. A healing process, this gives us the power to literally change our minds.

You can read the rest of her essay here. I’ve been thinking about that lately, and how I’ve done just that: rewired my brain, created new well-worn paths to replace the old ones. I don’t really believe in will power in the context of eating — I think white-knuckling it can work for a time but there will always be payback. My times of extreme self control, eating 500 calories a day and burning them off plus more on the treadmill, ultimately resulted in obsessive eating and a ruined metabolism. The body is hardwired for survival. But I do believe that we can replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy ones. My brain responds differently to food than it used to. I don’t get the same intense rush from binge eating sweet or salty foods. I don’t get the same emotion-numbing effect from piling on the calories long after my hunger is sated.

You know what’s funny, though? I kind of miss it. I’ve never used drugs (illegal, I mean – I’ve used plenty of prescribed drugs for the migraines, and I live in fear of someone discovering that coffee is bad for you) and never drank very much, but I imagine being in recovery from abusing food is kind of like being sober. It’s so much better, here, on the healthy side. But, as I mentioned, the last few weeks have been very stressful. Meditation helps, yoga helps, scented things help (I am currently running a humidifier with rosemary and peppermint oil as I write). Getting outside helps, as does focusing on the moment, on what’s in front of me. Breathing exercises help, talking to friends, reading a good book, writing. I have so many healthy coping mechanisms. But they don’t give me quite the same buzz as overeating used to. They walk me through my problems, bring me to a place of peace that is deeper than the circumstances around me. And they don’t hurt my body and make me hate myself. It’s a much better way, really. But still, as I walked through CVS yesterday, looking at the giant bags of popcorn and candy, I thought of how it would feel to climb back into those bags of salt and sugar, the way an alcoholic climbs back into the bottle. To lose myself again, after all this work finding myself. And I felt a moment of regret that that escape was no longer available to me.

***

I don’t really want to write about what’s going on right now, because it seems unfair to vent about my housemate when I have a blog and she (as far as I know) doesn’t. But I do want to say a few things about it:

  1. Thank God for Mark. Really. He is away right now because his mom broke her arm and he is taking care of her, and that makes the current situation even harder, but I am just so grateful to have such a kind, thoughtful, intelligent, and wise friend and housemate.
  2. I’ve had to learn this lesson over and over again, but I think I’m finally getting it: Not everything is my fault, and not everything is fixable if only I can find the perfect thing to say or do, or the perfect way of being. Some things are other people’s faults, God help ’em, and other people’s problems to fix, and all I can do is take care of myself the best I can and leave space open for other people to do their part if and when they’re ready.
  3. This is super hard when the person you’re having a hard time with is living in your house.
  4. Seriously, does anyone know of an affordable two-bedroom apartment?

***

How are you all doing? I’ve missed you. What have you been up to lately? What are some of your coping mechanisms, healthy or unhealthy? Tell me here, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

You are not alone, I promise.

Love,
Jessica

 

 

The color of the lake

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Once the lake was its own color, one that even the oldest animals have forgotten and people never named, neither blue nor green nor silver. But as she gazed upon the sky she grew jealous and thought to herself that she was low and weak and plain, while the sky was high and fierce and lovely. So the lake turned herself into a mirror and learned to imitate every cloud and color of the sky.

Then people came into the world and the animals never told them that the lake had changed, so the people thought this was the way of the world. But all the while the lake was unhappy, beautiful as it was, and missed its own color but was not brave enough to turn back. And then one day, the people came to the lake to fill their water jars, and found that the water was gone, the lake was gone, and in its place real clouds and sky filled the lake basin. Then the youngest child bent to drink and would have fallen away had not his mother snatched him back at the last moment.

No one ever found out where the lake had gone. But the sky, who had loved the lake’s imitation of her so much that she had accepted the flattery without ever returning it, was lonely. So every now and then, on days that sway from rain to sun and back again, you can catch a glimpse of the lake in the sky, just for a moment — that certain color neither blue nor green nor silver.

~ Jessica Faith Kantrowitz

It’s been a rough summer here. My friend and housemate, Mark, and I were searching for a third housemate, I was job hunting, and the migraines were particularly bad. I’m not sure if it was the heat or stress or what, but the migraines haven’t been this bad in several years. I went for several long bike rides, but I got an awful headache after each one. There’s this weird phenomenon, which I’ve written about before, where I blame myself for the migraines, even though logically it doesn’t make sense. But I always have this feeling that I should have done something differently, should have slept more or less, eaten something different, exercised more — I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint it. It occurred to me the other day that it might somehow be connected with the guilt and shame I’ve always felt about eating and weight, that there was something wrong with me and I had only myself to blame. Ironically, the migraines make it impossible to exercise obsessively, something I’ve definitely done in the past. So even though I exercise as much as I can, and push myself to the point of a terrible headache, I still feel this vague sense of blame all the time. Mark keeps telling me, as I go over all the things I maybe could have done to prevent this latest migraine, that they seem to come no matter what I do or don’t do. So why do I blame myself? Does anyone else do that?

So anyway, the migraines have been bad, and I’ve been feeling burnt out in general. The other day I was having a particularly hard day — my car had been towed, I had a migraine, it was miserably hot and humid for the nth day this summer, and I’d just had a couple of the kind of random, awkward interactions that make me want even more to not have to leave the house. I was feeling exactly whatever the opposite of centered is — off balance, on edge, on the verge of breaking down — when I walked into Target and almost straight into a woman who I’d had a really difficult relationship with several years ago. She was looking the other way, so I had a couple of seconds to decide what to do. She was poised and put together, standing straight and tall, her blonde hair pulled into a casual ponytail, make up carefully applied and somehow not smeared with sweat like mine was. I knew if she saw me she would be smiley and confident. If she was thrown off by running into me she wouldn’t show it.

I wanted so much to be confident, too. Or, rather, I wanted my type of confidence to be as visible as her type. I wanted my outward demeanor to reflect the growth and healing I’d experienced in the several years since we’d last seen each other. These have been such years of peace and strength for me, and I wanted that strength to be enough to carry me in that situation. But it wasn’t enough, and I could feel it. So I turned, quickly, before she could see me, and walked out of the store.

Afterwards I felt so discouraged. When was I ever going to really heal? When was I going to be strong? But I realized that, actually, making the decision to walk out of a situation that felt unsafe to me was a strength. Choosing to spend my time and energy in ways that are life-giving and with people who build me up is wisdom and confidence. It just looks different than I wanted it to look.

I’ve been trying to write about this here, to share these thoughts with you, but I haven’t quite been able to figure out how to express them. But I wrote that fable about the lake a couple of days ago, and that contains some of what I wanted to say. So I’ll just leave you with this for now: You have your own color, your own beauty, strength, and gifts, and the world needs them. The world doesn’t need you to try to be beautiful and strong the way that other people are beautiful and strong. It needs your own particular, specific way of being. And sometimes — often, maybe — your particular strength and beauty come from the things that seem to you like weaknesses or flaws. That’s not a glitch in the system, that’s the way the system was designed. Your weakness is part of your strength. Your flaws are what make you uniquely beautiful. You will heal and grow, but that growth and healing will not make you someone else, it will make you more yourself — and that was the plan all along.

Love,
Jessica

 

 

 

All that I have and do not have

img_0445“One hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.”
~Cheryl Strayed

I used to feel like an empty pit, a void of nothingness filled with all the things I wanted that I did not have. How can I explain? I wanted to be so many things, to have so many things, and the least reminder of the things I was not or had not would fill me with despair and bitterness. This bitterness was equally against myself for not living up to what I thought I should, and against the world, for not giving me what I thought it should.

Does that sound overly dramatic? Or does it sound like your own internal world, too? Or both? I wanted big things, like to be thin, to be graceful, to be consistently good at academics, to be creative in a productive way instead of a theoretical one, to have a boyfriend and eventually a husband, to have my own kids and my own house, to be wiser than those around me and yet to fit in and be one of the gang. That last one was big, maybe the biggest: I wanted a group of friends, a place to feel comfortable and to belong. I also wanted to be strong and self-confident, to be able to express myself well, to stand up to bullies and to be compassionate and gentle to those who were suffering.

And I wanted a myriad of small things. My craving for those seemed endless and impossible. I wanted one of those expensive colored pencil sets that come in tins, not cardboard. I wanted a nice winter coat. I wanted a purse that was stylish but big enough to fit a book or two. I wanted an orange scarf. I wanted red shoes. I wanted a wok to cook in. I wanted pretty throw pillows. I wanted enough jeans that fit so that I could wear a different pair every day of the week. I wanted a cell phone and, later, a Blackberry, back before iPhones when Blackberries were the thing.

When I would see something that I wanted, that someone else had, I would be overwhelmed with a sense of loss and with self-loathing. How can I explain? I was intelligent, creative, spiritual, wise, adventurous, brave, kind, and gentle. I traveled the world, met fascinating people, wrote passionate essays and papers on theology and missiology, earned a master’s degree, served in many different ministries, lived with international students, taught ESL and the Bible, wrote songs and performed them at coffee houses, and explored the city with my homeless friends. When I look back on my 20s and 30s I’m amazed and grateful at what a full life I had.

Yet all of these accomplishments and experiences would disappear in a split second into that endless void inside of me when I saw something I wanted but couldn’t have. A beautiful skirt in a store that I knew didn’t carry my size. A friend’s apartment with an herb garden in the kitchen window. I wanted my own herb garden, and as soon as I felt that desire I felt the correlating conviction that I would never have it. Such beautiful, simple things were never to be mine.

Of course, the small things I wanted that filled me with despair were all symbolic of the big things. The colored pencils were symbols of the disciplined creative life I wished I had. The herbs and throw pillows were symbols of the home I’d always wanted to make with a husband and kids. The cell phone and Blackberry were symbols of the friendships and community I craved. And the desire for material things in general was symbolic of my fears that I would never be responsible and accomplished enough to have a good job that let me buy nice things. All of them were symbolic of my deepest fear, that there was something wrong with me, that I had a fatal flaw that would prevent me — as bright, creative, wise, compassionate, adventurous, and gentle as I was — from ever being whole.

(By the way, if you strongly relate to everything I’ve just written, you, too, might be an Enneagram type four.)

These days, though, do you know what? I do feel whole. I’ve been thinking about this lately because I have many of the little things I’ve always wanted. I have one of those fancy tin pencil sets. I have pretty throw pillows. I have a house full of plants (perhaps I have gone overboard on the plants), and a pot full of peppermint growing on my front porch. I even have an orange scarf and red shoes. And these little things make me so happy. I don’t take them for granted, because I wanted them for so long, and because I’ve been careful and strategic about buying them, slowly, over the years, when I’ve paid my bills and have a little bit left over. Maybe it makes me a bit materialistic, but mostly, I think, it just makes me grateful, and I don’t think there can be much wrong with gratitude.

But it’s funny, because the big things that I always wanted, for the most part, I don’t have. I don’t have a husband, or kids of my own. I don’t have a house of my own. I don’t have a group of friends or a nearby community, and in fact I had to leave the community where I lived for seven years because I couldn’t make myself fit there. I’m not thin, though I’m not nearly as fat as I used to be. I’m not graceful or that certain type of strong I’d wanted to be. I don’t express myself well in conversation, or stand up well to people who intimidate me.

It’s funny because I would have thought that the life-lesson of my 40s would be that the small things don’t matter, and the big things do. But the fact is that the big things *do* matter the most, they just matter in the letting go. When I turned 37 and was still single, I went through a grieving process of realizing that my dream of a husband and kids was probably not going to happen. I don’t know why it happened at 37 instead of 40, except that maybe I needed it to. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, letting myself walk through that grief clear-eyed, but when I had walked through it I found that something deep inside of me had healed. I no longer defined myself by what I didn’t have, but by what I did.

And it struck me that I’ve gone through a similar grieving process with the other things as well — with my dreams of being thin and of finding community. Grieving them and then letting them go allowed me to feel a wholeness and fullness that I never could before. I still crave them now and then, I still get jealous of those who have those things, but that jealously isn’t the bottomless pit that it used to be. It is just a feeling that passes, like the clouds passing overhead; it does not define me. And I recognize this as a miracle.

As for my dream of having creative discipline, of dedicating myself to my craft, well, here I am at Starbucks writing this essay. I’ve been here many weekends over the past three years, and I’ve been on my couch many mornings and evenings, writing essays and poems, and even a story here and there. Three of my blog posts have gone viral, and I’ve had two essays and a story published. And I’ve met some wonderful women who are also writers, and we even have a community. It’s online, it’s not the in-person gathering I always dreamt of, but it is life-giving and good. It took letting go of the things I didn’t have in order to claim the things that were in my reach. I had to learn to not define myself by what was lacking in order to turn to the beautiful things that were being offered to me. And in the end I’ve found that all that I do not have is nothing compared to what I have.

 

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On banishing shame, or how I found and ate three day old rice under my covers and woke up the next day free

Photo by OzRocky

Photo by OzRocky

Sometimes I eat a late night snack in my bed. I used to have much bigger binges late at night, sometimes eating the equivalent of an additional one or two meals. The best thing for my body, for my sleep rhythms, for my emotional well-being, is not to snack after 9pm. I sleep better when I don’t, and I wake up feeling somehow clearer, less foggy, not retaining water from the salt of last night’s snack. Sometimes I manage not to late-night-snack, but often I don’t. I have gotten really good at not keeping things in the house that lend themselves to mindless snacking — chips, candy, salty things, big bags of things. So when the urge does come I can only eat what I have — an apple or a single-serving yogurt. That’s all well and good, but when I’m tired and medicated (I take my migraine meds a couple of hours before bed) sometimes I still manage to overeat. Even bread can be a temptation. I crave something I can put in my mouth, bite after bite. I crave the dopamine stimulation of salt, the busy-ness of my hand going back and forth from the bag to my mouth.

Some nights I still eat too much. But as I’ve written before, it’s not overeating that perpetuates eating disorders. It’s shame. Do you remember my three rules of eating? Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, forgive yourself when you don’t? That last one, forgive yourself when you don’t, is the absolute most important. If you forgive yourself, that day is over, that binge is over, and you get to wake up a normal human being on a normal day. You can feed yourself a healthy breakfast, plan a healthy lunch and dinner, enjoy the taste of the food, the nice full feeling in your stomach, and the energy the food gives you. That night you might overeat, or you might just eat an apple, or even just go to bed with no snack at all.

If you don’t forgive yourself you wake up, not just foggy and bloated, but angry and in caloric debt. You try to force yourself to eat smaller meals, you punish yourself with bitter thoughts; you furrow your brow at your reflection in the mirror. You don’t feed yourself lovingly throughout the day, so when you get to the night you are hungry. You dislike yourself. Guess what makes you feel better while at the same time validating your self-castigation? Half a loaf of that raisin bread you were saving for breakfast. Shame begets shame. Forgiveness begets healing.

I have gotten really good at forgiving myself. I think that is the only reason that the 50+ pounds I lost a few years ago has stayed off. Sure, I could probably lose another 30 by breaking my rules, by not eating when I’m hungry, by turning my shame into the fuel to beat my body into submission. I’ve done that before, and it works, for a little while. But then the weight comes back, and, like the demon in Jesus’ obscure parable in Matthew 12, it brings back seven of its friends with it. Better to welcome the one demon you have, gently allow it space in your life without giving it control over anything. And maybe you will find that that demon was just you all along — wonderful, imperfect, adorable, multi-faceted, dearly loved you.

Something funny happened this past weekend, that showed me just how far I’ve come and just how good at forgiving myself. I went away for the weekend, and got back Monday afternoon. I didn’t have the energy to cook dinner, but I remembered that I had some leftover rice and planned to eat that with frozen veggies. But when dinner time came, I couldn’t find the rice anywhere. It wasn’t on my shelf in the fridge, or my housemates’ shelves. I asked Mark twice if he had eaten it, and he denied it. Then I remembered that Friday night I’d had the late night snacking urge. Nervously I pulled back the covers of my bed, and found it there: A Pyrex container of rice. It had been in my bed the whole weekend.

>Five years ago I would have felt that sick feeling of shame in my gut. I would have immediately begun spiraling into hateful thoughts towards myself. I would have thought that the rice represented a deep, secret, fatal flaw, that it confirmed that I was abnormal and broken. What kind of person loses rice in their bed? What was wrong with me? In an effort to purge and punish myself I would have thrown the rice into the garbage disposal and eaten only veggies for dinner. Three hours later, hungry and full of shame, I would probably have overeaten again, salt and sugar, something bad for me.

Do you know what I did this time? I laughed. I told Mark where I’d found it, thereby depriving the shame of oxygen and snuffing it out. Secrecy is oxygen to shame, did you know that? And I checked that the rice was still good (it was!) and heated it up with veggies and I ate it. I was hungry, so I ate good, healthy food, and I ate until I was full. I forgave myself, and I fed myself.

Friends, forgive yourselves. Feed yourselves. You are good and whole and loved. Yesterday is over, it does not get to make demands on us today. Go to sleep forgiven and whole, wake up to a new day, and feed yourself.

*****

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Love,
Jessica

How I finally learned to feed myself, part two

Mädchen mit Teller by Carl von Bergen

Mädchen mit Teller by Carl von Bergen

There are many different ways of wanting food, and many reasons for eating; there are many reasons for not eating, too. Last winter I gained seven or eight pounds because I couldn’t stop eating chocolate croissants — my daily rounds with the little girl I was nannying took us into cafes for bathroom breaks and for coffee, and there were the pastries, loaded with carbs and sugar, a perfect mid-morning treat, especially when paired with a second cup of coffee. Hunger for those croissants was primal, passed down from generation to generation over millions of years when not eating the food in front of you would have been madness, would have meant death. If any of those ancient people chose not to eat, they died, and their DNA was not passed down to me. Those who ate, survived. Our bodies developed complex, irresistible mechanisms to ensure that we ate — the hunger in our bellies is nothing compared to the synapses firing between our ears, the chemicals that light up our brain’s pleasure centers like a Christmas tree when salt or sugar hits our tongues. The frigid temperatures of last January and February, and the pounding of foot after foot of snow triggered every millennia-honed instinct to eat as much as possible, to put on extra fat to survive the winter. My genes didn’t care that I was wearing long underwear and sweaters, or that inside it was a cozy sixty-eight degrees. They had no concept that my body was already sufficiently padded with extra fat, that in fact losing rather than gaining seven pounds would have been healthier all around. They had been given one task, their prime directive: Make sure Jessica eats. And they did their job splendidly.

That summer, when I slowed down after a busy spring, I finally had time to look down at the scale (and to look at the pictures of myself at the Momastery event in June) and to realize that a little focus was needed to get back on track. I put myself back on probiotics which, beside their multiple heath benefits also had the helpful instruction, “Take three times daily on an empty stomach.” (The probiotics need to get to the intestines to do their work, which means they need to make it through the stomach without being digested. They basically sneak through while the stomach isn’t looking, i.e. while it’s not digesting any food.) This meant that I had to pay attention to what and when I was eating enough that my stomach was actually empty three times per day. I poked around online and made the guess that three hours would empty my stomach, plus another hour after I took the pill to let it pass through. Basically I stopped eating between meals, and in doing so, rediscovered the joy of eating when you’re really, truly hungry. I had big salads loaded with lentils and vegetables, an apple or two every day, toast and peanut butter in the morning, yogurt for a late night snack. Everything tasted so GOOD when I was well and truly hungry. I didn’t mess around with low-fat anything, I put olive oil and vinegar on my salads and ate cream-on-top yogurts, and I ate till I was full at meals. I began to feel at peace with the periods of not eating, enjoying the comfort of not having to think about food during that time. It just wasn’t time to eat yet, but it would be soon. No big deal. I could wait another hour.

I wasn’t starving myself, like I had in the past. The point of feeling hunger was so that I could eat well later. When I was starving myself, back in college, the point of hunger had been power, pure power over myself, my body, and my life. Nothing else mattered, and nothing felt as good. Then the pounds had melted off at 10lbs a month as I tried to eat around 500-1000 calories a day. Now, if I found myself at the end of the day having only eaten 1500 calories I’d have another apple, or a yogurt, or both. The goal wasn’t to starve myself. The goal was to feed myself. And I lost weight, but slowly, two or three pounds a month till I lost the seven I had gained and another seven after that. I wondered how I ever could have been so careless as to eat all those extra pastries. I laughed at last-winter Jessica. Then this winter came.

At first I didn’t notice much of a change. I breezed through December, eating a Christmas cookie or two here or there then calmly closing the box and putting it away. I stopped losing weight, but I didn’t gain any. Well, maybe I gained a pound. It was an exceptionally warm December, so that may have been part of it. Christmas Eve was 70 degrees. I made blithe plans to allow myself one chocolate croissant each winter month, since I liked them so much, patting myself gently on the head. Then January came and it got cold, and something switched in my brain again. I started eating two or three cookies at a time, instead of one or two, then following them up with chips. Instead of no snacks between meals I was having trouble eating only one or two snacks between meals. I tried getting back on schedule with the probiotics and letting my stomach empty before I took them, but a force greater than my will power had taken over. I laughed at last-summer Jessica. She obviously hadn’t remembered what it was like.

So here we are, one week away from February, and I have gained another pound, maybe two. My goal has changed from not gaining weight again over the winter to minimizing my weight gain. And, honestly, it’s not so much a goal as a hope. But I have come to accept this as natural. It’s okay. The winter will end eventually, and this year I will try to refocus earlier than June and get back to healthier eating. In the meantime, I’m not doing so bad. I make myself hearty soups with lots of beans and veggies, and some animal protein here and there. This afternoon I’m going to whip up some sausage, bean, and kale soup. And I allow myself a piece of sourdough bread with sweet butter on the side. Maybe in March I will give up the side of bread. But for now, I’d rather be at peace with my body than fighting against it. I’ve seen what happens when you pull the rubber band too taut: It snaps back with a vengeance. In college, after I lost sixty pounds in six months by starving myself, I gained all that back, plus forty five more. After months of not eating, the rubber band snapped and I couldn’t stop eating. Long after I was full, I’d keep putting food into my mouth: salty, sweet, savory, bland — anything to convince my body it wasn’t starving. Better to gain five pounds gently over the winter than to trigger my body into panic mode, into starvation mode.

Friends, be gentle with yourselves. Eat when you’re hungry. Do your best to stop eating when you’re full. When you don’t, forgive yourself. Nothing keeps the cycle of overeating going like shame. It’s okay. You’ll be all right. Brush and floss and go to bed. Wake up the next day, forgiven, and feed yourself again.

*****

How I finally learned to feed myself, part one

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