Power Hungry

8 years ago

When I was 20 I had a brief fling with anorexia. (Believe me, I roll my
eyes just thinking about how cliche that is, the stressed-out college
coed who suddenly starts to starve herself.)

When I came home for the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Penn State, my
parents became aware that I was damaging my body by not feeding it
properly. Sometime mid-summer I finally agreed to endure a lame
counseling session or two with a local psychiatrist, and though I don’t
believe he had any impact on me or my psyche, I eventually began to eat
again without feeling guilty and shameful for every bite.

At the time, and for years afterward, I thought the root of the problem
was the way I looked — or, more specifically, the way I thought I
should look, or wanted to look, or thought other people wanted me to
look. I’d read that eating disorders were often about control, not
about food or body image, but I didn’t think that was the case with me.
Body image is something I’ve always struggled with (I’m 36 years old, a
healthy eater, a size 4/6, and I still don’t wear shorts in public. It drives my loved ones bonkers.), so I
believed I was the exception to the “starving for control” rule.

But a few years ago I was having a conversation with my mom and she
reminded me of some peripheral things I’d forgotten (blocked out?)
about that summer, things that were happening at the same time I was
dwindling to 106 pounds on my 5’8” frame. Without airing anyone else’s
dirty laundry here, let me just say that there was a good bit of chaos
and uncertainty in the lives of those around me and, consequently, in
my life.

Suddenly I recalled with absolute clarity the surge of
supreme power I’d feel every time I successfully skipped a meal. I
remembered running through a busy 10-hour shift waiting tables with
nothing but an apple — and a sick sense of pride for being able to eat
only the apple — to fuel me.

Well, what do ya know. It was about control.

Fast-forward
16 years (OMG!) and here I am, a married mother of two little boys who
is trying to cobble together a freelance writing career, a few
friendships and a future for my family in a town that is still largely
unfamiliar to me. In some ways I feel more grounded, more confident and
happier than ever before. In other ways I feel adrift, unstable, out of
my league, as if the sand under my feet gets pulled back to sea every
time I think I’ve mastered the ebb and flow of my life.

And,
like clockwork, I’ve started thinking about food again. I’m not
starving myself, or even dieting; I eat a balanced diet and splurge on
treats after lunch and dinner every single day. But there are days when
my mind is consumed by food. I change diapers and fold laundry and do
puzzles and read “Fix-It Duck” and do phone interviews and talk to my
toddler and sing to my baby and laugh with my husband and all the while
there is a steady stream of dialogue happening deep inside my head
about food. “What’s in the pantry?, I really want this chocolate chip
muffin, what can I snack on?, how many calories have I consumed today?,
what’s my next meal?, what’s my next snack?, are we out of those
cookies yet?, can I splurge on this?, what kind of treat will I have
tonight?, how much do I weigh?, when can I work out?, how fattening is
this?, what should I make for dinner?, how many calories have I
consumed now?, what will we have for dinner tomorrow?, why isn’t there
wine in the wine fridge?, how much do I weigh now?, I wish I hadn’t had
that chocolate chip muffin...”

It’s exhausting, I tell ya. And
I continually have to remind myself that none of that garbage is about
me being hungry or fat or anorexic or a meticulous meal planner.

It’s about control.

Like
most moms, some days I feel pretty darn good about things. Kostyn
(mostly) behaves, the sun shines, the baby naps, the source is there
during my small window to talk to him. Other days I feel like I have no
control over my own life (also, I suspect, like most moms). On those
days, my life swirls around me like a hurricane of looming deadlines
and neglected errands and unwritten thank-you notes and
toddler-chasing-dog-AGAIN and
baby-refusing-to-nap-and-give-mom-a-break.

As a stay-at-home
mother I am, in some ways, the walls that hold up this family, at least
from 9 to 5 (or, 7:30 a.m. to 6). But whoever notices walls? They’re
just there, permanent background, and we take for granted that they’re
doing the very important job of keeping the ceiling from crashing down
on our heads.

I’m not saying I’m underappreciated, because I’m
not (truly, truly not; my husband rocks). I’m also not saying my job is
incredibly difficult, because it’s not. I’m just saying that the
business of homemaking is at times a lonely, invisible existence of
second-guessing and endless catch-up, and I have struggled lately with
finding solid ground to stand on, both as a parent and as a
professional writer.

Because I’m no longer 20 with enough time
on my hands to obsess about myself to the nth degree, I am able to
recognize this mental food obsession for what it is: A way for me to be
in complete control of something
when I feel so out of control about everything else. Of course knowing
that doesn’t stop the streaming food ticker in my head. I have to do
that myself, consciously, every day. And in order to do that, I have to
convince myself of how much control I do have over things. A million
things. Everything.

And that little exercise — the one of
finding one’s power, recognizing it, embracing it and harnessing it —
is why I’m writing all of this down. Because maybe someone else out
there is struggling too.

I think the feeling of being in control
comes through having and making choices, whether they be big (quitting
my job to stay home with my baby) or small (checking my email on the
way upstairs). We make a million choices a day that we don’t consider
choices at all (the choice to hold a job, to answer to a boss, to stay
married, to meet an obligation, to do the laundry, to wipe our own
butts or the tiny butts of those we love). But we should
consider them choices. Because having a choice -- and making a choice
-- creates power. And power is a sign of control. And having control
makes you feel good. Confident. Happy.

And not all that hungry.

Even
the feeling of being out of control is a choice. When that food ticker
starts up in my head I know that I am choosing to feel powerless about
something at that moment, and my subconscious is counterbalancing that
by kickstarting its own Diet Patrol. Recognizing that choice being made
is important, because then I get to make another choice — to stop it,
or to listen to it, or to figure out the original source of insecurity
that brought it on.

There are a couple of Web sites I’ve been
reading lately that have helped pull this perspective into focus for me
in ways I can relate to. The first is Zen Habits,
which is a simple slice of common sense about how to streamline,
prioritize and energize your life. Contributer Jonathan Mead’s recent
post "How Giving Changes Everything"
made me think about the way I view my everyday life. I often lament the
fact that I no longer have the freedom to do the volunteer work I used
to do before I had kids. I really miss it, those hours spent sitting
with a dying hospice patient or drumming up more funds for the upcoming
ACS Relay for Life.

But reading Mead’s post made me realize I
don’t need to be involved with structured volunteer work to find such
fulfillment right now. I can choose to view my everyday life as a gift
to my sons. Instead of wondering when I’ll ever get a break, I can
choose to give even more of myself away, and reap the rewards as they
come back to me. What I give can be as small as a smile to my spouse at
the end of the day instead of a long, dramatic sigh. It doesn’t matter
what I give; the point is I am making a choice to give. Power!

The other site I’ve been reading is Meagan Francis’s The Happiest Mom blog. Read her post “Tap Shoes and Making Time”
and you’ll be hard-pressed to utter the words “I just don’t have time
to....” ever again. This post struck a chord because one of the things
I have been feeling most out-of-control over is my lack of exercise.
Workouts are important for my physical, mental and emotional
well-being. They make me feel in control of my life. But I just haven’t
been able to figure out when exactly I can do it, and watching Chris
take the time to run has made me resentful about not having the same
chance.

But now I see things differently. While it’s true that
having a 4-month-old and a 2-year-old makes it harder to find free time
to do anything, it’s not impossible. It’s not that I don’t have time,
it’s that I have chosen to
spend my time in other ways. I could exercise if I gave it more
priority than, say, updating my Facebook status or writing this blog
post.

So just knowing that I have made the choice to not make
exercise a “Do or die” in my life makes me feel more in control over
the situation. The resentment is erased and I’m left with the power to choose
what to do about it -- either to shelve some of the things that are
taking up my free time and channel those minutes into a workout, or to
realize that until the boys are just a bit older with just a bit more
predictable nap schedules, my workouts will more often take a backseat
to ways I can recharge my batteries in shorter spurts, like reading
bits of that Time magazine on the table, or updating my blog.

When
I think back to that Anorexic Summer of ‘93, I remember the night I
came home late from working a long shift at the restaurant and was so
hungry I couldn’t take it anymore, so I ate an apple. This wouldn’t
have been bad had I not already “caved” and eaten half a chicken
sandwich during my shift. Somehow eating that apple at the end of the
day filled me with fear. It was too much food, too many calories.
Before I knew it I found myself in the bathroom, staring down into the
toilet, contemplating doing something I’d vowed to never do.

And
I couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t. Instead I tiptoed across the house and
gently knocked on my parents’ bedroom door, woke my mother and said,
“Mom, I think I need help.”

I’ve always felt good about that
memory, in a sheepish sort of way, and now I understand why. I made a
choice that night, definitive and unapologetic, and owning that choice
brought the power and control into my life that a hundred skipped meals
had failed to do.

What choices are you making without claiming
the control behind them? And how much more power could you harness with
more purposeful choices?

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