I have stretch marks now, and not the good kind. Not the kind you get from making or feeding children, but the kind you get from eating stale crackers from the back corner of your pantry because nothing else is left to binge.
This is uncomfortable; today’s conversation has less to do with what happened to me, and more to do with what I did to myself- the part I played in treating myself more worse than I deserved.
A little melodramatic, maybe, when you consider the subject matter to be pretzel thins or Chips Ahoy, but it goes deeper than that. It might’ve started out somewhere small- ah, the innocence of the pretzel- until things progressed uncontrollably, an unruly monster, towards old tortillas or heels of bread or the last of the chips you don’t even like, on and on until you start to wonder if chia seeds are okay on their own or if dry noodles are any good.
It starts out with a casual glance into the fridge. Or maybe it started before that, at dinner with friends, when you realized the fun would end and you’d be alone again but and you needed something comforting to come home to. Then you’re standing there at the end of the day, in your oversized t-shirt and bare feet, lights off but for the fridge, waiting for something to look good enough to eat. And then you start. When those first good things are gone, the second tier start to go. After that, the rest disappears, slow and steady, until you’re ill. Nausea and bloating take over, followed closely by shame, self-loathing, disgust. And then it’s time for bed. Diet starts tomorrow, right?
These habits didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. I’d learned to treat food and my body poorly since childhood- sneaking treats was a fun adventure, comfort food was the norm, snacks to unwind were the go-to. Fairly normal habits to get into and not always bad. Food is a part of our culture and certainly an important part of an abundant, joyful life. However, less normal when I felt I couldn’t stop- more goldfish, more cookies, more chips. Matched by more work-outs, more diets, more rules. I always felt a little out of control in either direction and quickly learned how to feel bad about myself based on the food diary or the weight or the jean size. Easily done through middle and high school, easily reinforced into adulthood.
College started out alright. I felt thin and pretty and healthy. I ate what I wanted but wasn’t too crazy, had salads and pizza and did just fine. I certainly had a distorted relationship with food and body image, but I coasted along for a while until it started taking a turn in the wrong direction.
Trying to pinpoint the moment of decline is tricky, but I know I started gaining the most weight studying abroad. I’m not sure if it was the stress of being away from home, my involvement in an emotionally tumultuous relationship, or simply a shift in metabolism. Probably a bit of all of it mixed with Nutella and beer. When I came home, though, I couldn’t lose that weight again no matter what I tried.
That semester the relationship I had with food and my boyfriend started growing stranger at the same time. There was a lot of arguing about why we weren’t having sex, the hot-and-cold games were picking up steam, and the withholding of attention increased. My jeans were tighter and my boyfriend was colder, and that was all I knew about that. I discovered I had the capacity to eat chocolate til my stomach hurt, and sometimes that felt good.
It worsened more rapidly once we were married. I suddenly lived in a military town where I knew no one and was alone for weeks at a time. There’s nothing more comforting than comfort food when you have no friends! And when you know your husband had time to call you but didn’t, you learn that chocolate chips never ignored you. Pizza never pretended you didn’t exist. Cupcakes never left you lonely.
And when he started leaving the house more often than work required, ice cream bars were still there. Coconut milk ones, though, because you’re trying to be healthy. Until you eat all five.
When he didn’t feel like going on a date with you, there was always the movies. Full of darkness and giant popcorns and candy and soda and no one to see you eat all of it. No one could tell when you dropped popcorn down your shirt or left grease stains on your pants; no one to see you and reject you for the forgettable cow that you were.
When he didn’t want to have sex with you, there was wine. Wine made you feel softer and prettier and took the sting off.
Last summer was the worst of all. It was easier to consume whole bags of chips, whole bottles of wine, tubs of ice cream then face a broken heart. Food was always there. Food was a reliable friend. Food made me feel good when my husband couldn’t. Or when he didn’t want to. Or when he didn’t give a shit anymore at all. And when I decided to leave there were still M&Ms. Still peanut butter. The grocery store was always there, ready to let me take home whatever company I wanted to keep. It wanted me back when no one else did.
When it stopped making me feel good, it started making me miserable, but that became okay. I was disgusting enough to be ignored, I might as well feel the part. I really was worth rejecting, wasn’t I? Crumbs and stains and bloat, out of clothes that fit, out of reasons to look in the mirror. Why would he want to look at me? I’m forgettable. I’m disgusting. I’m alone. Act like it.
At a certain point, it just got easier to feel sick than sad. It was easier to eat a whole box of cereal til everything hurt but my heart. It was easier to upset myself over brownies than him.
Congrats to me, I never purged. I thought about it plenty. I wanted to, still do some days when it gets bad again. I imagine it’d feel like a reset button on the damage I’d done to myself, a reversal over the control I just lost. Never did, though, because “purging is a sin.”
What a strange little world I’ve cooked up in my brain.
In the end, as much as it might seem like self-care and post-divorce care are separate topics, for me, they’re very much the same. I was in a relationship where I was treated as less-than, both by a man I loved and by myself.
I’m ready to thrive in my own skin. I’m ready to start chipping away at a culture that allows us to treat ourselves, and allows others to treat us, with less than we deserve.
It’s a tangled mess, I know, but thanks for being here while I try. I hope you know you’re beautiful. We all are.