Thursday, January 19, 2012

Past vs. Present

I don't talk about my childhood much. It wasn't a happy time, and the further I get away from it the happier I become. I would rather not think about it, but that option hasn't been available lately.

Most of you probably already know that I was abused as a child, and that I have chronic depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result. I first became aware that I was what I now recognize as clinically depressed while thinking about my upcoming fourth birthday. I can't remember back to a time when I didn't have these conditions which plays havoc with my sense of normalcy.

The suicide planning started around ten. Every night when I went to bed I reviewed my options for killing myself. Every night I came to the conclusion that I couldn't be absolutely sure they would work. Then I went over my list of reasons for living. I joked to myself that the first one was finishing whatever book I was reading at the time. One night that was the only thing on the list.

I still haven't written David Brin that thank-you letter.

The runaway planning started in my teens and followed the same routine. I had no backup, no resources, and no illusions about my ability to survive on the streets. I always came back to the same conclusion -- tough it out, get a scholarship, and get out.

I say this not to garner sympathy, but perspective. You need to understand the significance of my next statement.

I was the lucky one.

I just came away with a chronic depression, PTSD, and suicidal tendencies. My little sister came away with anorexia nervosa and a slew of addictions.

One difference between us was in how we responded to our adopted* mother. Mom was a big factor in making our childhood Hell.

(*The first thing my husband-to-be said to me after meeting her was, "Thank God you told me you were adopted. If I thought you were blood kin to that woman I'd head for the hills.")

Mom was a former schoolyard bully who never emotionally matured past the age of 13. The best way I know to describe her is to describe her funeral. There were no flowers. A lot of people came to the viewing just to look in the coffin. The preacher's eulogy (no one else spoke) was a masterpiece of it's genre -- "She always had strong ideas about Heaven. I'm sure she's learned a lot since then," and "When her Sunday School class heard she was in the hospital a fight broke out among the ladies over who would go see her." Even at that the back row was ducking for cover, afraid the Lord would strike him down for lying from the pulpit on her behalf. (I always wonder why people pay good money to see black comedy. Don't they have families?) No one will repeat what she said about me and my family on her deathbed. All they'll say is to go on with my life and think no more about "that evil, selfish witch".

I got real mad at that last bit. It would have done me a world of good if somebody had had the nerve to call her that to my face back when I was a child trying to understand why the center of my universe, her, was so off-kilter.

Because if adults who didn't live with her reacted that way, then you can imagine what life with her was like for her children.

I first concluded that it was my fault and I should do everything I could to please her, but that only made things worse. Resentment was Mom's default state, so if you succeeded at anything in an attempt to please her she resented you for that success, unless she could use it against someone else. This is a woman who bragged about standing up and cheering when she heard the news of JFK's assassination. And RFK. And MLK. She never spoke an uncatty compliment except through gritted teeth.

My fallback position was to reject everything. I rebelled against everything, including the stereotypical forms of rebellion which looked like traps set up by TPTB to ensnare those who tried to escape.

Sis tried to please her longer.

Mom hated herself of course. She took that hate out on everyone else for every excuse that she ever heard. She hated Blacks, Jews, Catholics, Hispanics, et al, but most of all she hated women. She was the biggest misogynist I've ever met. She made white Southern men of the 1970s look like die-hard feminists in comparison.

Of course she hounded us to be extreme versions of stereotypical femininity: dumb, charming, graceful, completely self-negating and yet somehow accomplished. And skinny. Preferably skinnier than Twiggy.

I tried to be skinny for her sake, but I'm a) an endomorph, and b) a pragmatist. Skinny is not in my DNA. Neither is tilting at windmills. So I sat out to be a healthy, curvy girl.

That wasn't good enough for Mom of course, and I got an earful of abuse over it on every occasion. I did what worked; I labeled everything she said as garbage and rejected it. But I still heard it.

Sis is an ectomorph. It didn't take her long to develop full-blown anorexia nervosa. She got skinny enough for Mom to use her to berate me about my weight, but somehow that was never skinny enough.

(After one too many remarks from Mom about how "healthy" Sis looked in comparison to me I said, "She's two years younger than me and looks ten years older! People who knew us as children keep getting us mixed up. You can see ever bone she has; she has fur on her arms, sunken eyes, and cauliflower ears. The next stage is for her teeth to fall out!"

"Oh, she's got a good dentist. He'll take care of her teeth. You should get a good insurance plan like she has."

See what I mean about black comedy? Why do people pay for it when lines like that are for free?)

When I reached adulthood I had a lot of health issues to work on, starting (obviously) with mental health. After 25 years I've got most of the mental ones in line at least. I've accepted that they're chronic conditions, can recognize the symptoms, and know how to avoid the triggers. I've buried a lot of ghosts and come to terms with a lot that happened. That's the hardest work I've ever done in my life. I think I can safely say it's harder than many people ever attempt.

When it came to my physical health I encountered two stumbling blocks. One was the extraordinary amount of misinformation, much of it from "official" sources, about women's health issues. Sometimes it seems like as much as 99% of what our culture thinks is true about health, especially women's health, is actually false. Coming from a background involving mental illness, a field long subjected to all sorts of snake oil, only exacerbated this awareness. I doubt I need to go into detail; other people have ranted about this issue before and this post rambles enough already.

All that misinformation only got distilled and concentrated by the second stumbling block, Mom. Whenever she got the chance she did it in person, but now that she's gone her mental construct lives on in the back of my head ready to nag 24/7. This means that on those occasions when I have tried to diet I have to deal with her ghost nagging me about it. Dieting feels like I'm giving in to her, following down my sister's path of self-destruction, being sucked into one of Mom's many traps, negating all the hard work I've done to become my own person and losing myself in her hateful image issues. That sets off my well-honed anti-Mom response, overwhelming fury at whatever load of crap she was pushing this time, and I act out my rage by -- breaking my diet.

Hey, that response literally kept me out of the insane asylum. But right now it's doing nothing for my weight.

That's not to say I ignored my diet. I relabeled it. I practiced healthy eating with a menu high in protein, fresh fruit and veggies, and low in pre-packaged food. I ate only at regular, pre-planned intervals. I hardly ever ate out. I exercised -- for stamina and to control my depression. As long as I didn't think about it as weight control or do anything overtly associated with weight control (weighing often, counting calories, and so forth) I was all right. While I never got skinny I never had any health problems either.

That worked until I reached middle age and Baby #4 came along. Between taking care of him and dealing with that nonsense I had to deal with recently I gained a lot of weight. While pulling a tantrum-throwing toddler off something he shouldn't have been climbing on I injured my knee. Having to repeat that act on a regular basis hasn't helped it heal.

There's a lot of areas where I can debate anti-fat bias in medicine, but joints are not one of them. It's lose the weight or lose the knee.

Actually taking weight off comes up against some difficult physiological realities. My body type holds on to weight the hardest. Simple portion control won't do the job, I'll actually have to count calories. As far as exercise goes, a few years ago I exercised every day for two years in a balanced routine of stretching, cardio and strength training. It converted the fat into muscle so while I shrank two dress sizes I didn't lose an ounce. That would strengthen the muscles of the knee, but it's not the muscles that are the problem. That means more overt weight-loss activity than I've been successful with before, and that gets triggery.

Exercise at this point in time comes up against some practical problems. With three kids constantly underfoot it's extremely difficult to find the time, and I'm almost always exhausted. I have no TV to play my exercise DVDs. The space in front of the computer to exercise in is taken up with building supplies for the remodeling we're doing. It'll be three months before that's available, up to a year before we're ready for the TV. I did get a Wii this Christmas (an older model you can hook a dance mat up to), but it's in the closet for now.

There's no local exercise classes. We spoke to the PE instructors at the local community college about non-credit night classes, but there's no telling when or even if that will come to anything. The nearest classes are over an hour's drive away, and I have small children and no day care. That's also the problem with walking outside. So I'm dodging construction material in our unfinished den dancing and doing yoga to music CDs. Still, it's hard to stay motivated.

And then there's that damn trigger. I've been slowly working on this for a month now, easing my way into setting up an exercise area, cutting back on portion size, and starting to examine my diet, and it's already making me fretful. To my surprise I haven't done anything to give the trigger a good whack yet, but it's still there.

So here's the question, is there a place online where women gather together to motivate themselves to lose weight in a pro-feminist manner, without descending into language that self-loathing, anti-fat and anti-woman? I've measured my bones and my skeleton, with no meat on it whatsoever, is a size 14. That's as skinny as I can get unless some dress manufacturer cooks the numbers (Which has been known to happen, but that's a separate rant.) I'm never going to be a size 8. I'm always going to be what our society considers plus sized, I'm always going to look "fat" to ignorant eyes, and I'm okay with that. I just want to improve my health. But if I have to listen to other people carry on in stereotypical "dieting" language, I'm going to lose my cool.


Kenny and Teresa Wolfe said...

Just remember that yor mom doesn't "win" when you try to be healthy (even if that requires counting calories); she wins when you don't do what you know is right for you because of her and what she has said or done in the past. Avoiding these healthy behaviors because you can hear her saying "I told you you needed to lose weight!" is the same as starving yourself because that was what she suggested.
don't let the past steal your present. - Cherralea Morgen
I have to remind myself of this quote on a daily basis. Our moms could have been bff's - coincidentally - I was adopted, too. I am on, but it's not just for women, and some people are negative about themselves. Annoying, but the tools and positive people out-weigh those. No pun intended... Best of luck!Keep dancing around the mess until the mess is gone and be as active as possible WITH the kids! :)

Lioness said...

Our moms could have been bff's

That's the scariest thing I've heard in ages. My condolences, seriously.

I am on

I'll look into that, thanks.

Misti said...

I am a body acceptance activist, so I can't really help with community. I hope someone can.

I did want to mention that we seem to be of a similar body type, and that I have recently "accidently" lost 50 pounds or so. I'm still fat -- like you, my absolute skinny is around size 14 and I was younger than 14 when I saw that last -- but I wasn't dieting or exercising, or trying to do anything to lose weigth. But in the process (and well before any weight loss occured) I also lost my arthritis.

How? I stopped eating grains. My whole family did, actually. I did it because when I skipped grains, my knees and hips stopped hurting. When I did it longer, my periodontal disease went away. Then, after I'd been at it a while, I started to lsoe weight. (I never would have waited had it been for weight loss -- the recovery was two years in before weight loss started.) might look into a grain free diet and see if it helps your knees. It did mine.