What stories does your body want to tell? #2
(Trigger warning — suicidal thoughts)
Okay, let’s go to some really painful places.
I started doing selfies at what was possibly the most miserable time of my life. I remember only because when I look back on my Instagram account, these are among the earliest posts; and also because I never fail to think, “Oh, look how thin I was there.” (I’ll go into what this thinness means below)
Seeing photos of my thinner self still, today, pulls up feelings of shame. I feel conflicted and shameful about how much ‘better’ I looked then, how much larger I am now, and how hard it would be for me to get back to that size. I see the protruding collarbone and my very pointed chin in this photo and instantly wish I could get back to being that thin — this wish is a default setting. We are told “Thinner is better”, so this is the beauty-compass that I am somehow always oriented towards, in spite of all the work I am doing around body acceptance and beauty ideals.
But here’s the other — more real, more conflicted — story behind this photo. I was thin, but I was also incredibly unhappy. I had come out of a nervous breakdown where I had collapsed and hid myself away in a room for 3 weeks; I was on a weird mixture of Chinese medicine, anti-depressants, Xanax and Dormicum which I would take at regular 8-hour intervals, so I could just keep sleeping. It was just easier to be asleep, to close your eyes and go away to a quiet place where you didn’t have to deal with all the painful stuff.
I remember precisely what it was like to wake up those few months after that breakdown, around the time this photo would have been taken. I look at my eyes here and I remember how exhausted I was feeling. I feel, all over again, the dread for the day ahead, the painful, sluggish effort of having to make it through the next 20-whatever hours. I went to bed every night hoping I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. This was a time I would spend whatever free moments I had Googling how much Xanax I needed to take to get myself into a coma without dying (I wasn’t quite brave enough to want to die). I was “glamourously thin” then, and so, the equation is that I should have been happy. But all I wanted to do was get sick enough to check myself into a hospital and shut myself away from the world so I wouldn’t have to see or talk to anyone. Since I couldn’t do that, I would, instead, squirrel myself away into a quiet corner with a friend and cry and cry and cry into a cup of tea. I have never known sadness like I did then — this utter paralysing despair. And I know it all sounds horribly dramatic but this was how it was.
So yes, I looked my physical best. I fit into everything beautifully. My hair was a perfect bob. My cheekbones and my chin were chiselled. My collarbone stuck out at the right angels. But absolutely no other part of me was well. The beauty-compass in me may still orientate itself towards a desire to be “that slim” again; but the happiness-compass in me veers equally strongly away from that place because it remembers everything else that had come with being there.
I know it’s an obvious thing to say that you never know what’s going on in a person’s life; that it’s silly to look at someone (even if it’s just yourself) and think their life must be great because they look good / are in great shape / lost loads of weight or whatever other bullshit standards we equate with goodness. But truly — I never feel it more acutely than when I see old photos of myself: how gorgeously size-10 I was then, but also how desperately filled up with misery I was.
I still look at these photos to remember (in a sort of masochistic way) what there is to be glad for right now — whatever I look like and however my body wishes to be. Because hey, it’s a lot happier these days. And that’s okay.