Every day I am learning more and more about the power of what it means to be able to tell your own story, and the liberating nature of authenticity in articulating your own journey, as well as in capturing the multifaceted experiences subsumed within ideas of an expansive humanness. As a poet, I understand language as many things: a tool of connection, a luminous manifestation of the astral realm, a curious hideaway space, a memory box, as home…but lately I am also beginning to understand language as a bridge making towards various self-truths and understandings of the world at large. When I was younger, we did not talk much, if at all, about eating disorders or disordered eating. Neither did I know that eating disorders are one of the world’s most silent killers. All around me were conversations of this and that new diet you must try, and in my innocent sponge-like child state I soaked up those exclusionary beauty standards as “truth” – I did not understand then that to be beautiful is to simply say arrive as you are and with open heart first, always; continue to show up honest as your already shimmering still learning self.
And because we did not talk about eating disorders at all, that absence meant I lacked the comprehensive linguistic tools to explain my discombobulated and dysfunctional internal landscape. I did not know how to recognize my own illness, nonetheless frame my story in ways that adequately captured my growing struggles with food, this body and food in relation to my rocky road body-scape. Meaning, I did not and could not perceive myself as sick because to be sick then to me was ailments you could ‘see’, and I did not see myself as sick enough to warrant seeking help. In my world, it was a given that women poked and prodded at their alien bodies as if they were strange experimental sites as that’s what all the women around me did. And that everybody, strangers and family alike, had the right to comment on the shifting cartographies of my changing body shape. Culture is beautiful thing in its rootedness in facilitating connection, but culture can also be the barrel of a loaded gun when it’s used to dictate expectations and alienate those it does not recognize.
I don’t exactly remember when I stopped eating. I just know that one day I did. And every day after that felt like the hardest day of my life. Instead of being asked about my sudden weight loss, I was celebrated for my overdue accomplishments. “One day I will be like you”, the crowds would cheer from the side lines, and I would always think to myself: no one deserves to live a life full of such silent and immense suffering, what Thoreau describes as being a life of “quiet desperation”. Although I did not know I was sick per se, I did intuitively know that I was trapped in a cycle of some kind of starvation and a misery I could not yet name, or even conceptualize overcoming. When we would go out to restaurants I would have a series of panic attacks, during dinner I would hide, when offered food at a relative’s house I would lie and say that I was full, and if I could not lie I would inevitable purge as punishment.
Years later, after gaining access to eating disorder terminology and being strong armed into therapy by those around me, I learned that my relationship to food was, in fact, not healthy. Shocker lol. I was initially diagnosed with is formerly known as EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), which I suppose should have been a moment to affirm that my fears around food were not only real but were also dangerous. However, ironically, it made me feel that I was not sick enough because they couldn’t even find where on the diagnostic scale to place me exactly – I was not exactly anorexic or bulimic, I was something foreign that could not be put into the right words. Which in my head translated into “oh well, I guess you’re not that sick, you could be sicker” and “you’re doing this all wrong”. If I was sick but not ‘sick enough’, where did my eating disorder story belong? Did I even have the right to claim ownership over that narrative if I did not fit the emaciated white woman archetype that I was constantly bombarded with? That is what a lack of representation does, it is a thief in the night that robs you completely of room to scream timber when in hurts and creates a visceral absence in the stories we tell of ourselves, as well as each other; it silences struggle in harmful ways that birth myths about who is “allowed” to be sick. Needless to say, after my diagnosis I got a lot worse because it felt like I needed to “prove” my eating disorder in order to establish its validity. This is why the image of who is and can be afflicted by eating disorders is so critical -it cultivates space for all the missing voices, brings those left behind to the campfire circle to finally tell their own stories: in their own words, in ways that allow them to be seen. In ways that make room for collective deep satiating breath.
After struggling for 8 years I decided to open up to a friend about my eating disorder and the ways in which it’s consumed my ability properly function. The pair of us sat in the community study lounge as I stumbled over my trembling words, heart drumming against my rib cage, as I recounted one of the most difficult experiences of my every day life. She sat nodding respectfully as I talked and when I finished she said, “but you don’t look like you have an eating disorder”. I don’t remember much of what happened after, just how loud the ringing of a shattering heart can be. I kept thinking I wish she knew how heavy it was for me to constantly carry around a quiet burden of this magnitude in ways I have. I also kept thinking, well maybe she was right. Language is a flashlight we use to weave through the mess but it is also torch that can burn everything to the ground if you are not careful with how you use it. In hindsight, I recognize how her words were not intentionally meant to hurt me and that because of our cultural backgrounds there was also a childlike innocence to her question. We know what we know and when we know more we grow more, and we become better in how we speak to one another. There is always a place for growth at the table.
For a long time I did not have the rhetoric, or bravery honestly, to talk openly about my maladaptive experiences with food. All I know is that because of that linguistic absence it made it even more difficult for me to understand that I was indeed struggling in deeper ways that I knew. And so the question becomes how do you begin to ask for help when you can’t describe the very thing plaguing you? As a writer, I have an intimate relationship with language – to be a wordsmith is to also be an architect, where you can start to build new worlds that more accurately name all that is possibly going inside and outside of you. In ways that allow for the recognition that some of the thoughts and behaviours I exhibited were disordered and distorted. Ultimately, I learned that by finally being able to name the thing, I could learn how best to tame it. How best to tend to the aching wounds. How to better weave through the mess more gently. More intently. Learning patiently how to start softening the spaces once hardened by the pain, and watering them into a temple full unending seasons of bloom. So alive. The grief melting from my bones slow the way butter melts on toast. This is all to say: be gentle with the all aches in your chest my loves, they are valid and you don’t need to show your scars to anybody in order to prove that they are real. It is a fact that flowers still grow between landmines.
To end, I gift you a poem and leave you with some of my favourite words by Pema Chodron:
on safe spaces and softer crash landings.
and hand all your
messiest parts to me
i will be your lighthouse
your best foot to put forward
the most northern star leading you home
my love an unwavering compass
your favourite dreamcatcher
your holiest resting place
your trusted hideaway
your panic button
your life vest
your life vest
your life vest
Poem: by: Lulwama K. Mulalu