I draw the blade across my wrist, opening the cut again. I want it to be deep, the scarring permanent. I add more lines. The first had been a reminder. The next two would be an insignia. I physically carve a new identity into my flesh: “A” is for “Anorexic.” A permanent reminder, a challenge.
I was seven years old the first time someone told me I needed to lose weight. Throughout my growing up years I heard repeated nasty comments on the unattractiveness of various women. Once, while watching a news program, a family member changed the channel in disgust, declaring that the speaker couldn’t possibly have anything important to say because she was “ugly.” “She” was a high ranking government official. After I got married, I heard someone tell my husband: “you should have seen her when she was in high school.” Apparently when I met Jesus and stopped starving myself, vomiting after binges and eating entire boxes of laxatives, I’d lost my most important attribute: physical beauty.
For a long time I’ve blamed the people in my life for my self-destructive habits and my poor self esteem. For much of my life I’ve allowed their opinions, and the pain I felt from the expression of them, to shape my thoughts and actions. Words tend to wound me deeply and I’ve never been one of those people who can just let the opinions of others roll past. So when someone says something that hurts me, I think about it, investigate it, assign meaning to it and seek to alleviate it. I go great lengths to try and figure out what happened to cause the pain and whether or not the words are true or the actions justified. Sometimes, the result of this investigation is agreement (oh my god, I am fat!) and at other times, the result is disagreement with a dash of insecurity (I don’t think crocks are ugly but other people might think they’re are ugly!) In both cases, the result is the same: I do everything within my power to create a world, both internal and external, where everyone loves me, everyone respects me, everyone approves of me, everything is okay, and I’ll never hurt again. I go on the diet, revamp the wardrobe and join the clubs, masquerading in an attempt to become whoever I think the world wants me to be. Ultimately, I turn the knife of pain against my own soul in an attempt to carve out a new identity for myself.
Interestingly, it was the experience of this type of deep, life-changing pain that finally helped me find peace. In that moment of pain, I knew that I had only two choices before me: to close my heart off, or open it wide. In the third person, I wrote about the experience in my journal:
She wakes, shivering, in the dark of the night. She wraps her arms around herself, needing to feel her own body, to feel anchored somehow. She’s filled with sadness, anger. She focuses on her breathing, one breath after another, feeling the rise and fall of her chest. Yesterday, someone gave her the truest words she’s heard since it all began:
“A nod of recognition and a few moments of grief….joy comes in the morning.”
Recognize. Grieve. Accept the joy of the morning.
She doesn’t want to hold on to this, she doesn’t want to cling to pain, she doesn’t want to set up space in her heart for it to live. Most importantly, she doesn’t want to use it as the mortar and brick with which to build another wall.
She wants to yell, she wants to throw things. She wants to hate. Hate would be easy to grab onto right now. Hate would allow her to build her walls so high she’d never hurt again. But she’s learning that the way to peace is through the pain. She’s learning that, in order to heal, she has to draw closer, rather than pull away.
Paradoxically, I hurt more and cried less during this time than I ever have before. Under the pain, there was an ever-flowing current of peace. What I learned during this time, and what I’m learning still, is that when I stop fighting the pain, stop wrestling with the thoughts and instead start watching them, they cease to hold power over me.
I think this is because when I watch, I’m able to observe as my true self – the “self” that is always whole and filled with peace – my soul, which is always connected to God. Many of the major faith traditions speak of a sort of “second self” we all have inside of us. They have given it various names, but it was Freud who gave it the name we’re most familiar with: the ego. By its simplest definition the ego is our concept of ourselves – who we think ourselves to be (as opposed to who we truly are.) The ego is the non-stop narrator, the source of the cacophony of voices that is always always ALWAYS crashing around within us (Without getting too hung up on semantics, we can describe it this way: There is the voice of the mind [ego] and there is the one who hears it [soul.])
As the real me – my soul – begins to simply watch the ego get upset, hurt, offended, angry, throw its fits and tantrums or writhe in pain, the ego naturally begins to quiet down. The ego draws its strength from interaction. It can’t survive observation.
Through observation, I’m learning to stop trying to figure out pain, escape it, wear masks to avoid it and change others to keep them from causing it. I’m learning to give myself permission to encounter pain and watch the experience play out. I’m learning to let it in, watch it pass through, and let it go.