Learning to Feel

I wasn’t used to dressing for the cold. We had lived in the tropics until that year. Even our tiny island elementary school uniform of green shorts and yellow t-shirt felt painfully restricting compared to the preferred outfit; bathing suit. Maybe some flip flops for rocks. That is all.

But I did my best. We didn’t have extra money to waste on new clothes while there were stores full of perfectly good used clothes for a tenth the price. I chose the closest imitation of my preferred Caribbean costume. Meaning, clothes that felt like I was nearly naked.

A baggy shirt over leggings, and still the flip flops, but added to the amazing new discovery of socks with toes, striped and flamboyant against the dreary Oregon skies. It wasn’t quite the look everyone else was going for, but I decided I could rock the artsy vibe.

Until that day, a month in at the new school. I was lounging in the carpeted commons with a couple of friends, feeling not quite thrilled by the new situation, but optimistic. When a group of older kids walked by, lead by the cute but troubled Adam, to whom I’d never spoke, who I’m sure didn’t even know my name. He strutted in his baggy jeans and skater shoes, right by me in my baggy shirt and artsy black leggings, and blurted out with a smirk, “Hey Spandex!” I knew it was not a compliment. My shoulders folded in, I looked down at my clothes.

I was eleven years old.

******

Twelve years old, on a field trip. Some how I snuck away from the class with my best friend and two boys, one my biggest crush with his twinkling eyes, his wide braced smile and his thick brown hair puffed in the soon-to-be-obsolete bowl cut. We hid in one of the dark vans, us girls in the back bench seat and the boys one row ahead, giggling and gawking back at my friend and her overly mature chest.

Born on Halloween, she’d earned the nickname Booboo, and through her womanly twist of fate, coupled with an unfortunate trend among these boys to add the suffix “-age” to the end of every word, her name had become, affectionately, Boob-age. I only now wonder how that affected her. I was too shortsighted to see beyond my own experience of her endowments, that in compared to my own limited supply, left me wondering if I would even be in this van with these boys if not associated with this pubescent goddess.

Our friendship was tenuous, as I was naively learning that female friendships can be. That in our potent power we also have the power to destroy. And that in the competition for attention and mates, we often wield that power carelessly against each other. Indeed, our ending would scare me off female friends for a long time.

The talk turned to truth or dare. The attention turned to me. Maybe I wasn’t obsolete after all. Truth. “What bra size do you wear?”

Booboo spoke up instead. A lapse in sisterhood, a threat to her throne. Calm and cool as always, with her silky smooth Scorpio voice, but still, the undeniable condescending cadence of a caddy teen, she said, “Um…I don’t think they have sizes in sports bras.”

********

That summer we visited my father in the Virgin Islands, where he had stayed. Where I wished we had stayed. Where my life was walking and swimming and dancing, and sun touching bare skin, and ground touching bare feet. Where I felt free in my body.

That summer everyone was growing up. They were smoking pot and drinking at the bar, and sleeping with boyfriends and girlfriends. They were so young. Girls in bikinis meant for women ten years older. I had a pink one a friend gave me, which clutched desperately at my uncertain curves. Curves in the works. Hips that hadn’t figured out where to land, tits that hadn’t figured out where to point. Baby chub molding mercilessly slow into some form of a lady.

My new step-sister was the queen of promiscuity, all thirteen years of her. Lording over her nineteen-year-old lovers, holding a beer bottle loosely like the mature woman she was striving to be. Sneering and sniping at anyone who stood in her way.

I walked up from the water towards our group of friends. Always an awkward walk, on shifty sand, with waves chasing you up the beach to try and trip your grace. I did my best. As I approached our little shaded enclave in the trees, she snapped a picture, and gave me a look that I took as disgust.

The picture came back to show a child, trying to wear a woman’s bikini, but all the wrong shape. A child who wanted to feel in her body how it seemed these other women felt in theirs. In Oregon I stuck the picture to our fridge, looking at it with disdain each time I passed by. I was teaching myself to despise myself. I was determined to change.

*******

My brother was a wrestler. He was learning how to cut weight. How to run around in hot gyms and rain gear. How to sweat it out. He wanted a six-pack. So I wanted a six pack. We obtained a used copy of “8 Minute Abs” on VHS and crunched side by side on the living room floor to sculpt our bods. We did it every morning for a few months. I memorized the exercises.

Then I found “8 Minute Legs,” and “8 Minute Buns”. I’d heard my father comment on a woman with thunder thighs, which sounded like something undesirable. My body was changing. I didn’t want thunder thighs. I didn’t want to be big at all. I wanted to stay small. My childhood was happy, these years were brutal. I memorized the exercises. I strapped weights to my ankles. I was thirteen.

My brother moved on to other things. I did the exercises every morning for four years. I couldn’t start my day without them. I hid in bathrooms on field trips to get in some toe touches, some squats. I did leg lifts in the bathtub. I was embarrassed but I needed it. I couldn’t relax until I had done my workouts. I was addicted.

********

My first day of high school I learned that I liked to run. The only other time I had run was a thirteen-minute mile in sixth grade. Our PE class started with a mandatory twenty minute jog. We didn’t have to run the whole time, but I did. Effortlessly. I signed up for track and field that spring. I enjoyed it actually. I had great friends and a great time. Stretching and lounging in the grass, or in the thick mats at the pole vault pit.

Despite the joy it gave me, I was still too young to detach the more sinister reason I ran. Not for my health, not even to win the races. But always, primarily, to soothe my crushing obsession to stay skinny.

I learned about calories. I simplified it like balancing a ledger. Five hundred equals a pound. Want to lose weight? Eat this many. Want to maintain? Eat this many. I trimmed my diet to fruit in the morning, bagel at lunch, and dinner how my mom made it, although that was sometimes an argument. Anything extra meant extra running. I bought a treadmill for the Oregon winter. If I didn’t run before dinner, I would wait an hour after, the engine whirring late into the night. It was never too late to run, because not running was not an option.

********

My mom watched me in the bathroom mirror, scared and concerned. As I spun from side to side, flexing my belly, often bloated, or pulling back the skin on my thighs to see what skinnier legs would look like, to lock in some sort of goal.

I saw improvements to be made. My mom saw my spine, my hip bones, and bags under my eyes. She couldn’t get me to talk to anyone, she couldn’t get me to stop running. I didn’t think I had a problem, just that I had perfected will power and control. It did, after all, seem to keep my sadness at bay.

********

I came back from my sophomore summer in St. John weighing one hundred and twelve pounds. Less than I weighed in sixth grade. That was as low as I ever got, thank god.

I was proud. Each day on the island I had run two miles, swam and walked the hilly roads, often dancing at night. I had gone without sweets for a full month. I wore clothes that wouldn’t fit the other girls. It was the ultimate will power. Or obsession.

Junior year I played spring soccer for the third year, but decided to run cross country at the same time. After soccer practice I would jog over to the track and run the cross country workout too, even though the coach assured me that soccer practice would be enough. I was dotting all my i’s. Obsessive. I was light and fast that year, placing twelfth at districts, and pole-vaulting on the springy 120-pound pole.

********

Senior year something happened. I couldn’t control it. I just needed…more food. My years of strict simple meals weren’t cutting it anymore. Like my body was trying to grow or something. I found myself starving at night, after a day of restricted calories and intense exercise. I raided our cabinets for anything I could turn into a junkified version of healthy hippy snacks. Cereal mixed in peanut butter. Frozen fruit plopped in yogurt with granola. And then I binged in front of the TV, quenching hunger and anxiety.

And woke up hurting. Tired from rough sleep, belly bloated. I always resolved to “start fresh” that day. To “fast” for a day. Fasting was a trendy word that sounded like something healthy. I convinced myself that not eating was exactly what my body needed. And many days I would fast until 4pm, when I would feel famished, and start the whole process again.

I never threw up, though. I tried once, just a little poke down my throat, but nothing happened. My friend tried it. She said it made her feel gross. That was the friend I ran with, and talked with. The friend who introduced me to “cleanses”, an acceptable way to not eat for days at a time. I tried that too. The “master cleanse”. Until I hadn’t pooped in four days and I got bored of lemon water and maple syrup. So I stopped.

The day of the district track meet, I stepped on the scale to weigh in for the pole vault. I’d been practicing on the 120-pound pole all year. I stared in disbelief at the scale. One hundred, thirty-three pounds. I was destroyed on so many levels. Not that I was even good enough to flex the pole, not that using the 140-pound pole would make much of a difference. It went deeper, of course, triggering my insecurities. My one constant goal, through all the years and upsets and challenges, my one grounding point, was staying small. And here I was, nearly fifteen pounds heavier than I had expected.

I had five minutes left to weigh in. I layered on rain pants and sweatshirts and windbreaker and ran laps around the field, biting my cheek, praying. Then I returned to the scale, stripped off my extra layers, and stepped up. One hundred, thirty pounds.

********

I was hiking in Oregon with a boy who was like a brother, or at least a cousin to me. We were babies on boats together in the Virgin Islands, and then close friends in Oregon, family camping trips and holidays gatherings. He was rowdy. A rager, harsh and loud at times, caring and funny at others. I never expected compassion out of him, but my mind was overflowing with insecurity, as it often was. We sat at the top of the trail, on a rock overlooking the valley, and I blurted out.

“I wish my legs weren’t so big.”

To which he said, matter of fact, without missing a beat. “You’re a runner and a snowboarder. Of course your legs are going to be big.” Then he got up and walked away.

And that was all I needed, a quip of validation from someone who tells it like it is. I sat and thought about it, for the first time. Would I want to stop running, stop snowboarding, to have the body I obsessed over? No…of course not.

I was seventeen years old.

********

My first years of college I wavered between bouts of regimented exercise and lulls of exhausted laziness. I lost myself to binging nights, bag of cookies and salads and whatever I had in the fridge, and followed it up with days of “fasting”.

I committed and recommitted to “starting fresh” the next day, which meant unrealistic, anxiety provoking exercise and diet goals. I didn’t have the drive I used to. I just couldn’t understand how to get back to that Junior year lightness and ease. That was the goal.

I shuffled through a box of books, organizing my room in the off campus house I shared, ironically, with the same freckled boy from the van who had asked my bra size so many years ago. I pulled out a book my mom gave me, which I had brushed aside immediately. It had a cheesy title, “Real Girl, Real World”. I sat on the edge of my floor futon and flipped through it. One chapter was on eating disorders.

Anorexia; not eating. ‘Not me,’ I thought. Bulimia; binging and purging through vomiting. Neither. Then a bold caption caught my eye. Exercise bulimia; binging and purging through excessive exercise. Or, restricting calories and excessive exercise.

I lowered the book in my lap. There was a name for what I did? It was an illness, a problem. The only way I would ever be that skinny again was if I had a problem…and I knew I didn’t want to have a problem. Of that I was sure.

It was instantaneous. I shed that one-hundred, fifteen pound goal, let it slip away into my past. I let myself grow up a little. I wasn’t done yet, but I was getting closer.

I was nineteen years old.

***********

Twenty four years old. Sitting in silence for ten days. Sitting! I panicked. No exercise? Over the years I had fluctuated, between active, social stints on a new campus in Bend, to sluggish years busy with school and a lazy relationship. Through courses on massage, and well-being, science and physiology. Courses which helped me appreciate the human body, through learning and touching. Which helped me appreciate my own bodya little more.

Then to traveling again. Down through Central America dancing and sweating off winter layers. To coming home, to working on farms. To digestion issues. To struggling for a deep breathe as I ate. At times I felt great in my body, and at times I felt confused and trapped by its moods.

All the while I tried to stay disciplined, with fierce yoga or hard exercise. With new regiments. “Monday I will start running every day again.” “This month I will lose ten pounds.” I still had nights where I binged, or nightmares that I had binged even when I hadn’t. My greatest concern going into the meditation course was not the silence, or the long days. My greatest concern was that I couldn’t exercise. That I would gain weight.

Still, I followed the rules. I did not pump and sweat through my yoga routine, secretly in my curtained-off bunk area. I did not break into a sly jog on the walking trails. I respected the instructions of the teacher who had developed the course through thousands of students, and refined a method that seemed to work best with many minds. Who said that sticking with previous routines would only serve as a distraction, and would not give this technique a fair trial. And I needed to give this technique a fair trial, because I needed something in my life to change, one way or another.

So I focused on my breathe. I sat through mental storms. I sat through my achey shoulder and my clenched stomach. I progressed through the course and started to learn the technique, the full body scan. Passing my attention from the top of the head, down over the face, down past the neck, arms, torso, legs, feet, and back up. Just feeling and noticing. I noticed my body in a whole new way.

There were two meals a day. Lunch ended at noon and we didn’t eat agin for the night, except a tea break at 5pm. For new students there was fruit available. Old students were expected to drink only lemon water, as an empty stomach facilities deeper meditation. Each night I stomped into the kitchen and hung up my coat and passed by the fruit table to the hot water. I poured a splash of lemon juice into a mug of steaming water. Then I sat and sipped, staring at the table, trying to remember my breathe, and the sensation of the tea passing down my throat.

I skipped the fruit because I didn’t need it. And because I wanted to follow the strictest rules, to get the most benefit. And also, of course, because of my obsession.

On day four the kitchen crew made cookies for lunch. Silently placed on the side table next to the dishwashing station. The students hovered with their plates, loading their main course of curried veggies and rice, before jetting over to claim a precious sweet treat. Food was the biggest sensual distraction. I finished my curry and stared over at the side table, a few cookies scattered among crumbs. Sweets still elicited a pang of anxiety for me. I got up and washed my plate and headed out to the walking trails.

********

On day eight they served brownies. Dark, rich, dense chocolate squares. Now I felt strong, proud. I was two days away from the end. I would make it through this course after all, despite a dark cloud every day urging me to run away. I had stayed eight days, I would stay another two. And today, I would eat a brownie.

I sat back with my little chocolate square on a fresh plate. I was already thinking of the second brownie. And how many more could I eat. I closed my eyes and found my breathe. We had just been instructed to carry the practice with us throughout the day now, observing sensations while walking, while eating, while laying down to sleep. “Never stop the practice. Continuity of practice is important.”

I took my first small bite and felt my tastebuds explode. Had I ever been so present with a piece of food. I almost resisted. This intensity can only come from long abstinence. These first few bites will be the most potent. I kept going, slowly, breathing, feeling, tasting. And when it was gone something miraculous happened. I didn’t want another one. Because I had actually experienced the first one. I had not devoured it shamefully, hoping my conscience wouldn’t notice. That nervous rush that bypasses any satisfaction, leaving me wanting another, and another.

I had eaten one. Decisively, consciously. I had enjoyed it. I hadn’t used it to escape anxiety, or to numb my mind. My mind didn’t need numbing. I washed my plate and headed for the trails.

******

The sugar hit the next hour, as we sat for the afternoon group session. One hundred or more meditators settled in lines and rows in the big hall, nestling into their individual assortments of cushions and blankets. Two seats over was a beautiful thin woman, with short brown hair perfectly in place each day. She wore loose, elegant clothes, seemingly designed for just such a purpose as meditating for ten days. She carried her own shawl, which she stretched and slung artfully around her perfectly poised shoulders as she sat.

I had admired her beauty the whole course. But today, as the coughs and stirs and shuffles quieted down into one hundred bodies silently scanning themselves, noticing sensations, practicing equanimity, a storm of insecurity found me in the crowd, drawn in by the rush of sugar, never more apparent than now, after eight days of purity and internal reflection.

It was delayed shame for the brownie, mixed with envy of this woman, which had me wishing again I was someone else. Had me so distraught that I cried silently, pushing frustrated tears down my cheeks. Again, I wanted to leave this course. I wanted to go run, needed to exercise, purge. I felt disgusting, sitting here all day, in my wrinkly sweat pants with my hair frazzled and dirty. I did not like myself.

For one hour.

Not for the rest of the day, not for the rest of the week. I did not like myself for just one hour. Because, change was the last lesson of the technique. Which we were practicing. Watching things come and go. With equanimity.

I sat through that damn storm (not entirely equanimous), and then it passed, and I moved on.

*******

I drove home from the course with two men. One who had been meditating since he was fourteen years old, and the other who had dated the woman with the shawl. The latter took us to a fancy vegan restaurant in Portland as a gift for the ride, and as a treat for himself. I was surprised when the men ordered beer. The code of ethics for Vipassana encourages sobriety, but I would come to learn that there are many ways of doing this life right.

I ordered a “flu shot” (ginger, lemon, and cayenne), and we chatted about the first things we wanted to do when we got home. I told the man about my experience with the elegant woman. How I saw her as perfect, how it had affected me.

He laughed, and described who she was. “She didn’t always look like that. She just started eating raw and changing how she dressed. She’s been traveling and lost and confused too.”

I smiled at the reality I had created in my own mind. How we do. My flu shot arrived and I took a big sip, gasping as the ginger and lemon and pepper traced it’s way down my throat to my stomach.

*******

Back home I crept tentatively in front of my mirror and peeled off my towel, nervous at what I would see. And scared for the cascade of doubt it would trigger. Yet there I stood, naked with myself for the first time in ten days, and unchanged. ‘Huh!’ I thought. So, I can not exercise for a while and be fine?

At the same time, though, the body in the mirror was changed, in a way. It was no longer just a picture that I scrutinized and criticized. Because every square inch that I could see with my eyes, that I would have judged with my mind, was a square inch that I just spent ten days experiencing as a physical reality. As something more real and more substantial than an anxious thought.

Through focused practice, I had turned the volume up on my body, allowed it to be heard and felt. This left less room for my judging mind. I shrugged my shoulders at the mirror. For the first time that image meant nothing, not compared to everything else my body meant now. A vessel for feeling the world.

Then I stepped in the shower. Turned on the hot water and found my awareness. Heat tingling through my scalp, over my face, down my shoulders. Deliciously sensational. I stayed and breathed in every drop, until it was time to step out and confront the world.

**********

Thirty years old. I’d found a good balance with exercise. Without the pressure of body image, I let myself move when I wanted to. I found that walking and stretching was usually good enough, and that running was needed every once in a while to really shake up stuck emotions. I realized that beyond body image, I’d always needed exercise for my mental health.

I’d figured out my stomach issues, my food allergies, my parasites. I’d learned that many of my cravings and emotions came from gut imbalance. I learned how to eat in a way that gave me the lightness I’d always craved. I still had lulls, of course, because that is life.

I was working with teenagers, finally. I always thought I would, but had never been ready. Until then I was still healing my own teenage habits. Now I was on the other side. I was clearer. Now I was learning about horticulture therapy and health, and teaching balance to these kids. How to sleep well, eat well. The importance of exercise, of regulating the nervous system to regulate the mind.

I sat in the counselor tent, plucking at the camp ukulele and looking out over the ten students in their own tents scattered through the garden, noses in their daily journal assignments. A quiet moment in the long day. One student stared into space, distracted. I switched duty with another guide and walked over to her tent.

She was older than most of the students, soon to finish high school. She was personable and kind, lanky and strong, addicted to exercise, more extreme in her eating disorder than I ever was. She had done well in the program, but was not allowed to exercise anymore, as she tended to overdo it. Hers, like mine, was less about the reality of her body and more about controlling her mental world.

“How’s it going Corinna?” I asked.

She looked up at me, her face furrowed. She held out her snack mix cup, still full of nuts and raisins. Between the three scheduled meals a day, the students had two fruit snacks and a cup of snack mix to eat at their own leisure. The idea was to get their bodies into a rhythm and routine, to get their digestion on track. Many of them never had consistent routines, and suffered mentally because of it.

“I know I should eat my snack mix, to help with weight gain, but it still makes me anxious because of the calories, but then I just eat all of it at once, and too fast, and I feel bad.” She sighed.

I smiled at her, filled with compassion and empathy. I knew exactly what she meant. “OK,” I said. “I think I know something that might help. Lay down on your yoga mat, I’m gonna teach you a body scan technique I use.”

She didn’t refuse. She was a troubled teen, but respectful, willing. She stretched out on her back and closed her eyes, fingers interlaced across her belly. I closed my eyes and centered myself in our shared experience. Then began.

“Start with your breathe…”

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