When we’re tiny babies, we’re taught that there are rules. These rules come from our families and society. They feel non-negotiable. They are things like “Boys don’t cry,” and “We don’t talk like that in our family,” and “You’re too dramatic.” In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz says that over time, those rules become so ingrained in our minds that we don’t need anyone else to teach us to follow them. Instead, we start enforcing those rules on our own and punishing ourselves whenever we don’t follow them perfectly.
Ruiz also proposes that these old agreements are often the cause of our misery, anxiety, depression, numbness and discontent. He says that the only way to be free of those old agreements is to go in search of where they started, to try to understand them, and then to slowly develop awareness so that when those old stories pop up, we can say Stop.
Thus begins my searching. I often feel like I’m walking around with my past rules tattooed all over the inside of my brain, automatically upset about things that don’t make sense or anxious for reasons I can’t identify. That’s why one of my 2018 intentions is to learn more about my family history, which also means learning more about my own childhood. This month, that learning means reading my childhood journals.
My first journal begins on October 21, 2003. I am 13 and in eighth grade. Every entry is a prayer, a repentance of sins and a log of what I want out of my life on that day. Usually I want a boyfriend and I want my dad to quit his job. Sometimes I want to switch schools and I always want to lose weight. This first journal follows me through four ankle sprains and a major surgery. In December of my eighth grade year, I woke up with extreme pain in the lower left quadrant of my stomach. The doctors thought it was appendicitis and immediately operated. What they found, however, was that I did not have appendicitis; I had an ovarian cyst and it had bust. After two weeks of recovery, the doctors put me on birth control for the cysts. And as birth control pills are apt to do, they made me gain significant water weight — almost 10 pounds within the first few months.
Reading my assessment of this rapid weight gain is gutting. “I am fat now,” I wrote in April of my 8th grade year. “Horribly ugly and fat. I have monster huge thighs and a bulgy stomach. I am 125 pounds. I am huge. I am going on a diet and if it doesn’t work, I will live on salad and water. Or maybe I will just stop eating.”
Another entry recounts a shopping trip to American Eagle with my mom. I remember crying in the store because my mom made me get everything I wanted in a bigger size. She was convinced it would shrink in the wash; I thought she was confirming my fatness.
During my freshman year, I didn’t get asked to the Valentine’s Day dance. I wrote pages upon pages about it, wondering why no one wanted me, considering my options, and making lists of the flaws that might have led the boy I liked to invite someone else. After a month of written assessments, I became sure that no one had asked me because of the extra pounds I carried on my tiny frame. So I started keeping food journals religiously and I weighed myself every day, lambasting myself in the journal daily for any extra calories I’d consumed and begging god to please make me skinnier. “I’m an obese pig,” I wrote. “I hate myself.”
These journal entries about my weight went on for the better part of a year. At one point, I declared that I would eat only satsuma oranges and goldfish crackers for a week. I mostly did this, despite feeling miserable, and I suddenly dropped 10 pounds. I was excited. My parents were not. They took me to a doctor, who told me that I had likely developed a stomach ulcer because of my heightened anxiety. He prescribed more medication and my weight went back up. And back down. And then back up.
Interestingly, I seemed to have some external awareness of the fact that this was an eating disorder, even while I was in the midst of it. During the satsuma month, I wrote: “It’s like I’m becoming unintentionally anorexic. I don’t want to eat. I like that I’ve lost 10 pounds and I like the way I look. When I look at food, I go back to [the fact] that I’m going to go back to being fat and unhappy with myself and I don’t want that… I don’t think I’m sick like I’ve told everyone. I think I’m not eating because of mental reasons.”
It is so clear to me now that my weight issues that year were indeed the product of unmanaged anxiety, as well as my birth control pills. Now I can see that my busy schedule, my lack of sleep and my inability to be myself at school or at home caused me to cram food into my mouth at an unhealthy pace. I can see how my perfectionism ate at me, both literally and figuratively. I can see how my perceived lack of control over my life made me take control of what I could: my own body and what I put in it. I can see so many of the anxiety symptoms I experience today — only now, I see those symptoms as signals that tell me to SLOW DOWN and BREATHE and GO TO YOGA. But I didn’t have the tools then, or a knowledge of how my oldest rules were causing my biggest problems. Instead, the old agreements vibrated in my head on loop. They said: If you are skinny and beautiful, you will be loved. If you tell people how you really feel, they won’t like you. If you lose weight, people will think you’re cool and then your life will be better. Anxiety is shameful, so don’t tell people that you feel anxious all the time. You have to be the best to be loved, so be the best, the brightest, the most beautiful… or else.
I wish I could tell you that my issues with my body and food are gone, but I don’t think they’ll ever disappear. I doubt anyone’s body issues ever fully disappear, especially in a culture where body hate is an epidemic. I wish I could tell you that my brain doesn’t still shout those agreements loudly on certain days at certain times, but it does. I think this, too, is the game of being human.
The good news is things have vastly improved for me. I don’t binge on food anymore, nor do I keep a food journal. I haven’t weighed myself in years. I love to cook and eat healthy — this food blog is evidence of that. In my yoga teacher training, I’ve learned how to become more aware of how my body feels and how it responds to certain foods, rather than just how it looks. Awareness is love — so without knowing it, I’ve learned to love on myself by simply paying attention. And as I learn awareness, those old rules have started to seem less believable, too. Last night, after reading through yet another journal entry about hating my body, I went into my room and looked at myself in the mirror. I immediately went into old story mode: My hair is too stringy, my skin is too pale, my thighs are too big… But then I stopped. And I thought, instead, Damn, I’m strong. Damn, I’m beautiful. Damn, I’m worth loving. That little voice in my head was always wrong.
Everyday Chocolate Chip Cookies
Or “The cookies of my childhood.” Makes 18-24 cookies, depending on size.
- 1/2 cup + 3 T butter, softened
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1 egg
- 2 t vanilla
- 1.5 cups flour
- 1/2 t baking soda
- 1/2 t salt
- 1/2 bag semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. If you forgot to soften your butter (I always do), pop it into the microwave for 20 seconds.
Cream the butter and both sugars in a mixing bowl, ideally with an electric blender. Add the egg and vanilla and mix to combine. Then add all the dry ingredients to the bowl, mix, and finish by adding chocolate chips.
Drop the dough into 1-inch balls on an ungreased cookie sheet, then bake for 9-11 minutes. These cookies are best slightly underdone, so take them out of the oven when they look lightly set. You’ll think it’s too early, but it’s not. Cool them on the pan for one minute, then transfer to a wire rack and try not to eat immediately.
Note: If you decide to double this recipe, don’t double the salt.