|Thinking from the ground up|
I had this friend once. She was around for a long time – years. I do not remember the first time I met her, but suddenly she was there, omnipresent. She was thrilling and intoxicating to be with, and made me feel high, light, and free. I was on a journey with her, with one simple objective: to weigh less; to rid myself of oozing body fat, which made me heavy, leaden and lazy.
I liked my friend’s focus and discipline. “Mind over matter,” she chanted. I liked that idea. It meant success, achievement, overcoming. She seemed like a perfect incarnation of the way the world outside told me to be: self-controlled and restrained from the greedy temptations of spoil-yourself advertising and the masses of food lining supermarket shelves and fast food outlets. The mind is willing; the flesh is weak, soft, and unwanted. I got the message.
And so, it was a bit of surprise when I was marched to a doctor’s surgery and told I had anorexia nervosa. The psychiatrist said there were problems in my head and my friend was unwelcome; we had to part ways. I tried to explain that this friend was embedded in me, in everything that I did and said, but they said there was no choice. I would not survive otherwise. They would take charge instead. The dietician told me to stuff my face full of all the things that other people are told they should not eat: butter, cheese, meats, pizzas, cakes. Anything was good in order to fatten me up.
The doctors told me to stay still, to stop marching and running and squatting and lifting. I must hold my body still like a motionless container while they filled it with sustenance to keep it functioning. Their voices grated against my disgust at stagnation and sedentary behavior. “Sweat is triumph.” “Pain is gain.” “Winner takes it all.” I had proudly soaked up those aphorisms, but they told me that these rules of living did not apply to me.
“Listen to your body,” the caring people around me said. “Can you hear what it is saying? Feed it, please.” I tried, but my body hung below my head like a shaking, weak, and fleshy thing. It made frequent calls for food, becoming a bloated, bulging, aching present when I ate. This was the wrong kind of pain; the pain of fullness, indulgence, and weakness. I wanted to be rid of my body’s messy, fatty spread and out- of- control demands.
I was the perfect model of Cartesianism, so far inside my head that sometimes I felt I was floating. I barely put my feet on the ground so it would not contaminate me with dirt and germs and solidity and mass. I was above the earthy needs of physicality. I was not desirable or desiring.
This illness was wrapped inside thoughts, they said – irrational, illogical thoughts that needed to be broken down. “It’s all in your head. What you see and feel isn’t reality. It’s just warped thinking,” the experts protested. The therapy, in response, was all talk – breathy vanishing words hanging in the air. “Tell us how you are feeling,” they said.
I spoke back words; most of them false and surface-level. They seemed pointless to me because I did not feel. Feeling was disallowed — bodily and base and below me. My only emotion was anger. Anger at their intrusion and their attempts to undo all my hard, self-disciplined work. Words did nothing but skim the lies I told to keep my friend close by. She was safe. She was home. What would I be without her? I think, therefore I am. I am thin, therefore I am.
My body was the physical part of me that lived below my cranium; on that we agreed. No one really mentioned if or how I lived in my body, apart from an examination of objective measurements – its temperature and blood, its thinness and weight, which was unacceptable, falling off the bottom of the charts.
In the end, I pretended my way out of the hospitals by doing all the right things and saying all the right words. I held down the disgust with my usual willpower and let the weight go up, making a calculated recovery on the outside. It was a hollow victory. Gallons of alcohol numbed my emotions. I blurred out fatty days and uncomfortable, unruly nights. I ate take away foods to drown out the comments and stares of passers-by. I dieted and exercised in cycles, joining and leaving gyms, eating and restricting, moving and giving up. This was “normal” as long as I stayed in the green shading of the Body Mass Index chart. I was acceptable. My behaviors were inside the lines. Order and disorder; they said the boundaries were clear. I saw them looped inside one another; spirals not verticals.
I probably stepped on to a yoga mat because I thought it would burn calories. That was always the hidden intention for anything I did, since my stalking ex-friend had taken residence. Exercise disciplines the body. “Strong, not skinny” was a useful hook.
I did not mean it to happen, but yoga touched my bodily being. I had to rest my hands on my stomach, skin against skin, touching and touched, a space I had ignored for years. In the practice, I met memories. Over time, I found the tightness of years of control, the pain of my locked-in fears, the elasticity of my hypersensitive being. I did not need to communicate it. I just needed to feel it, slowly.
I pressed my feet against the sticky mat, rooted tree-like, and felt the energy ascend. I was starting to move out of my head. I told people that there was something in feeling and moving the body that made my mental health much better. There were confused nods in agreement; nods of thinking heads.
I practiced more, cultivating breath and movement together. Feeling how anxiety buzzed in my belly, how stress whooshed and rocketed up my torso, how – in the most unsettled of days – I could not locate my own breath. I noticed how my jaw clamped and teeth clenched when offered meals too rich, how wind trapped in my throat when I met someone who made me feel small, air ballooning inside me until I keeled over in pain. I noticed my feet peeling away from the floor when I felt like I needed to be safe. I observed my head dropping when I saw men gazing at me, unwanted attention making me shrink in resistance. This was not psychosomatic, the catapult of thoughts into bodily reaction. Mental life was in my whole being. Mental life was in my body in its world. Mental life was in every interaction I had – every experience indented my cells, muscles, and bones, changing the energy of the currents running through me.
No one had ever discussed how I might actually be my body, not just have it, or listen to it, or discipline it, or control it. “Mind over matter”, the idea that a mental health problem is not a physical health problem, had underwritten everything medicine had to offer in its attempts to fix me, and in doing so, reinforced everything anorexia strove to uphold. It was only when I stopped living in my head that my friend stopped living there too. Because she was all words, all air, all narration– she disappeared.
Recovery is a troubling term. The privilege of the thin, white woman on her yoga mat overcoming her starving self is not one of glory. It is not a simple story of self-mastery. It is instead a story of body matter mattering, of bodies affected and shaped by the world in which they live and the urgent necessity of undoing the idea that “mental” health is all in our heads.
GRACE LUCAS, MSc, PhD, works in London as a research fellow in maternal and child health. She completed her medical humanities PhD, which proposed an embodied model of mental health, in 2017. She is the author of a memoir Thin (Penguin, 2007) and speaks and writes about eating disorders. She is also a trained yoga teacher (RYT200) and has two young daughters.