I like control. I like both order and control. As such, I live my life with as much order and control as possible. I keep an agenda, two of them. I store all appointments, deadlines and to-dos in both my iPhone’s Google calendar as well as my agenda book decorated in eyelashes with a proclamation to “Make Today Fab-U-Lash” on the front. When I lead meetings, I create an agenda detailing every fine point that must be discussed along with a time constraint for discussing each fine point. In fact, after years of observing my behavior (which I thought was subtle), one of my dear friends recently quipped “If you ever want to make Beth mad, have her create an agenda… then deviate from it.” Very few things offend me as much as this opprobrious act.
And yet, no matter how much I have planned, budgeted and created an agenda, nothing could have ever equipped me for the insidious covid-19 pandemic of 2020. I remember first hearing about it in December of 2019 as the virus began to ravage China. Like any good American, I thought, “Oh that’s terrible that that’s happening over there.” “Over there”, a distancing ideological framework that permeates the thinking of most Americans. Dictators happen… over there (like in Iraq). Civil unrest happens… over there (like in Egypt). Deadly viruses happen… over there (like Ebola in poor ol’ Africa). Every fiber of my controlling being knew that this virus, that at the time had no name, could never happen right here at home. And yet, it happened. It arrived like a fog in the night spreading across a dark unlit well-traveled back-country road. An unexceptional daily happening in the sunlight or in normal conditions but a treacherous obstacle in the onset of a sinister midnight fog. Just like this fog, covid-19 crept in the night, making my life virtually unrecognizable in an instant.
In its arrival, I quickly found myself obsessed with the news, another symptom of my need for control. On a subconscious level, I thought, if I know enough, I can control enough. Yet, as the number of infections increased along with deaths, symptoms, list of covid-19 complications and an irreversible economic downturn, I soon realized that I could not possibly know enough about this harrowing virus to truly protect myself. Further, I certainly could not maintain any control. Everyday information is espoused and everyday we find out that what we previously depended upon as a protective truth is not actually equipped to protect us at all. I have never felt such a lack of control in the world around me. I have asked God on many occasions, what could humanity have ever done to deserve this virus (not to mention murder hornets but that’s a time for another post)? Every bit of my neurotic need to control my environment, my relationships and other external objects has been completely compromised. I have yielded to that unfortunate truth and state of our world. However, I have felt that need for control turn inwardly towards myself in the form of my pesky mental health “issue”… anorexia and body dysmorphia.
When I was about 12 years old, I participated in a month-long fasting regiment along with my parents and extended church body. I cannot remember the exact parameters of the fasting ritual but there were maybe one or two days in the week in which we would not eat for an entire day. This fasting discipline became the first time that I was exposed to the joy of ignoring my body’s call for satiation. I felt an immense victory and power in being able to move past the pain of hunger. I felt control. I loved it. And there was no better way to hide the beginning of a 18 year battle with an eating disorder than under the guise of spiritual ritual.
Anorexia and body dysmorphia have functioned as a looming rain cloud following me for most of my life. Sometimes, they simply follow me around innocently for years, simply threatening to rain, other times they appear as a torrential downpour upending my life and mental health.
Last year, I finally scheduled a doctor’s appointment to help me address weight gain fueled by unkempt mental health and a long-term mentally abusive relationship. At the appointment, the nurse practitioner asked me to detail my diet and weight history over the years. I began to explain to her that I’ve always struggled with my weight. I then went on to tell her my exact weight, down to the ounce, over different periods in my adult life. “Fall semester of my senior year of college I got down to…” “And then in 2014 I went up to…” I went on detailing my weight over the years like this for several minutes until she interrupted me with a “Wow.” I paused. She went on “I can tell your weight has really been a very big deal for you for a long time… I don’t want you to value yourself based on a number.” I immediately burst into tears, the tears were one part embarrassment and another part gratefulness for finally being seen. She carefully helped me craft a new weight-loss journey. I also enlisted the help of my therapist with losing weight this time around. This time, I better recognize that my weight is as much about my mental health as it is my diet and exercise habits. This journey began last July and losing weight felt different this time. I wasn’t losing weight for the entertainment of the crowds of people that I cheered before. I wasn’t losing weight for the pleasure of men who frequented the same parties as I. My body, its health and appearance finally felt fully owned by me alone. And then covid hit and I lost most of my sense of outside control. As each semblance of my life pre-covid (that’s what I and I think everyone should call it) has quickly been altered, I’ve found myself desperately grasping for control. I often feel like a drowning person flailing in a downstream river reaching for a life-saving branch. I feel very little control other than my ability to control my body.
Thus, eating is a battle for me some days. It would be easy not to eat for an entire day or two and revel in the pounds lost the next day. I’m working from home, I barely leave my house and nobody sees me to notice a sudden weight-loss. In fact, even if someone did notice a sudden weight-loss, they would torture me with congratulatory recognition. “Beth, you look great!” I’d respond with thank you and some fake weight loss insight while thinking “You have no idea what I did to get here.” If I’m being completely honest, some days, I don’t eat. As a leader in my church, I could again hide my eating disorder under the guise of the Lenten spiritual discipline throughout March. Yet inside, I knew my “fasting” was equal parts spiritual and scale movement. Since the quarantines have begun and I’ve been in isolation, I have never been more acutely aware of how closely related my anorexia is to my need for control. This covid world is out of control and feels like it is slowly crashing, burning. And as the world crashes, burns and we continue to find out how little control we humans have, I find myself battling my contentment with the burn of my empty stomach… my remaining sense of control.
Still I’m fighting, most days, I do eat. Every Saturday, my therapist checks in with me and I’m honest about my eating habits (both healthy and unhealthy). But, it’s nonetheless a battle for me because I want to feel in control in this out of control post-covid society.