Power Hungry

Two boys, always tugging on my arm, my heartstrings, my sanity...

When I was 20 I had a brief fling with anorexia. (Believe me, I roll my eyes just thinking about how cliche that is, the stressed-out college coed who suddenly starts to starve herself.)

When I came home for the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Penn State, my parents became aware that I was damaging my body by not feeding it properly. Sometime mid-summer I finally agreed to endure a lame counseling session or two with a local psychiatrist, and though I don’t believe he had any impact on me or my psyche, I eventually began to eat again without feeling guilty and shameful for every bite.

At the time, and for years afterward, I thought the root of the problem was the way I looked — or, more specifically, the way I thought I should look, or wanted to look, or thought other people wanted me to look. I’d read that eating disorders were often about control, not about food or body image, but I didn’t think that was the case with me. Body image is something I’ve always struggled with (I’m 36 years old, a healthy eater, a size 4/6, and I still don’t wear shorts in public. It drives my loved ones bonkers.), so I believed I was the exception to the “starving for control” rule.

But a few years ago I was having a conversation with my mom and she reminded me of some peripheral things I’d forgotten (blocked out?) about that summer, things that were happening at the same time I was dwindling to 106 pounds on my 5’8” frame. Without airing anyone else’s dirty laundry here, let me just say that there was a good bit of chaos and uncertainty in the lives of those around me and, consequently, in my life.

Suddenly I recalled with absolute clarity the surge of supreme power I’d feel every time I successfully skipped a meal. I remembered running through a busy 10-hour shift waiting tables with nothing but an apple — and a sick sense of pride for being able to eat only the apple — to fuel me.

Well, what do ya know. It was about control.

Fast-forward 16 years (OMG!) and here I am, a married mother of two little boys who is trying to cobble together a freelance writing career, a few friendships and a future for my family in a town that is still largely unfamiliar to me. In some ways I feel more grounded, more confident and happier than ever before. In other ways I feel adrift, unstable, out of my league, as if the sand under my feet gets pulled back to sea every time I think I’ve mastered the ebb and flow of my life.

And, like clockwork, I’ve started thinking about food again. I’m not starving myself, or even dieting; I eat a balanced diet and splurge on treats after lunch and dinner every single day. But there are days when my mind is consumed by food. I change diapers and fold laundry and do puzzles and read “Fix-It Duck” and do phone interviews and talk to my toddler and sing to my baby and laugh with my husband and all the while there is a steady stream of dialogue happening deep inside my head about food. “What’s in the pantry?, I really want this chocolate chip muffin, what can I snack on?, how many calories have I consumed today?, what’s my next meal?, what’s my next snack?, are we out of those cookies yet?, can I splurge on this?, what kind of treat will I have tonight?, how much do I weigh?, when can I work out?, how fattening is this?, what should I make for dinner?, how many calories have I consumed now?, what will we have for dinner tomorrow?, why isn’t there wine in the wine fridge?, how much do I weigh now?, I wish I hadn’t had that chocolate chip muffin...”

It’s exhausting, I tell ya. And I continually have to remind myself that none of that garbage is about me being hungry or fat or anorexic or a meticulous meal planner.

It’s about control.

Like most moms, some days I feel pretty darn good about things. Kostyn (mostly) behaves, the sun shines, the baby naps, the source is there during my small window to talk to him. Other days I feel like I have no control over my own life (also, I suspect, like most moms). On those days, my life swirls around me like a hurricane of looming deadlines and neglected errands and unwritten thank-you notes and toddler-chasing-dog-AGAIN and baby-refusing-to-nap-and-give-mom-a-break.

As a stay-at-home mother I am, in some ways, the walls that hold up this family, at least from 9 to 5 (or, 7:30 a.m. to 6). But whoever notices walls? They’re just there, permanent background, and we take for granted that they’re doing the very important job of keeping the ceiling from crashing down on our heads.

I’m not saying I’m underappreciated, because I’m not (truly, truly not; my husband rocks). I’m also not saying my job is incredibly difficult, because it’s not. I’m just saying that the business of homemaking is at times a lonely, invisible existence of second-guessing and endless catch-up, and I have struggled lately with finding solid ground to stand on, both as a parent and as a professional writer.

Because I’m no longer 20 with enough time on my hands to obsess about myself to the nth degree, I am able to recognize this mental food obsession for what it is: A way for me to be in complete control of something when I feel so out of control about everything else. Of course knowing that doesn’t stop the streaming food ticker in my head. I have to do that myself, consciously, every day. And in order to do that, I have to convince myself of how much control I do have over things. A million things. Everything.

And that little exercise — the one of finding one’s power, recognizing it, embracing it and harnessing it — is why I’m writing all of this down. Because maybe someone else out there is struggling too.

I think the feeling of being in control comes through having and making choices, whether they be big (quitting my job to stay home with my baby) or small (checking my email on the way upstairs). We make a million choices a day that we don’t consider choices at all (the choice to hold a job, to answer to a boss, to stay married, to meet an obligation, to do the laundry, to wipe our own butts or the tiny butts of those we love). But we should consider them choices. Because having a choice -- and making a choice -- creates power. And power is a sign of control. And having control makes you feel good. Confident. Happy.

And not all that hungry.

Even the feeling of being out of control is a choice. When that food ticker starts up in my head I know that I am choosing to feel powerless about something at that moment, and my subconscious is counterbalancing that by kickstarting its own Diet Patrol. Recognizing that choice being made is important, because then I get to make another choice — to stop it, or to listen to it, or to figure out the original source of insecurity that brought it on.

There are a couple of Web sites I’ve been reading lately that have helped pull this perspective into focus for me in ways I can relate to. The first is Zen Habits, which is a simple slice of common sense about how to streamline, prioritize and energize your life. Contributer Jonathan Mead’s recent post "How Giving Changes Everything" made me think about the way I view my everyday life. I often lament the fact that I no longer have the freedom to do the volunteer work I used to do before I had kids. I really miss it, those hours spent sitting with a dying hospice patient or drumming up more funds for the upcoming ACS Relay for Life.

But reading Mead’s post made me realize I don’t need to be involved with structured volunteer work to find such fulfillment right now. I can choose to view my everyday life as a gift to my sons. Instead of wondering when I’ll ever get a break, I can choose to give even more of myself away, and reap the rewards as they come back to me. What I give can be as small as a smile to my spouse at the end of the day instead of a long, dramatic sigh. It doesn’t matter what I give; the point is I am making a choice to give. Power!

The other site I’ve been reading is Meagan Francis’s The Happiest Mom blog. Read her post “Tap Shoes and Making Time” and you’ll be hard-pressed to utter the words “I just don’t have time to....” ever again. This post struck a chord because one of the things I have been feeling most out-of-control over is my lack of exercise. Workouts are important for my physical, mental and emotional well-being. They make me feel in control of my life. But I just haven’t been able to figure out when exactly I can do it, and watching Chris take the time to run has made me resentful about not having the same chance.

But now I see things differently. While it’s true that having a 4-month-old and a 2-year-old makes it harder to find free time to do anything, it’s not impossible. It’s not that I don’t have time, it’s that I have chosen to spend my time in other ways. I could exercise if I gave it more priority than, say, updating my Facebook status or writing this blog post.

So just knowing that I have made the choice to not make exercise a “Do or die” in my life makes me feel more in control over the situation. The resentment is erased and I’m left with the power to choose what to do about it -- either to shelve some of the things that are taking up my free time and channel those minutes into a workout, or to realize that until the boys are just a bit older with just a bit more predictable nap schedules, my workouts will more often take a backseat to ways I can recharge my batteries in shorter spurts, like reading bits of that Time magazine on the table, or updating my blog.

When I think back to that Anorexic Summer of ‘93, I remember the night I came home late from working a long shift at the restaurant and was so hungry I couldn’t take it anymore, so I ate an apple. This wouldn’t have been bad had I not already “caved” and eaten half a chicken sandwich during my shift. Somehow eating that apple at the end of the day filled me with fear. It was too much food, too many calories. Before I knew it I found myself in the bathroom, staring down into the toilet, contemplating doing something I’d vowed to never do.

And I couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t. Instead I tiptoed across the house and gently knocked on my parents’ bedroom door, woke my mother and said, “Mom, I think I need help.”

I’ve always felt good about that memory, in a sheepish sort of way, and now I understand why. I made a choice that night, definitive and unapologetic, and owning that choice brought the power and control into my life that a hundred skipped meals had failed to do.

What choices are you making without claiming the control behind them? And how much more power could you harness with more purposeful choices?


Anonymous said...

Beautifully, written as always Robin. I had to confront a very similiar set of feelings when the baby was 7 months old. I found some peace, and a greater ability to manage my intrusive thoughts and feelings through yoga. I had no time, but an opportunity to practice tapes with some ladies at lunch presented itself. More recently an opportunity to exchange some admin work for classes presented itself, it came with a saying along the lines of the things you need find a way of working themselves into your life. I find that very comforting. I hope such opportunities(whatever shape they take)find you.

Bridget J.

Heather said...

Thanks for putting things in prospective. You always seem to be going through something, that I feel I am going through at the same time.

Kristen said...

Beautiful post, Rob. I can relate. :) Thanks for sharing......

Tara @ Feels like home said...

Wow, Robyn.

First of all, you're ten times the writer that I am, and I hope you'll let me help you get started as a blogger. You have so much to say.

Second, you might like Simple Mom. It's a blog similar to Zen Habits, but with a mom bend. I think the address is SimpleMom.net

It's fascinating to me that you and I can have similar issues with food AND control. Clearly, they come out differently, but I have all of the same thoughts.