Saturday, April 13, 2013

Survival Instinct

Some months ago now, I had a fight with my mother.  I've had two flare-ups of the old familial animosity in the last year, and frankly, I am proud of my conduct in both of them.

In the fight that I am thinking of, it had become clear that my mother still thinks of my body and behavior as a kind of symbol I was manipulating.  That she still believed in ideas I've long since discarded: the idea that I'd gotten fat to hurt her and/or my father, or that I was using adipose tissue as the manifestation of a barrier, a way of fending them off.  I believed those things a long time ago, but they don't make sense to me anymore, and I guess it hadn't really occurred to me that my mother might be hanging onto them.  I said as much, that the way I understand how I got fat and then very fat and then very, very fat is at this point substantively physiological: I understand my night binges as "reactive eating" in response to extreme restriction.  I explained the Minnesota semistarvation study.

This is when my mother denied that she and my father had ever put me on a diet.  Which is when I kind of lost it.  Is it even worth having this conversation if I have to prove the basic facts of my own life?  They stood behind me while I weighed myself each weekend in the Catskills the summer I was eleven.  My mother and I had our little matching Weight Watchers booklets when I was thirteen.  Before and after there were exchanges, air-popped popcorn salt wouldn't stick to, books about compulsive overeating, a trainer, after-school programs, two pediatric obesity specialists, family walks after dinner, a hat my sister and I made for my father as the world's most passive-aggressive gift that bore the image of a crossed-out slice of pizza and the words "FOOD POLICE," the posters of the numbers of calories in foods and burned by activities, the little red notebook full of calorie counts for days that are dated but are dated more poignantly by my scrawly eight-year-old handwriting.  (When I found that notebook in the back of a closet in my childhood bedroom I couldn't bear either to get rid of it or to possess it: it's in my file at my nutritionist's office.)  Through it all, whether or not there was at any given time a program or a plan or a diet book open on the counter next to the dictionary we kept by the dinner table so that my sister and I could look up words we did not know or sugar-free Jell-O in the fridge or Weight Watchers bars or meals in the freezer, there was scrutiny, there was judgment, and there was fear.  I wanted too much cheese on my pasta.  Did I really need that much cheese?  Was I sure I was hungry? 

My mother said something to the effect of, "You were so angry at us."  This is a variation on a theme: anger is the identifying trait of my childhood self.

Yes.  I was angry.  I am still angry, all these years later.  My mother puts this in the past tense because most of the time now my anger is not obtrusive: I like my parents as humans, I see my parents more than many twenty-nine-year-old women do.  I do of course choose what I do and don't tell them about my life, but I tell them a fair bit, and I think in general we're close.  As an adult, my anger is like a dormant animal: it sleeps through most things, but is vicious when roused.  And as an adult, too, I have a stronger sense of that anger-animal's relation to the rest of me.  I was, and am, angry not because I am pathological, not because something in me is anger-identified, grows towards the burning sun like a spiky plant synthesizing its own body out of contact with pure rage, but because I had something to be angry about.  It is still hard for me not to feel pathological, but I think I've passed the tipping point on this, because what I said to my mother when she played this same old sad song on this particular occasion was, "That was my survival instinct."

And it was.  It was the thing that reacted, the thing that did not question itself.  It was the thing I was trying to clamp down on.  It was my appetite, my first-person experience.  It was the opposite of the thing I nurtured in me of nights in bed, propping my little calves up on the rungs of the top bunk above and trying to gauge their size relative to last night before turning off the kitty lamp on my bedside table and swearing to myself as I slipped towards sleep despite my anxious thrum that I wouldn't eat tomorrow.  Nothing.  Won't eat 'til I'm thin. 

I hadn't thought of it that way before.  But it felt both correct and important to do so. 

Because identifying it that way means both depathologizing my own feelings and also that there is a thing in me that I can trust, a thing that knows which direction is up.  Because it's true: that's what my anger was.  And that gives a name and a context, too, to what I have had contact with lately, a thing that sometimes occurs to me, a thready little trickle of triumphant certainty.  It is a thing that still has instincts, and a grasp of its own best interests.  I have often worried that I've broken myself entirely: my hunger/fullness signals, my metabolism, my ability to know what I'm feeling and say so, my sense of self.  But here is this thing.  I don't understand the causality here, but I don't have to.  I'm grateful it's still there, that it has reasserted itself in even small and occasional ways.  My job is to feed it.  My job is to be on its side.  To give it space to speak, listen to it, and then give it what it needs. 

What that thing in me means is hope.  Hope not intellectual—not the reasoned evaluation of the chances—but basic.  Hope that inhabits the place between psychology and physiology, that lives where my self and my organism are the same thing.  Hope like desire, wanting without justification.  Hope like hunger.

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