As a teenager, Galina Pembroke battled anorexia. The turning point was finding her authentic self and now she celebrates, cake and all!
Taking my ski jacket off, I start to shiver. I stand up, relieved I no longer feel my tailbone digging into the chair. I step onto the doctor's scale. "If she loses any more weight we'll have to admit her," Dr Seymour* says flatly. I turn around, seeking eye contact with my dad. Head down, he tenderly rests his arm on my shoulder like I'm a bird whose wing he could break. "Come on Galina," he mutters. "Let's go home."
That day, the eve of my fifteenth birthday, was a turning point in my anorexia. I am not alone in my suffering. In America as many as 10 million females and one million males suffer from an eating disorder, and about five per cent of Australian woman are affected(1). Originally seen as a disease of Western culture, the problem is now prevalent in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and India.
Through food restriction, I attempted to gain control - while in my personal, academic, and emotional life I felt powerless.
Altering the physical self is one of the primary ways people, especially teenagers, seek control. The popularity of shows like "Extreme Makeover" demonstrates the prevalence of this desire. Rather than getting a tattoo or a nose piercing, I sought to change my image through whittling myself away. Dropping from 60 to about 40 kilograms was my way of buying clothes my parents hated but I was sure my "cool" peers would love. Unfortunately, the more energy I fed into controlling my outer self, the more my inner self suffered.
If we're seeking possessions and "status" to influence how we'll be seen, we suffer the same plight. Status seeking may not make our bodies sick or be classified as a disease, but its effects are still powerful. Ironically, the more we struggle to gain respect from others, the more likely we are to lose it from ourselves. Not immediately, but slowly, over time.
Like the seeds of anorexia that were planted long before my dramatic weight loss, obsession with how we're perceived seeps into every facet of our lives. Rather than being real and letting our belly expand into loose fitting clothing, we suck our tummies into the latest fashion. Rather than riding a bike and creating a healthier body and environment, we step on the gas and "drive" because it's expected. We can drive ourselves to insanity.
When we struggle to gain approval through what is superficial and temporary, we waste time that could be spent on activities that provide enduring meaning. It's true that by working overtime for designer clothes and a fancy car we may impress some, but just as over time our clothes unravel and that new car smell fades, so does our sense of self.
Where do we fit in, in all our exhaustion from a too-tight schedule? Conversely, although spiritual gatherings, readings, and friendships don't result in something measurable in dollars, the way they change our view of self is priceless. Just as a number on the scale has never given me a true sense of value, there is no number in our bank account that can provide the satisfaction of accumulated warm memories, hope, and intellectual enrichment given through an evolving spiritual practice. Unlike ego-based pursuits that demand control and planning, enhancing our spiritual life requires just the opposite: letting go.
Surrendering to joy
Concepts of the past and future frequently dwell in either regret or worry. No amount of thought can erase the past or entirely control the future. Understanding this involves letting go, preferably to a higher power. This does not make you powerless. On the contrary, this surrender is the ultimate independence, freeing you from concern about the future or past. In relationships, you will no longer have your emotions dictated by the actions of others, resolving instead to "let them go" and do as they will. This is easier when your mind is focused on here and now.
"The only way to experience genuine and lasting contentment, satisfaction and happiness is to learn to live in the present moment," states author Richard Carlson in "You Can Be Happy No Matter What"(2). Like many, anorexics don't live in the present moment. Control over the body involves rigorous planning - calorie counting, rigid exercise routines, dates with the scale and a must-have weight. Flexibility is a yoga pose, not a wise approach. Yet the moment is all we have.
If eating a piece of chocolate cake creates pleasure now, we don't have to ruin it by dwelling on a dreaded extra long session on the StairMaster or that diet we'll start tomorrow. It doesn't mean we won't do those things, but they're not what we're experiencing here and now. Whether we savour every last morsel, feeling its rich fluffy cocoa flavour sinking from mouth to belly, or devour it like a rabid animal, the calories are the same.
Sadly, guilt over eating "forbidden" foods isn't the domain of the anorexic. Many feel this. Yet often these "F word" foods give so much pleasure. It's not surprising, as the craving for "forbidden" foods, especially sugar, may be wired into our brain. Many have theorised that eating sugar triggers the release of endorphins, painkilling, feel good brain chemicals also released during exercise (3). As someone who chronically denied herself, I understand the pain and frustration of robotic self restriction. Enjoying pleasurable activities in moderation and appreciating their joyful sensations is a healthier option.
New Year's Day in July
Walking in the door to my house I asked my mother a familiar question: did anyone call for me? Nobody. Looking in the full length mirror, I wondered how things could be the same. I was a walking clothes hanger, but nothing else was different. Why wasn't I popular? All this effort, all this time and it was all wasted.
Fed up, I barely passed the double layer chocolate cake on the counter. I could barely withstand the intoxicating chocolate aroma that seemed to force itself through me. Bracing myself, I climbed the stairs to my room and immediately grabbed the book, Wayne Dyer's "Your Erroneous Zones".
Along with many other books filled with progressive thinking, this helped turn my course from destruction to construction. Creating a life that was meaningful, I discovered, had nothing to do with the size of my pants.
That pivotal day, flipping through the pages of my spiritual treasure, I realised that living fully meant focusing my energies on what really mattered, not on my waistline. Putting down "Your Erroneous Zones", I felt like it was New Year's morning. Realising that what I really wanted wasn't reflected on a scale, I looked away from the mirror as I strolled downstairs.
The smell of still-dripping coffee enticed me as I headed downstairs to mum's freshly baked chocolate cake. Careful not to make a mess, I cut off enough to fill, but not stuff, me. Sitting down, my whole body exhaled as I felt its creamy chocolate icing sliding down my throat. Denial was over. I was finally in control.
Through Wayne Dyer's wisdom, I realised that my obsession with my body was a way of approval seeking. Realising that this craving limited my realisation and expression of my true self - which I had still yet to find - I decided to let go of it.
Well, that was my intention. Habits are stubborn, and after that day I was still fixated on calories and my weight, but reading more books like "Your Erroneous Zones" gradually helped reduce this obsession. Instead of thoughtlessly passing up mum's intoxicating desserts, I realised my alternatives: I could eat just a little, I didn't have to diet. In fact, stopping this self defeating routine would mean I'd have more energy to study and write. It didn't happen overnight, but in time these thoughts crowded out my "thin is all that matters" thinking.
What is your truth? If you're not living by it then you deny yourself the pleasure of an authentic life. Authenticity allows us to drop our mask and be who we really are. Not everyone will like this, but it's better to be liked for who you are than loved for who you are not. How many people, including yourself, really know you? Many people don't give themselves a chance, as if they're a bad date they never want to see again because they have no fashion sense.
Yet life with our self is truly a "'til death do us part" commitment. Celebrate this, cake and all! Let yourself move past appearances, not just with yourself but with others too, and not just with looks, but with everything status related. Choose honey over artificial sweetener. You just may feel more satisfied.
After eating my last bite of cake that day, I wanted to run to my room and do hundreds of jumping jacks - as I usually did. I didn't. Like my size one jeans that would tighten as the months progressed, using all my spare time and energy to change my appearance didn't fit anymore. Sometimes, I fell into my old rituals, but it was as uncomfortable as forcing the zipper up on too-small pants. It didn't feel right.
When we know there are other ways of thinking and living that resonate with what our spirit and not our ego wants, it is impossible to live by the status quo. I needed to eat more to give myself the nutrients and energy for school and writing. At one point, at a departure in my spiritual journey, I gained too much weight. Reading the affirmations and insights in Louise L Hay's "You Can Heal Your Life", helped recreate my thinking as I whittled down to a healthy weight. Unfortunately, every day I struggle to overpower the unhealthy, superficial attitudes of our Western, status-obsessed society. And everyday, I ask for help with this from a higher power.
Today is my friend's birthday. She celebrates with carrot cake and chocolate cupcakes, heavy with icing and sprinkles. I exhale, take one that's shiny with chocolate, and enjoy. I stop on the way home and buy myself yet another huge journal. The first words are "I really feel..."
When not writing about health, self and spirituality, Galina Pembroke co-facilitates workshops for the Canadian Mental Health Association, and of course, eats chocolate.
* The name of the doctor has been changed
1. Newspoll Study: Poll shows brekky skippers abound, The Australian, 28 February, 1998
2. Carlson, Richard. (2006) You Can Be Happy No Matter What. California: New World Library
3. Katherine, Anne. (1997) Anatomy of a Food Addiction: The Brain Chemistry of Overeating. California: Gurze Books