Lynn Beisner’s mind and body had long been at odds, until a near-death experience forced her to begin treating her body like the beautiful, miraculous machine that it is.
A couple of weeks ago I nearly killed myself because I am fat. I don’t mean that I tried to commit suicide; I mean that I allowed other people’s attitudes about fat to influence how I treated myself, and that almost got me killed.
It all started when of my colleagues suggested that we move our meeting across campus where we all could get coffee or some other beverage. I knew that this was an extremely bad idea for me. It was 106 degrees outside and I was feeling light-headed. I have been ill, and one of the chief symptoms has been serious anemia. In practical terms this means that there are not enough red blood cells transporting oxygen around my body to allow me to walk up stairs without tipping over. Walking two miles should have been out of the question.
So, of course, I did it. Why? Because I am overweight, and one of my colleagues has often opined about the character flaws and cultural perversity which obesity indicates. I didn’t want the people I work with to think badly of me, to think of me as so flawed in character that I had allowed my obesity to make me one of those gas-guzzling morally vapid Americans who cannot even walk across campus. I considered briefly mentioning my illness, but of course, in our society all illnesses experienced by an obese person are considered the result of obesity.
I survived the trip across campus. If I had been listening, I would have heard my body’s objections to what I was forcing it to do: I looked like a zombie and could barely remain upright. But by God, I did not confirm someone else’s worst body image stereotypes. On the way back, I had difficulty breathing. My heart raced erratically. My body begged me to stop and to ask for help getting back to my car. But I pushed on, goaded by my twin fears of being a fat wuss, and my fear that if I asked for help someone would see and would judge me.
I was within sight of my car when I collapsed. The security guard who came to my rescue reported that he could find no pulse. I am fond of minimizing, so I have decided that he was just too panicked and inexperienced to find a pulse. I am sure I am right since I did not see a tunnel or white light. I just hallucinated that I was home, lying on my bed with my husband and dog thinking, “This is a good place to die.”
For a while, I told myself that I put myself into a bad situation because of the fat-phobia and the body image problems endemic in our culture. And that is correct, to a point. But I know that the real problem—the reason why I almost got myself killed—is not what people I work with think about me or about weight in general. The problem is that I am not loyal enough to my body to honor it above the ignorant remarks of bigoted people. The problems is that I am no different than a husband who orders his sick wife to walk for two miles in extreme heat because he is worried about what his friends at work might think and say about him.
In the weeks since then, as I have waited for scans, tests and appointments with surgeons, I have been thinking about my relationship with my body and about where I have gone wrong. It is so easy for me to see “Me” as my brain, and my body as nothing more than a brain-transportation device that also allows my brain to interface with other brains. Given my religious upbringing and my general geekiness, it seems unlikely that I will ever get past the mind/body duality which causes me to see my body as the “other,” a frightening foreigner to which I am unhappily wed.
For years I viewed my body much as the most misogynistic men view women: as inferior to me in every way and created only to serve and be mastered by me. So it is no surprise that my relationship with my body was very similar to that of an abuser and a battered spouse. I treated it with mistrust, hostility, and cruelty. I tried beating it into submission with starvation, punishing routines, and purposeful neglect. I hated it for making me look bad and for failing me when I expected the impossible out of it.
Given the horrible way that I treated my body, it shouldn’t be surprising that I have, at times, been morbidly obese. I tried Overeaters Anonymous, where I learned to get God involved in my war on my body. I also tried Weight Watchers, where I learned to use complicated mathematical formulas to police it. To complicate our relationship further, an accident that I had more than a decade ago left me with permanent physical disabilities and injuries that are easily re-activated.
Then I found Genene Roth’s books about trusting and loving our bodies. It was a radical idea: Instead of warring against my body, I could trust it and give it what it really wanted and needed. I would continue to work toward breaking down my mind/body dualism, toward seeing my body and my mind as equal parts of me. But if I could not stop seeing my body as something separate from me, then the least I could do was stop treating it like a traitorous bitch and start treating it like a respected and equal spouse, one worthy of love and tenderness. It took me years, but I began to trust my body—love it—be mindful of it.
More than 90 pounds dropped off my body effortlessly as I learned to trust it and its appetites. I learned that my body is not weak and traitorous, and it learned that I will not wantonly abuse it. Slowly but surely, we built a loving and trusting relationship. I felt great! I felt the strongest, sexiest, and happiest that I have ever been in my whole life.
But a couple of years ago my relationship with my body hit a rocky patch. I started feeling exhausted all the time. I began missing exercise one week out of four and my workouts became increasingly shorter. Rather than seeking medical help, I assumed that I was just a flawed person or was having psychological issues. I gave myself pep talks that started with, “You don’t want to end up like your mother, now do you?”
Surprisingly, bullying myself did not improve my mental or physical health. Then I started to gain back a little weight, and I flat out panicked. Just like that, my body was declared the Enemy, something to be conquered, to be beaten into submission. I violated the trust I had established with my body, and fell back into my old pattern of relating to it like an abusive spouse. And that is how I landed unconscious next to a parking deck with a very freaked out security card giving me CPR.
When I finally got the medical care I needed, I got good news, really good news, and some bad news. The good news is that what I had self-diagnosed as depression or a character flaw is not all in my head after all. The really good news is that it probably will not kill me in the next few years. The bad news is that I am bleeding internally and that it will take major pelvic surgery to repair the problems. There is at least a 20% chance that I will never enjoy intercourse again, and more than a quarter of women who have had similar surgeries report that they stop having orgasms altogether.
Rebuilding trust with my body after this “slip” back into the role of abuser is going to be very tough, particularly given the fact that I am going to be consenting to surgery that will permanently change my relationship to it. It seems to me, however, that the most important first step is going to be seeing my body and myself as being on the same team, rather than me (the brain) fighting it (the inferior machine that is prone to frequent breakdowns). I will need to respect its limits, ask for pain medication before the pain gets too extreme, and treat myself gently during my recovery. At the very least, I will follow the new golden rule of my marriage: I will do unto my body as I would have my husband do unto his.