Monday, October 13, 2014

Dying to Control My Life

There are many things that suck about sexual abuse. How it messes with your perception of who is in control of your body is one of the worst things. Because my abuse happened at such a young age, before I was even in kindergarten, it warped my sense of self in a major way. For decades, deep within me, I believed that my body was not for me: it was for the sexual gratification of others. I hated that. I didn't like being viewed as a sex object.

I was an early developer, too, which made things worse. I got my first bra when I was in third grade. In forth grade some boys nicknamed me B.B. At first, I mistakenly thought the boys were just calling me by my initials: B.B. = Becky Burton. Then someone tipped me off that it actually stood for Big Boobs. I was so embarrassed. Ashamed. They were looking at my boobs.

I had been sent to Weight Watchers in third grade. Some sexual abuse experts believe that binge eating is one of the coping mechanisms sexual abuse survivors use, whether consciously or subconsciously. A way to pad your body from the harmful world and salacious looks of potential abusers. I don't know. I never paid attention to what I ate before I was sent to Weight Watchers. I noticed others paying lots of attention to what I ate. You want seconds? You're going to explode! my family would say. I never questioned my motives. I just knew my appetite seemed much larger than my siblings and parents and friends wanted it to be.

I hated going to the weekly meetings at Weight Watchers with all the old ladies--I was the only child in the group--but I loved dieting. My parents got me this little scale for the kitchen counter that I got to use to measure out my portions. Sometimes I'd use it as a Barbie car, too. I got to study calorie counting books and write down everything I ate. I pretended I was a grown up, professional nutritionist, just as I had pretended to be a nurse whenever someone let me put a Bandaid on their scrape. I kept meticulous notes in my food journal. Everyone was so impressed that someone my age had the focus and drive to take on such a challenge.

In fifth grade, I passed out in class. The school nurse called my mom to come and get me and take me to the doctor. His diagnosis? Anorexia nervosa. The child psychologist he referred me to said it's not uncommon for girls who are ashamed of their developing bodies to intentionally starve themselves, viewing their breasts and hips as excess fat. I didn't quite understand. I was only eleven. All I knew was that starving my body made me feel like I had tremendous self-control. Other people with less willpower caved into their biological urges to eat. I was powerful. I had figured out a way to ignore my stomach's rumblings and the bile burps that are inevitable if you don't put enough food into your stomach.

The stomach has a job: to produce bile to break down food so our bodies can absorb nutrients from it. If your stomach has no food in it, that bile has nothing to do. It has to go somewhere. So if there is not food for it to digest, the bile comes up your throat. I learned to ignore the nasty taste in my mouth. I ignored the ribs poking out of my sides, and the fine layer of hair growing all over my body, another typical thing a body does when you give it only a serving of green beans every few days or so.

I lost my breasts. It felt wonderful to have a flat chest again. I stopped menstruating, which I had started in fourth grade. I was glad. None of my friends had started menstruating anyway, so I felt like less of a freak when my body quit undergoing that monthly cycle.

I had been a "good girl," a pleaser, obedient to authority until I developed anorexia. For once in my life I felt in control. I was right and everyone else around me was wrong. I only began questioning my behavior when the psychologist threatened to have me hospitalized if I lost any more weight. At my worst, I was 5'3" and weighed 79 pounds.

I got over it. Obviously. I'm here now. But I almost died, trying so hard to feel in control of my life.

During this time, I remember walking past the spare bedroom and seeing my mom give my grandpa a sponge bath.

It had been my room for a year or so. When my older sister Jenny moved out, I took over her room and Mom made my former bedroom into her craft room. When Jenny moved back in a few months later, we decided to share a room, something we had done since I was born until I was seven and enough of my siblings had moved out of the house that I could have my own room. We liked sharing. It's what we were used to. Sleeping alone in an otherwise empty bed felt lonely and weird.

Our mom's dad was dying of lung cancer. He moved in with us the last few weeks of his life, into Mom's craft room, my former bedroom. I remember walking past the room when Mom was cleaning him up and seeing him without a shirt on. Ribs poking out everywhere. He looked like a skeleton with skin. Mom had prepared me for the worst: we knew her dad was dying. He was old and sick. What she didn't prepare me for was the sight of his emaciated, half-naked body. I had never seen someone who looked so close to death.

Except when I looked in the mirror.

It struck me: that's what I look like. I had never considered my anorexia from anyone's perspective other than my own. I felt tremendously guilty for putting my mom through all that, right as she was having to care for her dying father. I started eating again. Not because I wanted to. I did it for my mom.

By seventh grade I had gained weight and then some. I was experiencing horribly sporadic, painful periods, so Mom took me to the doctor to get a prescription for birth control pills to regulate my cycle. We didn't have a family doctor. My mom was allergic to doctors and medical care in general, especially psychiatric care. She had been involuntarily hospitalized on two separate occasions, before I was born, when she was married to her first husband. They told her she had "a nervous breakdown". It's funny how a husband who spends all the family's money on bar tabs and his secretary, with whom he is cheating on you, can have an ambulance haul you off to the hospital when you scream and cry a little over how much your life sucks.

Because we didn't have a family doctor in the first place, and we had moved since the other doctor had diagnosed me with anorexia, this new doctor in this other practice who gave me the birth control pill exam had no idea I was a recovering anorexic. The medical sheet didn't ask. The nurse didn't ask. The doctor didn't ask. And we didn't tell. Why should we? What does my little "nervous breakdown" have to do with getting some pills so I could go to school and not stay at home in bed, writhing in agony once a month?

"She is twenty pounds overweight," the doctor said to my mom, pointing to a chart on the wall with a table of heights and weights. My height-to-weight ratio was in the grey colored danger zone. Why wasn't she talking to me? I'm the one she was talking about. Hello, I'm right here! I felt sorry for my mom. The doctor was talking to her like she was a moron, which is ridiculous because everyone knows my mom is one of the smarted people on the planet. Who does this doctor think she is?

During my teens and early twenties, I gave my body away to lovers. I wore makeup and clothes other people said made me look attractive. It didn't make them love me. And if it did, it didn't make them stay.

By my mid-twenties I was single, living alone. I decided to "work on myself". I started reading self-help books. I began eating healthy foods and exercising to keep my body "fit and attractive" like the popular magazines advised. During this time in my life, I began to feel good about myself.

Then suddenly I turned thirty and I felt compelled to mate. After years of celibacy, I didn't crave sex--I'd learned to take care of those urges myself thanks to my handy dandy Hitachi Magic Wand--but I craved companionship. And babies. Babies. Babies. Babies. I couldn't get my mind off of coupling up and having babies.

After a few missteps, I found "The One". Will and I have been married for almost ten years. We have a wonderful eight-year-old daughter, Katie. I told myself if I could do one thing as a parent, I was going to raise my daughter to not have an eating disorder.

Which is tough when you still have the mind of an anorexic and the body image issues of a typical American woman.

Then one day I discovered a book sitting on a shelf at the library where I work. Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon. I wasn't looking for it. I can't explain what led me to it. Something made me pick it up and check it out and read it.

Yes! I thought. This is it. This makes sense.

I've always been leery of people who say "this book changed my life!" These are the same kinds of people who spend a lifetime in misery and then the one time they step inside a church they feel saved.

But this book saved me. It changed the way I felt about my body.  It helped me stop thinking of my body as anybody's business but my own. Not my abusers', not my mom's, not my doctor's, not my ex-lover's, not my husband's, not society's. My own.

I'm the one in control, right?

Over the course of this past year, I've begun to realize that's not exactly right either. I mean, yeah, I'm the one who gets to make decisions about my health and wellness, but it's not like I can exactly control my body. I can't magically ward off allergens, viruses, bacteria, and all the things in life that make us sick. I still have days where I am forced to stay in bed to heal rather than getting out into the world to accomplish all I want to do.

I can't even control my own fertility. It took us two years and the assistance of a reproductive endocrinologist for my body to be able to give birth to Katie. Will and I had wanted a big family--six kids--but my body has only been able to produce one viable offspring, and now I'm getting old when all women undergo subfertility. I'll be forty-four in November. With each passing cycle I know my baby making days are numbered, and most likely completely gone. It sucks to know I can't even get my body to reproduce the way I want it to.

So I give up. No more fantasies of miraculously conceiving another child. No more checking the calendar to see what the first day of my last cycle was. Like with my weight, I've learned to quit obsessing over my subfertility.

I used to work with a woman, a conservative Catholic woman, who joked that God only gave her two kids, spaced seven years apart, because He knew she could only handle one baby at a time.

Back then, before I got married and tried to have lots of babies, I used to think, oh what a cute story to tell yourself, but I also thought, what a bunch of shit. It's biology. It's science. Doctors can help you have as many children as you like, if you're up for the challenge.

I know it's not that easy, now that I've experienced years of disappointment every time Aunt Flo pays me a visit. Most of my friends hate that bitch when she shows up at their door because she's a pain and an inconvenience. I hate those things about Aunt Flo, too, but my biggest complaint is that her arrival means, nope, no more babies this time, Sucka!

I can't wait until I'm old enough to no longer receive visits from Aunt Flo. Many women dread menopause because they associate it with aging, and therefore getting closer to death. I think I'll like menopause. No more visits from Aunt Flo will mean no more worrying, no more mentally converting the spare bedroom into a nursery, no more feelings of being let down again, and again, month after month. I will know it's impossible for my body to give birth, so I will be forced to give up my obsession. Now, since I continue to get regular visits from Aunt Flo, I'm stuck in hopeful anticipation each month. I look forward to the time in my life the question of whether or not I'll be able to give birth to more than one child will be answered, settled once and for all.

That's my problem. I'm a planner. I like to think I'm in control of my life. I like to have an idea in my head of which direction I'm heading on my life's path. But the path I picture inside my head bears little resemblance to the path my life is actually taking, the one my feet walk upon while my head is in the clouds. Then I trip and fall, get lost, and I start to feel overwhelmed by life.

It's not supposed to be like this. This isn't the way I thought it would go.

I'm learning to accept it. To understand that giving up the illusion of control over my life will not lead to feeling vulnerable and unprotected about who has access to my body.

"Let go and let God," the old bumper stickers used to say. I used to laugh at them. Write them off as anti-feminist propaganda. That was back when I hadn't found a church that welcomed me with open arms and open minds. Back when I associated God with judgmental, holier than thou so-called Christians. The type of people who would use scripture to explain why they think it's natural for a husband to have control over his wife's body, the type who believe there is no such thing as marital rape, the ones who tell women to lay back and trust their man, who God HIMself granted this gift.

Then something happened. Last year, Katie asked if we could go to church. One thing led to another and we found ourselves joining my friend's church: Grace Covenant Presbyterian. It was the people who sucked me into it, I thought. Not God. Katie loves her new church friends, and all the wonderfully warm and supportive teachers she has. I love how open-minded and progressive this church is. These people treat love like it's an action verb. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and pray for those who persecute us. The members of GCPC take this commandment seriously.

At first I got involved with the Gay Christian Fellowship. But that group petered out, thankfully because it became unnecessary since LGBT people are not excluded from anything at GCPC. I was asked to be the preschool storyteller for vacation Bible school last summer, which lead to my gig as a Sunday School teacher.

I love it. I am learning to love and trust. Not just my husband, my child, close friends and family members. I'm learning to love and trust a broader circle of people in my world. I've always had a fondness for human beings in general, but I'm often reticent around people I don't know well. Unless you're an anonymous blog reader. The people of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church are bringing me out of my shell.

Yesterday in Sunday School the Bible story we were teaching the kiddos--three to six year olds--is the one about the one-hundred year old Abraham and his ninety-year-old wife Sarah who finally, after many years of infertility, were able to produce a son, Isaac, because they trusted God to control their lives.

What a bunch of crap, my hardened heart whispered. If I'm forty-three and I'm having trouble conceiving another child, how could a woman on the brink of the end of her life do it?

I didn't have a chance to ponder the question too long. The kid sitting in the circle to my left was telling me a story about some kid I don't know in her class and his new baby sister. I became engrossed in this child's story, not because it made sense, but because I could see a little beam of light shine from within this child as she told me a story that was important to her.

After Sunday School, Katie and I entered the sanctuary and sat in the pews among our fellow church members and curious visitors. I felt very safe. Very happy. Very loved.

During the service, there's often a time when Pastor Jonas says something about "silent prayers" and the whole place grows silent for thirty seconds or so, and then Pastor Jonas begins to pray aloud again. Generally my mind wanders during this time. I'm cool with reciting The Lord's Prayer. I enjoy the prayers led by pastors and church members, the prayers printed in the bulletin we chant together. Sometimes I pretend I'm a monk and we're chanting.

But during this "silent prayer" time, I found myself getting fidgety. The empty space in my mind didn't know what to say. How do you start a conversation with God when you thought you had severed your relationship back when you were a thirteen year old who thought she was the boss?

Then it just came to me. Without wasting the whole time trying to think of something to pray about as usual, I said to myself, Thank you God for everything and everyone. And help me figure out how to lose control.

I laughed at myself. I pictured a wild-haired Becky running around like a crazy person. "She's lost control!" a voice from the crowd inside my mind said.

Thank God.