When It's All Stripped Away... / by Michelle Cowan

Sorry it's been so long since my last post, but I've been distracted. Or rather, I've been distracting myself. Lots of changes are going on in my life, and I managed to rule out bloggish introspection in favor of eating disorder behaviors. I can see the better road again now, though, even if I kicked and screamed all the way to it.

The past few weeks have been a blessed reminder of the difficulty of going back to old patterns once I've discovered how good life can really be. I can't unlearn a lesson. I can ignore it for a while, but not unlearn it. Now, I know what to do and naturally fight to do the better behavior for myself. Do I always make the best choice? No. But in the end, I'm succeeding and trusting. It's just taking time.

Oh heck, read below. My post is super-lengthy this time, but let's just say I'm making up for the blogless month that just passed.


When I want to change but can't seem to do it, sometimes I am forced. Often, I pray to be forced. Recently, several metaphoric slugs in the gut put me in a prime position to finally act on what I know I've been needing to do: slow down and care for my body. The wake-up call also brought an unexpected side effect: a chance to once again consider who I really am - without how I look, what I do, or who my friends are.

For several months now, my body has endured abuse I hope everyone else out there avoids. Working out is fine - but every day, multiple times a day, obviously has a negative effect. I owe my extreme indulgence in such behavior to transition and change. I cannot control all the fluctuating elements in my life, including a new job, a new place to live, new friends, the absence of old friends, the turmoil of romance, etc. So much has been happening. No wonder I called on my old stand-bys: food and exercise.

My food fantasies increased as the frequency of my workouts rose. Hungrier and hungrier and more and more afraid to eat. It has such a familiar ring...as if food and fitness are the core of life. I knew my behavior had become seriously problematic when I began to feel unable to concentrate at work. My body ached all over, and I knew that if I didn't ease up my activity level and eat more, life would no longer be as fun as it had previously been.

However, this process of giving up requires trust. I have to remind myself of things I already know: that even if I gain weight, life will still be okay (maybe even better), that people will not leave me because of how I look (and if they do, I do not want to associate with them). I have to trust that eating more ENHANCES my work and creative life, allowing me to concentrate more fully on tasks at hand. A starving brain finds it difficult to stay on-task.

I have to believe that my body still functions at its prime when I do not work out every moment of the day. I will continue to get hungry, I will continue to be strong, probably even stronger, even if I let up and rest instead of running or biking or climbing or doing any one of the numerous fun activities I had begun to use as emotion-blockers.

So, in the beginning, I tried. I tried eating more. I tried exercising less. Success would come for a few hours, sometimes a few days, but then nervousness would grab me. It took a major shift to get me refocused.

I fell off my bike. I was hungry and riding late at night. I crashed and tried to catch myself, spraining my wrist and bruising my hip in the process. Long story short, no more biking, no more climbing for a while. A left hand that cannot grip anything limits those activities a bit.

The panic that surged at this news alerted me to the true depth of my obsession. Who would I be without biking? Without climbing? Without my amazing body? I was being forced to ask these questions and face them.

Needless to say, many tears followed. Giving up the eating disorder and all the behaviors that go along with it - at any point in recovery - is difficult and often catalyzes a period of grief. I was certainly not starving myself like before and not exercising with the ferocity I had in the depths of the disorder, but the resurgence of the obsession needed to be addressed pointedly.

And how to address it? More tears. More screaming. More feeling. Even while injured, I tried to drown out the feelings of loss and fear that accompany transitions like the one I'm currently going through. I ran instead of biking, sneaking in walks and runs whenever possible, trying to shove uncomfortable feelings about my changing self down with endorphins and time-killing ritual. But again, I was pushed into feeling. After years of previous abuse, my knees crumbled, and now here I sit, truly forced to be still with myself.

This is where I wanted to be months ago, when I noticed the obsessions and eating disorder behaviors returning. I wanted to feel, but I was too afraid to take myself here. But now, here I am, located in the center of grief and anticipation and mixed-up emotions. And in the wake of several yelling, sobbing, and pillow-destroying sessions, the questions come.

Do I trust myself to become a wonderful person, even though she is different from who I used to be? Can I be amazing and happy wherever I live and at whatever job I do?


I am more than a girl who kicks butt physically and looks fantastic in shorts. In the past, I have been the girl who doesn't look so good, and I may be her again. Does that matter?

Not to me - not to the healthy part of me that knows how great I truly am, how strong and resilient. I am more.

But I'll be honest. Knowing those things doesn't stop the doubts. Believing truth requires courage and faith.

Right now, I am continually challenged to look deep. I cannot run (or bike or climb) away. What do I see there? I see a creative voice yearning to get out. Someone who can create things and think about things and be things she never dreamed. She doesn't need a phenomenal-looking body - her body is phenomenal at any size and activity level. It is a masterwork of natural engineering.

Her brain is sharp and attuned, even more so when she eats. She enjoys life - food, activity, words, music, thinking, and even just sitting. She supports other people and thinks consciously about those relationships, not stuffing her feelings away with binges or numbing starvation/exercise extremes. I feel things and discuss them. I love life and enjoy it. I am more.

Sometimes things have to be stripped away to see what's really there. That needed to happen with me. My life had developed a sheen - like my skin had been plated with activity, friends, and happy appearances. It frightened me to know that something else lay beneath, something I was being called to examine. So I examine it now and discover that the inner me is changing, is larger and grander than I expected, and must be trusted. Yes, I have to trust the scary, as of yet unknown part of me in order to move forward in life.

Can I trust myself to stop eating when I'm full? Can I trust myself to make good life/career choices? Can I trust myself to associate with healthy, loving people? Can I trust myself when those safe people are not around? Can I trust myself to stay steady even when my surroundings are not? Can I be strong in the face of disaster? Can I do it? Can I be me and trust me?

Yes, I can.

One thing more - Someone broke into my car. The thieves stole my guitar and a couple of other valuables. Out of that incident, an even more difficult question arose: Who am I without music, the activity I most associate with my authentic soul? Why does music mean so much? And how can I pour out my heart in every way, with or without a musical performance at hand?

And my possessions? Do any of them matter? Not really. I will survive without them. It's all a matter of convenience. Strip it all away - who am I?

The disappearance of positive things, things that I cannot remember using in a harmful way, cut to the core of me. Who am I without the things I hold dearest?

I must go back to the truth. I will make it and I am strong, no matter what gets taken away. A solid person exists underneath. I don't need to try so hard to keep my life together because, even if all the concrete elements of that life are dismantled, I am whole. Now, getting to know that whole person... Welcome to another issue, one that scares me because I know that not every aspect of myself is socially acceptable.

But can I be unacceptable? Can I look however I want? Can I change drastically every day? Can I say exactly what I want whenever I want? Can I trust myself to make the decision to do those things or not?

I'm here with all of you, facing the tough stuff, and urge you all to think about how you would feel if something precious were taken from you. The severity of your reaction will indicate the level of your attachment to it. Are you allowing something external to define you? How can you face what's underneath? Can you release presupposition and just be you?

I hope so. I hope I can.