This info may be TMI, somewhat repetitive of other posts, and not (entirely) relevant to diet, but this is the only blog I have in which to share writing. If psychology and weirdo mental manifestations don’t interest you, you might want to skip this doozy of a post. For the rest of you, enjoy my varied recounts of being a slave to my brain.
Back before you could look up your symptoms online, there were books that connected the dots for you. As a child, my family owned a medical book that listed various health conditions with symptom flow charts. It was one of my favorite books. In fact, my mom even bought me my very own copy as a teenager.
As young as 10 years old, I was convinced I had cancer. What else could explain this constant stream of unremitting sensations? I would get dizzy. Constantly nauseated, I had daily “tummy aches” that would lead me to the nurse’s office at least once a week. One day at school, there was a storm brewing outside. I heard thunder, and my heart leapt into my throat. What if there was a tornado? Would I be okay? Would my family be okay? I gotta get out of here!
The nurse started to catch on to my repeat visits. She would glance at me with a skeptical eye and tell me to lie down for a little while before making any rash decisions to call my parents. This was not part of the deal I had grown accustomed to. I wanted to be with my parents. They were the only ones who could untangle the knots in my stomach. I distinctly remember the small cubby attached to the nurse’s office. I squirmed about on the makeshift pathetic excuse for a foam mattress glancing at the large painted brick wall, feeling slightly soothed now that no one was able to gawk at me. There was a mirror on the wall that I would occasionally make faces in. Somehow, I lucked out during the storm episode. I had psyched myself up to the point of giving myself a mild fever, which meant I could go home this time.
Hoarding (“Jack thought it twice and thought that that that made it true”)
The thoughts came about suddenly and out of nowhere. In an instant, my waking experience started to involve startling obtrusive thoughts. The people in my head often warned of death if its demands were not heeded: death for me, death for my family. The closest comparison I can make is that I was taken hostage by my own brain in a new debilitating fashion. The requested actions ranged from not throwing things away, to air typing (using my fingers to mimic typing certain things on a keyboard), and shooting hoops until I managed to get the basketball into the hoop a predetermined number of times. I wasn’t allowed to quit until my quota was met. Otherwise, guaranteed chaos was sure to follow.
During my “can’t throw anything away” phase I started to collect used toilet paper, a disturbing yet blatant example of how powerful such thoughts can be. The fear I experienced was stronger than any ick factor I could conceive. I was so afraid of my family dying as promised by the big bad brain cells that I didn’t think twice about this behavior. Its hoarding 101: a necessary step to guaranteed safety. I wrapped the toilet paper in paper towels and stuffed them in my bag.
I carried on this behavior for some time before my parents started to catch on. When my backpack was unzipped, wads of brown paper towels from the school bathroom came spilling out. My parents exchanged concerned looks and inquired as to why I had started collecting disgusting/useless garbage. They had enough tact to not use the word “disgusting”. I explained to them that I was afraid they would die if I didn’t. I can only imagine the wheels that started turning in their heads when I confessed this. Is it too late to return this child? I think she’s defective.
Soon after this incident, I was told to clean my room, as children often are. Kids generally have no problem living amongst chaos, and (at the time), I was no exception. My parents helped me, but this created a lot of anxiety for me. I wanted to determine what stayed and what went. Rather, I wanted to allow the people in my head to dictate what I needed to hold onto for ensured safety.
At some point in the cleaning process, my parents were starting to get the hint that something was very wrong with me and my priorities. I would exhibit stress over throwing stupid things away. A jar full of dirt and lint surfaced. I don’t remember where it came from. I suspect my parent rummaged around the garage for junk to test the limits of my newfound insanity. They asked if we could throw the jar away, if it would be okay. “Nooooooooooo!” I bellowed. I cried and cried and begged them not to throw it away. They exchanged the same concerned look they adopted after discovering my paper towel collection. The next day, after a good night’s sleep, I had regained some sense. Maybe all I needed was a nap to see that a receptacle full of dirt was not worthy of keeping. I told my parents that I was just being silly and of course we could throw away that dumb jar. This was my first dose of exposure therapy, a known effective treatment for OCD. Resisting the actions that allow you to feel safe and observing the lack of consequences helps quell fears for the irrationally phobic. In this instance, I threw away dirt that I had deemed significant, and my parents didn’t die as a result. Maybe the voices in my head weren’t so smart after all.
These particular strange behaviors randomly decorated my elementary days and eventually died out. However, much like traveling vices, my brain would find other ways of ordering me around.
In 6th grade, I had a perpetually clean room. I created a daily checklist for me to complete every day after school:
* Eat a Snack (yes, I put this on a checklist…)
*Pack my lunch for the next day
* “Clean my room” (which was always already clean)
*Play with my hamster
*Practice my clarinet (to the exclusion of answering phone calls from friends, because I was “busy”)
*HOMEWORK (my biggest priority besides crush gawking at the time; only A’s would do)
I had a lot of postcards, posters, and magazine cutouts on my wall. When I “cleaned” my room, I would go around and press on the sticky putty found in the corners of each decoration. I also used a broom to sweep all the fibers of my forest green rug in one direction. I would scold my dad for stepping on it when he entered my room, ruining its perfection, exposing lighter green streaks. Only my dog could get away with it scot-free. She didn’t know any better, and I could always re-sweep once she left.
I started shaving my legs and toying with makeup at 10 years of age. I wore foundation in the 5th grade when I still had pimple free porcelain skin. In early adolescence, I decided that I was ugly. Reading fashion magazines and going through puberty did its job. I was simply unacceptable. I knew what had to be done. I made a list of the things I needed to buy to become beautiful. I leafed through beauty magazines, studying every page intently. Featured products were added to the list. If a product was advertised, it made the cut. If a product was mentioned in a DIY beauty method, my pencil moved. Every time I was able to purchase one of the items, my anxiety ceased for a millisecond. I had extensive beauty routines. I would wash and moisturize my face every night. Every weekend, I gave myself a manicure and a pedicure. My toenails were always painted as I deemed them more attractive that way. I bought hot clay masks, shady infomercial products (Nads hair removal system anyone?), and expensive shampoos. Maybe my mom was satisfied with her cheap Suave 2-in-1 cleanser, but I was above that. I used my allowance to buy Herbal Essences. I was going to get all the boys with my fruity scented hair. Soon enough, I would be perfect. I was an advertiser’s dream. I bought into every single scheme. The people who use these products are beautiful, and I can be too if I just acquire all of them! Step right up, step right up! All you need is an endless supply of money and zero self-esteem.
The first time I fell in love, I did it the way you would expect given my past behavior: with absolutely EVERYTHING I had. I stopped caring about my grades for a little while. I had a new interest to pursue. I made lots of terrible decisions and forgave the unforgivable in the name of “true love”. The star of my affections was an emotionally disturbed teenager just like me, but his baggage was heavier than mine. I became entrenched in the drama, possessed by the thrill of it all. I struggled with depression that made the highs and lows take away from the apathy just long enough to keep me coming back for more. We were obsessed with each other. Our feelings were intense and purposeful. We both feared the outside world, so we built our own, in which we were the only inhabitants. We were together…apart….together….apart….together….apart…together…apart. Unfortunately, that’s not an exaggeration. We really did break up and get back together a total of 4 times during our 4 year courtship. The danger of these types of relationships is that you begin to associate the ability to breath with their presence in your life, even when things turn irreparably sour.
I asked for Office Max gift cards on all of my Christmas lists as a young teen. One year, I actually received one and was beyond thrilled. Brand new office supplies are a dream for freaks like me. School was a regular outlet for my obsessive tendencies, as it was a constant in my youth. I distinctly remember throwing away several sheets of paper while working on assignments if my handwriting wasn’t perfect. To the credit of this horrendous compulsion, I now am complimented on my handwriting all the time. From being forced to write signs at work to being told by a teacher that I have “handwriting like an angel”, it’s a talent I unintentionally possess.
In 7th grade, a recurring assignment in geography was to fill in maps with colored pencils. On one occasion, I woke my mom up, sobbing because I couldn’t get the colors to blend correctly. I needed to start over but only had one map! My mom was outwardly angry at the fact that I was still awake at 2AM on a school night. She didn’t understand that my pursuit of perfection was my overriding compass. I was still being controlled by the demons that convinced me of the usefulness of hoarding a jar full of dirt just 5 years prior.
It was only in college when I used my scholarly obsessions to escape from real world trouble: a verbally abusive relationship, loneliness, and unremitting depression. I locked myself away in the extra bedroom of our apartment, studying every assigned reading with the precision of a lab chemist. I memorized and analyzed as if my life depended on it, which in a way, it did. Feeling anxious? When in doubt, immerse yourself in something… anything… as if it’s the reason you exist in the first place.
I am a devoted flosser and have been since high school. What convinced me to finally make this habit a priority? I didn’t want to lie to the dentist or get scolded for telling the truth. The only solution? Start flossing!
I was still playing clarinet in the school band by high school. Everyone was given practice logs to fill in. Just about everyone would lie, filling in most of the days with practice time that didn’t exist. I couldn’t bring myself to do the same. My inner martyr wouldn’t allow it! I sat in a practice room with another student (let’s call her Lesley) while our teacher glanced at our logs. Prior to this arrangement, Lesley confessed to me that she would just fill it in and hardly ever practiced. My log was pretty pathetic in comparison. I recorded just 2 or 3 practice days over a 2-week period. My teacher scolded me about how she wanted to see a log more like what Lesley had provided. Lesley smirked at me with a guiltless smile. I was appalled at the injustice of it all but kept my mouth shut anyway.
The name Justine means “just; upright; fair; righteous”, but I prefer what the urban dictionary says about me…
“Individual and artistic, Justine usually doesn’t give a crap about what anybody thinks of her.
Innovative and sincere, a Justine is a jack of all trades and appears to succeed in all that she puts her mind to or at least appear to.”
Health: Diet, Exercise…and Orthorexia…and Binging
When I packed my lunches as a kid, they were always “balanced” by my definition: a sandwich , a salty snack (such as pretzels or chips), a fruit, a vegetable, and something sweet (usually a Snickers bar that I would purchase out of the school vending machine upon my daily arrival). It’s as if I was meant to be a dietitian.
When I was 15, I asked for and received a Brita water filter for Christmas. Instead of acquiring mascara and Glamour magazines for my path to enlightenment, I delved into all of the “sposed to’s” of healthy living, a little at a time. It started with the water filter, went into hiding while obsessing over love and school, and then resurfaced after cutting ties with my high school sweetheart. I was older and sophisticated now. I wasn’t buying into beauty schemes anymore. No sir, health was where it was at. If you wanted to be guaranteed a long life, all you had to be was healthy!
I gained the junior 15 in college. When I was a freshman, I was too preoccupied with class and the daily drama of my relationship to care much about my diet. I ate reasonably healthy for a college student: lots of oatmeal, Subway sandwiches, trail mix, and fruit. However, toward the end of the doomed unity with my ex, I started binging. Stress was certainly a factor, not to mention my “what the hell” attitude toward diet failures. I didn’t calorie count. I just put foods into “good” and “bad” categories, the way a perfectionist views the rest of the world. It’s all black and white, all or nothing. I would resist eating the “bad” foods but eventually fail. As predictably as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, my endorphins and belly shot out over time.
My weight gain didn’t bother me too much at first. I was eating healthier now by my newly discovered eating standards. Michael Pollan taught me that processed food was the root of all evil and that butter was good for me. I ate a lot of farmer’s breakfasts: 2 eggs fried in butter and oatmeal made with organic whole milk and maple syrup. Lunch was a huge chunk of homemade barley bread with homemade trail mix butter and an apple. I was living life. I had finely removed the shackles of my dependent relationship and was living in an apartment above my best friend. We often took shots of vodka, biked to the bar in a delirious state, and milked a drink or two the rest of the night, partying on the cheap. I was having a lot of fun.
It wasn’t until my wannabe dietitian classmates and I were assigned to assess each other’s body fat compositions that I started to wonder if I should lose weight. My body fat was above that deemed as healthy. I looked around at all of my other classmates. Most, if not all of them, were smaller than I was. I had never really noticed before. Probably because it was irrelevant and not terribly obvious until we were we asked to strip down and have our bodies scrutinized by calipers. At first, I was defensive about the fact that my weight should be considered unacceptable. It’s a common characteristic of a perfectionist to have an intolerance of criticism. However, through research I discovered that my distrust was warranted. There is a real lack of evidence that being slightly overweight (which I was just on the verge of according to my BMI) is a real health threat. I found out that those in the slightly overweight category actually have lower mortality rates. Take that skinny bitches! Not that that changed my new found focus: losing weight. It was about time, really. I am an American girl after all. The shiny pictures from the fashion magazines I once worshiped and later discounted would come back to haunt my thoughts once more.
“Fixing” Myself!…and Orthorexia…and Binging (Weight gain…loss…further loss…gain….further gain)
I came to the conclusion that if I exercised excessively, there was no way that I wouldn’t lose weight. When it comes to exercise, more=better, right? That summer, I biked to my job, worked on my feet for 8 hours, biked home, and did 40 minutes-2 hours of Tae-bo when I got home, even if I was hungry or tired. You know, those pesky signals your body tries to send your obsessive brain when it needs a break. Hush now! Billy Blanks is on!
I am 5’2. I started out at 136lbs, which was the heaviest I had ever been. I got down to 127lbs that summer. I was fairly satisfied with my progress but was surprised that I didn’t lose more given the amount of effort I was exerting.
I still binged regularly. It was an emotional answer to my unresolved and uncomfortable feelings. I also had a lot of malabsorption issues contributing to insatiable hunger. I was eating very healthy foods that were actually making me sicker, but I wouldn’t come to this realization until suffering through several years of trial and error.
I couldn’t handle the daily tummy aches any longer. I became obsessed with the idea of finding all of my food intolerances, of curing what ailed me. List time! Various lists of foods to avoid and food diaries starting cluttering my notebooks. I experimented with cleanses that resulted in heart palpitations and panic attacks, raw food diets that hurt my insides, and a self-imposed elimination diet that lead to several weeks of 2lb/week weight losses. I dropped down to 118lbs in a short period. Soon after this initial stint of self-discovery, I would take things one step further. I would name myself the Hungry Guinea Pig and begin experimenting with numerous diets for health AND science. I started wasting away in the name of these odd pursuits. It wasn’t a typical vanity-induced eating disorder, but the results were the same. A need for control is a common prerequisite. I dropped down to 109lbs at my lowest, experienced amenorrhea for several months and learned a lot of lessons along the way. Interestingly, I was still at a BMI defined “healthy weight” when I started to notice that I was developing the shape of a sickly girl/young boy. After the official experiments were over, I started to slowly and predictably gain the weight back and then some. Currently, I weigh in at about 138lbs. I am right back where I started plus 2 pounds. This is typical for extreme dieters. Once you go back to life as usual, your weight adjusts accordingly.
The term “Orthorexia Nervosa” was coined by a doctor named Steve Bratman to label a special type of eating disorder he felt victim to. A person with orthorexia exhibits an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. He/she may skip out on outings with friends to avoid eating anything processed and cut so many “unhealthy” choices from their diet that they end up malnourished. Not everybody is convinced that this is a real disorder, but I believe there’s some truth to it. When I worked at Subway, I started to bring in my own homemade bread and organic cheese. Every shift, an employee would get a free sandwich, but I became savvy to all of the harmful chemicals in the bread and cheese, so I would only take the free vegetables, thank you. I always tell people that I know too much about food, because I do. Once you find out that no food can be labeled “healthy” with indiscretion, it’s a real headache for a person with an obsessive personality. Ever since learning about the health benefits of a whole foods diet and the illness that can surface from eating a diet chock full of processed foods, my brain has stayed tuned into the “best” and “worst” foods. I want to store things away into the proper brain compartment, but it’s not so cut and dry. It’s a daily battle I still face. Depending on my state of mind on any given day, going to the grocery store can be real torture. I have to spend ridiculous amounts of time scrutinizing and comparing foods. Milk can be healthy, but the cows must be grass fed and the heat applied during pasteurization destroys vitamins and minerals. However, unpasteurized milk can cause severe food poisoning, so you’ll want to stay clear of that! Also, dairy can cause inflammation for a lot of people, so really it’s best to leave it out of your diet entirely. But you don’t want to cut anything out of your diet entirely! That will just make you want to binge on it when you feel overwhelmed with deprivation! If you have IBS, lactose may be a problem for you, so stick to hard cheeses…but not if you have a histamine intolerance! Yogurt is really healthy for you, but if you have a yeast/mold sensitivity, you must avoid fermented foods of all kinds! But you don’t want to cut anything out of your diet entirely! That will just make you want to binge on it when you feel overwhelmed with deprivation!… Not to mention the ethical considerations: Is it fair trade? Is it cruelty free? Is it better for the planet to buy local dairy or coconut milk from thousands of miles away? I have to avoid certain foods as much as possible to keep my tummy pain under wraps. Once you add up all of the criteria, there’s not much left to eat. The same anxiety that stirred up inside me when my parents wanted to help me clean my room surfaces when I go grocery shopping with my husband. He wants to be in and out of there. I can’t handle the pressure, so most of the time, I go shopping alone.
As I got closer to answers during my guinea pig dieting endeavors, it became clear that I was as interested in getting better as I was with having something new to obsess over. Once I started to put the puzzle pieces together, I began to experience that familiar feeling of loss. My sights must be set on a mystery/challenge at all times, or those bastards in my brain will rebel with all they’ve got. As an adult, I don’t worry about my parents dying or WWIII. I am simply reminded of the fact that my life is often painfully boring and meaningless in the macro sense, and that just brings me down.
The best tool I have discovered to deal with being an avoidant anxiety-prone obsessive-compulsive hypersensitive dysthymic introvert is mindfulness. “You are not your thoughts” was the best news I ever received. That one phrase removed a huge burden from my shoulders, helping me reanalyze whether or not things really HAD to be done a certain way all the time. I finally understood that the demons in my brain were really just neurons with an affinity for mischief. I could pay attention to their shenanigans or not. As a parallel to growing up, I stopped caring what people thought, and that included my own thoughts at times. I am still wired to gravitate toward these thoughts. I still obsessively check the alarm on my phone about 3 times before heading to bed, and I still flirt with the idea of extreme diets, but I now have the knowledge and power to tell my brain cells to “get a job”.