I used to live for the exalted feeling of sneakers on my feet at 4:30. The work day ended I would change clothes in my tiny office, slip into new running shoes-real ones-and take off down the three flights of stairs and bound out into the woods behind the campus where I worked. I ran, and I prayed, and I felt in the singing of my bones a bond with the world, with God, with myself.
I have an eating disorder. She is not easily described or categorized. I like food, and I eat it. So far, it seems reasonable, the relationship we are all supposed to have. But there are stretches of days and hours and weeks where she panics at the thought of ice cream and wine and that extra bag of pretzels last Friday lunch. So she writes me notes to remind me that delight will always cost me something, and here I will pay in ounces and pounds, the disappearance of my hip bones under flesh, the dress from three months ago too tight here, and there, and there.
She writes me warnings, exhortations – if you don’t join the gym you’ll just keep gaining weight, if you only did yoga you’d be a better mother, don’t forget that someday you’ll regret the extra indulgences… everything in moderation, Hilary, no excess, self-care, self-love, it’s what well-balanced people do…
She was the reason I put on sneakers every day and ran and ran and ran. I was running away from her, running to fulfill her, running to keep her at bay and keep her my best friend.
I had a baby almost exactly 10 months ago. In the chaos of the NICU I lost the weight of him, all the evidence of his presence in my body, so quickly that I seemed disjointed in my skin. For the next nine months I pumped milk for him, and when I pumped I thought briefly of how the calories would slip away from me, safely into someone else, how I could breathe freely for a little while because the eating disorder, she was satisfied with the knowledge that nothing I ate could come haunt us.
She promised me that it was better to be this new, loose self ill-fitted in her skin, that it was good to see the ridges of ribs and spinal chord. She promised it made up for the fact that I hadn’t joined the gym. It made up for the fact that I hadn’t put on those sneakers, that I didn’t even know where I had left them.
I stopped pumping earlier this summer, and my flesh appeared again, different, new. The eating disorder sat next to me on the couch, weeping. How could I – become so different, lose control of my body – but she dried her eyes and she resolved with a smile – now is the time to join a gym, Hilary. Other moms do it, other moms make time for self-care and self-love and they go running with their babies and … and… you can, too. You’ll be okay that way.
She is always promising me that if I stretch a little farther I will hold onto something better and more beautiful, that feeling of exaltation she used to give me on those long runs in the woods. She is always promising me that riding on every run is the proof of my commitment to doing what is best for my body, my self, my family, my world.
It’s time to join a gym, Hilary.
I miss the woods, the exaltation of them and the singing, the place where I would stop and look at the water and feel myself in the world and in love with the world. I miss the way the ground pressed up against my feet and the burning of my lungs while I raced myself up the hill. I miss the sweat and the satisfaction. I miss the simplicity of giving her what she demanded of me, the daily thirty minutes, the sense that it relieved me of guilt, that it washed me clean.
And I cannot love her anymore, the eating disorder, the person she promises me I’ll become if only I give her what she wants. I cannot love her anymore, and I wonder how to escort her out of my house, out of my car, out of my closet. I wonder how to give up all her promises and to press my hands into my skin again and to feel my bones only as mysteries beneath flesh. I wonder how to put Jack on my hip, day after day, and notice that it holds him on its own, how to feel gravity dance with my feet and to see that there are marks, memorials, of pregnancy on my stomach.
I cannot love her anymore, and so I don’t join the gym. The tiniest, first beginning, and a new feeling – not exaltation, not absolution for a guilt she invented – but hope.