Saturday, August 4, 2012

Lightening Up and Letting Go

I feel anxious when my dog Beckett refuses to eat.  I think this simultaneously makes perfect sense and no sense at all - which pretty much describes the mental duality of my existence.  While I prefer to hang out on the sensible end of the worry spectrum where most reasonable people would naturally become legitimately concerned about any living being who goes hungry for too long, I generally find myself as far away from this personal ideal as possible - somewhere between incapacitating anxiety and compulsive Googling of every symptom, both real and imagined, until I manage to transform the most inocuous symptoms into a life-threatening diagnosis.  For both my dog and me.

My fears are not entirely out of context.  After all, I am no more or less unique than anyone else when it comes to physical ailments.  I, too, have experienced my share of colds and flu bugs and pneumonia and strep throat.  Perhaps less common was the rare form of bacterial bone infection called osteomyelitis that I contracted first at age fifteen, then again at age thirty.  No known cause and --despite the necessary surgeries and months of intravenous antibiotics --  no guaranteed cure.  Certainly, that threatening osteomyelitis relapse clock often ticks in the back of my mind every now and then, but I have learned to hit the snooze button on my anxiety about a third recurrence, most of the time believing that worry will not stop the inevitable from happening.  In fact, worry is often a welcome sign for illness.
But here's where the challenge comes in. I am learning that while Beckett brings out the joyful, peaceful, calm person that I always suspected hid somewhere inside me, I often let his actions dictate my emotions.  And then I let my emotions drive my responses and define my behavior. Case in point: despite the fact that, for the past ten months, Beckett has eaten when he was hungry and stopped when he was satisfied, I put myself through daily stress and worry when he doesn't immediately empty his breakfast bowl as soon as I set it in front of him.  The difference now is awareness - I can at least see that I do this to both of us, and I am even starting to figure out why.

Because the truth is this: I am anorexic. In fact, I have been anorexic for most of my life.  Though I flirted with the vicious cycle of bulimia first, from ages 12-14, I eventually gave up the expensive, aggressive, all-consuming practice of bingeing and purging for the quiet and unassuming restriction of anorexia.  Most of my late high school years, all of my college years, and the majority of my adulthood so far  - my jobs, my relationships, my roles as friend and sister and daughter and student, and writer, and colleague and woman - have revolved around denial of food and feelings, and the guilt/fear/shame hybrid that has inevitably shown up any time I have given in to my appetites.  I have become a food restriction specialist, often pursuing starvation as if it were a career path, while developing an addiction to exercise that has left me with a resting heart rate of 42 bpm and more torn and damaged and constantly sore body parts than most eighty year-olds I know. (And before you ask, I actually know quite a few.)

I think it is precisely because of my lifelong marriage to food restriction and excess and elimination in its many indelicate forms, that I experience such intense worry every time I realize that Beckett is simply not going to eat whatever I have lovingly scooped into his stainless steel bowl.  The runt of his litter and a chronic sufferer of intestional parasites and digestive problems during his first few months of life, Beckett is no stranger to medical problems - or food aversions - of his own.  That said, when he refuses his special "sensitive stomach" dog food only to beg for the romaine lettuce and roasted green beans he can see me putting into my own lunch bag, I begin to suspect that he, too, is aware of the food games that I always thought only we humans played with one another - and with ourselves.  And while I do believe (as do most pet parents I know) that Beckett is far superior to any other canine on Earth, I don't think he prefers greens to kibble because he equates thinnness with perfection, which was always the logic at the center of my own preference for produce over carbohydrates. In fact, I don't believe Beckett thinks anything other than "I want green beans.  I like how they taste."  I think he employs the same instinctive logic when he whines for his sweet potato treats and "sits pretty" for his corn-free/wheat-free biscuits.  I don't think he ever worries or wonders whether one is more fattening or less healthy than the other.  I think, quite honestly, that he has a beautiful way of knowing what he wants and of doing everything in his power to give himself pleasure and enjoyment.

This was all on my mind this morning as I watched Beckett pick at a few pieces of dog food before deciding that he didn't feel like eating.  With a clean bill of health from the vet and a reputation for being a dietary diva, Beckett is medically fine and just ... being Beckett.  I constantly remind myself that when I recently took him on a ten-day trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, he refused to eat for almost four days, until, on day five, he got hungry enough, and I think he felt settled enough, to start eating again.  And all was well.  Despite the fact that I had spent days worrying about his refusal to eat, in the end, he ate when his body was ready.  Sometimes experiences like this remind me of the half joking/half serious curse my mother placed on me when I was very young and very stubborn: "I hope that someday, when you have children, they behave exactly like you are behaving right now," she would say.  Even though my life plans these days no longer include children of my own, I sometimes chuckle at the reality that I ended up with a dog who is putting me through many of the very same challenges I threw at my parents - some funny and quite common, some serious and scary. Certainly, as much as I love Beckett and as central to my life as he has become, I do sometimes wonder if my worries about his health and his refusal to eat are any indication of the helplessness and grief my parents must have felt all those years, watching me refuse the very sustenance they tried to give me, using starvation as a form of communication when no words would suffice.  I am doubly blessed that not only does Beckett eventually chow down, he communicates with me in a language all his own. All the time.  And if I don't hear or understand him, it is because I am not listening.

A few years ago, I asked my mother about the impact my eating disorders had had on her, especially when I was younger and hospitalization and feeding tubes started to enter the conversation. I wanted to know why she had suddenly stopped trying to force the anorexia out of my body and out of our lives.  After using every approach from ignoring the problem to suffocating it, from letting me feed  myself to force-feeding me through guilt and coercion, one day, she simply stopped.  She thought about my question for awhile before answering: "Heather, I just let go."  Those five words said so much.  My mother had let go of my illness and given it entirely to me.  It was a gift really, of the oddest kind, perhaps, but a gift nonetheless.  I don't know if she realizes that she taught me, in the letting go, that I, too, was capable of letting go of the struggles while hanging on to what was really important.  And though health and wellness remain a challenge, I am constantly teaching myself the lesson of letting go of the unhealthy to make room for what serves me and enhances my life. Beckett, of course, is one of my best teachers, especially as I watch him burrow through his bowl full of dog food to find the veggies I have strategically buried underneath.

I have committed to giving Beckett the freedom to eat when he is hungry and the freedom to stop eating when he is satisfied. I have decided to simply allow him to listen to his body's signals and to help him respond to them when I can. I figure I can learn from him, as I so often do, about how this all works.  And maybe, on this journey to health and self-awareness, I will even be able to lighten up with myself a little.  Maybe, eventually, I will even learn to just let go.

Til next time
~~ Hasky


  1. That was very touching and I hope one day you can truly let go :-)

  2. Sometimes when we feel powerless, we try to take control back in ways that don't really serve us. Eating (also not eating) can be one biggie! What I really appreciate about this post Heather is that you are verifying the there are only two things we have control over: 1) What we do and 2) How we choose to react to what someone else (or a dog) does. Congrats to you on steps towards both! Peace. Judi


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