When Listening Saves Lives

I ignored my body’s messages…and my health went up in flames. I managed to escape the fire by listening to my body.

What is anorexia nervosa?
Is it just a weight-loss plan?

No.

Among other definitions, anorexia is a disease of the relationship between the mind and body. It erodes trust between the two, hindering our ability to accurately recognize, interpret, and honor our body’s messages.

To recover is to restore this relationship.

The first thing we do in recovery, after restoring our body weight, is learn to detect our body’s messages.

Next, we learn how to honor them, knowing this will be a lifelong, daily practice.

We start with hunger and fullness cues. These are the most immediate, and they’ve been neglected the most.

On my first day of treatment, I was handed a tiny, plastic rectangle. It looked and felt like a credit card, but it was diagram breaking down hunger and fullness cues on a scale from 1 – 10.

1 = empty.
10 = painfully full.
5 = neutral.
8 = comfortably full.

This is a sample hunger-fullness scale. They all differ slightly.

Typically, you start eating a meal when you’re at a 3 or 4, and you finish between a 7 and 9, 8 being the ideal stopping place (I developed a pattern of eating to a 7 which got me into trouble). Eventually, this practice becomes intuitive.

It seems simple. After all, eating is a basic need – one we learn as children – but anorexia makes us forget how to do it. We have to re-learn.

Anorexia makes us forget how to eat. In recovery, we have to relearn how to.

Once we’ve mastered the basics and can honor our hunger and fullness cues with integrity, we learn to interpret our body’s other cues.

What does a headache tell me?
What does nausea tell me?
What does my bladder tell me?

Ignoring my body’s hunger cues almost cost me my life.

It made my health go up in flames.

I learned, the hard way, how important it was to honor them.
What I didn’t realize, however, was how important it is to honor the other ones – bladder, for instance. I thought they were incidental.

How many times have I felt fatigue but chosen to stay up reading?

How many times have I felt my eyes throb but continued to stare at a screen?

How many times have I woken up in the night with a full bladder and chosen to ignore it?

Too many.
In fact, I have a full bladder right now, and I’m choosing to sit here typing.

Bad move on my part.
Turns out, ignoring the bladder can be just as dangerous as ignoring a hunger cue.

I’ll explain.

My grandparents moved into their home in 1976.
My father was 12 years old.

He and his bothers grew up, but my grandparents stayed put. I’ve spent easily 20% of my life in that house, especially since it’s an hour from my college.

I have family members in Louisiana, Connecticut, D.C., and Bangkok, but we all meet in that house at least twice a year. We had planned to stay there for Christmas.

Unfortunately, plans changed.

In Mid-November, I got a phone call. My grandparents’ house had caught fire in the middle of the night. I mentioned metaphorical flames at the opening of this post; these were actual flames.

Taken by the neighbors.

The cause? Spontaneous combustion.

It was the second-largest fire their town had ever seen, and the damage was beyond repair.

All that remained on the wall was one photo…of me. Askew, of course.

I was devastated.
But a miracle had occurred.

At 4 o’clock in the morning, shortly after the fire started, my 89-year-old grandfather woke up. He was woken by his bladder, begging him to “Empty Me.”

By the grace of god/wisdom/intuition/love/whatever-you-want-to-call it, he answered the call. He rose from his bed and looked down the hall. He found it engulfed in flames.

He yelled for my uncle, who had recently moved in to take care of them full time and was sleeping upstairs. Together, they woke my grandmother, and the three escaped through the window.

They made it out unscathed.

What if my grandfather hadn’t listened to his body?

What if he had ignored the call of his bladder? What if he had chosen to “hold it,” or get lazy and have an accident?

He would not have seen the flames.
They would not have made it out unscathed.
They might not have made it out at all.

By listening to his body and empty his bladder, my grandfather saved the lives of himself, my uncle, and my grandmother.

Because he listened to his body, we spent the holidays moving my grandparents into a new home, rather than planning three funerals.

But my grandfather listened to his body.
And he saved three lives.

This woke me up.
It reminded me, viscerally, that I must not ever take my body for granted. That I must not ever disregard its cues. That hunger, fullness, fatigue, headaches, nausea, and bladder are all indicators of something that needs tending to and are all equally important.

I must not ever take my body for granted.

Our bodies constantly work to keep us in balance.
They work to keep us comfortable. They work to keep us alive.

They protect us from forces beyond our awareness, like silent hallway fires. That’s why we have to trust them. We must be able to trust them.

That’s why recovering from anorexia is crucial.

Look, I get it: as a friend told me once, “recovery is a bitch-and-a-half.”
But only in the beginning. Eventually, you get far enough away from the disease that you forget how much it meant to you.

Whether you choose recovery or not, the thinness won’t last.
Either it will expire, or you will – at its hand.

If you choose to surrender your anorexia, you might lose the physicality you’ve worked for – and it is excruciating work, I know – but you’ll recover a trust between your body and mind that can and will be life-saving – a trust that will keep serving you at 89-years-old.

You’ll gain energy. You’ll gain vitality. You’ll potentially gain longevity.

This fire, tragic as it was, inspired me.
It reminded me to keep listening.
Maybe it can remind and inspire you, too.

Before I pursued residential treatment, I attended a 6-week theatre arts intensive, during which I struggled. Shortly before I entered treatment, I reached out to the director to update her on my progress:

I’d like to update you on how I’m doing. I have been fighting the anorexia since I’ve been home and have made progress, but for the sake of permanence, I decided this week to look into higher care. I submitted my first college applications last night, furthering this incentive.

I’ve realized how much is at stake and how much will be sacrificed if I don’t take ownership of my health. Your program opened my eyes in this way, too. I’m ready to squash this monster once and for all. 

She responded with:

Squashing the monster is the best news ever. I must say that I thought you left Cherubs in a very fragile state. Get higher care. It is a monster to fight, but you can absolutely do it. I want to see the firecracker of a person that you are when you are not under the influence of that monster. 

If you are currently struggling with anorexia, I urge you:

Learn to listen to your body.

Let the nasty bastard go.
Find, as my program director would say, the firecracker of a person you are.

Maybe anorexia isn’t your monster.
Maybe drug addiction is your monster.

Maybe food addiction is your monster.
Maybe sex addiction if your monster.

Maybe your monster is believing you’ll get all of your needs met by another person. Maybe your monster is codependency. Maybe it’s obsessive thinking.

Whatever your monster is, crush it.

Here’s an idea!
Set it on fire.

You can do it. I believe in you.
Squash your monster, once and for all.

Thank you for reading.

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