Sunday, February 8, 2015

I Sing the Body Dyspeptic: A Letter to My Body

As I mentioned in passing in my previous post about binge eating, I have sought counseling over the years for my struggles with weight. One therapist I met emphasized the need to be more self-accepting and the importance of practicing body kindness, both of which were new concepts to me. 

I resisted at first. It seemed completely counter-intuitive and counterproductive to be accepting of something I wanted to change. To me, acceptance would indicate approval, and how could I possibly approve of a body that is so socially and medically stigmatized?

To help counter this thinking, she gave me an assignment to write a letter to my body wherein I showed it kindness. Those were my only instructions. No indication as to length or specific points to consider. I put off doing it for a few weeks, but I finally relented and it ended up being one of the most transformative exercises of my life. It changed me. I saw my body in a new light, and it genuinely made me want to treat it better. I started eating better and exercising more, and the weight steadily began to come off.

I wrote this letter over 100 lbs ago. I’ll leave it below without further comment, but as an ardent believer in this exercise I encourage any of you that struggle with self-acceptance to give it a shot. Write a letter to your body (or to your Self, if you struggle with something other than body issues), but show it nothing but kindness and gratitude. For those inclined to share, please tell me what you love about your imperfect self. Not only for the benefit of other readers, but for your own.

Dear Body,

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about our relationship.  I realized that I've been really harsh to you, both in how I've treated you and in the way I've ignored the wonderful things you've done for me. I've been incredibly selfish and I want to apologize.

As for the treatment I've given you, I recognize that I've been forcing you to take things you don’t want. You always tell me when I've given you enough to eat but I never listen, and I keep forcing you to take more and more until it makes you feel sick. For that I am truly sorry.

There have been plenty of times when you wanted to give me things—a walk in the park, a swim in the ocean, a session at the gym—but I refused to accept them because I was too embarrassed to be seen with you. I've been ashamed of the way you look for as long as I can remember, but I know it’s not your fault, and I know I have nothing to be ashamed of. You are unique and wonderful—a handful sometimes, to be sure—but unique and wonderful nonetheless.

I wish I would have treated you better all these years. There have been times when we got along pretty well. When we were in high school we used to skateboard and go on bike rides long into the evening. In my mid-twenties we biked every day, and I felt fantastic about myself even though I still weighed somewhere in the area of 250 pounds. It was around that time when we helped my brother Jim move from Missouri to Oregon. When we unpacked at his new place, I was going up and down the stairs non-stop, covered in sweat, but full of energy even after hours of work. I felt fantastic, and it’s one of my favorite memories with you.

I also remember a moment we had surfing one time—I’m sure you remember it too—at Seal Beach that summer me and Jon paddled out every day after work. I caught this one wave by the jetty, it was late afternoon, warm, quiet. The wave was a perfect 3-4 footer, I went frontside and glided across the face of it so smoothly it felt like I was flying, just like in my dreams. It is the only memory from my whole life that I can remember where I felt I didn't have to tell you what to do. For the first (and possibly only) time in my life, I just experienced what you were doing – there was no judgment or embarrassment or feeling like I had to control you. I just let you do – and you did awesome.

I think about that wave from time to time, the experience of it. I felt totally and completely at peace with you, with myself, and with the world. I want that to happen again. I want to let myself experience things without imposing a dark shadow over them because of my negative feelings towards you.

Even though you've always been more than willing to do things like that with me, I've spent most of my life embarrassed about you and blamed you for all of my problems. I have journal entries from when I was fourteen years old that talk about how badly I wanted to change you, and I have memories from even earlier in my life to that same effect. Even now I desperately want you to change, but I realize it’s not you that needs to change, it’s me. I blame you for things that are entirely my fault. 

I’m frankly surprised you've put up with it for so long and you haven’t given up on me yet. You haven’t given me any major problems, ever (other than emotional, but I’m coming to accept that that blame is misplaced).  I wish I would listen to you better when you tell me when to eat and when to stop. I wish I would listen better when you beg me to get out of the house and set you into spirited motion. I’m sorry I’m so stubborn.  

I recognize now that I often eat because I’m trying to fill an emotional need rather than satisfy any of your physical needs – that’s selfish of me, and I apologize. I need to learn to listen to you better and be more mindful of your needs rather than compulsively trying to satisfy my own.

I want things to be better between us. I want to take full advantage of everything you have to offer me. I want to do more things – things that I've always been physically capable of but didn't do out of shame or embarrassment. We were doing good for a while there. We were going to the track almost every night, and then we would go swimming when the legs wore weak but the will waxed strong. Remember when we ran a quarter mile together for the first time? We did that when I was well over 300 pounds. We even did a full-blown sprint for 100 yards! It felt amazing!

We've done triathlons and 5Ks. We did the Salt Lake Century bike ride. We've mountain biked in Moab, hiked waterfalls in Hawaii, scrambled to the tops of Maya temples in Guatemala and gone scuba diving in their sacred cenotes in Belize. We've ascended the Spanish Steps in Rome, and climbed the Great Wall of China. I've shared all of these lived and lively experiences with you, a body distastefully labeled by charts and formulas as morbidly obese.

You amaze me, you really do. I have all of these preconceived notions about what you can and can’t do, yet you prove to me over and over that I am wrong. You can do whatever you want; I’m sorry when I tell you otherwise. I promise I’ll start listening to you from now on. I know I won’t be perfect, but I know you’ll forgive me any time I mess up. Thank you for your kindness to me – I promise from now on I’ll try to return the favor.

You have been such a blessing in my life. You've allowed me to accomplish all that I have. You've allowed me to be a great teacher, student, husband, father, brother, son, and friend. I've seen—and continue to see—beautiful things. I've heard—and continue to hear—beautiful things. I've done—and will continue to do—amazing things, all because of you.

Thank you for all you've done, all you've put up with. Thank you for never giving up on me. Thank you for continuing to tell me what you need. I’m ready to listen now.

Love,
Mark 

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