tw: anxiety, self-harm, cutting
I was almost 15 when I started to cut myself. That July, a powerlessness I had felt for a long time became unbearable. My feelings of powerlessness and the resulting anxiety have most often been provoked by experiences caused by being overweight. “Marissa, maybe if you lost weight boys would like you.” Not making the volleyball team. “Marissa, I want you to have lost 25 pounds by the time I come back from my mission.” Pictures that made me look really fat. “You can do 90 sit ups in a minute? Ha…..” Not getting asked to prom, or to anything else for that matter. “Marissa, stop eating, you don’t need more food.” Having to share my weight with classmates in health class like it was no big deal. “You need to learn self-discipline.” Neighborhood kids making fun of my weight when I was only 8 years old. “You are certainly well-fed…” I can think of a million other instances in which I felt embarrassed and ashamed far beyond what I allowed to show, because I thought those comments were right and that my body was destined to remain forever in the dark shadow of the wrong. Having power over my body through self-inflicted pain kept the overwhelming powerlessness at bay. If I couldn’t control any other part of my life, at least I had power to inflict pain upon myself. When I started to feel frantic, I knew that I could take a sharp object and the pain would soothe the anxiety racing through my body.
I come from a family of emotional eaters. We jokingly refer to ice cream as medicine. From what I’ve gleaned by looking at old family pictures, I had a fairly normal body weight as a child until my grandpa, the family member I remember being closest with and lived with, got really sick and passed away. Shortly after my grandfather passed away, we returned to Montana, where I was born. Although I was only eight years old, the death of my grandpa and the move to a very different state impacted my emotional health and, in turn, my eating habits in significant ways. From a young age, my relationship with food left me feeling pathetic and undisciplined. Feeling that I overate was the biggest determiner of the likelihood that I would cut myself on any given day. I became ashamed of eating in front of people because I was sure they were judging me in the same way I had learned to judge myself. I became obsessed with my weight from the age of ten or eleven and constantly thought of and implemented different strategies to become thinner. But I kept quiet about my obsession, because it was an embarrassing problem, one that eleven year olds shouldn’t have.
Church was often the worst place for my emotional well-being. I was taught that in order to prepare for marriage, the highest and holiest of unions, I needed to do everything I could to attract a worthy mate. At a young age, my heart and others told me that I wouldn’t be considered as an acceptable option because I was overweight and that it was my fault that I wasn’t attractive enough. I thought I would never be able to live what I believed at the time was the ideal: a meaningful life being a wife and mother. The more I learned about agency, the more I felt like I missed a part of the plan of salvation in which God appointed men choosers and women options according to their looks. When I was eighteen and first started attending our local singles’ branch before I left for college, tears filled my eyes within the first few minutes of an eternal marriage lesson in Relief Society. It was easy for the other girls to talk faithfully about their future husbands, because they weren’t fat or crazy, I thought. Sometimes, the deepest part of me, wanted to believe that I had the option of marriage, even if I never chose it. But the more I yearned for options, the fewer I thought I would have in the future and the more ashamed I felt to admit it.
Looking back, I feel sad that my experiences, particularly within the gospel, led me to be so discouraged about marriage and my place in the gospel when I was so young. However, those feelings of dismay led to one of the best things I’ve ever done: I decided to make options for myself. Instead of becoming bitter about my perceived impending lack of “proper” LDS life options, I decided at a young age that I wanted to pursue a life and career that would allow me to love and travel and experience and laugh and cry and impact the maximum amount of people in the most quality ways. I resolved from an early age not to spend my life sitting around and waiting for a boy to like me. I have known since elementary school that I wanted to work with marginalized people of the world in some capacity. This desire has led me to consistently pursue that course of action my whole life thus far. I have had incredibly opportunities my whole life because of the time and energy I have put into those goals.
Despite many happy times and worthwhile achievements throughout my teenage years, I continued cutting myself as a desperate release for emotions during the low times, triggered by both my thoughts about my body and other difficult situations. For me as for many others, self-harm was never a suicidal tendency, but a way to cope with emotions. Several times I purposefully cut myself in a visible place as a cry for help, but no one ever said anything. Most of the time I hid any evidence because I was ashamed of everything – the self harm, the anxiety, the triggers for both of those things. It’s bad enough to be a fat girl, but to be considered a fat, crazy, broken girl is a million times worse. I still desperately wanted to believe that a boy could like me, but nothing ever supported that desire so I clung to my empowering life goals even if sometimes I wished I had the array of options everyone else seemed to have. I went to a counselor once, but didn’t feel much of a connection. I didn’t think I could find another counselor without explaining why to people I wasn’t ready to tell. Then I decided to serve a mission. Going on a mission was a shot in the dark because I was worried about how I might react to the severe stress and strong emotions I knew came with missionary work, particularly if no one knew about my past struggles. I hoped they wouldn’t ask me anything about my anxiety, depression or self-harm. They did. I lied. I couldn’t face the shame, misunderstanding and delay that I foresaw if I gave the honest answer despite being afraid of not being able to handle it myself.
Fast-forward through my feminist awakening, almost two years in Sub-Saharan Africa, and open-minded leaders and friends both within and without the LDS faith who were willing to talk about hard things. In those years, I’ve learned how to dissect, separate and attack many of the triggering attitudes that lit the flame of my anxiety and self-hatred all those years. My brain no longer immediately defaults to self-harm as a means of coping with stress. I’m at a point in my life where my relationship with food, my body and my emotions is healing. If I am going running because I love myself or I’m frustrated, I run as far as feels good, but if I recognize that I am coercing myself to go to the gym because I hate myself I stay home. My relationship with food is perhaps one of my largest remaining sources of frustration, but I’m working on it and I’m optimistic. I recognize that the following statement is not the case for everyone in a similar situation, but if things continue the way they have been, it’s very possible that my pants size could soon settle into the “socially acceptable” single digit I used to yearn for as I sink into a deeper peace with myself. But I’ve come to think of my remaining fat as protection from fully entering a terrifying world where my looks are valued before my personality is weighed. I’ve only recently had to deal with situations where I feel my looks have been valued more than who I am and I think that I’ve run away, afraid of them all. I no longer ache for my body to attract boys the way I thought I did when I was younger. Now, I’m afraid of being naïve and getting myself into a situation where I think I am valued for my whole identity when really only my looks have been considered. The irony is that the more peace I find with my body by not focusing on weight, the more weight I lose and the more acceptable my body becomes to the people who most value physical attraction, the social circle I no longer wish to participate in.
It is my desire to reach a place where I no longer purposefully inflict pain upon myself. I am happy to say that I made it almost two years without doing so; the longest period of time I’ve ever gone without cutting since I began. Then I had to restart my count earlier this year at the same time of year I usually have to start over. It might seem like I’m almost too free or too willing to be vulnerable discussing this topic, but I almost deleted that last sentence because I was ashamed to admit it. Right now I feel really brave but I know when it comes to clicking “post” I’ll be terrified. Only a few people I regularly associate with know even part of this story. I’ve never told anyone in my family, and I didn’t breathe a word of it to a single soul until I was nearly nineteen. Most of the time, just hinting at past struggles with anxiety and self-esteem, especially in relation to body image and in church settings, makes me incredibly uncomfortable.
Although I’ve felt strongly that I need to share this story for months now, it has taken me a long time to become even somewhat comfortable articulating and sharing it. Even now, I feel a little nervous to respond to people who bring it up to me. It’s not that I’ve been disallowed from doing so and it’s not like being fat or perceiving oneself as such is against the teachings of the Church. Self-harm was only recently addressed in the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth and only very briefly. So why have I remained virtually silent all these years? Why did I not seek for help? Why did I allow myself to suffer all those years? I was scared of a bishop who wouldn’t understand, who might tell me to stop taking the sacrament or who would take away my temple recommend. I was scared of being told I couldn’t serve a mission or being limited in where I could go. I was scared of having my autonomy taken away from me and being forced to go to treatment. I was scared of being talked about in ward council. I was scared of having to admit out loud that I hated what I looked like. I was scared of the whispers of ward members who thought they knew me and my situation. I was scared that everyone would look at me so much differently and think that I was significantly less capable or intelligent than before they knew. I was scared that people would just tell me to lose weight as a solution, or tell me that I was undisciplined and deserved what I was going through. I was scared that people who didn’t know me would try to help me. I was scared that if a boy ever knew he would run far far from any possibilities with me. I was scared of being told that it would all get better if I had more faith and so many more things. And I knew that every single one of those things my silence saved me from came steeped in shame. Silence was far less painful than the shame I knew would come from asking for help.
From my own story, I’ve come to understand that the stories we do not tell reflect our society’s centers of shame. Both within the specific context of the LDS church and the world at large, where there is a lack of honest dialogue there is always an overabundance of shame. Most of the time one point of view possesses most power to speak or refuse to speak. The contentedly misunderstanding majority shuts down the voices of the marginalized minority. This lack of dialogue is not doctrinal. I repeat: listening to or engaging with someone with a different point of view has never been discouraged by God. I’m not sure where the idea that “oh someone dissenting from popular LDS opinion is speaking, I can disengage myself from thinking, ignore their experiences and just tell them to pray/read the scriptures/talk to the bishop/leave the Church” came from, but I do know that it is wrong. We cannot ignore the experiences of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, disabled people, the poor or people who are otherwise different than the majority. Remember that Jesus Christ spent personal time with those whose words were silenced or ignored or relegated to all the far corners of society – the woman who committed adultery, the woman with an issue of blood, lepers, tax collectors, harlots. Even the first people he appeared to after He was resurrected were women whose combined testimonies weren’t worth a thing under Jewish law. Our Savior spent most of his time with the people who society shamed the most – so why do we think we can ignore them now?
When I was baptized, I promised to comfort those that stand in need of comfort, to mourn with those that mourn and to stand as a witness of God at all times and in all things and in all places. That means that I covenanted to stand as a witness of the God I know. In my personal interactions with God, I have been treated with compassion, love, empathy and charity at every turn. That means I, in turn, need to do my best to stand on the side of compassion, love, empathy and charity regardless of how well I understand the reason why someone is mourning or experiencing discomfort. I will no longer to bow down to the power I have given shame my whole life, nor can I in good conscience give shame the power to debilitate others by disconnecting myself from others’ difficult stories and voices.
To those who have silenced others, I beg you to listen, to aid, to weep with, to help, and to defend those who have been silenced and ignored even when you don’t understand them. Listen when they choose to speak, but never demand words or stories. It is a mark of extreme privilege for people to tell you their stories as soon as you ask in their desperation to be heard. To those who have been silenced, whether you are a person of color, a woman, LGBTQ, suffering from a mental or physical illness, not able bodied, fat, different or marginalized in a way that is not widely recognized, I beg you to continue sharing what you are safely and capably willing to share whenever possible, or to plan on sharing your stories when you can do so. Call me naïve or overly optimistic, but I believe in the possibility of a world where no story is belittled, torn apart or ignored; a world where shame doesn’t play a substantial role in our daily lives; a world where shame doesn’t keep people from asking for and getting help or finding happiness. The first step to achieving such a world is refusing to give shame silencing power by boldly telling and empathetically listening to the stories that haven’t been told.