Tokyo was a veritable smorgasboard! Without parental supervision over my eating habits, I was free to eat whatever my heart desired. And Japanese cuisine was so far removed from my Australian experience that every meal was an adventure into flavour town. I was a gastronomical psychonaut! Every morsel tasted of liberty, and every bite was free from the astringency of shame. My Japanese hosts actually delighted in putting plates before me–their eyes brimming with tears of national pride as I enthusiastically devoured each authentic delicacy: live fish, urchins, two kinds of eel, mountain roots, sweat beans, glutinous rice cakes, and sheet after sheet of seaweed were gobbled up with alacrity. The louder I slurped, the happier it made everyone; in hideous defiance to British decorum.
Meals in Japan are traditionally communal. Each person is given a small bowl of rice (and Buddha save you if you don’t finish every last grain!) to which you add and chopstick through a plenary cosmos of shared dishes from the family table. Japanese tots get taught to eat until they are full. At home in Australia, I was taught to eat until my whole individual plate was empty, or I would be served a nice hot plate of guilt about starving kids on the other side of the world. And so I never really learned to listen to my body as it sang its song of satiety. I ate until there was no crumb left to eat. This had always presented a problem at buffets, and likewise, it presented a problem within this new communal context of eating. For the first time in my life, my eating habits were being celebrated, and I accordingly obliged.
Consequently, I gained fifteen kilograms during my epicurean adventures in Tokyo. To me, those kilos represented freedom and experience. But not to my parents. By now I was 18 and ‘worldly’ and not subjected to the same levels of control that I was as a child. I was, by legal definition, an adult, and my parents chose to treat me accordingly. What that meant, however, was that I was now sole bearer of responsibility for my decisions, and my problems, including my weight. My weight was still a shared cause for moral concern, but the concern was expressed in body language, facial expressions, and ‘constructive’ suggestions, rather than orders.
While my parents’ sideways looks diminished me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was meant for larger things. I was a university student, and the first in my extended blue-collar family to be one. The more I learnt, the more it separated me from the homogenous mindset of my familial upbringing. I was a cultural astronaut, and a tertiary student; two major points of difference between my lived experience and that of my family’s.
Despite outgrowing the shackles of my parents’ disappointment, I still suffered under societal expectations of a female body. I studied theatre at uni. But no matter how my thespianism excelled, I was doomed to be typecast. I perpetually scored ‘supporting actress’ roles. READ: fat sidekick, written for LOLs. Because fat women are never heroines and are always a joke, right? My university, proud alma mater to Geoffrey Rush, picked up on punishing me for being fat where my parents had left off.
Then I met a boy. But not just any boy. He was the antithesis of my family’s suburban culture. He was an academic, and aspiring politician. He was loud, effeminate, opinionated, emotional, awkward and self-deprecating. My family never adjusted to him, not even after a decade of co-habitation. From the moment we met, something intrigued me about this boy; he was incredibly intelligent, and yet lacked the social mores that I had learned to believe were universally adopted by ‘decent citizens’. No longer did my parents choose to highlight my ‘flaws’. Instead they subtly hinted at his as a natural extension of my character. The responsibility of my choosing him extended to total responsibility for him. Unbeknownst to me, this set me off along a destructive path towards ‘fixing’ him. And I zealously launched into this decade-long project. After all, logic would dictate that if I could be trained then so could he, right?
Our happiest moments therefore, were when we stepped outside our society’s confines and adventured together. And we shared many unforgettable journeys: geographically, psychologically, psychedelically. His intellectual arrogance and stubbornness tempered mine and we grew weird together. I loved him in the only way I knew how; the only way I’d been taught. But the triumph of the length of our relationship overshadowed his many and varied addictions and my learned self-righteousness about them for many years. We were both fire-heads and our fights were explosive and increasingly frequent. We loved fiercely, but we lashed out just as fiercely. He would persist in trying to knock me down a few pegs, and I would persist in blaming him for all of ‘our’ problems. We always resolved our fights amicably and patted ourselves on the backs for being adult enough to work through some meaty issues. But for every resolution came the recurrent inability to keep to it.
He accepted my body for what it was and praised my ample figure. He celebrated the mind above all else, and so my fixation on appearance was often cause for rebuff. In hindsight, I believe that I subconsciously sought partners with emotional issues in order to feel needed; a form of personal validation as much as a way to secure a boy’s interest in me long-term. As long as I was useful, I didn’t need to be formulaically attractive. But I had only ever known two speeds: idle and full-throttle. And so I had started neglecting my own social life and goals. I had actually stopped meeting new people in order to concentrate on his foibles, like they were, in fact, my own limbs. And with all of this negative attention, he had started to routinely practise escapism and dishonesty.
We would scream at each other for hours on end, each fighting for the moral high ground. “It’s all over this time. You’ve lost me forever!”, was our habitual catchphrase. But we would just as readily fall back into each other’s arms for “one last try”. I learned to practise empathy and came to understand (if not forgive) his inability to control his addictive and perpetually destructive behaviour. I also started to be aware that my eating habits followed his same patterns of addiction and self-deception. What I didn’t realise until much later was that our relationship did too.
After years of enforced poverty and borderline homelessness as a direct result of his addictions and poor social etiquette, I had reached peak self-righteousness. What I had failed to realise was my own agency in choosing to remain in what had slowly and surely descended into a destructive relationship. It was as if my own will had left me; that relationship failure had ceased to be a viable option. The death of my relationship would be the death of me, and I myopically and fastidiously ironed out creases, while the unique parts of my personality receded. I was an incredibly talented and intelligent person in my own right, but I lost the ability to think of myself outside of my partnership. Had I ever learned who I was?
I was lonely, exhausted and a nervous wreck, and eventually conceded that I needed to see a psychologist to help me deal with my partner (not for myself, of course!). I was tentatively diagnosed with Major Episodic Depression, and a generalised anxiety disorder, and finally agreed to be medicated. It took me six months to find a course of antidepressants that harmonised with my anxiety disorder and I threw myself into my recovery with the same zeal and finger-pointing that I approached everything in life. I had come from a family that toed the ‘responsibility’ line–in that one was personally responsible for one’s successes and failures in life; the old ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ mentality. So the idea of seeing my shortcomings as a result of mental illness did not sit well with me, at first. Besides, I was from a respectable family, and had been blessed with all of the material things required to live out a ‘successful’ life. I had ‘no right’ in my brainwashed mind to complain or be anything other than a winner. And I had applied this same logic to my partner for years.
But with psychological intervention I began to suspect that maybe there was no logic inherent in this thinking at all. I began to accept that there was something neurologically different about my brain, and my partner’s also, and that perhaps we had no fault in it. Once I learnt to let go of the self-regulating blame and shame culture that my own teacher-parents had passed on to their children, the real healing started to take place. My world opened up, and I started to notice others trapped in the same psychological patterns as me.
Then one day, while again trying to convince my partner that what ailed him was bipolarity through patterns of mental illness in his bloodline, we stumbled across the wikipedia page for Borderline Personality Disorder. While scrolling through the symptoms, I had a profoundly uncomfortable feeling in my belly; the kind you might experience during a flash of Déjà vu. I was reading my life’s story writ large: the inability to pragmatically contain my emotions, the isolating feelings of rejection and abandonment that never faded with time, my propensity for adoration which could catapult into exponential hatred in record time, my inability to leave a personally destructive relationship, my tendency to ‘go blank’ or dissociate after an emotional episode, and my flirtation with self-harm, suicidal ideation, and addictions–most notably my food addiction.
With this instantaneous and overwhelming clarity came a sudden release from my addictions. My weight wasn’t obscene, or shameful, or a show of weak will. It was a symptom of a heretofor undiagnosed serious mental illness, like a sore throat is symptomatic of a cold. The shame I felt as an overweight, and therefore unattractive, female melted away as I learned to forgive myself. My weight was inversely proportional to the love I’d received as a child and to my self-esteem. My parents had never validated my emotions, and so I’d learned to eat them.
It has been over a year now since my official diagnosis of BPD. In that time I have lost my ten-year relationship (90% of Bipolar and 60% of BPD marriages end in divorce so the probability ship had sailed on that one), my family (who stopped returning my phone calls and letters after my diagnosis), and 35 kilograms of fat from my person. That’s an entire 11-year-old! It’s taken a year of psychotherapy to realise that what I lost was unneeded baggage. But what I have gained in self-confidence and self-awareness is immeasurable!
I didn’t need to lose weight to feel better about myself–to the contrary–I needed to feel better about myself in order to lose weight. There was a magic silver bullet, after all! It just wasn’t found in diet shakes, gym memberships, or increased willpower. It wasn’t dependant upon a strict regime of deprivation, or celebrity idolatry. It wasn’t about counting calories or controlling portion sizes. It wasn’t about carbs, gluten, red meat, ‘bad fats’, or fructose. Finding my healthy weight was purely dependent on understanding and loving myself fully.
My life-long weight issues were a symptom of the emotional abuse I’d suffered for my entire life which told me that I was not a good person, and not a woman worthy of respect unless I fit into that neat and misogynistic aesthetics box. And how have I kept my weight off? By no longer giving a fuck about prescriptive advice and constricting physical moulds. I am who I am, and I love myself more for it every day. And that has made all the difference.