Sunday, January 26, 2014

When you are Born Broken: My Eight Stage Yogic Journey from Eating Disorder to Self-Love

When you are Born Broken:
My Eight Stage Yogic Journey from Eating Disorder to Self-Love
 By Catherine Cook-Cottone
This is the story of my Eight Stage Yogic Journey. It was a complicated, non-linear passage that started with being born broken. It is the story of a journey through eating disorder, discontentment, hatred, and yoga, eventually landing in what I can only describe as self-love.
You see I was born broken. At least that is the way I saw things when I was little. There was no other way to explain it. I think it was midway through first grade when I realized I did not look like I was supposed to— like a prima ballerina. This was unfortunate because all I wanted, with my whole heart, was to be a prima ballerina. Yet, the sad truth is that I was pigeon toed, apple-shaped (according to my mom’s Family Circle magazine), and had extremely tight hamstrings. I was also granted thin, straggly hair, sensitive skin, and apart from a short stint on swim team, average (or worse) athletic ability.
What do you do when you are born broken like this? This is what I did.
Stage One: The Abandoned Body
In first grade, Mrs. Story our teacher let us write our own play. I, of course, wrote myself in as a ballerina. Me and another aspiring dancer choreographed our own 90-second sequence that Mrs. Story artfully wove into our classroom presentation. My mom sewed the two of us the most beautiful tutus with big satin sashes that tied in the back. I put mine on and looked in the mirror. I sucked my round belly in as tight as I could. I squeezed my legs in. I tried to stand taller. There was no fixing it.

I got through the play. I decided that even though I was not as beautiful as a ballerina, I could be an actress and I would act so much like a prima ballerina that the crowd, the 17 other first graders, would buy it. It was all good until I saw the photos of me and my skinny, perfect, ballerina friend standing right next to each other. Yeah, I was broken and she wasn’t. I hated that photo.
My age 6 decision was that if I could not have the body that I should have, I must abandon it. From that point on, I did not like my body for a long, long, long time. I didn’t want to look at it, think about it, or spend any time with it.
Like anyone who has abandoned their body, my sense of self was my thoughts. My thinking-self reined supreme. I thought therefore I was. Sadly, there was a flaw in my plan. It turns out you can’t simply abandon your body. We are stuck with these bodies, the very ones we were given at birth, even the broken ones. No trade ins, no givebacks, and no upgrades. This is it. You, me, we are stuck with it.
Stage Two: Monitor, Judge, and Control
Realizing this, my body became something to be regulated and controlled. I would think things like, “God, I could have fun if it wasn’t for this stupid body.” I shifted from ignoring my body to a constant state of judgment. Day after day, year after year, I monitored my body. I told it what to do, how to behave, and demanded that it be quiet. I asked my body to please not embarrass me in front of my friends. Monitoring and controlling a broken body took a lot of energy.
Stage Three: Conflict
My parents were supportive of a healthy and active lifestyle. Just like parents who try to get their kids to play nice with each other, my parents seemed convinced that I could have a healthy relationship with my body. I played soccer, swam, took dance lessons- even Hawaiian dance. Unfortunately, my body and mind could not work together to make these things happen in any sort of a healthy way. The activities were experienced as a constant irritation and nearly always resulted in disappointment. In this way, me and my body were like siblings unable to get it together to make our parents an anniversary card. You know, all fighting and no card. In my mind's eye, this was always my broken body’s fault.
Stage Four: Taking Inventory and Settling in to Self-hate
The years of ignoring, judging, and fighting with my body were adding up. At this point, the disappointment in my body was not only constant it was deep and multifaceted. In fact, I was now older and cognitively developed enough to keep an inventory of all the ways in which my body was broken.
I was a flincher. I theorized that were essentially two types of people in the world: (a) those who flinched during dodge ball and (b) those who did not. Intellectually, I wanted to be brave and stand tall, but physiologically, I flinched. True for soccer too. Check. Yes, I was a flincher.
I was not flexible. I recall the swim coach guiding our stretch sequence on the pool deck. His calm voice floated over the swimmers with legs stretched in front of them, chins to their knees and fingers to their toes. They were at home in their bodies. For me it was different. His voice taunted me. I was hunched over my thighs, hands extending to just below my knees, breath short and thoughts intolerant, wanting to beat my hamstrings into submission or escape from this ridiculous activity. There was no peace or release to be found there, just more proof of my brokenness. Check. I was inflexible.
I was apple-shaped. My body never looked right. That is what the diagram in my mom’s Family Circle magazine told me in 1972. If you are apple-shaped you should select waist minimizing clothes, vertical lines, and A-lines.  I thought all of this through carefully and often. My mother gently guided me away from bikinis and tube tops and toward more coverage. It was best that way. It was hard on me. It was the 1970s and bikinis and tube tops were the rage. I was broken, so they were not for me. Check. I was apple-shaped.
I wanted too much. My body was always wanting. My appetite was another part of my body that was wrong. I remember eating ice cream with my brothers and sisters, they seemed to be done when they were done and I was still craving more. I was full, sure. But I still wanted more ice cream. The other stuff about how broken I was sucked. But this, this I hated. I whole-heartedly hated the wanting-more-than-everyone-else part of me. It was like my gas gage was broken. And when I had a bad day or things were hard at school, that broken part of me gained strength, an undeniable strength. I would sneak food, eat bowls of cereal and bags of carrots, trying to quiet the cravings. I remember being in elementary school waking up with mini food hangovers. I would be swollen and nauseous. My shorts would be hard to snap. I hated my craving, hung-over, broken self. Check. I wanted too much.
Teen years were no kinder. I not only gained the extra female puberty pounds but my face broke out too. From the front of the room, my biology teacher told me I had a spot of pizza sauce on my face that I should wipe off. “No,” I explained, “It is not pizza. I have a skin condition. Thanks though.” Luckily only half the class was paying attention. Check. My skin was broken too.
Inventory complete. I now officially hated my broken self.
Stage Five: Eating Disorder
I recall the day I had enough. I was done.  I was done with my body, the emotions, and the inventory of problems. It was the summer before my freshman year of high school. We were at our house on the lake. We were swimming. My sister, being a kid, told me that the inner tube kept flipping because I was too fat. “Hold on tighter Cathy! It wouldn’t flip if you weren’t so fat.”
“You know,” I said, “you are right.” At that moment, something in my brain clicked.

Svenaeus (2013) Stated, "Most narratives of anorexia seem to start with a scenario in which a young girl suddenly understands by way of comments or behaviors of others that she is too fat" (p. 85). 
Now, I had been on diets before. My mom and I went on one together when I was in eighth grade. It did not work. I had outsmarted that one by drinking whole milk as my beverage for every meal and snack. “This time,” I told my broken self “things are going to be different!”
My broken body was in for some trouble. My mind is sharp and focused, always has been. I had always done well in school. My mother would tell people, “When she puts her mind to something, she can do anything.” She was right. I made a firm commitment to 1,200 calories a day and stuck with it. Summer passed and school started. I had lost 20 or more pounds. I kept on track. If 1,200 calories worked, I bet I would make even better gains with 1,000 calories. Wait. If 1,000 calories worked, I could make even better gains with 900 calories, and so on and so on.
By the time winter rolled around, I was dangerously thin. I would not be flipping any inner tubes now (yay!). I was ecstatic. I had, day after day, beaten my body and my appetites into submission using sheer will and strength of mind. Maybe I wasn’t broken. Maybe I was fine all along. I just needed this military level control. I thought that I was winning.
Except, like any relationship, when one side wins-- the relationship loses. Years later, I ran across some of the notes I kept at that time. One day I had eaten a peach and a half-cup of cheerios and was upset about my indulgences. Several horrible and painful years followed. Individual therapy, family therapy, doctors' appointments, and a lot of fighting with myself and my parents. Psychologists call this being in conflict. I was still broken and now I had a name for it: Anorexia Nervosa. My new conceptualization of broken was sick. I was sick.
Stage Six: Fake Recovery or Co-existence
Throughout my college years, I made it to some sort of purgatory of partial recovery. My coping involved a steady cycle with periods obsessive studying and stints of excessive partying with my friends. I didn’t think much about being broken or sick. During this period, I thought about the parties. I worked in restaurants and bars. This became my identity. I was fun now. I was quirky, smart, and fun.
There was no true connection with my body. The mind and body parts of me had made some sort of peace agreement- an unhealthy, unfair sort of treaty. We made an agreement to co-exist so long as we didn’t bother each other. My eating disorder symptoms would wane in and out and I relied on an intense pendulum swinging of studying and partying to help me cope. When I think back to this period of my life, I feel mostly anxiety and a bit sad.
Throughout all of this time, I had a deep longing to be what I conceptualized as “better.” My path would, not surprisingly, be intellectual. I got my bachelors degree, then my masters and eventually my Ph.D. I got my license as a psychologist. I became a professor and researcher in the area of eating disorders. Sadly, no matter how much I researched, no matter how much I achieved, I felt stuck. I still felt sick. I still felt broken.
You see recovery is not just about stopping behavior. It was like when I was six years old and acted like a prima ballerina but didn’t embody the dance. I was acting recovered. Yet, my recovery was not embodied.  My mind and body were not integrated. I had no sense of my physical self. I was not, what I now consider, fully recovered.
It was like this. My mind and body co-existed like those couples who stay together, maybe for the kids, but not because they love each other. They live in the same house and sleep in separate rooms. That was me. My mind was the self-righteous one and my broken, sick body would sneak off, get home late, and eat the rest of the ice cream. My body would be sorry and then train for a marathon as penance. Underneath the apparent recovery, there was a slow aching resentment. My broken and sick body was forced into compliance and my mind was exhausted.
Stage Seven: Discontent, Wanting Something Better
During this time I married a loving and supportive man, Jerry, and I got pregnant. I wanted more than anything to show my developing daughter that a woman could be okay with her body, maybe even love her body. Being pregnant was hard. It intensified the battle for me. I could not ignore my body. In fact, I had to take good care of it. This was bigger than me. I was taking care of someone else in my belly. I craved foods like I did when I was a little girl and my body felt out of control. Once again, my body was a sign of my weaknesses, my needy, wanting and broken self. And I was not going near an inner tube. No, I was not.
There was no way to co-exist. I had to work this out. I wanted to be better. I wanted something better.
Stage Eight: Yoga as a Pathway to Self-Love
Hope came from an unlikely place. When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I was early in my career as a professor. One of my students was a yoga teacher in training. She invited me to take one of her yoga classes. She said that my ideas, theories, and approaches were very aligned with yoga. I explained to her about my broken body, thinking maybe she had not noticed what I was dealing with. I demonstrated my forward fold (as seen at swim team practice). I explained that yoga was not for me. She disagreed. She said anyone could do yoga. I said that “Maybe. Maybe, I will come to your class.”
A year later, my husband and I registered for her Yoga I class at the Himalayan Institute in Buffalo, New York. We started out in Corpse Pose. “Morbid,” I thought. I now see this as perfect. Death and rebirth- start in corpse- perfect. We placed one hand on our navels and one hand on our hearts. She showed us how to breathe. For those of you who were born yogis this might sound ridiculous, but these breaths were miraculous to me. I wanted to cry, but my mind judged myself about that and stopped it immediately. After class, I was, well, a few things.
I declared to all who would listen, “This is the best I have felt without a few glasses of red wine in years, perhaps ever.” And I felt successful, “I can do yoga!”  
For the last decade and a half, my body and my mind have gotten to know each other. It was in that first yoga class my mind took a good look at my body in a new way and said, “Maybe you are not broken or sick,” and my body was relieved. At this point, I have researched eating disorders and yoga for many years. More importantly, I do yoga. I practice nearly every day. I also teach yoga. I want as many people as possible to feel like I feel when I do yoga. I can only imagine that these transformations will make the world a much happier place.
So, here I am in the self-love. When I do yoga, I put one hand on my heart and one on my belly and I say to my body, “I love you.” The best part is that I mean it. My body has stuck with me through all of the stuff I did to it. It stayed with me through self-hate, the ignoring, and self-destruction. My body rallied during my pregnancies.
My body was never broken.
I think now how strong it is. I am so lucky to have a body that could take all that I did to it and not break. I thank God for this body. Not too many bodies could have made it through the beating I put mine through. My body is gifted, strong, resilient, and so very beautiful. Like a beautiful old maple with its scars, wrinkles, and wounds, it has endured strong and firm through all of the weathers of my life.
I look back now on the photo my mom took of me in my satin sashed tutu. I love that little girl and that beautiful body. I now see a little yogi in the very beginnings of her journey. I don’t see the broken anymore. I see what was possible.
If you look, you can see it too. 
The Yoga Bag


Svenaeus, F. (2013). Anorexia Nervosa and the Body Uncanny: A Phenomenological Approach. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 20, 81-91. 

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