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Fixing my Broken Me
Tales of Loving Myself One Bite at a Time
When I was seventeen, hovering around 240, I secretly organized a party while my parents were away, at which valuable watches were stolen. When they found out, they were so mad; I had to move out. Probably a final straw type of situation, as I had stolen, lied, and committed other deadly sins, over and over, under their roof.
They let me crash in what used to be Julia’s room on the top floor of their fancy building, where I had to share a bathroom with a guy who casually mentioned in the elevator that he was masturbating, daily, to the thought of me. Sometimes, I could hear the rhythmic thumping against the common wall. The situation was not good.
Coincidentally, my new friend Majo had just moved into a huge apartment and didn’t have many friends; I had lots of those. She offered me a room with no thumping next door. I moved in.
Majo had a differently complicated relationship with her body. At only eighty pounds, she was severely anorexic. Ironically, she was a nutritionist. Our fridge contained nothing but apples and bottled water. I once bought brie, butter, and bread, but came home to find she’d trashed them, wanting to avoid the temptation. She’d sunken my lifeboat for her own salvation. I was angry. To calm my anger, I needed my brie-butter-bread comfort combo. I went out to buy more, made a sandwich standing on the street, felt my tension release with the first bite, thought of my rent-free living situation, and went back home — full and grateful.
A few weeks later, Majo introduced me to the first practitioner not chosen by my mother, Jean Phillipe Zermati, a nutritionist she went to school with. I was ready to tackle my 240 pounds yet again, so I scheduled an appointment that day. I smiled when I got there; his office was right above my favorite sandwich joint — talk about irony. I developed the habit of stuffing my face as I walked in to talk about the problem of stuffing my face. Obviously self-sabotaging — it was dangerous to be thin/sexy in my house.
On my weight-loss journey, it didn’t take long to find out that food, per se, was not the most important part of the equation; getting to the root of my pain was the real meat of the work.
Zermati offered a holistic approach: physical, mental, cultural, psychological, and emotional. He had me start a journal listing everything I ate and how I felt before eating it: angry = chips, afraid = any kind of cheese, sad = Nutella.
Turns out, my food choices weren’t arbitrary; they were — even if made unconsciously — surrogates for the feelings that were off-limits in my house.
He recommended the book, The Only Diet There Is, not available in French — my English wasn’t fluent yet, which didn’t matter because it was in journal format. Blank lines with the sentence — I forgive myself for— at the top of each page.
It wasn’t lost on me that the word forgive was followed by the word myself. It implied that we couldn’t forgive others; we could only forgive ourselves.
I forgive myself for judging my parents for having no business being parents.
I forgive myself for hating my brother for mattering more than me.
I forgive myself for resenting Julia for dying and leaving me alone with these people.
“The Only Diet There Is’ was such a radical title; the format even more so; it intrigued me enough to give it a go.
Forgiving myself, page after page, for thing after thing, resulting in being free from resentment, is my second favorite answer when people ask me how I lost the weight; the fridge/feelings episode is the first.
From everything I’ve gathered, it’s impossible to release pounds without releasing resentments. So, I went on an excavation with my nutritionist holding the flashlight. Week by week, I visited what I assumed were demons, but turned out to be the broken, vulnerable, poignant fragments of me — nothing evil about that. I surveyed the edges of my story and didn’t find anything ugly — hurt maybe, but not ugly.
Sadly, my inner saboteur found a new strategy to undermine me: I fell in love with the aforementioned flashlight holder. My journals became love letters to him. The work was messy. I didn’t want him reading the inner struggles of yet another fat girl. I wanted to be special. But I didn’t know how to get him to like me; not without my usual sexual vibing.
I wrote fantasies I had about him in the journal I knew he would read out loud, taking great delight in picturing him blushing and squirming until our session - where I actually ended up being the one blushing and squirming.
“When I walk in, instead of sitting in your chair as usual, you’re waiting for me by the door. You clear the desk with one arm, pulling me close with the other. Then you kiss me slowly, deeply, passionately, and make love to me until I cum on top of my own journals. Then lock your piercing blue eyes into mine as you let yourself go and I feel you slow down inside me.”
No matter how explicit my writing got, he continued to read, so as to not make me feel shame. By maintaining a caring boundary but not rejecting me, he helped me accept myself. At some point, however, we reached a tipping point where my continuing to write and his continuing to read became enabling. We had to stop the work.
Ten years later, I walked away from decades of iconic, late-night refrigerator visits with a whole new relationship to myself, finally able to feel my feelings instead of eating them. I owe that to him.
As a parting gesture, he gifted me Kilos de plume, kilos de plomb: pounds of feathers, pounds of lead, written by his colleague Dr. Apfeldorfer. He’d written a new book called Je Mange, donc je suis: I eat, therefore I am, and its cover had a thin man escaping the prison of his large body. I wanted to escape mine.
I found an excuse to fly to Paris for work and managed to get on his busy schedule, omitting the fact that I lived five thousand six hundred and fifty-nine miles away. I figured we’d work out that minor detail.
He emanated intelligence and kindness, I liked him from the moment I shook his hand. His long-bearded face would have looked stern if it wasn’t for the bright smile he shined at the end of most of his sentences.
I was moved when I sat across from him, not having to wonder if the chair would break under my weight; it was sturdy with no armrests, accommodating the larger ones of us. I didn’t have to think about it — because he had.
Our conversation had the perfect cadence between his asking, listening, and explaining, and that made me feel that I’d landed somewhere safe. He spoke to me with the conviction that I could find my own answers; he was just going to help me bring them forth.
He introduced the idea that controlling my food consumption so strictly during the day was the very thing that had me bingeing at night.
The work he proposed was for me to reconnect with my intuition in making my food choices, instead of following someone else’s arbitrary rules. His point — and a good one at that — was that if my body knew how to breathe, pump my heart, and do all sorts of other magical things, it probably also knew the kind of food it needed to function optimally.
My first assignment was to let go of the control mechanisms I’d placed on my food intake; all of them.
“Eat whatever you want, whatever gives you pleasure,” he said at the end of our session. Nutella. Pasta. Butter. Ravioli. Cheese. Yes, no restriction whatsoever. The more the merrier.
You’d think that would have made me happy, not so. It scared everything out of me. What he was asking me to do could dismantle the very structure that was protecting my inner edifice, and that could unravel the very fabric I was made of.
Following that line of thinking, I imagined the worst possible outcome: I could lose my mind, my life — or even more catastrophic — gain weight.
“Go all out,” he said, sending me off. “The more all out you go, the more success you’ll have.”
He’d warned me that the pendulum could swing hard, and I might find myself eating more than ever for about four days. He was right; the first few days were complete madness. Picture a deprived, starving child let loose in a pastry shop. Nutella, coffee éclairs, chocolate mousse, condensed milk, Bounty bars, and sweet chestnut cream. He’d said, all out, so all out I went.
I knew how to do it, because that’s exactly what I’d do when I binged at night; basically, he extended refrigerator hours so I could also do it when the sun was up.
Pretty much exactly as he’d predicted, it took four days. Then, on the morning of the fifth, something shifted: I started slowing down; hearing what my body needed; noticing a newfound desire to feed it healthfully; watching it being drawn to salads, eggs, and spinach; smiling that it could be that simple.
I couldn’t wait to go back to him and share my findings; he probably already knew: less control + more intuition ≥ pounds.
So many doctors, so many diets; no one had ever told me to follow my gut. They told me to eat the food they thought was best, at the intervals and in the order, they thought was best; they yanked me out of my own wisdom. But his approach was bringing me back to center.
Next, we tackled the notion that when it came to food, I was filled with shame. I was putting myself down at every meal — and in between meals. He suggested that was not a smart move — as the hormones released when we experience shame alter the stomach’s chemistry, preventing the natural process of digestion from occurring.
He also added, that we humans hate being ashamed, and will shut ourselves off to avoid experiencing it at all costs. One of the ways we do that is by going unconscious, which is the opposite state we want to be in to promote intuitive eating.
Less shame + more consciousness ≥ pounds.
I smiled that it could be that simple - again.
He then asked me to bring my most “sinful” favorite food; say no more, you guessed it — a jar of Nutella. The moment I sat down, he asked me to eat it in front of him. I’d never been seen eating my poison — not by anyone — ever. It was like shooting heroin while someone is watching you. Whatever made this moment excruciating was my own turbulence; not an ounce of judgment came from him.
I broke the plastic ring around the lid, popped the top loose, and pulled a spoon out of my pocket. I plunged it into the flat surface at the top. It reminded me of a thing I used to do, where I would try to recreate the flat top of a newly opened jar by scooping some on the right, a little on the left, and some in the middle, to even it out: by the time I got it perfect, it was because the glass at the bottom was flat.
I was embarrassed, watching him watch me put in the first spoonful; so I closed my eyes. I noticed a difference. The substance I’d consumed hundreds of times felt like it was touching my tongue for the first time: was it always this syrupy and greasy, did it always adhere to all sides of my mouth so unpleasantly?
I looked at the jar, questioning the expiration date, but since it didn’t contain any fresh ingredients, that date was twenty years later — which might have been the max allowed by law. Under closer scrutiny, I realized that for me, Nutella was an emotional narcotic — not a food. I used it for its numbing effect — not its taste.
Summoning some inner ninja, I opened my eyes, looked straight at him, brought a second course, slowly and almost defiantly, to my already slightly opened lips, and let my tongue do what my tongue does when Nutella lingers on the spoon.
I won’t lie; the moment was loaded — not sure with what. He was just sitting there; looking at me kindly, without agenda or judgment, helping a fellow human become free from her bondage of shame.
By making me eat my Nutella in front of him, he turned the light on a behavior I’d always done alone in the dark. He lifted the low-grade — often-high-grade — self-degradation that ran in the back of my mind at all times, irritating, oppressing, punishing, tormenting, persecuting, torturing, and occasionally, threatening to take me down.
After lifting all restrictions on my foods, and the shame on my behaviors, he had me focus on satiation. In short, teaching me to stop putting food in my mouth when I was no longer hungry; I had to learn to ignore the voice that said, “Finish your plate, someone is dying in Africa,” — as if my eating made any difference to that poor fellow. Sounds simple, but not easy to implement in my post-war-survivor household, where no waste was allowed; not one bite. Not by anyone.
After asking if I was done, following the two spoonfuls I’d eaten in front of him, he invited me to trash the rest. Whaaaat? I looked at him as if he had just asked me to jump out the window. He was helping me obliterate my loyalty to Mom’s ‘thou shalt not waste’ commandment. I could buy another jar the next day if I wanted.
In some cases, it takes time for a change of habit to grab hold; in this case, all it took was the few inches between the jar and the trash for me to decide — in front of this benevolent witness — that eating beyond satiation, was as much of a waste as putting my almost-full-jar in the trash.
I could tell he liked working with me; I was responding well to his treatment. Since I was due to go back to LA soon, I decided to tell him the truth.
“Doctor, I live in LA,” I said. “We need to find a way to work long-distance.”
“Non,” he said after a pause.
“What do you mean, non?” I asked.
“I am not willing; I can’t guarantee results. We can’t continue the work.”
We finished the session and said goodbye. I tried my smile-and-pout move but that didn’t help. I walked toward the door, reluctantly, hoping he would stop me and change his mind. Almost all the way out, I turned around and said, “I figured you for an innovative guy. I thought you’d welcome the challenge.” Pout. Smile.
“Would you commit to one visit every six months, and one email every week?” he said, a bit hesitant.
“Oui,” I grinned, rushing back. “One visit every six months. One email a week.” I repeated his exact words to seal the deal.
“Fine,” he said. “Let’s try.”
Turned out it was the perfect schedule. I traveled to Paris twice a year, slept in the very bed, and ate from the very fridge that had led me to this guy in the first place. Needless to say, I didn’t struggle to find topics to talk about.
There is an article entitled, Elle a tout essayer, She Tried It All, written about me, that gets republished every year in a French magazine. It exposes the obscene amount of workshops and healing modalities I’ve done. I could still name the lesson I learned from each; but surprisingly one of the most helpful ones didn’t come from these rooms.
I was watching Mulan with my pre-teen daughter. The movie is named for this Chinese girl who disguises herself as a man, so she can be sent to war in lieu of her aging father. After enlisting, in her army gear, getting ready to join the forces, she’s abruptly interrupted, scared out of her mind by this loud, gigantic, fiery dragon. She takes cover after seeing where the ruckus is coming from, and discovers that it’s being engineered by a harmless three-inch tall salamander-like creature named Mushu, using fire and shadow to portray himself as the giant he is not; pathetically trying to increase his threat quotient.
Feelings are like that. They scare us into thinking they’re bigger and scarier than they are. They make us think that we can’t handle them. When we stop running away and have the courage to see them for what they actually are, we realize they’re just mini-salamanders, dancing frantically next to a flame, yelling hysterically to scare the daylights out of us.
When I find myself on the verge of a feeling, trying to avoid it, masking it, burying it, eating over it, I channel Mushu, to remind me that salamanders and feelings are not as big as they seem.
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