Roadblocks to Recovery: On Average
This is another post in my Roadblocks to Recovery series. It’s closely related to yesterday’s roadblock (ED as a trump card) but also different enough that I think it’s worth its own post.
Without ED, I will just be “average”
My height is average. My weight is average (I’m small but solid). These things are fine, and I can (mostly) deal with it. Well, the first part of it. But heaven help me if I ever feel average.
Like so many things that happened with my eating disorder, much of this thinking process started with my academic life, long before I showed any signs of ED. I had to be “The Best.” I wasn’t a narcissist by any stretch of the imagination, but I had this competitive spirit. The darker side of that competitive spirit is that if I wasn’t “The Best,” then I sucked at whatever it was, and I may as well go home. My mom always said that only one person could be the best, and I remember plaintively wailing to her on more than one occasion, “So why can’t it be ME?”
A few examples: in grad school, I had two exams in my immunology class. On the first exam, I scored at roughly the class average, which before the curve was around a 71% (this was 3 years ago, and I still remember it!). I was horrified and almost devastated–I had a therapy session afterwards and I sobbed about it and my poor therapist just handed me tissues. I was determined not to repeat this on the last exam, so I studied for weeks. All I could think of were the other people in my class who had surely done better than I. It never occurred to me that an equal number had done worse. For the several days before the exam, I barely slept and I was physically ill from the anxiety. My goal wasn’t just to do better (which would have been a marginally decent goal), but to break the curve. Which I did. I was exhausted and burned out, but I did it. And I felt okay about myself, at least for a short while.
Even recently, I was playing Dominoes with my parents and some of their friends, and I was just so keyed up while we were playing. Even though I loved everyone there (I refer to these people as “Aunt” and “Uncle”) and I know they didn’t give a hoot about who won, I was terribly afraid that I wasn’t going to win. I didn’t. I got second place and I still walked away disappointed because I was utterly convinced that only some strange luck had saved me from last place. I didn’t win, and that was all that mattered. It’s why I don’t like keeping score at mini-golf or bowling or even Pictionary. Because I rarely win, and so I frequently end up hating myself (yes, over not winning a game of Pictionary).
It goes something like this: my drive to win isn’t so much from the joy of winning. My drive is from a fear of failure. This drive is essentially perfectionism, distilled to its essence. Of course, my eating disorder wasn’t just extreme perfectionism- I wasn’t “Starving for Perfection” or “Dying to be Thin.” But the two are tremendously and inextricably linked.
The anorexia made me feel special, somehow. It made me feel like I was “The Best” when I was starving and over-exercising and losing weight. If I found out that anyone had eaten less than me that day (food poisoning, their own eating disorder), my brain flew into a tizzy and I felt compelled to exercise off every extra calorie or purge what was left in my system. Eating more than someone meant I wasn’t “The Best,” and if I wasn’t “The Best,” I was just average. My abnormally low weight played a role, too. Although I never fully bought into the (wrong) cultural idea that thin people are inherently “better” than those who are heavier, I was rather aware of this idea and it played a role in my ED. If I was the “thinnest,” then I was “The Best.” If I gained weight, I was only average, and average, as I’ve said before, is not something my perfectionistic brain likes to contemplate.
Recovery, of course, meant eating more and gaining weight. It meant extracting myself from my idiotic mind games surrounding academics and food and weight. And this is where it gets tough. Because this mindset is so ingrained and it seems rather rational in the moment. The underlying issue, if you really dig deep enough, goes back to really low self-esteem. Why else would I need a trump card or so deeply fear being average if I really thought I was a good enough person? It’s hard for me to accept that “average” is just fine, because I fear that if I’m not “The Best,” then I’m nothing. I know that what makes me special isn’t my being “The Best” at not eating or losing weight, and that I’m still special even if I’m average in every way. I just need to figure out how I can value myself being average and letting go.