Walking on Empty

Trigger warning: This blog post includes discussion of disordered eating and depression.

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If they chose to look, the workers fixing my broken deck could see me through the family room windows. And that was a problem, since they weren’t likely to understand what they’d witness.

I wasn’t entirely certain I understood, either. Not anymore.

But I joked with them, trying to explain away what might seem like aberrant, borderline-disturbed behavior. “I’m just trying to get in my steps, and I can’t go to the gym today!” I said. “So don’t be alarmed when you see me circling my coffee table.”

They nodded and offered a confused smile, then got to work.

When you’re fat and discussing an attempt to exercise, people don’t tend to question the whys or hows. They simply approve. This was true of the workers (who left my deck in excellent condition), my doctor, and pretty much everyone else who’d noticed my rapid weight loss. Dropping one hundred pounds in about ten months had earned me praise from all quarters, declarations of how good I now looked, and questions as to how I’d done it.

The same had been true seven years before, when I’d lost 110 pounds. The admiration and questions had ceased when I regained all that weight, plus fifty pounds extra.

So everyone approved of my most recent weight loss attempt except my husband, whose gentle hints had become plainer over the last month or two. “You’re exercising for longer chunks of time than I did when I trained for the Iron Man,” he told me. “Be careful.”

He didn’t understand, though. My doctor had said my PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) would make it difficult for me to lose weight, and that I would have to exercise twice as hard as normal people to garner the same results. Since most health guides I’d seen advised ten thousand steps a day, simple math informed me I’d need to get in twenty thousand steps.

I can’t run. Even as a fit teenager, my joints had pained me during high-impact exercise. So I walked instead. And since I’m a hermit who doesn’t love going outside too often, especially during very hot or very cold weather, I did that walking indoors. I’d discovered a path around my first floor that would suffice. When I got bored, though, I’d watch TV as I walked, which meant circling the coffee table in my living room.

As it turns out, walking twenty thousand steps per day takes up a great deal of time, especially when that effort isn’t integrated into your work routine. I walked for hours each day, before and after work, until my feet blistered and my knees ached and my mind emptied of everything but a hard-fought, grim sense of achievement.

I might not be the world’s best mom or wife, and my career at the library had become a dead end. I had ceased considering myself special in any way. But by God, I could conquer my body. I could control and shape it as I wished, as long as I ignored the ceaseless hunger pangs and the way my hair had started to fall out, strand by strand.

I didn’t want praise for the weight loss. I didn’t want anyone evaluating my body size, period. And I didn’t want to be thin. Not really. I enjoyed how I’d started to look in clothing, of course, but that wasn’t the objective. I wanted to be healthier, so my daughter would have her mother present in her life for decades to come. This was the reason I told everyone I’d decided to lose weight.

It was the truth, but not all of it. More than that—more than anything—I was starving, literally and figuratively, for a sense of accomplishment and control.

I started going through puberty at age six. Since around that time, I’d been fat much, much more than I’d been skinny. Forcing my body to surrender, to dwindle and harden, felt like victory over a familiar foe. And I needed a victory then, since my life had become a series of days filled with worry and disappointment in myself and my distinct lack of accomplishments.

When I walked, I wasn’t thinking about how I’d left my Ph.D. program and now spent all my days in the library, helping patrons determine why their printing had gone awry. (They were printing from the preview screen, rather than opening their documents. Always.)

I didn’t get to talk about books there anymore, not since the forty public computers had been installed. I didn’t talk to anyone about much of anything, actually. I’d get home and have absolutely nothing to say. My vocabulary was diminishing, word by word.

I’d wasted my education, I concluded. I’d wasted my potential.

When I walked, I wasn’t thinking about how overwhelmed I felt in the presence of my husband and daughter. How my sincere love for them twined with an equally sincere desire to avoid them. I found them too loud, too needy, too much to handle. I found myself to be a shameful wife and mother.

They deserved better than me, I concluded. They only loved me because I was their wife and mother, not because I was a good wife and mother.

When I walked, I wasn’t thinking about how I’d failed to make close friends in my Maryland town, where I’d moved seven years before, or how lonely and isolated I’d become from everyone, including my family. (Later, at the first meeting with my therapist, she asked me with whom I discussed my fears and shame and worry. “No one. I don’t talk to anyone,” I said, and I started sobbing.)

I wasn’t especially likeable, I concluded. No wonder I didn’t have friends.

When I walked, I wasn’t thinking about anything but how my stomach was twisting in agony and how my feet had begun to blister. And oh, those thoughts were a welcome relief. I found that same relief in reading until three and four in the morning, so I would fall right to sleep without my mind tangling in the webs that had trapped me for years.

In fact, I’d found that same relief in eating. But since I couldn’t eat to the point of turning off that tired mental recording anymore, walking would suffice.

While the guys worked on my deck, then, I circled my coffee table again and again. But for the first time in months, I’d been forced to think about what I was doing from an outside perspective. And I kept coming back to the same thought: If I had to reassure strangers that what I was doing was mentally and emotionally healthy behavior, maybe I needed to evaluate exactly what my life had become. Maybe I needed to question whether it really was healthy, or a sign that something in my head had gone terribly, terribly wrong.

At the time, I was averse to admitting weakness. So I didn’t go to therapy, but I started eating again and stopped exercising.

My hair, which had been accumulating in great, soggy piles in my shower drain, abruptly stopped falling out. I didn’t find a single hair in my brush for months afterward.

Oh, how quickly I regained all that weight, plus another twenty pounds. When the rapid gain became obvious, the questions stopped once more, and so did the praise. But at least I didn’t need to explain the secret to my shifting weight anymore. They knew. We all knew.

It took me months to acknowledge just how much I needed help. But when I finally—finally—began therapy, all those tangled places in my head began to smooth. Or at least, I could now spy the seductive, harmful patterns in my thinking and try to disrupt them.

I started writing, which gave me the sense of accomplishment and challenge I’d missed for years. I became more present to and with my family. And I made friends with other writers, many of whom struggle with the same sorts of issues I do.

Life got better. So, so much better.

And when I sat down to write the sixth and final book in my Lovestruck Librarians series, Hidden Hearts, I decided to make it personal. The book is about two people who—for very different reasons—are very conscious of their bodies. Mary, because of her history of disordered eating and over-exercising. Miles, because his life’s work entailed using his body both as a tool and as eye candy, and now, following an accident, that body is foreign to him in a crucial way. So their thoughts and conversation include a great deal of discussion about their bodies and how they’re perceived, by themselves and by others. Much more so than in my other books, even those featuring plus-sized heroines.

Mary’s story of disordered eating and over-exercise is mine, with a few exceptions. It’s not the main focus of the book, but it’s there. And it’s just one more way I’m now talking about all the things that worry and shame me.

I hope you enjoy their story. I hope I portrayed Mary’s history—and mine—in a sensitive way, one that won’t be harmful to others struggling with similar issues. If there’s anyone else out there who’s either physically or mentally circling that coffee table again and again, desperate for relief, I hope they find the help they need.

I deserved better, and so do they.

I hope they believe that.

2 thoughts on “Walking on Empty

  1. Thank you, Olivia, for both the fictional story and sharing yours. Since I’ve been reading your books, I have felt that a part of your life is in each book. Now I see that is the case for real.

    When I’m not reading, I’m working with people who experience emotional crisis, as I have. I felt every word you wrote as if I were saying it myself. I felt your emotions in your words. You have helped me greatly by writing this blog, and I thank and commend you for having the courage and strength to put yourself out there like this.

    Liked by 1 person

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