“It’s Complicated” by Whitney Shupert

I was going to begin this essay with the following statement, that I’m sure you’ve heard before: My relationship with my body is complicated. This makes me think of the relationship status option Facebook used to offer: “it’s complicated.” I always wondered why someone would want to announce such a notion to their social media audience. The label would likely invite scrutiny and invasion that would only further complicate the relationship, or lack thereof. The more I ponder it, perhaps this reference does adequately portray how accustomed we are to being at odds with our bodies and sharing that clash with others — talking about these physical beings we lug around as if they are ex-lovers. It is a toxic conversation — full of fear and doubt, sometimes hatred, and even less often, I think, genuine love.

However, I have discovered that this is not a universal dilemma. During premarital counseling with the pastor who would conduct our wedding ceremony, this man informed my husband and me that he thought it was nonsense that some people talked about hating their body. I believe the point he was trying to make was that in marriage, our focus shifts from the self to this other person who sort of becomes a part of us, or at least becomes our responsibility to care for and to love. The confusion, or maybe disgust, in his eyes suggested that he could not fathom how someone would starve themselves or hate their body (his examples). I imagine I physically cringed while he was having this mini rant because I feel my body tighten every time I recall the memory. I knew all too well how a mind could turn on a body and cause it to whither. But I kept my mouth shut. Less than a year prior to this conversation I had entered therapy for an eating disorder. Knowledge of this fact was barely disclosed to a handful of close family members and friends. It was definitely not known in the realm of our church. During the “joys and concerns” portion of the Sunday service announcements, no one ever said things like “I’m seeking treatment for major depression,” or “My daughter is having some psychological assessments this week so we can better treat her anxiety disorder.”

Occasionally I am able to verbalize my understanding of the eating disorder I developed years ago. Sometimes I even try to speak for those who have similar issues, but more often than not, my voice shakes, my heart races, and my mind becomes foggy. I feel like I’m drowning in my own vulnerability trying to put words to something I was silent about for so long. If I’m not able to explain this situation of hating and mistreating one’s own body, then it seems as though I am validating the misunderstandings of others and also questioning the legitimacy of my own experience and perhaps my recovery. 

We are born from one body and into our own—the one we will inhabit for however long our living experience will last. From conception to birth, it is clear that risk is high and an uncomplicated, healthy experience is what we hope for, all anyone asks for. (At least, this is what we verbalize. The dynamic between self and body is a bit more complicated, as some of us tend to seek damage.) When someone decides not to discover the sex of their baby prior to birth, they often say “I don’t care whether it is a boy or girl as long as the baby is healthy.” The flaw in this statement, of course, comes with the invited question: “What if the baby is not healthy?” Obviously, this would cause an intense amount of undesirable stress and uncertainty, so what would that mean? What if your baby isn’t healthy? Would this baby be more difficult to love? Are people more difficult to love when they are unhealthy?

I was born two months early, and aside from my three-week stay in the neonatal unit after birth and an early childhood of brief annoying illnesses before a tonsillectomy cleared things up, I lived a pretty healthy adolescent life. My afflictions had been acute and temporary—bronchitis, pneumonia, etc. Years later, when my body still physically functioned pretty well, I developed a hatred toward it. I made my body a prisoner to an eating disorder—sentenced to exercise often and to only eat what I would allow, what I deemed least likely to lead to weight gain. Slim and fit, I told it it had to be. Nothing else would be loved or taken care of—by anyone else I imagined, and by myself, I promised. I easily gravitate toward the metaphor of the prisoner, but I should clarify that my behavior was less overt. My eating disorder was sly, and I was somewhat ignorant for a while. It was illusory even to me. My food choices swooped in under the guise of “healthy choices.” Denying invitations to meals with friends seemed acceptable from someone who is extremely introverted by nature and obsession with schoolwork helped. But eventually those around me detected my veering, but I still feigned unawareness of what my life had morphed into.

In retrospect I can see that it started as a way to alleviate the stress I experienced transitioning out of high school and into college, away from home and into a dorm. I sought to control something that would put that anxious energy to use and boost my confidence as my physical appearance changed. I didn’t realize I had a vault of dysfunctional thought processes and a lifetime’s worth of pent up emotions that would pair with my perfectionistic, high achieving tendencies, creating perfectly fertile ground for an eating disorder to grow. What made it truly the perfect storm was that I was completely oblivious to the disorder I was nourishing with every self-critical thought, every counted calorie, every glance at a mirror, and every step onto the scale.

I existed in this tug of war with my physical shell for about three years before I realized how toxic I had become. I created rules for myself and if I disobeyed the rules, the mental turmoil was unbearable. I was no longer functioning well. I was managing to maintain nearly perfect grades in my college courses because that was a part of my obsession. The ultimate goal was to achieve what I had deemed “my best”—some imaginary finish line where I would finally be worthy of love and acceptance. But I was never satisfied with any of the success and it’s difficult to contribute in any meaningful way to any relationships with others when 99 percent of your thoughts revolve around food and physical appearance. I would go to bed anticipating what I would eat the next day—not what I would look forward to eating, but how little I could get by with eating, hoping that it would be less than that day’s total calorie count. During weekends or breaks at home I felt like I could barely survive the stress of pretending to be okay as I ate just enough to not raise any questions. Family meals, and any instances of eating with other people, were miserable. It is difficult to converse or behave normally when you’re formulating excuses and plotting out the next week’s diet plan and exercise regimen to account for the splurging that was happening with these meals. My body was at risk, my relationships were at risk, my mental stability teetered on an edge that could have put my life at risk at any moment.

I hesitate to say that, because I never reached the point of “sick enough” to be diagnosed with anorexia. I lost about thirty pounds and fluctuated up and down within a ten-pound range as my episodes of restrictive eating ebbed and flowed, but my BMI was within normal range, so the world saw me as “healthy.” I received compliments for my weight loss. An acquaintance who hadn’t seen me for a while eagerly said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. You look great.” Why do eating disordered individuals suffer for so long without seeking treatment? Because the world encourages and supports the behavior that is privately destroying you. There were several “turning point” moments that led me to seeking treatment. One of which was as I was driving back to my college campus from a teaching placement for an education course I was taking. My attention was lost out the window for long enough for that I was caught off guard when I looked back to the road and discovered I had traveled miles without realizing it—an experience we all have occasionally, I imagine. When this happens, the snap back to reality should be jarring, but it wasn’t. I imagined myself driving off of the road and hitting a tree, or maybe driving off a steep edge. It didn’t frighten me. A fleeting thought considered how a friend or family member might react, but I didn’t care. I saw little value in my existence and dying sounded okay. I wasn’t suicidal. I made no plans. I just would have been okay with dying. After this realization and a few more, I spent the next year regaining my footing. In what felt like a ridiculous coincidence that I’m tempted to call irony, my physical health began to decline at the moment I had just started to feel “okay” again.

I recall a period of time during high school when I discovered and devoured a series of books about kids and teenagers with cancer. I couldn’t explain it then and still can’t quite pin down now exactly why I was so intoxicated by these painful stories. While most teens were going on first dates, learning to drive, going to prom, and considering their future careers, (all things weighing on my mind at the time) these sick kids were spending most of their lives in the hospital, trying to manage the symptoms of their prematurely failing bodies, going to camps or retreats for teens with cancer. I don’t recall the name of the book series, nor the author, which isn’t like me. I don’t think the writing was great, but the pain must have been.

While I find that I tend to hide from myself in the present, I’m able to be patient and curious about what past Whitney might have been feeling or thinking. I’ve traveled a safe distance away from her. When I think of reading these books, I’m tempted to liken them to soap operas. My life was fairly boring, so I loved the drama in these books. Did I long for something dramatic to occur in my own life? A lot of characters died, others experienced physical and emotional pain I couldn’t fathom, as I had never experienced or witnessed anything like it. On the other hand, was I afraid of such a fate and reading these stories helped me fill that hollow space created by fear? I admired the characters’ endurance and wondered if I would ever find myself in a situation such as any of these. I imagined it hitting like an unexpected storm someday, popping up in my life by taking over my body or the body of one of my loved ones (parent, husband, child). Acknowledging these musings felt wrong, like it wasn’t my story to inhabit and that there must be something wrong with me for even thinking such a thing—as if thinking it was willing it to happen. As if to validate these self-accusing thoughts, about a decade later in early adulthood, right after graduating from college, marrying my husband, and beginning my first teaching job, I found myself facing illness. It was life altering and would be lifelong, but there hadn’t been a sudden storm as I imagined there would be. I was standing there drenched, but I had barely even noticed the rain.

It was much like a hike my husband and I would take a year later while we were on vacation in Canada. We decided not to let the dreary day of looming rain prevent us from climbing nearly 500 steps to see Montmorency Falls. I was wearing what I thought was a waterproof jacket, but it turns out I had just never truly checked its integrity prior to this walk. There were only brief moments of actual rain, but the air was so heavy with fog that it was difficult to see at times. I had felt the moisture on my face, acknowledged the occasional drizzling, paid close attention to the slippery wooden steps, but the accumulation of water was so gradual that I didn’t really find it noticeably uncomfortable until I removed my coat when we returned to our vehicle. My shirt under my coat was drenched and I was much more uncomfortable trying to regain warmth than I had been while we were moving steadily up and down the steps to and from the waterfall. Similarly, for weeks or maybe months, my body had been under a silent attack from something I didn’t notice at the time. Only in trying to navigate the situation would I realize the depth of the diagnosis.

I felt like I had moved on from my eating disorder, but I was also existing in this in-between space, between my past and future, which would be vastly different. I was sick in a different way, but I hadn’t felt well for a long time, so the new problem wasn’t immediately clear. Life had felt foggy for a while and the hazy layer was getting thicker instead of lifting. During a weeklong fall break from school, we were having the exterior trim of our windows repaired. It sounds like a simple task, but it was quite involved. The paint color we had selected for our windows had been flawed—a bad batch, apparently. We received notification and promptly noticed the dark brown paint starting to chip away revealing a white underbelly. So, a crew came from out of state to repair our windows for a few days. They had a variety of ladders, saw-horses, paint, etc. We have windows in every room in the house besides an upstairs bathroom. I felt very odd being home while these men could pop up at any window at any time. What makes this worse is the way I was feeling at the time. I could barely function without falling asleep in the middle of whatever I was doing. This had been happening for a while. I was surviving the school days with a lot of bathroom breaks, a strange combination of nausea and increased appetite, and I was falling asleep during my planning period at the end of the school day routinely. I would wake up and realize I had been asleep sitting up at my desk. I hoped no one had walked by and noticed. What would they think? That I couldn’t handle the pressure of being a new teacher?

Just a week before I finally broke down and made a doctor’s appointment, we attended a street fair in our small rural town—the annual Fall Festival. It’s a fairly small event, drawing crowds mostly for tractor pulls and the Lion’s Club food booth, which is known for loaded baked potatoes and hot fudge cakes. I don’t remember what I had eaten that night, but in retrospect I’m sure my blood sugar had reached toxic levels. I stood with Kerry in a small crowd of family members and friends. The evening was warm and should have been pleasant, but in my memory, I remember it as a miserable, sick blur.

I recall falling asleep while sitting at our kitchen island reading a book. I startled awake after presumably not long and wondered if any of the painters had seen me sitting there asleep. I didn’t need to be especially productive during this week off, so I could rest, but where? I didn’t want to sleep while feeling like I was in a fishbowl. I imagined lying on my bed in our bedroom and the thought was so inviting, but I couldn’t get past how vulnerable and exposed I would feel sleeping in this private space while others potentially watched. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I fled to the upstairs bathroom. I slept on the floor. I don’t remember if I took a pillow, blanket, or how long I was there. I remember being uncomfortable but falling asleep quickly. Time slipped away until my alarm woke me in the afternoon so I would make it to my doctor’s appointment on time. The initial appointment was uneventful and left me with very little information.

The next morning, I was out with my mother, awaiting a call from the doctor’s office. I had gone to the appointment the day before for what felt like an odd collection of symptoms, none of which seemed too severe, but I knew something was wrong. I’ve always been a fairly intuitive person, and this time I just knew things were about to change. This was something big. How was I sitting here at Frisch’s stuffing my face full of food when my life was about to permanently change?

I missed a call from a nurse that afternoon. I had seen the phone call coming as we were walking out of Walmart. My phone vibrated, flashing the number I had just called a few days ago trying to get an appointment with whatever available doctor I could find, but I ignored the call. I hadn’t told my mom anything was wrong, so I didn’t answer, didn’t call back, and didn’t check the voicemail. I hoped she wouldn’t notice my hands clenching the steering wheel or the shake in my voice. I noticed my speech quicken as we talked during the ride home. I wondered if she noticed that nervous tendency since it was one I know I inherited from her. Less than half an hour later, sitting at my kitchen island, I could feel the nerves building when I waited for the voicemail to play. No information. The nurse just said to call back for results. I called, and in the most nonchalant tone I had ever heard, the nurse informed me that my blood sugar tests revealed numbers out of the normal range, suggesting diabetes. Trying to logically understand and hopefully discredit what I was hearing, I asked if anything else could cause temporary high blood sugar. No, blood sugar isn’t like that. If it is high, you have diabetes. I would hold onto this question of hope for weeks. It’s such an odd thing. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. She said the doctor wanted me to come in for more blood work which would indicate whether I had type 1 or type 2 diabetes. I barely even knew what that meant. I sort of thought I knew. I had heard of both before, but I had never really learned the differences. I hadn’t been around the disease in either form, so why would I know?

I did some quick Google searches and shared what the nurse had said with Kerry via online messaging since he was at work at the time. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. He said he was coming home to go to the doctor’s office with me. Just an hour and a half later we were in Kerry’s car on the way to the office. Kerry was shaking and tearful as he squeezed my hand. “You’re taking this better than I am,” he said. It was just now hitting him because he was face to face with me. He hadn’t seen me sitting in the kitchen at home, sobbing uncontrollably. “This isn’t fair!” my mind screamed over and over again. Did I yell? Did I whisper it? Did I say the words at all? Or did they just run through my head on a treadmill, unable to stop, unable to keep up. I couldn’t keep up.

I had cried silent burning tears while my eyes scanned over pages of search results on my computer screen, trying to memorize and make sense of everything I was reading. I didn’t cry tears of self-pity, but of anger, when I realized this disease would not go away. I could do nothing to fix it. My recent eating disorder was still in the back of my mind, haunting me—telling me I had somehow caused this by having such screwed up eating habits for so long, and that this was another shameful condition to have. I realize now that this is not the case. At most, I had the genetic makeup that made me vulnerable to developing type 1 diabetes and environmental factors (which could have included the chaos of having and recovering from an eating disorder) had contributed to the destruction of beta cells in my pancreas. I imagine I will never know the cause, but I deeply longed for a clear explanation. I desperately wanted to “figure it out.” It felt like that’s what I had to do with the eating disorder, but I couldn’t think my way out of this one. I can’t explain what it’s like to find out that you’re going to have a medical condition for the rest of your life. “The rest of your life” is a long time. I don’t think that part set in immediately. Maybe it still hasn’t.

Whitney Shupert grew up in rural southern Ohio spending a considerable amount of time in the outdoors. She was always drawn to writing, nature, and art. She teaches high school English and Creative Writing and lives with her husband and two sons in a house they built together. She spends her time away from work reading, writing, baking, and spending time outside with her family. She will be completing her MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University this summer.