“Obsession is a way of organizing our lives so we never have to deal with the hard part: the part that happens between two years old and dying.” – Geneen Roth
I am a compulsive person. When I was in college, did I ever just drink one beer? No. I drank until I threw up, and then I repeated the process the next weekend. When deciding to work on my fitness, would I spend a few days a week jogging or attending a yoga class? No. I would wake up 90 days in a row at 5 a.m. and complete Jillian Michaels workout videos in my apartment complex’s dark exercise room. Was I the type of person to ever enjoy one slice of cake, or one English muffin, or even one sleeve of Girl Scout cookies? No. I spent so long wading through such high piles of food that I eventually landed on the couch of a therapist who, for an entire year, helped me to deconstruct my binge eating disorder.
Compulsive is another way of saying obsessive – and obsession, as Geneen Roth writes in Women, Food and God, “gives you something to do besides having your heart shattered by heart-shattering events … It gives you a helicopter ride out of the desert. It creates a parallel world, a hologram of emotions, passions, breathtaking reversals. It gives you the illusion of feeling everything without having to be vulnerable to anything … There is madness in obsession, yes. But its value is that it drowns out the madness of life.”
Obsession led me to consume entire loaves of bread or bottles of wine in one sitting. Obsession led me to spend hours in the darkness of my living room with my eyes closed, as if the stillness of my body could will the rest of the world to slow down, too. Obsession led me to write lists in which I mapped out my days in fifteen-minute increments. Obsession led me to believe that old adage that if you’re not writing every single day on a regular schedule, you’re not really a writer (but you are a failure).
For the compulsive, failure is another thing to obsess over. Since we live in a world so filled with pain — where people who’ve been deeply hurt in their lives react to that hurt by, say, talking to the internet to tell a writer her work is worthless — it’s easy to stay in the failure-obsessed prisons we create for ourselves. Pain begets more pain. I think I’m a failure and an anonymous stranger on the internet confirmed it, so it must be true.
Here’s the troubling thing about human nature. Our tendency – and it’s a tendency that’s been reinforced by society and media ad infinitum – is to think that in order to achieve our goals, we must punish ourselves. To lose that weight, you must deprive yourself of everything that tastes good. To write that book, you must stick to a rigid writing schedule and curse yourself if you miss a day.
To those of us who are obsessive — and I’m willing to venture that to some extent, this includes everyone — the lure of such rigidity is undeniable. The belief is so deeply ingrained in us that we no longer stop to question the validity of the idea that pain equals gain. Self-hatred is the path to loving oneself. Denial of everything that’s good is the way to find peace and contentment. If I deprive myself enough, if I punish myself enough, if I hate myself enough, I will get a better body and write a book and become a person who magically cares enough about her own life to stop leaving it, to stop bolting from it, to stop checking out and losing hours and days in the name of obsession.
Having a binge eating disorder led me to a therapist who led me to a new way of thinking that led me to a revival in both my writing and my life. The ideas that I learned in therapy were radical in the context of our harsh Pain is Gain society, but they go like this: We have to be gentle, patient and kind with ourselves. And we have to trust ourselves enough to stay present — to not flee when we hurt, to not look for ways to escape when we feel the pinch of incoming pain.
To achieve this, we have to learn to sit in our present-tense moments without dreaming about the future or fretting about the past. We have to notice what’s happening right now — physically, sensually, in our bodies. What does this moment really feel like? We can get clouded by the assumptions we have about what we think our experiences are going to feel like, or what we remember our past experiences felt like — but what about this moment, right now, without the filter of preconceived ideas or expectations?
This exercise requires a lot of observation and notation, which were incredibly irritating skills for me to learn. I did not want to sit still and notice the way the butter dripped into each crevice of an English muffin; I just wanted to eat the English muffin and be done with it. I didn’t want to hear the crunch or smell the yeast or notice the roughness of the bread against my fingers. I just wanted to eat the fucking English muffin and get on with it, propelling myself into the future, which was a place where I envisioned myself doing specific things: writing a book and being lovely.
Then the moment would pass and the future would come and I’d feel neither lovely nor in the mood to sit down and write, but I would feel empty because I’d just scarfed down an English muffin in three bites without realizing it was happening, without having any intent behind my actions, without accessing the part of me that can be content to live in this moment — the one that’s right here, right now.
I don’t want to bash the people who insist that writing at the same time every day is the only way to write, but I do want to say this: that doesn’t work for me. For me, that mentality is as effective as thinking that punishing and hating myself will help me discover a body that I love.
In order to write a book that I love, I have to love the process of writing it. And in order to love the process of writing it, I have to allow for the fact that every day is a new and different day. There are days when I feel like plopping in the chair in my grandfather’s old office and writing for ten hours straight — and that’s great. There are other days when I feel like driving into the city and walking around, feeling the crisp fall air as I cradle a hot cup of coffee between my hands — and that’s great, too. There are days when I feel like eating salad and days when I feel like eating pie. There are days when I want to shut everything out and simply read a book or watch old episodes of Girls. There are days when I want to run, days when I want to nap, and days when I want to do nothing but write, write, write.
In therapy, I learned that it’s okay to trust myself. If I let myself eat whatever I want, I’m not going to eat until I get sick. I can trust in that. If I let myself write the way I want to write, I will produce pages. I can trust in that.
Binges don’t occur when I’m letting myself be me and listening to my body and giving it what it wants. Days upon days of non-productivity do not occur when I listen to myself and honor my need to explore things that exist beyond the realm of writing.
Binges occur when I deprive and punish myself. Non-productivity occurs when I make rigid lists that fill every minute of every day with the things I think I “need” to do.
Compassion works. Patience works. I know it might sound radical when I tell you to be gentle with yourself, and to allow yourself the freedom to take each moment for what it is. Trust me on this.
I trusted myself, which is the single most radical thing an obsessive-compulsive person can do. Through the act of trusting myself, several things happened. One is that I wrote a draft of a book and the process wasn’t painful. Two is that I experienced a lot of beautiful moments and I gave myself permission to enjoy each of them. And three: I learned how to stay. To do this, Roth says, “You have to believe there’s something worth staying for, and then you have to bring yourself back again and again.”
Listen to yourself. Ask what you need. Ask what you want. And then give it to yourself. Come back to your body — over and over and over, every time you feel yourself drifting away.
Stay. I promise there is something in this book, in this moment, in you, that is worth staying for.