Sooner or later, our bodies betray us. I said that once in this blog, as the opening line of my post on Michael Haneke’s devastating masterpiece Amour. I still believe that sentence to be true. What I now understand as well is, sooner or later, our minds betray us too.
Today is day seven or ten (I’m not counting), since I stopped taking my depression medication. The reason is vanity. I am convinced that the weight I’ve gained in the last few is due to the medication I started taking five years ago in 2016.
At the time, I had suffered three miscarriages in three consecutive years—no apparent medical reason for any of them—and I was spiraling down like a shut-down plane. Like a ball of fire falling from the sky, I was burning and destroying everything that I came into contact with as I crashed into the ground. The thing is, depression for me is not only an inability to feel joy, a terror of having to socialize and fake wellness, and in the lowest points, the loss of energy even to get out of bed. It is also blind anger and an irritability that disrupts my organizational capacity (a methodical cook and baker when well, I become scattered and unfocused when sick) and ability to deal with everyday things like a messy living room or a stressful morning of work.
The worst and most destructive of all those symptoms was the anger. While outsized and disproportionate, it was sparked by a true feeling of injustice or inequity in the division of labour at home. It was sparked by feeling pushed to the limits by the demands of working full-time and keeping a home running at all times without missing a step and by feeling completely unsupported. I realize this is no more, no less the dynamic that many heterosexual women of my generation, the just over 40, still deal with in a very real way, even when they are in happy and fulfilling relationships with loving partners. But in the context of suffering from a mental illness, those stressors became unbearable and almost led many times to the destruction of a then 20-year-old marriage.
So in early 2016, a few months after the last miscarriage, I was referred to the Reproductive Mental Health program at BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver. Finally, after so many years of suffering, I was going to gain some control over my mind, if not my body. Here was the promise of internal and external peace. I saw a psychiatrist and we decided I would try medication for the first time.
Several months into taking the medication, and after all the initial side effects had subsided, I started to feel better. When the sun shone, I did not only see the deep shadows it created. When people talked to me, it did not take an enormous effort to reply back and hold a genuine conversation. When life threw every demand at me as it does working women and mothers, I was able to face it with grace, dignity, and perspective. The medication slowed me down: while I still got angry at many things (people being dishonest at work, the continued imbalance of emotional labour at home), I could now see the problem from a distance and bring it back to its normal size and deal with it with patience and compassion.
But then I started to gain weight. Years ago, after I had my son Matias, I finally owned my truth that I detest gyms and I will never again join one. After becoming anorexic at 14 and bulimic at 19, and finally healing myself by sheer determination at 25, I became a believer that weight control is not in the mouth but the mind. When I was feeling good, I was able to exercise naturally by walking everywhere and going for more extended walks when I had the time. I started to enjoy food and develop a healthy relationship with it. However, I never regained a realistic image of my body after I turned 14. Throughout my teens, 20s, and 30s, I never, ever enjoyed and appreciated my body once. This is not an exaggeration. I suspect—I know—I am not alone in this experience. I never, not once, have enjoyed being in a swimsuit even though I have always loved the water, the ocean, swimming, sailing.
Still, even through the most difficult days of my mental illness, which accelerated after the first miscarriage, I felt I had some control over my body. That I could start walking more or feeding myself better after weeks of overtime at work and hours of sitting and eating poorly at a desk, and that my body would respond. Even after my pregnancy, during which I gained very little weight, I felt I had some control. Even when going through the three miscarriages—the clearest way your body shows you that you have lost control of it—I thought, or maybe I imagined, I still had some control.
But as my mind got freer and I got so healthy that my hunger for creation awakened like a fury, I continued to gain weight. This time, no amount of walking seemed to make a dent. Being ashamed of one’s body as a woman is so pervasive, that even some of the smartest women I know suffer from this. I remember my mother, a university professor, her ballerina body still statuesque in her 40s, always trying to lose weight by going on many different diets over the years. We had the fortune, and misfortune, of being born in Venezuela, a country where the cult of beauty reached extraordinary levels when I was growing up there in the 80s and 90s.
After winning back-to-back titles at the Miss Universe and Miss World pageants in 1981, Venezuelan “misses” were known around the world, and the Venezuelan woman’s beauty was exalted as a natural God-given trait from our land. From a very young age, Venezuelan girls and teens were expected to follow a certain pattern of behaviour, including being well-dressed, enjoying the rituals of make-up and hair-dressing, and as older teens, keeping strict grooming habits (e.g. having your eyebrows waxed regularly).
Keeping the Venezuelan miss’ body as the ultimate, most desirable model to attain, meant Venezuelan girls, teens, and then women, were expected to fit into that perfect, lean, toned body type which was to be presented through the specific fashion of the moment: tight, slightly revealing shirts and jeans, high heel sandals, and accessories. Many times I was told off by friends of my parents and even relatives for wearing long sleeves sweaters that covered me completely (a true pain in the Maracaibo heat) and for not wearing make-up. I must have been 15 or 16.
As a 12 or 13-year-old, I was very vulnerable to this cult of beauty and its expectations. I rebelled against it, became a rocker (thus rejecting the beautiful girl look), became anorexic, and cut myself (another reason for the long sleeves). I won’t blame all my mental health and body image troubles on that environment—my sisters and cousins all lived through it and their experiences differ from mine—but there is no way to extricate its impact from how I saw myself throughout my life.
The damage of growing up having a negative body image follows me to this day. It attacks me in the bathroom as I undress and jump in the shower without daring to look at the mirror. It attacks me as I punch my tights, my arms, my stomach in a rage when I do dare to look at the mirror. The self-hate in my 40s is as fresh and vicious as it was at 14.
Much smarter women have written about this issue (the feminist Intellectual Roxane Gay, for example), so this is more a confession than an essay. Another, more important question emerges as well: How can I reconcile the hate I have for my body with my true love and admiration and respect for people of all sizes and abilities? What kind of a hypocrite does this make me?
Sometimes I reason with myself: maybe the reason for not losing the weight is that I have finally learned to love myself as I am, even if the self-acceptance arrived when I had lost control of my body? Maybe this was the result of reaching the peak of my mental health? Maybe this was the trade-off for being happy? Of course, a positive body image, self-acceptance, and mental health are all linked.
Since age 14 I have tried to control my body. Then in my 40s, I have tried to control my mind. I have failed at both. The key word is control. The desire to control my body and my environment (I was a neat freak and had serious bouts of OCD in my 20s) have defined much of how I live my life and relate to others. Then my mind betrayed me and now I have to control it too.
I think it all comes down to my fear of chaos. Chaos terrifies me. I have sought to escape—no, to annihilate—chaos. Chaos is miscommunication, injustice, randomness, lies, catastrophes, death. Chaos is all around us, is part of the human condition, and how small humans are to think we can control any of it! So some of us, and maybe especially women, turn this desire to control unto ourselves, unto our little worlds, unto our bodies.
I stopped taking my medication because in a moment of desperation I wanted to believe that I could still exert some control over my mind and my body. That even without the medication I could have some real influence over how I process emotions and perhaps get a glimpse of who I am without those chemicals smoothing out the edges inside my brain. But I hate who I am without that little pill. And to stop taking it is a dangerous game with real consequences. It only took a couple of days to feel exactly the opposite of having control. I had chills, felt dizzy, and was weepy one minute and laughing too loud the next.
As it usually happens when I stop taking it, my brain started to feel jagged, as if made of sharp, dangerous rock formations. Regular noises startled me and irritated me. It was as if my brain was dried out of the external coat that protects it from the harshness of the world. I was curt and impatient with people, offended more than usual by their bad opinions, drained of hope in people ever being good and unselfish. Without the medication, the world is a truly colourless and ugly place.
I am angry, so angry. I may be unhappy with my body but I know my privilege: I am able-bodied and strong, so strong! And I mean physically strong. My stamina can kill. But I hate who I am when deeply mentally ill. I am a mother, and apart from providing for all my son’s physical and emotional needs, my main job is to show him the beauty of the world, the beauty of being alive. And I need to love the world and have hope in it to do that. This experiment has failed once again: having control is a fantasy, the pill will once again coat my brain. I must learn to live within the chaos, being the best, most loving, most empathetic, the most creative I can be so I can too contribute to making this place a good place to be while we’re here.