Chapter 12: The Constant Struggle Of Fixing A Body

I’ve always viewed my body as something that needed to be fixed. It was never the body I wanted, and on top of that, it was a malfunctioning body. It was sick and no one could figure out why. When I discovered my eating disorder I finally felt like I could exert some control over this broken body. I could finally fix what was wrong.

Unfortunately, my eating disorder didn’t prevent my chronic illness from intensifying. I still had this broken body that I couldn’t seem to fix. But that didn’t stop me from trying.

After my chronic GI issues were diagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), I started a two-year-long quest to fix my body with the perfect diet and exercise regimen. I saw this as a double win since this perfect combination — if I could find it — would also fix my body’s size, which was still too large for my liking. I tried every diet I could think of. I worked out almost every day. I did everything “right.”

But I continued to get sick, and at a certain point, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I started to get so sick I could barely eat even my “safe” foods, I could barely exercise, I was so fatigued I started to struggle at work.

So, I acknowledged that, yet again, I was unable to fix my body on my own. I started going to doctor after doctor, trying to figure out what was wrong with me, trying to figure out how to fix me.

Several doctors confirmed my IBS diagnosis and gave me the same advice about diet, exercise, and stress reduction. When I proudly told them about my strict diet, my intense exercise regimen, and my yoga practice (which wasn’t about stress relief at all), they praised my efforts and told me that if I continued along this disciplined path, my symptoms would eventually resolve.

But they didn’t.

. Since GI specialists were all telling me the same thing, I decided to try a different route and see a naturopath. The first one I went to told me that all my GI problems were related to stress and that I needed to stop eating lunch at my desk and meditate before every meal. I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. She literally told me to fucking meditate before I ate.

. I was ready to give up. I was ready to accept that I just had a fucked up body that would never be fixed. When I voiced this frustration to a friend who had Crohn’s Disease — a lifelong, chronic GI illness — she gave me the name of her naturopath and promised me that he would figure out what was wrong. She scribbled his name and number on a napkin and made me promise I would call. In that moment, I decided that this was my last effort. I would see this guy and if he told me the same things I’d heard over and over again, I’d give up. I’d resign myself to being sick for the rest of my life and never knowing what was wrong.

. At my first appointment with this new naturopath I quickly and with much irritation gave him the rundown of my symptoms, my previous diagnosis, my struggles with getting doctors to take me seriously, and told him I would walk out if he told me to meditate. He laughed and told me that he believed that there was something wrong and that it wasn’t as simple as IBS. He told me that IBS is what gastroenterologists diagnose people with when they don’t know what’s really going on. He looked right into my eyes and promised me that we would figure out what was going on.

. He ordered a bunch of tests — blood tests, spit tests, poop tests, yes, poop tests — and put me on an elimination diet in an attempt to determine if I had food allergies. I had to cut out grains, sugar, dairy, and eggs. Basically, all I could eat was meat and veggies. Of course, I was thrilled by this. I was good at diets, and adjusting my whole life to stick to this diet gave me something to focus on, some sense of control over the situation.

. As I threw all my energy into this elimination diet, my eating disorder voice, which had been relatively quiet since I got sober, started to come back. I started to cut out even more foods. I began to eat a little less. I added workouts to my schedule.

. My symptoms didn’t get better on this diet, but I did begin to lose weight, which made it easier to ignore the fact that I didn’t actually feel any better.

. When my test results came back and I went back to the naturopath to review them, I heard a phrase I would become devastatingly familiar with — “Your test results are abnormal, but they don’t give us any information about what’s wrong.” I had mild hypothyroidism, my hormones were completely out of balance, my gut flora was abnormal, I was anemic, and my white blood cell counts were dangerously low.

In retrospect, I know that these kinds of test results can all associated with anorexia. But I was convinced I no longer had an eating disorder. I had recovered. The dieting I was doing was for my health, as was the intense workout regimen. I didn’t have an eating disorder. I was following a doctor’s orders.

Given my test results, the doctor ordered some more tests and switched up my diet, this time a FODMAP diet. Instead of cutting out food groups, this diet had a list of “good foods” and “bad foods,” which I was delighted by. I’d been keeping mental lists of “good foods” and “bad foods” for years, so I knew I’d succeed at following this diet as well.

For the next two years, this naturopath and I repeated the same cycle. He’d order tests and put me on some sort of restrictive diet. We’d review the test results, which were increasingly bizarre, and he’d tell me — yet again — that the test results were strange, but that they didn’t add up to a clear picture of what was wrong with me.

Though I didn’t get answers during those doctor’s appointments, I did get the validation I needed to continue following the regimen and the diagnostic process. At every appointment, the naturopath praised my dedication to the diets. He complimented my weight loss and assured me that maintaining a healthy BMI was essential for GI health.

In fact, my weight fluctuations became a topic of discussion at every appointment throughout that two-year period. If I’d lost or maintained my weight since the last appointment, I was assured that meant the diets were helping me be healthier. If I’d gained weight, the appointment started with an interrogation of my habits since we’d spoken last. Had I stuck to the diet meticulously? Was I stress eating? Was I eating any of my “off-limits” foods? Was I still exercising as much as I had been? Was the weight gain explainable or did it need to be added to my ever-growing list of symptoms?

The message that I got, very clearly, was that if I wanted to be healthy, if I wanted my GI issues to resolve, I needed to be in complete control of my body. I needed to precisely control what I put into my body and how I moved it. If I let up, if I got sicker, it was because I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do, it was because I was failing at fixing myself.

Constantly striving to fix your body is exhausting. Every so often I’d get too tired to keep up with the grueling regimens and I’d just give up. I’d binge for weeks at a time. I’d refuse to show up for appointments. I’d completely check out. Every time this happened, I’d eventually end up sicker than before and in a black hole of shame, which would convince me that the diet was the answer and if I just did it right, for the rest of my life, I’d eventually get well.

Constantly striving to fix your body is even more exhausting when fixing your body isn’t within your control. In the two years that my naturopath and I worked through the diagnostic process, only once did he suggest that perhaps diet wasn’t the answer to my mystery illness, that my mystery illness was out of my control. In the end, he wasn’t even the one who figured out that my mystery illness wasn’t about food or diet or movement at all. I found my diagnosis on my own, and for the first time in my life, I had to accept that my body wasn’t really within my control at all.

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This Body Of Mine

A collection of personal essays exploring how my experience of my body has shaped my identity and my spiritual, emotional growth. Written by Robin Zabiegalski.