Monday, April 26, 2010

anxiety and me, part II

In the summer of 2002, as I packed my bags for a year abroad and daydreamed of croissants and pains au chocolat, I still wouldn't allow myself to eat anything more substantial than a few nibbles of food while away from home. I needed to begin anew.

On the eve of my departure from the JFK airport, my parents, sister, and I drove down to New York and took a ferry to Long Island. Who ever thought a ferry ride would be a good idea for a nervous girl with stomach issues? I spent the entirety of the following morning crawling from the bed to the bathroom and back again, groaning pitifully in one room and sobbing vehemently in the other. I had dreamed for years about the opportunity to live for a year in France, and now I wondered how the hell I would be able to get on the plane. At some point, my body apparently decided enough was enough, and the tumult ceased. I was depleted and exhausted and, somehow, blessedly possessed by a sensation of peace. With literally nothing left to lose, I boarded a plane bound for the City of Light.

Rereading my diary from that year in France, I am struck first by my unbounded enthusiasm: I use exclamation points with abandon, compensating for the failure of my words to convey properly the
limitlessness of my emotion. Yet, if I disregard those exclamation points, if I chisel out a chunk of that frenzied excitement and look squarely at it, I can see a frightened girl who wants control over a body that resists her at every turn.

August 31, 2002 (my first day in Paris)
Tonight I ate hamburgers, and rice and the best applesauce I've ever tasted EVER!!! So I think when I start getting more sleep and start eating more regularly (I'm trying really hard!!) that things will be really fun. Now I'm just tired and wish I were at home . . . my motto is give everything one week, so I'm sure things will get better soon!!
[Wait, hamburgers plural? The rice and applesauce I get; I've had the BRAT diet memorized since elementary school. And I can still taste that applesauce, which I swear must have been prepared in some kind of butter solution. Everything tastes better in France.]

September 6, 2002
For dessert, I had a Tarte à la Demoiselles Tatin which means really weird apple pie, kinda yucky. Plus I'm only allowing myself the one dessert a week, so I've been saying no to a lot of stuff that I maybe should have been eating.
[Clearly angry with myself here for having declined what must have been a week of delightful offerings: the dainty fresh fruit tartelettes at the Brioche Dorée, ice cream from Berthillon, and mon dessert préféré, buttery almond croissants with their sweet marzipan filling. I refused everything that I craved, and when I finally allowed myself one treat, it proved a disappointment.]

September 19, 2002
So I've been eating so much lately, it's scary! I just get so hungry, maybe it's all the walking we've been doing. Also, I've been getting up too late to eat breakfast. So I've been getting a sandwich poulet à la baguette at my favorite place and then an hour later after I get back to the FIAP, I eat lunch here! So yeah, that is not good!
[This entry annoys me. Most days were spent briefly attending class and then exploring Paris on foot for hours and hours. How could I not need more than one meal to sustain my energy? I'm frustrated, too, that instead of embracing a body that was active daily, I found fault with its inability to subsist on the plan that I prescribed for it.]

My diary entries throughout the year often offered with great detail and commentary the meals I consumed. Consumed and, frequently, savored. Although I initially chronicled my eating habits as a way to buttress the poor self esteem by which I defined myself, I increasingly learned to celebrate the delicious possibilities that living and eating in France offered me. I cautiously sampled roast duck, tripe, and quail eggs (thankfully not in one meal). I relished my daily breakfast of bread slices slathered in butter and strawberry jam, homemade by my host mother, Madame P. My body felt nourished and satisfied, and thanks to walking everywhere -- to school, to the grocery store, to our favorite bar, L'Alexandra to see that Adonis-like bartender -- I felt strong. And, strikingly, anxiety-free. And sure, I pined for a boyfriend with exhausting desperation and bemoaned the fact that recently purchased pants were a size too small (My solution, of course, was not simply to purchase a bigger size but to alter my already healthy body). But I was active, cherishing my daily explorations of a beautiful, old city. In France, I flourished.

In France, I weighed one hundred pounds less than I do now. I eye photos of France Elyssa with a mix of jealousy and disbelief. Was that really me? I look healthy and happy and utterly carefree. If I could be that thin again, I tell myself, I would know how to appreciate my body. If I could be that thin again, I would be strong enough to stamp out the last vestiges of anxiety in my body. If I could be that thin again, I would be happy. As Geneen Roth reminds us, "Even a wildly successful diet is a colossal failure because inside the new body is the same sinking heart."

One hundred pounds ago, I wore a sinking heart on my sleeve. One year after I returned from France, I packed my bags for the newest adventure: graduate school at Purdue University in Indiana. And I made sure to tuck carefully into my carry-on bag that sinking heart of mine.

It feels disingenuous of me to end the narrative so sorrowfully. My diary is filled with angst, yes, but other memories from that time that I hold dear tell a different story. They -- and the photos that document them -- reveal a girl blossoming in strength and spirit. A girl who faced unfamiliar, scary, strange obstacles -- navigating the metro alone! spending a weekend with people who spoke only French! -- and overcame them. I want to give credit to the girl who took a chance on herself, who had the crazy thought that maybe she already possessed within herself the strength to withstand whatever might be in store for her in France. Strike that. I want to give credit to myself. Sometimes I forget that the past-me is still me. And you know, I'm pretty thankful for that.

                                      photo taken by Annie Guill

In the next installment, my introduction to the wondrous, wacky world of panic attacks! And some happy stuff, too.


  1. I'm right with you through your "travels with yourself". And I can't wait until you get to the "station" where you find your beautiful self--both inside and out. I love all of you.