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When I was in kindergarten, I stapled my thumb just to see what it felt like. I didn’t cry when my mom pulled it out and I watched the blood bubble up from the minuscule circle.

I used to walk around barefoot on the jagged wood chips underneath my swing set and on scalding asphalt during the summer because I liked the idea that I was building up my pain tolerance.

I picked at a chemical burn on my forehead for several years, peeling off the healing skin until my fingers were covered in blood.

I was and am a self-harmer.

I didn’t know because my methods aren’t traditional. And like my chronic migraines, which have become so much mental white noise, I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a part of me.

Eating Is Complicated for Me

Here’s the thing. I’ve hated myself for a long time, but because I wasn’t cutting or starving myself, I thought I was fine. In fact, I thought I was weak for not being able to do anything drastic to fully express that hatred. I had several friends who were cutters, and I was honestly a little jealous. According to pop culture, that was the way to be depressed, and if I wasn’t doing that, how could anything be wrong?

It wasn’t until college that I had my first revelation: I may not have an eating disorder, but I 100 percent have a disordered relationship with food. I used to wish that I could create the “perfect” eating disorder to have the “quick results” without the rotting teeth or constantly punished myself by drastically changing how I ate. I’d skip meals, or I’d overexert myself exercising and then binge eat. One day—in the midst of my bad breakup in college—I didn’t eat anything until 6 p.m., then I made myself six scrambled eggs. I got about halfway through them, went to the upstairs bathroom, made myself throw up, and then went back down to eat the rest.

I comfort, mourn, and celebrate with food.

To “protest” moving back to Texas in sixth grade, I stopped eating lunch. Then I over-corrected and ate too much (which was always two slices of cheese pizza from the little Papa John’s cart, and now I want to throw up when I see Papa John’s). Depending on my mood, I’ll eat an entire family-size bag of chips in one sitting, then get another bag the next day to do it all over again.

My husband can be a bit of an enabler in this regard; his sweetness means he’ll rarely say no to me. If I text him while he’s at work to say “I want French fries,” he doesn’t walk through the door without a McDonald’s bag in his hands. And I will milk that for all its worth, inhaling all the salty things my heart desires until my teeth feel weird. At which point, I’ll swear off eating anything that I enjoy… only to give up on that days or weeks later when I’m feeling overly emotional again.

Can anyone really blame me? In nearly every TV show or movie, people are crying into pints of ice cream, binge-drinking, or binge-eating to solve their emotional crises. I think the only reason brunch exists is so people can get drunk early in the day and talk about how their lives are falling apart. It is burned into my brain that food makes everything better. Why else would it be called comfort food?

Sometimes, I Hurt Myself

As mentioned above and previously documented, there are times when I can’t control my anger or anxiety or depression, and I have to do something to redirect my thoughts. And the only thing that makes sense to me in those moments is to cause myself some low-level pain.

I dig my fingers into my forearms until my hands hurt and my arms feel bruised. Because I was too scared to pick up a real knife, I’d take plastic ones and vigorously drag them across my skin until it burned. I’d scream into a pillow until my throat hurt. On more than one occasion, I have slapped myself in the face, or slapped my bare thighs, as hard as I could.

The sick thing is that I felt… not exactly proud of myself, but more like I was happy to be proving myself right. “Yes, I’m the worst, and I’m so terrible that I need to physically take it out on myself.”

The sad thing was that it still didn’t feel like enough, and I hated myself more for not doing something bigger.

If It Quacks Like Body Dysmorphia…

So many of my harmful tendencies stem from the fact that I just really, really hate how I look. I have felt this way since I was a kid, when I once took a poll among my friends to see if they liked my best friend more than me because she was pretty and skinny.

I was in the 1st grade.

I hate my appearance so much that I can barely look in a mirror. Sometimes, I go so long without looking that when I actually see my face, for a split second, I wonder if I’m looking at someone else. I look away from my body when I shower, and I’m actually horrified and sad if I accidentally see any part of myself that is typically covered by clothing. It’s bad.

It’s so bad that I have no real concept of what I look like. I gained 100 pounds in college, and I’m convinced that I still look like that, even though I’ve lost a net gain of 50 pounds. (I lost 70, but then regained 20 because my depression came back super hard.) I feel like my body takes up twice as much space as it actually does, and even though I know I’ve lost weight, I feel like I look exactly the same. All I see are rolls of fat and flabby arms and a cottage-cheese ass (which is so rude because I have literally never eaten cottage cheese).

And of course, I hate myself for hating myself. I see people who have bigger bodies than I do, and I think “I wonder if they look at me and wish they had my body. How awful! My body is horrible!” Then I chastise myself because 1) I don’t know their experience, so how dare I project my desires onto them; and 2) clearly I should be grateful for what I have.

So, then anxiety kicks in (more so than usual, anyway). And when I get anxious, I turn to my small, but still harmful, compulsions. As mentioned, there was the burn I wouldn’t stop fucking with. When my lips are chapped, I pick at them until they bleed. I pick at my fingernails and toenails, and the surrounding skin, so the texture is rough and calloused. I have trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling), which has left my upper eyelids ostensibly bare and my eyebrows looking like they were the casualty in some half-assed waxing accident.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of my compulsions involve messing with my physical appearance.

What Now?

Man, I wish I had the answer. As they say, admitting is the first step. But what do I do after that? Because if we’re admitting things here, I fully believe that my identity is wrapped up in all this shit. Who am I without this self-hatred or this inability to properly process my emotions?

I started new medication last year, and I was actually kind of freaked out when, in the face of bad news, I only cried for about 15 minutes and then felt fine after that. Pre-Medication Nicole would’ve wallowed for weeks, forcing myself to relive the bad news until I never wanted to leave my apartment again. But there I was, at the end of the day, already moving on. I wondered if this subdued reaction was a suppression of my true emotions or if this was my actual baseline for sadness, and I’d just been blowing right on past that all these years.

It’s hard to say. And even harder to imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t feel the need to take out my frustration and sadness on myself. Better me than my loved ones, right?

Still. I know I need to get a handle on this. I’m turning 30 next year, and I don’t want to spend the next decade staying on my bullshit. I have too many life goals that need me to be a woman who respects herself the tiniest little bit.

I just need to figure out how, exactly, to make that happen.

N. Alysha Lewis

N. Alysha Lewis is an editor and blogger with author aspirations whose love can absolutely be bought with french fries.

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