Sooooo. Here’s a confession for you:
I used to be obsessed with being healthy.
Obsessed is an understatement. But there is no better, no stronger, word.
All vitamins needed to be accounted for in perfect measure. I calculated the perfect macronutrient ratio. I ate at the exact perfect times. I fasted because I thought it would turn me into a superhuman. Every second of my spare time was devoted to reading paleo blogs. (Yes, I’m looking at you, audience. )
I’m not sure how much this had to do with my real need for healing. Of course, deep down in my subconscious, I know that my soul trembled. It ached for faith and belief and health. The blissful relief and unbinding I felt when I finally started menstruating again was proof of that.
Yet there was a whole lot more going on other than my quest to overcome health challenges. Even when I was “healthy” I kept making efforts to be “healthier.” I kept reading about health. Better better better better better I wanted to be.
But why? To what end?
What did I used to think health gave me? What do so many of us still pursue?
So far as I can tell, we human beings pursue perfect health primarily for two reasons:
1. Fear of rejection.
I want to be loved.
So as I moved haltingly into adult life, an equation in my head constructed itself via neat little pieces, and went like this:
Good food > Sexy body (health status irrelevant) > Romantic attention > love.
So went my life that swam in self-punishing vanity.
I often I thought or said I wanted to be healthy. In fact what I really meant deep down was that I wanted to be beautiful. I chased the perfect hourglass, perfect skin, perfect hair, nails, and teeth, or what-have-you. I wanted to glow. I wanted to be beautiful. I wanted to be affirmed. I wanted to no longer feel and be so desperately, heart-breakingly, shatteringly alone.
I said “healthy” when I described my aims to others. Who was I kidding? I know (and then did know, too) that even while I professed to pursuing good health I barely gave a passing nod to my fertility or my osteopenia or my PCOS or my hypothalamic amenorrhea, my thyroid function or my anemia. I cared about my skin. I cared about being 15% body fat. Healthy was my mask. Attractive was my goal.
That was a fool’s errand. There was zero chance obsession was going to make me any more beautiful, make me any more worthy, or make anybody love me. Beauty comes from a very different place, and it looks a lot more like inner peace than it does like frenetic lunges before running out the door to work at 5am.
2. Fear of death.
I am a rabid insomniac. If you have sleeping problems or know people who do, there is quite a decent chance that mine are worse. I am not trying to “out-symptom” or “out-sympathy” you. This is a basic fact. I have been having panic attacks while going to sleep since I was 5 years old. I have regularly only gotten 4-6 hours of sleep many nights since starting college. In the last few years, after having taken a kidney and heart- affecting drug, I now sleep no more than four hours at any given time and still at least once a week go a whole night without being able to sleep at all.
So. sleep issues.
I used to have a lot of anxiety about my insomnia. This of course did not make it any easier to fall asleep.
I worked on this with my therapist for months. I work on it still today. I have made some progress. But not much. Here’s why:
Ultimately, I as convinced that my insomnia is going to make me die sooner. My poor sleeping skills meant that I am less healthy…. and, therefore, that my telomeres are going to shorten, my inflammation and hormone imbalance will go wild, and my death will be early and punishing and swift.
Maybe, maybe, maybe this is true. Things that make my less healthy in the short term may possibly decrease my lifespan in the longterm.
Poor sleep, for one. A dessert here or there. A glass of beer. A stressful project. A cigar or a bong hit. A slice of bread, god forbid.
But life is so much more complicated than that.
Health is so much more complicated than that.
I am running – and so, so many of my health-focused peers run, too – towards greater and greater health because I am so overwhelmingly terrified of the abyss on the other side.
If I can eat perfectly, perhaps I won’t die.
This is a joke.
Even if you eat a “perfect” diet, you are still going to die.
Health is an obsession that helps me feel distant from death. It is protection. A buffer. A justification. A sense of safety. A subconscious bid for immortality.
But here’s another thing:
there’s no such thing as a perfect diet.
there’s no such thing as perfect health.
there’s no such thing as perfect looks.
there’s no such thing as immortality.
nor is there any kind of assurance that you will be perfectly safe at any point in time.
Nothing is certain. Nothing is perfect.
My solution? To let go.
When I was seriously unhealthy, with PCOS and an electrolyte imbalance that messed up my heart and migraines and acne and so much more, I had three options.
One was to obsess over my poor health and to search rabidly for a cure.
Another was to let go and say “screw it, I don’t care.”
The third was the obviously best path. It was to accept the frailty of my human body. It was to reconcile myself with my imperfection and my proximity to death. It was to work on my health problems gently and slowly.
If I think deep and hard about what I want from my physical body, this is it:
I want to be healthy enough in order to live well.
I want to eat well enough to have a body that works. I want to be able to go about doing things that make me happy and the world a better place. I want my body to be good enough that I do not worry about it. I need to be healthy so that I can inherently trust that my body will work again when I wake up tomorrow morning.
This means eating well. It does not mean obsessing over how well I eat.
This means listening to my body. It does not mean nitpicking sensations and signals.
This means accepting and embracing less-than perfect food choices. It does not mean forbidding myself pleasure.
Today, I still have a lot wrong with me. I want these things to get better. But I am not obsessed with them being perfect. Not now, not later. I can’t be. There is no perfect – there is only good, and there is only my happiness and peace with existence waiting for me on the other side.
I do not want to be healthy for the sake of healthy. I want to be healthy so that I can do things. So that I can be happy. Purposeful. Adventurous. Loving. That’s what life’s really about, right?
Stay tuned to your body. Listen. Eat well. But don’t obsess. Don’t let fear rule you. Take it from a woman who has spent decades of nights in hell with fear.
Be good, be grateful, be warm, be kind, be happy. Be a mom, a dad, a professional, a dancer, an athlete, a grandparent… we are all much more than our diets.
in conclusion, IMHO,
health is not the end – it is the means to the end.
Whatever your end may be.
Much love to Kaila Prins for being a conversation partner in this.