Flying makes me anxious. It doesn’t make me anxious because I’m afraid of accidents or heights or the recirculating germs of strangers in a tiny, enclosed space. Rather, it makes me anxious because it is a situation that I don’t control. I am at the whim of the TSA employee, the gate attendant, the pilots, the flight attendants, and blind chance. Although I try my best to choose a take-off time that best suits me, I can’t predict the medical emergency on the inbound plane that will delay us by three hours, causing me to arrive home at 1:30 am. I am ALL ABOUT CONTROL. My eating disorder manifested at a time when my life was otherwise chaotic in the extreme due to numerous factors outside of my control. The more out-of-control my environment became, the more rigid and fixated I became with my eating, and so forth. Treatment allows me clearer insight into my control issues, and now I face them head-on rather than coping with my distress by engaging in self-destructive habits. I try to identify and name my emotions. Anxiety. Fear. Panic. What am I telling myself that is making me feel this way? Is it true? Is it helpful? Sometimes my reasonable mind can untwist my thinking enough to take the edge off those emotions. Inch by inch, it’s getting easier, but sometimes, it’s still a take-no-prisoners, guerrilla war. This is the backdrop of my story.
But first, another bit of background. It’s a universal reality that people use careless words, make stupid comments, and are occasionally cruel. I am fully guilty of this, myself, and it probably happens on a daily basis more often than I am even aware of, much to my sorrow. I would like to think that it usually comes from a well-meaning place or, at worst, results from my ignorance. One of the first lessons that I learned in Emotional Regulation 101 was that I cannot control what other people say to me or how they behave, but I can control what I tell myself about their language and actions and how I choose to respond. It wasn’t an easy lesson, and it is one that requires continual practice. I was helped by another girl that I met in treatment who, in her lifelong struggle against anorexia, stumbled upon what she called “THE THREE U’S.” They are as follows: UNKNOWING, UNEDUCATED, and UNCARING (or unkind). “When people say dumb s*&t to me or I start getting pissed about something someone is doing, I ask myself, ‘Is this person unknowing, uneducated, or uncaring?’” she would explain. “Does this person not know that I have an eating disorder and that their words are potentially very hurtful or triggering? Is this person uneducated about eating disorders? Does she think that she’s being empathetic and insightful, when really she is unintentionally saying or doing something really upsetting or hurtful?” Fortunately, in my personal experience, it’s rather rare that I encounter someone who is truly uncaring and is motivated by anger or spite, who means to cause me suffering or to make me feel pain.
At last, onto the story! It was a sunny, warm, Sunday afternoon, and I was sitting in the terminal at Baltimore-Washington airport awaiting the announcement to board my connecting flight back to Vanillasville. My weekend trip home to the Northeast was a wonderful respite from work and the isolated otherness of my routine, eastern Midwest life. Already, the travel back to Vanillasville was progressing more smoothly than my journey home. No delays. No unexpected gate changes. Just a bit of turbulence during the first leg. My ticket placed me in one of the first boarding groups, and I was delighted to find abundant bin space as I made my way onto the plane. Feeling rested, relatively safe, and confident in my ability to adhere to my meal plan under the present circumstances, I was in a pretty positive and optimistic mood. I settled into my aisle seat near the front of the plane, tucked my carry-on securely above me and my shoulder bag under the seat in front of me, and prepared for the short, hour-long jaunt that would land me back in familiar (i.e., controllable) territory. There weren’t many unpredictable variables left during this trip to heighten my vigilance.
Beside me, another woman, slightly younger than me, buckled herself into the center seat, and to her left, a middle-aged woman of about fifty found her place, shifting uncomfortably until the flight attendant subtly passed her a seatbelt extender. I smiled and said, “Hi,” to both of them, as I usually do whenever I fly. I’m not the type of person who relishes launching into a deep conversation with a complete stranger who I will be unable to escape from for the next several hours, but I like to smile, make eye contact, and offer a friendly greeting. It sort of gives me a bit of a warm fuzzy on the inside while allowing me to protect my privacy. My row-mates were of other minds on this particular Sunday afternoon, apparently. It didn’t happen all at once. It began with an innocent question from the woman nearest the window to the one in the middle, but in short order, the conversation was underway, and I found myself drawn into it. Dialectically, I decided to use my skills, to make myself fully mindful of the people I was traveling with, and to engage them, giving myself to listening and taking in their words, their gestures, their expressions. I called upon all my mindfulness skills to notice my own reactions, not only mental but also physical and emotional. The woman near the window was returning from a trip to Texas with her daughter and then woman in middle was on her way to a job interview. She was a very young physician, still in training, and after talking a bit about her work, the joys and frustrations of her life as a medical resident, the conversation somehow devolved into her personal opinions about the obesity epidemic in America. She spoke as though she possessed unique insight, as an enlightened and compassionate healthcare provider, but from my perspective, she sounded, quite frankly, rather uneducated on the subject. She was also unknowing of my own education and experience, background, and personal stake in the topic. How could she know how deeply and personally I am affected by the topic when I look, for all appearances, like a completely healthy, slender, fit woman? Why would she ever suspect me of having an eating disorder, let alone BINGE eating disorder? Who would think that my weight and my eating is such a source of pain and SHAME for me? She never seemed to take into consideration how what she was saying was affecting our third companion, and I wondered at the depth and breadth of thoughts and emotions hidden behind the kind, placid face of the woman near the window, who could not hide her obesity. Her only verbal response was to blame her weight problems entirely on genetics. I attempted to interject with a plea for a deeper understanding of the role that socioeconomics, family systems, culture, learned behaviors, and mental health all factor into the complicated and multifaceted issues of weight, nutrition, and health, but I was met with blank stares.
It was discouraging to be confronted with cultural ignorance toward weight stigma, eating issues, and health in general, but especially mental health, on a face-to-face, personal level. Even recounting the conversation in my mind to write about these events for this blog post is stirring all sorts of distress, once more. It feels like that familiar, tight, ball of rubber bands in my chest, just behind my sternum, ready to pop and shoot colorful bands all across the room. It’s one thing to read ill-informed articles in the media, to watch stereotypes portrayed on TV, or to see yet another exploitative marketing strategy that reinforces disordered eating behaviors and unrealistic, unattainable appearance and lifestyle standards. I sat mostly silent for the duration of the flight, occasionally speaking when I thought I could insert a statement that might be heard by my fellow travelers with an open heart and mind without exposing myself. It felt disingenuous. What could I do? What would you have done?