Content warning: This article discusses disordered eating and body dysmorphia.
My body is my nemesis. For the first twelve years of my life, I felt whole, the way a musical note is whole. The only thing I would’ve changed about myself was that I couldn’t do pull-ups in gym class. However, when puberty started, I panicked. My body, the single thing that belonged to me, seemed like it was no longer mine. It betrayed me. I spent the next two decades punishing, controlling, indulging, obsessing, and antagonizing my body.
It was a daily battle. I got on the scale multiple times a day, counted calories, and ran most mornings in the cold dark before school. I skipped breakfast and lunch most days, eating only when my parents were watching. It was painful, but essential: I wanted to stop my body from changing. I had a book that told me about my body’s physical milestones and I examined it carefully, tracking the ways adolescence changed me, re-coding my body as feminine.
I drank to get drunk, and smoked weed because it relieved me of the feeling of being in my body.
I got little B-cup breasts around the time I turned 16. It’s not a coincidence that that’s when my drinking and substance use got more serious, too. I drank to get drunk, and smoked weed because it relieved me of the feeling of being in my body. I drank what was left over in my parent’s wine glasses after dinner and took clandestine swigs from the bottles of liquor they kept on the sideboard. Substances numbed my body and blurred the lines between what I thought I looked like and how I felt about it.
For most of my life, people asked, “Are you a boy, or a girl?” I didn’t like picking one: I was neither. Both. A tomboy? Sort of, I guess. I had my ears pierced, went through a phase where I’d only wear pink or purple, and loved She-Ra dolls and princesses. On the other hand, I was the fastest runner in my class, kept my hair short, and wore masculine clothes, preferring hand-me-downs from my dad. I got called “sir” all the time, even when I was wearing a woman’s bathing suit. The idea of becoming a woman scared me. I tried out-running my body’s changes, but when that didn’t work, I resorted to starving myself. When my appetite overrode my self control, I reached for something stronger.
I didn’t like picking one: I was neither. Both. A tomboy? Sort of, I guess.
By the time I rolled up my first dollar bill, I was an expert at mixing diet pills, cold medicine, cigarettes, and coffee to make my appetite go away. I snorted speed every day, in larger and larger quantities. I was almost 18 and my period had finally started. In spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t reverse what was happening. I could, however, stay numb.
My addiction progressed while I was busy counting calories and exercising to keep my weight down. I woke up with nosebleeds, couldn’t sleep, hallucinated, and suffered through miserable come-downs. I didn’t realize I was hooked until I actually tried to stop and ended up nervously Hoovering my entire supply, plus everything I could scrape off the coffee table’s glass top. It took a two-week, sleepless, foodless binge to get me to ask for help; I didn’t truly stop using substances until I’d physically left the country — traveling through Europe, alone, for a couple of months — and come back to the States to relocate for college.
My body, of course, came with me. I went to a counselor every week, and went to an eating disorder support group — my second since high school.
No matter how far I ran or how hard I trained, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my body wasn’t mine.
I hit bottom with my substance use many times, finally getting sober for good at 23. I didn’t need to use for a long time to know that I was sick, and that every time I slipped into a blackout, part of me hoped I wouldn’t come back. In recovery, I navigated new relationships to everything. I had a baby; I learned to be a mother. I went back to school; I learned to be a good student. I changed relationships and learned that I couldn’t be killed by heartbreak. I stayed sober through celebrations and funerals; I learned to be a family member. I finished stories, essays, and novels; I learned to be a writer. I went to meetings and therapy and practiced, daily, living without substances. However, I wasn’t ready to give up my harmful relationship with food and exercise.
After nine years in recovery, I hit a wall. I’d adjusted to sobriety but couldn’t stop beating myself up. I had a new awareness of my body that made me ache. No matter how far I ran or how hard I trained, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my body wasn’t mine. My sponsor suggested that I go to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, where I started hearing about other people who’d put down drugs and alcohol and gotten new problems with sugar, flour, and butter. I identified myself as someone with an eating disorder, found someone to work the 12 Steps, and got into a new program of self-acceptance.
Oh shit. I looked at my sponsor. I’m trans.
I met with my OA sponsor to read through my personal inventory of resentment, and shared the long list of grudges I had against my body, the people who misunderstood me, and my inability to control myself. As I read, I felt my body image changing. The puzzle pieces in my brain moved, shifted, and clicked together in a different way. Oh shit. I looked at my sponsor. I’m trans.
It explained everything. I realized, in that moment, that my long fight with my body wasn’t because I was unhappy with my weight. I was trying to control how I looked because of my gender. I wanted to look like a boy, but didn’t have the words or the wherewithal to express that desire. I had been silently fighting myself since puberty. Now, just as I’d accepted that I was an alcoholic and an addict, I started the serious work of getting to know myself as a non-binary trans person as well.
Acceptance was the first step. As scary as it was, I took it anyway. My sponsor, when I told her, gave me a big hug.
“You are beautiful,” she told me.
I don’t have to be ashamed of myself: I don’t have to beat myself into a state of lovable-ness.
I kept going to meetings. I practiced introducing myself as “Foster,” and sharing my gender when I talked about my recovery. I started eating normally, being kinder to my body, and appreciating myself. It was the first time I’d felt whole since I was a very young child. Also, although I was scared of being rejected by my community, I didn’t encounter any response other than acceptance and respect. I got to practice coming out again and again in my community, and living as myself in front of people who cared about my well-being and happiness.
Embracing my identity opened my recovery in so many ways. I am still practicing how to trust that I am acceptable the way that I am. My body is no longer my enemy or something to hide. I don’t have to be ashamed of myself: I don’t have to beat myself into a state of lovable-ness. I get to make peace with myself. After nine years of learning how to live without substances, I’m learning to live without shame, too.
It was worth the wait. It’s worth the work, as well.