The thing that saved my life and made me a better person
My little guy turned 10 yesterday and it’s hard to believe we’re already in double digits. Last night as I was watching him play his video game (Fortnight is all the rage btw), I reflected on the last 10 years of life with Johnny – all the various of stages of growth, not just for him, but me as well. And I realized something: not only did my son save my life, he has made me a better person.
Not only did my son save my life, he has made me a better person.
Finding out I was pregnant with Johnny was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. At the time, I was newly married, focused on my career and knee deep in an eating disorder that had me working out up to 8 hours a day. It wasn’t that I never wanted children, it was more so the change that comes with having a child that I wasn’t ready for. Teaching high school English was a full-time job. Having an eating disorder was a full-time job. I knew parenting was too – and I just wasn’t ready for that. But, I also wasn’t willing to put another person’s life at risk. My life was one thing and I teetered between barely holding on and not wanting to be anywhere. But, another human’s life…who was I to decide their value or to determine their existence?
Navigating the 9 months of my pregnancy was one of the toughest periods in my life, but in so many ways, it was also freeing. Knowing that I was caring for someone else made it easier (not easy) to relax around food and working out to some degree. On the flip side of the physical, the mental battle intensified and seeing my body change only deepened my self-hatred. Every time I got on the scale and the number increased and my doctor told me I was “healthy”, the equivalent of fat in my mind at the time, I wanted to crawl out of my skin and die. The internal battle during my pregnancy was nothing short of World War III and I’d tell myself, Just have your son and you can go back to not eating. Just have this child and then you don’t have to be here anymore. The only thing that keep me healthy during this time was knowing I was caring for someone else. Johnny’s life became the priority and as a byproduct of that, my life did too.
The day we drove Johnny home from the hospital I remember being both in awe of this amazing little human and also consumed with an intense disgust for my body. Every bump we hit on the road didn’t just cause the car to bounce, it also made me acutely aware of my body, a body that wasn’t mine, loose skin that seemed to reverberate on end with every bump and breath.
I can’t say that I was fully present for the first year of his life. I struggled through the 3 months I stayed at home with him, waiting each day for the mothering instincts to kick in (they didn’t) or for me to just be OK (I wasn’t). Every chance I got, I was back at the gym working out, crying my way through several hour-long sessions, clothed in baggy sweatshirts that couldn’t even mask the body I hated so much. The eating disorder that had hid in the shadows of my mind, present but dormant during my pregnancy, was back in full force – and boy did she have work to do. After 3 months of staying at home I went back to teaching high school full-time and every spare moment I got was dedicated to my eating disorder, not my son. There’s a great deal of shame and guilt I carried for so many years – even to this day I regret not being fully present for him – but the reality is, I was doing the best I could at the time. I was very sick, but I wasn’t fully willing to change.
Fast forward a few years and I’m a bit more present with my son, but still very much in my eating disorder – to the point I feel beyond depressed and hopeless. It got so bad that my then-husband John took me to Friends Hospital where I checked myself in for depression and contemplation of suicide. Since there was no floor dedicated to eating disorders – it just wasn’t something Friends really dealt with – I was placed on a floor with recovering alcohol and drug addicts. I remember thinking, This is not the life I wanted. How did I get here? How long will I be here? Is this really who I am? Just asking these questions was not enough to change how I was doing or approaching anything. What changed everything was the day my son came to visit me. That day I realized I didn’t just need help, I was the only one stopping me from making the changes I needed so desperately to make. I signed myself out of Friends the next day and started seeing a therapist downtown.
Things went well for a bit, as they always do when you’re hot on wanting to make a change, but then I started my old therapy routine where I’d lie, tell my therapist exactly what she wanted to hear, or I just wouldn’t show up. I eventually stopped going because it was a waste of both her and my time. I had been in therapy since I was six and I knew how to “play the game”.
Shortly after seeing my therapist, I discovered intenSati, began life coaching and a little while later started teaching group fitness classes. All of these things allowed me to make small, positive changes in my life and on the surface, it seemed like I had my shit together for the first time in a real way. But the reality was, I was living on the surface. I was using affirmations to gloss over the deep pain I was feeling. I was cutting calories, just maybe not as much, while promoting body positivity. I was touting the importance of choosing right thoughts and words on the front line while engaging in self-criticism and shame privately. It’s not to say that the work I was doing wasn’t affecting or changing me. I’m sure it was. The reality is no matter what work I did on the surface, it would never amount to any real or lasting change because I didn’t have a “Why” for changing. My “Why” was still thin at any cost and the fear of being fat was worse than the fear of death.
I’ll never forget the day I went up to my bedroom to grab something and Johnny followed me up. As I rummaged around the room, he walked straight over to the full-length mirror, pulled up his shirt and standing in his diaper, he arched his back and poked his index finger to his stomach saying, “Look Mommy. My belly is sticking out.”
Never in my life have I experienced a blow to the gut like I did that day. Fucking up my life was one thing but fucking up someone else’s life – my son’s no less – was entirely unacceptable. It wasn’t that I thought he necessarily understood or believed what he was saying at the time. I knew he was imitating what he saw me do everyday as I would talk to myself in front of the mirror. I wasn’t just passing along words or actions to my son, I was passing along deep ingrained habits that would eventually become a belief of unworthiness.
For me that moment, above all other moments, was the real game changer. I contacted my teacher and guru and asked for the name of her therapist, who I started to see in New York City. I talked through my shame with my life coach and made promises around making myself proud. I sought out resources and people I needed to make a fully embodied change in my life. It was simply non-negotiable.
Even with all the work I’ve done, there are still days where I hear the voice that tells me I’ve had too much to eat or that I look fat. The difference now is that I know it’s a voice. I recognize now that it’s my choice how I align my thoughts, words and actions.
My son Johnny didn’t just change my life that day he looked in the mirror – he saved it. And he continues to help me become a better version of myself every day. Watching him wait to hold the door for the person behind him or run to grab it for the person in front of him, his ability to empathize with another person, his deep sense of care and concern have made me a better person. In the moments it’s easier for me to just do my work, be consumed in my thoughts or otherwise adult, Johnny invites creativity, exploration, play, joy, boundless love, freedom and compassion.
The greatest treasures in life are truly the immeasurable things. Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.
Who or what makes you a better person?