On Monday, I had a piano lesson (myself), and while I always enjoy my piano lessons – I am blessed to have found a very good teacher – this time, it was particularly interesting. Contrary to one or two years ago, my lessons are about musical expression and higher-order structuring of musical pieces now, compared to rather basic technical stuff, and I gradually come to calling myself a somewhat semi-professional player. My teacher and I use to have a lot of almost philosophical discussions about how to accentuate and shape certain passages in a piece, and what that means to the music.
This monday, our discussion was about whether and how to put the different notes together to single melody and play the piece in a way that stresses the melody and subsumes the individual notes beneath a single and whole somestream of music. Actually, my point in the discussion was that I did not want to do that (at least not in every part of the piece I am currently playing – which still is Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, op. 48-1, but I am on last page of the sheet music now). I realized that I had practiced the piece in a way that every single tone stands for itself and emerges from as well as disappears into the silence again. I consider every tone as unique and free, not subordinate to a collective structure.
While speaking about this, it dawned on me that the scope of this topic reaches much deeper, and it is not about music alone. Moreover, it affects the way I see myself, and therefore the way I perceive life as a whole. It made me understand that there is no right or wrong, just different liking and different agreeing with a certain view of the world. You cannot say that binding the tones together into a melody is superior to creating each tone as a separate entity, it is just a different kind of philosophy standing behind those perspectives each. There really is no final judgment at all, just relative preferences that have to be view in the context of culturally grounded perception styles and individual biography.
I see myself as an individual mostly (and this, I think, shows in that I prefer to accentuate the notes individually, compared to going for superior structures that subordinates them), yet I have remarkably few confidence into my individuality. In other words, I always doubt myself. (When I spoke with my therapist about these things today, he said that, more than an eating disorder, I had a doubting disorder.) I think this is due to years of constant invalidation of my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, not only by other people, but meanwhile by myself as well. It goes like this:
If I experience something in a certain way and somebody else experiences the same thing in another way and mentions it, I wonder why I experience it how I do.
If I see everybody around me eating wheat products (rolls, pasta), while I know that I do not feel well with wheat products, I wonder if something was wrong with me because everybody else seems to be fine.
If I get told that becoming a vegetarian was better with regards to ethics and health, I feel bad because I can understand the point and still eat chicken and fish (despite the fact that I know I will feel bad on a vegetarian diet – I have tried it).
If somebody approaches me with an inappropriate claim, it gives me a bad feeling if I turn it down, although I know the other person has no right to demand that from me, or is even impolite by doing so.
If I feel hurt by somebody and that somebody apologizes, I doubt that I still have the right to feel awkward about the situation, although the apology does not take back what has happened.
etc etc etc
The problem is that I feel like I do not have any point of reference that provides orientation. There is no stability inside of me, and as long as I can remember, I have always stood on shaky ground. Therefore, I tend to look to the outside for validation. Sometimes this works, mostly by objective proof of experience – and interestingly, I often find my initial and intuitive feelings to be confirmed by it. Too often, though, it is impossible to find a definite answer because you have to rely on the thoughts and opinions of other people that are deeply subjective by nature. What comes out of this endeavor on a higher level – many people validating their assumptions against each other – is very likely to be the hegemony of mainstream, and the majority then defines what is to be considered “normal”.
The word “normal” renders the very concept that has presumably vexed me the most in my whole life. More precisely, it was the concept of being “not normal” – that was often ascribed to me – as opposed to being agreeable, and functioning in the way I was expected to be by society and significant others. This was not limited to the level of behaviors, but also affected the level of thinking and feeling, i.e. the way my mind works or my emotions occur was often perceived as “out of place”. Looking back, this was the experience that defined my life as long as I can remember, starting with childhood when my dad did not allow that I was feeling the way I did when it differed from what he thought I should feel, continuing during school time when I was expelled because I understood things too quickly, until now, since I still feel that my personal needs are different from what other people need and can understand as needs, while what is common to other people often seems unfamiliar to me (so we have a double-sided situation, actually). In a nutshell, I do not fit in. I never did.
The problems started because I wanted to fit in. My mom thinks of me as a “good child” that wants to behave well and be agreeable, and she is right with this. So, whenever I “naturally” (this is how I do spontaneously) did something in a certain way, and somebody else disagreed or was surprised by that and asked me why I did not do it another way, I would take that question to my heart and secretly breed about it. This way, I have collected an array of question marks throughout the path of my life. Many of these are concerned with my eating disorder because in that regard I especially differed from everybody else. Until now, I feel very insecure, and when somebody asks me, “Would it not be a great thing to just eat everything again”, although I know I have intolerance and have tried certain foods that make me feel bad over and over again (because I feel a need for outside validation by objective criteria ) before decisively cutting them out, it makes me think that something was wrong with me – every single time. When it then goes on and I am told that I was responsible for the miserable state I am in now – due to my years of bad and unbalanced eating and not caring for myself – it just makes me feel like crying. I know it is my fault! I wish I had done better! I wish I could turn back time and do everything again without all these mistakes I have made! But I cannot. And I feel very bad about it already, so please do not tell me again on top of what I am already aware of all the time. And still, deep inside myself, I know I am not totally responsible. I have also suffered from bad luck and unhappy coincidence. I have tried as much as I could. I just could not handle it perfectly. I am sorry.
The very point I want to make is that ill fit is never just an issue of a person alone, but an effect that emerges from the interaction of an individual person and the social surrounding. The concept of “disorder” only makes sense within a social context that defines certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving as “disordered”, i.e., deviating from the established order and from what is considered “normal”. My therapist made that clear to me by telling me that, if you lived as a monk in a Tibetan monastery, it would be perfectly normal to have just tsampa and a small bowl of vegetables two or three times a day, and nobody would make a deal about it if you ate just that, while the people around me frown on my picking on vegetables, a little rice, and chicken or fish. They do not understand that I do not want for dessert after just having a sufficient meal. They feel sorry for me because I cannot eat or do not want to eat an array of things. But I do not miss anything. To the contrary, I feel better this way.
The western societies of modern times – and I assume most of you who read this live in a society like that – have fallen for the concepts of constant expansion and plurality of options. They have a lot of understanding for people who want for everything and even more, but they lack understanding for people who do not, and want for limitation and scantiness and simplicity instead. People who have a rather ascetic and “monkish” temperament and feel overwhelmed by too much stimulation and too many options do not fit well into a society like that.
The way eating disorders are usually treated mirrors the values of western societies. Eating disordered patients are made to eat everything again and fed up to a certain weight that meets the criteria of a “healthy” weight. Please do not get me wrong, I do not at all want to state that it was bad to do so. There are people who are starving themselves and need support to get out of their life-threatening routines. But still, this approach may not apply to everybody who is treated for eating disorders. It only does when the underlying philosophy – expansion and choice – fit the values of the individual. It is one way to go that definitely has benefits for some people, but there are others that cannot be treated successfully this way – people who quit their therapies or return from inpatient treatment and fall back into their old patterns because they have not learned what works for them.
My therapist recommended to me (being an example of the latter category, since I have failed to recover for years) to find out exactly that: what works for me individually, regardless of what everybody else is saying. He wants to help me to develop trust into myself, into my body that it will tell me what it needs, and into my intuition what does me good and what not. He said that all his therapist colleagues would throw their hands up in horror if they knew what he was doing because it runs totally counter the established opinion as well as common sense how “treatment” should look like. During the course of the therapy, it has become clear that I will not fall back into starving myself because there are things in my life I want to live (and eat) for, that I am able to read the signs of my body and to distinguish between “real” hunger (due to bodily needs) and “fake” hunger (due to blood sugar instability), and that I do not eat certain things not because I am afraid of them but because they just disgust me.
What he does is helping me to find my way to get along, a way that does not apply to anybody else but perfectly applies to me – a kind of personal philosophy. Therefore, it does not matter what I eat, what I do not eat, how I eat, or how much I weight, as long as I am physically healthy and feel well with what I do. Those are the only criteria that count, and there is no need to apology or to legitimate, to feel ashamed or guilty. Because in the end, I am the one who has to live (with it).