Where Gaslighting and Body Dysmorphia Interact

(TW: discussion of weight change, rape, pregnancy, abortion.
Disclaimer: some of this post includes perspective from my eating disorder’s voice which I recognize as fatphobic, and I want to acknowledge that and make it very clear that in no way do I, Ashley, believe anyone’s value is in how they look or what they weigh. What I am hoping comes across correctly here is my experience not being able to trust my own eyes and the frustration and confusion that comes with that, rather than an underlying fear of fatness. Every body is valid, holding inside it something of actual value: a whole human being who matters equally to every other human being.)

It’s been over a year since my anorexia relapse now. I feel lucky and grateful and complicated to say that I am once again in recovery and have been for some unclear but significant enough length of time. Unclear because where does recovery really begin? When I’m eating enough? When I can eat without rigid routines and anxiety? Is it when my weight has leveled out? Something else?

Among the many upsetting results of relapse and recovery include this unavoidable surveying of my body. In my previous recovery, body dysmorphia was still something that had a big impact on me, but the way I coped with it was to not care. It didn’t matter if I felt discomfort with how I looked because it didn’t matter how I looked. I felt really good about the completeness of my ability to detach any value from my perception of my physical self. Of course it would have been nice to not be drawn to fixate on what I saw and never be sure if it was what others saw, but body acceptance, as opposed to straight up body positivity, worked for me. It helped me not to jump down the “what do I even look like” rabbit hole. And years into recovery, my body was stable enough that my clothes fit well enough in whatever fluctuations may have happened, if they did.

And then I relapsed.

For a while into it, I was refusing to let myself buy any clothes because I didn’t want to encourage myself to be pressured to make the change permanent, or to be triggered by it when those clothes stopped fitting if I recovered and presumably gained some weight back. So I went to work with my pants falling down as I walked down the halls, sometimes tying the belt loops together with a hair tie or folding the excess fabric over on itself and fastening it with a paper clip.

I reached a point where that wasn’t working for me anymore. Partially, I really like buying clothes and I wanted to stress shop. And even moreso, I was feeling bad about myself because of it. The sick validation my clothes being too big was giving my ED wore off, and what was left was feeling not like myself and feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable about continuing to wear these clothes. So I thoughtfully gave myself permission to buy just a couple of new things that I held in my mind from the date of the intention to purchase as being very temporary articles of clothing that I would get rid of promptly once they no longer fit, Marie Kondo thanking them for the comfort they gave me and sending them off to someone who could wear them healthily and happily. So a pair of jeans, a pair of work pants, a couple work shirts. All stretchy, so they could last a little longer. Cute enough to feel like me but not so cute I’d be really sad to donate them when they no longer fit.

* * *

Recovery this time happened less noticably to me. I ate more, on more days, until I was eating enough every day. Until I was needing less hand holding to do it. Until basically, I could take care of myself. Like I said, I couldn’t really put a finger on when exactly I might consider myself recovered, just like I couldn’t tell you exactly when I relapsed. Just, at some point, I recognized this life as recovery, just as at some point, it was clear that I was in the midst of a relapse.

I knew that I was gaining weight, but in the beginning, I knew I was but didn’t really know. I could not gauge my body. I never have been able to in the entirety of my post-eating disorder life. So I’d say I knew I was gaining weight because I was afraid I was and I would rather act like I know it’s happening. I both craved and feared validation that I was, because although my ED did not want that to happen, my desperation to be able to know what is real was also strong. Is this weight gain I’m seeing real, or just fear.

I was eating enough for long enough that I felt like my body should be in a place of homeostasis. But I was aware that my old clothes still wouldn’t fit. But I was also aware that I had lost some weight before I had relapsed. But I also wasn’t sure exactly when I relapsed. It was maddening not knowing anything. And it was also frustrating in a practical sense. If I need new clothes after all, can I buy them? If I’m eating healthy and at a healthy weight, can I accept my body is this way, knowing it is thinner than it was in my last recovery? If I secretly like that for eating disorder reasons, does that confirm I’m not recovered yet? Must my body in recovery be a specific size? Am I actually not even correct when I think I’m thinner now? How can I really know if I’m done gaining weight when I can never accurately see myself and it’s important for me to not fixate on trying to? Maddening.

Eventually, I landed on “this is my body and I know I’m healthy, it’s time to buy clothes for it.” Still trying to buy clothes that can adapt with a naturally fluctuating body, as all bodies do but that mine was maybe especially prone to (or maybe not. Maybe my body has been the same my whole life and I’m just crazy.) Making a decision to buy the clothes would at least allow me to not have a reason to need to think about it anymore. If the worst case scenario is I need to buy more if my body changes again, at least there’s stress shopping built in!

That could be kind of the end of a story. But there’s still another story to tell that ties in.

* * *

As a result of the rapes and pregnancy scare back in high school, my menstrual cycle has been heavily tied to triggers for me. What I’ve known is that when my period is late, it’s really, really triggering to me. When that has happened, I very quickly cannot handle it and strongly consider getting a tubal ligation, and I overdose on vitamin c to try to induce my period. Every moment from when I start feeling like my period is late until my period comes feels like I’m trapped on a claustrophobically fine line between reality and flashback, feeling awful things I felt in 2011 the whole way.

In a sense, I understood what the trigger was, and I’ve made connections to what Avery did and said to me and the development of my eating disorder, beyond just the general correlation between abuse and EDs. But for the first time since comprehending and beginning to process the reality of the abuse I endured, my ED came back, my body dysmorphia amplified, and this has given me more perspective on some things.

From everything that I know now, I fully believe that Avery wanted me to think I was pregnant. I suspect he also wanted me to actually become pregnant, probably so he could feel like a fertile God and also to just revel in the amount of control he truly could inflict upon my life. But if he didn’t actually fertilize me, at least trying to convince me he had would include the fun added layer of gaslighting for him to enjoy. And that is what he did.

He repeatedly forced his bare penis inside of me, and then repeatedly brought up concerns about pregnancy. My body helped him out by withholding my period. To be fair, considering solely the unprotected intercourse and the lack of period, it would be reasonable for me and for him to have concerns he may have impregnated me.

But after three or maybe just two negative pregnancy tests, a reasonable person might be relieved of that concern. A reasonable person might then try to avoid an unwanted pregnancy (of course, a reasonable or… better? person might also avoid unwanted sexual intercourse, so it tracks.)

There’s room here to say that maybe he was just a scared and selfish kid, if you are to look at these facts independently and in the light most favorable to him. I acknowledge that.

* * *

But it doesn’t end there. He decided to try to convince me my body was visibly changing in a way that was indicative of pregnancy. When it wasn’t. I wasn’t. But he told me my boobs were bigger, he could tell. He insisted. That’s what happens when you’re pregnant. He made sure I understood. My boobs were not bigger. I was not gaining weight. I was losing weight. My eating disorder had begun. He knew this. He knew I was absolutely fixated on my body, was actively losing weight in unhealthy ways, feared I was fat, and didn’t trust my own eyes. He knew that. And he chose to take advantage of that and invent more evidence that I was pregnant. To take more of my trust from myself and give it to himself. To make me even more reliant on his opinion. To exacerbate my fear that I was gaining weight. To have an excuse to punch me in the stomach, to have an excuse to continue to rape me sans condom. To watch how much power he had over my mind. To create another great distraction from asking myself the question he never asked me, do you want to have sex?

We spoke as if we knew I was pregnant, despite having negative pregnancy tests to refute that. I knew he would not help me with the baby, because we talked about it. I knew he wanted me to get an abortion. I refused. That was my one big empowering decision in the months he was raping me, that I refused to have the abortion he wanted me to get when I wasn’t even pregnant.

Looking back, it is so hard to explain, to feel understood, to feel anything but absolutely stupid. He had me believing I was pregnant long enough that I literally feel like I experienced (the first part of) teen pregnancy. It was so real to me. I pictured my future so vividly, I felt everything as if it were happening. Because the only person I was allowed to speak to about it wanted me to believe that.

* * *

And now, over a decade later, when my period is late, I feel it all again. I feel that confusion like it’s happening now. What can I trust to tell me what’s real? So if my period is late, now, when my body dysmorphia is loud, I start to see myself getting fatter, I swear my boobs are getting bigger, and I don’t know if it’s real. I still can’t trust my own eyes. Am I gaining weight? Does it matter? What if I am bigger and it’s because I’m pregnant? Would that matter? Should I buy a pregnancy test — the thought immediately flushes whatever is left of my brain down a toilet of unwanted memories and feelings that I can’t escape.
If I was pregnant and didn’t want to be, could I get an abortion without feeling like I’m being forced to, when I’ve learned that refusing to get an abortion is my protest against someone trying to control my body? Am I stupid to think that spending thousands of dollars on a tubal ligation would make me any less likely to be triggered and panicked and able to trust that what’s real is I’m not pregnant, when over the years condoms have not been enough to prevent these meltdowns? Am I just trying to avoid triggers at all costs? When years of therapy hasn’t cured my PTSD or gotten me to stop trying to avoid triggers at all costs, should a reasonable person believe it could ever be real that Avery and/or body dysmorphia will stop making frequent unwanted visits to my head?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s