“If you know what a Q-tip is, I am challenging you to come register your bone marrow on Sunday. If you are out-of-town, or out-of-state, your elbow is not off the hook. Order a swab kit! (Q-tips will be provided, free of charge!)”
Those words scrolled across my newsfeed, along with a hilarious picture of Sarah, the woman who married my husband and me. Her good friend had recently been diagnosed with a form of blood cancer, and Sarah, ever the social-justice activist, was heading up a campaign for 500 people to get tested as bone marrow donors.
Always game for something that helps people, I visited the website. I read about the chances that I would actually have to donate, what would happen if I were to be selected as a donor, and filled out the requisite form to have a testing kit sent to me.
And I got this error message:
“What?” I wondered aloud. My sweet husband, scrolling away on his iPad across the couch looked up at me quizzically.
“Apparently I’m too fat to register to be a bone marrow donor.” I mused, perplexed.
“Huh?” He asked, scooting his adorable black-rimmed glasses up his nose.
See, according to the “general good health” guidelines, a BMI north of 40 is an automatic disqualification. If we follow logic here, the implication is certainly that I’m not in general good health. And that is grossly untrue.
I am a 30-year-old nonsmoker. My blood pressure has never been high, ever. My blood work is always textbook beautiful. I alternate between Crossfit, Bikram Yoga, and riding my road bike for miles. The only chronic illness that I’ve dealt with in my life? EDNOS. Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. That awesome acronym indicates that unless I’m taking active steps towards my mental wellness I swing the pendulum from restrictive eating to compulsive overeating.
So, technically, my BMI isn’t what makes me unhealthy. It’s merely a symptom of my unhealthiness. And the indications and assumptions made based solely on one symptom are terrifying, and more far-reaching than I could have every anticipated when I started down the road to my adult life.
It was simple enough. I was a theatre kid. A Mezzo Soprano who was always “adorable and funny,” and therefore perceived by the keen eye of casting directors as a hilarious best friend, a sidekick. I got the laughs, but I never got the man, and as life mimics art, I reached for ways to discover how I could embrace my ingenue. Finding no way to escape who I was as a person, self-loathing led to anxiety, led to finding ways to manipulate my body through the seemingly benign activity that most people do every single day.
During my pregnancy, I was blessed to have an OB who didn’t focus on my weight as much as he focused on my health. As long as my numbers looked good, and the baby looked good, he was cool. Through making other pregnant friends, I learned that not all doctors were as compassionate and big picture as mine. So many women loathed their weekly weigh-ins, going on very restrictive diets and incorporating hours of activity into each day, turning their life-bearing bodies into an object of contempt.
My pregnancy was the first time that I could relax into my eating habits, the concern for nourishing and sustaining the little boy inside of me finally providing something that outweighed (no pun intended) my self-loathing search for control.
By far the most difficult experience of my life was finally seeking treatment for my disordered eating. Having the appropriate conversations with my husband, a trusted friend, and my mother, I finally felt confident that I was going to get the help that I needed, as terrifying as it might be to ask. I saw a psychiatrist, who was wonderful, and who recommended an eating disorder psychologist.
My first appointment with the psychologist, I nervously sat in the wooden chair that was much too small for my lumbering weight. She looked over my intake paperwork, and skeptically asked me about my “so-called restrictive habits.” She then recommended that I practice “intuitive eating.” She told me that I was the only one in control of my eating habits. Why would I purchase and eat an entire bag of Easter candy when it was on sale? That was setting myself up to binge. I should simply have one Reese’s Cup. Perhaps Weight Watchers would give some helpful guidelines.
It was one of the most hurtful experiences I’ve ever endured. I was already fully convinced that the days I spent in a state of deep content with every grumble and ache of my belly were penance for the uncontrollable sessions with candy bars and bags of chips I held like a vigil in my car. My thick thighs and olive skin scarred with white stretch marks were my hair shirt, and I deserved every pop of hunger that rattled my concentration and made me chew the insides of my mouth until they bled.
While I would usually lock myself in a room with gas station fare, or lock myself inside a starving body, I decided to go back to the wonderful psychiatrist. I found another counselor, who “got” me, and together, we began to unwrap the baggage behind the compulsions to control my relationship with food.
Therapy helped. The infinite love and support of my family empowered me to feel safe as I ventured into the terrifying gulfs that I’d tried to fill with food. But, the work isn’t over. It never will be. Every day I negotiate a still precarious relationship with my plate, but through time, and a lot of hard work, my perception has shifted. Instead of seeking validation, I’ve learned to practice self-forgiveness. Instead of seeking a remedy, my only goal is peace.
So, life goes on for me, until I’m slapped with a error message. I’m reminded that regardless of the years of work I’ve put into myself, I’m not healthy, that I’m not normal. That I can’t give endlessly because I’ve betrayed my body too many times for it to trust me and stabilize, even though I’ve been in recovery for two years. And it’s tempting to fall back into the old patterns, but I won’t slip today. Because even if I can’t register to potentially save someone else’s life, at least I can focus on saving my own.
If you’re interested in potentially becoming a bone marrow donor, I highly recommend checking out deletebloodcancer.org. The rules are the same, but when I tried to register there, they didn’t give me the same rude error message. It is a highly worthy cause, and I hope that Sarah’s friend is able to find his match and keep rocking on this plane for a long time.