Weighed Down by Habits

by Sasha Silberman

In my high school years, deeply depressed, I self-medicated with food up to the point of morbid obesity. Full of self-loathing and snacks, I didn’t think I deserved any better. Once I improved mentally, my sole aim was to shed the weight and get thin - and I did so with a ferocity that I had never experienced before, and have never experienced since. Even once I was back on the healthy side of that bridge, having shed the excess weight, I could never shed my fixation.

For years, that has been my top goal and the driving factor behind many of my decisions. Medically, it isn’t necessary, but I’ve always wanted to be very, very slim. The grooves that have been formed in my brain regarding this subject are extremely deep. “Which activity for today will burn the most calories and thus bring me nearer to my goal?” I think to myself. “How do I plan my day around my top priority, which is exercise?” This has always felt like a prerequisite to achieving all other forms of happiness and love. An obligatory first step. Once that is achieved, good things will come. Eventually I realized that I was the only one imposing this rule on myself, but even after realizing it, I still couldn’t shake the habit.

As I write this, I am a month into a semester spent abroad in Spain, and it has occurred to me that I haven’t really thought about my weight since I got here. A quick trip to the scale indicates that I’ve actually slimmed down since arriving, proving that my hyper-fixation at home wasn’t even working! Clearly, we can’t solve all our problems by moving to another country. But evidently a shift has taken place: I’ve gotten out of my head and started existing in the world around me. A hard-reset button has been pushed and habits switched.

Why might this be? I think I am a person who is constantly craving stimulation, and if I don’t receive enough to satiate myself, my brain seeks something to fixate on and goes over it repeatedly. This brain of mine requires stimulation and tasks. It demands them. If I don’t feed this drive, my wheels spin in tedious ways.

Living in a new country, completely out of my element, surrounded by a language that is not my native tongue, navigating a new transportation system and meeting many new people every day; there is no shortage of stimulation and tasks here. It has proven to be more than enough to reduce the presence of intrusive thoughts. I have been forcefully jerked out of my own head. This forceful jerk, though challenging, seems to be the treatment I didn’t know I needed.

This experience isn’t about weight or physical health. It’s about habits and where we place our attention. I didn’t realize until I got here how rigid I had become due to this habit of fixation. Now I’m forced to ask: what other habits am I carrying around? How much of my daily life is spent habitually, in ways that aren’t helpful, and perhaps haven’t been for many years?

I never used to see a future for myself in which I didn’t possess this maddening habit, because it seemed like too trivial a problem to deal with. Furthermore, I had too much shame around it to even consider bringing it to the light in a serious way. I have had this perspective for so many years, I assumed it was just who I was, who I was always destined to be. For the first time in a long, long time, I don’t feel that way.

A logical conclusion to this piece would be a plan for how to implement this newfound knowledge to the rest of my life, but the truth is, I don’t know yet. There was nearly a three-year gap between realizing how much this thought process was weighing me down (no pun intended) and finally making progress toward changing it. Hopefully I won’t have to wait so long for the next stage, but for now I am content in the knowledge that we really aren’t doomed to our habits.

A few pieces of advice I have for my future self: if you have a habit that you’re too ashamed of to admit out loud, it’s probably worth looking at more closely. Secondly, a struggle doesn’t have to be the direst struggle in the world for you to deserve to fix it. And finally, if you’re honest with yourself and willing to do some work, it’s always possible to be better. It’s never too late to cultivate a brighter, kinder ‘you.’

Sometimes I get the feeling that we’re just a bunch of habits. The gestures we repeat over and over, they’re just our need to be recognized. Without them, we’d be unidentifiable. We have to reinvent ourselves every minute.

― Nicole Krauss

 Painting by Samantha Woj

Painting by Samantha Woj

Sasha Silberman is a Senior at VCU majoring in International Studies. She serves as the President of the Chrysalis Club at VCU and volunteers with Chrysalis in the Spiritual Paths program. She is currently spending a semester abroad in Spain.