YOU DON'T CONTROL ME ANYMORE: An Open Letter to Fear and Shame

I wake up, the alarm blaring in my ear. The clock reads 3:30am. I have a run scheduled and a full day ahead. I close my eyes, stretch and, just before I toss back the covers, I see you. You’re sitting in the chair in the corner, by the door. You’re smug for how early it is, but then I remember: you never sleep. You’re always awake, always on watch.

I can hear you thinking, your mind racing, your thoughts reaching across the darkness as loud as the screaming alarm clock, flashing brighter than the light that reads 3:30.  You’re telling me to go back to sleep. I can afford a day off.  I can take a break and roll over and close my eyes and lull off again into dreamland. I don’t have to be so rigid, keeping to my schedule, making my fitness a priority. I can slack off a little and still be human.  

Your voice is so soothing. It’s so soft and gentle, just a hum really, as I close my eyes and listen to your words. I will hit snooze once more, twice at most. I’ll get up soon and maybe I’ll run five miles instead of seven. I’ll skip the cool-down if I have to. Sleep is necessary, after all. Your words tuck me back in, pulling the covers up to my chin, and I am almost asleep again before my own inner voice shrieks: NO! GET UP! Do not hit snooze. Do not go down this road. You’ve had your sleep. Now it’s time to get to work.

My eyes flash open. I reach over and flip off the alarm. I have no time for snooze. I throw back the sheets, swing my legs over the side of the bed and sit up. I see you sitting there, your arms crossed, leaning back and sulking. I turn my head, walk to the bathroom and begin my day. You do not control me anymore.

I arrive at the coffee shop, hungry and tired from my morning run. I am glowing with satisfaction. I’ve been up and out before the sun is up, taking care of myself and moving my body so that I feel energized for the day. I stand in my running pants, tank top and new shoes, pressing my heel back for one last stretch as I consider what to order. There will be coffee, of course, but there could also be a croissant or muffin or oatmeal or smoothie.  The options are endless, but I know that my body doesn’t need sugar and empty calories. I know my body needs fuel and hydration, and as I press the other heel gently back behind me, I decide on coffee and a yogurt rather than the croissant. I feel a swell of pride creep through my chest that comes from knowing I’ve been working hard and making healthy choices.  I’m doing it. I’m letting go of the woman who thoughtlessly ordered sugary drinks and donuts, sending me into a spiral of shame and regret a few hours later. I hold my head high as I make better choices and commit to a healthier self.

I am almost to the register. I hear the espresso machine steaming milk and spitting out hot shots of dark liquid. The barista is taking orders like a drill sergeant. I’m rolling my head from side to side, stretching my neck, when I see you.

You’re in the corner, waiting. You sit quietly enough, not yet making a scene, but I can tell you want me to come over and join you. I hesitate. I always do. I can feel you pulling me to you with that familiar smile. I know you’re watching me, every inch of me, from the quiver of my chin to the flick of my wrist as I pull out my wallet and try to avoid your gaze. I feel you watching me even as I turn away, your eyes piercing the skin between my shoulders. I raise my chin and close my eyes and try to block you but it’s no use. You’re too close.

You get up, walking slowly so that I can hear you coming, one footstep at a time softly padding across the floor. You’re always so quiet when you come, like a lion stalking your prey. How many times have you crept up on me before I’ve noticed, before I’ve had a chance to turn and walk away?

I am hot now, my pulse throbbing in my neck. I won’t turn around. I won’t make eye contact or smile or listen to what you have to say. I don’t want to hear it.

You’re close now, inches from me. I can feel the heat of you beside me, like a second skin. I can feel your breath just beneath my hairline, at the base of my neck. My hands are sweaty and shaking. I am frozen in place. My legs are jelly again, and my feet are numb.

The line is moving. The barista waits. The guy behind me clears his throat. My heart thumps against the bones of my chest, beating like a flailing fish. I can hear you whispering to me, and even if I can’t make out exactly what you say, I know what you mean. I have your message memorized, tattooed on my brain.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath and, my hands still shaking, step forward. The barista tilts her head to one side, smiles and says, “What can I get you?”

It’s a split-second, not longer than the blink of an eye, and in that sliver of time, I must decide. Do I listen to you, or do I listen to me?

I choose me. “I’ll have a regular coffee and a yogurt, please.”

Just like that, in less than sixty-seconds, in less time than it takes me to tie my shoes, you’re gone. I don’t hear you leave. I don’t see you go, walking out of the coffee shop. I don’t turn my head to see if you pause at the door, waiting for me to look over my shoulder one last time. You do not control me anymore.

Forgetting about you is surprisingly easy. I go on with my day. I hustle kids to school, get on with my work and meet friends for lunch. As we eat salads and drink iced teas, we talk about our upcoming summer plans and vacations. There will be beach visits, overseas flights and long-planned journeys. I feel my excitement build as the waitress takes my salad plate and slips a dessert menu in front of me. My friends begin debating the options: crème brulee, lemon chiffon cake, chocolate death-by-something and gelato. There are a lot of votes for death-by-something. I am listening and debating when I feel you behind me. You’re one table over, alone, by the window. You sit with your cup of espresso, smirking. You look at me and then nod toward the dessert menu and raise a brow.

You’re changing tactics now. You’re telling me that I don’t deserve a treat. You’re telling me these other women are naturally thin and don’t have to work at being healthy. You’re telling me they should eat the dessert and I'm not worth it, not even a bite. You’re telling me to slink back into my chair and wave off, to smile awkwardly and say I’m not hungry and can’t eat another bite even if it’s death-by-chocolate.  

But I turn back to the table, back to my friends, and I remember that I went from morbidly obese to healthy not from extremes but from mindful eating and moderation, even a few bites of chocolate now and then.

I remind myself that I can have a bit of dessert after a lunch without binging on it, locking myself in the bathroom and polishing off a sleeve of Oreos without anyone being the wiser. I set the menu down, order another iced tea and suggest sharing this chocolate heaven between the group of us. We agree and when the plate arrives, I dig in with gusto, not even bothering to check in on whether or not you’ve finished your espresso. You do not control me anymore.  

After lunch, I hit the mall to shop for our upcoming summer adventures. I pile clothes on my arm and continue sweeping through the racks. I’ve been working hard and feeling great, and what used to be a chore (shopping) is now actually pleasant. Gone are the days of trying to hide in the biggest mu-mu possible, afraid anyone will see exactly how much weight I’ve gained over the winter. I no longer walk with my head hung low or, when I can’t even bring myself to do that, order XXL t-shirts online.

I sift through the swimsuits and choose a few to try on, excited for days spent at the beach with my kids and husband actually playing in the water instead of sitting on a towel, hot and sticky in too many clothes, finishing off the bag of Cheez-Its I promised I was only bringing "for the kids."

This is going to be fun.

When the saleswoman asks if I need a dressing room, I quickly agree and hand her my pile of options. My arm is sore from carrying it all, and I’m glad she’s offering to take the clothes and leave me to find a few more items. The store is quiet in the early afternoon, and I am feeling satisfied with my day. I’ve gotten in a run, worked hard on a few projects and spent an hour with friends over lunch. As I grab two more bathing suits and a sundress, I float toward the dressing rooms and smile as the saleswoman points me towards my room.

Inside the dressing room, I sort the clothes and start to undress.  It’s only when I’m nearly naked, even my bra hanging on a hook beside me, that I see you sitting on that tiny bench in the corner, and my heart jumps into my throat as I follow your gaze.

You sit quietly, silent actually, but your eyes say it all. You take me in, one inch at a time, from the tip of my head where my hair is still pulled into a post-run bun, to my feet, my pedicure just starting to chip.

Damn. Why can’t I get to the salon on time? Why didn’t I bother to fix my hair before meeting friends for lunch?

Before I can answer, I see your eyes stop and hover at my belly. I instinctively cover my mid-section with one arm, shrinking into myself. I am a well-fed mother of four. What was I thinking with all these bathing suits? There’s no way these boobs will fit into a normal sized piece of cloth.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve lost over one hundred pounds and been killing it with weights. I’m still bigger than most women and certainly bigger than the flimsy pieces of material still dangling from the hangers. I am not bathing suit material and never will be.

I don’t have to see your gaze anymore to know the rest. I can look at my own body and see the flaws. I can see the sagging skin and cellulite that no amount of exercise seems to get rid of. I can see the stretch marks still clawing across my belly and thighs.

Before long, I can see those lost pounds creep right back on to my 5’4 frame. I am no longer the Melissa who lost one hundred pounds, runs half-marathons and suffers through one-hour oblique workouts. Nope. I’m the Melissa who is so overweight I can barely make it up a flight of stairs without stopping for a Mountain Dew swig, grasping the stair rail and telling myself I’ll probably die young of a heart attack or stroke.  

My hips begin swell in the mirror. My arms start to dangle with extra fat. My belly grows so big I can’t believe I thought I could shop at a store for regular-sized women. What was I thinking? Who did I think I was?

Then, just as I’m about to slip back into my bra, I see the bathing suit I snagged when I first walked in.  It’s black, a little slinky, with a built-in bra. It’s cut in a way that makes it sexy without being too obvious. It’s perfect.

I can hear you finishing my sentence: the bathing suit is perfect for a woman with a perfect body.

But before you finish, I put my hand up to silence you, close my eyes, and tune you out.

I grab the suit before I can talk myself out of it. I slip it on. It’s not even a struggle. I’m not hunched over trying to get it past my hips. I don’t have to tug at it in all the wrong places. I don’t even have to adjust the bra.

It fits.

I feel my breath catch in my throat as I look at myself in the mirror, expecting to be horrified and instead feeling satisfied at what I see.

Damn.  Seriously. I can do this. I can wear this! I don’t look like a swimsuit model, hair blowing in the wind, but I look good. I look healthy. I look fit.

I don't look like a woman who is struggling to make it up the stairs, clutching her Mountain Dew tumbler.

I feel you sitting there still, and I think you’ve taken up enough space already. I don’t have space in this tiny room for you. I grab my purse and toss it on the bench, and you scurry off, head down and shoulders slumped, petulant like a child. You do not control me anymore..

As I crawl into bed that night, I lie flat against the pillow and instinctively put my hand over my stomach. How many years did I refuse to do this, to even feel my body beneath the weight of my own hand? How many years did I pull the covers higher and try to block you out, even if only to get some sleep. Sleep was the only time I didn’t hear you, didn’t see you sitting in some corner, waiting, watching, silently mocking me.  

I’ve lived with you my whole life. I’ve listened to you tell me I wasn’t thin enough, smart enough, motivated enough, or good enough. I’ve let you creep into every decision I’ve made, from what I ate for dinner to which job I’d apply for to what kind of mother I thought I could be.

Sometimes I was able to talk over you, to remind myself I had value, to see my own worth. But more often than not, I listened to you when you said I didn’t deserve better, couldn’t work harder and wouldn’t ever make lasting changes.

I’ve let you control so many of my choices. I let you move into my house, help me parent my children, go on vacation with my family and even sleep beside me at night, taking up more space in my life than I had to offer.

But now, every time I choose to listen to myself and my own voice, I silence you once more and remind you that you have no place in my life. I have no doubt I’ll see you again. You like to lurk, as most cowards do. But now I see you for what you are: a façade. I see your name tattooed on your forehead, and the lettering is clear: FEAR. SHAME.

I see now, as I step back, that you’re not a friend, a loving confidant who will help me be my best self. You’re an illusion. 

I close my eyes and think of the summer ahead. I think of the time I’ll spend with my family, at the beach and everywhere else. Instead of thinking about the size of my thighs or the belly I worry will hang slightly from slack, I think of something better.  

I think of the workout I have planned for tomorrow morning, the coffee date I’ve got penciled into my calendar with a friend and the endless possibilities of the life before me. You do not control me anymore..