Listening to my heart.


At the height of my illness (and the lowest weight), I would lie awake at night, watching the clock tick the minutes out. I would plant one hand on my chest and count the beats. Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty. And wonder where it would end up. The number got progressively smaller. If I had a spry day, I lingered in the forties. On a bad day, the thirties. It seemed monumental at the time. And still does, but for different reasons.

The cliched phrase “listen to your heart” has a different meaning for me. I wonder if I’m the only person like this. I was never really aware of my heart at all times until I first got sick. Then I became hyper-aware of the movement of my heart. The beats it made, the beats it failed. This hyper-awareness continues with me to this day, even though on most days, I sit in the mid-fifties and the skipped beats have drastically reduced since someone went in and fixed me.

It’s an odd mind frame to be in, to be constantly aware of what your heart is doing. I lived for years and years with the ever-present specter of my heart stopping. Palpitations are frightening. You feel your heart falter and you close your eyes and wait for it to beat again. It may only be a second, but you wait, and you wonder what you will do if the next beat never comes.

I was hiking once during a brief month or two when the eating disorder had relaxed its grip on me. I got to the summit of the hill, my goal, after several hours of effort. As I looked down, I felt that old familiar friend tapping me on the breast bone. Beat, skip, skip, skip, beat-beat, skip, beat, skip skip. I sat down and waited for it to pass. It did not. I looked out over the tree tops and waited for each beat, trying not to hold my breath. I imagined the authorities finding my dead body slumped over on the rock I sat on.

So when people say that eating disorders are about being thin, about being perfect, about cultural standards of beauty, I can’t help but reflect on that experience and pause to feel my slow but finally steady heart. That was the specter that haunted me that day hiking, not that I wanted to be beautiful and thin, but that with each beat my heart failed to make, I felt that I deserved it.

The manifestation of such intense self-hatred and shame is channeled by cultural standards and messages to women about their bodies. But putting “healthy” weight women on magazine covers and runways isn’t going to stop another young girl from counting her ever-slowing heart rate as  sign of progress. Valuing women and their bodies is what is going to do that.

Overly simplistic, yes. I do not pretend to know how to fix this problem. But I have an idea where to start.

When I draw the line between my eating disorder and my entrance into sex work, I connect the worthlessness I felt about my own body and self to the cultural messages about the bodies of sex workers. That was what drew me in as an activist. I see a parallel between the many women in this country who view their bodies as targets of their self-hatred and the broader culture that dismisses the murder and violence visited upon sex workers a mere job hazard.

Now, when I listen to my heart, I feel an even, strong despite being a tad slow, pulse. My body is not disposable, not to me, not to a society that frowns upon my line of work.


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