Cozied up in bed on a chilly Wednesday morning, I searched the on-demand TV menu for the previous night’s episode of This Is Us. I hustled to find the show because I was in desperate need of an emotional purge and the Pearsons, to my utter dismay, are skilled at tearing my heart right up.
In my haste, my fingers moved too quickly on the remote and some blue analog control box popped up on the screen, blocking most of my view of the on-demand menu.
At first, I tried navigating around the box, moving through the corners of the screen where my view wasn’t obstructed. Then I tried to guess what the menu read behind the box, as though, if I tried hard enough, I could see through it. I convinced myself I had magic sight, and also that by the time I was ready to hit play, the analog box would suddenly disappear.
But I couldn’t see through it, and I couldn’t move around it, and it didn’t disappear. It was just there, staring at me, mocking me, testing my patience. I was getting frustrated. I noticed the urge to complain. I almost shut off the TV and went back to sleep.
And then some voice in my head started to laugh. Why are you getting so frustrated? it asked me. Why are you working so hard to move around this thing when you have the power to make it go away entirely?
I was literally holding in my hand everything I needed to manage the situation: the remote.
With the click of just 2 buttons, I could make the obstacle, and my ensuing frustration, disappear. Why did it take me so long to realize this? Why did I prefer the silly struggle and the anger it permitted me over the opportunity to advocate for myself? Especially when it was so ridiculously easy?
As in all situations, I found meaning in this little thing. My instincts were revealing to me because they were not isolated instincts. In the face of many of life’s struggles, my first act is to stand down; convince myself I’m powerless, that something has just happened to me, that I have to adjust to this hindrance instead of taking action to fix it.
Control and Food
My life is an ongoing quest for control, which is a common theme for those with disordered eating patterns. My nightly relationship with food directly correlates to how much control I was able maintain over each minute of my day. Anxious energy depletes me on the regular as I maintain a speed of 10 steps ahead; planning, convincing others to follow my plan, considering all possible outcomes of said plan and planning for those; avoiding certain people, places, and situations that would make me feel too exposed, too vulnerable, too honest, too in-the-moment; in a constant state of anticipation so I can see the world coming before it arrives.
If I struggle to hold any control at all throughout the day, I’ll restrict. Through restrictive eating, I can over-control my intake and make up for my other delinquencies. If I was able to hold control most of the day, I’ll binge as some kind of reprieve. Through binge eating, I’m free to surrender this tiring need for control to my god of food. Bingeing also helps “fill up” a depleted self.
In case my need for control as it reflects in my food intake didn’t already indicate this, there’s something a little distorted about it. Having control, even in the absolute least survivalist moments, is something that typically feels like a matter of life or death to me. And yet there I was, with a literal remote control in my hand, refusing to do anything about it.
Holding an opportunity to make happen what I wanted, I chose instead to ride a wave of magical thinking and avoidant hope, like maybe I could find a way to see through a solid box on a screen or that maybe it will just know when to go away without me having to get involved.
Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom
Of course control comes in many varieties. Here, it seems, I’m comparing two types. One is anxiety-ridden; a compulsive, fear-based need to know what happens later so as to prepare for it now. The other is having a sense of self-agency and putting forth an effort to influence the unknown instead of falling apart in front of it, helpless and angry.
Control of the outside world versus control of oneself; an idea that makes me think of the serenity prayer commonly used in 12-step meetings:
God, grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
The wisdom to know the difference has always been the key line for me and perhaps that’s because you can’t do the first two parts if you’re foggy about the last.
Sure most obstacles are not so easily removed with the click of two remote control buttons, but this is not about ease. The absurdity of my inability to see the simplest resolution is just what led me to a deeper place about coming to terms with my own power and agency, abandoning feelings of victimhood and taking small action for big change where possible. And for some of us, that starts with accepting the things we cannot change so that we have room to change the things we can.