“Chill Out” Can Be Pretty Terrible Advice

This weekend I pulled out a ruler, a tape measure, and graph paper. After an hour or so, I had a list of the furniture we were transporting to Arkansas, the dimensions of each piece, and a scale model of the U-Haul shipping container I rented. As I sketched a layout to determine the most efficient way of situating the mass of antique furniture we accumulated, I felt mollified.

Rigorous planning and scheduling have always managed to soothe my frayed nerves. It began when I was in elementary school, when I lost a homework assignment and thought the world was ending. I started organizing my backpack and folders and felt as if I was exercising unilateral control over my life (which, at 8-9 years old is rarely the case). As I got older, my need for order grew. When I first developed an eating disorder in high school, I found it to be just a soothing as an alphabetized, tabbed folio. In the same way I could rely on finding notes from March 3rd, I could rely of purging my body of food and emotions. As the disordered eating morphed to restricting, I found a new schedule I had to follow. If I deviated from it minutely, I would spiral into a melancholy state and feel like an utter failure. My schedule had become my ruler and, at this point, was a trait I was engaging with negatively.

When I entered a therapy program a couple years later, I was given a new perspective and way to engage with my adherence to schedules. Instead of using the schedule as a measure of failure, I needed to reframe my perspective to see it as one of many ways to feel good about myself. When working with the program’s nutritionist, I was given ways to remodel my daily plan. I needed to eat more, but not focus on the numbers of calories. Instead, I used a diabetic exchange program where I would make sure to incorporate certain “counts” of carbs, fats, and proteins into certain meals. Now the part of me that wanted to maintain unilateral control over my food intake balked, but the nutritionist explained that I could keep my schedule to ensure I ate, but I needed to associate positive emotions to both my relationships with food and relationship to scheduling.

It wasn’t a quick process and it wasn’t an easy or straightforward one. As time would approach for me to eat, I would start to get agitated if I thought I would miss a meal. I wanted to get better and I initially thought if I missed a meal or a snack, I was letting myself down.

At the same time I was becoming frantic about a protein bar, others around me were telling me to lighten up. I didn’t know how to explain to people the fear that gripped me or why my schedule was so important. So as people told me to “chill out” and “loosen up”, I found myself torn between two narratives: I was being told to get better and work hard at recovery through my schedule and to also abandon my schedule and just relax. As a woman, I should be used to these double standards, but at this point I still tried to satisfy both demands. After coming back from an international vacation where, despite everyone else gaining weight, I lost significant amounts, I realized I couldn’t “chill”. My schedule was what I needed at the moment while I worked to better my relationship with food. By finally abandoning the desire to satisfy external factors, I was able to “chill out” to my standard and instead of focusing on others, I focused on myself.

Finding the middle ground was not only something I had to do independently, but I had to determine what that middle ground looked like. Just because someone else says, “Well, I would behave in this manner,” does not meant that is the best or healthiest course of action for yourself. Today, I still pull out my ruler to mark of grids for moving. I still schedule out dinner for the week and craft a solid budget. Some people find it too intense, but the progress I have made in moderating my scheduling is immense to me.

Recently, I have picked up analog and digital photography as a hobby. I will forever (comfortably) remain an amateur, but through my lens I can slow down and see more of the world around me. I can go for unscheduled walks that have no destination, no time frame, no parameters. In those moments, I am at peace.

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