The View From Here
By Carmen Cool, MA, LPC
When my dad died in the winter of 1997, I got a small amount of money. It felt important to me to use the money wisely, in a way that would make him proud. There were the things that would have been considered responsible, mostly using it towards grad school. But as I deliberated, the words of a teacher came drifting back to me: “your dreams are not a luxury.” For the first time in my life, I had both time and money and I didn’t know when those two things would ever come together again. I decided to travel.
I asked myself the question – where in this whole wide world do I want to go?
And the answer came back right away: Nepal.
So Nepal it was. I began doing research on-line and found a Nepali man living near me. I took him to dinner and he helped me map out my trip, including making arrangements for me to stay with an old friend of his living in Kathmandu. From there, I would trek in the Khumbu region, in northeastern Nepal. I knew exactly what I wanted – to reach the top of Kala Patar, an 18,192 foot Himalayan mountain peak. I read that the view from the summit of that peak would give me a spectacular view of Mt. Everest.
I set off for the airport, ready to Experience Beauty. I was ready for a Transformative Experience.
When I was 11 years old, I began trying to change my body. I remember my mother making our standard diet lunch on the weekends: a piece of low-calorie bread with a slice of cheese and some seasoning salt placed under the broiler until the cheese was bubbly. She’d pack my school lunch during the week with a diet sandwich on dry bread, the inside orange and filled with mushrooms, and a can of Tab. I hate mushrooms. It was the familiar legacy during that time that was passed down – it was the era of Jane Fonda telling us to “feel the burn,” Slim Fast shakes, grapefruits, and Dexatrim.
I remember wanting my body to be smaller which felt in direct opposition to how much I wanted to eat. There were always boxes of Esther Price chocolates in the freezer. My favorite candy was the one with an opera cream center, a pecan sitting regally on top. Every day after school I would sneak into the freezer and take just one, thinking no one would notice. But then I’d do the same thing the next day and look really confused when my mom wondered where they had all gone. In high school, we sold chocolate bars as a way to raise money for camp, but I ate more than I sold. When I babysat, the first thing I did after the parents left was go into their cupboards looking for food.
I went back and forth between dieting and overeating through high school and into college. Food was what I went to when I felt angry, when I felt lonely, when I needed to numb out, when I needed to feel grounded, when I needed to be mindless and escape my thoughts, or when I needed comfort and company.
At Ohio State, I lived in an apartment above Buckeye Donuts so grabbing a dozen to take upstairs was common. I worked my way up and down High Street, stopping into every restaurant along the way. I never felt the feeling of hunger. I organized my experience so I didn’t have to.
I was out of control with food, miserable, and I knew I needed help. So I went to the counseling center and rode the elevator up to the 4th floor. I watched the doors open in front of me, then watched them close in front of me, and I rode the elevator right back down. I just couldn’t do it. I felt too ashamed to let another person in to my behaviors around food.
There was no escaping the message that I needed to lose weight – it was all around me. Doctors, family members, commercials – I crashed into the message everywhere I looked. I had been worrying about and thinking about my weight for years. And it continued to go up. I didn’t want to live my life being unhappy with my body, so I decided to go on a diet. This, I believed, was exactly what I was supposed to do. I knew exactly what I wanted – to lose XX pounds. I heard that life from that place would be spectacular. I was ready to Experience Beauty. I was ready for a Transformative Experience.
When I arrived at the Raleigh-Durham airport for my trip to Nepal my stomach was flipping and my mind was racing. I was going to a country on the other side of the planet and I was ready to stand on the summit of Kala Patar and look up at Everest, at the Top Of The World.
After three flights and long layovers, I arrived in Los Angeles. On the flight from LA, I met people from everywhere, each one representing a whole other world. I met two women going to Nepal to train teachers there, a woman going to teach English in Thailand, and a man going to Nepal to plant trees. Suddenly, my reasons for going felt hollow and self-serving. What could I give? Was it arrogant to walk off into the Himalayas, climb a mountain, change my whole perspective, and then leave? Or was it enough to become a slightly more conscious human being? I was beginning to become aware of my privilege.
Twelve hours into my journey, I woke up in my cramped window seat and opened my eyes to see the sun starting to rise over the South China Sea. It was a line of orange and pink that began in the window of the row behind me, even though the sky was still dark in the window in front of me. It was as though my line of vision was continually even with the rising of the sun – it was beautiful.
When I finally arrived at the Kathmandu airport, my body had no idea what time zone it was in and I was exhausted. My feet were swollen and I didn’t want to get on another airplane for a very long time, maybe forever.
Clearing customs and heading out of the airport, I was met with a wall of people, a mass of men in tattered clothes insisting that they carry my bags or take me to a taxi. I hadn’t expected the onslaught of words and hands all coming towards me, trying to get me to follow them. It was utterly claustrophobic.
I was scared that I would end up going somewhere I didn’t want to go, and then I saw a man with a thick moustache holding a sign with my name on it. Diwakar spoke English and had a gentle laugh and I felt safe as he took my bags and led me through the maze of people. (Safe, that is, until we took to the streets of Kathmandu in a taxi, where the rules of traffic I was used to no longer applied.) The city of Kathmandu was polluted with both air and noise. In fact, Kathmandu is the most polluted city in all of Asia. A cloud of haze hovered above it, the air full of smoke so heavy that it was hard to breathe. Horns honked non-stop. There were buses, bikes, and people. Everyone was swerving across the road, yelling. Unfamiliar smells were everywhere: smoky incense, toxic exhaust, cigarette smoke, and fragrant cumin-turmeric-coriander spice blends. There were large stupas (Buddhist temples) full of monkeys as well as people in poses of deep devotion. There were dirty and underfed dogs and cows roaming the streets.
Six days later, I set off on my trek. I flew into the tiny village of Lukla in a small helicopter. Lukla’s airport is the world’s scariest and most dangerous, planes land on a short runway built into the steep incline of a mountain at 9,000 feet. It is also the place where most people begin their treks to Everest Base Camp. Over 7,646 people have reached the summit of Mount Everest, and over 282 have died trying to get there. And even though I wasn’t there to climb Everest, I was excited to start my trek.
The first day was a 2-hour hike to Phadking. It was my first night in a lodge, my first swinging bridge, and my first (but not last) moment of asking what the hell am I doing here? That first day I got a cold, a blister, my period, and I sprained my ankle. Oh yeah, and I got a sunburn on my face. While it snowed.
I loved the yaks. Their fur was dense and long, and some had different bells on so when they walked together it sounded like chimes. And I loved the people, too. The teahouse in which I stayed that first night was full of people huddling around the small wood-burning stove in the center of the room, eating dhal baat and momos. I had never been at this elevation before! I was used to living at 778 feet, and now I was at 9,000. I felt like I was on the Top Of The World.
As I started my weight-loss expedition, I was full of the promise that every diet brings and a renewed sense of hope and determination. Just making the decision to start brought a sense of relief.
I didn’t know yet that millions of people go on a diet each year, including kids starting as young as age five. I didn’t know that of those millions of people, hundred of thousands of them die every year from complications related to an eating disorder. I held the certainty that everything about my life would improve from the vantage point of being a smaller size. So, I ate “healthier,” using my long list of foods I needed to avoid in order to do this right. I began exercising, jogging around campus, going to aerobics classes at the Rec Center, and keeping a log of my progress. From the outside, it looked like I was doing all the right things. I restricted myself to typical low-calorie foods and tons of Diet Coke. For someone deemed “overweight,” these are the behaviors that are recommended, the actions that get you acknowledged and supported by others. One of my music professors saw me in the lobby of Weigel Hall eating only a Dannon yogurt for lunch one day, and said “Good for you, Carmen!” I felt like I was on Top Of The World. I felt like I was taking care of myself and that I was on the right path. I knew, if I put one foot in front of the other, counting calories, and doing aerobic activity every day, that I would make my destination.
On the second day of my trek, I left the village of Phadking at [7:15] the next morning and began the hike up to the village of Namche Bazaar. I felt so happy being outside in the Himalayas. The mountains were bigger than any mountain I had ever seen. The jagged peaks, draped in snow, rose up like grey teeth to meet the impossibly blue sky.
Depending on the hour, sometimes the tips of the mountains were hidden in clouds and mist and sometimes the clarity of the granite and snow were dazzling. I looked around me with wide eyes and tried to soak it in – to consume it all, to bring it all inside of me. But there were loose rocks always underfoot. As much as I wanted to stare at the mountains, I knew I needed to watch where my feet were going.
Reaching the village of Namche Bazaar at 11,286 feet was heroic and grueling. What took most people 5 hours took me 8. Then, the altitude finally hit me and I had a constant throbbing headache. I spent the next day acclimating. In the afternoon the clouds lifted to reveal what I came to see. There were small stupas everywhere, surrounded by prayer flags and Buddha Eyes facing the four directions. Seeing Ama Dablam, one of the most beautiful mountain peaks in the world sitting above me at 22,493 feet, was humbling and exquisite. All I could say was “Oh my god” over and over, partly because of the breathtaking beauty that surrounded me and partly because each step was a negotiation with my unwilling hamstrings.
Every day, I saw the same people on the trail, usually as they blew past me as if they had internal combustion propellers and I had flippers. I wanted to be mad at them, but they all offered me smiles and encouragement and thumbs up, “Hey, you made it! Good for you!” Most of the people trekking were athletes and seasoned travelers, from Swaziland, Denmark, Germany, and Italy. I wasn’t an athlete, but I was there. Mentally, I gave myself a high five.
I climbed for 8 hours a day on steep narrow paths set onto the side of a mountain, winding around, heading up. I always had to concentrate, struggling in the thin air trying to remember to stay on the mountainside of the path whenever a yak passed by. I had no choice but to take the swinging bridges on faith – especially the wooden ones that creaked when I stepped on them and had big rocks to cover up the holes. The only way I could cross was to hold my guide’s hand, close my eyes, and utter a string of profanities in English. The yaks, on the other hand, crossed by running as fast as they could. I admired their strategy.
Crows spoke to each other and swooped past my head. I heard the sound of an avalanche in the distance. At night I tossed and turned, the altitude was so high that just the motion of turning over in bed made my pulse race. During the day my headache and dizziness got worse every time I looked up at those magnificent, impossible peaks. It was also getting cold. My power bars were frozen solid and I couldn’t find real nourishment anywhere.
After settling into the village of Dingboche, I decided to hike three hours to Chukhung, at 15,518 feet, to see the glacier. There were perfect meadows with baby yaks. But my headache was worsening, and the dizziness was constant. It took all my focus, all my energy to simply put one foot down in front of the other. The cold and wind bit through every layer of my clothing and though the trail was almost level, I knew I was near exhaustion. I simply couldn’t imagine how I would climb another 2,000 feet. I knew I had altitude sickness and that it would likely get worse. I was so miserable I even started to hate the yaks. The voice of reason inside my head was telling me when it stops being fun, when I start to hate the mountain just for being there; it is time to turn around. I mean, when you start to hate yaks and hate hearing people say “Namaste,” you know there’s a problem. I could almost imagine hearing myself say the simple words out loud; “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
But, I had come all this way, climbed all these steps, just to see the view from the summit. I still wanted to reach it; I wanted to be able to say, “I made it!” As both of these desires played out in my mind, I thought suddenly of Angeles Arrien’s words, “Pay attention to what has heart and meaning.” Reaching the top of Kala Patar would be an accomplishment, but I knew in that moment this was not what truly had heart and meaning for me. What had heart and meaning were the things I had already seen: connecting with the Tibetan baby who reached out her arms for me to pick her up; catching the eye of a monk yawning during a chanting prayer and both of us laughing out loud; seeing the Himalayas, ghostlike and otherworldly, lit up under a full moon. I smiled and felt an unexpected sense of peace come over me, and said out loud. “No more.” I would care for myself and honor my body. Was I giving up? Could I have made it to the top? Maybe. But I knew then that I was no longer willing to do what it took, because I didn’t like who I was becoming in the process.
I made the decision to turn around.
It wasn’t easy. To say “enough” has never come easily for me. But as soon as I began down the mountain I felt joy again and I could say “Namaste” to those I passed with a smile on my face. I walked slowly, paying attention to each deepening breath, to each step, and to the extraordinary beauty of what was all around me. I smelled a wood-burning stove and the clean scent of my own sweat. The path was lined with rhododendrons waiting to bloom and I found myself wondering what they would look like bursting with pink and white. Then I remembered to see them and appreciate them as they were now.
By the time I came back to college after summer break, my weight had changed. People noticed. I heard the familiar, “You look great! Have you lost weight?” and “Good for you!” My friends were proud of me. Mentally I gave myself a high five. But the more weight I lost, the more I wanted to keep losing and the less free I felt. I got desperate because I still had more to lose to reach my goal. The slide into bulimia wasn’t planned, but it was easy. The details aren’t important to name, or even useful. But what was important is the way my life got smaller. Food and my weight were all I could think about – they occupied every thought, every breath. I occasionally felt dizzy and I wouldn’t go out with friends just so I wouldn’t be around food. I spent hours in gyms. I ran home between classes to jump onto the scale to see if it moved. Even one number lower on that scale had the power to determine my state of mind that day. But, I also spent some nights sitting up alone in bed with a can of icing and a box of graham crackers, promising myself that this was it, the last time – but of course it wasn’t.
I knew I could not keep living my life like this. My therapist referred me to an intensive treatment program for my eating problems. I withdrew from school for the remainder of the semester. There were so many things I wanted to do in the world, and reaching a certain size was no longer one of them.
When I arrived at the treatment center, I realized that I always believed I needed to be thin to be successful, beautiful, and powerful. But my therapist there was not thin. And she was successful, beautiful, and powerful. When she asked me if I had something I needed to say, the tears welled up and I stumbled over my words. I was full of grief and anger over all that my body-hatred had already cost me and for all the time I had wasted.
I was angry with the people who’d say “Carmen, you look great, what are you doing?” Because I always wanted to say, “Well, what I’m doing is throwing all of my dreams away.” For years I had given that dangerous journey 100% of my energy and I was enraged when I thought of what I could have accomplished if I had directed that same amount of energy into my LIFE instead of into what I did or didn’t eat. I was angry at a world that told me I was not allowed to be hungry, and angry because I was not supposed to be powerful. All I knew was that I wanted me back again.
I said “no more”. Was I giving up? Could I have made it to my goal? Maybe. But I knew then that I was no longer willing to do what it took, because I didn’t like who I was becoming in the process.
I made the decision to turn around.
It’s been 28 years since that decision and what has heart and meaning for me now is never about numbers – not reaching a number on the scale, not getting into a certain size, and not standing at a certain elevation to see the beauty in the world. What matters to me now are the daily decisions I make that lead me towards living in partnership with my body. What has heart and meaning is the freedom that allows me to enjoy both the crunchy, sweet sugar snap peas from the Farmer’s Market and the creamy pumpkin cheesecake, enjoying each in its season (or whenever I feel like it). I have learned how to recognize and pay attention to the signals my body gives me: the gurgles in my belly that tell me I’m hungry; the rush of blood to my face that tells me I’m angry; the way my body both longs for and contracts around change; and the stirring deep in my cells that urges me towards what’s true. What has heart and meaning are the relationships I have, the ones I’m growing, and the body of work I’m creating. What has heart and meaning is orienting my work towards justice.
These days when my ambition begins chasing after a goal, I try to slow down enough to pay attention to what has heart and meaning and to move in the direction of more freedom. It’s not always easy. It’s a false sense of agency – this idea that if we engage our will, we can achieve our goal. When I was in Nepal, I was small and the world was big. I learned I have to be in my body in order to be fully in the world. When I was trying to get thinner, I couldn’t make myself small enough. In trying to get into the “right” body, I stopped paying attention to the one I had. The one I have now is 52 years old, with hair that is graying and hands that show age spots. I love that. I don’t want to overlook my unique constellation of needs, desires, traits – I want to be asking the question of “what is my relationship to these traits, and do they have room to breathe?”
I also know that any changes that I make in my life need to come from self-love, not from shame or a sense of not-enoughness. Diet culture is full of rigidity, superiority, deprivation, I can’t, shouldn’t, guilt, shame, I’ll be healthier/happier when, and trauma. It’s also supports and is supported by patriarchy and systems of oppression. Dieting engaged me in the project of attempting to deny my genetic inheritance. Dieting taught me my body couldn’t be trusted. I want to live inside my body because it is my home. And it is amazingly trustworthy.
I still wonder what Mt. Everest looks like from the top of Kala Patar. I thought the view from there would be worth all it took to get there. But is the top of the mountain the only part worth seeing? If the summit is the only place worthy, then we lose all the days getting there and getting back. We compress our lives into that single second, that one view. And people die trying to reach the summit. Oxygen is sustaining. Lack of oxygen is the same if you are trying to breathe at 16,000 thousand feet as when you are starving yourself.
What if we redefine summit – what if we decide that the best view, the only one that truly matters, is the view from here, from every day. David Wagoner says, “Wherever you are is called here.” We are not more worthy there than we are here. In focusing only on a goal, we can miss the present moment – the side of the mountain we are on. Giving up on weight loss as the path and refocusing your attention on your real life is very challenging. The path of pursuing weight loss is clearly marked and culturally supported. But the other path – the path of intuition, of trusting your own experience, of coming back home to yourself over and over again and learning to fully inhabit your body – that path holds healing. That is a trek worth taking.
Meet yourself where you are, and let’s begin.
I’m telling you, the view from here is stunning.
In this high place
it is as simple as this,
leave everything you know behind.
there, in the cold light
reflecting pure snow,
the true shape of your own face.
~ David Whyte
About the author:
Carmen Cool, MA, LPC
Carmen is a psychotherapist, educator, speaker, and a cupcake connoisseur. She has been a therapist for 17 years and works primarily with binge eating disorder. She has also started and run a nonprofit, created youth programs, and speaks internationally on Health At Every Size ®, feminism and eating disorders, and weight stigma.
Her work is focused on dismantling diet culture, being our body’s advocate, and supporting the next generation of body positive leaders. She believes that psychotherapists need to start addressing their roles, as healers, in contributing to larger social healing and is increasingly passionate about bringing together activism and therapy. She is the past Board President of the Association for Size Diversity and Health, was named “Most Inspiring Individual” in Boulder, Colorado and was the recipient of the Excellence in Eating Disorder Advocacy Award in Washington, DC.