Things I learned from my eating disorder
Almost three years have passed since I began to recover from anorexia nervosa. In July 2020, my 65th birthday was coming up and I could not remember a time without eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.
Eating disorders are devious and sneaky; mine defied discovery for decades. Now I know better, and I’m sharing my hard-won lessons with you.
I never lost enough weight for doctors to be concerned. Instead, they praised and encouraged me to “keep up the good work”. There were periods of “normalcy”, (i.e., during pregnancy), when I allowed myself to eat like a regular person because, I reasoned, I was eating to take care of my babies. I valued my babies above everything else — and my love for them was the one time ED had to take a backseat. Once the children were born, however, the diet preoccupation and restriction returned. After all, every women’s magazine and pregnancy book was emphasizing the need to “lose the baby weight” and “get back in shape”. That message remains everywhere today.
Now in a recovery space, I regret the unhealthy and dangerous relationship I had with food and my body. However, in some ways I’m grateful, because it has opened my eyes to the lies and dangers of diet culture and the diet industry. Diet culture taught me to be dissatisfied with my body. This negative view caused much angst and lost time and robbed me of ability to live a full and joyful life.
I’m sharing this knowledge every chance I get so that others don’t get caught in the jaws of an ED like I did, and can avoid the murky, hazardous waters of diet culture.
People are watching
I didn’t realize until many months into treatment that, when immersed in my ED, my behaviors had affected others. I had relished the compliments people gave about my thin body. People also commented on how “healthy” I ate or just assumed that I ate that way because I was thin. They didn’t know I was always famished and secretly wished I could relax about food and be free of the fear of gaining weight. I yearned to be comfortable enough in my body to eat like healthy others.
While soaking up the praise, I didn’t know that I was potentially making others feel bad about themselves, about their perceived “lack of willpower” to stick to diets or exercise regularly. I never intended for that to happen. I didn’t judge others, other than wondering why they had so much difficulty losing weight or maintaining that weight loss, when I’d found the secret to success. Little did I know my “secret” was an illness. I never lectured others (at least I don’t remember doing that) but was happy to expound on the wonders of my diet plan if anybody asked. Now I know my behavior might have been dangerous and damaging for others. I’m not proud of it, but now I know better.
There’s more than one reason to exercise
I never thought I was obsessive about exercising since I only carved out 30 minutes a day for it. I also thought getting up at 3:30am to do so was normal and a brilliant use of time. Once, I lugged my NordicTrack up from the basement so I could use it without disturbing my kids’ sleepover in the family room. The very thought of skipping a workout terrified me, despite actively chasing kids around all day. Before owning exercise equipment, I’d take two-mile walks during my 30- minute lunch break instead of eating. Who needed to eat lunch?
Now I know that while moving my body is good for it, skipping exercise for any reason is okay. The calories burnt during 30 minutes on the treadmill, won’t cause weight gain. (And if so, so what?) During my ED, I played games with myself about how long and hard to exercise. Now I know it’s not a calories in/calories out equation; bodies are more complicated than that. There are many great reasons to exercise other than weight loss or maintenance. Now I exercise to keep my body healthy and strong; exercise is good for my bones, heart and spirit. I also know that ALL movement counts and that I choose what I do, not the ED.
Don’t comment on bodies of other people
Comments about my thinness were rocket fuel for my ED. Not only did they validate how my body looked but they made me strive to keep it that way. Even if someone told me I was “too thin”, I didn’t believe it. Diet culture teaches that losing weight is always a good thing. Diet culture offers praise for losing weight, but no one hands out compliments for gaining weight, implying that it’s a bad thing.
I’m teaching myself not to comment on bodies at all. Now I know that commenting on someone’s weight could fuel their ED or help one to develop. It doesn’t take much to make a lifelong impact.
Instead of telling someone they look great, I tell them how happy I am to see them. It’s more important to focus on what is inside; that is where the true beauty lies.
I’ve never liked pictures of myself. I am my own worst critic. Last summer, my husband and I went on a trip to visit family. We took pictures to celebrate our time together and to preserve new memories. Seeing my “new” body in pictures, however, almost sent me spiraling into a relapse. I hated how I looked in the pictures. Is that how I really look? I thought everyone else looked great but was devastated to think that those photos were an accurate depiction of me.
I forgot that while the pictures were being taken, I was feeling great. I wasn’t worrying about how I looked; I was enjoying being with my family. For me, that’s progress, but when I saw the pictures, my diet culture judgment sapped the joy I’d felt in those moments. Aside from being incredibly vain, going down that rabbit-hole was a waste of time and energy.
Now, I ignore the notion that photographs are accurate depictions of physical reality. A photograph is a nanosecond captured in time. Keeping that in mind helps me to not be self-critical when I see a photo of myself. I’m also focusing on what really matters—the smiles of my loved ones, the beauty of the setting, and the wonderful feelings experienced in that moment. This is the value that photographs hold, not the perfection assigned to how I look in them. The way in which I live my life has more value than any moment frozen in a photograph.
Get rid of the scale
For nearly 20 years, while in the clutches of my ED, I started each day by stepping on my scale. That number held the power to make or break my day. The ED was in charge, dictating that I had to know that number. I went from weighing myself once a day to more than once a day and the scale wielded power each time. It was exhausting.
Now I know that giving my power to an inanimate object multiple times a day was a waste of time. Some medical conditions, such as congestive heart disease, require daily weigh-ins, but that’s not what’s at play here. I’m talking about the need the ED had to keep me in submission.
Now I know that the number on the scale isn’t important. What is important, is how I value other aspects of who I am—my kindness, my compassion, my intelligence, and my creativity. A number on a scale is in no way a measure of who I am. It’s just a number.
Food is my friend
I have learned that much about EDs is not about the food. More issues lie below the surface that have little to do with food: insecurities, control, fear, shame, and guilt. Food, and eating or not eating it, becomes the manifestation of struggles within.
While living with an ED, the constant management of the spreadsheet in my head of calories in/calories out, food and hunger was all-consuming. I’d bargain with myself endlessly, questioning nearly everything I ate and whether I deserved to eat it. Ironically, I developed a love/hate relationship with hunger. While afraid to feel hungry for fear I’d eat too much, I also grew to idolize the feeling, equating it with losing weight. That feeling became a constant companion; I was always hungry and if I wasn’t, I assumed I was doing something wrong.
Now I know that hunger is my body’s way of signaling that it needs to be fed and that it’s normal for this to happen at regular intervals throughout the day. It’s okay to feed myself more than once a day, in fact, it’s essential. For the most part, I always tried to eat “healthy”, to set a good example as I raised my children, but now I know my example was tainted by ED behaviors and principles, masquerading as healthy. I wish I had known then, what I know now.
Taking care of my inner child
Now I know that feeding myself is an act of self-care. Now, when I eat, I take a moment to think about the inner child I’m taking time to love. Now I know that she deserves to be nourished and that she depends on me for that, just as my children depended on me to feed them as they were growing up.
The ED, along with diet culture, told me that once I was an adult, I no longer needed much food; only growing children needed that. Now I know that’s not true. All bodies need and deserve to be nourished to function properly.
Hunger doesn’t always have to be present in order to eat. It’s okay to eat for fun or when my grandson offers a cookie or a popsicle. Before, I would have declined his generous offer to avoid the extra, empty calories, but sharing food can be an expression of love, one that I’m no longer willing to miss. Today, I know that making loving connections is more important than limiting the calories I consume.
I continue to learn as I recover from my eating disorder and hope that by sharing, others can learn the lessons before an ED develops. Now that I know better, my hope is to help others avoid the needless suffering of an eating disorder.
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