Something strange has been happening in the last year or so. For the first time in my adult life, I haven’t spent much time thinking about my eating disorder.
In some ways this should come as no surprise. I’ve identified as “recovered” for a good while now, so why should distance from the ED feel so new? The answer is that, while it has been a long time since anorexia constituted a significant part of my identity, the ED recovery narrative has continued to strongly influence my sense of self.
Until recently, that is.
My conscious identification with recovery is a direct antidote to all of the denial and secrecy that characterized my anorexia. I refused to admit how sick I was for so long, and even after I’d sought help I could barely speak the words “eating disorder” out loud; it felt shameful to identify openly with the disease. Once I had come to terms with it–had admitted to myself and others that it was indeed every bad as I had pretended it wasn’t–I found a lot of power in putting words to the struggle, and calling it by its name.
Likewise, I’ve found openness about my recovery process–everything from rebuilding identity to coming up with strategies for bad body days–to be a powerful means of staying accountable. In sharing my story, I’ve gained a lot of valuable perspective on the ED experience and how it shaped my life, and I’ve connected with men and women who share similar pasts. I’ve found support, encouragement, and a sense of purpose.
Yet in the last year, recovery simply hasn’t been on my mind very much. I think the best sign of this is that my blog has been focused much more on life and on food than on EDs or ED recovery. It’s quite telling that, as NEDA week approached this year, it took me a while to figure out what I had to say.
There are a bunch of reasons for this shift. Since my post-bacc, I’ve immersed myself once again in work that I love and in a new chapter of grad school. Things are rich and fulfilling–and sometimes incredibly hectic. There’s a lot less time for self-reflection these days, and for someone like me, who tends to live in her head and overanalyze things, this has actually been a blessing.
Being busy, coupled with being in a relationship, has given me a new set of priorities and needs when it comes to food. I spend most of my time thinking about how I can create weekly meal plans for me and Steven that are economical, realistic, and that appeal to our love of food without forcing me to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Good nutrition is always on my mind, but I don’t have much time to worry about eating optimally or constructing “perfect” plates of food, and this seems to have propelled my recovery forward in a big way.
Finally, and probably most significantly, there’s the passage of time. Each year brings more freedom, more peace. This year brings more than others.
With these developments comes a new phase of recovery, a phase in which I no longer identify first and foremost as someone who has struggled with an eating disorder. In the past, for example, I always accounted for my love of cooking by mentioning that it had sprung up from a very troubled food history. This is still true, but nowadays I’m comfortable simply identifying as a food lover. I don’t have to contextualize my passion for food by contrasting it with my former illness.
Not surprisingly, this opens up a lot of creative energy and passion surrounding food. The less I feel the weight of my ED history, the more excited I am about recipe development, cooking, and food photography. At moments, I’ve been able to experience food exclusively as a source of pleasure, without any thought given to its value as fuel or nutrition. This is an experience that I’ve truthfully not had since childhood. And it’s happening in spite of the fact that I study nutrition nitty gritty all day long. It feels a bit paradoxical that I should be finding more culinary and aesthetic appreciation of food just as my understanding of nutrition science deepens. But it’s happening, all the same.
Not everything about this shift is easy. One thing I’ve noticed is that, with the ED retreating into the horizon behind me, other pesky forms of anxiety are slipping into my life. I stress about food so much less than I used to, but I’m suddenly stressing a great deal more about work and time management. I suffer from the “time scarcity trap”–I’m always worried about time I don’t have, and I’m always fixated on what hasn’t been done. I know it’s normal to battle these feelings as one grows older and responsibilities multiply, but they’re causing disproportionate stress.
And that’s the point: as we move into ED recovery, it’s important to look out for new anxious tendencies may prove equally ill-adaptive. EDs are not illnesses that descend on us at random–or at least, they rarely do. They capture the anxieties, fears, and thought patterns to which we’re already susceptible. Recovery leaves those anxieties exposed, and they can find new ways to tug at us.
My ED gave me a place to hide; no matter how destructive it was, there was something awfully comforting about having one set of worries that out-shadowed all the others. In the time I spent picking apart and obsessing over my food choices, I could avoid contending with the really scary stuff, the deep fears and painful relationships that I didn’t want to face. I used restriction and regimentation to calm my anxieties, so that I wouldn’t have to address those anxieties at their source.
Today, as I grow accustomed to a life in which ED chatter is no long nipping at my heels, I realize that accountability and self-care routines are as important as ever. There will always be sources of pain and hurt, life experiences that make me feel diminished or afraid. For a long time, anorexia and orthorexia were my way of responding. Through recovery, I’ve found more healthful and adaptive strategies, including therapy, writing, honest conversation, and meaningful work. I need to continue relying on those tools, and–most importantly of all–I need not to fear all of the open space that has been created as my ED history slides farther and farther away.
It’s poignant to realize to realize that this incredibly important experience is becoming a more distant part of my past. Change–even positive, healthy change–is hard. Without either the ED or ED recovery as constitutive parts of my identity, I find myself facing more questions about who I am, what I want, and how I’d like to live. But the questions are good, and I know that I would have neither the freedom nor the energy to ask them were I still consumed by the disease and its shadow.
So, as NEDA week wraps up, I’m leaning into life that is increasingly untangled from my recovery narrative. It’s a new sensation, one I’m still adjusting to, but I embrace it and look forward to seeing where it takes me. Rest assured that EDs will continue to be a focus of my writing and work, and NEDA week will always be a time for reflection on this blog. But I hope you’ll also journey with me as I explore a new, more expansive phase of recovery.
I wish you all a wonderful Friday, and a great start to the weekend.
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