Hey friends. So happy you’re enjoying the Pacific Merchants giveaway so far — keep the entries coming!
I’m sending you off into the weekend with one of the most powerful, harrowing, and touching green recovery narratives I’ve ever shared here on CR. Reading it was tremendously emotional for me, not only because the ideas and struggles it describes resonated deeply, but also because the author of the post is currently one of my nutrition clients. I’ve had a chance to familiarize myself with her ED history in my professional capacity as her nutritionist, but as I read this story I was able to understand and empathize as her friend, peer, and fellow ED veteran, too.
What Emilia has to say about the triumphs and challenges of recovery is bracingly honest, which I love. A month or so ago, I wrote about what it means to “get real” about health and wellness. I think it’s so crucial for those of us who have recovered to “be real” about what recovery actually looks like: a process that is life-saving, but also messy, jagged, or circuitous at times. Struggle is part of it. Loneliness is part of it. Longing–for the past, for your sick body, for the habits that made you feel so safe–is part of it. But the whole thing always evokes, for me, this quotation from Robert Frost’s “A Servant to Servants”:
“The best way out is always through.”
With that, please welcome Emilia to CR. This post is long, but I invite you to read it slowly, thoughtfully, and allow yourself to take it all in, because it’s full of insights at every turn.
“As a lotus flower is born in water, grows in water and rises out of water and muck to stand above it unsoiled, so I, born in the world, raised in the world having overcome the world, live unsoiled by the world.” ~Chandogya Upanishad
I really don’t know how to sum up the past 8 years, but it’s been a harrowing roller coaster of a ride for sure. Do I regret any of it? Absolutely not. I guess I should give you all some background and context to my crazy surreal eating disorder narrative—I should warn you, it’s not a once upon of time tall tale, it’s jagged, messy and imperfect—but I’m cool with that.
I started out as the classic restrictor and started flirting with switch-outs, substitutions, and finding creative yet sneaky ways to minimize my calorie intake. I was a young, carefree adolescent entering into the big “P word” realm. Puberty and ch- ch- changes were taking over full force and I wasn’t on board with those kind of biological changes to take form. My emotional state was that of pretty fragile; I grew up a child of several generations of alcoholics, addicts of sorts, and had other emotional trauma. I was always—or at least it seemed at the time—the one who got picked last in school sports teams and was never one to congregate to cliques or tight- knit groups of friends. I was usually the one who would be found in the library quietly and discreetly eating my peanut butter banana sandwich and honey crisp apple. I was done being chosen last, rejected time after time, frowned down on, ignored, and all of the above—I had to do something to stand out, and that would require taking more drastic measures.
Well into my freshman year of high school, when puberty and social insecurities were at their peak, I decided what better opportunity than to play with a little thing we like to call dieting. I was a pretty intuitive generous little eater at the time, and already ate pretty healthy, but I decided to start transitioning to more lower- calorie, so called “healthier” versions of my favorite foods. 2% cows milk to low fat then to soymilk; tuna sandwiches to ½ a sandwich to two bites of sandwich, etc. My mom still packed my lunch at the time, so I tried to act cool and collected about it—not making a big stink about, the fact that “hey, well, I’m kind of trying this whole crash dieting drastic food restriction thing and I haven’t even gotten my period yet.” That was another thing I failed to mention—puberty came late and I was anxiously awaiting its arrival. No period, and I was nearing 15 years old. Yikes. I really didn’t know how to deal with all these unfamiliar new changes and feelings that were coming up. No shoulder to cry on, no person or place to vent endlessly to, no person to let me know “everything’s going to be just fine, you’ve got this,” etc. I badly wanted and was so hungry for that kind of encouragement and support. I decided to pull out the big guns and put on a rebellious act to wake up my community. Three hearty square meals and plenty of sporadic grazing gradually lessened more and more over time until I was eating only what amounted to half a cliff bar or low calorie protein shake a day. Not to mention the whole amping up my physical activity—If I was going to do this, then I had to do it the right way. I was still participating in my physical education which meant customary laps on the track and some popular sport.
I still remember my customary weigh in mid way through the year. My PE teacher at the time confirmed with me that I had dropped approximately 20 lbs. from August to April, and well, “cool.” She nonchalantly shrugged her shoulders and didn’t make anything of it. Coincidentally I was still razor sharp academically and was doing super well with staying on top of my general education classes. I didn’t want it to raise a flag in any way academically or kinesthetically—I’ve got this!!
“Hey guys, I can lose 20 lbs. in less than three months and still be superwomen! Morally superior, you know.”
Not to mention the abnormal amount of feedback and input I was getting from my fellow peers, acquaintances, family and friends. But it didn’t raise a red caution flag to anyone enough to realize what a dangerous life threatening state I was in. I will abstain from using numbers (your welcome) but I had already been small boned and petite prior to flirting with severe calorie restriction, hence not getting my menstrual period till well into my first year of high school. I would spend hours on end gazing at myself in the mirror, focusing on any change or flaw in my body, trying to figure out why it was that my body wouldn’t stay put in hipless- breastless- curveless- why can’t I just be a boy zone? My mom didn’t seem to have the answers and, well, I didn’t exactly want to present those kind of questions to my health instructor or the minimal amount of friends I did or didn’t have at the time. I remember how proud I was for getting that extra puberty weight off and the gross feedback I was getting from the community—went something like, “I want to know your recipe—what exactly are you doing?” “You’re so cute and tiny.” People started paying attention to me, talking to me differently, I finally stood out in the vast crowds, I was the topic of discussion. It was awesome, and I had to keep that alive, whatever it was that I was “doing.”
Until… I started getting some pretty profound malnourishment symptoms, like tingling in my ears (like I literally couldn’t hear out of both ears), a lot more hair growing wildly everywhere, heart palpulations, lack of period (never came), easily fatigued even walking to my classes; super abnormally frigid in the midst of young spring; night sweats; bloodshot pupils, and the list really continues, but I’ll end there. By then it had woken something up in my parents who were tied up and exhausted emotionally from their demanding day jobs, to the point where my mom—who isn’t one to play Martha Stewart in the kitchen—started making anything and everything to get me to eat. Oatmeal with cinnamon and soymilk; chicken noodle soup; tofu stir fry; even making blended concoctions to get the calories in easier, etc. I ran for dear life when she attempted to feed me and play nurturing concerned mom. I would curse at her and pull out the histrionics letting her know what a horrible mom she’d been and now suddenly she’s trying to turn things around? A little late, huh? I wanted nothing to do with whatever she cooked up or didn’t, and I had my stash of safe controllable foods to just keep me barely functional. I hadn’t seen a conventional physician in years and years—I avoided them at all costs if I could—and for some reason didn’t have a family doctor who I checked in with regularly. So urgent care it was.
Shivering, emotionally and physically shaking in my boots if you will, teeth chattering, adrenaline flowing rapidly through my translucent veins, gripping onto my mom’s unwavering shoulder for dear life. As I waited in the examination room for the general medicine physician to pay me a visit, I thought about how honest and upfront I wanted to be with how horribly shitty I felt. Cuz I sure did, but I wasn’t ready to let the secret out. After performing a rapidly quick customary physical examination of me, he couldn’t seem to conjure anything up of my mysteriously reported symptoms. He ordered a set of blood chemistry labs, and upon getting the results back; he had a few things to say.
“Your electrolytes are a little on the low side – I’d suggest a banana or maybe a glass of apple juice or two? Are you eating adequately?”
Of course I am, I quickly blurted out as I gave my mom the don’t- say a word- keep your mouth shut- kind of look.
The one piece of decent advice he left us with was it was beyond his scope of practice—my medical situation and all—and required a closer special look at my case. He suggested we make an appointment with a female pedeatrian ASAP. And we did.
By the next week, I had grown even weaker, more frail, drastically emaciated, and on a emotional level more stubborn, driven, and self- willed. The doctor we saw was very upfront and direct; actually she said I was the spitting image of a concentration camp victim, and I needed to be admitted impatient asap. Who knows if you’ll even be with us next week, she said. She considered running a battery of labs, but that wouldn’t do us any good at this point, because my weight had dropped to such an extreme low. By then I had lost any motor and sensory input I once had, and the words went in one ear, out the other when she spoke. My parents and her made a mutual decision that an impatient ward that specialized in treating cases with severe eating disorders would be an appropriate match—and off we rushed to Stanford.
I won’t go into the specifics of my multiple stays at Lucile Packard’s comprehensive care unit, but it was incredibly harrowing, and if there was a hell on this earth, my experience there would fit the bill. My first stay there was approximately 50 days and over half of that was spent bed rest attached to a heart monitor and over medical devices and gadgets to closely monitor my internal organs. I refused solid food for 30 days until the team made a mutual decision to put an NG tube up me as my calorie needs were high and frequent, which would lessen some of the feeding time stress, apparently. So there I was with a NG tube up my nose, along with weird nosey medical professionals, social worker, occupational therapists, rotating MDS constantly and endlessly examining and pointing the finger at the grotesque anorexic on exhibit. I was incredibly rude and obnoxious patient, I’ll own that, and I didn’t want to comply even an once to what was being asked of me. And I didn’t. Liquid nutrition was flowing in and out of my veins, commode gracefully chilling bedside, and family members shuffled in and out. I didn’t want anybody to see me in that state, and I made it very clear to anybody and everybody who stepped foot in my hospital door. Eventfully I gained the weight bare minimal weight to be released and my vitals and electrolytes had stabilized.
Over the course of my high school years, I got hospitalized another five times, and worked very closely with an outpatient team at Stanford in order to ensure my physical state was in check and stable. I hated myself, everyone around me, and I wondered, “Why me? When would and does this kind of turmoil end? I’m only 16 after all.” I really wasn’t present and engaged during my high school years; I don’t think I even made it to any of the school spirit activites, events, shenanigans and all. I barely passed my classes, and that’s because I had a special IEP administration approved plan thanks to those doctor notes. I was still in a really fragile place, and my parents, medical team, and instructors walked on eggshells when talking and interacting with me. Which I also really hated. I got so crafty and creative two years in to my anorexia I was putting peanut butter sandwiches in my underwear and smearing butter under tables, running away from the school nurse who was advised to sit with me and monitor my lunch.
After one to many trips to the eating disorder ward, the Stanford doctor I was seeing frequently at the time strongly recommended I turn in to a higher level of care—residential impatient. Yippee.
I was 17 by then and over the course of 2 years I was in and out of residential inpatient homes, honing in real life skills and new fresh coping mechanisms to deal with this crazy flawed world. Mental gridlocks were still alive and strong, not disappearing as quickly as I would’ve hoped. I was still feeding that ferocious hungry monkey and holding hands with it, if you will. My autonomy was out the window. I couldn’t conjure of a friend if you paid me. Everything felt so mechanical and unauthentic, even the food I was being told and forced to consume.
I took the community college route to further focus on a healing path. I was now able to indecently nourish myself on a physical level, and started showing the world that want to try this recovery thing you’ve all been talking about out. I was still working with a conventional MD, therapist and dietician at the time, but I decided thing I did have control over was what foods I nourished myself with and what I would make of it. I decided to start spending more time smelling the roses, and focusing on what was already amazing, right here. Right now. I started visiting and supporting my local farmers market which happened to be stationed at my community college on Saturdays, and letting go the mindset of food is bad, dirty and intimidating. I gravitated towards plant- based eating, and started my very own food blog to mark my honeymoon with food. I started reading and engaging in the blog world, namely Choosing Raw, Heather Eats Almond Butter, Oh she Glows, and the Broccoli Hut, to name a few. They showcased and brought to life such visually appealing and belly happy nosh, and I wanted in on that. If they can do it, then I sure can, I thought.
I had such much fun with plant- based cooking. Sweet potatoes and almond butter, cashew ginger tofu, tofu scrambles with pesto, hummus sammies, peanut butter and chocolate oatmeal, coconut banana milkshakes were among my favorites. Tapping into my inner chef with no expectations, compassionately and open- minded, open up the doors to a new path I could take with my fragile and young recovery. People like Gena, Caroline, Heather, and Kathy showed my how playful, liberating and intuitive eating could be again—and that was I was so hungry for. As my support team was seeing more and more that joy and pleasure were radiating from every cell of my being, they began to back- off some till eventually it was all on me to ask and seek support. My food blog, Namaste Gurl, at the time served as an outlet to my newfound enthusiasm and liberty with nature’s perfect medicine. I lived out the Hippocrates, “let food by thy medicine, and medicine be thy food” to it’s full capacity. I wanted everybody and anyone I came in contact with to know, literally shouting from the rooftops, that I had found my recovery niche and I aint looking back. I began sharing my joy and heart towards food with friends, family and at school and church events. Making delicious wholesome pumpkin spice muffins with freshly grinded millet flour or chocolate cherry coconut donuts (go get a donut mold now) or maybe even a batch of African yam and peanut stew. Instant crowd winners.
Until I hit a wall again. Everything was going so great…. Until… I got introduced to under discussed, not as well known in the medical community, disorder called orthorexia. It was so sexy and sly and I got courted with it and I didn’t want to leave it’s side. It took on a life and persona of it’s own, “I’ve got this recovery thing—I make everything from scratch and I stay attached to the kitchen all day. Anything that I didn’t make or isn’t pure, organic or local is an absolute no- no.” I stood by that strong- willed statement for quite awhile and still do, to some capacity. I’m eating really healthy, consciously and purely, so what’s so wrong with that? Who needs a social life or balance anyway? I turned this new found freedom and vitality towards waking up the foodie in me to a drastic place and it left me socialess, unable to work through my undergraduate classes, a flake, and extremely limited in my food choices. I couldn’t travel, go on spontaneous road trips, or even go out to another person’s house if I didn’t know the menu and ingredients that were used. It trapped me into a really small dark place. Think Rapunzel held captive to her deceptively wicked tower that falsely offers safety and hope, but really is a guarded place isolated from the world and everyday life. I hid in my kitchen, tuned out the world around me—school, friends, family, finances and all—for quite a while and played new age Martha Stewart role. The worry and concerns came back full force, and I assured everyone I’m fine, as long as I get in my 7 miles every morning and my meals prepared to my liking.
I started doing yoga again, hatha flow and restorative, as well as more self- care and mindfulness practices like journaling, essential oils, meditation and pranayama, warm yummy lavender baths, aromatherapy, getting out more in nature, and that helped me get more in touch and recognize the mental thought patterns, or namaskars, I was repeatedly experiencing. I started leaning to the monkey mind chatter, being with it, and nursing it with more self-love and compassion. Capturing and shifting the thoughts, lies, excuses and comparing into gratitude and seeing through different lenses.
A couple years back I thought, what better way to mend and repair the damage done from my eating disorder than to go see a variety of different holistic healers? That way I can get a bunch a different takes on my mind-body situation. And I did. My plant- based diet came to a halt, and I was suggested by both a naturopath and functional nutritionist that I had leaky gut and needed the next season to be about healing and sealing my gut which meant drastically altering my diet, aka subtracting please intuition and joy from my already fragile mindset towards nourishing myself. They ran a food allergy panel, heavy mercury testing, adrenal and other hormone testing, and strongly urged me to get on the gut and phycology syndrome—a proctol that removes fructose, glucose in the form of sugar, fruit, dairy and grains, legumes, seeds nuts and basically everything. Leaving you with bone broth soup. Apparently that, coupled with detoxing the lymphatic system through sweating, epsom salt baths, dry brushing, amping up the probiotics and enzymes, cold showers and juicing, was supposed to get me to full wellness and vitality.
I wish I could say that it did, but it did quite the opposite. I felt more deprived, anxious, flighty and OCD than I had since my really sick days in 2008. But on no, that was perfectly normal! I was undergoing a “detox reaction” and you just have to wait it out. No worries. Not to mention my weight was gradually and subtly declining but that was “normal part of the detox process; you lose before you gain” bullshit. That’s when I reached out to Gena and expressed my confusion and how fed up I was with trying to find a state of wholeness mind, body and spirit. I was so attached to these various protocols—the SCD, GAPS, paleo, raw, macrobiotic, Ayurveda, TCM—that I forgot to tune inwards to my greatest most wise teacher and discerner. Dr. Seuss says it so well, I won’t steal his thunder: “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” I was so mentally fatigued of being over cautious and watchful of any flare up, every morsel that entered my mouth, every food that I’d criticize and poke and praud at. My grueling past with getting on the road and staying put with recovery, flirting with all these protocols, and hunting for the one that would be the “perfect/right fit,” was pushing me farther and farther away from what I really desired for myself: Full freedom and autonomy from the eating disorder. I had been so brainwashed from all these various food orthodoxies and dogmas that I was left in a state of mental paralysis and gridlock.
I embraced veganism with open arms midway through this year, with the support and guidance of amazing Gena, and haven’t looked back since. I went back to where I started with it when I did several years back in my early days of recovery: playful and lighthearted. Veganism has such a falsely societal rep for bearing vitamin/ mineral deficiencies, gaunt and malnourished, pale, etc. but for me it’s served as the reverse. It’s the escessense of compassion and reverence~ahimsa in yogic language~ for the animal kingdom and really for ourselves and those around us. I feel so intuitively alive and authentic to my cravings both on a physical and emotional level, when I eat a plant- powered diet. Now you can still be a hardcore morally superior orthorextic on just about any diet/ protocol, and I most definitely was with veganism. For me, my work these days is welcoming the being with the confusion; brainwashed dogma, mental summersaults, and fear towards forbidden foods that were off limits for so long. I’m learning to love every food, pure and from scratch or not, faux meats, canned beans, bread, sugar, pasta, etc. Because they were created and are there for our pleasure and convenience, not to overwhelm us more and cause more mental chatter. And for the animals, too.
By no means it is rainbows, butterflies, and gingerbread houses at this point in my recovery journey—there’s still a lot work to be done and had, victories to be won, orthodoxies to be banished, but it’s a beautiful work in progress, full recovery is totally possible, and I am most definitely beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel more and more. My work also continues to guard my recovery; not being easily shaken with all the food dogma, diets, cleanses, detoxes, reboots, and orthodoxies that exist out there—there’s a lot and if you seek you’ll find—but to censor and set boundaries to protect and guard my delicate recovery. My heart and passion is to live out and help other find and win the hard won freedom I have an am continuing to gain—finding show and intuition with food through a plant powered diet, and I sure am good at it.
I couldn’t stress enough asking for support when you need it, even if it means 10 years into your recovery, right when you notice a red flag, or just to help reel you back in and onto the path of wellness and intuitive based motives. To keep you accountable and in check, even when your mind is telling you different and clinging on for dear life. Veganism brought me back to a place of lightness, of intuitiveness, of more ease, compassion, reverence, and kindness for myself and for the animals I’m looking out for. It continues to be messy, flawed and imperfect at times, more often than not, but I’m learning to be more and more ok with that, catch and shift consciously and compassionately, and embrace that part of me that wants to fight for control, answers, the right supplement or protocol that will create alchemy for my conditions, and just let go and let it be. I was told early on in my recovery that the image of a lotus flower blossoming is the image that resonated with my recovery launch: the lotus flower grows and blossoms out of the muck into something beautiful and radiantly alive. To create new beginnings and intentions motives and desires reset and rebooted. Acting more from the heart, less from the world and cultural perception, not being easily shaken by all the dogmatic crap that is waiting for dominate and confuse us more, and being in tune with you inner and outermost needs which are constantly changing and evolving day to day, which is such a special skill to hold and apply.
I’m so grateful for people like Gena, who are sent to me to validate and keep me in check, guiding me towards the heart- centered path. There’s so much more I want for myself in this beautiful gift of life, the finite spontaneous and ebb and flow, than to stay stuck, confused, rigid and dogmatic with what I put in my mouth. I want to live out my calling and gifting’s in this world: Solid, nourishing relationships, spontinatiety, robust social life, academic excelling, beauty, soul nourishment, getting out in nature, traveling and spreading the joy of plant based eating, and being used fully in whatever capacity or form that may take. I’m so ready to dive into full, heart aligned living and embracing the practice of deferring the mental toxicity that lands on my windshield. It’s a balancing act, folks, and it’s even harder than giving in to the lies of the monkey mind ego, but believe me, it’s well worth it when you bear the fruit as you begin to do the little things or baby steps.
It’s been a grueling roller-coaster of a past season, but I come out more refined, more lighthearted, more humble, more open- minded, courageous, adventurous, reverent, and heart- centered than I’ve ever been and that’s the beauty of hanging tight with recovery and not losing sight of what’s over the hump and waiting for you.
“When you come to the edge of all the light you know and are about to step into the darkness of the unknown. Faith is knowing that one of two things will happen. There will be solid ground to stand on or you will be taught to fly.” ~Patrick Overton.
There is so much to say about this post and the tremendous heart and courage it demonstrates. One thing I’ll say is that Emilia’s experience with various healers–being told that her body was toxic, and that all sorts of foods were poisoning her–is distressingly common. It is also the worst and most dangerous thing that someone who has a complicated history with food can hear. This kind of “food noise” is increasingly common these days, but I certainly hope that it can be combatted with sound, evidence-based thinking.
I’ll also say that it was neither my intention nor Emilia’s for her to necessarily find veganism again as a part of her healing. But I am of course so happy that, in returning to a plant-based diet, she’s recaptured so much of her creativity and passion for food. It’s beautiful that veganism has done for her what it seems to do for so many who have struggled: to help keep her on that “heart-centered path.”
I hope you’ll all have insights to share. For now, goodnight.