I met Kathy Patalsky in 2010, at a bloggers’ summit. We both lived in New York at the time, and we were aware of each other’s work; I had been reading and admiring her blog, Healthy Happy Life, for a long time, marveling at her recipes and photos and culinary know-how. In a hilarious plot twist that we both love to recount, the summit hosts had offered adjacent seats on the New York to California flight. Both of us had declined, thinking “no way — what if we don’t like each other?”
As it turned out, we liked each other quite a lot. So much so, that we became and remain the closest of friends. Kathy and I have eaten meals together, collaborated on cooking videos together, laughed together, cried together, vented to each other, and cheered each other wholeheartedly. We’ve hung out in in Disneyland, LA, New York, and Washington, D.C.. I love our low-key, honest, and supportive bond, and I admire her wisdom, humor, and talent more than I can say.
I can’t remember the first time that Kathy and I discussed our ED histories, which is unusual. It’s a conversation I’ve had with many female friends through the years, and I can usually pinpoint the origin, the first disclosure. I think that Kathy and I always knew on some level that the other had struggled, and maybe we didn’t have to say anything at first. There was a gentle, quiet, and mutual understanding. In the past few years, though, we’ve become so much more open with each other–and with the outside world.
In October, Kathy wrote her first ever post about her anorexia. She called it Wellness Gets Real, and I thought it was a total tour de force. I’ve always hoped that she’d share more of her story online, and I selfishly hoped she’d be willing to write a Green Recovery post, detailing how veganism and community have been a part of her healing. Today, she has gracefully opened up for all of us, and I hope you’ll be as moved and inspired by her story as I am.
A few days ago I had a doctor’s appointment, a pre-op checkup for meniscus surgery I am having soon to fix my swollen, stiff right knee. It was a sunny Monday, I can clearly recall the warmth of the soft breeze, the blue Los Angeles sky and golden twinkles of light shimmering through the trees outside the tall concrete medical building.
I was checked in, brought back to a room and hopped up on the crinkly white paper that had been rolled out onto the examination room table like parchment paper sliding over a baking sheet, ready for some cookie dough.
I waited while the doctor took my vitals, drew some blood and told me everything looked great. Always nice to hear. To finish things off, she told me to hop up on the scale. As usual, something in my chest tightened. My face grew warm and I froze for a minute. This always happens. Call it an old, annoying, reflex. I hopped off the table, stood on the wobbly scale, and locked eyes with the scale’s sinister-looking digital number screen on the wall, about two inches from my face.
When they take my blood, I always look away from the needle. When they tell me to hop on the scale, I always look away from the numbers.
Sometimes in this situation, a rebel nurse will cock her head towards the scale numbers and brashly say my weight out loud, oh so casually, almost just for herself as she scribbles down the number, but within earshot of me and anyone else strolling by. I would always cringe.
But on this recent visit, the nurse was silent and right before I stepped off the scale, I turned my head away from the window and glanced at the numbers. Facing the ridiculous fear I thought I still had. A fear of the onset of anxiety.
But on that day, instead of feeling disappointed and anxious about that number, I felt nothing. Unaffected. Relieved to feel this way in fact. I had no good or bad feelings about this number. It was literally, just a silly number.
Along with all the other strides I have made in the past 15 years, maybe my “scale fear” was finally dissolved as well.
I analyzed that on that day I felt healthy and happy and strong and hydrated and nourished and well and absolutely no number on that scale could change that, sway me or take that away from me. I was joyfully unaffected.
And I actually think that even if I felt crappy and achy and tired and cranky and melancholy on that day, I suspect I would still have been pretty untouched by a number.
And as I hopped back on the examination table, feeling happy about the day ahead of me, excited to get out of the glow of fluorescent lights and back in the sunshine, out to the market to shop for some produce, to play in the kitchen, photograph and write, that fuzzy number just a blur, miles behind me in my day, I was reminded of how far I have come in my recovery.
Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t look at a scale or the numbers on it without dread, a sense of failure and an unhealthy motivation to clear my schedule and starve myself. And even five years ago, the “scale anxiety” was still with me.
Getting to this point, where I can pretty muffle that old voice in my head telling me to do better, be thinner, try harder, eat less, exercise more and work harder. Getting to this point of “not caring” was a long road. And yes, for me and many who struggle with perfectionism in congruity with their ED’s, “not caring” was a huge accomplishment.
Hooray and cheers to not giving a damn about what anyone else thinks. And letting my own happiness guide my day, lead my voice and my actions.
And as I recently heard director Guillermo Del Toro say at the “Conversation with Ryan Gosling” talk at SXSW,
“Use who you are as a source of pride and wear it as a giant “F-you” to the world.”
A little dramatic, but I like that.
Basically, I interpret that in my own life to mean, do not be ashamed or detached from your struggles and your story. Look in the mirror and accept your whole life no matter what shit-show events and unexpected stumbles have occurred. Embrace you and share the real, true, whole you with the world. Be proud of your soul. Your insides. Your voice.
I hope I am doing that here, right now.
Me, Today. I used to say I wished for a day when food and weight and body image would again be an “ignorance is bliss” scenario, like in my childhood. Where I barely noticed how my jeans fit or how many slices of pizza I consumed at a party. Well, I will never be ignorant, food and nutrition are something that I am excited and passionate about. And that’s ok. Great in fact.
And today, the body image anxiety I longed to rid myself of has lost its heaviness and influence on my mood and actions. Yes, I still have days where my self esteem is fragile. I am human. I am a girl. I share with you in that constant challenge to battle with society.
But for me, those fragile days now come and go like salty ocean waves, too and from the shore. Here and then gone. I know the pattern now. I am no longer pulled into the sea, left to drown in those salty arms of not-good-enough. I am free to skip, play and smile in the sunshine, as freaking corny as that sounds.
So, after my appointment, on that day, I strolled out of the office building, slung my vegan bag over my shoulder and pulled on my sunnies, feeling full of vibrance and ready to focus my attention on the next thing in my day. Always moving forward.
A few months ago on my blog HHL, I posted and talked about publicly for the first time ever, about my eating disorder past. My ED started the summer before my senior year in high school. Teenage self esteem coaxed me into starting a dramatic diet + exercise regimen late in my junior year, and at first I felt great! But my perfectionist personality didn’t know how to stop itself. That diet turned into full blown anorexia as I faded away into a shell of my former bubbly, happy, glowing, exuberant self. It was still me, but a roughed up, bruised, exhausted, emotionally battered, shattered, spiraling out of control version of myself.
If I could tell anything to that 17 year old me it would be this: get help. Early. It makes me want to sob thinking of that girl. Who I was. I want to push her out in the sunshine and move her lips to get her talking and push her into a doctor’s office for some help.
But finding good help is not an easy task. But keep searching.
And if you are resisting getting help, push your ego aside and silence that voice in your head that says “I do not have a problem. I am fine.” If you have loved ones or strangers that are concerned, or if you hide anything or do anything in the realm of eating disordered, or even if you are reading this with wide eyes and a sense of close comparison, you may benefit from outside help, or even chatting with a professional. Your issues may be big or small, but of importance to the wellness in your life.
I believe that everyone struggles with something, those who seek help, reach out, have less of a lonely struggle.
And the best time to seek help, may be when you think you do not really need it.
We live in a prime time for reaching out, take advantage of it! Fifteen years ago, I could only read books or find a small handful of resources online. Nothing like the opportunities to seek help, reach out and find compassion available today.
Five Things That Helped Me
1. Numbers Free. In case you haven’t noticed yet, I hate scales. I do not own a scale anymore. Call it a fear, call it protecting my sanity. It works for me. I know some people who are trying to healthfully lose or gain weight may need it, but for me, I just feel better when I do not weigh myself regularly.
Also in the realm of numbers, I do not count calories. Years ago I would count them obsessively, today I like to know nutritional info of new foods, which is why I sometimes put calorie and nutrition counts on my website and in my books, but when it comes to “counting” or even portion sizes, I admit I am very casual and instead listen to my body for hunger and satiation cues. I strive to simply eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full.
2. Breakfast. Skipping breakfast, unless I am truly not hungry from a heavy meal the night before, is setting myself up for disaster. Low blood sugar, starving by lunchtime, crankiness and fatigue. I feel so much better about my day when I eat breakfast. I love oatmeal with fresh fruit, a giant bowl of fresh fruit with nuts, seeds, nut butter or toast, a huge smoothie or something cozy like French toast or pancakes. And I love matcha lattes. I also start my day with some lemon, maple, cayenne dandelion tea before breakfast to hydrate, center and energize me.
3. Exercise happily. I haven’t gone to a gym in years. I can’t do it. Working out for me needs to be a fun experience, and I always feel like a mouse on a treadmill at the gym. But if it works for you, go for it. I know Gena is loyal to her yoga practice which I am so proud of her for. She is such a strong and peaceful person, and I’m sure yoga has encouraged that in her. For me, I crank up my iTunes music and turn my living room into my dance studio. I adore dancing, so when I need a sweat sesh, that is how I do it.
4. Have Friends. For a sad few years in college as I struggled with recovery, I pushed away old friends and ran from new ones. I didn’t want anyone in my life that did not understand what I was going through. I was alone. And it was awful. Today, I feel like I couldn’t survive without my friends. Old and new. I reach out. I am honest. I tell my friends I love them. And I look for friends who hold those same qualities, honesty, openness and vulnerability. I run from fakeness and am turned off by negativity. Positive people, giggles that come easily and a sense of ease and calm is my jam for relationships.
Girlfriends give each other so much strength and love and life, in a unique way that is so valuable in life. Value that and take advantage of our communal girl power ladies! So even if you are alone and struggling right now, try to reach out. There are always good people somewhere that want to help, listen and be your friend.
5. Being Vegan. This is by far my favorite thing that has helped me along the way, during my recovery journey that lasted a good ten years. Veganism! I had been vegetarian on and off since I was a teenager, always leaning towards plants on my plate. The living foods, growing in my California backyard on trees, vines and plants. Fresh and colorful as opposed to foods that felt foreign and almost alien and soulless to me, meat, dairy and eggs.
For me, eating plant based just feels right. Fresh fruit, gorgeous veggies, legumes, grains. These foods have a soul. Eating vegan, I finally lost that annoying guilt I had towards food. I stopped counting calories, for good. I started listening to my body and fed it what it craved, not what I calculated that I “should” be consuming.
Nowadays I do not feel guilty eating pretty much anything on my vegan plate. I can even eat dessert with a confidant smile on my face. A cruelty free treat that tastes amazing? Yes, and thank you.
I will always be vegan, and thank goodness for that. It is, for me, a source of great pride and nourishment of my body and soul.
I am so incredibly joyful now live this life filled with purpose and love and community and brilliant and beautiful ups and downs. Yes, even the crummy days are beautiful.
On crappy days, instead of spiraling back into darkness, I turn on some Britney Spears, give my kitty cats a kiss and dance around in my living room until I seriously do not care anymore. And on REALLY challenging days, I have the love and support of my friends and husband and family to carry me through. These things are my support system … not food. Or numbers. Or skinny jeans.
I want to be healthy and happy above being thin. (And that is the bottom line to my recovery.)
..I hope and pray that if you are struggling, you can repeat that sentence above, out loud and mean it. Your happiness is worth SO much more than you may realize.
Thank you to Gena for being a leader and inspiration and friend. This series always blows me away. The community, voice and support system you have created for all of us is incredible.
“I want to be healthy and happy above being thin. (And that is the bottom line to my recovery.)”
This. Is. Everything.
I work with many men and women who have, or used to have, eating disorders. In my work, I repeat these precise words constantly, almost like a refrain. In order to move forward with recovery, you have to decide that being healthy and happy is more important than being thin–or controlled, or disciplined, or clean, or pure, or whatever form of self-manipulation and self-denial is driving your disorder.
This is not to say that recovery is all about weight gain; it’s not. But it is about asking yourself the question: why is thinness (or control, or restriction, or self-denial) so important to me? What does it signify? Why am I so afraid of my own appetites? And why am I willing to prioritize these things over so many of the other things that could give me true fulfillment and joy? In my experience, the doors to recovery only open when you can face these difficult, challenging questions.
There is so much about Kathy’s story that resonated with me. I love the five tools that she lays out, especially the refusal to skip breakfast (one of my own recovery pillars has been a refusal to ever skip meals, if I can help it), the emphasis on friendship and community, and most of all, the deep dedication to veganism. Like Kathy, I will always be vegan. I, too, have found vitality and nourishment in plant-based foods, as well as a sense of compassion.
Finally, I love how Kathy’s recovery journey seems to have brought her so much closer to an authentic sense of self. Take her words about exercise, for example: instead of tethering herself to an elliptical machine or a treadmill, Kathy breaks into dance. She’s no longer interested in fitting into a mold, to appease the voice that tells her to “do better, be thinner, try harder, eat less, exercise more and work harder.” She’s come to recognize what’s nourishing for her and her body: human connection, joyful movement, feline companionship, and colorful, hearty vegan food. Not weights, measures, or skinny jeans.
I could go on and on about Kathy’s story, but I want to allow it to speak for itself, rather than saying too much. I feel a sense of celebration every time I read one of these tales, but it’s all the sweeter today because of my friendship with Kathy, which feels deeper and more textured now that I have this perspective on her history. I hope you’ll all read and savor and comment. When Kathy and I were emailing about her submission, she said “I truly hope it speaks to some girls out there who are still in a dangerous and sad place.” I know it will.