It has been much too long since I shared a green recovery story, but I’m getting back into the swing of things with a particularly moving, honest, and reflective account. It’s from a longtime CR reader and commenter, Elisabeth, who in spite of her tender years is capable of describing her experience with anorexia with tremendous self-knowledge, insight, and forward-thinking resolve. I hope you’ll be as impressed as I was by the depth of her maturity and by the candor with which she can speak about her recovery experiences.
I’ve been thinking about this quote lately: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” The idea of writing a Green Recovery story has been on my mind for a while now, the emotions and reflections swirling around in the depths of my brain, and I’m just now putting all of them together. Having never told anybody my story yet, I’ve got a lot to get off my chest, so here goes…
The first time I ever heard a doctor utter the words eating and disorder in conjunction with my name was when I went for a check up before the start of my seventh grade year. Apparently (well, actually, I was well aware), my weight had decreased by a significant amount from the previous year, and I had managed to grow by a (mere) inch. This drastically lowered by Body Mass Index, placing me squarely in the underweight category – the doctor even ventured to say that I was malnourished. I went from being around the sixtieth percentile for my height and weight for my age to the tenth for weight and seventieth for my height. I remember feeling so ashamed when I saw the look of worry on my father’s face – I thought to myself, How could I have done this? What has propelled me to such extremes? I told the doctor that I had no idea how I had lost so much weight; of course, there was no deceiving her. I resolved to myself that enough was enough, that I had gone too far.
Yet, in the back of my mind, I was secretly proud. I had become noticeably thin. A two-week vacation with my grandmother and some cousins where I subsisted on one meal a day, combined with the preceding months I had spent restricting myself of food, finally culminated in a drastic enough change in my appearance to warrant concern. Yet, this moment was surprisingly sad and empty, disappointing and anticlimactic. What had I expected to happen?
I had never had any specific goal weight because it wasn’t necessarily about the number on the scale anymore after the pounds started coming off faster than I could keep track. It’s hard to explain, but the closest thing I can liken my behavior to is that of an addict. I was constantly chasing this high of how much I could exercise in a single day while subsisting on less than 600 calories a day. Absurd, I know, but I got locked up in this mentality that I was so afraid to break out of. Now that I look back, there was this strange contradiction with my eating disorder. I clung to this cloak of invulnerability where I thought that nothing could happen to me, like I was invincible, in the sense that there would be no consequences for my actions, that I could somehow get away with secretly starving myself and walk away unscathed. I didn’t think that I would attract so much attention, but people would come up to me and say that I was too skinny, that they liked the way I looked before. These comments stunned me because I didn’t see myself the way others did.
Yet at the same time that I thought I was invulnerable, I was also exceedingly fragile. If I took just a bite of this or a sip of that, I thought that I would morph into some corpulent creature. If I did not work myself into exhaustion every day (I would play basketball, hula hoop, jump rope, play tennis for hours every day), then I would be wracked with guilt to the point that I could not sleep. In addition, before I even went to sleep, I felt compelled to outline what I would eat the next day. The number of calories I “allowed” myself to eat seemed to shrink further and further the more weight I lost. It was such a horrible cycle, but in a strange way, I was addicted to it. If something got in the way of my exercising, I would be livid, or, like I said, I tossed and turned all night. I hate to say this, but I turned into a real monster, at least around my family.
Mainly, though, it seemed that I kept to myself; I am a loner by nature, but before I started exhibiting these irrational behaviors, I had hung out with friends after school. I think that part of the reason I developed an eating disorder is that I was bored – school was not challenging for me, I was tired of playing tennis with the same people, playing the clarinet no longer seemed worth it when nobody else in the band at school practiced. Furthermore, when I moved up from fifth grade to sixth grade, there was no after school care (which I had always attended since both of my parents work), so I simply went home after school.
With the ambition to make the basketball team at school the next year (sixth graders were not allowed to play sports), I practiced my hoops game every day at the park near my house. I tell ya, basketball was my first love – I had so much fun playing the game and honing my skills that it was something that never felt forced or like a burden. Yet, somehow I ended up using basketball as a way to perpetuate what was quickly becoming an eating disorder. What started as an effort to improve my skills and have some fun evolved into a way to burn calories.
I’m not sure what motivated the switch because I wasn’t even close to being overweight and none of my friends were dieting or anything like that. I think that I wanted a challenge, a new hobby of sorts. I say this because, when I look back, I had gone through multiple “phases” already – the jewelry-making phase, the homemade beauty products phase, the candle making phase, the rock tumbling phase, the music phase. I consider each of these hobbies quite innocent and each one has left an indelible print on me, just as my eating disorder has, but I think they also hinted towards a larger, more harmful obsession.
In addition to being highly self-motivated and prone to extremes, I am naturally self-critical, so I can see in retrospect how my various hobbies morphed into an obsession with my physical body. Plus, especially at my age then, I couldn’t help but compare myself to others. I thought that I was “bigger” than other girls when I really wasn’t, but this disillusion propelled me to lose weight, to restrict myself of food, and to compulsively exercise. These activities required an enormous amount of my time and energy; I practically spent all day thinking about food yet managed to consume only mere morsels.
At first, I would get this incredible high from abstaining from food, but after many months, my body was so physically weakened that I was constantly exhausted. My limbs felt like lead, and my eyes appeared sunken in my head while my bones protruded wherever they could, and I was always shivering cold. In short, I was miserable, but I just couldn’t stop myself. I was so afraid that if I did, then I would become fat.
It was more than that, though. I wanted to be beautiful – I wanted to walk into a room and see all the heads turn and look at me with admiration and maybe even slight jealousy. Well, I can tell you this, I accomplished the head-turning but not for the reasons I wanted – people looked at me more so with a mixture of concern and pity. It’s kind of ironic to me that I subconsciously wanted people to notice me (which is strange because I had been well liked and well thought of at school/church/sports), yet I didn’t think that my radical changes in diet and exercise would be that noticeable. Whatever my motives were initially, they became all the more convoluted the deeper the hole I dug for myself into my disorder.
Honestly, I became somewhat depressed, too; soon, my eating disorder became a routine. Despite the fact that I was miserable, there was a certain comfort associated with my routine because it had become familiar, a part of me. I wouldn’t say that it was my identity (I had a hard time really admitting to myself that I had an eating disorder), but I was still afraid to break free from my self-destructive habits. One underlying reason for this is that my mother and I were not getting along at the time.
I know that she was worried about me, so she pushed me to eat and gave me guilt-inducing glances if I exercised after I ate something. Naturally, I pushed back by disregarding her; anything she said annoyed or embarrassed me. Also, I did not want to look like my mom – she is a larger, curvier woman with big boobs and a big butt. I can’t believe that I was so shallow as to have cast my mom out because she was not what I perceived as beautiful. Really, my mom is an amazing woman, having gone from a poor fatherless childhood to a successful career as an attorney and a loving mother; I don’t give her the credit that she deserves.
Nevertheless, I thought that if I ate too much, then I would become overweight like my mother, so I resisted her. I feel like I had a lot of angst during that time, too, just so much pent-up rage that I took it out emotionally on my mother. Despite my anger with my mother, she was the one who took me to all of my doctor’s appointments when my pediatrician referred me to an eating disorder specialist.
Oh, how I hated going to these appointments! I felt like the doctors didn’t really understand me, and I was abhorred when my mother rushed to relay her observations of my behavior to the doctors – it infuriated me that she hardly let me speak for myself and that a lot of what she said was not true and when it was, it was always negative. I know that my mom was just trying to help, but I think that her comments interfered with my treatment because my doctors didn’t know who to take seriously at times. It was embarrassing for both of us because we were not afraid to snap at each other in front of the doctors.
Initially, I was so resistant to recovering because I was in denial that I had a problem. I thought that I was smarter than all the pamphlets and questionnaires I was given. However, in the back of my mind, I knew that my eating disorder was not sustainable; I didn’t want to be in the same situation when I was in my twenties – I wanted to be able to enjoy life.
Old habits die hard, though, y’all! So much of my eating disorder was mental that it was hard to see physical progress. I knew that I was expected to be gaining weight every week, and after being proscribed a dietary regimen by the nutritionist at the clinic, I started to eat a little more. However, my doctor told me that I had to cut out exercise – I pleaded with her to allow me to play basketball still and reluctantly she granted me 20 minutes each day. Initially, I followed this “order,” but when I made the basketball team later that month (which I never told the doctor about), I began playing almost an hour and a half each day.
Obviously, this negated any extra calories I was consuming. So, my mom made me start drinking these high-calorie, high-fat nutritional shakes. Man, those were the bomb – they tasted so good! But, in my disordered mind, they were totally off-limits – I told my mom that I couldn’t stomach them, that they tasted horrible. She didn’t care; she expected me to drink them anyway. A terrible child, I drank one or two a week, but the others I simply poured down the sink, not feeling a drop of guilt.
Slowly, though, I gained the weight I needed to, but the doctors never seemed satisfied. No words of encouragement, nothing to change my mindset. Because I had never had my period before the onset of my disorder, the doctors were especially worried about me. The only thing I somewhat looked forward to were the therapy sessions after the visits with the doctor and the nutritionist. I thought that the therapist was super weird at first (still somewhat do), but I gradually warmed up to her. Everybody loves to talk about themselves, and I figured that out after a few sessions.
It was good to just talk – most of our conversations had nothing to do with body image or food. Mainly, we talked about my family, school, and me. Really, with eating disorders, it’s not about the food itself; it’s about a combination of underlying issues. These issues manifest themselves in various ways, particularly through the compulsion to control your eating habits. The underlying issues in my case were the environment in which I had grown up, genetic predisposition, and the media.
For all my developing years, I watched my mother struggle with her weight and go on numerous diets, all to no avail. This subtly reinforced my own dissatisfaction with my body and my insecurities. Also, ever since I can remember, my mother went out of her way to prepare special meals for my brother, who refused to eat fruits or vegetables. If it wasn’t a special meal, then she made food for us that was not particularly healthful. Something within me rebelled, for I loved my fruits and vegetables but did not care for meat or cheese. This sparked an early interest in cooking in me, but over time, it fueled an obsession over the ingredients in my food.
In addition to these factors, my aunt had an eating disorder when she was in high school, meaning that the trait runs in my family apparently. Furthermore, I have grown up in a time of television and computers where everybody always looks “perfect.” The images of models and celebrities are not easy to ignore. Although I didn’t have a superstar idol when I was little, I did want to look like one – beautiful, thin, elegant.
After a few months of treatment, not without its ups and downs, my family got a puppy – a Boston Terrier named Tex. It was a complete surprise to me. I had never had a dog before, and he wasn’t house-trained when we got him, so when I was left alone with him the very first day he was brought home, he managed to poop in the house, eat it before I could clean it up, puke that up, and poop it out again. Incredibly disgusting, huh? Well, I thought it was pretty hilarious at the time same time, and in the next four days, Tex became (and still is) my second love (after basketball, you may recall). He is so adorable that my heart hurts just looking at him; I love playing with him, walking him, and simply watching him. Tex has helped me relax better than any therapy session and learn to love again – especially other animals, other people, and myself.
Equally important, he made me think otherwise about eating animal products. I never really liked the taste of meat, dairy, or eggs, so I didn’t eat them often. However, my parents were convinced that I needed these foods in order to gain weight; I ate only enough to appease them. Over time, though, I realized that I needed more nutrition than what I was getting, so I asked my nutritionist about alternatives – you know, beans, nuts, almond milk, leafy greens, whole grains, etc. Thankfully, she had no problem with this – she was simply glad to see me express an interest in food.
However, my mom thought that I was restricting again and claimed that I had swapped anorexia for orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with “healthy” eating). This, of course, irritated me, so instead of becoming less obsessed, I became more. I did so much research that it made my head spin! There is a lot of conflicting information out there, but I came to my own conclusions, some rooted in solid evidence while others were still rooted in my disorder.
Nevertheless, I did indeed begin to gain weight. It was tough because I felt like people would look at me differently, and I would want to crawl back into my hole. However, I persevered not only for me but also for my dad, who is my role model and confidante. He and I have been buds since I was four (when I busted my chin open, and he was there to take me to the hospital), so I never want to disappoint him. I wanted to get better so that he wouldn’t have to be so worried about me.
Gradually, my orthorexic mindset shifted away from the extreme end of the spectrum. A couple of things happened to change this. One was that at the start of my eighth grade year, my dad became blind in one eye after an accident doing yard work. I realized that it is not about your appearance in life that truly matters. People who love you will love you for who you are, not what you look like. Also, the experience taught me what it’s like to be there for someone else when they are in need, just as how my dad was there for me in the darkest days of my disorder. Another event was that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few months later. She had to have surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I realized that life is fleeting and can change in an instant, so I should be grateful for what I have. Also, my mom’s experience gave me infinitely more respect for her (which she deserves regardless) and convinced me that it’s simply not worth it to keep pushing against her because I am hurting both of us unnecessarily. The third thing was that my doctor’s 25 year-old daughter died in a car crash with her fiancé, so my doctor took many months off from her work to grieve. This forced me to examine the reasons I still had to cling to my eating disorder. What I found was that I didn’t have any reasons. I realized that I spent an enormous amount of energy keeping it alive but that it was not worth it anymore. Without a doctor to keep me on track, I had to proactively distance myself from my disorder.
And, I gradually began to live again. I didn’t worry about what I ate or how long I exercised nearly as much as I had before. I developed new interests and devoted my energies elsewhere. I started rowing crew, which has been immensely therapeutic and which I hope to do in college, and I started playing a little golf in my spare time. I became a member of a few clubs at school and started playing the piano also. All the while, I had been cooking, too, and reading cookbooks like they were novels. I was especially interested in vegetarian cuisine as those were the types of cookbooks I had at home (Moosewood and Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen were my favorites).
I was already quite an accomplished cook when I checked out Vegan Fusion World Cuisine from my local library. I hadn’t heard of veganism until then, but when I started looking through the cookbook, I knew it was right for me. The book opened my eyes to a compassionate, conscientious style of living – it was so nonjudgmental and welcoming, too. It discussed our relationship with the earth and animals and how veganism helps us live in harmony with them. The lifestyle made me feel good about what I was eating because it not only nourished me with healthful vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients but also conserved resources, took a stand against the unnecessary suffering of animals, and made me feel more creative, energetic, and at peace with myself. So, I bought the cookbook and became vegan and haven’t looked back since!
One of the aspects I like about veganism is that it has been such a welcoming community after such a long time of loneliness. I feel included in a movement larger than myself; it has made me move away from being so selfish and instead be a steward of this vibrant, but suffering-filled, world. At first, I was hesitant to call myself a vegan, though, because I feared other people’s reactions, especially my parents. However, the more I read about animal rights, the mitigated environmental footprint of a vegan lifestyle, and the health benefits, the more I felt that I shouldn’t be ashamed of the “label” of veganism. Thus, when people asked me about my dietary choices, I told them that I was vegan, which, of course, led to questions. I felt proud to answer their inquiries with confidence and know that I could be a positive example for them and that I could bust some stereotypes and misconceptions.
Another facet of veganism that I like is that it has opened up a whole new world of ingredients to me. During my disorder, I ate only a limited number of foods; when I became interested in vegetarian and vegan cooking, the variety of foods I ate expanded exponentially. Yet another part of veganism that I find attractive is that it is not just a way of eating – it is a way of life. I love discovering vegan fashion lines, beauty products, cleaning products, and much more. I have always been interested in creating things, so the process of using plant-based materials to make these items just fascinates me!
Eventually, because I was enjoying what I was eating and not afraid to eat, I got my period. My doctors were overjoyed, and they said I had made enough progress that I was about ready for a discharge. My appointments became farther and farther in between, and soon enough, I was done with formal treatment. I still wasn’t “recovered,” and I definitely still struggled with the mental aspects of my disorder, but I had made enough physical progress that my parents weren’t so worried about me. Little did they know that I was now caught up in the whole “strong is the new skinny” meme. I had replaced one ideal for another.
However, after a couple months of intense exercising, I was burned out; I felt just as bad as I had when I was restricting my calories. So, I cut back on the workouts. I felt great for the first time in a long time. Yes, it was hard for me, but, once again, I had to examine my motives for working out. Was I doing it to look a certain way? The answer was yes, and I realized that I had lost sight of the original reasons I loved to be active, which included the energy it gave me, the feelings of confidence and accomplishment, the fun of it, the sweat, the challenge. Thus, I have tried being more intuitive with my exercise and keeping it varied and interesting because physical activity has always been a huge part of my life, and I only look forward to continuing it throughout my life.
In the meantime, though, I went to a lecture by a raw foodist from Australia who visited the city where I live. He sparked in me an interest in raw food (which I had learned about in Vegan Fusion), which led me to Rebecook, a wonderful website by Rebecca Leffler with awesome and humorous videos of raw and cooked vegan recipes, which, in turn, led me to Choosing Raw! I read Gena’s about page and was immediately struck by her mentioning of her struggle with an eating disorder. Her story of recovery and her personal philosophy deeply resonated with me. I checked out her top posts tab and loved her style of writing and her insights, so I kept coming back to her blog.
One day, as I was perusing the site, I clicked on the Green Recovery tab. I read all the past stories and vowed to myself that once I was ready, I would write my own story. Well, here it is, in the process! I wasn’t sure if I’d ever fully recover, though, but through reading others’ stories, I found it was possible. I am truly in a much better place than I was just two years ago. I thought that, in order to be “worthy” of such a post, I would have to struggle for upwards of years because it seemed to me that everyone had gone through almost a decade of suffering before they attained peace and balance. I came to my senses, realizing that that thought was my way of holding onto the last vestiges of my disorder and that I shouldn’t compare myself to others’ stories. Plus, it’s not a competition to see who can suffer the longest! Eating disorder sufferers share many similar sentiments, but each person’s disorder and recovery are highly individual because each situation is as unique as the person.
I think that full recovery is possible, but I also think that it doesn’t mean you are going to be exactly the same as you were before your disorder. I understand this, but sometimes I think that my parents don’t really get it as I remember them frequently telling me to just “snap out of it”. It’s not that simple because my eating disorder fundamentally changed the way I think about food, exercise, my body, my mind, and the world around me.
I am a different person now, a little calmer, more compassionate, happier, more confident, a little more mature. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have those days where I can’t stand being in my own skin or I think I’m ugly or I’m tempted to reign in my appetite. I have these days, but they are getting farther and farther in between, and I try not to freak out when they appear.
So, here is a question: Would I take back my eating disorder if I could? My answer: No. Now, I would not want to relive the mental, emotional, and physical traumas of my eating disorder, but I can’t imagine my life without having experienced it. It has made a profound and enduring impact on my life, for it has left me a much stronger person, introduced me to the lifestyle of veganism, and challenged me to rethink the way I view the world, all of which I am forever grateful.
There is so much to say about Elisabeth’s gorgeous green recovery, but to be honest, it’s so rich and so layered that I’m not sure where to begin. I was struck by her ability to be candid about the fact that beauty, elegance, and wanting to be noticed were all a part of the disease. While a yearning for beauty didn’t really drive the first onset of my anorexia, it did play into my relapses, and it actually took me a very long time to admit as much. So many people assume that EDs are all about wanting to be noticed, or that they’re an expression of vanity. I personally feel compelled to correct this misconception all the time, and frame them as what they are, which is mental illnesses. And yet the desire to be noticed did have something to do with my ED, and I sometimes feel ashamed of this. Perhaps it’s time that I learned to come to terms with it.
I also love Elisabeth’s mature take on recovery: “I think that full recovery is possible, but I also think that it doesn’t mean you are going to be exactly the same as you were before your disorder.” That’s exactly how I think about it, too, and I love that Elisabeth can recognize that, for all of the suffering it caused, her ED has given her certain insights and gifts for which she feels grateful.
I hope you’ll all comment and share your thoughts on Elisabeth’s story. And I’ll see you for weekend reading tomorrow.