Green Recovery: A Step Back, and a Step Down
February 18, 2012

First things first: what’s up NYC!?!

After a six hour Megabus ride last night, I have finally made it home to the streets of the Upper West Side. Holla! This weekend couldn’t have come at a better time–it was an emotionally and mentally draining week at school, and in spite of the 10 metric tons of textbook I’m carrying around with me, I look forward to at least one Saturday of fun.

Today’s Green Recovery story is about a recovery in progress. When I began this series, I was intent on featuring recovery stories written by people whose recoveries were firmly in the past. The series has evolved, though, to include testimonials from people who are in all stages of recovery: the near past, the distant past, and everything in between. “Recovery” itself is a fluid term, and the process rarely has a distinct “beginning” or “end;” it’s a process of gradual evolution. So I think it’s only right that the GR series should encompass a spectrum of voices, some of which describe recovery as something that happened a long time ago, and some of which talk about it in the present tense.

Today’s story is from a young woman who has been through a harrowing ED and recovery journey in the last few years. Her disorder led to an urgent health crisis, described below, and you’ll be able to see the physical scars she sustained in addition to the emotional ones. She has recently moved from her lifelong home of New Jersey to attend grad school, so she and I can commiserate on the strangeness of leaving a familiar zone for a new one. She has asked to remain anonymous, but she also asked me to throw in these little details so that she wouldn’t sound like a “ghost woman” to everyone. After reading her brave and honest narrative, I doubt that any of us will feel that she is ghostly. I  hope that we’ll all feel a lot closer to her, and be able to offer her some supportive feedback on her journey.

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I was that kid everyone knew – chunky as a child, chubby as a teen, and a bit overweight as a young adult. I remember standing in front of mirrors, even in the seventh grade, and wishing there was some way I could lose weight (without giving up my snickers bars, cheeseburgers, and the gallon of milk I would drink bi-weekly, of course).

But by my second semester of college I was a vegetarian – mainly because the school’s food was atrocious. In the years that followed I took a number of environment classes which informed my decision to no longer consume meat. Through the process I lost maybe 10 lbs – noticeable, but not significant in my eyes.

A few Decembers ago, I read Joel Fuhrman’s Eat to Live. My father – who was recovering from quadruple by-pass surgery – recommended it to me, and I tore through it in an evening. I was already vegetarian, so a lot of his suggestions seemed easy for me to implement. I began the New Year fully absorbed in his message – perhaps too absorbed. I began restricting, heavily. The only grains I allowed myself were a small bowl of oatmeal every morning. I cut out all fats, steaming my vegetables or eating them entirely raw. And my portions were ridiculously small. Most nights I remember going to bed with my stomach churning – but somehow I found that comforting, like the sound of progress.

By the beginning of February I had lost a good 20lbs. My restricting was accompanied by excess exercising. The gym was located a little over a mile from my apartment, and I would walk there every evening to spend a half hour on the elliptical and a half hour running on a treadmill. Most days I was burning more calories than I was consuming. Around the same time I began noticing that, after eating, my shoulder hurt and my stomach ached. The pain would wear off, but then it would be time to eat again. This only further complicated my already confused relationship with food.

My college was located approximately an hour and a half from my parent’s house, so some weekends I would drive back to volunteer with a local organization I had spent time with in the past. One weekend I spent a grueling, thirteen hour day as a server at an event, running up and down stairs and back and forth between buildings. For the first time in two months I had a huge meal around noon, knowing my shift wouldn’t end until late that evening. The typical pain arrived after eating, but this time it didn’t go away. By five o’clock I could barely stand and it took me a good hour to just walk across the street. I sat down and didn’t move until someone found me sitting in my boss’s office, dazed. I called my parents to pick me up and they took me to the emergency room.

To make a long story short, the doctors didn’t know what was wrong. My abdominal cavity was filling with air, but all the tests they ran showed nothing. In the early hours of the morning they performed emergency exploratory surgery and discovered a gaping hole in my stomach. I spent the next week in the hospital, sustained purely by IV. The following week, on bed rest, I could only eat tiny amounts of pureed food. I was in my early 20s and had to completely and utterly re-teach myself to eat. I didn’t tell anyone, but a part of me knew this had been caused by restricting and exercising. Over the course of those two weeks I lost an additional 25lbs. I was ‘officially’ underweight.

Over the summer I continued restricting and exercising every evening after work (8-10 hours of standing in a factory). I was convinced I was healthy again, that I was eating normally (because a small side salad as a lunch is a huge amount after not eating for weeks). I slowly began gravitating towards a vegan diet, partially because I figured cutting out dairy would help me maintain my new, skinny figure, and partially because I am, genuinely, horrified at the complete and utter disrespect we show towards animals.

But there were still complications. I hadn’t had a period – still haven’t, in fact – since before my surgery. And this year-anniversary has driven home the notion that, yes, perhaps I did have an eating disorder, and perhaps am still living with one. This was a thought people had suggested to me in the past, but I continuously and repeatedly repudiated.

My new year has been motivated by two thoughts. First, that my goal is to be healthy. Not skinny. Second, my adoption of a vegan lifestyle was hypocritical. How could I truly claim to live compassionately, to advocate for the rights and humane treatment of every living creature, when I wasn’t treating myself with compassion?

I’ve taken a step back, and a step down. I’m treating myself the way I wish all others could be treated. I’m eating enough. I no longer go to bed with a rumbling stomach, and wake up unable to complete a simple Sun Salutation due to hunger pains. I’ve cut back my three-mile runs to half hour walks every day. I can think clearer and I have more energy. I’ve acknowledged (and am slowly accepting) the need to heal myself (body and mind) so I can again enjoy my runs (rather than being a slave to them).

Of course, this means I have days where I feel my muscles are “atrophying,” the fat is “caking on,” and I’m going to see that chubby little kid facing me in the mirror again. There are days when my stomach doesn’t churn at all, and I have the compulsion to go for a long run because, obviously, I’ve eaten too much.

So far, this year, I’ve been able to swallow that back by focusing on what truly matters. Not being skinny. Not losing weight or fitting a sexy ideal. But being healthy and compassionate, not only to myself, but to every person and animal I encounter.

___________________________________________________________

Many things stand out about this story. First, the universality of its origin: the girl who was slightly “chubby” as a child is often the same girl who tries to fight her body with ED behaviors later on. I often find myself telling people that many of the people who become ED-prone were slightly overweight in their emotionally vulnerable childhood years, and flirted with restrictive behavior as in an attempt to ward off feelings of having been “chubby,” “big,” or “awkward.”

I was also interested in the author’s mention of Eat to Live. Marissa, who recently wrote a Green Recovery story, credits that book with her recovery. This all goes to show that any resource–book, website, etc.–can be a harmful influence to some, and a positive influence to others. I  think Eat to Live is a very inspiring and helpful book for people who suffer from high cholesterol or who are trying to lose weight through plant-based food, and of course I love its emphasis on nutrient-dense food as a means of fighting disease. But I personally find it to be unnecessarily restrictive on many fronts (fat, grains, portions, sodium), at least for people who are not directly at risk for chronic disease, and would probably have found it triggering if I had read it early in my own recovery.

The bottom line is that what may be life-saving to some people (in this case, someone battling high cholesterol or weight) may also not be appropriate for someone else (a girl who is at a healthy weight, and prone to restriction). Part of maintaining recovery is to know what kinds of voices and advice are constructive for you to hear, and which aren’t. There’s a lot of “noise” that I consciously tune out–diets that strike me as needlessly restrictive and/or driven by the tendency to vilify food, conversations about weight loss/detox. There are even small things that I tune out: some time ago, I mentioned that I find it uncomfortable to enjoy a big meal with other women who immediately begin to talk about how they’ll need to “burn it off” or compensate tomorrow.

It’s not that I think that everyone is in the wrong for having these dialogs; it’s simply that I don’t find them constructive, and they also evoke tendencies in my own past that I have moved past. So, I tune some of these conversations out, and simply remain focused on my own health priorities: eating a diet that is as healthy as it is ample and satisfying; being mindful of good nutrition without becoming fanatical or extreme.

What do you think of our guest’s Green Recovery? If you’re a recovered/recovering person, what influences do you find helpful, and which have you learned to tune out?

Today’s agenda:

  • yoga
  • lunch/hang time with my friend Cassie
  • coffee/conversation downtown with my friend Sam
  • a little schoolwork
  • evening out with my friend Nelly

And who knows what else? Nothing quite like having NY at your fingertips.

xo

Categories: Food and Healing

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    29 Comments
  1. Thank you for sharing this story Gena, and thanks to the author for being brave enough to share how far she has come and how far she has to go. I agree that resources that are helpful to some are harmful to others. Definitions of what is “healthy” have to be dissected and reorganized to fit the lifestyle and health of each individual. If we all prescribe to a single notion of what health is, especially those of us who have struggled with eating disorders, then we are not truly tuning in to what our individual bodies need to be nourished.

  2. I can’t believe how much this story resonated with me. I’m way older than any of you and a few months back started a restrictive eating programme with predominantly vegetables and a few fruits – no seeds, nuts or starches. While my period didn’t stop, my bowels stopped working and that really really scared me. So while I also “enjoyed” the hungry feeling thinking it was a healthy way to get slimmer, the bowel thing really scared me and all I could think of was the impending cancer that would result, so I’ve started increasing my calories slightly and including seeds to keep the system moving.

  3. “How could I truly claim to live compassionately, to advocate for the rights and humane treatment of every living creature, when I wasn’t treating myself with compassion?”
    This is a beautiful question that I pose to myself as often as I remember. It can be so hard to treat yourself as well as you do the rest of the world – it sounds like you (the writer) are a very compassionate individual who does wonderful things for others – but it is equally important, if not more so, and equally deserved. I wish you health and happiness and self-appreciation!!

  4. I think the ETL program can improve with disorders other than high cholesterol. The program helped my husband reverse his high blood pressure (from two meds to none!) and saved me from the misery of chronic migraines. It’s also an effective program for preventing and reversing heart disease, autoimmune conditions and diabetes. If someone has eating disorders, however, he or she might need extra support if embarking on the Eat to Live program. I personally don’t find it to be too restrictive, after all, Dr. Fuhrman has a whole list of foods that one should eat every day. He also says that once you eat all the cooked and raw veggies, fruits nuts, seeds and avocados he recommends, then you can also add starches, grains and even the occasional splurge.

    • I like this comment. It shows a level headed approach and I’m really pleased that your results were so fantastic. The problem that I think many people – including me – had is that they only pick the really low calorie, zero fat veg for too long, instead of including some seeds and avocadoes to balance out the system.

  5. Thank you thank you thank you so much for this story. Having an ED is so isolating, and these stories make me feel connected. Especially this story, since I have been/am struggling with something very similar. I can’t thank you enough, both of you.

  6. Thanks both for this story.

    Gena, I like your points at the end about tuning out unhelpful things such as certain comversations and diets; I really have to do this too. Also a major trigger for me is when someone close to me goes on a diet; I really have to stop myself from engaging in restrictive activities.

    xxx

  7. Thank you for sharing your story and I wish you so much universal love (sorry I just can’t think of anyway else to say it) in your recovery! I really resonate with the compassion for self too.
    I find ETL and many other vegan oil-free, low fat nutrition books to be very triggering for me as I get so wound up in eating healthy enough. I try and tune them out. I have struggled in the past with disordered eating and I still struggle with body image issues or the self-doubt of “good” nutrition. What I find helpful is to focus on the big picture of my food intake, like is it healthy overall, instead of zeroing in on the individual food items. Also being more in tune with my feelings has helped.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I wish you the best and I know you can be a strong, confident, and healthy young woman!
    Great post Gena, your blog is amazing!

  9. To the writer:

    Thank you for your bravery and for opening your soul to us. I love your shit in perspective towards being compassionate towards yourself as well. This was touching.

    Gena – thank you for this series. Though I have not experienced an ED, I have so many close friends who have and these stories help me to understand them a little bit more.

  10. Kudos to you, brave mystery woman! The thing that cemented my commitment to heal my own ED was just saying the words aloud to my mom, “I have been doing this to myself, and I need to stop.” And then… I did. I finally felt like I had my mom’s support. I had created a venue in which my problematic behavior could be discussed– I no longer had anything to hide and could finally let my truest self, my nurturing, self-lovin’ self, step up and own my life. That was three years ago, and I have never looked back.

    By sharing your story, you, too, have a host of fans in your corner. And you can be proud of your honesty and use that pride to hold yourself accountable– you WILL treat yourself with the respect that you deserve. And you’ll have setbacks, too , but remember that you’re not alone. We all know that you can get there.

    And thank you, Gena. I love this series!

  11. Very interesting and thank you for sharing both author and Gena. It’s so painful to realize how many women (and some men) truly suffer with ED’s. Any change in eating pattern can be triggering or restrictive OR help in recovery. For myself a vegan way of eating freed me to eat, to stop looking at calories or even nutrient breakdowns and just eat good healthy unprocessed food. It freed me to look at myself as an animal as well and find a compassion for myself that wasn’t there before. People who are obese and severely overweight, in my opinion often suffer from this form of lack of compassion for themselves. I loved your wrap up at the end Gena, anything can be helpful OR harmful. Even though I’m not anorexic anymore I actually find many healthy living blogs triggering. There may be nothing wrong with them but in my journey they triggers something I personally still struggle with to some extent. So I don’t read them even if there is good info. Even some recovery books. The book “appetites” was really helpful to me, but I had to put down several other books as I started to feel like I wasn’t a good enough “anorexic” I wasn’t as small, I wasn’t as “disciplined”. When I start to feel like that I walk away. Still, 10 years after a sort of “recovery”

  12. This series is so inspiring. I love that you included a story of someone still in the recovery process. I’m hoping the experience was as useful for her as it is for us as readers. I particularly love her line stating that she couldn’t claim to live compassionately without having compassion for herself. Thank you so much for sharing!

  13. First off, thanks for sharing your story! I’m recently recovering as well (although not from anything nearly as drastic) and am still getting used to hearing that I look “healthy.” Health is always the goal, right? Keep it up! (Additionally, that’s what’s great about blogs like this – we’re all in support of ourselves and each other, simultaneously. I find it so refreshing.)

    Jess – while I understand your point, it’s also a very static view of human behavior/thought. Rarely do I find that people utilize an ideology – like veganism – in one way, or in a way that never changes. I think the author’s point is that, yes, maybe she BECAME vegan for not-so-good reasons, but that transformed, along with her.

  14. This particular story really crystalises some of my unease about this series, and the idea of veganism (or any restrictive diet) as a recovery tool for eating disorders. I don’t believe that everybody who is vegan has an eating disorder, obviously, or that everybody who has an eating disorder uses veganism as a way of restricting, but I do believe that there is a huge overlap, which so often goes undiscussed. This is why I find the idea of veganism as a “cure” for eating disorders very contradictory.

    As someone who has suffered from an eating disorder for eight years, and spent two of those years as a vegan, I think there are a lot of issues that nobody in this community talks about. Namely that following a very restrictive diet can be actively unhelpful. It seems like the author of the story above (who is so brave to share her struggles) was triggered partially by following a vegan diet, and states that after her surgery she wanted to cut out dairy to maintain her weight loss.

    While many people who follow a vegan diet do so purely out of reasons of compassion, many also do it for reasons of weight loss/restriction. This is why I feel that if somebody has an eating disorder and “recovers” by following a diet which can be extremely restrictive and low calorie and therefore “safe”, then it is difficult to say that they are really “recovered”.

    • Jess,

      There’s a reason I prefaced this particular GR story with this:

      “Today’s Green Recovery story is about a recovery in progress. When I began this series, I was intent on featuring recovery stories written by people whose recoveries were firmly in the past. The series has evolved, though, to include testimonials from people who are in all stages of recovery: the near past, the distant past, and everything in between….I think it’s only right that the GR series should encompass a spectrum of voices, some of which describe recovery as something that happened a long time ago, and some of which talk about it in the present tense.”

      Neither the author of this story nor I would claim that she is “really recovered.” This testimonial was her first attempt to make herself accountable and declare herself on the path to recovery in words. I wanted to give her space in which to do it. So no, she’s not “recovered,” but she is committed to getting there.

      As for veganism and EDs, I’ve covered it before. Yes, veganism *can,* in certain hands, be a tool for restriction, and so can any other diet (as an anorexic, my go-to foods were greek yogurt, steamed chicken, and string cheese). This series is meant to underscore the ways in which veganism is, for some people, a means of investing the act of eating with value again. Veganism is not for everyone who has recovered from an ED, and certainly only you can know whether or not you’re using it for purposes of weight loss, rather than ethics/health. For people like me, veganism is the opposite of my ED mindset: a lifestyle in which my food choices are valuable and important, in which I embrace the act of eating, and by which I hope to do good in the world.

      Whether or not today’s anonymous author will find a place where she no longer associates veganism with any kind of weight loss, I can’t say. I’m sure she can’t, either, but I think that her story makes clear that she is trying, and that, in the recent past, she’s made a mental shift in the way she thinks about her veganism. I wish her the best of luck no matter which diet is ultimately the right one for her and her recovery.

      • I totally agree with you on that Gena, it is so brave of her to share her story, and I (and I’m sure many other people) appreciate it.

        What I was saying isn’t so much about this woman in particular, but more about the idea of trying to solve eating disorders with a vegan diet in general. I know that this lady isn’t saying she is “recovered” (which is a word I am not a fan of anyway- I wish there was a more accurate term to use!) and I wish her so much luck and strength on her way.

        Eating disorders are such a big messy subject that is different to everybody, and I am not trying to single out your blog (which I love, even as a non-vegan) and I think for most people the reasons for being vegan are some combination of health and compassion (they were for me). I just feel that people using a vegan (or any other kind of restrictive, “healthy” diet) to hide their eating disorder behind is something that is rife, but really not discussed in the “healthy blogging” community.

  15. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us. One thing I love about blogs is that these stories are read by so many people and you never know whose life could be changed. I have never read Eat to Live, but I can definitely relate to books that are triggering. Sometimes, you have to step away from those things for a while until you are able to read them, if you want to, while being compassionate with yourself.

  16. This story is so moving and captivating. This line really struck me: “How could I truly claim to live compassionately, to advocate for the rights and humane treatment of every living creature, when I wasn’t treating myself with compassion?” So powerful.

    KUDOS TO YOU, GIRLFRIEND! I am so proud of how far you have come…after enduring everything that you have. Sending so much love to you!

    What helped me in my journey is really visualizing the end result. Every morning, I wake up and thank God for a strong body, despite the 6 years of destruction I put it through, and visualize what I want to happen for the day. That really allows me to tap into my true self and motivates me to move forward. <3

  17. I really had to respond with how triggering I also find that talk. My anorexia was/is very characterised by the vilifying of foods/food groups and I have avoided anything by dr fuhrman because I know it would be bad for me to read it. Nuts, avocados and oils (fats), sugar (maple syrup, agave, blackstrap molasses and coconut sugar – my new fave) and soy are all fine as part of the bigger picture and that is my current focus.
    Vis-a-vis “burn it off” talk I think there is a need as someone in recovery to acknowledge that exercise burns calories but so as to remind yourself “if I want to take this dance/yoga class/go for a run, then I need to eat an extra cereal bar/banana/piece of chocolate”. It shouldn’t be to do with punishment but needs to be acknowledged to keep yourself from back sliding weight-wise
    As ever thank you both for sharing/facilitating sharing an interesting and important story
    Hannah x

  18. Dear anonymous,

    Thank you so much for your courage to tell your story. I wish you the best on your continuing recovery, and it seems like you are on the right track by focusing on your health and not your pant size or the number on the scale.
    Thank you, Gena as always for having such insightful posts.
    Have fun in NYC!

  19. To the writer–thank you for your bravery in writing this. I so appreciate your sharing. I too have had stomach issues that make it hard to eat normally and the choices you make to recover are so important, and it’s hard to get the right support from the medical community at times.

    I haven’t read ETL but I have heard Dr. Fuhrman speak and find him to be too restrictive. At first I figured, ok, I’ll take what I can implement and leave the rest but his most recent radio talk where he said 90% of the population was overweight (whereas other estimates are about 30%) was unrealistic. He was obsessed with weight loss in that talk, which was meant to be for people who have eating disorders! In no way did he discuss restrictive eating. I find him to be triggering to orthorexic eating behaviors. I appreciate your posting this because it’s more evidence that he should not be the sole vegan doctor voice we listen to.

    The burn it off philosophy is a one I have followed perhaps in the past. I think if you exercise hard, you can get away with eating more of certain types of foods and drinks while maintaining a slimmer body. It has been hard to give up being able to exercise hard and then in turn throw caution to the wind with eating habits. However, that is rather extreme in retrospect. Because can only do mild exercise now, so I eat consistently healthier and give less room in my diet for vegan junk foods because of that. It’s a balance I’ve come to over awhile.

  20. So much about this hit home for me. Thank you so much for sharing your story – I can relate and my heart truly goes out to you. Well done for focusing on getting your health back, that in itself is a major step so don’t fret over the occasional days where you have disordered thoughts. You can and will conquer this!

    Gena – I completely agree about the “burn it off” talk. Last week, a girl I see at my campus gym regularly asked me why I was lifting weights as, “doesn’t building muscle make you gain weight?” and it really bothered me. In fact any talk about excercise/diet in the interest of weight loss doesn’t sit well with me. I know that not everyone who does necessarily has ED tendencies but I can’t help but feel like they’re not seeing the bigger picture – as arrogant as that may sound.

  21. Great story, thank you so much for sharing! I think it’s a very interesting story too, Gena, because I can relate to torturing my self with “good” nutrition info and using it to fuel my obsessive restricting during my ED days. In some ways this story highlights a coming issue as America tries to tackle the “obesity crisis”, all the publicity may be having a too heavy effect on already diet and exercise obsessed people. I find myself throttling the amount of healthy living books I read when old feelings from my ED days start creeping back sometimes.

  22. What a brave and thought-provoking post! I love the idea of embracing the concept of “compassion” for oneself. And of course I love the pursuit of health instead of skinny! Bravo and best wishes to you!

    Gena, your points about Eat to Live are terrific. Particularly that you allow for shades of grey — because too many people do not. What works for one may not work for another and let us all try not judge those who do not do as we do. Again, the idea of compassion to all. Enjoy your time in NY!

  23. I find ETL both inspiring and triggering. Every time I follow it 100% I lose my period. I think the suggestions may be too extreme for already normal weight ovulating exercising women. I’ve thought about contacting dr. Furhman about this directly-increasing nuts/seeds or overall volume alone doesn’t really counteract that for me. Thanks for sharing this story-I can relate to a lot of it.

    Also – Enjoy NYC! I especially love the UWS Fairway on Broadway sneaking out of that photo.