How It Feels To Leave an Eating Disorder Behind
February 26, 2016

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Something strange has been happening in the last year or so. For the first time in my adult life, I haven’t spent much time thinking about my eating disorder.

In some ways this should come as no surprise. I’ve identified as “recovered” for a good while now, so why should distance from the ED feel so new? The answer is that, while it has been a long time since anorexia constituted a significant part of my identity, the ED recovery narrative has continued to strongly influence my sense of self.

Until recently, that is.

My conscious identification with recovery is a direct antidote to all of the denial and secrecy that characterized my anorexia. I refused to admit how sick I was for so long, and even after I’d sought help I could barely speak the words “eating disorder” out loud; it felt shameful to identify openly with the disease. Once I had come to terms with it–had admitted to myself and others that it was indeed every bad as I had pretended it wasn’t–I found a lot of power in putting words to the struggle, and calling it by its name.

Likewise, I’ve found openness about my recovery process–everything from rebuilding identity to coming up with strategies for bad body days–to be a powerful means of staying accountable. In sharing my story, I’ve gained a lot of valuable perspective on the ED experience and how it shaped my life, and I’ve connected with men and women who share similar pasts. I’ve found support, encouragement, and a sense of purpose.

Yet in the last year, recovery simply hasn’t been on my mind very much. I think the best sign of this is that my blog has been focused much more on life and on food than on EDs or ED recovery. It’s quite telling that, as NEDA week approached this year, it took me a while to figure out what I had to say.

There are a bunch of reasons for this shift. Since my post-bacc, I’ve immersed myself once again in work that I love and in a new chapter of grad school. Things are rich and fulfilling–and sometimes incredibly hectic. There’s a lot less time for self-reflection these days, and for someone like me, who tends to live in her head and overanalyze things, this has actually been a blessing.

Being busy, coupled with being in a relationship, has given me a new set of priorities and needs when it comes to food. I spend most of my time thinking about how I can create weekly meal plans for me and Steven that are economical, realistic, and that appeal to our love of food without forcing me to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Good nutrition is always on my mind, but I don’t have much time to worry about eating optimally or constructing “perfect” plates of food, and this seems to have propelled my recovery forward in a big way.

Finally, and probably most significantly, there’s the passage of time. Each year brings more freedom, more peace. This year brings more than others.

With these developments comes a new phase of recovery, a phase in which I no longer identify first and foremost as someone who has struggled with an eating disorder. In the past, for example, I always accounted for my love of cooking by mentioning that it had sprung up from a very troubled food history. This is still true, but nowadays I’m comfortable simply identifying as a food lover. I don’t have to contextualize my passion for food by contrasting it with my former illness.

Not surprisingly, this opens up a lot of creative energy and passion surrounding food. The less I feel the weight of my ED history, the more excited I am about recipe development, cooking, and food photography. At moments, I’ve been able to experience food exclusively as a source of pleasure, without any thought given to its value as fuel or nutrition. This is an experience that I’ve truthfully not had since childhood. And it’s happening in spite of the fact that I study nutrition nitty gritty all day long. It feels a bit paradoxical that I should be finding more culinary and aesthetic appreciation of food just as my understanding of nutrition science deepens. But it’s happening, all the same.

Not everything about this shift is easy. One thing I’ve noticed is that, with the ED retreating into the horizon behind me, other pesky forms of anxiety are slipping into my life. I stress about food so much less than I used to, but I’m suddenly stressing a great deal more about work and time management. I suffer from the “time scarcity trap”–I’m always worried about time I don’t have, and I’m always fixated on what hasn’t been done. I know it’s normal to battle these feelings as one grows older and responsibilities multiply, but they’re causing disproportionate stress.

And that’s the point: as we move into ED recovery, it’s important to look out for new anxious tendencies may prove equally ill-adaptive. EDs are not illnesses that descend on us at random–or at least, they rarely do. They capture the anxieties, fears, and thought patterns to which we’re already susceptible. Recovery leaves those anxieties exposed, and they can find new ways to tug at us.

My ED gave me a place to hide; no matter how destructive it was, there was something awfully comforting about having one set of worries that out-shadowed all the others. In the time I spent picking apart and obsessing over my food choices, I could avoid contending with the really scary stuff, the deep fears and painful relationships that I didn’t want to face. I used restriction and regimentation to calm my anxieties, so that I wouldn’t have to address those anxieties at their source.

Today, as I grow accustomed to a life in which ED chatter is no long nipping at my heels, I realize that accountability and self-care routines are as important as ever. There will always be sources of pain and hurt, life experiences that make me feel diminished or afraid. For a long time, anorexia and orthorexia were my way of responding. Through recovery, I’ve found more healthful and adaptive strategies, including therapy, writing, honest conversation, and meaningful work. I need to continue relying on those tools, and–most importantly of all–I need not to fear all of the open space that has been created as my ED history slides farther and farther away.

It’s poignant to realize to realize that this incredibly important experience is becoming a more distant part of my past. Change–even positive, healthy change–is hard. Without either the ED or ED recovery as constitutive parts of my identity, I find myself facing more questions about who I am, what I want, and how I’d like to live. But the questions are good, and I know that I would have neither the freedom nor the energy to ask them were I still consumed by the disease and its shadow.

So, as NEDA week wraps up, I’m leaning into life that is increasingly untangled from my recovery narrative. It’s a new sensation, one I’m still adjusting to, but I embrace it and look forward to seeing where it takes me. Rest assured that EDs will continue to be a focus of my writing and work, and NEDA week will always be a time for reflection on this blog. But I hope you’ll also journey with me as I explore a new, more expansive phase of recovery.

I wish you all a wonderful Friday, and a great start to the weekend.

xo

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Categories: Food and Healing

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    20 Comments
  1. […] February, for NEDA week, I wrote about the odd realities of leaving an eating disorder behind. Yes, there’s a lot of freedom to be gained. But there is also the unsettling process of […]

  2. I definitely share this experience of moving away from my eating disorder and of arriving at a place where recovery doesn’t involve my active engagement. Where I’m just living my life. This is what made my own experience with raw foods and the so-called “raw food world” an interesting one, because I was already in such a happy place in my recovery journey in 2007. I’d say at the time my involvement with “food” was more political than anything else. So it was interesting to suddenly be around or in conversations with people – without eating disorders – engaged in behaviors that were eerily reminiscent of my own eating disorder. And while I found none of it triggering (if anything, I found it off-putting), I did have to extricate myself from some conversations, relationships, etc., because I really had no desire to return to that “hyper-conscious” place. So for example, while I adore Natalia Rose herself, and resonate with a lot of what she teaches (eating light to heavy, etc.), I would quite literally waste away if I were to subsist on green juice until 3 PM. And I didn’t find it healthy, for me personally, given my history, to be in close relationships with people who aspired to subsist on air alone. Not that I felt vulnerable, more the case my love of food is what sustains my recovery – and keeps me relapse-proof. So I wasn’t about to renegotiate that relationship by creating a long list of “unclean” foods when my recovery was all about eating whatever I wanted. So I had to find my own way with raw foods, and maybe it’s why I engaged more with your blog in the beginning, because I sensed you were finding your voice, and I hoped it would be one kind of voice and not another 🙂

  3. It amazes me how open you are abour your entire experience. I recently had a family member who overcame an eating disorder. It was, and still is, a daily stuggle for her. Many do not realize that it is both a mental and physical disorder. It is not as simple as just adopting a different diet. Those suffering from an ED disorder must treat the physical then the mental aspect! Your story is inspiring and I wish you the best of luck in all you do.

  4. Gena. Thank you. As someone who has “recovered” but still struggles daily with anorexia, it has been so helpful reading your words. I appreciate your honesty here so much friend. It’s so important to do as you say, look out for those replacement anxieties. They are all too real and crippling, just like the ED. I’m so happy to hear you’re moving past it and able to enjoy so much more! Thinking of you as you go into this next stage of life. You have such a strength of mind I have complete confidence in you <3

    • Dear Jessie,

      It means so very much to me to hear about your story. Part of my recovery — one of the most important parts — has been finding strength in sharing my experience with so many women in the food/blogging community. I am really glad that these posts have been meaningful to you, and more importantly, I feel really grateful for your support and encouragement as I continue to grow into new phases of my own life/recovery process. Thank you, friend. <3

      XO

  5. Gena, I cannot say ‘thank you’ enough times for all of your writings. Thank you.

  6. i love this post – it’s so great to read that you’ve made strides in your post-recovery (if that can be a thing) – take care of yourself, lady <3

  7. As someone who is still struggling to recover, this gives me a lot of hope. Thank you for sharing.

  8. As someone (relatively) new to the recovery process, and having just stumbled upon your blog today, this post was incredibly inspiring to read <3 Thank you so much for your openness and story! Truly, it is the motivation I needed this morning to get through today.

  9. So happy for your peace of mind Gena and the help you can give to others still on the ED road / recovery path. I’ve always been a strong believer in channeling our weaknesses into helping others as a way of enabling control over what’s detracting us in growth and love.
    Take good care.

  10. Thank you for this post. It is just what I needed to read today. My thoughts have been drifting towards how to identify myself as I move through recovery and if that was even possible. This puts things in perspective and gives me great hope as I continue through my journey. This week has been an eye opening experience with my story coming out. I have such a great response that I still cannot believe it! Thank you!

  11. Gena, what a beautiful post. I hadn’t read the bad body days post, so I read that, too. Also a beautiful triumph. And this “most importantly of all–I need not to fear all of the open space that has been created as my ED history slides farther and farther away” is so resonanat and absolutely true. So many of us fear those open spaces–they ARE scary. Blessings to you, dear friend, as you greet those open spaces, and allow room for new possibilities to blossom. What a perfect time of year for it too. Thank you–xoxo

    ps: Though I don’t have one, I have such clarity about the issues eating disorders involve, because of your blog, and thus more compassion. Often I think of a girl I knew in high school who was definitely anorexic, though we didn’t call it that–Karen Carpenter was still alive, too–and I wonder if and hope that she’s alright, that she got to live a good recovered life like you are doing. So thank you for giving me that opportunity, Gena xoxo

  12. Really love hearing how it is possible to no longer identify so strongly as a person with a past ED. I have always heard that it is something that is always with you even after you have been recovered for awhile. I am glad to know that this is not the whole truth because I want to reach the same point that you are at in your recovery. I found your website almost four years ago at the beginning of my recovery journey and your writings and the community you have here have been very helpful, even though I’m a lurker and don’t comment often, but I do want to say thank you!

  13. Gena,
    I can completely relate. I have the experience of having been at both ends of the ED spectrum, with 10+ years of anorexia/bulimia, recovery, then a weight gain and subsequent loss. Now, 10 years after my weight loss, neither my ED nor my weight loss matters much in my daily life. I can talk about it, and I do, as a health coach and wellness writer. But it’s not what I lead with. It’s just part of my history now.
    I admire how you’ve evolved and grown your blog as you’ve recovered. You are a wonderful role model for those who want to embrace a holistic plant-based lifestyle.

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