Happy Monday, everyone, and happy first day of NEDA week. For the last couple of years I’ve used NEDA week as an opportunity to celebrate the recovery process. This year gives me special reason to do it: I spent much of 2017 navigating loss, and as I did, I called upon the patience and sense of resilience that anorexia recovery has taught me.
The theme of NEDA week this year is “Let’s Get Real,” and the goal is to expand our collective dialog about eating disorders and how they show up in real life. This means challenging preconceived ideas about how eating disorders might look or whom they impact, breaking through stigma, and being more radically honest than ever about the complexities of recovery. You can read more here.
I love this theme. I love any effort to create a more open, accommodating, reality-based dialog about disordered eating. Because the topic this year resonates so strongly, and because I’m celebrating the lessons of recovery in such a personal way right now, I’ve made the choice to gather a little support for NEDA—the National Eating Disorders Association—this week. More about that in a bit. First, I want to honor the start of this week by sharing some of the affirmations that have guided me through recovery.
What becomes clear to me as I move deeper into recovery is that the struggle with food can recede, but the old demons might continue to show up in other, sneaky ways. In my life, they tend to emerge as arbitrary rules and deadlines, unnecessarily strict boundaries, binary thinking, and other means of resisting and avoiding uncertainty. They urge me to remain guarded when I could be generous, to withhold my creativity when I could express myself, to dwell where it’s safe instead of allowing myself to take risks.
This is one of the realities of recovery that I didn’t expect. Redefining my relationship with food set me free, but I’ve learned that I need to protect that freedom by remaining mindful of the many and varied ways in which I tend to keep myself contained.
I’ve written a lot about affirmations this year and the ways in which they’ve helped me to cope with depression and anxiety. I haven’t said much about my recovery affirmations, but they’re worth sharing, especially today:
I’ll elaborate on each one as the week continues. “Keep it real” aligns with NEDA’s “Let’s Get Real” theme, and it seems like the right place to start.
Keeping it real, for me, means doing the opposite of what I did when I was sick, which was lie to myself and to everyone around me, all the time. I lied about my motivations for the food choices I made. I lied and said I was OK. I lied to myself in thinking that I was better than everyone, that I had a special claim to self-control. I lied and said I’d eaten when I hadn’t; I lied and said I wasn’t hungry, then ate in secret. I lied about my rituals, my habits, my compulsions.
It’s easy to look back on all of the dishonesty and denial and feel ashamed, and sometimes I still do. But shame doesn’t get me anywhere. What moves me forward is to hold myself to a different standard now—one of radical honesty. I examine my motivations with food carefully, I check in when I feel distanced from my appetite, and I don’t eat furtively or deny when I’m hungry. I openly talk about the food anxieties that have stuck around (and I’ve still got plenty: anxiety when mealtimes get delayed, anxiety about sharing my food, anxiety about travel and limited food options—I could go on.)
I don’t succeed all the time, which is OK. I still strive to stay real with myself and the people who love me. That intention is what matters most.
“Keeping it real” also means not glossing over how confusing and complicated recovery can be. Recovery is so good, and sometimes it’s so baffling. I said a moment ago that I didn’t anticipate the ways in which ED compulsions would show up outside of the actual disease. Here are some of the other recovery realities that have taken me by surprise:
● Physical recovery is often the first step. Maybe it feels like a blessed restoration; for me, it felt like disfigurement. It was a battle that waged for a long time, and watching my body change was a continual affront to my sense of identity. I’m not sure it was the hardest part of recovery, but it’s the part of the process that most often made me want to quit.
If this is where you are, try not to quit. It doesn’t last forever. At some point, maybe when you least expect it, you’ll start to feel at home in your body again.
● As you move through the journey, people who care about you might express how grateful and glad they are that you’re healing. Maybe you’ll see these comments as the expression of love that they are.
If you’re like me, you’ll greet them with rage and shame; you’ll be angry to be given reminders that the disorder no longer distinguishes you. Peoples’ support may even sometimes make you want to dig in your heels and stay sick, as if healing is a concession to something or someone you’d rather not please.
This is a lonely experience. Part of you wants to bask in peoples’ support, while another part of you wants to reject it and stay where you are, or where you used to be. Don’t force things. If you continue to do the work of loving yourself, it will become easier and easier to accept love and well wishes from other people.
● There will be days when it seems as if food will always be a big, bad deal. You fear that you’ll never figure it out, and you wonder why the business of eating seems to be so much harder for you than it is for other people. Instead of feeling struggle or pain, you’ll just feel tired—tired of the process and tired of yourself. At these moments all of the recovery talk about self-love and self-acceptance will ring particularly empty.
Then some time will pass—maybe a day, maybe two, maybe a whole week—when food isn’t such a big deal. Maybe you’re still a little preoccupied with it, but suddenly there’s something else you’d rather be thinking about. It’s hard to put into words how sweet these days will feel. Cherish them. Celebrate them. They’re a big deal.
● At some point you might go weeks or months or even years feeling that sweet sense of freedom. And then there might come a day when something or someone triggers you and you find yourself restricting, bingeing, purging, chewing and spitting, or eating in secret. Or maybe you think seriously about one or all of these behaviors.
This is a good moment for an accountability check: a phone call to a friend, some real talk in therapy, using an app that supports mental health, journaling. But please, don’t let these moments talk you into thinking that you’ve failed at recovery.
Being recovered doesn’t mean that you never again struggle with an ED impulse or do something strange around food. It means living by the intention to nourish yourself and treat your body with respect. That intention sometimes lives alongside old tendencies and impulses. It can be confusing, and it’s reason to be vigilant, but it’s OK. It really is. Just be sure you have a toolkit for dealing with these moments and supporting yourself through them.
● You might sometimes run across someone who seems to be wearing the signs of an ED or disordered behavior, and in spite of yourself, you kind of envy him or her. You don’t want to admit that you feel this way, but you do. You envy the semblance of control, or you envy something about having a single, all-encompassing preoccupation, a pursuit that seems to give life purpose and shape.
Forgive yourself. It’s OK to miss the memory of the illness and who you were within it. If you’re like me, pondering this very issue might make you realize that there were many years of your life in which your ED was your closest friend, the best company you had, and isn’t it normal to miss the presence of someone we’ve lost?
I miss “her”—a word I sometimes use in therapy to denote my ED itself, sometimes to denote my anorexic self—sometimes. I missed her a lot last year, when I was feeling blinded by anger and heartache and didn’t have a coping mechanism that felt even remotely satisfying to deal with it. Therapy gave me a safe space in which to admit that I was longing for my ED the way I’d miss a now-absent friend or lover, and to acknowledge that the ache was OK. It’s a part of my growth.
If you find yourself feeling this way, you might spend some time thinking about what you’ve gained in recovery. Maybe you’re more social. Maybe you get out and explore the world more than you used to. Maybe you’re more open, less secretive; maybe you’re braver. Perhaps you’ve found a sense of spontaneity and adventure you never thought you had, or you’re quicker to laugh. Perhaps you’ve relaxed some of your critical thinking, let some judgment go.
All of the above is true of my recovered self. She’s got a lot of imperfections; as I said yesterday, she’s messy in ways that my anorexic self wasn’t. She makes judgment calls she regrets, plans she’s not able to follow-through on, decisions she sometimes wishes she could take back. But she’s loving and engaged and interested and curious, and if I had to choose, I’d much rather spend time in her company than in the company of the frightened and painfully self-contained person I used to be.
The whole point of the “let’s get real” theme is to acknowledge that there is no defining ED narrative. The experience is bound to be different for each person who’s been through it. Maybe none of the above realities resonate with you, but if you’ve been through recovery, you no doubt have your own realities to consider. Perhaps NEDA week can be an invitation for you to reflect upon them and what they’ve taught you.
Back to the gathering of support I mentioned at the top of this post. It feels like the right year for me to show my appreciation of organizations and people who are working to raise awareness about eating disorders and the toll they take. So, I’m gathering contributions for NEDA, which is the organization that makes NEDA week a reality. NEDA supports individuals and families affected by eating disorders, serving as a catalyst for prevention, screening, and facilitating access to quality care.
If you’d like to join me in showing a little support for NEDA and the work it does, I welcome you to check out my GoFundMe page—I even made a little video to help explain the campaign and why it matters to me (speaking of stepping outside of my comfort zone!). If the message resonates , perhaps you’ll consider a contribution. Anything you give will help to keep NEDA’s hotlines, referral system, public resources, and legislative advocacy going.
And of course, if this type of support doesn’t work for you, there are so many other ways to give back this week. Maybe you can let a person who’s struggling with an ED—or other mental health challenges—know that you care. It might feel like the right time to volunteer with a local organization that does mental health or food-related work. Perhaps you find a way—gently and intuitively—to speak up about your experience. The more we share our stories, the more able we are to create a vibrant, dynamic, stigma-free conversation about recovery and all of its gloriously messy realities.
Perhaps at some point this week you’ll do something especially kind for yourself. That’s a great way to honor the spirit of NEDA week, too.
I’ll be back tomorrow with another one of my affirmations on offer. For today, sending out love and strength—along with my tremendous gratitude—to you.