Hey friends. As I mentioned over the weekend, it’s NEDA week. Last year, I created a lot of long and thoughtful posts for this event. This year, I’m keeping it simple. Rather than ruminating on eating disorders in any abstract way, I’m simply sharing my own green recovery story.
Green recovery began in 2011. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first invited CR readers to share their recovery stories, but the series quickly took on a wonderful life of its own. Green recovery posts have become a safe space for us to share, reflect, and encourage each other.
I’ve thought about creating my own submission for a while now, but every time I sat down to write something I found myself struggling. My ED history, as you’ll see, is long, and it involves multiple chapters that occurred in multiple phases of my life. My recovery story isn’t simple, either: it happened in waves, each one stronger than the one before, and it was anything but straightforward.
This afternoon, I finally sat down and put it all on paper. I hadn’t intended for this to be a faithful narrative of everything that happened; I wanted it to be more of an analysis than a retelling. But I wanted that in part because it would allow me to share less and guard more. I’ve tried to keep some of the details–especially the ones that might be overtly triggering–private, to focus more on the consequences of my disorder than on my methods. But some details did make it in, and I guess it goes without saying that this post merits a trigger warning. I hope you’ll read, though, and that you’ll share your thoughts.
My green recovery story begins unremarkably. I was a healthy kid with a big appetite, and I grew up in a home where food was celebrated and savored. Between the ages of eight and ten I gained some pre-adolescent weight. It wasn’t much, but any body changes can feel traumatic for girls this age, and the fact that certain family members had started to tease me about my appetite certainly didn’t help. I started to become hyperconscious of my body. I found it monstrous and ungainly, and I often fantasized about looking different. At times, I even became preoccupied with fantasies of self-harm—slicing into my flesh to cut away the excess fat.
The summer I turned twelve, my pediatrician remarked upon the fact that I’d gained weight, and advised me to lose a little. He didn’t say much about how I should go about doing this aside from portion control.
That was the summer I taught myself to diet. I brought to this project the same focus and determination that I brought to everything. I learned to count calories, to split up my portions, to winnow away indulgences. I lost weight, quickly. I continued losing weight well into the following school year, picking at romaine lettuce and balsamic vinegar during my lunch period, hiding my breakfast in my backpack so that I could throw it away when I left my home in the morning, skipping recess. My mother became alarmed, and her concern was echoed by my pediatrician when he saw me a little less than a year later. I understood that adult figures in my life were worried, so I dutifully gained back some of the weight that I’d lost. But the realization that I could manipulate my body with food had left its mark.
For the remainder of middle school and high school, I cycled in and out of restriction. I wouldn’t classify myself as “sick” during this time, but I would say that I had a troubled relationship with food. I avoided cafeteria lunch; I developed anxieties about eating in other peoples’ homes. I thought about food all the time. I read nutrition labels obsessively, and I often skipped meals. I ate well at home, but I welcomed the chance to flirt with hunger when I was on my own.
Needless to say, my restrictive tendencies worsened when I got my first taste of autonomy in college. I hovered above any serious incidents for the first two years, but my eating habits were apparent to others, and they became a source of concern among friends. Once, catching my wide-eyed stare as she ate some popcorn at the movies, a friend asked if I’d like a handful. I shook my eyed. She sighed and looked at me with a mixture of frustration and sadness.
“Why do you always say you’re not hungry when it’s so obvious that you are?” she asked.
Early in my junior year of school, I was confronted both with a family crisis and the dissolution of the relationship in which I’d been entangled on and off since my freshman year. This was the start of my first “clinical” bout of disordered eating. I lost weight, stopped menstruating, and was constantly cold. I came home from class and sat on my own radiator to stay warm. I was ravenous, all the time; at one point, I ate food from my own trashcan in the middle of the night. Hunger kept me awake, so much that I sometimes took Tylenol PM to sleep. I also took diet pills, caffeine pills, and energy drinks. I discovered the elliptical machine that year, too.
What amazes me looking back on this year is not what I forced my body to endure. It’s how my personality was transformed. I became furtive and private. I went from having a robust social life and a full circle of friends to spending most of my time alone in my dorm room. I was irritable and defensive; I lost much of my humor and readiness to laugh. I became, honestly, pretty dull. If you’d held a mirror up to me during that time, I’m not sure I would have recognized myself. The memory of that year frightens me still, because it’s evidence of how profoundly eating disorders erode our true selves.
I recovered that spring, but my motivations had more to do with sparing the people in my life worry than any genuine acknowledgment of how unwell I’d become. In my mind, I’d taken weight loss too far, and I was simply correcting it. On some level I knew that my relationship with food was disturbed, but I had little interest in changing it. I simply didn’t want to be the focus of attention, and I didn’t want to appear sick to others. (To appear sick would be a flaw, a sign of poor self-control, and this was my worst nightmare.) Beyond that, I’d never wanted for people to know how hard I worked at maintaining my thinness. My fantasy was to be rail thin while also being—or at least seeming—perfectly well adjusted. To be a paradox, in other words.
In spite of all this, I did recover, and I went on to have one of the happiest summers of my life. I got a job that was demanding and thankless in a lot of ways, but exciting and glamorous in others. Each Friday I would drive upstate with my best friend, where we’d sit on her family’s porch and listen to crickets and Van Morrison. I felt, for the first time in a long time, carefree. I entered my senior year with a healthy body, and much to my own surprise, I felt OK carrying around some new weight. It was a little uncomfortable, to be sure, but in indulging my appetite for food I’d also been able to indulge my appetite for life experience, for friendship, for intimacy, and for fun.
The next few years were full of change; I graduated and embarked upon life as a young adult. I had my first big love affair and got my first job. It was as wonderful and intense and as turbulent a time as I imagine many peoples’ early twenties to be. My relationship with food was similarly dramatic. In many ways, this was a good period, a period of plenty. I was socializing a lot, as all young editors do, and with that came food and drink. At the same time, I resented my indulgences. I felt that I’d lost something, a rock-hard discipline that had once upon a time given me a sense of identity. Over time, I started to develop purging habits—obsessive exercise, days of under-eating or juice fasting to compensate for a period of overindulgence, enemas, and laxatives.
These habits worsened as I transitioned from the gaiety of my post-college years into my mid-twenties, when life started to suddenly feel real. My initial excitement and pride at landing a job had given way to a predictable set of worries about my future and self-worth as an editor. Many of my friends were moving away or moving confidently onto grad school, and I felt discomfited by the tides of change. I was in love with a person—a much older person—who loved me, too, but somehow couldn’t create space for me in his life. I came to realize that our affair was finite and that I’d have to be the one to leave. I was frightened and sad, and I felt very much alone
So, I reverted back to the habits that had always given me so much comfort: restriction and control. This was my worst relapse, in physical terms: my lowest BMI, my most pronounced physical symptoms. It was also my shortest relapse, for which I’m grateful. And in spite of the fact that it was my most difficult and circuitous recovery, it was ultimately the one that lasted. This was the first time that I was able to see my disorder for what it was and recognize what was at stake in the recovery process. As a younger person, my disordered periods had felt oddly inconsequential: on some level I knew that restriction was unhealthy, but the symptoms I suffered as a result weren’t quite drastic enough to scare me. On the contrary, I was always amazed at the fact that I could eat so little and be so incredibly productive, such a good student, so active.
Now, all of a sudden, I could see the impact that restriction was taking on my body. I was tired all the time, I was diagnosed with osteopenia, my hormones were woefully low, and my digestion was so poor that I routinely had to leave work because of cramping. I knew it had to stop. I also knew that I had more to lose than I had in the past: deeper and more longstanding friendships, a career, and the knowledge of what it felt like to give and receive love. Life felt meaningful and poignant and worth cherishing in ways it hadn’t before.
And so, for the first time, I sought out some professional support in the form of a wonderfully insightful therapist. I was resistant to her at first, claiming that I’d come to see her for reasons other than the real reason, the only reason. But over time, she encouraged me to face my problem head on, and I did. I began weight restoration and started eating regularly again. It was difficult, but I worked hard at it, and I began to climb my way out.
Along the way, I found veganism. Most of my regular readers know the story: a GI doctor advised me to eliminate dairy, and it made a big difference. This led me into veganism, and I fell instantly in love. Veganism showed me that life was bigger and more connected than I’d ever realized. It made me aware of the impact I could have on the world through compassionate and loving food choices. Perhaps most importantly—at least in the short-term—veganism allowed me to fall back in love with food.
This was the time when I discovered vegan food blogs (the PPK, Bittersweet, Vegan Yum Yum, and so many others). It was a revelation—all of these women who loved the experience of crafting food and who also ate in alignment with their values. For the first time since my pre-disorder years (which is to say the first time in over a decade), I started to take pleasure in food. I taught myself to cook (I couldn’t do much more than scramble egg whites, assemble salad, and make smoothies at the time). I allowed myself to admit that I love food and I love to eat and I am worthy of nourishment.
But here’s where my recovery story has a bend in the road. Before I entered longterm recovery, I took a brief detour into the realm of orthorexia.
Soon after I discovered veganism, I also discovered raw food. At first, it was a wonderful experience, and it only enriched the love affair I was having with cooking. Raw food was unlike anything I’d ever seen: bright, colorful, fresh, and somehow so connected to the earth. It was also uniquely innovative, and it introduced me to ingredients I’d never tried before. It drew me out of my longstanding phobia of fats, and allowed me to indulge in rich and nurturing meals with a sense of peace and calm. I was so enamored with raw food that I first had the idea to start this blog as a way of sharing my recipes.
But my foray into raw foodism had complex consequences. At first it was all delightful desserts and sumptuous dishes piled high with nut pate, but the deeper I moved into the raw community, the more I was exposed to various nutritional theories that hinged on the vilification of something or another: fat, sugar, oils, acidic-forming foods, poorly combined meals, whatever. I wasn’t far along enough in my recovery to resist the lure of these theories. I began restricting again, not because I wanted to lose weight (on the contrary, I had never fully weight restored after the last relapse, and I was ashamed that the process wasn’t happening more easily), but because I was becoming genuinely persuaded that everything save for greens and avocado was “toxic” or unhealthy.
Fortunately, there was a turning point. I distinctly remember sitting down to dinner one night, probably the hundredth kale and avocado salad I’d eaten in a row, and feeling profoundly sad. When I first went vegan, I had delighted in hearty tofu scrambles, awesomely filling grain bowls, incredible and diverse bowls of oatmeal, tempeh and avocado sandwiches, creative casseroles, and so much more. When I first got into raw food, I had allowed myself to savor sumptuous raw cheesecakes, decadent raw brownies, creamy, sweet smoothies and rich raw lasagnas. What had changed? How had my diet become so constrained? Worst of all, was it possible that my new fixation on health had taken me to a place no less impoverished than the food prison I’d dwelled in as an anorexic?
That was the night I snapped out of things, and in a lot of ways, I see it as the true start of my lasting recovery. I took a few important, proactive steps: first, I went back to therapy. Second, I made a very conscious choice to dissociate myself from some of the extremist dietary philosophies that I’d become so trapped by. This meant distancing myself from certain online communities and actively, forcibly editing my own reading material to remove the blogs and books that enforced restrictive ideas about food. Finally, I decided to become serious about my own nutrition education. I got my nutrition certification, and I taught myself to read nutrition studies closely.
In many ways, nutrition science was my saving grace. I’m often asked how I “unlearned” some of my orthorexic theories, and the answer was that I educated myself in their scientific shortcomings. Nutrition science does not support the idea that it’s healthy to subsist on a small handful of “pure” foods, nor does it validate extremism. Time and again, the nutrition research we have supports moderation, balance, and variety—things I lost sight of when I started to winnow down my diet. Anorexia scares and saddens me, but in many ways—at least in the context of my own story—I find orthorexia more frightening, because it is so monstrously deceptive. Whereas I never fooled myself that my anorexia was founded in anything other than the desire to be thin, orthorexia perverted and manipulated what was initially a positive impulse: the impulse to be healthy. It slipped under my radar in ways that still baffle me, and it took me a long time to write about it because I found it so difficult to reconcile how completely the experience suspended my own self-awareness.
The rest of my recovery story is a very fortunate one. With the help of therapy, friendship, continued nutrition education, and a serious commitment to savoring the pleasures of food as well as its health benefits, I made my way to where I am now. My recovery has been as complex as any recovery—it’s a journey, and I’m always humbly surprised by new revelations or discoveries that happen along the way. But I’m proud to have maintained a healthy body and a conscious, self-caring mindset for many years now.
When I look back at my disorder and its evolution, there are of course things that I regret. I regret all of the things I didn’t do because of my disorder, all of the invitations I said no to, the dinners I turned down, the experiences I avoided because I didn’t want to eat the food. I regret the concern I caused my loved ones. I regret the food I never ate, the flavors I didn’t have a chance to savor. But one of the nicest things to have emerged in my recovery is a truly wonderful relationship with food, and I think it’s all the more precious because it is so hard won. Body image is still a complicated issue for me, sometimes problematic, but food isn’t anymore. My love of food anchors me in recovery, and I think it always will.
A few things stand out to me as I survey the highs and lows of this story. One is how deeply linked my disorder was to fear in general, and fear of adult freedom in particular. All of my ED bouts happened on the cusp of transitions, steps toward greater maturity. I think that apprehension of my own autonomy frightened me (the Marianne Williamson quote comes to mind—except in this case it wasn’t my own power that scared me, but rather my own power of choice). The disorder gave me a place to hide, and it was also a way of abnegating adulthood, personal responsibility, and self-care. When life felt confusing or vast or dizzyingly open-ended, anorexia created an illusion of shelter. To this day, the moments that challenge my recovery the most involve uncertainty or an abundance of choice. It’s my job in those moments to seek out safety in ways that don’t involve self-control. Human connection is one safe space. Therapy is another. Ironically, nourishing myself through food has become my favorite ritual of safety and comfort. Times have changed.
Relatedly, I’m struck by how deeply my recovery efforts have been linked to the desire for a bigger, fuller, and richer existence. For me, appetite for food has always reflected a greater appetite for life. If anorexia and orthorexia served as my vehicles for avoiding life and its many possibilities, then recovery has been my pledge to embrace life fully, even when it’s uncertain. Accepting nourishment in the form of food has helped me to the other sorts of vital nourishment that life has to offer: love, connection, pleasure, and joy.
Finally—and most relevantly to green recovery—I’m so grateful that I found veganism. Today I had lunch with a friend, a woman who is also vegan and also a veteran of eating disorders. We were speaking candidly about the ways in which veganism can be a healing tool. We also spoke about the complex gray area, the cases in which veganism might be used as a way to sublimate or perpetuate the disorder. In my mind, I’ve always felt sure that my initial impulse to go vegan was absolutely untainted by the urge to restrict. But today, as I wrote out this narrative, I wasn’t 100% sure. How can I say with rock solid certainty that I wasn’t just a little pleased to have a new set of things that I didn’t eat? At that point in my life, I was so accustomed to shaping my identity around restraint; it may be optimistic to think I could have gone vegan without at least some of that tendency at work. Fortunately for me, veganism kicked open the doors to lasting recovery, and it was without a doubt the single best decision I’ve ever made.
At lunch today, my friend and I spoke of how important it was for us during recovery to catch a glimpse of a bigger, broader world. Eating disorders are so isolating and myopic; it was crucial for me to see how much existed outside of the box I’d created for myself. I don’t only mean all of the beauty that existed on the outside; I also mean the suffering and the pain and the harsh realities. Learning about animals’ plight was my first step in developing a more humane perspective, a greater desire to look beyond my own problems and send my energy out into the world. It gave me an important sense of perspective, and it motivated me to redirect my focus away from my own obsessions and toward a cause. Within the realm of food, it showed me that eating is not an isolated act; when we sit down to a meal, we make choices that impact our animal neighbors and the planet as well as ourselves. Having spent years thinking only food only within the context of how it would affect me and my body, this was a seismic shift.
As I put this all on paper, I tried to think about how I’d like to conclude. I thought I’d mention some of the things that keep me grounded in my recovery. Human connection is one. Secrecy and isolation were always hallmarks of my disorder, while intimacy and trust were antidotes to it.
Yoga is another. During my disorder I experienced sensations of disconnect from my body, no doubt the result of so many years spent battling and denying my appetites, my needs. Yoga has forced me to inhabit my body, to feel and touch and look at it. It was a difficult practice to cultivate for that reason, and I nearly quit when I first got started with it, but it has changed my life.
I believe that storytelling in all of its many forms—writing, theater, dance, drama, and more—can be a healing tool. I found tremendous power in learning to call my disorder by its name and speak about the experience openly. I continue to be motivated and inspired by the narrative act, which is why I’m glad I chose to share today. The more of us speak up, the safer and stronger this space becomes.
Finally, and most importantly: this blog has kept me grounded in my recovery. I was still struggling with orthorexia when I began Choosing Raw. It took me a while to recognize that, and when hindsight brought it into relief I felt such guilt. I know that my approach to nutrition when I started blogging was restrictive, and I’m sure it was triggering to some. I’ll always regret this. Still, the fact that my blogging years have coincided with my ongoing recovery have meant that I can share my process publicly, and I’m glad about that. I like to think that I’ve been able to address some of the realities of the recovery process, to demonstrate that it is not a neat or a tidy experience. It is messy and full of complexity, and the more honest we are about that, the better equipped we’ll all be to deal with it. Blogging has compelled me to stay real with myself and with others. And the dialogs on this blog have enriched my understanding of my own history immeasurably.
In other words, I couldn’t have done it without you all. Thank you.
And that, I think, is where I’ll wrap things up. NEDA week continues until Saturday. I encourage you all to do whatever you can to spread awareness and lend support, whether that’s having a loving conversation with someone who’s struggling or speaking up about your own experience for the first time. If you’re struggling right now, please know that you’re not alone. Know that recovery is possible, and know that life is so much richer on the other side.