In the years since I began writing this blog, I’ve received so many comments that have stayed with me. Comments from readers have helped me to process, clarify, and deepen my own thoughts; at times, they’ve helped me to see an alternate perspective or to understand a dimension of an experience or an issue that I hadn’t considered before. They’ve incited me to be more empathetic.
A few years ago, when I wrote about having bad body days, a reader named Elizabeth left me a comment that stuck with me in a powerful way:
Elizabeth was gesturing at something I was starting to learn then and am learning all the more powerfully now, day by day: things change. Experiences and emotions are always in a state of flux. How we feel at one moment is not how we are destined to feel forever.
It’s not only feelings or sensations that prove mutable. Two Sundays ago, I quoted Nora Ephron as saying, “You are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever.” And indeed, I’m learning that even one’s sense of identity–which feels so fixed at times–can shift and transition. It’s a humbling thing to realize that this is how things are, fluid and rhythmic. But I find it exciting, too, and hopeful, because it suggests to me that we’re not our own prisoners.
I’ve remembered Elizabeth through the years, thanks to her remarks, and so I was truly honored and delighted when she shared the following green recovery story with me. I think Elizabeth has created a remarkable depiction of perfectionism and its profound dangers, and I so appreciate her honesty in doing so. I love the hopefulness and wisdom of her narrative, and I hope you’ll be as moved by it as I was.
Despite my idyllic childhood and adolescence, where I was nurtured emotionally, socially, and intellectually, I carried what I believe can act as an ED starter pack. I’m a type-A perfectionist, with a habit of avoiding situations where I might fail, and a predilection for self-punishing thoughts/actions when I fall short of my expectations. Do I think that I was predestined to develop an obsession with food restriction? No. But I think these characteristics tend to make for fertile ground, allowing the eating disorder to take root all the more easily, and all the more deeply.
Although I grew up chubby and had moments of low self-esteem as a teenager, these things never weighed too heavily on me. After all, I had developed meaningful friendships, excelled at school, and cultivated a deep passion for the arts and athletics. Never once did it occur to me to inextricably link my self-worth to a number on a scale, clothing tag, or nutritional information label.
Then the tipping point came: the mental shift that caused me to start treating my body like an enemy that needed to be beaten into submission. For me, this was the moment (warning: #firstworldproblem alert) I got waitlisted at Harvard. Ever since I can remember, Harvard had been my holy grail. Not only was I seduced by the sirens of prestige and excellence, but my father was a Harvard grad and my brother had started there 3 years prior. Not getting in was not an option: I had to prove that I was as good, as “perfect” as them.
So when I got the impersonal, anonymously signed message on Harvard university letter-head that informed me that I was, in fact, not exceptional enough to join the class of 2010, I was in disbelief at the magnitude of my failure. That letter could have said anything, really. All I saw was an official, black and white confirmation that I was less worthy than my brother and father.
That summer, my spirit broken and confidence shattered, I headed off to one of the country’s top liberal arts colleges. But because it wasn’t Harvard, not even an Ivy League, it smelled of epic failure, of a choice that had been thrust upon me. That first year of college, I couldn’t even visit my brother’s Cambridge dorm room without breaking into sobs, overburdened by feelings of self-disgust and disappointment. In my eyes, an injustice had been committed and someone needed to pay for it. Because the admissions team couldn’t be made to suffer the consequences, that someone turned out to be me. Instead of appreciating my accomplishments and all that my new school had to offer, I turned to anorexia for comfort. And the bad thing was . . . I was good at it.
Food restriction came easily to me, fueled by my natural drive and willingness to do anything to achieve a goal. I was all too capable of silencing what I called “my present self” (aka my starving body) in favor of my “future self” (aka the elusive, perfect body I was working towards). I got hooked on the instant gratification I felt when pounds came off or every time I refused to succumb to “overly caloric “ temptations. Developing an eating disorder became the ideal crutch to cushion the blow I received from the college admission process. My desire to stand out, my need to regain control over my life, and my quest for quick, “easy” success allowed me to fashion a makeshift bandage for my wounded pride.
I clung to my restrictive behaviors like a safety blanket for 3 years. They were my identity, they were what made me “stand out,” even though it was for all the wrong reasons. The ironic thing about eating disorders, or at least mine, is that you try so hard to separate mind from body. I thought that my discipline and mental strength were outsmarting my body, cheating it out of what it needed and mercilessly driving it to achieve a very simple goal: get smaller.
Except that it’s impossible for the mind to escape meeting the same fate as your body. My eating disorder made my entire world smaller, until the only thing to keep me company in my epic loneliness was my almighty monologue of incessant, taunting thoughts. My monologue was the only thing that knew everything, as I had shut my friends and family completely out.
Obsessing over minute details ruined many experiences that I should have enjoyed. I scoured the teeny print of every food label, I only agreed to go out to certain restaurants where I knew I could order something “safe,” and I passed on social events where I thought I would feel crushed by the pressure to “indulge.” I spent a good part of every single day inside my head, listening to my ED badger me. In essence, I created a small, short-sighted, self-contained and self-controlled world where I could be free to live out my eating disorder in secrecy.
I guess it’s unsurprising that you lose your sense of self when your sole purpose in life is to literally self-efface. Over the span of 3 years, I had turned the Elizabeth with a larger than life joie de vivre into a tiny sliver of her former physical, emotional and spiritual self.
During her speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high” when speaking of bullies. On my road to recovery from the eating disorder that was bullying me, I was unknowingly guided by a similar mantra: “When they go small, you go big.”
The bodily implications of my mantra were the most excruciating and simplest part of recovery. At first, putting the body’s needs before the mind’s taunts, reversing the scale and reaching a non-dangerous BMI is a horrifying exercise. Gaining weight felt like failing at an old goal, even though it meant progress to a new one. But it was also the simplest part for me. When my monologue relented and I had moments of mental clarity, I was able to admit that there no way of sugar coating reality: if I wanted to escape the suffocating mental smallness I felt every day, I would have to learn how to eat again and yes, get bigger.
But for me, “going big” mantra manifested itself as more of an antidote to my obsessive thinking. I went big in two ways. Firstly, I left the county and pursued my dream of living in Paris. During the second semester of junior year, I was able to escape the world that had known my pre-ED body/self and go to a place where I could start anew. I threw myself into French culture, expanded my vocabulary, grew my friend circle, made myself at home in the winding streets of Paris, and met and fell in love with the man who is now my husband. I witnessed first-hand the way the French relate to food: their respect for whole foods, their artful cooking and plating techniques, and their fierce belief that eating is as much about what’s on your plate as it is about connecting to your loved ones. Sitting silently at the table and timidly picking at my food would have been a cultural faux pas, so I put my body through the gestures despite my mind’s protests.
All of these experiences made my world a little bit bigger and helped me take baby steps outside the grips of my monologue. Here in Paris, where I felt more like my “true self” than ever, I saw with such clarity all of the big joys my small, obsessive thoughts were robbing me of.
When I got back home to the US I started therapy and I threw out all of my frozen dinners and canned soups that made my obsessive calorie counting a breeze. I found food blogs (Kath Eats Real Food, Healthy Happy Life, and, of course, Choosing Raw) that allowed me to repair my broken relationship to food. Not only did these blogs serve as a crash course in nutrition, but they opened up a whole side of myself that I didn’t know existed: the creative, meticulous master chef. My newfound passion for cooking was the gateway to the détente in the war I had declared on food and my body.
While I had become a vegetarian during my ED days as a way to legitimize my food restriction, my decision to adopt a plant-based diet was about breaking free of those chains. We often hear that vegan diets are all about making kind, compassionate choices, mostly in reference to animals and/or the planet. But when you are recovering from an eating disorder, this quest for living out compassion starts first and foremost with your own body.
Today I’m back living in Paris, where the vegan food scene continues to blossom. As I said in a comment on one of Gena’s honest and eloquent posts about bad body days, the journey to recovery is a mosaic of good and bad episodes.
My plant-based diet, in addition to putting joy back onto my plate, connected my food choices to a larger purpose. I found solace and happiness in the fact that what I ate was saving innocent lives and was better for the environment, not to mention my own health! Slowly but surely I replaced the small, taunting thoughts about calories and molecules with encouraging thoughts about my body and the big, beautiful world around me. That’s how mealtimes went from being individual exercises in cruelty to global acts of kindness.
I, for one, couldn’t be more grateful for Elizabeth’s vivid words. She captures one thing so perfectly, which is the reduction that happens at the hands of an eating disorder. I love her account of how mind and body can’t be rendered separate during the act of self-restriction: starve your body, and you starve your entire life. It’s something I learned the hard way, too. When I think back to who I was and how my life operated during the worst of my anorexia, the isolation and confinement–the smallness of my world back then–are what haunt me the most.
Whether you are on the recovery journey or not, I hope that Elizabeth’s story gives you some inspiration and comfort. As a former ED person who finds herself now caught in a very different, yet not entirely foreign, struggle, I feel lifted up in publishing this post today. Elizabeth, thank you.