Whenever I write about eating disorder recovery, I try to avoid framing the experience as a simple before-and-after. We all know that recovery doesn’t work this way; it is a long and winding process, and distinct endpoints are hard to come by.
Take my case, for example: I didn’t wake up one morning and find myself suddenly and irrevocably freed of the obsessions, the anxieties, the urge to express pain through bony ridges and sharp edges. Like most people in recovery, I went through a turbulent process of detachment, a letting go of the habits that had come to define my existence. It grew easier with time, but I didn’t lessen my grip without a fight.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when I started to identify as “recovered.” My recovery seemed to transpire on two tracks: one was physical—weight gain, restoration of my periods, growing stonger—and one was emotional/spiritual, a process in which I had to explore what it really meant to nourish myself with food, and why I had chosen to resist that nourishment for such a long time. I suppose that I started to identify as recovered when I felt confident that both body and mind had undergone a significant amount of healing.
There were some defining moments along the way: the day I put away my scale. The day I bought bigger clothing. The day I ate something fried, or something sweet, or something processed, and didn’t lacerate myself later for it. The day I started to let go of arbitrary rules and regulations, the false little systems of behavior (like food combining) that had created, for me, an infrastructure wherein I was never allowed to indulge too much.
Looking back on it, a lot of my recovery milestones involved putting what had been a quiet, furtive, and shameful struggle into words: the day I told my therapist, who had been urging me to open up about my weight loss for nearly a year, that I wanted and needed her help. The day I was able to use the phrase “eating disorder” in front of my friends. A defining moment: the day I started to write about my history here on Choosing Raw. I had no intention of writing about my anorexia when I started this blog, but doing so has been an inestimable part of the healing process.
There are these pivotal moments, these crucial experiences that show us how far we’ve come. In that sense, it is possible to delineate a “before” and an “after” in the recovery process. But my point is that the process is fluid and shifting and extended, a road you travel always, not a boundary you step across one day.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my recovery process as divided into phases. I’d say that there was an acute phase, a phase of active work, of physical and psychological transformation. This phase involved weight gain first and foremost; I believe firmly that recovery and physical restoration are not synonymous, that you can cease the habits and regain bodily health long before you actually heal your relationship with food. But for me, weight gain mattered, because my thinness had become a metaphor for the very tendencies (self-denial, control, yearning) that I needed so badly to leave behind. Active recovery also involved staring down my irrational food fears and anxieties, expanding my “safe list” of things I’d eat and combinations in which I’d eat them. It involved a rediscovery of socializing, of accepting invitations, of stepping out into the real world. Most significantly, it involved the cultivation of honesty: honesty about my struggle, honesty about my food choices and why I made them, honesty about my motives. It was hard work, but it was good work, and I’ve never looked back.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of myself as having entered a new phase of recovery. One might call it the “maintenance phase,” but what I’d actually like to call it is the “growth phase.” This phase isn’t so much about undoing thought patterns or letting go of anxieties or learning to really love food again. It’s about stepping into new vistas of freedom and confidence. Ironically, some of the lessons I’m learning in this phase of my recovery seem to be antithetical to the ones I learned in my initial recovery, and those contrasts are interesting enough that I wanted to write about them today.
One of the most poignant realizations I made in my early recovery was the recognition that my body was more vulnerable than I’d given it credit for. When you’re in the throws of self-starvation, you often develop a superhuman sense of energy and power, an almost frenzied delight at how little you need to survive. Oftentimes during my ED I was overcome with the feeling that I could fly away, defy my body’s corporeal limitations altogether. This was encouraged by the fact that my first two relapses involved very few immediate health ramifications. I managed to hover above thinness so extreme that I’d have qualified for in-patient treatment, learned how to “pass” for thin-enough-to-be-noticeable but not thin-enough-to-look-frightening. Later on, in my early twenties, I hit a relapse that was more physically extreme, but even then, my health seemed to withstand it. Sure, I was hungry all the time, dizzy often, and had no period, but I kept waiting for my body to buckle under me, and it didn’t. This seemed to augment the superhuman feeling and validate my self-abuse.
In the end though, eating disorders catch up to you. You can survive the starving or the purging or the ferocious exercise for years, but no one walks away unscathed, and this is something that many of us don’t realize until we’re confronted with an ED-related health crisis. For me, the warning signs were the relentless cold, the shivering through multiple layers in August, the head-spinning when I reached the top of a flight of subway stairs, the absent period. Later on, it was the bone scan confirming osteopenia, the hormones that took years to return to normal, my doctor’s suspicions when yearly blood work came back with electrolyte imbalances.
When I entered into recovery in earnest, a huge part of my “process” was learning to respect my body’s limitations and needs: the need for food, the need for sustenance, the inability to cope with deprivation and living on the edge. I don’t have my journal entries from back then (I didn’t want to keep them), but I remember once making a list of bodily demands, and I can approximate it here:
-I need food, lots of it, three times a day
-I need to snack when I’m hungry
-I need to eat well balanced meals
-I need to not skip meals
-I still need to eat breakfast the day after a big dinner
…and so on, and so forth.
I channeled these needs into careful food choices. For a long period during my recovery, I planned every meal in detail, taking care to make each one calorically adequate and balanced in terms of macronutrients. I never skipped a meal, never ate anything on the go that was less than satisfying, and never failed to tote around snacks that would help me make my meals filling enough. All-or-nothing person that I am, I devoted the same diligence to my recovery process that I had to the starvation: I was thoughtful about every bite.
But as we all know, any form of giving too much attention and too much diligence to our food choices, even in the name of self-nourishment or good health, can evoke some of the fixation that characterizes an ED. The new phase I’m diving into now is a phase of letting go, of relaxing my ideas about what I need in order to be healthy, of recognizing that my body is no longer fragile and delicate. Here are some of the mental shifts that have characterized this phase, for me:
–Letting go of my “famine” mentality.
For a long time post-recovery, I continued to behave as if I was perched on the brink of starvation. I over-ordered at restaurants, filling half the table with sides and appetizers I didn’t need because I was afraid that my meal wouldn’t be filling enough. I over-shopped at the grocery store, stocking up as if I were stranded on a desert island. I brought a preposterous amount of snacks with me to events and dinners and cocktail parties and airports. The behavior made sense, given my history and the fact that I’m vegan, which means that sometimes restaurant dining and travel and socializing are tricky. But let’s be real: I didn’t need to grocery shop for four, and I certainly didn’t need to order two appetizers and an entrée and two sides at a routine dinner. Nor did I need to bring four snack bars to a two-hour cocktail party.
–Learning not to panic when I’m hungry.
The root motive behind all of this over-preparedness with food was, I realize, a desperate desire to avoid hunger. Hunger can be a loaded and triggering sensation for me, and by filling my life up with food options, I managed to avoid it most of the time. This was far better than courting it the way I had in the past, but at this point in my recovery, I feel ready to experience hunger now and then without panicking. I’ve come to accept that if I forget an afternoon snack or a day of work keeps me from having a perfectly balanced lunch, I won’t wither away. Of course I plan well whenever I can, travel with snacks, and so on. But when something doesn’t go as planned, I’m learning to feel hunger without getting triggered or anxious.
–Not focusing on “perfect” nutrition all the time.
Learning about nutrition was a cornerstone of my recovery process. I was able to recognize how dangerously I’d been depriving myself in the past of vital nutrients, and this served as motivation to take care of myself better. For me, this meant creating highly balanced and well rounded plates of food. This is still my habit, and it probably always will be, but once again I’m learning to relax. I don’t freak out if I eat a meal that doesn’t have an optimal amount of protein or healthy fat, or if my lunch happens not to be teeming with green leafy vegetables. Life is unpredictable, and if we spend the entire time worrying about how nutritious our food is, we sometimes miss out on the fun.
–Learning to leave things up to chance.
Here’s an example: I’m in Vieques right now, and vegan dining is a little tricky at first. Steven and I have done a lot of scouting since we arrived, and we’re finding great stuff (which I’ll blog about soon, when I do some vacation recap!), but we’ve certainly had to modify our normal eating habits a little. In the meantime, we packed snack bars and found a health food store when we got here, so that we could pick up some some bread and peanut butter and fruit for our room.
But this is nothing—nothing—compared to the preparedness campaign I’d have launched a few years ago. That would have involved snack bars, green powders (because god forbid I should go a week without thrice-daily greens), protein powders (because I might perish without a proper number of grams per day), chia seeds, oats, avocados, carrots, multivitamins, probiotics, enzymes, and possibly a travel blender. I have no regrets about how I used to travel: in the wake of my ED, it made me feel safe. And I pass no judgment on anyone who wants to feel similarly well-fed on-the-go. But at this point in my own journey, it’s important for me to loosen up the preventive measures and leave some things to chance. It encourages me to be more flexible with my food choices, making the best of what I’m presented with rather than hewing to my routines. And it reminds me, once again, that my body is less fragile than I think it is.
–Not planning my life around my digestive health.
My ED story is heavily intertwined with my history of IBS and digestive illness, because IBS symptoms often compounded and intensified my desire not to eat. My digestion rebelled during the very start of recovery, and then it went through a long, blissful period of being nearly IBS-free. Two summers ago, I got sick with a bacterial infection, and since then my IBS has been infrequent but intermittent. Whereas I used to plan my life around IBS-scrutinizing each food choices with the intention of keeping bloating at bay, blending my meals up into baby food thinking that it would all be easier to digest–I’ve simply come to accept that I live with a digestive condition and I probably always will. Stress is the only trigger that’s predictable, so lately I’m spending less time worrying about how my meals will impact my digestion and more time mitigating my stress levels. Not stressing out about perfect nourishment all the time is a big part of this.
I thought about calling this post “the afterlife of recovery” or “the growth phase of recovery,” but in the end I settled on “the two phases of recovery” because I wanted to map out the two very different processes I’ve gone through on my own journey. In the first, it was my task to recognize my body’s limits, to realize that I couldn’t put myself through indefinite amounts of deprivation and expect to sustain longterm health. This meant becoming careful and conscious about the way I ate and treated myself. In this new phase I’m in, I’m learning that, while my body isn’t invincible, it’s also not weak. It is resilient, flexible, and adaptable, and I don’t have to treat myself so delicately anymore. I don’t have to worry about myself anymore. Having taken time to regain my health, I can now trust that it will sustain itself.
I hope that this post resonates with some of my recovered/recovering/ED readers, and provokes some thought. I’d love to know if anyone has had a similar experience, too — what phases have defined recovery for you all?
From the beautiful island of Vieques, I wish you all a great night.
Top image is Green and Maroon by Mark Rothko, 1953.