Karen Hovie has been reading and commenting on Choosing Raw for over a year now. I’m always struck by her kind and empathic words, especially when it comes to ED recovery and body image. I was thrilled when Karen sent me a green recovery story months ago; by that time, I’d had a chance to get to know Karen through her blog, 2 Write 4 Health, and I wanted to hear more about her story with food.
What Karen has shared today is so much more courageous, intimate, and inspiring than I could have imagined. Karen’s struggle with eating disorders began when she was a teen, and I think that she does a remarkable job of capturing the psychological factors that contribute to EDs in so many young people. At the same time, this is a winding story, one that involves phases of relapse and recovery. My own ED story was full of twists and turns, and I think it’s important to underscore that recovery is not a straightforward or a linear process for everyone. We continue to live with some of the predispositions that made us susceptible to EDs in the first place, and under certain circumstances they can lead us into old behaviors.
I believe firmly that full recovery is possible, and I also believe that ongoing mindfulness, honesty, and therapeutic activities play an important role in helping us to stay healthy, accountable, and at peace with our food. I so appreciate Karen’s willingness to share her own story, and to address how recovery continues to unfold for her.
I was an ideal candidate, a perfectionist with a need for routine and organization. My self worth emanated from my accomplishments. Unfortunately, there was always someone smarter than me, or faster than me, or more talented than me, so I never felt special. I wanted to be liked by everyone, so I avoided conflict at all cost.
By the time I was in 8th grade, I was on top of the world; I was taking advanced classes, and a regular on the A Honor Roll; I was a cheerleader, I played basketball, and ran track. I was a first chair clarinet player, chosen as soloist for band concerts, and selected to be in symphony orchestra.
When my mom went on a diet, I decided to join her. I did not need to lose weight, but in my head, being thin meant being perfect, so the thinner I could be, the more perfect I would become. It didnʼt take long for weight loss and calorie counting to become an obsession.
The summer after my freshman year, I attended a friendʼs birthday party. My plan had been to nibble on a piece of pizza. Unfortunately, one piece turned into several pieces. A huge birthday sundae was delivered to our table, and I ate some of that too. I hated myself for losing control. I cried myself to sleep, vowing to never feel that way again.
But I did, and when I did, I negated the extra calories by exercising. At night I would leave my bedroom window open and sleep without any blankets, believing that my body would burn more calories if I were cold.
By the time I was a sophomore, I gained weight and loathed my body. I resorted to laxatives. When my laxative habit became more expensive than my allowance would cover, I stole money from my parents. When they started noticing money missing, I shoplifted. Eating, not eating, exercising and purging became my whole life.
The summer before my junior year I lost a significant amount of weight. I was feeling good about myself when school began. Each night I would disappear into my bedroom shortly after supper under the guise of doing my homework. Instead, I organized my clothes in my closet and drawers according to style and color. I would try on every pair of pants I owned, making sure they fit looser than the day before. I would stay up late and exercise, recording my weight and other body measurements in a notebook that I stashed under my mattress.
One day in gym class, I passed out. This prompted my friends, who were concerned about the weight I had lost, to talk to our physical education teacher. She in turn contacted my guidance counselor, who called my parents. Life at home became unbearable. Suddenly I was being watched closely, forcing me to become sneakier and more deceitful. I felt like I was walking on egg shells whenever I was home. One night at supper, my dad told me I made suppertime miserable and he didnʼt even enjoy coming home anymore.
I was on my high school pom-pon squad. On game days, we would practice on the court after school, and then come back for the game later that night. One particular night after practice, my heart started racing. I thought I was having a heart attack. I lay on my bedroom floor afraid I was going to die. I managed to perform, but that night after the game, my dad told me that my looks embarrassed him, and he was ashamed of me.
By December of my senior year, my eating disorder had gotten so out of control, I was admitted to an inpatient eating disorder program. I suddenly found myself in an environment where my bathroom door was always locked, I was weighed each morning, and I was forced to take a nutritional supplement if I refused to eat. Despite all of these restrictions, I felt relieved to be there. I went through the program and was discharged 6 weeks later after learning a bunch of new tricks, and with absolutely no desire to change.
That summer I began to realize that there had to be more to life than an eating disorder. It had become my entire identity. I desperately needed a fresh start, so I eliminated white sugar from my diet in attempt to gain control over my eating. By the time I left for my freshman year of college, I felt healthy and eager to begin my college career.
Unfortunately, it didnʼt take long for me to resort to my old destructive patterns. Before the end of my first semester, I had to withdraw from school, and was readmitted to the hospital for another long term stay. I was discharged in time to start the spring semester at a university close to home. I relapsed again shortly after my discharge, and my life quickly spiraled out of control.
After an appointment with my therapist, I totally lost control and attempted suicide. In desperation, my parents committed me to the psychiatric unit of a local hospital. The next day I was admitted to a hospital a few hours from my home that specialized in the treatment of eating disorders. Upon arriving, I was thrust into a large group meeting with about a dozen people-mostly women and everyone older than me. I immediately announced that I didnʼt belong there. I went on a complete rant, telling everyone I was in complete control of my eating, and I didnʼt need anybodyʼs help. I then broke down in tears in front of everyone.
Each day, I spent hours in therapy. Surrounded by mature patients who were living “real lives”, I came to the realization that I didnʼt want to be 40 years old and still living under the control of an eating disorder. I vowed this would be the last time I would need treatment. I “graduated” shortly after my 19th birthday. I truly felt ready to let go of my eating disorder.
In May of 1988, I met, and instantly fell in love with my husband. We were engaged after 9 months, and married shortly after I graduated from college in 1990. We had three children born within 28 months. I loved being a mom, and was thankful to be able to stay at home with them. Once my children were in school, I began my teaching career.
At this point, my eating disorder was a chapter in my life I thought I had put to rest. But then, a couple of years ago, a stressful work situation prompted unintentional weight loss. I was lured in by the sense of control I felt, and comforted by watching the number on the scale drop. Within months, I stopped getting my period. It was obvious to many that I was not healthy. When my husband confronted me, I blamed my marathon training. Up until this point I had felt the power of being an adult and being able to control and manipulate my eating without anybody questioning me. I instantly felt like I was back in high school, and it angered me.
One morning, while on a run, I started feeling weak and lightheaded. The next thing I knew I was sprawled out on the sidewalk with a scraped knee, elbow and hands. This was a turning point for me, as I seriously began questioning myself about what I was doing. I worried about the long term health effects I might be imposing upon myself.
Coincidentally, it was shortly after this that I stumbled upon a healthy eating blog written by a registered dietician. In her “About” section, she explained why diets didnʼt work, and stressed the importance of eating real, quality food. I started crying as I read. For the first time in a long time, I felt a glimmer of hope. Up until this point, I couldnʼt imagine how I could bring this chapter of my life to a close once and for all. Itʼs hard to explain how something you know is self destructive becomes a comfort, but it does and it is so hard to break free.
I tore through books, learning all I could about health and nutrition. I discovered healthy eating blogs. I started making, and eating real food, slowly becoming more comfortable and at peace with eating. I loved the way eating healthy made me feel. I loved the energy I felt when I went on a run. I loved not having to be secretive about food. I loved not counting calories. I did not love gaining weight, but I knew I could not provide my body with the nutrients it needed by continuing to restrict calories.
Through my reading, I became intrigued by vegan diets. I watched documentaries and read books about plant based lifestyles. I discovered blogs devoted to vegan eating. As a result of what I had learned, I made the decision to eliminate meat, dairy and eggs from my diet. I was excited to provide my body with the nourishment it needed to perform its best, and eating a whole food, plant based diet did exactly that for me. And, better yet, I knew that the food choices I was making made a difference on a much grander scale.
That was over a year and a half ago. Food has now become a source of nutrients and enjoyment, rather than a source of calories and guilt. I am grateful for the knowledge I have gained, and relieved to have a healthy relationship with food. I enjoy discovering new foods and trying new recipes. I feel passionate about the quality of food I eat. I am healthy, feel great and donʼt take any medications.
For the most part, I feel content. I no longer weigh myself, as I donʼt want the number on the scale to dictate how I feel about myself. Calorie counting has been replaced by ingredient label reading. I now exercise to make myself stronger instead of to burn calories. In spite of all of this, Iʼm still not 100% at peace with my body. I long to feel comfortable in my own skin, and accept myself the way I am. Unfortunately, there still are days I analyze myself far too critically when I look in the mirror, or I experience a period of panic and anxiety when my clothes fit. I then remind myself that eating healthy and exercising moderately, will provide me with the body God intended me to have.
Karen’s Bio: Hi! My name is Karen. I’m a health and fitness fanatic living in Neenah, Wisconsin. I have been happily married for almost 25 years to a man who never fails to tell me each day how much he loves me. Together, we have raised three children (22, 21, and 20 years old), all of whom I am immensely proud. All three are collegiate athletes, so we stay busy traveling to their games and meets. Recently, we added a 3 year old Golden Retriever to our family.
I teach 6th grade Language Arts, and feel incredibly fortunate to share my passion for writing with my students, and to work with a phenomenal team of teachers (who don’t mind being guinea pigs when I try new recipes). I serve on my school district’s Wellness Committee, and love incorporating health challenges into my classroom.
Running, biking, hiking, boating, sailing, and skiing are my favorite ways of staying active. I’ve been running for 30 years, and have completed 5 marathons. I am trying really hard to love yoga. I also enjoy reading, writing, and making (and photographing) vegan food! A year ago I began a blog to combine my passions for writing and health.
Here are some things that stand out to me about Karen’s story, in no particular order. First, I appreciated her description of the relief and flash of understanding she experienced when she read a powerful challenge of dieting on an RD’s website. A well-known 2007 UCLA study (1) determined that having lost weight via dieting was actually one of the best predictors of future weight gain, and that at least two-thirds of dieters regained more weight post-diets than they had lost while dieting. In the the studies they examined, one showed that, among those who were followed for fewer than two years, 23 percent gained back more weight than they had lost, while of those who were followed for at least two years, 83 percent gained back more weight than they had lost. We hear these statistics about restriction and dieting, and yet the impulse to use both as a form of control remains strong. In people with longterm ED struggles, restriction and dieting cycles can become so habitual that they seem to impart calm or help to quell anxiety. This is part of why those cycles can be so difficult to interrupt.
Karen’s story also makes clear that, without a profound and meaningful shift in the way a person experiences food and eating, treatment resources alone can often fail to create longterm recovery. This is not to say that those resources–therapy, group support, in- or out-patient programs–aren’t incredibly important. But a person can navigate them without healing.
In Karen’s case, the doors to healing seem to have been thrown open by her health crisis and held open over time by a transformed relationship with food. I loved reading her description of how adopting a wholesome diet and reconnecting with cooking allowed her to become “at peace with eating.” Her descriptions of food and how she relates to it now demonstrate several forms of deep appreciation: first, appreciation of the healthfulness and vibrancy of the plant-based ingredients she’s working with and the benefits that they can offer her body. Second, a true commitment to self-care and nourishment, made evident in cooking and enjoyment of new recipes. Last, a sense that her diet is “making a difference” on a grander scale. It seems as though Karen is redefining the way she regards and experiences food each and every day, with deeply meaningful results.
Thank you so much to Karen for sharing her story with all of us today. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it, and that you’ll share your thoughts with her.
1.Mann, T, Tomiyama, AJ, Westling, E, Lew, AM, Samuels, B, Chatman, J. Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. Am Psychol. 2007 Apr; 62 (3): 220-33.