Whenever I write about my experience of eating disorders, I make a point of saying that the healing process isn’t linear. It’s full of odd, surprising twists and turns, realizations and moments that take one by surprise.
Still, it’s natural to hope that a linear trend will emerge. After all, it’s the promise of change, of transformation, that keeps us going when the process is at its ugliest. When recovery was at its worst for me—when I was feeling the most robbed of my identity, the most enraged, the most at odds with my body—I got through it by assuring myself that it wouldn’t always be like this; one day, I thought, it would almost never feel like this anymore.
That wasn’t an empty promise. It’s exactly how things turned out, albeit with lots of ups and downs.
When I wrote this post in May, I was as strong and solid in recovery as I ever have been. In the last few weeks, body dysmorphia has reared its nasty head again, and my experience of it is nothing like it was five months ago. Then, I was able to feel the old triggers, talk about them, note their appearance with some humor and self-awareness. It all felt very grown up, very reasonable.
My experience in the last week has been completely different. The dysmorphia itself has felt different: not like a poke or a prod or a nudge, the way it was in May, but more like the dysmorphia I remember from years ago: hot and angry. Loud. Distracting.
I’m feeling things I haven’t felt in years: waking up in the morning with the sensation that I’m trapped in my skin, wanting to claw my way out. Avoiding my own reflection in mirrors. Certainty that my body is a mistake, something that went wrong a long time ago and will always feel wrong. I’m handling it, but it’s unnerving. I’d started to believe that all of this was behind me.
Why now? I’m not sure, but I have some guesses: a new schedule, loss of my routines, being tested and evaluated and sized up by authority figures more regularly than I have since my post-bacc years. Change, nerves, shame, worry—in other words, the familiar triggers.
I’ve tried to let the discomfort of the last few days give me insight into how I respond now, versus how I did in the past. What have I learned? How much deeper is my capacity for self-compassion? The answer is that it’s a lot deeper, and the evidence is the fact that I haven’t restricted food at all since this began or let it enter into my eating habits.
But recognizing my more mature capacity for self-care isn’t actually making this experience less painful. Right now, my primary feeling is resentment that I can’t access my old recourses. Even if there was any part of me that wanted to eat less now, I couldn’t. Food is too important to me. The difference between now and then, I realize, is that I want food much more badly than I want control. This is growth, but it can feel like failure.
On Friday, I found myself at my mom’s place, telling her all of this, probably in greater detail and with more honesty than I’ve ever been able to share with her. “But honey,” she said, “I know you don’t want to go back to where you were. You need your strength.”
How to explain to her—to anyone—that the old ways so often felt like strength—more strength than I’ve ever had? That I do want to turn back the clock sometimes, even if I can’t and won’t? “You don’t understand,” I blubbered. “Back then was probably the only time I’ve ever really felt right in my body.”
I don’t think that’s true. But it felt true in the moment. I’m glad I said it and let it go.
In some ways, the timing of all of this has been unfortunate. I’m on my feet more than usual with my new work, which means I’m hungrier than usual and eating more than usual. It wouldn’t feel like a big deal were I not at odds with my body, but I am, so it does. In my class on Thursday night we practiced the nutrition focused physical exam. It wasn’t an ideal time to have my triceps pinched and belly prodded.
As usual, though, what feels like inopportune or unfair timing may actually be the opposite. Each day at work, I cross paths with people who have experienced dramatic shifts in their capacity to eat. Some have dysphagia, others have lost their appetites from illness or medication. Some are tube fed, and may never take in food by mouth again.
What must this be like? I can’t begin to know or understand, because my only experience of decreased food intake has been a result of my disorder, not a question of necessity. I know that it has never been a choice, but I can recognize the difference and give thanks—the deepest kind of thanks—that eating hasn’t always been easy for me, but it has always been possible.
On Friday, my mom admitted surprise at hearing how badly I felt. “You’ve just come so far,” she said. I know I have. I know that I’ve worked hard to create and protect my recovery. I know that everything is different now. I know that I’ve transmuted a lot of struggle into a relationship with food that’s beautiful, creative, and special.
But that relationship isn’t only beautiful, creative, and special. It’s also messy and complicated. It might always be messy and complicated. There may always be weeks like this, when my relationship with food feels more like a burden than a gift. It’s difficult to accept this paradox. I want to be either a success story, or I want to feel like I used to feel: powerful and in control, even if I wasn’t. But a major part of my recovery has been developing a capacity to handle ambiguity and complexity, to acknowledge realities that can’t be neatly categorized. The very fact of my struggling this week is one of those.
Before I left her place, my mom gave me the sweetest and gentlest word of encouragement that she’s ever given me about body stuff. “Eat your delicious food, Gena,” she said. “Make your recipes.”
Today, I woke up. I made a good breakfast, and later on a good lunch. I’m doing all of the usual batch cooking, so that I have sensible and nourishing things to eat this week. I’ll keep talking about this spell of dysmorphia in therapy, doing the work, sitting with my feelings, being honest. I may hide myself under a few extra layers or baggy garments while I’m at it, but if that’s as far as old behaviors go, that’s pretty good. Another dimension of recovery—one I’m only just getting acquainted with—is to struggle while continuing to put one foot in front of the other, calmly and without discouragement.
In the spirit of making recipes, some of my favorites from the past week. And some good articles, too.
My vegan sandwich crush of the week: Gina’s awesome, plant-based pea pesto grilled cheese.
I know what bread-y thing will be a part of my Thanksgiving this year! Eva’s beautifully fluffy, whole wheat dinner rolls.
Deryn and I are on the same page, since I’ve been working on a new hash recipe. I’m loving her easy vegan breakfast skillet and will definitely make it with Field Roast, my favorite vegan sausage.
If vegan chicken parm isn’t comforting enough, here it is served over a beautiful bowl of penne 🙂 A comfort food fest from Plant Power Couple.
Finally, more comfort: Erin’s creamy, dreamy vegan broccoli cheese soup.
1. A fascinating look at why the phytonutrients in plants are beneficial for us, while growing research suggests that antioxidant supplementation may not be.
2. Heartache isn’t only a manner of speech: more research is emerging on the link between emotional distress and heart disease.
3. Another look at the health ramifications of stress, this time focusing on mitochondrial DNA and telomere shortening.
4. More evidence that plant meats are a sustainable as well as compassionate choice. (I still need to try the Beyond Burger!)
5. An important, informative article on enhancing diversity within the dietetics profession. It gave me a lot to think about—including a helpful reminder to always check, acknowledge, and address my own biases.
It’s the start of a new week, and I’m entering it with an open mind and optimistic heart. Wishing you lightness, too. I’ll be back with a tasty new slow cooker recipe in a couple days.