The other day, one of my clients asked me, “I know I’ve read in some of your posts before about how you still may have some ED-driven thoughts pop up, but you’ve learned how to fight them off. Can you elaborate on that? What works for you in terms of quieting those thoughts or getting them to leave you the hell alone when they show up uninvited?”
Her timing was incredible. Because, just that very morning, I’d had the first really terrible body day I’d had in a long time.
“Bad body day” is kind of a dumb expression, but it’s what I’ve always called them: the days when I wake up feeling painfully uncomfortable in my own skin. They used to be a constant fixture of my life, and now they’re quite rare, but when they happen, they feel every bit as punishing as I remember. Sometimes they’re random, and can descend out of nowhere. In the past, they often fell on mornings when I felt guilty about something I’d eaten the night before, or on a day when I’d weighed myself and seen a number on the scale that ruined my mood.
Everyone has bad body days. One thing you forget when you’ve had a nasty eating disorder is that the world is not divided into people with EDs and people who love every inch of their own bodies. People who have never struggled with disordered eating are nevertheless often susceptible to some of the same sorts of self-scrutiny that people with EDs take to such wild extremes. They catch an angle in the mirror that doesn’t please them, or they try on a pair of pants that suddenly doesn’t seem to fit right, and they feel out of sorts or frustrated. When you have an eating disorder, these natural moments of self-criticism become intensified by complex personal history, and (sometimes) innate tendencies toward self-destruction.
During the early phases of my recovery, bad body days were constant. I’d had them during my disorder, too, of course, but my disorder also gave me a lot of good body days, moments when I looked at my ghostly reflection in the mirror and felt pleased with what I saw. No one else felt that way; family and friends greeted my body with alarm. But, no matter how sick it was, I felt comfortable inhabiting that shape.
Recovery did not feel comfortable. It was terrible to watch my body change, especially at the beginning, because extreme thinness had come to signify so many things to me: discipline, drive, edginess, achievement, sophistication, specialness. As I’ve written many times before, a big part of my recovery was the realization that I couldn’t be healthy and have the body that felt comfortable to me at the same time. I’d go so far as to say that I was forced to make a choice between the body I valued on the one hand, and everything else I wanted–love, intimacy, freedom, pleasure, health–on the other.
As with so many of the challenges of recovery, bad body days subsided over time. They became infrequent enough that I could live with them when they happened. At some point along the way, I started to have some good body days, too, days when I could recognize that I’d become so much stronger and more interesting and more nuanced than I’d been during my ED, and my new body was a testament to all of that growth.
I identify firmly as someone who is “fully recovered.” But, as a recent Green Recovery contributor insightfully noted, being fully recovered does not mean that you’re the same person you were before the disorder. You live with it forever; not with the behaviors, of course, and not with the anguish, but with some of the cruel inner voices. You learn to have dialogs with them, and when necessary, to silence them. But, every now and then for whatever reason, they do indeed show up uninvited.
I’m not really sure what set me off last week. I think having eaten a very celebratory meal at a restaurant the night before was part of it, and lord do I hate to admit that, because I take such enormous pride in having become a person who savors–nay, relishes–restaurant dining. Avoiding restaurants was such a big part of my ED, and learning to love the experience of dining out, ordering what I really want, and savoring the fun of a special meal has been a huge part of my healing process. But, you know. I’m human. This time, for whatever reason, some of the ancient guilt responses got triggered.
So, that’s what I woke up with, and then things got worse when I trotted off to yoga and did another thing I almost never ever do at this point in my life, which is that I checked myself out in a mirror at the studio. I was not, it goes without saying, possessed of an objective gaze that morning, and it made me feel worse. For me, body dysmorphia is a very physical experience; I tend to get hot and feel a little antsy (as if I’m literally uncomfortable in my skin). Not ideal circumstances for a restorative weekend yoga class. I was unhappy the whole time, unhappy on my walk home, and unhappy when I walked in the front door, at which point my boyfriend asked what was going on, and I burst into tears.
When I drafted this post, it was last Saturday night–the same day that all of this stuff had happened. I didn’t publish the post because I wasn’t sure I should. I wondered if it would undermine my work as someone who writes about EDs if I admitted that these sorts of things do still happen to me. I thought it might undermine my work as a nutrition professional. I thought it could be triggering (and I’m sorry if it is, to anyone). But the more I thought about it, the more I felt compelled to just put it all out there. Because I think it might be comforting for other people–whether they define as recovered, in recovery, or not disordered at all–to read. It might be nice to hear that all of us have days on which we don’t feel OK, and that’s OK. It’s how we respond to and contextualize these days that really counts.
Getting back to my client’s question, I do have some strategies that I use to cope with bad body days and other days on which it seems that old demons are making their voices heard. Here are some of my favorites.
1. Remind yourself that you are experiencing a feeling. A bad body day can certainly be triggered by something that happened (the restaurant experience I mentioned, or perhaps recent travel, or an occasion of random overeating). But rarely do they have anything to do with how one actually appears to the outside world. When I have a bad body day, I remind myself that I’m trapped in a set of feelings and emotions. My body hasn’t changed; it’s simply that something is standing in the way of my capacity to see myself lovingly. I’m fighting a battle in my mind, but my body is as healthy and as strong and–if we want to use this language–as beautiful as ever. It’s my mindset that’s been thrown off kilter, not my physical person.
2. Remember what recovery has given you. The most important, effective, and personally meaningful strategy I have for coping with a bad body day is to think about the millions of ways in which my life has improved since the ED. I think about my rich social life, my loving and intimate relationship, my freedom, my spontaneity. I think about the fact that I’ve learned how to regard myself as a person who is complex and worthy, rather than a set of measurements. In giving up my obsession with controlling my body and its shape, I have gained a wonderful life. Even on a bad day–even on a day when it feels as though I’ve lost something–this is a tradeoff I would never change.
3. Communicate. When you identify as someone who is “recovered,” it can be very hard to admit to having bad days. I always feel some embarrassment in these moments, and my instinct is to withdraw, become private, and keep it to myself. I rebound more quickly, though, if I’m able to talk to someone about it: a friend, a fellow ED veteran, a blogging buddy, or my partner. Talking through the moment helps me to remember point #1 (that what I’m experiencing, no matter how potent, is also subjective and internal), and it helps me to see the big picture faster.
If this is too private for you to talk about, try to communicate it in a different way. Journaling, artistic creation, dance–these are all great ways to release some of what you’re holding painfully inside.
4. Be proud. As I’ve said many times before, it’s not so easy for us to “love” our bodies in the way that womens’ magazines seem to want us to. Do I relish the experience of bikini shopping? No, not really. Sorry.
But every time I look at my body in a mirror at this point in my life, the sight of it reminds me of how far I’ve come. I remember what it was like to be trapped in a fragile body, aware on some level that I was gravely unwell, yet equally trapped in the false sense of security that my ED had created. I feel so grateful that I was able to work through the recovery process. The body I inhabit now never feels “safe” the way my body did back then, but it certainly feels stronger, and that gives me tremendous pride.
After I’d had a good cry on the sofa with my boyfriend, I was able to tell him a little bit about the morning and why it had been so hard. He knows all about my history, but it was the first time he’d seen me struggle like this, and of course I was nervous about how he’d react. Would he think I was being overly dramatic? Self-indulgent? Vain? Just plain nuts?
Of course he didn’t think any of those things. He responded just about as lovingly and as insightfully as anyone could: he listened, he expressed sympathy, he didn’t jump to any assumptions or conclusions, and he reminded me that what I was experiencing, no matter how upsetting, wasn’t “real” in the sense that it had very little to do with my physical form. It was a feeling, triggered by guilt reflexes and anxieties that I’ve banished for the most part, but still encounter from time to time. Most of all, he made me feel that it’s safe to admit to these things, to have bad days and open up about them without shame.
Earlier that morning, I’d wondered if I should cancel my lunch plans with Ethan and Michael. Was I feeling too low, too vulnerable to go out? By 10am, I’d rejected this idea. I promised myself long ago that, even though I can’t control whether or not bad body days happen, I can choose not to let them impact my my behavior. Back in the day, my response to a bad body day was to retreat, to hide, to isolate myself, and to avoid food. Today, I acknowledge the fact that I’m feeling crummy, but I don’t hide, and I certainly don’t restrict. Ever. My relationship with my body is a work in progress, but my relationship with food is a very happy one these days, and I’m committed to preserving it.
So, for the rest of the day, I let that lovely relationship lift me up. I had a great lunch downtown at Peacefood with good, supportive friends. Afterwards, my boyfriend and I wandered Union Square, enjoying the autumnal chill and the moody drizzle. By the time we hopped on the subway uptown, he commented on how upbeat and happy I was. I was happy, in part because we were having a great afternoon, but also because I’d woken up in one of the worst body dysmorphia funks I’d had in ages, and I’d managed to rebound in just a few hours, savoring some great food while I was at it.
For dinner, we had a simple, rainy day meal of leftover corn chowder, a big salad with roasted cauliflower, cranberries, almonds, and vinaigrette, and some toast. It wasn’t anything exciting, but everything tasted wonderful, and it was just the thing we wanted for our quiet night at home. As I ate, I thought about how grateful I am to fully participate in the grand and vital human pleasure of eating good food. I thought about how I should make corn chowder more often.
It was one of the best meals I’ve had recently.
Maybe the fact that this day ended so happily is the ultimate sign of a (mostly) recovered life. For me, the tendency to dwell in binaries–good or bad, fat or thin, happy or unhappy, healthy or unhealthy, you name it–was a defining feature of my ED. It would have been impossible for me to have a bad body morning even five years ago that turned into a lovely evening. But amazingly, that’s what happened.
I’ll have another bad day again at some point–of that, I’m certain. But I’m also hopeful that, when the day comes, it will end as wonderfully as this “bad” day did.