Anorexia is not being able to look in the mirror. It’s cranking up the air conditioning in an already-cold gym and lifting tiny little weights again and again and again with your head looking to the side because the sight of the bones and veins protruding from your arms looks scary and wrong, and even you yourself don’t want to face it.
It is extreme panic paired with extreme banality, life as a choreography of musts that take all of your time and every ounce of your energy. It is day in and day out, wake, weigh yourself, measure your soymilk, drink your coffee, feel hungry, so incredibly hungry that there is no point in eating because you will never not feel hungry when it gets down this deep. It is eat your vegetables, remain hungry, eat your pear, remain hungry, drink your diet soda and remain hungry. It is closing your eyes to try to breathe through the hunger and wondering why you don’t just eat.
It is your mom calling you on the telephone and begging you to be well.
Anorexia is a fight, an extremely stupid fight, a selfish fight. You know this, but you’re brain chemistry is all fucked up and you’re scared of very very basic things.
Anorexia is embarrassing.
Anorexia is a severe fear of actually living a life. A life includes food, rest, running around, fucking hot people, focus, drive, friends. Life is showing up to birthday parties with gifts in your hands and celebrating other people. Eating the cake or not eating the cake and it not mattering either way. Life is quiet time, sinking into hot tubs and letting your mind go blank, enjoying the way it feels to be in your body. Life is waking up and knowing there is both purpose to your day and a chance of mystery.
Anorexia will have none of that.
There is no “enough” for anorexia. There aren’t enough sit-ups, or measurements, or regimens, or restrictions. There certainly isn’t thin enough, because eventually every moment is fraught with the reality that you will either gain some of the weight back or you will die.
Anorexia has you believe that both options are on an equal plane of terrible, and you will not know which one to choose.
I remember my entire recovery as making deals with myself.
I will get to 100 pounds, and then I will stop.
I will get to 110 pounds and then I will stop
I will get to 120 pounds, and then I will stop
When I see that eating makes my weight go up in a way that isn’t about the deals I make with myself, I will stop weighing myself.
It’s just too painful.
I will eat enough, but I will exercise manically.
I will take rest days from exercise, but then I won’t eat much.
I will sometimes eat a little too much, but then I will throw up.
I went like this, in my recovery, for years.
I couldn’t see that to truly recover, I would have to learn to like myself. I was so deeply ashamed of my actions that I couldn’t imagine a world where I had any sort of self-esteem at all. I felt guilty about my behavior, disgusted at myself in the face of my crying friends and family. I started trying to recover for them, to make them happy, to stop the tears.
One day I wrote down every negative though I had about myself or my body for an entire day. I filled six pages in my notebook and asked myself how I could recover while constantly telling myself I was a piece of shit.
One day I promised a close friend I would help her to set up her thesis exhibition. I hadn’t eaten enough in a couple of days and when the time came to show up I was so exhausted I couldn’t move from my bed.
I asked myself how I could recover when I was continually disappointing people that I loved.
I asked myself if the negative things I spent all of my time saying to myself were perhaps sparked by how disappointing it felt to let people I loved down.
Then, I asked myself a question, a question I consider the first real step of my recovery for me, the first question that spawned the recovery that stuck:
What is it that I need to do to like myself enough to be well?
I am extra humbled and grateful for this fact, because a good portion of my life up until the past few years was spent dealing with a significant amount of bullshit. Depression, abuse, isolation, severe anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, so much time on the elliptical that I forgot what it was like to have friends.
I spent a good deal of my teens feeling like no one in the world gave a shit about me. Much of my 20’s were spent freaking the fuck out, because how was it possible to live a good life with such a general cloak of persistent grief? I was convinced that I came from circumstances. The kind of circumstances that made it so that it wasn’t possible for me to be calm or happy. My eating disorder was the absolute pinnacle of that belief.
My rules, my calorie counting, my weighing and measuring, my food journal, my every-single-day-no-matter-what exercise gave me things to do when I felt there was nothing else to do. The control of my body was soothing, a total fucking life raft in the midst of a big terrible ocean. I truly felt that I needed food restriction and body scrutiny to survive, because it gave me what I thought was the closest thing to peace.
By the time my eating disorder started I had spent decades looking outward to find a way to feel like I was noticeable and valuable, and in some sense, the insanity gave me that feeling. By the time I realized that my behavior wasn’t sustainable or smart or interesting, the habits were deeply entrenched in my daily activities. I quickly realized that in order to make changes, I first had to get out of my own way.
Maybe you feel stuck in behavior patterns you don’t like, or you wonder why you can’t be happy, or you don’t trust yourself to succeed. That’s okay. I felt that way for a long time too, and much of the work of my recovery was finding ways to change my mind about myself.
To do the same, I suggest you:
Be gentle: If you feel stuck in thought patterns or behaviors that you don’t know how to get rid of, it is probably for a reason. I think the dialogue about habit change is both privileged and flawed, in the sense that it doesn’t take into account things like race, class, or brain chemistry. If you want to live a brilliant and joyful life and you’re totally fucking broke, working a billion hours a week doing something you hate to just scrape by, it is likely that you will be a little fucking depressed. If your body is simply not making enough serotonin, it is likely that your brain will be impacted. There are all sorts of totally uncontrollable factors that mess with our health and happiness, and I encourage you to be extremely gentle with yourself while you navigate around them.
Even if you simply have a habit of perpetual fear or constant and nagging feelings of unworthyness, those things are deeply entrenched and won’t go away over night. Go slow when getting out of your own way. Take little steps and don’t be a dick to yourself when it doesn’t work out right away. It’s okay. You’re still going to succeed in little ways, all the time.
Be disciplined: Discipline is different for everyone. For me it means I set an early alarm, often rising before the sun, so that I can do personal things (exercise, eat wonderful food, study my text books, meditate, write a gratitude list) as well as work my ass off for Super Strength Health. It ALSO means I am DILIGENT about my rest days from exercise, I ALWAYS sleep 8-9 hours, I DEMAND one meal a week out of the house and somewhere special, and I generally don’t work after I eat my dinner. I am disciplined in terms of my productivity, but I know that tasks will simply expand to meet the time allowed, so I also must be disciplined about my off time too. I find it extremely helpful to make a calendar for myself and to try to stick to it. In the past I have viewed myself as generally lazy, and taking the time to stick to a structure has been a huge part of letting myself be both accomplished and happy. It feels good!
Be confidant: This might take the most work of all, but it is so worth the effort. At some point I realized I was totally ashamed of my eating and exercise behaviors, specifically, so I had to change them in order to gain self-esteem. This took YEARS, and I consistently had to go back to my first suggestion (be gentle!) when I faltered. Confidence doesn’t come immediately, but a good start is to try to have integrous action most of the time, and to start saying nice things to yourself. Just telling myself that I think I am rad and smart on a daily basis has been tremendously helpful. It’s the little things!
Take risks: I honestly think that taking risks has made me be more confidant (as opposed to confidence allowing me to take more risk). Sometimes a good old dash of “I didn’t believe I could do XYZ, but I did it anyway” is totally appropriate and excellent.
Get grateful: Getting grateful for your circumstance is one thing you could do, but getting grateful for yourself is actually what I mean when I suggest this step. YOU, all on your own, want to get out of your own way, to accomplish shit and to feel good about yourself. YOU are taking the steps to enjoy your life. YOU are curious what it would be like to feel like you are killin’ it at living your life. A lot of people choose to never push themselves past what they already know. Be grateful for yourself, your intention and your effort.
I believe in you, even if you don’t believe in yourself (yet.)
Now get out there and crush it!
If you’ve had an eating disorder in the past, its voice can always be waiting there, right there in the wings.
“You’re body is terribly flawed” it might say.
“You’ll never be good enough”
“I can’t believe you ate that”
“It’s time to count calories” it might suggest. “Or eat more. Or maybe starve.”
“Throw up” the voice might say. “Eat everything in the world and then throw it up.”
There are so many ways an eating disordered voice can manifest that it kind of blows my mind. Historically, my history with disordered eating has been very specifically restriction paired with compulsive exercise. But when that got better it morphed into bulimia and from there it morphed into general food freakiness. It became eating food really, really fast, like someone would catch me or like I hadn’t eaten in a long time. It became a general nasty voice in my head that told me I was unattractive and worthless.
My anorexia and bulimia mellowed into something quieter, but still painful. It became mean thoughts, and sadness when I ate anything at all. My eating disorder had made me feel very bad, but when it went away, I didn’t exactly feel better. Instead I felt quietly trapped in my body without my coping mechanism. There was enough food in my life to keep me at a stable weight, but there wasn’t enough food in the world to keep my brain feeling good.
I knew I had to find a different way.
When it turned out there wasn’t enough food in the world to make me feel happy or whole I started focusing instead on how I could be a better friend. My sickness had taken me entirely into my head, focused on my routine, my calories, my measuring cups, my exercise. I didn’t show up for my friends for years. I started showing up. The friends that forgave me for my selfishness showed up for me too. It felt perfect.
When it seemed there wasn’t enough food in the world to fill me, I asked myself a very logistical question: had I eaten enough that day? Had I gotten enough protein? Eventually I learned that I have sensitive blood sugar, and I need to eat every 2-3 hours. I made my eating schedule a habit, and then the only hungers I had to worry about were emotional.
I wrote. I wrote my fucking ass off, and I found people who liked my writing. Writing filled me up more than trying to control my body and when I finished a piece I had worked hard on, I felt like a champion.
When it seemed there wasn’t enough food in the world for me, I made a plan. My plan went like this:
“If I feel like puking, I will talk to Monica. If Monica is busy, I’ll take a shower. When the shower is over, I will think of things that make me feel good.” It was a really simple, three step plan, and once I put it in place, I stopped puking.Because I have consistently used this plan for any behavior I don’t accept (I don’t feel like puking anymore, but sometimes I do feel like mentally talking shit on my body) I am able to stay well. It’s simple, but not easy.
For the record, the things I thought of mostly when I needed a reason not to throw up were my students, young girls and how important I think they are, lifting weights, and my grandmother, mother, and sister. I stopped puking for the love of all women. I started to like myself as a result. These are specific to me, and you will probably have other excellent things to think about that will be specific to you.
What will you do when the voice of self-dissatisfaction comes up? How will you change your own mind?