“The truth was, I was a food addict. My relationship with food was unhealthy and unsafe, regardless of how it looked on my frame. This was not an issue of size.”
I am super honored to bring you a guest post this morning, from the extremely awesome, Jessica DeMarra of Sprouts and Chocolate. I had the pleasure of meeting Jessica at the very last Vida Vegan Con (single tear) after the talk I gave on body image, self-esteem, veganism, and blogging. When I spoke to Jessica, she told me about her struggles with food, and talked to me about how she’d always wanted to share her story, but wasn’t sure where it would fit in on her recipe blog. I was struck by Jessica’s vulnerability and honesty, and decided right then and there that if I didn’t see something on S+C within six months, I would invite her to share here.
It is such an honor and a gift every time someone talks about eating disorders and recovery without shame. I invite you to grab a cup of coffee or tea, get cozy, and sink into Jessica’s tale. This is a story of working through the mental bullshit that eating disorders bring, finding a glimmer of hope, and going at self-respect like it’s a full time job. Let’s get to it!
Hello! My name is Jessica DeMarra, and I run the plant-based blog, Sprouts and Chocolate.
I had the pleasure of meeting Lacy at Vida Vegan Con, where she did a seminar on positive self-image. After we met, she emailed me about doing a guest post discussing my story and my struggles with food. I replied to her email with excitement and then I realized I would have to be honest about my eating, which was frightening. I have never shared my story in such detail before and I was concerned people would take it the wrong way.
But then I reminded myself: this is my story and some people will relate and others won’t. It is honest, real, and yes, actually happened. No bullshit here.
Before VVC, I had never met Lacy, but her story stirred something inside of me that I had been repressing for years- my own troubles with food. For most of my life, I was compulsively overeating, emotionally dependent on food, and a food addict. After Lacy’s seminar, she welcomed the audience to introduce themselves and I headed for the back of the line, holding in my tears in hopes that no one would see me. I said hello to her, she shook my hand, and then I broke down sobbing; we are not talking about a glistening tear or two slowly rolling down my cheek- it was an open mouthed, gut-wrenching, couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe, full on weeping. She was kind about it, let me catch my breath, and listened to my story between sobs. I told her that I was a food blogger that was so addicted to food that I barely thought of anything else. I told her that worst of all, people around me didn’t believe me about my anxieties. They had just summed it up to me being self-critical or worse, humble about my size. After pulling myself together, I left the seminar room feeling exhausted, yet energized at the same time.
Finally, someone heard my voice and understood my words.
Previously, when I confided in someone about my struggles with food, they would respond with “You are not fat, Jess,” or an eye roll perhaps, thinking I read one too many Cosmo magazines. Funny thing, I never said I was fat. I always said I was having a hard time with food and anxiety. They were looking at my body instead of hearing my words, like someone’s body is an accurate reflection of their thoughts.
I didn’t tell people that I thought I was fat, because that was not the issue. The truth was, I was a food addict. My relationship with food was unhealthy and unsafe, regardless of how it looked on my frame. This was not an issue of size.
I realized I was addicted to food when I went to college, where I had a fully loaded meal card and the privacy of my own dorm room. After my classes, I would prepare for my nightly ritual of heading down to the local shawarma place, getting a lamb shish kabob plate and a Diet Coke, and popping into the store for two king sized chocolate bars, one for eating on the walk back to my dorm and one for having after dinner. Each night I could feel the excitement of my indulgence- my skin literally buzzed. I could not walk fast enough back to my dorm room to get started. When I arrived to my dorm, I immediately changed into sweats, got my marathon of television ready to go, and ate in bed, consuming everything as fast as I could. I always discarded the evidence of my binge right away. I was never full and never satisfied.
I didn’t do these things because I wanted to- I did them because I needed to. If something disturbed my binge, I would be in an awful mood until I could do it again the next night. I said no to plans and outings to keep this ritual ongoing.
There was a time when I glamorized anorexia over compulsively overeating from food addiction. I assumed that it meant that I could at least be skinny even if I was still self- destructive. I even tried on the eating disorder, lasting no more than a day of eating as little as possible. I realize now that that is insensitive to those who are struggling with this disease but feelings about eating disorders are never rational. I was so in my fog that I couldn’t see actual recovery as a way out.
Since not eating at all wasn’t an option for me, I decided to do the next “best” thing and took up diet pills and cigarettes. All my smoker friends were skinny! I did this for a few years and yeah, I, too, was skinny. The unfortunate reality is that people complimented me. It seemed that people found me more attractive. Clothes shopping was easier. This was all the motivation I needed to continue the destructive behavior.
On the surface I seemed happy. Meanwhile, I was suffering insomnia, obsessive eating + exercise, heart palpations, cold sweats, blurred vision, chronic fatigue, and digestive problems from the mixture of nicotine, over the counter diet pills, and a very restrictive diet. I would run my hands over my body, feeling my hipbones protruding out, my flat stomach, and the deep caves I had created around my collarbone. I assumed that, despite all terrible symptoms I had, this is what happiness felt like. That is, until I went to the doctor’s office and he told me my resting heart rate was abnormally high for a person at the age of 20. This was the wake up call that I needed to change.
I had to dig deep and shift my focus from self-destruction masquerading as self care to truly caring about my body and soul. I started adding good things, mostly plants, to my diet- instead of buying a donut at my favourite coffee place, I bought some fruit at the neighbouring grocer stand, I carried a bottle of water with me everywhere I went since I was chronically dehydrated and never realized it. Instead of going out to drink all night only to wake up to a hangover, I stayed in with friends to watch a movie. I started thinking good things about myself instead of thinking that I was an all-consuming piece of garbage. I would tell myself out loud in the mirror everyday what I liked about myself. I stopped taking diet pills, stopped drinking a pot of coffee a day, and stopped pinching my sides while I ate. I still felt that itch, the tingle of pain and pleasure that was giving in to the overconsumption of foods. I had been so extreme and so harmful to myself; I thought I would never feel better. I didn’t even know who I was without these things in my life. I defined myself by my eating habits- they governed my thoughts, my body, my soul, and without them, would I even like who I was? But I realized the truth, which was that I didn’t like myself while restricting my diet, either. There had to be more to life than my rituals around food and body.
This is where I decided to turn my addiction to food into something healthy and positive. I had always been a pretty good cook, and I had a camera so why not start a plant-based recipe blog? Sprouts & Chocolate was born out of my desire to see food differently, to not be emotionally dependent on it. I knew nothing about blogging, how social media, or even the Internet worked but I wanted to take my negative feelings about food and turn them into something with passion and positivity. Working on my food blog has taught me that food can shamelessly pleasure the body and the soul. I could enjoy what I was eating, decadent or not, without the guilt of feeling disobedient. Though I have never discussed my disordered eating on my site, it has transformed the way I see food, turning it from a shameful secret to public sharing. No food is inherently dirty or clean and when I bake up some awesome cookies or a crazy healthy salad, I can now eat it without mentally running through a calorie count.
Before, it was perfection or destruction and nothing in between. Finding balance is a practice, and one that I continue to aim for every day. Some days are awesome and I feel great about myself, my body, and my life. Other days, I look in the mirror and ask myself, “Who the fuck are you?”
My recovery has taught me that I do not have to feel great every single day. Having moments of imperfection is- dare I say- normal! Shitty days happen but it is what you do with yourself on your bad days that is important. Over and underrating were tactics I used to temporarily make myself feel better, but of course the satisfaction never lasted. Now my behaviour has changed to actually take care of myself and my emotions instead of stuffing or starving them. I don’t turn to consuming as much as I can in a short time to feel better- I curl up in bed and read a book, turn off my phone and take a bath, go for a short run or literally just lay on the floor and do nothing. My behaviour now takes care of my body and my soul, because it is kind as opposed to punishing. My weight has stopped effecting my happiness and I give a big ol’ mental “fuck you” to those who question the confidence I have in myself, like how dare I feel good about my body*.
*Lacy said those exact words in her seminar and I will never forget them.
I may be at my heaviest, but I also at my happiest and that is worth something.
If you are feeling down about yourself, have anxiety around food, and don’t know where to start or how to start, reach out! Meeting Lacy for those 10 minutes at the end of a seminar has been the most soul stirring, cathartic, and healing moments in my disordered eating journey to recovery. It took just one person to listen to what I was saying and respond thoughtfully with no judgments for me to feel understood and worthy of my feelings.
Are you crying?! I am totally fucking crying. Jessica, you are amazing and brave and I am SO honored to host you!
For more from Jessica, visit her in the following places:
Have an amazing weekend!
Every week I meet with my friend, Holly, on Monday afternoons to record Rise and Resist podcast. Each week we talk about what we’ve been up to, what we are eating, answer some listener questions, and then usually we meander our way to a topic. Nine times out of ten, we talk about fitness, of course, because that’s what we do on R+R. Deadlifts, burpees, gear. You know- just your average thing 30(ish) year old women obsess over, right?
This week we talked about something a little deeper than our squat (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) We talked about how to be ally to a friend with a (confirmed or suspected) eating disorder. When we finally hit stop on the recorder, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a really long time. Raw. A little scared. And like I knew this was a topic that both needed more attention and needed to be out in the world. I also felt unsure that everything I said was right, and like our opinions were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what could be a larger conversation.
Here are a few tips Holly and I came up with for how to be an ally to a struggling friend.
If you notice someone’s body has gotten smaller, try not to shower them with compliments. This is perhaps a given if someone already has a confirmed eating disorder, but I want to talk about before that happens.
When I first started restricting my food, it wasn’t because I was necessarily aware that I was about to have an ED. I was heartbroken and unable to eat or sleep, I was a crying mess, and weight was literally falling off of my body. MANY people (doctors, people I was close to, strangers) told me I looked great, and that seed planted in my head and was really hard to get rid of.
I believe we can be an ally to people with eating disorders everywhere by not thin praising, or bringing up someone’s weight loss as if it were their paramount achievement in life. I know a lot of people work really hard to lose weight, but I stand by the assertion that in general, unsolicited body comments run the gamut between downright tacky to just plain damaging. We can do better!
If you see something, say something. This may seem contrary to my previous suggestion, but I truly believe it isn’t, because asking someone what’s up when you notice a change isn’t the same as blindly praising it. I suggest being gentle with your approach, but also using logic around whom you’re speaking with. (IE make sure the level of friendship that you’re at with the person can hold the weight of such a complicated conversation.)
If someone seems to have increased anxiety around food, social eating, or body image, a “hey, how are you doing lately? I’ve noticed XYZ behavior” may be a good idea. Physical changes can be really sensitive to approach, and I often tend to steer clear of them, but my experience has shown me that usually eating disorders can be identified by far more than how a body looks. When asking someone if they are having an okay relationship with food and body, try to be open, honest, and forgiving. Accept that they might not want to talk to you about this thing, but also that they might be waiting for an opportunity to open up to a trusted confidant. When you ask someone about this subject, don’t have expectations around their response.
If someone does indeed have an eating disorder, its time to decide your boundaries. Supporting someone through an ED is an incredible thing to do, and can also be incredibly draining. It is okay to offer support in some ways, and know that you can’t do so in all ways. In my recovery I had friends that would offer to eat with me, but were not willing to listen to me trash my body. That is a perfectly acceptable, reasonable, and okay boundary. We all have to take care of ourselves and our hearts, and having boundaries is a great way to do just that.
Direct communication works best. No one likes to hear that they’re looking sickly through a long and winding game of telephone. If you have concern about someone’s health and well-being, it really is best to talk with them about it directly instead of talking to someone else. (an exception to this would be talking to someone with a confidentiality agreement, like a therapist!) It can totally be difficult to not discuss someone’s situation with others, especially if there is a drastic change in appearance, but I swear that no matter how good your intentions are, its very painful to hear that someone has something to say about your body or your behavior that they haven’t said to your face.
Be prepared for rough days, and be prepared to be forgiving. Eating disorders are physical, sure, but they are also mental illnesses. They trigger depression, anxiety, and PTSD and, alternately, depression, anxiety, and PTSD can also trigger eating disorders. Often, the last behavior to leave someone with an eating disorder is obsessive thoughts about food, numbers, and calories. Those obsessive thoughts can make it really hard to always have good days.
Even when we look fine, ED thoughts can continue to plague us, which sounds scary, but is mostly just something that those in recovery eventually learn to work with. When your beloved eating-disorder-havin’ friend has an off day, it is your responsibility to treat them with the same tender kindness that you would someone struggling with other mental illnesses. You’re friend will get through this, and if you let them know you have their back, it will be all-the-easier (though, still not easy of course.)
Eating disorders thrive on both guilt and shame, so if possible, do your best not to contribute to that. Confronting someone about having an eating disorder may very well trigger shame, and that’s not anyone’s fault. But I think stressing that you are approaching the scenario with love and support and that guilt is not the aim is important.
Openness, honesty, forgiveness and understanding…if your actions fit into at least a couple of those categories, they are likely to help in some way. Sometimes the way that supporting someone with eating disorder helps them is not immediately apparent, but that’s okay. Recovery takes time, and for all the brilliant, amazing, and incredible people I’ve met who’ve also struggled with food, I can almost guarantee the investment will be worth it.
I’ve had a lot of people in life during my recovery, that have used a lot of tactics to help support me. Just as eating disorders are entirely uncomfortable and complicated, allyship can be too. These suggestions are merely from my experience, and as everyone is different, they might not work for all people.
What did I forget? What would you like to add? What’s the best way you support or have been supported?