Warning: May be triggering for those with sensitivity regarding eating issues, food or eating disorders. Actual numbers are not used nor are diet tips but you know what you need right now – please take gentle care of yourself today.
Here’s a dirty little secret about anorexia: You can’t do it forever. They won’t tell you that on the pro-Ana boards and there are even some celebs that make “functional anorexia” look like a viable life choice. But it isn’t. It doesn’t work. Some people, heartbreakingly, die of the disease. But what of the rest of us? The human body has a powerful life force and eventually it will rebel against starvation. For us champion dieters, food restricters, obsessive compulsives, perfectionists, we eventually have two choices:
1. Do our best to make our peace with our bodies and free ourselves from the tyranny of dieting and weight worries by learning healthy habits to replace the demons one by one.
2. Stop restricting but turn to other diet techniques and/or eating disorders.
Obviously choice #1 is optimal and what we aim for in recovery but I’ll be honest: I know very few anorexics who haven’t boomeranged into bulimia (whether purging by chemical, physical or exercise methods) and/or substance abuse (alcohol, diet pills, amphetamines, cocaine) as a means to try to regain control over their weight and bodies.
From the outside an eating disorder may look like the ultimate expression of self-control and willpower but I can tell you from personal experience and from years of hearing other people’s stories that it is about one thing and one thing only: pure, unadulterated fear. And I wouldn’t even say it’s a fear of getting fat. It’s that, yes, but really it’s a fear of being unloveable, of being imperfect, of having powerful needs and desires, of not measuring up, of failing. So many, many fears. An eating disorder is a terrifying roller coaster of highs filled with delusions and lows marked by denial. For awhile we have the illusion of control – food is so passive! So easy to push around! So obedient! – but eventually we realize that our entire lives are being controlled by something that’s not even sentient much less very nice.
So we give in and eat. And for a body so used to restriction this temporary lifting of the bans leads to a bottomless desire that we’re sure can’t be filled and will consume us instead. We eat and eat and eat. There is no balance – when everything is forbidden then that means it’s all equal, apple or apple pie. The body is trying to stay alive even while the mind is trying to kill it. But if we keep eating eventually we gain weight. Often this is a good and necessary thing for healing and recovery. But here’s another secret about eating disorders: They don’t always make you skinny. Moreover, you don’t have to be skinny to have one. Lots of anorexics don’t look “anorexic.”
In an ideal world, we’d all be able to immediately get right back in touch with our hunger cues and eat exactly enough to gain just the right amount of weight and live happily ever after. It didn’t work that way for me. I daresay it doesn’t work that way for a lot of people. Instead, after years of dieting and restricting and other unhealthy habits, suddenly we’re supposed to be the picture of health to be “recovered” and yet we have no clue how to do it. How would we know? I personally have been dieting in earnest since I was 10. Which means that some of us gain more weight than we are comfortable with.
I’ll wait while you laugh.
Actually we all gain more weight than we’re comfortable with. That’s ED treatment in a nutshell. But some people gain more weight than is deemed “necessary” or “healthy” which is such a fine line to walk. How do you talk about what is appropriate or healthy with someone who has no concept of either? And what happens when – if – you end up in a position where you legitimately need to lose a bit of weight? Dieting is just another trip down the rabbit hole. And you’ve worked so SO hard to recover! Plus, by this point, you may even think that dieting is anti-feminist or unsocial or simply unkind. Are you even allowed to think you need to lose weight?
I don’t know the right answer to that question but I do know a lot of us think it, as evidenced by a letter I got from Reader K recently:
I do realise you must get about a zillion of these questions per day, but I would really appreciate it if you found time to answer this.
I am an almost 20-year old girl (gosh, I should probably start saying “woman” by now…) with some history of disordered eating and exercising. I was never diagnosed and wouldn’t say I was ever bulimic/anorexic, etc. but I certainly dropped too low in my weight and exercised too much for quite some time (from sometime around 12 years old to about 18, is my best guess).
I am XXXcm high and the lowest I ever was was about XXkg, which put me in the high end of underweight. What followed were major arguments with my parents about my not eating enough, my feeling exhausted and cranky 90% of the time and secondary amenorrhea. I did pull myself together though (most probably because I absolutely LOVE to eat – ah, the irony – but I guess that was the reason for my being a chubby kid and being made fun of in school, leading to the dramatic weight loss).
I was diagnosed with mild osteopenia [charlotte’s note: that’s bone loss, the precursor to osteoporosis], but otherwise my health is in good condition now. I am fully weight restored and apart from occasional low body image bouts, I am OK. (An aside, the funny thing is that I started liking my body more after I gained weight, how weird is that?)
But here’s my problem:
I am eating normally, trying to follow my hunger cues and eating what I like. I try not to count calories because that leads to restrictive behaviour for me. The thing is that I have only time for exercise 3 to 4 times per week, sometimes less, as I am extremely busy. After I got to my senses I started gaining weight… to XXkg. I am not comfortable at this weight – bot aesthetically and how it makes me feel.
And finally, here’s what I really want to ask – do you have any suggestions/advice as to what I should do, given I cannot increase my activity level, to lose weight the healthy way? It’s driving me nuts because I already eat extremely healthy, following my hunger, but seem to keep gaining!
Advise would be strongly appreciated
If I were any good at the metric system I’d swear I’d written this letter to myself, that’s how much I relate to what K is saying. As I’ve mentioned here before, after starting outpatient treatment for my eating disorder several years ago, I gained a certain amount of weight back and eventually it stabilized at a point which I maintained for two years. While I didn’t ever lose the latent wish to be ten pounds lighter, I did grow to accept and even love my body at that weight. I got comfortable with it and ditched my crazy clothes and bought ones that fit. Most importantly I did it while practicing Intuitive Eating (Geneen Roth style) and so I ate almost everything. My recovery wasn’t perfect but I felt good about it.
And then about a year ago for reasons I still can’t explain I gained a not insignificant amount of weight. I weigh more now than the day I gave birth to Jelly Bean. It changed my clothing size and suddenly I was right back to loathing my body. I felt like a total failure and not just because I had to go buy all new pants. Rather I felt like I was a failure at my ED recovery, at Intuitive Eating, at showing body acceptance – all of it. And so I know quite well how Reader K is feeling. So what’s a girl who’s still recovering from an eating disorder (because recovery is going to be a lifelong process for me, I think) to do when she thinks she might need to lose weight?
I have a few suggestions for K – and for me – but I hope you guys will help out too! This is such tricky territory for me.
1. Get professional help. I spent a long time in therapy. Not only did I complete my eating disorder therapy but I also did a lot of personal therapy. You mention that you never got help for recovering from your ED and it might be helpful, even now. One of the things ED therapy taught me was about proper nutrition. It sounds silly to someone who can spout the caloric content of any food from memory but I learned a lot about what a proper portion looks like, how to balance meals and – most importantly – what “normal” eating looks like. It helps.
2. At least see a nutritionist or dietician. And be honest about your history with disordered eating! He or she can not only help you devise a healthy plan but also serve as a person to be accountable to – not for the weight loss but for the healthy habits part.
3. Get an objective opinion, preferably from a doctor you trust, on whether or not losing weight is really in your best interest. Body dysmorphia is part and parcel with an eating disorder and we’re often not the best judge of what we look like.
4. Focus on what you can eat, not what you “can’t”. I recently cut out sugar for a while in an effort to help my mental state and it was a lot easier when I focused on how my body was feeling and all the yummy foods I enjoyed, rather than torturing myself thinking about all the forbidden treats. Whether or not you lose weight, mindful eating and staying positive will help in a lot of ways.
5. Eat some more protein. I hesitate to make any specific recommendations but I’ve found through personal experience that when I get overly hungry and munchy or crave junk food it’s often because I haven’t had enough “real” food earlier, usually protein and healthy fats. Note: I’m not saying that’s ALL you should eat. But rather that adding in a bit more high-quality grass-fed meat or eggs or coconut oil can help head off a cookie bender. (Also, from looking through your daily meals that you sent me, you do not seem to get much protein…)
6. Do things for yourself that you enjoy and make you feel happy and confident, no matter what you weigh. Being super busy is hard on the body in so many ways, weight being only one of them. I love hiking, skiing and skating – those things always make me feel better about myself. And I love realizing how my strong legs carried me up a mountain rather than focusing on how much they rub together. Reading, painting, piano playing, photography – anything that gets you out of yourself and using your body in a creative way!
7. Accept that life circumstances change and your weight does too. You’re at a really busy time in your life! But things won’t always be this way. Sometimes we weigh more, other times we weigh less. It doesn’t mean that we’ll keep on gaining weight forever and ever.
8. Meditate. It sounds silly I know but a few minutes a day of quiet contemplation/prayer/meditation can do wonders for bringing us back in touch with what we need to nourish ourselves on many levels.
9. Get enough sleep. Stress wreaks havoc with not only weight but also mental state and one of the single best things we can do for our health is to have a good bedtime routine of going to sleep before midnight and getting a solid 7-8 hours, every night.
This is such a touchy topic and I hesitated to broach this on here but eventually I decided I needed to because I know that Reader K and I are not the only two recovering ED’d people to be in this situation! I’d love it if you guys have any other suggestions, advice or even corrections!
P.S. I’m not a doctor and this is just my opinion and all that!