Recovery. It is a word that generates some of the most conflicting emotions in the life of someone struggling with an eating disorder. Even when one desires to break free from the consuming thoughts of the disorder, the fear of what it will look like and how to achieve it can be overwhelming.
Although the roots of my eating disorder go much deeper, the obsession really ballooned when I began to struggle with infertility. The depth of pain that infertility caused combined with the sense that my world was spiraling out of control left me searching for something to grasp onto and numb out my grief. I sought solace in numbers. The more time I spent tallying calories and burning them off, the less time and energy I had to process my true emotions.
After several years of on-again/off-again eating issues I reached a point where I was severely depressed. Cognitively, I was aware that my eating disorder was contributing to the depression. I knew in order for me to get through it I needed to give it up and seek recovery.
I was terrified. Certainly body image played a role in my disorder but much of it was centered on the concrete nature of the numbers game. I would tally calories in and calories out dozens of times per day, making sure I had not miscalculated. This obsessive mental exercise kept me from having to feel emotions. I was not sure I would be strong enough to give that up and allow myself to experience the grief that infertility had left behind.
It started out slowly with the mantra, “Food is medicine.” If I could look at my intake from an emotionless, clinical standpoint it was easier for me to swallow. At the beginning I also had to resolve to stop with the numbers. No longer could I count calories or weigh myself. I would force myself to eat things that were not previously on my list of foods that were safe because I did not know their calorie count so I could not start tallying them.
Years into recovery, I have realized that it is an on-going process. The bulk of me wishes that I could have someone surgically excise the thoughts. After years of living by the obsessive dialogue running through my head, it is almost impossible to have them completely vanish. A part of me fights to hold onto them, sort of like a back-up plan. When life gets chaotic they sing the song of the sirens, luring me into the numbness that they promise. I know better, but every so often I find myself wishing to be lost in the land of numbers.
I sometimes find myself surprised by the reflexive nature of the disordered thoughts. I know I cannot allow myself to skip a meal because it opens the door for a second meal to be skipped and then a third. The original meal skipped would have nothing to do with the eating disorder, but the thoughts seize the opportunity.
Likewise, I cannot “diet”. Dieting to me means wedeling my food choices down and just like one skipped meal becomes two, one food banished leads me down a road to only consuming the few safe foods that I stuck to during my disordered years.
With two small children, food is often swiped off my plate by little hands. Panic rises up in my throat as I realize I do not know how to account for the calories that they have consumed. I do not count calories anymore and have not for a long time, but the terror of not being able to accurately tally them springs up just the same.
Eating in a room full of people is still difficult. Years of comments on my food choices or consumption have left me paranoid that people are still watching me eat. Logically, I am sure that no one is concerned about my food intake anymore, but that constant sense of being on display remains.
There seems to be no one defined endpoint for recovery. At risk of sounding cliché, it is a journey, not an endpoint. For everyone it will look somewhat different.
For those of us who crave the control (I use that term loosely) that an eating disorder provides, the non-tangible nature of recovery is scary. One has to be willing to give up the concrete world where everything is obsessively defined and grasp onto a process that has no exactness. The only known entity is that weight will be gained, but it is difficult to understand the positives that will come with that.
Recovery is a frustrating process for those standing by wishing the afflicted person would just eat. For those who have struggled with this for any length of time, we know food is not the problem. The problem is a carefully constructed inner world full of understandable, distinct rules based in black and white numbers. It is moving away from the controlled structure the disorder supplies no matter how out of control it looks to an observer.
I will say it is absolutely worth it. It does get easier with time. The thoughts still come nearly daily, but they are usually fleeting and able to be dissuaded by logic. I now remember what it is to eat what my body is asking for and supply it without guilt. I like the freedom that it brings.
I also know that I can handle feeling emotions. I feared I would drown in the sea of pain that I felt inside. Now on the other side I recognize that I was able to survive the depth of grief that infertility left. Just like one skipped meal becomes two, healthily navigating one difficult situation becomes two which gives me the courage to face the third.
Although I wish someone could go into my brain and remove all aspects of eating disorder based thoughts, I now know that I can handle them. I know that they are only thoughts. I do not have to act on them. I do not have to be ashamed of them. They are a scar left in my psyche from navigating a particularly painful situation. They are a reminder that I was able to overcome and grow through that.
For a longtime I could not imagine a life where I would not be consumed by food. I am thankful that I hung in there and pushed forward. There are so many beautiful things that I was missing locked away in my obsession. Yes, there is pain to experience, but also peace, joy and happiness. Freed from the constant disordered dialogue is amazing to get to experience them all!