Sick Inside

Out of nowhere, I feel like a fraud. How dare I write about “recovery” when tackling my disordered eating has been a DIY life-improvement project? My treatment team comprised myself, a stack of library books, and the deep desire to be “the kind of person” who can feel mentally stable next to a bowl of tortilla chips.

This week, a voice in my gut has been saying, “Who do you think you ARE?”

It’s the same voice that kept me suffering for years. For decades it told me the problem wasn’t the ridiculous diet, the problem was my nonexistent self-control. When I lay in bed post-binge in so much pain I couldn’t roll over easily, a realization-mantra playing in my heart—I need help, I need help, I need help—that gut-voice said I’d be laughed at.

Is it true that I “was never really that sick”?

It is true that I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder by a mental health or medical professional. My doctor once looked at me squarely and asked, “Have you ever heard of ‘orthorexia’?” I have spent hours and large sums of money trying to reverse the physical effects erratic nutrition and self-punishing exercise. But according to this inner bully, my disordered eating (and therefore my recovery) doesn’t “count.”

Really? I ask that voice. How dare you?!

I stare down at the handful of pills I swallow every morning to support my physical insides. Recent blood work showed a little health setback. It’s okay. It’s probably mostly fixable. I’ve replaced an old prescription with two new ones: one full-moon tablet is now four foul-smelling, yellowish capsules. Some of these I’ll probably need forever—it’s unlikely I’ll get down to zero medications and supplements—but most are temporary.

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How long “temporary” is remains a mystery, though. My body needs time to catch up. (Because I like to anthropomorphize my body, I imagine it still saying, “But what if she STOPS FEEDING ME AGAIN?!”) I spent decades hurting myself. Six months of self-love is a drop in the bucket.

My mental health is now great most days. (And telling off the negative self-talk that tried to silence me is a huge win!) I feel healthy. I’ve learned to trust my body again.

Now I need to be patient and let it re-learn to trust me.

How I Gave Up on My Goal Weight

I decided on my goal weight in the fourth grade, when I first joined Weight Watchers. I don’t remember what my “official” Weight Watchers goal was, but I remember the number I believed was the perfect weight. I think I picked it based on what some celebrity allegedly weighed. I wanted to be someone else, Just Like Her. That was my magic number.

I held on to that goal weight for years. Even when I wasn’t actively trying to lose weight, that number was still It. When I was actively trying to shrink my body, that number was the point where (I told myself) I would stop. I would be “thin enough.”

I had zero proof to back this up. I’d never seen that number on the scale, and I’d certainly never been that weight at my adult height. But that goal stayed with me for over half my life.

I came close exactly once. After several months on one of the most severe diets I ever designed, with self-imposed rules so strict I cried and refused to eat when my partner cut up a sausage “incorrectly,” I caught a gnarly stomach bug. After three days, couldn’t stand up without my vision going dark for a moment. On day four, I was within striking distance of my goal weight.

I froze, staring down at the digital readout between my toes. Closer than I’d ever been to my magic number, waiting for the sense of accomplishment to set in. Instead, I felt nothing.

It wasn’t real. I weighed this much because I was starved and dehydrated. My body didn’t want to be this weight. I hadn’t “achieved” anything. And when I turned toward the mirror, I still didn’t look “thin enough.”

My mind tried to reassure me with twisted logic: “It’ll be different when you’re actually at goal.”

But my higher self knew the truth. That small amount of numeric change wouldn’t make a difference. I wouldn’t suddenly feel powerful or beautiful. The voice in my head would just say, “You’ve come this far. Keep going.

My “goal weight” was bullshit.

It wasn’t a seamless transition from holding this magic number in my mind to giving up on the idea of goal weights entirely. As I started eating again and the diet/binge cycle resumed, I still felt good on days when the scale readout was lower, and bad on days when it was higher. But I came back to my post-illness experience whenever thoughts of “life would be better if only the number on the scale were X” crept in.

No, I reminded myself. You’ve been there before, and nothing changed, remember?

It wasn’t enough to stop me from dieting entirely, but it stripped goal weights of their magic.

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Eating Disorder Self-Awareness Week

It’s not a total coincidence that I started writing about my history and transition away from binge eating during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I’d been sitting on the idea for a while, and reading others’ stories this week finally got the writing ball rolling.

I’m no expert on eating disorders or recovery, but I am an expert on my own life. When I reflect on everything I’ve been through with food and body image, I can see that one thing that kept me suffering for so many years was a lack of awareness—in people close to me and in society, but also in myself. I wasn’t conscious of my motives or feelings beyond just feeling “bad.”

Lack of self-awareness meant lots of looking outside of myself for direction. I followed scripts and protocols that credible-enough experts said worked for them, but I never considered whether those things worked for me. And when I “failed” at a program (or just hated it) I assumed that I was the problem.

I probably attempted recovery dozens of times. I’m still trying to sort out why this last time was different. How exactly did I end my binge-eating for good? Why am I so confident that I will never binge again? My hope is that writing about the steps I took will shine some light on the recovery process, but I suspect that my newfound freedom has a lot to do with self-awareness. Becoming better acquainted with my personality and my desires opened the door to treating myself with more compassion.

It’s difficult to love and care deeply about someone you don’t know very well. I thought I didn’t like myself because I wasn’t likable. The truth is that I didn’t like myself because I didn’t know myself.

Doughnut Mess With Me

About two weeks after the anti-diet Lightning Bolt struck, my children asked if we could go get doughnuts.

Doughnuts were an interesting problem. I’d built them up in my mind as beyond delicious, but I never ate them, ever. Even on days when I could look past the highly-processed, sugar-loaded, deep-fried thing, there was still the fact that they are calorically dense AF. I could fit a doughnut into my diet—if I really wanted to—but it involved intolerable amounts of egg whites and hunger. It was just easier, when my kids got doughnuts, to sip coffee and feel sad.

Being done with all that meant I was free to get a doughnut—just because they’re delicious! I was genuinely looking forward to eating this thing I hadn’t had in ages, but I was also excited to eat a treat with my children.

I was a few bites into my maple-glazed old fashioned when it occurred to me that the thing I was eating was not actually that delicious. Now that I was working on eating when I was hungry, not trying to eat as little as possible, and doing my best to call BS on the internal moralizing about food, doughnuts—these things I’d built up as so tasty but SO off-limits—were actually pretty “meh.”

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I felt the familiar push to finish it anyway. It was a treat. Treats were the best! But this one wasn’t doing the treat thing for me, and I was pretty sure it wouldn’t get tastier the longer I ate it. And I wasn’t starving, so I didn’t need it.

It felt wrong to throw a once-forbidden food away—mostly because I couldn’t quite believe I was actually not finishing it. I wrapped up the remaining half and took it home. I thought about having it as dessert with lunch, but no. I truly didn’t want or care about the doughnut.

How Trying to Lose the Last 10 lbs. (Again!) Got Me to Eat Enough

 

I spent four weeks in June 2016 on a “squeaky clean” paleo diet—and spent the first week of July 2016 on an almost non-stop binge. It started with a jar of chocolate-hazelnut spread (not Nutella, but a fancy organic brand I’d purchased as some sort of clean-eating compromise). I was 33 years old, and had never tasted chocolate-hazelnut spread. I’d planned to have one teaspoonful after dinner.

My partner was away on a week-long business trip, and evenings were especially demanding. While cleaning up the dinner dishes and getting two children ready for bed, I ate the entire jar of chocolate-hazelnut spread. I’d load a few dishes into the dishwasher and grab a spoonful. Field a homework question, sneak a spoonful. Supervise tooth-brushing, bathroom time, pajama selection, grab a jar spatula so as to load as much sweet brown goo into my mouth as possible. As I was going for the last of the spread, my daughter padded up behind me, bedtime stories in hand. I thought, “Leave me alone so I can just do this!”

The week continued in a binge-grazing haze: a handful of crackers here, a gob of peanut butter there, every time I passed the pantry, multiple times per hour. At mealtimes, I’d make beautiful food for my children and throw some salad odds and ends in a bowl for myself, maybe add a glob of Dijon mustard, as an afterthought. Then I’d shovel in coconut ice cream and pea crisps, or chocolate-peanut-powder-and-almond-milk paste when the house was dark and quiet. When my partner returned home, I was battling burps that tasted like rotten eggs, and I turned away from kisses. He was exhausted from travel and went to bed early; I stayed up with my humiliation and ate three chocolate bars, binge-eating to cover the shame of having binged, certain he would wake up any minute and catch me.

Unsurprisingly, this led to some weight-gain. My body had been expanding slowly for a couple of months, a natural side effect of the diet/binge ride. By the end of this particular week, I was a full size bigger than most of the clothes in my closet. I diet/binged through July, running on the elliptical to try to force myself into a caloric deficit. But my body was used to the elliptical: the exercise was easy, and therefore not “effective” for my purposes. If I was going to lose “the last 10 pounds” again (and then some, because let’s be honest), I would need to do something more intense.

That’s when a free workout challenge showed up in my Instagram feed. It seemed reasonably hardcore: weights, sprints, HIIT cardio… I’d been working out with dumbbells for over 10 years, but sprinting scared me, and I’d never done a burpee. As soon as I signed up I felt the dread of “what have I gotten myself into?” But there was a workout schedule to follow, and I’m a sucker for a plan. Give me something I can write on the calendar and then put a little check mark next to and I’m yours forever.

The workouts were tough. Tougher than anything I’d ever subjected myself to, even in my deepest self-loathing “fitness” efforts. It was clear just days in that the challenge, combined with the demands of parenting two children (both still on summer break from school at this point), and a restricted food intake was too much for my body to handle. I was weak and shaky. My feet felt heavy all the time. I started waking up several times a night.

I need to eat more.

It was the first time I ever thought about deliberately increasing my food intake. I hated the thought at first, but I couldn’t argue with it: if I wanted to complete this workout challenge, and take care of my family, and not get sick or injured, and not lose my mind, I had to eat enough food to fuel my activity.

Discussing habit-change, Gretchen Rubin talks about “The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.” Some incident or new idea rocks our world, and a longstanding habit is replaced overnight: slow, incremental behavioral shifts not required. It’s not how change usually happens, but it’s ridiculously effective.

This thought—I need to eat more—was my anti-dieting Lightning Bolt. Interestingly, it never occurred to me to continue dieting but quit the workout challenge. I’m very competitive—especially with myself—and I’d committed to doing this fitness thing. The workouts were on my calendar, and it was just a given that I would check them off, as planned.

The gradual realization that restriction was the root of my binge-eating had been powerful, but it didn’t shock my system. Hearing I need to eat more, in my head, in my own voice, did. I had to stop dieting. There was no going back.

Always “Off Plan”

I’m not sure what caused my first binges, but I’m certain about what caused my last: dieting. I could trace every recent binge back to a deliberate period of caloric or food-type restriction.

Each new diet—sorry, lifestyle change—inevitably led to a desire for every “off-plan” food I could think of. Foods I had never especially cared about became the only things I craved. And when I was tired, overextended, and under-fed, my willpower muscle gave out. “Just one” off-plan indulgence became all of them, in secret, as fast as possible.

I knew that stopping my binge eating meant no dieting, ever again. But what would that look like?

First, I had to define “dieting” for myself. In my mind, diets limited calories, types of foods, or both. There were “musts” and “must nots”—always eat X, never eat Y.

But I had more than twenty years of dieting under my belt, so to speak. My mind wouldn’t stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad” overnight. So I worked from the outside in: no more diet books, no more shopping for plans.

I returned the nutrition and fitness books that I’d checked out from the library. I stopped walking by the magazines at the grocery store. Anything even remotely “diet-y” on my bookshelf went into the Donate box. I unliked, unsubscribed, and unfollowed.

With the external diet messaging silenced to the best of my ability, I was ready to address the internal messages.