My eating disorder relies on selective memory in order to maintain a stringent foothold in my life. Selective memories are enticing and compelling. They can also be quite dangerous. In fact, as I have come to realize, the presence of selective memory is often the difference between making continual strides in recovery or free-falling back into a cycle of relapse. What do I mean by this, and how am I learning to combat selective memory in my eating disorder? Let me explain.
Anxiety and Eating Disorders
I have learned so many important lessons and revelations in the course of my interminable healing from anorexia, but one stands out above the others: I cannot take a day off from eating disorder (ED) recovery. Sometimes I want to, of course. Sometimes I'm convinced that enough time has passed since my life was at risk—or I have enough experience and self-awareness at this point—to ease off the accelerator and simply coast for a while. But I really can't take a day off from ED recovery.
For most of my life, I was plagued by the question, "What will I do without an eating disorder?" It felt unattainable even to imagine an alternate reality in which those obsessions with food, exercise, or body image weren't constantly humming at the forefront of my brain. Each waking moment was a conquest to burn calories—or simply avoid them altogether. At the time, it seemed euphoric, but now I can see just how bleak of an existence I forced myself to live. So these days, I ask another question: "What can I do without an eating disorder?"
I'm anxious for my first session with the personal trainer I hired to coach me for a Himalayan trek I'll be doing in about six months. It's quite unlike me to invest in an exercise program financially. Usually, I just lace up my sneakers and start running until I can't summon the energy for one more step. I even forget to stretch my muscles beforehand sometimes (terrible habit, I know).
At times when devastation from earthquakes exists and legislative restrictions against women and minorities are rampant, I view eating disorder (ED) recovery as superficial and inconsequential. Why should I bother to prioritize my own mental health when so many others lack access to the most basic, essential resources? Who cares about some trivial anxiety in the wake of countless horrific tragedies? I know that's not the most constructive inner monologue, but these are my thoughts on ED recovery when the entire world feels heavy.
I tend to be much more transparent and vulnerable online than I am in daily face-to-face interactions. When someone I know in real life inquires about my fitness or nutrition habits (because, to the surprise of no one, this is a body-conscious culture), I notice my cheeks start to flush, and I choose the vaguest answer possible. That reaction strikes me as curious, though. Why am I still embarrassed about my eating disorder after all these years?
I have a long history with perfectionism. In fact, I cannot recall a time in my life when this fixation wasn't driving my performance and achievements. I suspect this is one reason I have always been drawn to activities or pursuits that measure excellence in visible, quantifiable terms. In school, I only accepted straight As. In athletics, I gravitated to sports like archery, where I could aim for the center of a literal bullseye. And in my career, I have turned to writing—a skill based on technical precision. But as I continue to heal my thoughts and behaviors from the residue of anorexia, I am learning to appreciate that eating disorder recovery is not about perfection.
This year, I started training for a particularly ambitious fitness goal: a 10-day trek in the Himalayan Mountains. In October 2023, I will travel to Nepal and embark on the adventure of a lifetime, but first, I need to acclimate to hiking in extreme weather conditions at the highest altitude on earth. That's no small feat for someone who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, a desert with minimal elevation.
When I spent three months in residential treatment back in 2010, the clinicians would frequently encourage the other patients and me to communicate and honor our needs. This practice was meant to teach us how to separate our own inner voices from the control and influence of an eating disorder. As well-intentioned as these clinicians were, however, I remember asking myself: "How can I learn to express my needs if I'm not sure what they are?"
I talk about eating disorder recovery all the time. You might call them healing conversations. I unpack the layers and nuances of it with my therapist. I excitedly share these revelations with my partner once the session is over. I journal about what I'm learning in the process. Then I pass on those lessons to the younger women I mentor, who deal with similar experiences of their own.