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 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. Sometimes I even feel confident that I am fully "cured." But the truth is, I need to be vigilant and intentional about my healing at all times. I don't have the luxury of checking out periodically. This might be an option for others, but it's never worked for me. The minute I grow complacent, I start to notice those restrictive anorexic tendencies creeping back in. If I want to avoid a relapse, I cannot take a day off from eating disorder 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 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.
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.
I am not the type who writes a meticulous, in-depth list of resolutions each year. But with the start of 2023 just around the corner, I have been reflecting on which aspects of my life should come with me into the future and which ought to be left behind in the past. Which behaviors, mindsets, attributes, or relationships have I outgrown? Which characteristics align with my core values, and which no longer serve the person I want to become?
I just returned from a two-week trip overseas to England, Scotland, and Ireland. I love to explore the beauty of this earth and immerse myself in all kinds of unique cultures, but if I am not careful, traveling will often coax my eating disorder back to the surface. While I do have quite an adventurous streak, I also tend to feel anxious when I deviate from my normal routine, which can open the door for a certain uninvited guest—otherwise known as my eating disorder—to hitch a ride on the trip. However, since I am not about to stop traveling, here are a few strategies I use in order to ensure this pesky eating disorder will not ruin my vacation.
The phrase "clean eating" is often used in wellness circles to denote a preference for natural, organic foods over artificial, processed ingredients. At face value, this is undeniably beneficial. After all, the human body requires essential nutrients to function, many of which come from vegetables, fruits, and other whole foods. It's important to be mindful of this. However, I feel using the word "clean" to talk about eating habits is problematic. In extreme cases, I worry it could even influence eating disorder behaviors. In my humble opinion, clean eating is not healthy—it's a harmful trend with potentially serious consequences.
Several years ago, when I had just begun the work to heal from anorexia, my therapist often closed out our frequent sessions with the reminder: "Your secrets will keep you sick." It's been a long time since I have seen this particular therapist, but I still carry her mantra with me. Eating disorders thrive on secrecy, shame, and silence—but honesty is the best weapon I have to combat eating disorder temptations when they creep back to the surface.