After vanquishing the pillars of bulimia – restricting, over-exercising, and binging & purging – recovery has been a gradual, blurry, less measurable experience.
I haven’t wanted to write about food because it felt so good to just live my life without that particular obsession. It has been a relief to worry about my career, my life goals, and bank account, instead of scrutinizing millimetres of space between my thighs.
For the sake of people who still google “bulimia” “help” “relapse” and fall upon this blog, I thought I should let you know what recovery looks like for me, two years after I left my third round of the “Eat For Life” day-treatment program at the QEII hospital in Halifax, NS. (I finished treatment in June 2015).
I continue to eat a variety of foods, and am so grateful for this every day. Some of the techniques I use to do this include: having items on my grocery list like, “sale fruit”, so that I can choose what is in season (and ripe!) when I get there, as opposed to sticking to “2 apples 3 bananas 1 kiwi” and ignoring new options; also, at restaurants, sometimes I ask the server to surprise me, or recommend their favourite dish. (Depends on my mood. Sometimes I just want a cheeseburger!)
I have enjoyed diving into preparing different ethnic foods at home – foods that previously were takeout, and therefor binge foods. I love making slow-cooker Indian dishes, with basmati and naan bread.
It’s funny though; I’m still hyper aware of temptation to binge when I have a huge dish in front of me, so it’s important to portion my meal, and eat it sitting down at the table for an uninterrupted time, like 15-20 min. This is paramount; I have experienced minor relapses for the sole reason of not sitting down to eat 2-3 times a day.
Exercise has been safely reincorporated into my life, though not without regular reflection. I go to hot yoga, or go on a run, or climb at the bouldering gym, once or twice a week, most weeks. Sometimes I miss a couple weeks. Sometimes I do three things in one week. I have really enjoyed focusing on exercise I intrinsically enjoy, and just scrapping the rest. (I don’t think I will ever be able to be in a Goodlife again; too many years spent hating myself there. Maybe in another decade.)
My body image has been very gradually improving. This progress has been so slow that it’s been hard to notice, but I can say my language about myself has changed noticeably over the past two years. I frequently remind my friends that we are babes, that we are beautiful and hot, and I don’t feel embarrassed identifying as such. I still feel shame when men point out to me that I am good-looking, but that’s more of a PTSD-from-abusive-relationship thing than it is my eating disorder. (All tied together though, right?)
I’ve been very aware of how moods and energy levels impact body image. When I am sad or mad or tired, I look fat and old. My actual reflection distorts, to my eyes. When I feel clean and balanced, I look pretty and healthy. When I am drunk I look smoking hot. (yeahhhh!) I would like to feel smoking hot all the time… but we can’t all be Yoncé. Maybe someday.
I have a dwindling list of bad, or “unsafe”, foods, that for whatever myriad reasons I continue to avoid long after treatment. Some have disguised themselves as “dislikes” for a surprisingly long time (like fajitas, which I recently rediscovered after a decade of telling people they were one of the only foods I didn’t like. I just came back from Mexico, and tacos are AMAZING.)
Foods that are still on my unsafe list include mostly sweet things: milkshakes, cheesecake, chocolate cake, jam, nutella, ice cream, honey, pop-tarts, most cookies, and white Wonderbread. Sweets were both demonized and revered during my childhood: you could only eat ice cream after eating an orange; you may eat a fruit or vegetable before dinner, but not a cookie; and sugary cereals were only allowed on your birthday or at someone else’s table. I did not develop a healthy sense of craving and satisfaction around sweets; I felt denied, wanted more, and often still do.
I like to know my unsafe foods, and to take opportunities to challenge them in controlled settings. For the first time since all of bulimia, I challenged cheesecake a couple months ago, by picking up a slice as takeout and bringing it to a girls’ night. It took so much courage and I had very high anxiety, but I did it, shared and ate, and am proud.
Some foods are still too risky to keep in my house. Recurrent binges have made that clear. I would really like to get to a point where all foods are safe.
Foods I am proud to enjoy, after years (decades!) of issues, are: butter, bacon, sandwiches, chicken, cheese, pizza (I eat pizza ALL THE TIME. #1 favourite food), burgers, spaghetti and all pasta dishes (even lasagna, which I thought I hated, and in fact love), and most breads. (Wonderbread is a hard one for me to shake from the ‘junkfood’ category, which, despite me regarding it as an idiotic and triggering label, is quite tenacious.)
Another important challenge has been how to respond to triggering conversations.
I find it consistently triggering when friends start gossiping about their new exercise habits, spouting numbers of gain and loss, and debating the relative benefits and ‘badness’ of specific foods. Whether at a party, or one-on-one, I am working on responding to these kinds of conversations without either shaming myself, or the speakers.
People get defensive around food, and it is hard to not feel like a pathetic ex-patient (self-judgement, I know!) when I ask people to please stop talking about diets and weight-loss. I know ‘normal’ girls like to connect about that shit, and it is hard for me not to steam-roll the conversation by saying things like, “in Eating Disorder Treatment, we learned to distinguish between safe and unsafe foods, based on our comfort eating them, and the goal was to eventually see all foods as safe, and to appreciate their nutrients. Calories are fuel and the body needs fuel. Labelling foods as ‘bad’ is one of the steps towards having an eating disorder.” This kind of speech feels preachy and inappropriate in girl-talk situations, where people are trying to bond over poor body image and self-restraint. It is especially unwelcome around plenty of gym-buffs, too.
A common myth I feel compelled to dispel is sugar-phobia. I like to respond to sugar-bashing conversations with, “Sugar is an essential nutrient, along with fat and protein. It feeds our cells.”
People don’t like to hear that their food phobias are that – phobia – rather than scientifically backed, logical, self-preserving attitudes, like not eating poison mushrooms because they are poison.
People want to believe their food rules are the correct ones, that their culinary choices reflect wisdom, insight, and self-respect. We all do this in our food-obsessed culture. And I love getting philosophical and psycho-analytical about it. But the moment conversation turns into a detailed exploit of the relative merits of fat / sugar / exercise, etc, I have to leave. And no one needs to understand that but me.
I am still learning to accept that I can’t heal everyone, that some people can believe sugar is ‘bad’ and never have an eating disorder. Some people can work out five days a week and keep it there. People can have totally disordered eating habits, like random food phobias and restrictive food-combination rules, without ever having a full fledged Eating Disorder, you know?
This is a hard one for me to accept, sometimes. I think it’s because I am so terribly anxious about my ED history. Part of me (the disordered part) is constantly seeking validation of its old beliefs, so that it can reinstate itself as my cerebral commander. It wants to hear that processed sugar is poison. It would love to hear that having tummy fat is inherently and absolutely bad, that normal people don’t have it and it’s a product of a disgusting society, removed from “real” food and “natural” health.
The recovered part of me fights back with a vengeance to defend my recovery, and this can project onto other people.
I would love to hear about other people’s strategies and experiences around triggering conversations.
RELAPSE (YES IT HAPPENS)
I have definitely relapsed during the past two years. Emotional challenges are very triggering for me. My boyfriend and I broke up last year, and I was overwhelmed by restrictive urges. My weight plunged; I cried in bed for weeks. It took a very long time to come back out of this.
It’s scary how quickly old patterns resurfaced; frequent weighing, calorie-counting, over-exercising, and the binge-purge cycles that inevitably followed a restrictive period.
Fortunately, I have been seeing a psychiatrist throughout these years, and was able to identify unhealthy patterns – like not sitting down for meals, and being ‘too busy’ to eat regularly or grocery shop – and I brought myself out of relapse without having to return to treatment. It is a mark of how I have grown and learned about my eating disorder, that I was able to do so, and hopefully will be able to do so, again and again. I just have to accept that when shit hits the fan, when someone dies, a relationship ends, I experience some failure or major rejection, my brain may go back in ED patterns. That’s just part of being me, and I am gradually feeling okay about this.
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Alright, that’s it for now. I’ll add more to this post as I notice it. I wish everyone so much courage and strength and support in their recovery. It really is a lifelong thing. I have to remember to practise gratitude, that I have my limbs, and my health, and my youth, and hopefully so many years ahead of ED-free existence. ❤