As NEDA prepared to honor the annual National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I was curious to learn what this year’s theme would be. It’s always thoughtful and timely, and this year?
Oh, this is something that hits close to home. “I Had No Idea” spans so many different facets of an eating disorder, but this one – this one specifically – still gets me. Because this described my life for more than 5 years.
And in all honesty? I still face it every single day.
Eating disorders are complicated and sneaky and abusive. They brainwash you. They possess you until you literally feel like you need an exorcism to be free. It’s difficult to explain, but if you’ve unraveled yourself from an eating disorder – any addictive behavior – you just…know.
In many ways, I’m “recovered.” I don’t count calories or grams or macronutrients. I eat from all the food groups. I can go out to eat or to someone’s house and not obsess over what’s in the food. I’m at a healthy weight.
But the balance – that fine line between being healthy and being obsessed – is still challenging. Finding the gray in a brain that, by default, goes black or white, takes a lot of practice. Every single day.
It wasn’t always like that, of course. And in retrospect, I can pinpoint exact moments that, now, raise giant red flags.
Standing in the aisles at the grocery store; recognizing that my Starbucks Frappuccino and Lay’s queso dip habits probably weren’t doing my health any favors, I quit buying them. I began to realize that the frozen veggies I added to the Velveeta Shells & Cheese I made for dinner 2 (or 4) times a week could be amped up, so I started buying veggies fresh, from the actual produce department. That quickly didn’t feel like enough, so I started buying more veggies, trying new things like Brussels sprouts and kale, until…well, those were some of the only things I would allow myself to eat.
Lying in the park with a library book about making your home more eco-friendly…reading a chapter about factory farming and the inhumane treatment of animals; the logical step for me was to become vegetarian. Soon that didn’t seem like enough, so I cut out all animal products and became vegan. Convenient – I could help the planet, save animals…and remove even more sources of tempting nourishment.
Walking to the gym, proud of myself for getting a little extra exercise in before my exercise; because you can never have too much exercise, right? Walking to the gym in the morning. Every morning. Regardless of how much sleep I’d had, how early it was, how dark it was, how soon I needed to get to the office, how tired my legs were, how heavily the snow was falling, how many degrees below zero it was.
Sitting on the leg press at the gym; futilely working muscles that had wasted away to nothing. Listening to the old song that had popped up on my iPod.
Try as I might/I’m a fool in a losing fight/Can’t escape the bullet’s bite/Cause the enemy’s inside/You really got a hold on me/I should’ve gotten out when I thought I could
Recognizing…how did I get here? Again?
Because that’s the thing. I’d already fought and overcome an eating disorder. At 16, I was diagnosed with anorexia and did a stint in an out-patient treatment program. In so many ways that part of my life is a blur; like watching an old film, or listening to lyrics from a song I used to know, or hazy memories from some other lifetime. I thought I’d “learned my lesson;” that I, of course, knew better now. That I’d never face those demons again.
It was a humbling, agonizing, knock-me-on-my-ass reminder that even the best intentions can take on a life of their own. That when I get too caught up in the “enough-ness,” nothing ever will be.
What started as a genuine attempt to clean up my diet and move a little more became the only thing that mattered in my life – because, in my mind, my life depended on it. What began as an innocent interest in healthy living quickly spiraled into orthorexia.
Orthorexia hasn’t yet been officially recognized on the eating disorder spectrum as a clinical diagnosis – but if it was, I had it. According to NEDA, “Those who have an ‘unhealthy obsession’ with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from ‘orthorexia nervosa,’ a term which literally means ‘fixation on righteous eating.'”
And there it is. My attempt to control my life (yep) through healthy eating had quickly become an “unhealthy obsession.” It was a “fixation” that became a live-or-die-trying process I’d start over every single morning.
It’s been a very long, very slow journey to balance. Partly because so much of what I learned is absolutely right on. We do need to take better care of ourselves and our planet. We do need to be aware of what is in our food and what impact it has on our bodies. But we also need to give ourselves a break. Creating healthy habits are about feeling good. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually – they should enlighten and empower us. Not strip us of our joy and brainwash us of common sense. Not tell us that no matter what we do, we’ll never be enough.
The balance is not perfect. It never will be, and, of course, it’s not supposed to be. But I can recognize that now. I can recognize when my ego is trying to run the show. When those feelings of not enough creep in, I know it’s pulled out the top hat and dancing shoes. But rather than get sucked into the performance, I know this is when I have to be an active participant. Rather than kill the house lights, I ask it to dance. Just for a moment. I feel what it’s like to be in that embrace, acknowledge it. And then I take the lead.
It requires stealth and coordination…neither of which are strong suites of mine. But that’s part of the dance, and it’s part of what makes me strong. I can accept, now, that it’s something that may always be part of me. That it will always be hanging out backstage, craving the spotlight. And right now, I can live with that.
We all struggle with ego. We all have the potential to allow it to take over and become something bigger than us. Even if it’s in the name of self-improvement. Especially if it’s in the name of self-improvement. The key, I’ve found, is reminding myself that, when I set goals and intentions, when I work to break a habit or institute a positive change – I’m already enough.
It doesn’t matter what food you buy (or don’t buy). It doesn’t matter if you’re a vegetarian or vegan or paleo or a locavore (I’ve tried it). It doesn’t matter if you do yoga or bootcamp or spin class or camp out on the couch with a bottle of wine and a Roswell marathon on Netflix (I’ve done it. With pleasure.)
Do it because it feels good. Because it makes your heart sing. Because you really, honestly, wouldn’t want to live your life any other way.
If you’re only doing it to feel worthy, or respected, or enough? Don’t. Because you already are.