Navigating Eating Disorder Recovery During a Global Pandemic

As I chatted with a friend on FaceTime the other week, I made the joke: “I dunno…maybe the silver lining of this pandemic is it will cure me of my eating disorder?!?”

While it was a joke (there’s no such thing as being “cured” of an eating disorder), for a few weeks, I had noticed that my eating disorder thoughts had subsided. Likely, the thoughts probably subsided because my old OCD habits and rituals had flared something awful, and I found panic around COVID-19 to be all-consuming. I was so caught up in my fears about catching a virus, that the fears about foods seemed to melt away. 

Clearly, it’s not that easy (as much as I wanted it to be). As I’ve settled into a new normal, and the OCD and fears around COVID-19 have quieted, guess what is still hanging in there? Yeah, the eating disorder.

And with that, I’m aware feel a lot of shame. I mean, thousands of people are dying around the world, hundreds of thousands are losing their jobs, and I’m sitting here, still wrestling with fears over food. Now more than ever, an eating disorder feels so shallow. I’m aware that I feel I “should be better than that” as there are so many horrific things going on in the world. 

But I also know that mental illnesses don’t really respond to that line of reasoning: as much as I wish I could, I can’t “logic” my way out of an eating disorder, regardless of how dire the situation in the world may be. So I’m accepting that the thoughts and feelings are still there, and in some cases, they may actually flare. Eating disorders are old friends: like any fucked-up coping mechanism, they are safe during times of turmoil. When life gets stressful, there’s often a pull to come back to the old familiar friend that allowed us to cope for so many years. 

Thankfully, I’m at a point in my recovery where I’m strong enough to resist the urges and voices, but I will admit that this pandemic has really highlighted the fact that I still have a long way to go. 

As much as I wish a global pandemic could fix our mental illnesses, unfortunately I know that our pre-existing mental baggage comes with us into self-quarantine (really shitty social distancing, mind!!) So like many things in life, I’m trying to reframe this time, and use it to gain understanding and knowledge, along with some self-compassion and acceptance. If you too are in eating disorder recovery or struggling with disordered eating, some thoughts on navigating this time (from my own personal experience of n=1 thus far):

If food scarcity is stressing you out

In the weirdest way, it’s facing the semi-empty grocery store shelves that is wreaking havoc on my mind. 

In recovery, we are taught to keep an abundance of food around. To buy the things that strike your fancy, to not deny yourself of what you crave. I realize now how fortunate I have been to be able to do that in every day life: keep well-stocked shelves, buy a variety of foods, etc.

But as I wandered an almost empty Safeway the other day, I could feel the anxiety rising in my chest. There are no eggs: I fucking want eggs. There is no cereal: I find comfort in a giant bowl of cereal. Hell, THERE IS NO KETCHUP WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIFE. 

And when I have restricted food choices around me, I’ve recognized that the eating disorder voices get louder. And I’ve been wrestling with guilt around that: I know that, for many parts of the world, and for many people even here in the US, food insecurity and scarcity is an every day way of life, not just induced by a global pandemic. So my privilege has been thrown in my face: and while I’m grateful for that, it’s also tough to admit that it’s exacerbating my disordered thoughts.  

So I’ve been asking myself some hard questions: What happens if I don’t eat my usual omelet every day? What if I have to do rice and beans or a plate of spaghetti instead? What if I can’t get my go-to cereal? Am I ok with eating things that I don’t “prefer”? And why, exactly, do I “prefer” those foods? Have they unknowingly become “safe” foods that my eating disorder has now become dependent on? Or do I actually really prefer them? The list goes on, but I’m diving into those places of discomfort, and sitting with those feelings. 

I’m trying to view this time as a period for growth. In treatment, we learned the exchange system, and ate a wide variety of foods, so I know how to “make things fit” in terms of feeding myself. But as I’ve gotten further along in recovery and gotten away from a strict exchange system, I realize that I’ve maybe started getting too comfortable in my food routine, which has actually been a detriment to my recovery. Maybe this is the time I need for a reality check, to wake me up from my state of complacency. Maybe I can actually find growth in this.  

If lack of movement options is stressing you out

Long periods of injury in my past have forced me to uncouple my eating disorder from my activity levels, but I’m well-aware it’s not always as simple as that. I will fully admit that when the gyms and pools closed, I started getting a bit anxious. For a while now, I’ve been super low running mileage with a hefty dose of cross-training that required gyms and pool access. I didn’t know how exactly I was going to train now as my options dwindled. I’ve found some fun in getting creative, and I’ve been spending a lot of time outside going for leisurely walks/hikes (alone!) instead of my swim routine. 

Easy time on feet walking/hiking, and decompressing

If lack of options is stressing you out, again, ask why? Do you feel like you don’t deserve to eat if you aren’t moving? Why is that? Is exercise actually a crutch to enable you to eat? Are you able to feed yourself appropriately regardless of your level of movement? 

It’s a tricky, tricky equation, I know. I think, to some extent, even people without eating disorders would have difficulty with those questions. But you are given the gift right now of having the time to explore your relationship with movement and how that relates to your eating disorder.

If diet and exercise talk due to quarantine is stressing you out

I’ve seen a lot of discussion on Twitter recently about how, working from home, you should lock your kitchen up. Or not allow yourself to snack. Or take on push-up challenges or step challenges.

I understand, for some people, that stuff could be beneficial – we all have different issues when it comes to diet and exercise. But for anyone dealing with disordered eating, please understand that talk is NOT FOR YOU. Locking up food is the exact opposite of what needs to be done. If anything, try to surround yourself with an abundance of food so you don’t feel the scarcity or the fear or the deprivation. 

And if you are eating chocolate cake for breakfast and Fritos for dinner because it comforts you, do it. Food is so much more about just nutrition – it can feed every part of our soul. I, personally, have been craving massive bowls of cereal lately. It reminds me of my childhood. So I’m rolling with it. 

If not having access to your support system is stressing you out

Eating disorders thrive in silence and secret. One of the first thing we learn in recovery is to “out” yourself. One of the things I’ve found the most helpful in mine is eating with other people as much as possible to provide accountability. That all kinda hits the fan when we are told we can’t eat with others, can’t go to restaurants, can’t BE with people.

We can’t run around in the mud together. But we can cheersies together!

Luckily, technology is amazing. I highly recommend FaceTime meals with other people as an option. Find a buddy (or 10!) who is willing to support. If you do have another person in your household, talk to them. Ask for accountability. Ask to eat together as much as possible. 

If isolation in general is stressing you out

When I was in the thick of my eating disorder, I didn’t want to be with ANYONE. I didn’t want friendships, didn’t want a significant other – those all threatened my eating disorder. Now, more than anything, I’ve realized how much I need an in-person community, and I need people. For those reasons, before this all began, I had signed a lease to move to Colorado and given notice at my place in California: I was ready for a new chapter in life. 

A global pandemic kinda shat on my vision of what this would look like: I imagined my glorious move to Colorado with tons of dinners and group runs with friends, with exploring new restaurants, with excitement for a community-based future of adventuring and exploring. 

That’s all on pause right now, and I realize I’ve felt a lot of grief around that. I worry that my desire to connect and build community will wane as we wait out shelter-in-place. I worry that the stress of a global pandemic will affect my relationships (because, let’s be honest, we are all coping in strange ways that aren’t necessarily how we would cope or act in other times).

New home trails

So, once again, I’m trying to reframe this: this pandemic is actually a grand adventure. It’s uncharted territory. It enables us to be creative, to really evaluate what is important and what matters in life. It forces us to come to terms with our own mortality and what we want from life. And it’s going to make a WHOLE lot of what we have always taken for granted very precious to us. 

Above all else, be kind to yourself right now. Recovery may be a bit more bumpy. Or this time might actually put some things into perspective and help you along. I’m working on letting go of the guilt, shame, and some “selfishness” I feel about what someone once told me was a “first-world problem.” Because, let’s be honest, if guilt and shame worked to cure you of a mental illness or an addiction, I would have been cured 1000x over by now. 

We’ll get through this. It’s going to be a great endurance event, but I have faith. And in the meantime, if there is any way I can help give support, please feel free to reach out (Twitter is the best way). Now, more than ever, we are all in this together. 

And I couldn’t be more hopeful. 

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3 thoughts on “Navigating Eating Disorder Recovery During a Global Pandemic”

  1. Amelia,
    I am so impressed with your sharing such a vulnerable and personal thing, i believe that this openness and vulnerability will help people more than you may ever know.
    I personally do not struggle with an eating disorder, but many people in my family do so I find this informative and encouraging.
    I am personally a foodie and love cooking, if you ever need ideas of new recipes or anything just give me a shout.
    Thanks again for sharing your story.

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