It’s been a year since I was discharged from Opal Food and Body after entering intensive eating disorder treatment for my third and hopefully last time. A year since I hit publish on a blog where I opened up about the silent battle I’d been waging for 20 years. A year since I felt like I got a new lease on life. A year since I finally felt like I could be me – ALL of me.
And what a year it’s been.
I wish I could say it’s been all filled with sunshine and puppies and unicorns farting rainbows. At some points, it has been. At other points, it’s been, hands down, some of the hardest times and moments in my life.
But as I reflect back on this anniversary, I embrace both how far I’ve come and how far I have yet to go. So let’s start with the tougher stuff that I didn’t expect.
Content Warning: Discussions of eating disorder thoughts, anxiety and depression. No weights, numbers, or specific eating disorder behaviors discussed.
When you take away your trusted coping mechanism, things gets rough
Someone once told me that I shouldn’t villainize the eating disorder, because it actually served me well. It struck me as odd as first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense: the eating disorder was a coping mechanism that allowed me to function for many years. And I can thank it for allowing me to get to where I am, but I can recognize that I no longer need it to function.
But the thing that I wasn’t prepared for was just HOW hard it would be at times to manage life without reverting to my trusted coping mechanism. And this became abundantly clear to me the past few months.
As I’ve written about previously, the pull towards obsessive-compulsive disorder rituals started to flare again as COVID-19 began to spread across the world. I got frustrated with myself as I tried to resist them. Then, as shelter-in-place orders were put in place, the eating disorder thoughts, which had been quiet, started to scream.
I’ve also never been good at adapting to change. It’s something I constantly work on, but handling change and uncertainty is not my strong suit. So throw in a move to Colorado, a global pandemic, mix it in with my OCD and eating disorder backgrounds, and it was literally my worst nightmare of circumstances colliding at the same time.
And when eating disorder thoughts started to flare, my anxiety reached a tipping point. Frankly, I lost myself. I was in such a state of heightened anxiety that I couldn’t engage in life. I was moody, irritable, angry. I knew there was one way that I could quiet that anxiety. I knew there was an easy way to numb my feelings and fears.
It was the way I numbed myself for 20 years. Starving myself would take away the anxiety. It worked so well for so long. It made me even-keel. It made me level-headed. It soothed me. If I engaged in eating disorder rituals, I didn’t have to think about anything else. I didn’t have to feel.
But FUCK IT if I was going down that road again. I woke up every morning and told myself that a global pandemic was NOT going to erase all the hard work I’d done in recovery this past year. Because for anyone who has battled an eating disorder, you know as soon as you let it back in a little, it’s extremely hard to right the ship.
So I fought. I fought like hell. I sat, trapped in my mind full of thoughts and tendencies and did everything I could to not act on the thoughts.
A funny (and really shitty) thing happens when you don’t revert to old coping mechanisms to numb yourself during uncertain times: your emotions flare. When you fight like hell to not give in, there is nothing to stop the overwhelming anxiety that consumes you. I was up, down, all over the place, on edge, panicking, crying, disassociated, utterly unable to engage with life…you name it.
And with so many of the tools I’d normally use to cope with anxiety cut off because of shelter-in-place, I did the only thing I could do: sit with it, and ride it out.
I knew, even when my anxiety was at its worst, that it would pass. I knew, from past experiences, that I’d adjust. I just knew it would take a little while. But I knew I’d be an emotional wreck in the meantime.
It’s so tough: I hated being that way. I hated being on edge. I hated the amount of anxiety. I wanted it to change. But the more I tried to force my way through the anxiety, or pretend that I was ok, the worse I made it.
After about a month, I noticed the anxiety starting to ease. I noticed myself settling in. I noticed that I could be more present.
Unfortunately, in attempting to cope without resorting to starving myself, I left a swath of emotional wreckage in its place. And as much as I wanted to fix it, I can’t unring that bell.
But…we learn. Just how so much of eating disorder recovery is about exposure therapy, each time I go through a difficult situation without relapsing the more I learn about myself and my own patterns.
And my pattern is this: the anxiety will flare with change and uncertainty. No one can fix it but me. It may take a prolonged period of time, but it will pass, without giving into old behaviors. And each time I do it, it gets easier (“life reps,” as I now call them). So I buckle myself in tight, ride it out, and learn that I’m safe coming out the other side.
Rewiring conditioned responses will take time
One of the reasons I hid the eating disorder for 20 years was the shame around it. I had spent my entire childhood being the “needy” kid. I spent high school and college being “the sick girl.” I didn’t want to be that way, and I was so ashamed that I needed so much help. So I packed it away. I became fearful that if people knew the “real” me – if I had needs and actually expressed those – they would run. To me, the most “enlightened” person was the person that didn’t have any needs. I wanted to be that person, so badly.
I see now that we ALL have needs as humans, and it’s natural to express those. I worked through a lot of that shame in treatment, and I thought that by opening myself up, I was past that. But when COVID struck and life turned upside down, I fell back into old habits of “white-knuckling”, fearful of how loud all the thoughts had become. I didn’t want those closest to me to see just how paralyzed and anxious I was for fear of being seen as needy or a burden.
The more I tried to downplay it and put on a happy face, the worse I made it. I knew this wasn’t how I should handle things, but I’ve spent so many years of my life fearful that if people saw the “real” me, they’d run away. (Unfortunately, this belief was affirmed to me in relationships in my past, having been told that if I didn’t “stop being crazy,” my partner would leave. And that no one would ever love me if I showed that part of me.)
So I became really conditioned over the years to “hide the crazy”, fearful of abandonment if I didn’t. I promised myself when I entered recovery last year that I would be forthright in communicating about how these conditioned responses show up. And what’s funny is I’ve learned that sometimes it’s actually easier for me to open up to strangers on the internet because there’s less at stake than to open up to people close in my life. Because I’m not afraid of strangers on the internet leaving me. But I’ve always been afraid of people close to me leaving me. So I made a promise recently to work on being more honest and open in my real life relationships, instead of just opening up to the sea of strangers (no offense to any of you reading – the internet has been great!)
So my work now is around identifying the conditioned responses, working on rewriting that story, and opening up first to those closest in my life. Here’s the thing: we ALL have conditioned responses based on past traumas. We can work through them, but it takes time, slip-ups, and a whole lot of self-compassion.
…and now, the good stuff!
There’s a difference between thoughts and actions
Other people in recovery or recovered from eating disorders may disagree with me on this, but I’m not positive the thoughts and urges around food will ever entirely disappear. Maybe they will, and I hold out hope for that. But my current state of recovery is hearing the eating disorder voices and thoughts in my head, acknowledging them, but then refusing to act on them. And each time you don’t listen to the voice, or, better yet, each time you take opposite action from the voice, the quieter it gets. Each time you give in, the more power it holds over you.
Some days the voices are like petulant little children and refuse to leave me alone. Some days they are very quiet. But having the thoughts doesn’t change my actions. I’m proud of the fact that very little of my brain space is devoted to food anymore – I’m stoked to no longer turn down dinner invitations or spend hours pouring over a restaurant menu in preparation, or crying about eating a piece of cheesecake. Instead, my brain space is devoted to all the underlying shit I avoided working on while in the eating disorder. Who would have thought that eating through the thoughts (it’s a nice middle finger!) is the best thing you can do?!
There are times when I’m uncomfortable with my body, but I’m also healthy and able to do what I love to do
I caveat this with the full acknowledgment that I still live in a smaller body, and I have thin privilege. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t still struggle with your changing body or body image on days.
I entered recovery for many reasons, but an overriding one was that constant stress fractures were keeping me from doing what I love to do – run, adventure and explore. I’ve had a few blips in this past year, but overall, I’ve been the most consistent and injury-free (knock on wood!) that I’ve ever been. In full disclosure, the uncomfortableness has actually been pretty acute these past few months as my body as more rapidly changed as I worked to get my period back. But on days when I start to get down on myself for no longer fitting into old clothes, I remind myself that I’d much rather be a bit uncomfortable with my body and able to explore and adventure than be injured on the sidelines.
I’m learning to live a value-driven life
In the thick of my eating disorder, I valued a few things: winning races, being the thinnest person in the room, feeling virteous for being able to deprive myself of food when others couldn’t, and having random strangers on the internet validate me.
I thought enough accolades and accomplishments and social media followers could bring me happiness. I thought that if I lost those things, I’d be empty.
But what I’ve learned in the past year is how to live according to my actual values, not the misplaced ones that never seemed to fill my soul. And those values are community, connection, and love.
Living according to those values drove my move to Colorado. Living according to those values drove my openness and eagerness to connect to other athletes in recovery. Living according to those values drove me to love fiercely, and recognize that the meaningful connection of a few is what fills my soul.
I was on the Strength Running podcast the other week where the host, Jason Fitzgerald, astutely pointed out that I am currently living what used to be my worst nightmare: not winning races, not even racing at the moment (due to the pandemic). The funny thing? It made me smile to say “yes, I am. And I love it.” I could never win a race again in my life, and I know I’d be ok. Because that’s not what feeds my soul. The training, the process, the celebrations and meals and events around the races, and ability to share that with others – THAT’S the meaningful part. That’s the part that fills me up.
There are some things that were easier with the eating disorder…but I will never go back
I hesitate to write this because I don’t ever want someone to think that you shouldn’t seek recovery. But in a few ways, life was easier when I was engaged in my eating disorder. Being obsessed with food and rituals is all consuming and an excellent way to avoid anything hard in life. Being numb is easy because you don’t have to ride waves of emotions. Not opening yourself up is easy because you won’t ever get hurt.
I was a stone-cold killer in the midst of my eating disorder. I was unflinching. I didn’t admit weakness. I didn’t admit feelings. I couldn’t give love. I couldn’t receive love. I had numbed and starved myself to not being able to feel anything.
And honestly, sometimes that’s easier.
In this past year, I’ve been over the moon with joy, and I’ve been sobbing on my bathroom floor for hours. I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, and also dealt with suicidal thoughts for the first time in my life.
It’s been a rollercoaster, and that’s hard.
But that reminds me that, for the first time in so many years, I’ve been actually living, not just existing. I may be a wreck at times, but I am alive. I still screw up, I still slide back into old patterns, I still am bumbling around, trying to figure it out.
And I know, more than anything, it’s worth it.