So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
About a month and a half ago, I decided I wanted to do something more with my time. (I still feel that way, incidentally, but onward!) In talking with a friend, I realized that I’ve had a long-term interest in nutrition and helping people who struggle with eating disorders, and the last few years that’s fallen by the wayside as I got more involved in bike stuff.
I contacted the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) about volunteering there. Now I go in once a week, for just a few hours, to answer phones on their helpline. So far I only do operator calls, taking the callers’ information and passing it on to trained volunteers. I’m also in the midst of being trained myself, though, and fairly soon I will probably be answering helpline calls myself (an intimidating prospect, to say the least!).
Why NEDA? Because, starting in high school, I have struggled with anorexia. Right now, I’d describe myself as recovering from anorexia, and I know firsthand what it’s like to be in that place mentally. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to say that I no longer have any anorexic urges, but I am cognizant of the lies coming from my “anorexic brain,” and I’m able to counter or ignore them. Here’s my abridged story.
It all started in high school. Before that, I was never really aware of what it looked like; my body just was. Then, in 1998 I started running cross-country. The best cross-country runners ate a rice cake and half a banana before races. Naturally, I wanted to be like them, so I emulated their eating habits. Unfortunately for me, they had genetics on their side and I did not. At the same time, I went on an acne medication that gave me an ulcer in my throat — an astonishingly effective eating deterrent, believe me!
By the time we figured out what that was and stopped the drugs, I’d established a firm pattern of eating well under 1,000 calories a day, with high running intensity and mileage. It felt good to control something, but my self-esteem remained very low. I started cutting myself as an additional outlet for the pain, sense of inadequacy, frustration, loneliness, and misery that haunted me during high school. Despite going to the state cross-country finals two years, being valedictorian, and having a reasonable number of friends, I was never good enough. Not eating felt like a way to purify myself and prove that I could control something in a time when it felt like everything was out of my control. At my worst, I was obsessed with “fat” on my body — that I could pinch together skin on my stomach at all was a sign that I was too fat. Thank God, I never had to be hospitalized or caused any (apparent) long-term damage to my body during that time. But those years in high school were terrible: Hearing from classmates how good I looked while silently struggling with depression and trying to release my feelings by hurting my body. Those years established a thinking pattern that even now, over 10 years later, I continue to combat.
I’m not going to get into the long story of recovery. Suffice it to say that I quit cross-country (I never liked running that much anyway), started dating a sweet guy, and began moving on. When Ian and I got engaged, we began talking with a marriage counselor, who also serves as a therapist for us individually when we need it. No miracle cures here; just maturing, education, and a long slog towards better mental health. Some months it was better than others. College was difficult, for a variety of reasons, and my recovery has by no means been a linear constant growth pattern.
It took many conversations with many people, but eventually I learned that I start feeling like I need to clamp down on food consumption when I feel stressed out, anxious, or like my life is getting out of control. The need to feel like I have control over something is incredibly powerful*. So now when I feel that, I look at other aspects of my life and ask, “OK, what’s causing me to feel like I need to regain control?” The food-restriction urges serve me as a cue to evaluate what’s going on in my life. Then I can address the underlying issues that cause those symptoms. Over time, I have begun to disentangle food, eating, and weight from my emotional and mental health.
Then there’s the other part of it, too: When I feel inadequate or like a failure, food restriction becomes a deserved punishment. In my head, I don’t deserve food because I failed. Usually it’s not a big failure, either, if one at all. That really goes back to the feeling out of control, because a failure is a lack of control. Again, self-awareness is the best cure I know. Taking those urges out into the light, acknowledging them, examining them, and addressing them gives me the power. I can say I’m recovering because, although I still hear them, I am no longer controlled by subconscious lies about food. I know the truth and use it to overcome the desires caused by my eating disorder.
These days, I focus on being healthy: Eating enough to sustain my high-mileage, high-intensity biking, which right now comes out to consuming probably around 3,000+ calories a day. I don’t obsess about my weight, I don’t count my calories, I don’t critically scrutinize my body in the mirror. I do try to eat every two or three hours; keep a food journal (when I remember); and have a friend to be accountable with on food issues. My body has normal metabolic functions. I’m getting to enjoy pushing my body to its limits, riding hard and fast and staying healthy while doing it. Proper nutrition has enabled me to ride stronger than I ever could have imagined. It’s a wonderful positive reinforcement in favor of healthy eating habits.
I know it’s hard for anybody who hasn’t been there to understand, but eating disorders aren’t a logical thing. You can’t just “change your mind” and easily change your eating habits. Eating disorders are a mental illness, and the sufferer no longer can see reality. Looking in the mirror, your brain lies to you about what you’re seeing. It’s terrible, lonely, and painful. I’m grateful that today I am healthiest (both mentally and physically) and strongest I’ve ever been in my life. In volunteering with NEDA, I hope to be able to use the experience of my own long struggle into something meaningful to help other people. This has also made me start pondering the idea of going back to school to become a nutritionist.
Side note: The perfectionist/control freak urges can be channeled into useful things. It’s what made me an excellent scientific writer and makes me a spectacular copyeditor, for example.
*Also, as a Christian, I’ve spent innumerable hours struggling with passages like the one in today’s Verse of the Day. Check out the entire passage here. It’s like an anorexic’s nightmare: Giving control away to somebody else entirely.