My relationship with food has been fraught for most of my life–even before I had a diagnosable eating disorder. As a child, I knew the shame associated with eating long before that shame began to completely control my life. You have to eat. Every day, a few times a day. Food is everywhere. You can’t escape it.
Recovery is a stupid word. It feels too heavy, like it gives too much power to my eating disorder. But I am, unquestionably, in recovery–there’s not a better word. I’m in recovery, not recovered. Recovery is just another stage. It hasn’t gone away.
I started treatment in high school. I had lost 25 pounds in a little over two months. All of the food I ate was green–cucumbers, apples, and celery, for every meal. I weighed myself six or seven times a day. Green was healthy. Green wasn’t dirty, like meat or cheese. Green was safe. I was neither anorexic nor bulimic, although I certainly restricted, binged, and purged over the 5 or so years that I had had an eating disorder. Over the course of those five years, I lost and gained significant weight as my disorder changed. I had what we call EDNOS, or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.
There are people who don’t think about their relationship with food. They get hungry. They eat. End of story. I get hungry and eat and call it a major victory. Every morning when I scramble some eggs and cut up an avocado, I’m working against a small yet powerful voice in my head that’s telling me my food is dirty. It used to be the only voice. Now I have others, and they’re louder. But I can still hear my eating disorder talking. Eating “normally” feels like an act of rebellion. A meal is never just a meal. If I’m painting a bleak picture, I don’t mean to. When I say victory, I mean it.
I’m proud of where I am. I can’t believe that I have days where I eat an enormous sandwich and ice cream and I don’t want to kill myself or run until I throw it all up. There are days when I just feel normal, and don’t assign value to food. Like a person who eats and sleeps and shits and doesn’t have to weigh myself after every single activity. I rarely eat an entire bag of chocolate chips, not even tasting them, and then lie on the floor wailing with panicked sobs for two hours afterwards, drinking a gallon of water to try to feel clean. Celery is for tuna and snacking. Apples don’t control my life. Food isn’t always green, and it’s not dangerous.
The best part of recovery is that I’ve found a relationship with food that includes joy. When I began treatment for my eating disorder, my therapist encouraged me to cook. To really learn how to make the food I was forcing myself to eat. To learn about food. Cooking, trying new food, and reading food magazines became therapeutic for me in a way I didn’t anticipate. It’s a way of exercising control in a healthy, productive way, and to undo the shame-filled baggage I’ve wrapped around food and eating. I have a community built around food now–my friends and I love cooking together, eating together, and trying new restaurants.
But the less happy parts of recovery seep into my newfound happiness with food.
If I eat too many heavy meals close to each other, I have to decompress. It reminds me of the later facet of my eating disorder–the obsessive overeating that caused me to gain 50 pounds in a year and completely forget the normal feeling of being full. I still carry shame about that time since I’ve been taught to be humiliated by it, and it embarrasses me to talk about to this day. And so when that happens, I have to stay in my house and eat salads and green soup for a day or two, or else I feel like the whole world is crashing in on me. But those salads have salmon or beans in them, and I don’t make myself throw them up afterwards. I don’t count the calories and I don’t feel obsessed. I just need to slow down for a few days. I recognize the need for control, and I indulge it for a few days.
In my saddest, most exhausted, most anxious moments, I feel the urge to overeat or to restrict. I want a cucumber. I want 26 cucumbers. I want to sit in my house without ever speaking to another human being ever again, or at least until I can see my hip bones more clearly. But that’s my worst moments, not my best. They’re few and far between I can live with that for now.
I am inescapably tied to my eating disorder, even if I’ve been in recovery since 2010. I still have severe body dysmorphia, which in my case means that I have no idea what my body looks like. I used to be fat and I am no longer fat, but to me, my body is an amorphous blob that only looks vaguely human. After years of trying to shrink the amount of space I take up in the world while my body fluctuated wildly, I lost my sense of self, physically. It’s the most obvious lingering side effect of my life with an eating disorder, and it will go away. I can see my body more clearly than I could a year ago. I’ll see myself more clearly next year. My brain will catch up.
So I know that even though I’m in recovery, recovery is its own set of baggage in and of itself. One day, the feeling of being a bit too full won’t send me into hysterics. Until then, I’m going to try to keep celebrating victories, to keep cooking, and continue to foster self worth outside of my body and my food choices. Recovery might be something that affects my life every single day, but I also know that these are better days than the ones that came before.
February 23 to March 1 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. To read our special coverage on ED topics, click here.