Hey there. It’s been a hot second.
Okay, so it’s been over 6 months since my last post here on The “Real” Life. I realize now that the original vision behind this blog—reflected even in its title—has been quite deceptive. I thought I’d create a lifestyle blog that wasn’t afraid of showing the messy bits of life and talking about difficult things… but somehow things derailed a bit.
Time to get honest and share some things with you.
My mindset about many things has evolved this past year, and it didn’t feel like my new paradigm aligned with what I’d been using this blog for. It might not necessarily be a bad thing that I wasn’t oversharing all my dirt with you; I’m not saying I should have been. Some things are best kept private. But I do want to share what’s on my heart and mind, to honor the title of this blog and to accept that the adventure I’m undergoing is very much real and very much long-term… and could help so many other people in a similar boat.
Unintentionally, this blog had fueled an eating disorder. If you remember, I lost a lot of weight in basically a month in the beginning of 2016. This was due to sudden, acute heartbreak, and for mysterious reasons that only the body truly understands, my appetite completely disappeared. Unconsciously I decided to take advantage of this lack of appetite and eat as little as physically possible. Then I decided to exercise as much as possible to keep it off. I thought that I’d never be unlovable again if I looked good and weighed less. Documenting my body and my food intake in photos here was my eating disorder’s way of controlling and “body-checking.” The fear of weight gain was incredibly deceptive.
My efforts worked for a while, and it felt healthy and energetic and enjoyable for a while. Really. I thought I’d been cured of my chronic dieting and body issues. I thought my new life had created a new me. (And it did, but just not the way I’d imagined. It created something so much better. I’ll get to that in a sec.)
Many people think anorexia or any other restrictive eating disorder means you have to look like a scarily-close-to-death skeleton. Not me. Instead, I was repeatedly complimented, treated differently (thin privilege is real), and encouraged to keep up my healthy lifestyle.
The sad reality is that my body was in a huge energy deficit. Remember when I fainted one mile into a morning run? Yeah. Not normal, folks. When energy deficit occurs, your body starts shutting down certain processes, like your menstrual cycle. Digestion slows and you stop having regular bowel movements (it holds food in your digestive tract twice as long, in hopes of rationing and absorbing every last particle of nourishment). Your metabolism drops drastically. But the most deadly symptom is what starvation does to your brain. (Note: Your brain thinks you’re starving when you diet. Just FYI for your New Year’s resolutions.)
If you ever feel tempted to restrict your calories to lose weight, do a little research about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (MSE); there are tons of articles out there. At first, during restriction, you lose weight. Your body has been humming along after a long period of eating sufficient amounts of food, and the decreases in calorie intake result in shedding a few extra pounds of fat—or if there isn’t much fat, it’ll go for muscle and other non-fat tissue like organs.
Once your body weight drops due to restriction, your brain gets a strong message that you’ve encountered some change in environment. If the starvation persists, your body quickly goes into an energy deficit. It cannot keep up with its own energy demands, just to stay alive. The fuel coming in isn’t enough to maintain things like a menstrual cycle, and why would it want to reproduce, anyway? Making a baby requires way too much energy and the baby will most likely die of starvation or neglect.
During an energy deficit, your body is desperate to pay off its immense caloric debt, and it will use your brain as bait. Body dysmorphia doesn’t necessarily cause restrictive eating disorders; it’s the other way around. The societal pressure to be thin and the irresistible privilege of being thin (even under the guise of “health”) will cause someone, most often a woman, to diet (and most of us started dieting in our pre-teens, am I right?). But it’s the restriction that causes body dysmorphia.
The male volunteers in the MSE developed the mental delusion of being overweight, even though they looked like Holocaust survivors. Starvation causes a preoccupation with weight and food—basically, your brain is trying to hijack your thoughts and make you get off your starving cavewoman ass and scavenge for even the littlest of sustenance. It makes you binge, hard. Or “emotionally eat.” It makes you feel uncontrollable around food. It makes you gain as much weight as humanly possible from the smallest detour from your diet. It makes it harder to lose weight the next go-around. It makes you depressed, anxious, and paranoid. All of these symptoms happened to me.
I fainted halfway through 2016 when my weight was at its lowest and my lifestyle was the most physically active. My body had undergone the better part of a year at an energy deficit. It was trying to say “STOP MOVING OR YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.” I took two weeks off and then decided I’d train for a full marathon—totally rational. Maybe I did this to ensure I wouldn’t stop running or maybe it was to undo those two weeks off… probably both. I upped my physical exertion, and maintained my way-too-mindful eating habits… and that’s when two things started happening: I started binge-eating, and I started having weekly panic attacks on my long runs.
For the next year after the initial fainting incident (I had another fainting incident, for good measure), my body and brain chemistry were under the clear impression that I was enduring a full-on famine. My hormones were completely out of whack. I had one thing on my mind at all times: Food. Eat. Now. No holds barred. The fattiest and most calorie-dense things you can find. Large quantities of it. NOW. (Remember that burrito entry? Sigh.)
I’d dealt with binge-eating before. Honestly, I’ve had a disordered relationship with food (and weight; they’re interchangeable in most cases) since I was about 10 or 11. When I went through my first major dieting phase, I lost weight and felt great. The thing is: Restriction works for about six months or so before the body freaks the F out. In most people, the urges to binge cause us to “fall off the wagon.” Why does our body gain back the weight and then some? Because your metabolism drops during the (self-imposed) famine in order to become much more efficient with its precious calories, and because your body wants to add some extra padding in case you endure another famine down the road.
Well I’d been in a famine-feast or restrict-binge-purge cycle for 20 years, non-stop, and I’d push my body to the limit. This insane tug-of-war between my starving body (and its unconscious urges, trying to keep me alive!) and my controlling conscious brain (“Must keep the weight off!”) was causing recurring panic attacks. While I’d gained maybe three pounds, the body dysmorphia was utterly debilitating. (What’s funny is that I’m well over that weight now, and the hardcore body dysmorphia is gone. When it comes to all the research, weight restoration is the cure for the dysmorphia. Go figure. Pun intended.)
I thought my panic attacks were delayed PTSD from all I’d been through—and then I somewhat correctly theorized that my panic attacks were a fear of gaining weight. Unfortunately I thought that if I stopped bingeing and got my eating “under control,” I wouldn’t be freaking out on my runs (scared of overeating after, or frustrated that I could feel an extra pound on my frame from a binge—or even just a normal meal—the night before).
I found a great therapist and started EMDR therapy. When she prodded into my fear of gaining weight, my ability to access my emotions completely shut off. My mind and my body were at war with each other still, and my eating disorder was fighting hard to win. That’s when I realized I had to do something or I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life. I could not go on like this and I could not subject Nick to it any longer.
I decided that after my 33k in Moab (February 2018) I would start recovering. Recovery meant laying off the running and attempting unrestricted eating. Scary shit.
If you’re in inpatient eating-disorder recovery, they warn you about the extreme hunger. When you start to allow yourself to eat and to start seeing “binges” as your body’s way of trying to survive and heal loads of physical damage, you awake a hunger in you that’s been suppressed for years. You want to eat everything, and your cravings are guiding you. You eat what you want, and you try your best not to compensate for it or judge it.
I would do pretty well and then I would relapse. It was (and is) incredibly hard. I was enjoying the food, of course, but hating the lack of compensatory exercise and restriction. Every couple of months I’d step on the scale and have a massive mental breakdown. When I tried on wedding dresses: mental breakdown. When certain jeans didn’t fit: mental breakdown.
Somehow, by the grace of the Universe and her infinite mystery, I was able to feel comfortable, confident, and fully present on my wedding day, even though I’d faced my fear and gained weight. I am so eternally grateful for that. (And I can’t wait to share wedding photos with you soon!) Seriously. I feel so proud that I didn’t use my wedding as an excuse to relapse, and I am so grateful that my memory won’t be tainted in that way.
The thing about restrictive-eating-disorder recovery is that you don’t just restore back to your nice healthy BMI and wash your hands of it. Your body needs to gain more than that, to fully restore physical and psychological balance. Something about the ratio of fat mass to fat-free mass when it’s rebuilding vital organs and hormones and things. I think it’s also the Universe’s clever way of really pushing your boundaries and ensuring you aren’t disguising recovery with “stopping recovery right at the highest weight I’m still comfortable at.” It pushes you over your pre-weight-loss weight. In eating disorder recovery lingo, this is called “weight overshoot,” and is a very real thing. I am in this phase now.
For the first half of 2018, I was in quasi-recovery. The second half: Hello, real recovery. Hello, unrestricted eating and a full-on quest for body acceptance. It’s hard, and I just couldn’t bring myself to feign anything on this blog when I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I thought I could maybe cure myself and then lose the weight again, and you’d all be none the wiser. But alas, this is a lifelong recovery and this is The REAL Life. If I stay at the weight I’m at now for the rest of my life, I have to accept that and move on. Maybe even love it (not there yet). One step at a time.
The encouraging (and cool!) thing is that I finally feel like my brain chemistry is restored. The extreme hunger phase is over, and my hunger cues are back to normal. I still feel the temptation to restrict now and then, and when I do, I make sure to stick to this rule: “What in doubt, eat.” When I truly allow all foods at all quantities, I can better listen to what my body actually wants (cookies! grapes!). A lot of judgment and stigma about certain foods are gone. I am still discovering more “food rules” that I didn’t even realize I’d indoctrinated my psyche with, things like “never order a coffee that isn’t just black coffee.” When I discover those hidden beliefs, I challenge them. This morning I ordered a cappuccino and it was divine.
I share all this with you not to make you uncomfortable or to overshare. I share it with you to challenge another belief I have: That suffering is shameful and therefore should be private. Or perhaps more accurate: That weight gain is shameful and should not be celebrated. But whoops, I’m celebrating my weight gain and sharing it with you all. It’s still scary, but this is what I alluded to earlier: I am so excited about this person I’m becoming, and it’s just in time to share it for the New Year. I’m so thrilled to be rid of my obsession with food and weight and addiction to exercise. I would love to end up running again, but it will be a slippery slope. We shall see. Nothing is more important than my mental and physical health at this point, especially if Nick and I hope to have a baby soon. And I want to be able to share all of the ups and downs with you, should I desire to.
I have been so lucky to have Nick by my side to support me and love me through this rollercoaster of self-awareness and recovery. Our wedding was perfection, and so is he. I pinch myself numerous times a day for the life we have together in our new home and with Harper (even with her consistent 4 am wakeup calls). A week after we got married, I started a new job as Editorial Director of an amazing company, where I work from home, and life has been a bit of a wonderful whirlwind. I do want to tell you all about it, but all in good time. For now, I’m just glad to have shared all this with you. I’m excited for real growth in 2019: the messy stuff.
Happy New Year,