The morning of June 8, 2018, I woke up to the news that Anthony Bourdain had died from an apparent suicide. I can’t quite express to you the way this news broke me. For anyone who’s felt this way before, even just the mention of suicide is triggering. I wept because I wanted to die, too. I was in such emotional pain and agony. Everything in my life was so beautiful, but within me there was a violent war between what felt like life-or-death needs. One side wanted freedom around food, complete, unconditional self-love and -acceptance; the other side could not relinquish the illusion of controlling my body, my worth, my loveableness. An endless war with no concessions. I just couldn’t see my way out.
It’s been almost two years since I fatefully ran into Caroline Dooner of the F*ck It Diet in a random restaurant in Philadelphia during the week of Thanksgiving. I’d already been negotiating with myself to go “all in” to eating disorder recovery — but I was waffling, definitely in pseudo-recovery — for the better part of 2018. I was deliriously exhausted, yet still hopeful that there could be a way out of my misery. If only I was willing to face the beast for real. If only I stopped white-knuckling and took the leap. Seeing Caroline there in person, after a particularly liberating meal, was the sign of all signs. I was finally ready to go all in.
The past two years have been a roller coaster. Within about six months of Thanksgiving 2018, I gained about 30 pounds. I hit a ceiling or plateau, and I’ve been there, more or less, ever since. There was about five months I tried intermittent fasting, hoping it would kick my body into “ketosis” (please, please feel free to roll your eyes hardcore) and help me burn off the extra weight. This was a relapse. Guess what happened? My plateau weight increased by another 10 pounds. And I’m still there now. My body still hasn’t quite learned to trust me again. Do I blame it? Absolutely not. Do I blame myself? Absolutely not.
In January 2020, after that big relapse, I recommitted to recovery once again. I stopped any and all form of restriction, til death do us part. Even if unrestricted eating was an easy thing for someone who’s struggled with disordered eating to do (…it’s not), what I didn’t quite realize is just how often I am faced with a fork in the road, just how often I have to choose the recovery version of simply everything.
I’m not hungry but for some reason I’m thinking about food. That’s because you’re hungry. When in doubt, eat.
Am I running because it feels good, or am I running because I secretly hope I’ll shed a few pounds? If I’m asking myself this question, then I’m not simply doing it because it feels good. Go for a nice walk instead.
Friends, this is entirely exhausting. Every thought, which previously had been dictated by this disorder, had to be retrained like relearning to walk. This is the invisible work. This is not a feat people typically applaud. In fact, this is work that, when people see how my body has changed, they might assume I’ve stopped doing the “hard work.” But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve had panic attacks when Nick has asked me what I want for dinner. Just last night, after looking at dresses for a possible holiday photo shoot, I burst into tears. This shit is stressful.
Why would I pay someone money to take photos of me right now? Photos are the single-most triggering thing for me, historically. Yep, that’s why you have to do it.
Ugh. Hard work.
But I also want to talk about the invaluable intrinsic rewards, the previously unthinkable progress I’ve made. Why all of this has been the absolute most important thing I’ve ever done EVER. In my whole life. By far.
Some highlights of my recovery and significant signs of growth:
- Nick and I embarked on our Italian honeymoon in July 2019. This is something I would have waited to do until I deemed myself good enough or “in the right shape.” At some point I need to share the experience of this trip with you. For a portion of it, we traveled to my grandmother’s hometown of Pratola Peligna and spent time with relatives we’ve never met before. This is something I could never have imagined doing weighing the most I’d ever weighed at the time. Turns out: They loved us so much and treated us so well that there is no part of me that feels like they would’ve loved me more if I had been thinner. It was the most incredible experience for both of us, and I’m so grateful to have been able to do it exactly when we did.
- I have what I call the opposite of body dysmorphia now. I look in the mirror and get confused because I can actually find myself liking what I see. But you weight X amount. There’s no way you can actually like your body at that weight. Oh, maybe you’ve lost weight! [Steps on scale.] Nope. [Proceeds to feel absolutely terrible about self.] This happened for months until I finally asked Nick to hide or throw away our scale — I didn’t care which he chose, just as long as I could not find it. Asking him to hide the scale was monumental. There was no going back. Because that man sticks to his word. Last night, after my crying session, I begged him to give it back. He would not. He is the best and continues to prove to me what real true enduring love is meant to be. (I know. Gross.) This whole incident just goes to show that I still struggle with feelings of self-love that come from within as opposed to external validation. There is (always) more work to do, but in the meantime, I’m relishing the moments when I feel good in my body and when I’m able to ask for help.
- I literally cannot remember what I ate yesterday. I no longer wake up in the morning and immediately recount everything I ate the day before.
- I stopped avoiding all social interactions… well, you know what I mean. Most of this progress was before COVID-19 hit. But I still force myself to do things where people might see me, whereas before I just hid from everything.
- I have ordered some new clothes for myself. This work is still in progress. It’s always been hard for me to purchase nice clothes for myself. I’m still fighting off that “I’ll do it when I’m thinner” inner dialogue. But there has been progress. I’ve also invested in clothes that are comfortable, simple, and utilitarian. I’m not constantly trying to look perfect all the time. I want to feel like me, to be in my body, to relax.
- I am feeling more. A lot more. Restricting was a coping mechanism for what is and has always been very pervasive generalized anxiety. With the help of my incredible therapist, I’m learning how to self-regulate, soothe, ground, and cope with a whole new range of emotions. I’m learning how to recognize unhealthy boundaries and set healthy ones. I’m learning how to honor my needs, rely on others, and ask for help. This has been truly groundbreaking for my mental health, my physical health (the relief I feel in my body is not to be ignored), my relationships — it has trickled into and improved every facet of my life.
- I no longer, or rarely, see food choices as moral. I no longer see myself as “good” or “superior” for eating greens, or as “bad” or “weak” for eating XYZ. I simply eat what I want, or whatever is available, and move on with my day.
- I’ve entered a whole new universe where I enjoy exercising outdoors. No matter what weight I was before, even at my thinnest (what I weighed in fourth grade!), I always had this thought that anyone who saw me exercising outdoors was either thinking “Good thing she’s exercising; she really needs it,” or “She’s only thin because she’s exercising.” I always assumed I was not doing anything correctly — walking, running, hiking — while everyone else was. It’s a type of perfectionism I never realized was there until I felt the relief of its absence. I now enjoy long hikes with Nick and Harper without anxiety. I always make sure to bring snacks and food — because eating on hikes no longer makes me feel like the hike was a waste or a failure. It just makes me feel replenished and re-energized.
- I much less frequently feel the compulsion to explain why I’ve gained weight to people who’ve gone long stretches without seeing me. Once, someone did a double-take after not seeing me for years. I could tell she didn’t recognize me. I just said, “Yeah, I look different” and laughed. I was amazed at myself for that response.
- I have more mental and physical energy. There are many evenings after work where I’m interested in doing chores around the house, going for a walk, or sitting down to iron out the details of finances or insurance plans or something else mentally and emotionally taxing. I think more clearly in meetings and know exactly when I need to take breaks.
I still have moments when I’m in so much agonizing emotional pain from the abuse of my eating disorder that I don’t want to keep on being alive. But these dark moments are so much less frequent. So much so. This work has been life-saving, life-affirming, life-giving. Will the extra weight ever drop off? Who the eff knows. Do I want it to? No qualms about it: Yes. But I am letting my body be, letting it heal, and honoring it in a way I never have before. Perhaps one day I will feel complete body- and self-acceptance. Maybe even further down the road I’ll celebrate and adore my body. But honestly, that’s not the point. That’s an oversimplification of this process. It is the undoing and the rewiring of self-abusive thoughts, the learning how to let go of control, the continuing to open myself up to meaningful connections and feeling all of my emotions and embody the fullness of this human experience. It is everything, unrestricted.
I hope to update here a little more frequently. Like I said, I’d love to recount our honeymoon in Italy, what living during the time of COVID-19 has looked like for us (I lost my job and gained another), and other interesting milestones that have happened since you saw me last. We shall see. Until then, I hope whoever is reading this has found something helpful in my recovery story. Sending love.
7 thoughts on “What I’ve Gained From Eating Disorder Recovery”
Keep up the good work Vanessa. You are loved by your family and all who know you. So glad to hear you found a great therapist. Mine was the bomb:)
Looking forward to hearing more from you soon……
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Thanks, Lynne! Good therapists are worth their weight in gold. I refer anyone who mentions they’re looking for one to mine. She has helped me so much! I hope you are doing well! ❤
Thank you for this. We don’t hear enough about eating disorders and recovery. Now I am thinking about my own weight loss struggles and see where I have not had the healthiest of thoughts and behaviors. I hope you do post more often. I have missed you!
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I’m glad this might have helped you in some way. I hope to post more often… we shall see!
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Beautiful reflections and I relate to every word. Grateful to you for sharing your experience, community in this journey is everything
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I totally agree! Sending love. ❤