This is a long post and worth every second of the read, I promise. However, if you’re feeling a little TL;DR, then at least go listen to the podcast with Harley Eblen!
Everything I thought about recovery is a lie.
It’s not about the food. It’s not about the fitness. It’s not even about my body at all.
I know you don’t want to hear that. Hell, I don’t want to hear that.
I know that there are certain things that you do have to have in line. If you’re dealing with any sort of mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, or anorexia proper, then there’s an important balance you have to strike with the things you are or are not putting into your body. In that respect, yes, it’s about the food. Cutting out the things that hurt you and adding in the things that help you (both in terms of nutrition and exercise) is a good plan for building a mentally stable foundation for recovery. That is something I still believe in very strongly.
But, ultimately, it’s not about the food.
I can’t tell you how many phone calls and emails I’ve had from women in the last two weeks alone, stating:
If only I could get my food and fitness under control, I could figure out how to love my body. If only I could stop binge eating/restricting/emotionally eating/comparing myself then, and only then could I start this recovery process.
And I’ve operated from that place for the majority of the last several years, even during my own recovery. Even while writing this blog. Even while coming to terms with health at every size.
Because, deep down, I still held onto the hope that once I got my thyroid and my MTHFR and my stress and my emotions under control, I’d just get back to equilibrium. And equilibrium is a state of leanness, right? Even though leanness itself isn’t the goal, it’s kind of the goal, because it’s the physical expression of “doing health right”…right? And when you’re “doing health right” then all of your health problems go away, and fat is a health problem….right?
Even if you don’t have an eating disorder, even if you’re a “normal” eater or exerciser, I have a feeling that you, in some small part, believe this to be true.
So, just in case, you keep a Whole30 in your back pocket. You hesitate and think about clicking every time you see a headline about the latest quick fix or scientific paper on Tigernuts for fat loss. Or whatever. Even if you’re into body love or even fat acceptance. Just in case.
There’s a belief that’s been planted in the back of every single one of our heads, ED or no ED, that body love is tied to “mindfulness” (read: control) of your food and fitness. Even if you’re doing what you love with your fitness and your food, it’s because, ultimately, you want to end up at some end stage of “health,” which has a very particular look: lean.
I want to be very candid here: I still sometimes struggle with the idea that my body is not going to find an equilibrium that is acceptable to a society obsessed with thinness/leanness/strength. Not as much, granted. And it all came from the piece that really matters in eating disorder recovery:
Over the last several months, as I’ve donated away consecutively bigger dresses and T-shirts and jeans, I’ve had to do a serious emotional inventory: how is it that I’m feeling better even though I’m bigger?
How is it that I’ve stopped hearing the calorie count voice in my head? How is it that I’ve stopped negotiating my macros (“If I go out to lunch, I can have the sweet potato fries, but then I can’t have fruit later, so do I want to sacrifice my afternoon fruit for human contact and good conversation over fries?”)? How is it that…I’m still perfectly okay even though I’m not “perfectly healthy” or where I thought my body was supposed to be?
It all—everything—comes down to identity.
When I was 13, I was a nerdy kid. I had no fashion sense. I was just getting into manga and anime. I liked comedy a lot, and I liked musical theatre even more. I read fantasy novels. I was fascinated with things like magic and hypnotism. I was obsessed with Disney movies and Nicktoons. I was going to be a playwright and director, and I played with Barbies until I was 13 not because I wanted to look like them, but because I loved writing epic fantasy stories out loud with their help. I wanted to write music and be in a band like Josie and the Pussycats. I was a weird and picky eater, sure, but mostly, I didn’t think too much about it, except for that one time my mom gave me pork and told me it was chicken.
I was embarrassed about who I was. I was embarrassed by the things that made me happy, because I was bullied by both kids at school and by certain family members. I was too smart, too nerdy, too weird—and later I would somehow make the correlation that I was also too fat—to be accepted, but if I didn’t have those things…what would I focus on?
As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the ways I knew I had “arrived” was when a family member who had previously made fun of me for my weird tendency to read at the dinner table told me that I looked amazing (after a summer of fasting and overexercising). It was the first real compliment I had ever received from her. I knew I had “arrived” when girls who wouldn’t talk to me in middle school suddenly gave me the time of day in 9th grade gym class. I knew I had “arrived” when being fit meant that I not only had a team behind me and an achievement on my high school resume, but also people would comment on what a “good” person I was because I looked so “healthy.”
In case you hadn’t guessed: I stopped reading fantasy novels. I only made it through a few books of Ranma 1/2 before I realized that no one would talk to me if I read it. I put the Barbies away, and, while I still got a purple Fender Stratocaster, I stopped listening to Josie and the Pussycats. I did theatre, but I focused on the theatre other people thought was interesting, like weird, ethereal contemporary stuff, when really all I wanted to watch and read was fluff from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. I focused on things that “mattered:” getting into a good college, being a good role model, joining and leading as many clubs as possible, and, of course, staying healthy/thin.
My identity was already compromised at a time when I should have been discovering who I really was. I listened to Modest Mouse because I wanted to be like my thin, beautiful, popular friend who also listened to Modest Mouse, not because I really liked Modest Mouse (although it grew on me). I read contemporary theatre not because I love performance art and esoteric and poetic mumbo jumbo, but because I wanted my friends to know I liked it too (and it sort of? grew on me). I ran because my family ran marathons, and running was what healthy (thin) people did, not because I loved being a runner (although it grew on me).
I built my identity around a whole lot of “shoulds,” with expected outcomes of thinness and acceptance.
Let me repeat that: my identity was about being accepted by other people. NOT about things that I outright enjoyed.
And that is why I relapsed in college, and again why I relapsed in graduate school. Recovery from an eating disorder isn’t about the food. You can figure out the food and exercise portion pretty easily. But once you have it figured out…what’s left?
If you don’t have an identity to fall back on, the answer is: nothing.
AND HERE IS WHY RECOVERY IS A LIE:
You cannot recover an identity that you never had in the first place.
There’s nothing left but a big, empty void, and the only way to fill that void is to get full. It’s the emptiness we fill not with the Josie and the Pussycats or Harry Potter books from our childhood or the Modest Mouse and Anne Bogart and marathons we have thrust upon us in our acceptance-seeking stages, but with emotional eating and obsessive exercise. Because the only thing we know how to think about is food and fitness.
Of course you’re struggling. Of course you are.
Recover means “to get back.” Recover means to “find again.”
But after years of restricting, or overexercising, or purging, after quitting your job to become a personal trainer or a nutritionist, after subscribing to 50 clean eating blogs and spending your sundays bulk cooking chicken breast, after becoming “that girl” at the gym or doing nothing but running or crossfit or yoga every afternoon and weekend for years and years…after taking on the identity of someone who knows and cares about food and body image and “health”…what’s left?
You can’t recover Modest Mouse if you never really liked it in the first place.
So you turn to the person who will sell you the closest thing to what you know about your identiy: a meal plan that will help you make better decisions about food, a mantra about self love, a podcast about burning fat by eating more, an eBook on IIFYM or carb backloading. And you struggle.
Not because you’re disordered anymore, but because you’re just filling the hole with all you know.
For those of us who have lost our identities to the diet and fitness industry at an early age (and it’s happening younger and younger these days), there is no recovery. You can’t go back to childhood and start again at age 28.
So here’s my declaration: I’m not going to recover.
I’m going to discover instead.
Discover (v.) reclaimed:
- To go about the process of defining who you are really after accepting the identity of someone you are not.
- To make a life for yourself that is defined not by what you eat, what workouts you do, or what supplements you take, but about how many times a day you find a reason to laugh, smile, or just generally feel okay.
- To go out and make a real effort to figure out what makes you happy instead of waiting for happiness to fall at your feet or show up in the latest list-post on a click-bait blog.
- To accept that, sometimes, everyone won’t love everything about you, but as long as you aren’t hurting anyone, you’re probably okay liking the things you realize like.
Without realizing it I’ve spent the last year discovering…
…Unlike during my previous recovery, where I fixated on food and fitness and health as a focal point of my identity: not as a baker, because I realize now that I baked so that I could be around the foods I couldn’t/wouldn’t eat (and so that I could feed others in a way that I wasn’t feeding myself). Not as a personal trainer, because I realize that just I wanted to spend time in the gym because I couldn’t relate to anyone or anything outside of my very small, health-obsessed world. Not as a functional medicine doc or an NTP, because I realize that, as much as I love learning about it, I really only wanted to go back to school so that I could be surrounded by biohacking all of the time, which, for me at least, is not recovery.
Do you want to know how I am really recovering? The secret, which doesn’t involve acai berry, bulletproof coffee, yoga, or HiiT?
I discovered that I really like my company and that I’m enjoying learning about Human Resources Technology and enterprise content management.
I discovered that I love the Thrilling Adventure Hour and the Savage Lovecast.
I discovered the power of dancing a couple of times a week at a women-only studio (more on that soon…).
I discovered how important it is to only date sex-positive, body-positive, pro-feminist, pro-consent (etc.) people.
I discovered how much I really love my voice over classes, especially when I get to do character work.
I discovered how nice it is to spend the afternoon reading/recording audio books for the blind and dyslexic.
I discovered that some nights, all I want to do is read a stupid crime novel picked at random from the local library.
I discovered how much I like being busy with things that have nothing to do with food or body image at all.
Notice that my list doesn’t include supplements, meal timing, diet plans, cardio versus sprints, or even body love meditation or mindful eating.
Notice that my list does not include food at all.
And I want to add to that list. With things like more voice over, more dancing, more coffee dates and karaoke. Burlesque shows. Theatre. Cartoons. Books.
Not my yoga certification. Not an RD.
Recovery—DIScovery—truly starts with identifying who you are outside of the kitchen and the gym. It’s not an easy process. Sometimes you’ll have to face things about yourself that once embarrassed you, that you once hid. Or things that weren’t acceptable to the crowd you think you need acceptance from.
I don’t think that everyone in the fitness and nutrition industry is disordered, but I do think that there’s a problem with hiding from yourself behind your latest WOD or the newest peer reviewed paper on gut microbiota. If you can’t name a single thing you care about outside of the kitchen or the gym, and you’re feeling restricted, lost, and miserable, it’s time to take action.
It’s time to discover who you are and what you like.
Are you ready?
By the way, today’s podcast with Harley Eblen of the Heathatarians and The People Who Matter Show is all kinds of intense. One of the most intense podcasts we’ve had in a while, and intense in all kinds of amazing, fantastic, cathartic, beautiful ways. There are a couple of really raw, wonderful moments of discovery as well—and I really, really, really hope you give this one a listen.
So, what are you waiting for?