The following is a guest column by one of Joanne’s patients, Ashley, a 28-year-old female. We sincerely thank her for sharing her story.
Processed foods. Whole foods. Organic. GMOs. Good Foods. Bad foods.
When did all of these labels become so powerful? When did we stop listening to what our bodies wanted to eat, rather than what the media deemed appropriate? If you are a person living in this country, my guess is that your food intuition got drowned out somewhere in your childhood/adolescent years. For many, once we gained the wherewithal to understand the outside world and the messages being thrown at us via TV, radio, internet, we were no longer allowed to listen to our bodies and were told the “right” and “wrong” ways to eat. Or maybe you are one of the rare people that maintains a healthy, nonjudgmental relationship with food. If so, please don’t change your ways; you are unique and courageous.
Let me start by saying that I have been in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder for about three years. At the height of my eating disorder, I felt as though I could not escape the judgmental voices in my head that were only amplified by the outside messages I was receiving. I have never been considered an overweight child or adult, but at a young age, I became hyperaware of my food habits and developed an overwhelming fear of being fat. Growing up in an affluent town, where the pressure to succeed in every way, shape, and form became the standard, maintaining a “thin” ideal was the only way I felt I could succeed, as I did not believe I was successful enough in my studies at school. I was very studious and maintained As and Bs, but this was not comparable to the others around me in high-level AP courses with perfect scores. With this frame of mind, I turned to food restriction in the hope that if I couldn’t be the smartest, I would strive for the “perfect” body instead – whatever that even means.
I later learned that food would become a perceived source of control for when anxiety took hold in my life. Generalized anxiety, with a bit of obsessive compulsive behavior, is a genetic component of my brain chemistry that I inherited; it is a feature I share with others in my family. This seems to be a common theme amongst those with eating disorders, and thus I am not unique in this. My life became consumed with thoughts of food, body image, and the fear of becoming fat. I never thought I was dieting, just “eating healthy.” Striving to increase fruit and vegetable intake, and getting physical activity, in and of itself is a great thing. However, it is commonly a gateway mindset to disordered eating. What most people don’t understand is that an eating disorder is not something that is chosen or easily reversed. A lot of people have said to me “just eat,” or “you have nothing to worry about; you’ve never been overweight.” Trust me, I would not choose a life full of counting calories and innate voices telling me that if I maintain my thinness, I am a better, more beautiful person. That is an insurmountable amount of pressure to be put under, so no, I did not choose to think and act this way. Of course, an eating disorder, while potentially deadly in its own right, is not necessarily a terminal disease, and for that I am very grateful, but that does not mean my story is any less important or challenging. It is a taboo social/mental health issue that we don’t often discuss (until most recently), but I would like to put an end to that. Many of us suffer in silence with voices telling us that we are not thin enough, or that if we put on weight, we will not be loved. I myself did not have the discussion with many of my closest friends until a year or more into recovery.
I can tell you that although I have come a remarkably long way in my journey to recovery, these voices never go away; they only get quieter. I have come to terms with the fact that this may be my own destiny, but that doesn’t necessarily mean food has to run my life in a negative fashion. It has been embedded into our brains as a society that there is a certain way to eat, and not to eat. For some reason, food has gained a moral power, and we are judged on character by what and how much we eat on any given day. For those of us who have struggled with any form of eating disorder, it feels nearly impossible to ignore the flood of messages we receive on an hourly basis regarding food choices. For some, it may be easier to block these harmful messages out, and for that, I am envious.
By nature, I am an easy target for the influence of what I refer to as “Ed” (as in Eating Disorder), the alter ego voice that reinforces negative and irrational food thoughts and behaviors. I was an insecure child growing up in a high-pressure minicosm within a larger society that places increasing value on the “thin ideal.” Trying to navigate the steps to recovery has felt impossible at times in the modern-day era, where food and body size remains a constant topic of conversation. This hyperawareness of food is a fairly novel phenomenon. The seemingly harmless recipe blogs found on Pinterest, fitness blogs, and health research articles have grown in numbers, highlighting the fact that food obsession has become the norm. There have been periods in recovery where I had to deactivate my Facebook account and/or unfollow certain websites in order to regain my sanity and focus on what works for MY body and holistic self. The number of conflicting (and often untrue) facts and opinions on the “best,” “healthiest,” “clean” diets, available at our fingertips is more harmful to achieving a “normal” food mentality than we realize. Even something as seemingly innocent as family, coworkers, and friends asking what I was having for lunch or dinner, or what was in the lunch I brought to work. The analysis and chatter regarding food trends and health is inescapable, and when I took a step back and became aware of it, I recognized my OWN disordered comments with others. I became more sensitive to asking others about their food habits, or how I complimented them, such as the common, well-meaning “Wow, have you lost weight? You look great!” The number of disordered messages that this single statement holds is often overlooked, as weight loss is praised and often equated with beauty.
A very tricky component of my recovery process is that I enjoy cooking (and have to say I am quite decent at it). I often justified cooking my own meals because it was cheaper and “healthier.” Now while that is certainly true, I now realize that measuring and calorie counting every morsel of every meal provided me with an immense feeling of control. I continued with these obsessive thoughts and behaviors for over 3 years, and only about a month ago did I literally throw out any form of measuring cup or spoon. Over the past year, I began forcing myself to eat out once a week or more, where I couldn’t count calories or micromanage the ingredients in whatever I ordered. What I have learned in regards to this is that control feels safe, but rebellion is uncomfortable, and progress often does not occur without discomfort.
In my recovery process, the practice of “intuitive eating” has truly given me hope. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this style of eating, it is basically a practice of getting in touch with your body’s needs, wants, cravings, and satiety. Instead of “how many calories are in this sandwich?” or “how many calories have I eaten today?” the focus shifts to “what is my body in the mood for, and how can I create that? What type and quantity of food is going to make me feel nourished and energetic?” I have to say that honoring my hunger intuitively has been one of the most difficult challenges throughout the recovery process, but without a doubt, the most rewarding and satisfying. Eating without internal judgment? I have never known what that feels like or what it truly means. I may never fully recover from my eating disorder and have come to terms with that idea. However, I continue to learn about my body and coping skills in ways that I never thought possible. I will continue to have great days and very anxious days, but overall, I can say with confidence that life is truly brighter when food freedom feels just within my grasp.