Little known fact: this week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. To many, that carries about as much weight (no pun intended) as National Snack Food Month, World Nutella Day, and National Bake Cookies Day (no disrespect to snacks, Nutella, and cookies; you’re all worthy of celebration in your own right– I’m just not sure you deserve a dedicated national holiday).
But to me, it’s an opportunity to reflect and to feel a part of a world-wide community of fighters and survivors.
In lieu of a recipe post this week, I wanted to take some time to talk about my relationship with food– not because I think my story is unique or deserves to be heard, but because if there’s even just one reader out there right now who’s struggling or has struggled with an eating disorder… I want her (or him!) to know that she’s not alone.
Those of you who know me–even as just an acquaintance– know that my professional life revolves around food: I’m a freelance food/drink writer for three major online publications, an aspiring food photographer, and a food blogger. And you know what? I LOVE what I do for a living. The pay may not be great (okay, let’s be honest– the biggest benefits come in the form of comestibles), the deadlines may never stop rolling, and sorting out multitudes of 1099s and W2s may be a nightmare come tax season, but I consider myself incredibly lucky to be doing something I’m so passionate about. And furthermore, I’m lucky to have family and friends who believe in the dream I’m chasing, and who’ve supported me all along the way (special thanks to all my willing taste-testers and late-night proofreaders).
Unfortunately, though, my passion for food wasn’t always a “passion;” through my late teens and early 20s, it was a merciless obsession.
During my senior year of high school, what began as an attempt to “eat healthy and exercise” quickly spiraled out of control. Before I knew it, I was living off packets of instant oatmeal and vegetables doused in mustard. And nothing else. Casual workouts morphed into hours-long death-rides on the Elliptical. I obsessed about what time I ate and how much I ate, and the feeling of satiety revolted me. Acute hunger pangs woke me up around 5am every morning and wouldn’t dissipate until I fed myself just enough to fall back asleep. I was literally starving myself to death, and I didn’t know how to stop. I never meant for it to be this way.
By graduation, I was down to 93 pounds, and even after years of therapy, recovery, and hindsight, I still can’t tell you how I got to that point. People still ask me why I didn’t just eat, and the answer is always the same: “I couldn’t.”
What often is so misunderstood about eating disorders is that the afflicted person isn’t in control. Yes, every food/exercise decision may be calculated, and at its core, the disorder may have stemmed from some desire to be in control, but once a person is in the throes of anorexia, bulimia, or any other not-otherwise-specified eating disorder, they surrender to the illness. They become a shell of themselves, programmed to function according to the rules they’ve defined for themselves, fighting for some arbitrary number on the scale, only to get there and feel just as empty as they were at the beginning, if not more so.
Within weeks of graduating and after many, many difficult conversations with my family, I agreed to admit myself into a partial-hospitalization treatment program. Intellectually, I knew that I needed help, that no amount of weight-loss would ever make me feel beautiful, and that I was slowly destroying the one and only body God gave me. But the sick part of me was terrified, obstinate, and weak.
At 18, I was required to enter into adult therapy; I was the youngest in my group by almost two decades, and the only person not battling two co-occurring disorders. Comorbidity is very common among eating disordered people, but as a not-yet-college-freshman, I struggled to identify with the clinically depressed man who compulsively overate or the bipolar mother of three who binged and purged. I empathized with their situations as best I could, but at the end of the day, I never found the comfort and support I’d hope for there. But I did get better.
As the summer waned and the program ended, I had restored my weight to a healthier range. I wasn’t yet where I needed to be for the long-term, but I was at least out of the danger-zone and healthy enough for my family to feel comfortable about letting me go off to college.
I played the cyclical game of recovery and relapse, recovery and relapse, recovery and relapse through most of my college career. Some days recovery was easy, others, impossibly tough. And while I consider myself 90% recovered today, I can’t help but cling to that last 10% of my eating disorder; I probably always will.
I wish I could recount exactly how recovery finally stuck for me, but the truth is, I have no idea. It wasn’t overnight and it wasn’t all at once, and even now, toxic guilt creeps into my mind from time to time. It took years for me to find confidence in who I am (and I’m still working on it!), to trust that letting myself enjoy an ice cream cone wasn’t synonymous with powerlessness, and to recognize the positive power of food. Eventually, I began to associate food with togetherness, with creativity, with education, and most importantly, with pleasure at the most basic and fundamental level.
I’ve forged a healthy, functional relationship with food. I’ve developed a palate for a variety of foods, which, if you’d told me a decade ago I’d be eating, I’d have never believed you. Foie gras and duck heart and deep-fried chicken skin and obnoxiously decadent desserts– I eat it all, and I enjoy the HELL out of it. My job lends me the privilege of dining at some of my city’s finest restaurants and meeting the industry’s most talented and inspiring chefs, and through those experiences, I’ve cultivated an appreciation, curiosity, and love for food that grows as I grow, both personally and professionally.
For now, the only food-focused rule I live by is, “everything in moderation.” Friday night burger craving? Load me up with pickles, lettuce, mayo, and grilled onions, please. Obligatory impulse aisle Kit-Kat bar? Don’t mind if I do. The inexplicable happiness that goes along with being free to enjoy food for exactly what it is–no rules, no expectations, no fears— is what keeps me moving forward.
*If you or a loved one may be suffering from an eating disorder, or you are interested in making a donation to or getting involved in eating disorder awareness initiatives, please visit the National Eating Disorders Association for help and more information.