This is the first Thanksgiving in four years I'm celebrating without an eating disorder. Since my junior year of high school, each year around this time brought me such stress and anxiety. My two favorite holidays - Thanksgiving and Christmas - fell prey to the hands of my ED and soon became my two least favorite days of the entire year. How in the world can that happen? If you've ever gone through an ED, you know how.
I'm writing this for readers who stand in both positions - the loving family member/friend, and the struggling person him/herself. I don't have all the answers to eliminate the ED today or tomorrow or even by Christmas, though I wish I did. I do, however, know the everyday challenges from the perspective of one who's suffered from an ED, and I've witnessed others going through one. In other words, I've stood in both positions, and I'm here to offer advice to both parties to help ease the stress and difficulties this disorder brings during the holiday season.
AN ED: WHAT'S IT LIKE?
Well, it's like you're under the control of something you can't identify or see. You can hear it, though, and all it does is tell you that you're not good enough, that you're overweight, that you're ugly, and that you absolutely need to change (emphasis on YOU). An ED whispers those thoughts in your ear every single day - when you see yourself in the mirror first thing in the morning, when you sit down for breakfast (if you even have the appetite), when you zip up your once favorite pair of jeans, all the way until you're crawling back into bed at night. It holds a microphone - no, a megaphone - and gives not a care as to how loud its shouting these destructive insults and demands.
I guess there's one tiny benefit - it does some math for you! But, of course, it uses that skill against you by constantly counting your calories and displaying that number on a huge illuminated billboard (whose lights never burn out) in the back of your mind. Nevermind - it's no benefit at all.
It's sad. It's scary. It's painful. It's confusing and unknown. It's fueled by self-hate and comparison. It's void of love, freedom, joy, and peace. It blames YOU and tells you that YOU caused all of this because, at some point in your life, you ate too much and didn't workout enough.
We've never hosted Thanksgiving at our house, but our family friend invited us over every year for the feast, dessert, and good company. Nerves churned my stomach in the morning, as I spent an hour or two in the gym, trying to burn as many calories as I could even though I know I wouldn't be eating anything worthy of such exercise (i.e. pie, stuffing, casserole, etc.), and then paralyzed me later in the day as I walked into the kitchen of the hostess's house. I swallowed the lump in my throat as best I could, despite the discomfort, and pretended this monster inside me didn't exist. I helped prep dishes, set the table, and made conversation with other guests as an attempt to pull myself as far from the table as possible. If I could've skipped the entire meal, I probably would have.
Did you hear that? Skipped. Thanksgiving. No one makes that choice to allow this monster such control. I still don't know how it finds its way in, but it does and, for lack of better words, it. sucks.
An array of fine cheeses, meats, pickled veggies, bread and other appetizers left no room on the table for anything I'd even consider touching. My dinner plate held nothing but a few sweet potatoes (mashed with butter was the only option), lean turkey breast, and greens (I cringed at the sight of dressing). Pie or any other dessert? Ha. Funny.
Swallowing the lump in my throat meant also trying to convince myself that no one knew, that no one suspected anything or worried at all, but I'm blessed with way too many loved ones for that ever to be true. I couldn't ignore my parent's tired, emotionless eyes as they glanced at my plate. I couldn't drown out their questions as to why I skipped dessert. And worst of all, I couldn't blame them because I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't rip my body open and yank out the monster, no matter how badly I wished I could.
HERE'S THE THING PEOPLE MIGHT NOT REALIZE:
You look at me, several sizes smaller than I once was, probably looking worn out, a tad stressed, and all the while pretending none of this is happening. You see that something is wrong. You don't see ME - the Haley you've known for however many years - and you're concerned. I know, and I understand. What you and many others might not understand is that I don't see myself either. I look different to you, and I look, sound, think, act, and feel like a stranger to myself.
I don't even know who I am. I don't know what monster has crept inside me and woven itself into my every thought. I don't feel like me, I don't look like me, and I h a t e it.
On the worst of days - yes, the holidays were some of them - when the ED created a record-breaking number of destructive thoughts and performed stage-worthy acts of family tension, stress, and arguments, I felt like I had to crawl into bed with it. Imagine battling your most hated enemy all day. My ED's favorite weapons severed ties between my parents and me, lied to those I hold close to my heart, and - for a short time - went so far as to convince me that everything I believed about the love of the Lord was false.
He isolated me so that the only thing I could see, hear, feel, trust was him inside my head. He couldn't have cared less about backing away for the holidays to allow me time with my family. No, that could lead to healing, and he just wouldn't have that.
YOU'RE IN ONE OF TWO POSITIONS if you're reading this: 1) you know these experiences and you deal with these feelings yourself, or 2) you recognize these characteristics when you see someone you know/love. Here's what you can do, whether you fit with the first or the second.
1) First, I'm so sorry for what you're going through. I wish I had a snap-your-fingers-and-poof-its-gone answer, but I don't. I do, however, know the solution - yes, there IS a solution :) there is peace, there is self-love and forgiveness, there is restored relationships with food. There is a Man who sees you as the most beautiful, majestic, perfect, worthy YOU that you could ever imagine. He is your Father, and He loves you beyond belief. He's created you and a prosperous plan for your life. He hates the monster and will rip him out, should you surrender to Him. I surrendered when I finally understood that no one and nothing else could ever truly heal or satisfy me. One of the characteristics of an ED - one that's felt more than seen, I think - is this longing for something. For me, I longed for control and for this certain perfection, though if you asked me to draw a picture of what it looked like, I wouldn't have been able to. God holds no picture of perfection we must achieve in order to receive His love. Rather, He holds a picture of perfection that He graciously changes us into when we receive, accept, embrace His love. He doesn't have standards. He has peace. He doesn't have size charts. He has forgiveness.
2) Most important, know that this person is not making a conscious decision to allow this monstrous ED such a prominent place in his/her life. Know that this person is not striving for attention or pity, but rather for some sense of control (in the moment) and confidence (in the long run). Know that the environment around which food is served, holidays especially, will change. ED's transform beloved, savored, cherished food into an enemy feared, despised, and avoided at all costs. Know that it's not only this environment around the holiday table - it's everywhere. An ED creeps into family relationships, friendships, sports, academics, and everywhere between and beyond. To state it rather simply, this person is suffering. This person is drowning, pulled beneath the crashing waves by a monster who sees such destruction as success. Know that most smiles you see on this person, when in a food-centered environment - might not be real. If they are, however, you've clicked. You've achieved something extremely special and worthy of a mental photograph. This person's heart is smiling, shining bright for once :) because of you.
YOUR QUESTIONS, ANSWERED
"Will I ever recover?" - a question I've dealt with for the past several months. I've answered both "no" and "yes", and I guess, now I think it depends on your definition of "recovery". I believe I am recovered, as of May 22, 2016 - the day I whole-heartedly dedicated my life to the Lord. It was my admission of my weakness. It was my official surrender. It was God's acceptance and embrace. Since then, I've had a few struggles with food, and during those I've wondered if I had truly recovered. The Lord comforted me in reminding me that recovery does not mean perfection. Recovery means I no longer rely on food for satisfaction beyond my stomach's satiation. I might still eat a bit too much here and there. That's okay. I probably will - no, I definitely will - still focus as much as possible on healthy, whole, plant-based foods. That's also okay. I will NOT, however, allow fear of foods outside those categories to bring me to a state of nervous paralysis, or worse, starvation.
"How can I stay balanced without obsessing?" Remember where your purpose is. My purpose is in God. My beauty is in the fact that I am His daughter, that He's seen me worthy enough of saving. My heart, my passion, my life is dedicated to sharing that story. Okay, less serious ones? Well, I remind myself that this moment - right here, wherever you are - is temporary. That donut, that cheese quesadilla, that piece of bread will not last forever. And you can view that two ways: 1) go ahead! eat it. you stick to your routine 95% of the time, you don't keep a bag of them in your pantry, and this moment out with friends or family or whoever might not be here tomorrow or next week. taste the treat :) OR 2) it's not life or death if you do or don't eat it. if you truly don't want it - if you're full, if you're tired, if you're thirsty, etc. - no one is forcing it down your throat. your loved ones will still love you. your friends (your TRUE friends) will still laugh with you and include you. This one treat will not up your jean size, or cancel out those squats, or totally demolish your routine. It's. One. Treat. Eat it if you want, or be confident in your choice not to.
"Why am I not reaching my fitness goals? How can I reach my fitness goals while still eating enough/healthy/vegan/etc.?" I planned out a certain fitness goal a few years ago (I was a bit overweight at that time, so it was okay), but I chased after it - no, sprinted without any breaks - and I eventually did reach it. For two years, I kept myself at that size, but it was hard work. I rarely ever went out with friends, I stuck to my strict workout schedule, I NEVER ate anything outside my comfort zone (my first donut felt like the biggest decision in years), and I didn't listen to my body. When I fell in love with veganism, God showed me just how much I'd been depriving my body. My ED did everything in its power to prevent me from gaining weight, from "loosening up", and from trying anything different (workouts or food or lifestyle/routine). But after that night I surrendered everything up to God, I apologized to my body over and over and over. I hugged myself, I rubbed my legs, I relaxed my stomach, I stilled my arms. I finally loved myself because I knew I was fully, completely made whole in my Father who couldn't see me as more perfect than I already am. My weight went up, and I struggled to swallow that, but I concluded that my fitness goal wasn't what God had planned for me. I spent years fighting my body - fighting God - and I lost. I lay on the battleground tired, hungry, nutrient-deficient, no longer able to run, broken-hearted. But God was never my opponent. After all, what kind of opponent would pick me up off the ground in such a state, cradle me in His arms, heal my wounds, feed me, men my broken heart and promise to STILL. LOVE. ME.
My fitness goals were a size 2, a 6-pack set of abs, and a few marathons down the road, among others. I'm not sure exactly what God's plans are, but I know they've thus far involved achievement of a healthy weight, increased muscle mass, elimination of exercise addiction, with more to come. Ask God to reveal His plans to you.
"How do I not eat too much, but not too little?" Okay, anyone else have this answer? *crickets*. Yeah, nobody knows guys! I still struggle with this. Sometimes I lie in bed at 10:30 PM, feel a little growl in my tummy, and have to remind myself that I won't gain five pounds if I eat a piece of whole-grain toast right now to satisfy this hunger. Other times, I walk (or waddle) away from the table absolutely stuffed! I have to remind myself here that I still won't gain that five pounds because I never stuff myself like this. Thanksgiving just passed (and hopefully fear of the holiday along with it) and I couldn't have eaten one more bite. We cleaned our dinner plates and, an hour later, pulled out dessert. Did I have a scoop (or two or three) of that vegan gelato? You better believe I did! I allowed myself to indulge, to pull out the stretchy pants, to overeat. It's a holiday! I didn't do it because everyone else did, but rather because I truly wanted some of each dish/dessert. Holidays aside, I sometimes still accidentally overeat, but I look at it as a learning experience. I know that amount was too much for me, so next time I'll eat less. Beating myself up will only make me feel worse, and starving myself the next day will trash my metabolism. Just remember - tomorrow is a brand new start.
"Is it okay to workout everyday?" Depends on your definition of "workout". I'm typically in the gym 5/7 days a week. Now, my definition of "workout" changes day to day. Those five days vary - HIIT (high-intensity interval training), weight training, LISS (low-intensity, stead-state cardio), swimming, and yoga. Those remaining two days usually consist of long, exhausting shifts at work (at a donut shop? oh yeah.) or, if God's feeling extra miraculous, a relaxing walk or bike ride. I've been working out long enough to discover my limits, and I do NOT push myself past those. I do NOT sign up for a HIIT or spin class if my knees ache or if my hamstrings are feeling too tight, etc. Exercise is one of my absolute favorite things to do, but I've struggled with addiction, as I know many of you have/do. That's why God took running away, and replaced it with more dependence on HIM for my fulfillment. A few years ago, I feared skipping a workout on any day, but I've learned that skipping one (sometimes two or three) is what my body needs! Our bodies crave rest, which is actually when muscle-building happens, but that's a topic for another time. It is okay to workout everyday, if your body feels truly energized and like it wants to do so. Don't force anything.
I'll finish the post off here, though I could go on for days. If you still have unanswered questions, please do not hesitate to leave them in a comment below or send them over in an email.
My prayer for this post is that God's light shines brightest. While ED's are evil, destructive, unfortunately possibly fatal, recovery IS attainable. Someone asked me, "Are you fully recovered?" I wanted to respond with a confident "yes", but I had to stop and think...
"I've restored my relationship with food," I eventually concluded. Full recovery just doesn't sound realistic, but rather one of those terms for which one solid definition does not exist. And even if it is/does, I don't know if I want to reach that state. I fear I'd be too confident in such an achievement and step out onto a lily pad, relying less on God for strength, direction, peace, hope, etc. I've restored my relationship with food, but I still face struggles, and those I lay at God's feet, promising to love myself and Him as much as I can.
Don't let that freak you out - I'm happier now in my life than I ever have been. Just because I don't say "I'm fully recovered" by no means implies that I wrestle with that ED monster like I used to. God so faithfully crushed that demon for me :)