Like many who experience eating disorders, much of my problem comes down to a disconnect between my head and my body. 🚺 Body is full, head wants ice cream. Body feels nourished, head feels guilty. Body craves water, head seeks out sugar. My #bulimia lives at the point of this conflict. 🚺 I’m tiptoeing into #intuitiveeating, and the challenge for me, as always, is to get my head and body working together. Right now I’m really focused on listening to and honoring my body. 🚺 At the moment, that means eating a largely #plantbaseddiet. I was a strict vegetarian for many years, including my peak years of disordered eating. These days I love a ribeye as much as the next girl, and I would literally eat my own arm if it were dipped in nacho cheese sauce. But I’m working to respect my body’s wishes. 🚺 I’ve also given up coffee. Not in any hard-and-fast, “I don’t drink coffee anymore” kind of way, but simply not pouring it even when it’s readily available. My head wants the ritual, the taste and the caffeine, but it’s hard on my stomach and it messes with my appetite — so I’m respecting my body’s clear signals that it isn’t feeling coffee as a daily habit. 🚺 How does all this feel? Well, it varies from hour to hour. At the moment… content. The challenge is making it through the moments when my head starts to upset the balance. 🚺 #bulimiarecovery #fatbulimic
Once, early in my career, I was killing time on a business trip by browsing a bookstore. I was traveling with a colleague, and when she saw the armful of novels I’d picked up off a table featuring titles about anorexics and various other broken heroines, her interest was piqued.
“I should read some of those, too,” she said. We both worked with teenagers, we reasoned as I checked out. It would be helpful to find some path to understanding, even through a work of fiction, how the eating disordered mind worked.
Except that I wasn’t really reading out of professional interest. I was actively bulimic and hungry for eating disorder porn.
Stories To Feed An Eating Disorder
There are plenty of books out there about eating disorders. Some of them are well written, some of them not so much. One thing that’s true about all of them is that they are dangerous.
Let me back that up: They can be dangerous. I’m sure they’ve all been written by well-meaning authors who just want to explore the fragile psyche of the disordered eater and probably also present some kind of cautionary tale to scare the reader away from falling into the same behaviors him- or herself.
Here’s the problem, though: If you think a scary book about eating disorders is going to scare an anorexic straight, you have severely underestimated the ability of a truly disordered eater to find inspiration in the darkest and most twisted of places.
At the peak of my most intense phase of active bulimia, I devoured eating disorder porn like it was a box of Devil Dogs followed by a half gallon of ice cream chased with a bag of Doritos washed down with a liter of Diet Coke. Books, movies, Very Special TV episodes, websites, magazine features… if it came across my field of vision, I was all over it. And much like my food binges, I regurgitated these media binges — as dark and damaging motivation.
In fact, I read my first anorexia book — The Best Little Girl in the World — in the first place because it was so incredibly popular on the pro-ana message boards I frequented as my bulimia was taking root. (Seriously, Google it. Anorexics love this book. Just thinking about the title makes me thirsty for the grapefruit juice the protagonist drinks in one scene instead of ordering a hamburger.)
Eventually, as I tried and failed and tried and failed and tried to get my behavior under control, I recognized these stories for the trigger they were (are) and started avoiding them. Except when I didn’t. (I would have to use the phrase “and failed” a lot more times to convey just how relapse-y my life has been for the past 17 years.)
A Cookie-Cutter Narrative
One of the problems I have with eating disorder narratives in media is that they tend to follow a similar arc, with our heroine (almost always a heroine, or anti-heroine) experiencing some sort of near miss or rock bottom before landing upon a path to recovery. Often she’s scared straight by the loss of a friend or sister to an eating disorder, or by a friend or sister’s comparable tragedy. And they almost always end with a light at the end of the tunnel: Our heroine is going to be OK now that she’s figured out that food doesn’t have to be the enemy.
Even very good eating disorder books, like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, can be very bad for readers with eating disorders. (This New York Times piece from 2009 sums up the issue well, and the comments are worth reading, too, for more personal stories from disordered eaters who used books as how-to manuals.)
For someone like me, who saw bulimia as something I’d do temporarily until I hit my goal weight and then self-recover, it seemed simple enough to just stop short of rock bottom, and these books provided what seemed like a blueprint to do just that. I didn’t need to be deathly thin, just thin enough. I’d engage in my broken, brain-damaged approach to nutrition like it was just another crazy diet, and when I was happy with the way I looked, I’d find the light at the end of my own tunnel and everyone around me would be so happy for me, and because I was so much smarter than the girls in these books and movies, I’d keep it under control and stop before things got out of hand.
And in the meantime, I’d get inspiration and ideas from the books while appearing to simply be indulging my interest in youth development.
In fact, I almost didn’t start this blog, knowing the very real possibility that someone with an eating disorder would find it and use it as inspiration (or, more realistically, reverse motivation, since as I have made very clear, bulimia did not make me thin). And then, as I thought it through, it became a driving reason that I did start this blog. People with eating disorders need to hear my story, I decided, because there are so few stories of eating disorder failure that are told honestly and fully.
In real life, eating disorders don’t follow the neat arc in books like The Best Little Girl in the World, dainty heroines starting out losing a few pounds for ballet class and gradually spiraling into dangerous thinness only to be rescued in the nick of time by intervention and therapy. Real life eating disorders are all-consuming and messy. They may or may not result in weight loss. They do not necessarily lead to interventions with tearful family members who suddenly realize their complicity in your unhappiness, 13 Reasons Why-style, and who weep over their concern and regret as they cling to your sylphlike frame and beg you to eat.
Your eating disorder might not make your dad feel bad about that time he said you looked like you were gaining weight, but it will make you feel bad every single day.
In real life, you get to experience all the sickness, all the obsession, and still not feel good about yourself. In fact, you might wake up one day in your late 30s and realize you’ve spent more than half your life hating your body and it hasn’t made you thin or beautiful or happy — just tired.
Questions (But Not Answers)
I’m not going to sit here and say no one should ever write a novel about a character with an eating disorder. I don’t think these books have to be damaging, although it’s important for writers, publishers and others to realize that books about eating disorders can and will be read and taken to heart by readers who experience eating disorders, and they should weigh whether a book has the potential to do more harm than good.
So what’s the answer? Listen, if I had answers, I’d be on a beach in Bora Bora right now feeling good about how I looked in a swimsuit, not typing away at an anonymous blog about my life as an eating disorder failure. But I do have some questions, and that’s the first step on the path to answers.
For writers: Why does the story you want to tell matter? What purpose does the character’s eating disorder serve? When people with eating disorders turn to your book for inspiration — AND THEY WILL — will they find it, or will they come away with doubts about what they’re doing? What have you done to truly understand the disease you’re writing about?
For readers: Is picking up a book about eating disorders a healthy thing for you to do? Are you truly trying to understand the psyche of the disordered eater, or are you looking for diet inspiration? Should you really be reading this book?
The last week or so has been a little rough. 🎭 The last few days of my #JanuaryWhole30 did not go well. I’d been sick and eating very little, I was tired and having a hard time preparing food, my husband was out of town and I was home alone with two tiny kids, and I ended up spending close to a week struggling with constant nausea. 🎭 It’s taken me days to get my body feeling good again. I just felt well enough to exercise on Sunday. But of course, through all of this, in the back of my mind my ED was thinking “Hey, I didn’t eat for days! I bet I lost a ton of weight!” 🤦🏻♀️ 🎭 Surprise: I did NOT lose a ton of weight. In fact, a month of Whole 30 barely moved the needle on my scale. And by the end of the month, I was no longer feeling good about eating. I was feeling limited, restricted, and depressed. 🎭 I mentioned in my diet history post (link in bio) how disingenuous it is for Whole 30 to insist it’s not a “diet.” It is. And while there are people who can follow the diet and maintain good health, what I learned in January is that right now, I’m not one of them. 🎭 It’s still important for me to lose some weight. My current weight isn’t healthy, but neither is falling into my old patterns of drastic schemes, starvation and obsession. 🎭 Health, hunger signals, hydration — these are the things I need to focus on. Cutting out whole food groups isn’t the right solution for me. 🎭 One thing that DID work for me on Whole 30: Not getting on the scale. I get easily discouraged by slow progress. It might be time to take the batteries out of my scale.
My #JanuaryWhole30 ends soon, and I’m feeling a little nervous about being done with it. 🍪 (Can we talk about how there’s no muffin emoji? Such an oversight.) 🍪 I realize there’s nothing stopping me from continuing with the Whole 30 diet after the end of the month, and I see some appeal in that, but at the end of the day it’s just too restrictive for me to stick with all the time. Too many rules are not healthy for this #bulimic for too long. 🍪 More importantly, it’s time for me to learn some moderation. The Whole 30 provides a comfortable little out: “Oh, I can’t have that; my friend talked me into doing this Whole 30 with her.” It’s much easier for me to say a hard no than to try to work with a healthy amount of yes. 🍪 One thing I am leaning toward leaving out of my diet is grain, though. At least for a bit. I’m not missing it as much as I thought I would, and I know limiting starches will help me forge an easier path to a healthy weight. 🍪 It’s not a permanent solution, however. Carbs aren’t something I’m willing to go without completely. And that’s where my nerves kick in. 🍪 My big challenge, post-Whole 30, is to learn how to coexist with starches in a healthy way. I need to learn to have and savor the occasional cookie, croissant, slice of cake, muffin — without overeating, without considering one bite a lost cause and surrendering to mindless consumption of more than I want or need. 🍪 I’ve been feeling like the Whole 30 is hard. But now that I’m looking at the end of it, it feels like completing the Whole 30 and trying to find a healthy medium is the far greater challenge. 🍪 After January, I’ll be back in a world where there are no “good” or “bad” foods. There won’t be a hard and fast list of prohibited things. I’ll have to make those calls myself, listen to my body, and begin to make peace with an occasional relationship with the foods I both love and fear. 🍪 #healthyweightloss #eatingdisorderrecovery #carbsarenottheenemy
There is no feeling I fear more than fullness. 🍽 I’ve been sick for days, with absolutely no appetite. Tonight I felt hungry enough to eat a handful of pecans and a few bites of some leftovers. 🍽 Even though I’ve barely eaten for days, I listened to my fullness cues and stopped eating as soon as I knew I was no longer feeling hungry. What I ate wouldn’t even constitute a full meal. So why do I feel nervous about how full I am now? 🍽 Hunger and fullness are hard concepts for me as a #recoveringbulimic and #overeater. I don’t usually wait until I’m hungry to eat; I don’t usually stop eating when I’m full. That was true even before I started bingeing and purging. My #eatingdisorder started with restricting calories. Keeping myself deliberately hungry was the only way I knew I was making any kind of progress. (That’s #edlogic for you.) 🍽 In my mind, hunger became associated with purity. Fullness became irrevocably associated with guilt… and the need to make it go away. Hence purging. 🍽 If I could go back in time 17 years and have the chance to tell myself one thing, I’d tell her this: Get help now. Find help getting healthy the right way. Because if you continue down this road, you’re going to do damage to yourself that will be with you half a lifetime from now. You will go through #edrecovery (and pay plenty for it), you will still not be thin, and anytime you feel as though you have eaten enough food, the feeling of satisfaction will immediately and enduringly be joined by a feeling of having done something terribly wrong.
I’ve been laid flat with a bad cold for a few days, subsisting on seltzer and vitamin C. 🍋 It’s funny that illness is the only time I truly and completely listen to my body. It’s the only time I clearly hear my hunger signals. 🍋 Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. It seems simple to most people, but for me, it’s a daily battle. 🍋 I woke up this morning relieved to be feeling a bit better but also nervous. With my body feeling better, my brain will be kicking back into action. Now I’m going to have to start over the hard work of trying to listen to my body over the noise of my mind. 🍋 What techniques work for you? How do you get your head to listen to your body? 🍋 #overeater #bulimiarecovery #mindfuleating #healthyweightloss
I came very close to a bulimic binge last night. 💜 I know there are many of you who are in the very early stages of #edrecovery, and I’m not sharing this to discourage you. I do want you to know, though, that this is something that will probably be a part of your life for a very long time. 💜 I was discharged from therapy more than seven years ago. For the most part, my bingeing and purging has been under control since then. But the underlying issues are still with me and must be confronted every single day. 💜 Some days are easy. Some days are hard. Some days are easy until BOOM! they’re hard, which was what happened last night. Most people around me have no idea the amount of time, energy and emotion I put into thinking about food and eating. 💜 For me, #healthyweightloss isn’t as simple as cutting back on carbs or watching portion sizes. It’s far more complex than that, and it will likely never be straightforward for me. 💜 If you’re just starting recovery from bulimia, know that it will be an uphill path. It will not be easy. There will be setbacks. But I am glad I went to therapy. I might be thinner now if I hadn’t. But I might not have my beautiful children. I might not have a fulfilling career and a happy marriage. I might not be here at all. 💜 Recovery is hard. Recovery is forever. And recovery is worth it. 💜 #recoveryquotes #bulimiawarrior #bulimiafighter