Letting the eating disorder go.

(November 15, 2017)


Recovering from an eating disorder is hard work. Recovery is a daily slog, tiring as hell, and the desire to quit the second you start is ever-present.

Complaining reminds me that I’m blessed: I’m still here. Too many others I’ve known and cared for haven’t been as lucky. Unfortunately, it also sets off repeating rounds of self-criticism. According to my eating disorder, I remain a revolting failure. I’m even doing recovery wrong.

I’d probably be better at it if I was thin.

Sometimes, I want to give up on walking away from my eating disorder. Recovery is hard. Sometimes, I want to quit and return to the ease of the familiar instead of doing the work that leads to getting better.

I want to quit the quit.

I‘m a subconscious self-saboteur as well as a whiny active one: I often engage in behaviours I recognize as being harmful and eating disorder-based only in the aftermath. Like buying trigger foods while telling myself that this time, things will be different. Like letting myself get so hungry that bingeing is an inevitability. Like spending too much time looking at celebrity magazines and comparing photoshopped, professionally-maintained bodies to mine. None of these behaviours lead to good outcomes. I’m hoping that as I get more recovery hours in, I’ll learn to recognize poor choices before I make them. For now, they remind me, should I start to forget, that my eating disorder is trying to kill me.

I like to talk about my eating disorder as an entity distinct from myself. I know it’s not: I don’t struggle with multiple personalities (dissociative identity disorder). Treating my eating disorder as something separate makes it easier to explain the thoughts that fill up my brain.

Me, but also not me.

The plan is simple and straightforward, though that doesn’t mean easy. Recovery means I’m going to stop dieting. It means I’m not going to throw up anymore. The stricture, “don’t vomit” is surprisingly hard to adhere to. People from outside the ED world don’t understand that, and I’m happy for them. Ignorance is bliss.

The point is, I’m done with my bulimia, or at least, that’s what it feels like. I want to break up. I don’t want to purge anymore. I’m tired. I’m sick of the physical effort, the grossness of purging-proper, the mental anguish. I need my life to be different. I don’t want to be full of self-hatred. It’s depressing and leads to even worse choices.

There are physical consequences to eating disorders to consider as well: the bulimia damage is always on my mind. I can’t afford to lose any more teeth. Eating was hard enough with the full set. * I don’t need a justification for restriction.

The dental damage from my eating disorder should probably be considered extreme. The root canals and extractions that have become routine are no less traumatizing for their frequency. It’s hard to let go of guilt and self-condemnation when the long-term physical consequences of my eating disorder continually make themselves known.

Plus, paying for the repairs is a bitch.

Trying to let go of the eating disorder means trying to let go of the guilt. I remind myself that, other considerations aside, my eating disorder served me well in one respect: I survived. It was a damaging, defective, and harmful coping method that worked. Is that ironic or a fortunate coincidence? **

Part one of the plan is no purging: part two is getting rid of the binge (update 2021: I’m at part two). The challenge is my anxiety, which sometimes feels impossible to bear. I want to drown the mental noise and make it all go away. Historically, I’ve relied on my bulimia to get that done. Obviously, new coping skills are required.

Meditation helps. So does reconfiguring my relationship with food. I’ve got issues, and I’m not the only one. The only solution is to deal with the source of my emotional distress. This is not a “one, two and we’re done” project. Years in requires further years to make changes that stick. An ugly truth that avoiding doesn’t change. Healing takes time.

I started trying to change the way I think about food with my last inpatient stay. The way I’ve historically categorized food hasn’t been reflective of health concerns like trans-fats or sodium, nor was it related to taste preferences or food type. My evaluations were fat and calorie based. Low-calorie and low-fat are good, “bad” is everything else. Ranking food according to calories per serving needs to stop. The moderation I’m trying on for size is a better choice: I’m trying to shift away from the extremes my eating disorder brought to my relationship with food. And eating by the numbers let me make atrocious choices: when you only give yourself two hundred calories for breakfast, the form shouldn’t be gummi worms.

Who knew that sensible eating strictures from grandmas-past would prove to be right?

My plan calls for three reasonable meals a day with a couple of snacks. Snacks are hard. The little voice that’s trying to kill me pops up quickly when I contemplate non-mealtime consumption. She offers up friendly reminders to keep me on track. For instance, : you don’t need food just because you’re hungry: have you met your thighs? She’s helpful that way, providing regular nudges so I remember what I’m trying to forget: hungry is good, satiety leads to fat, and less is always better.

Stay small. Stay quiet. Get thin.

My eating disorder voice is persistent. I’ve stopped trying to ignore her: challenging the points of view she presents is part of getting better. Recovery means new trains of thought. Letting tiny untruths and small demands pass is a slippery slope. I know: I’ve been back down the rabbit hole before.

I’m nowhere close to fixed but I’m still on the path, itself a minor miracle. I restrict, but it’s minor, nowhere close to what it’s looked like in the past. Besides, this time we’re about one step at a time. Some people push an “all in, all-or-nothing” philosophy but that’s never been my nature. I enter the water one incremental inch at a time. Slow and steady is what suits me best.

You don’t need to do it “right.” You need to do it.

I still have a few food quirks. I still drink too much diet pop, and I still get stressed when I think about letting that habit go. Eating disorder therapist (among others) are emphatic about the evils of diet soda, but consuming it is still part of my comfort zone.

I’ve never been a fan of the “one true way.” ***

I’m also still obsessive about the chocolate I eat with my morning coffee. If I miss, I feel out of sorts and edgy. Give me my wafer-thin mint.

I still only eat the outside layer of ice cream bars.

I still only eat half of the hamburger bun and the crust of sourdough bread.

Liquid calories remain a challenge though I’m making progress. It turns out that I like soup. I’d forgotten: it’s been a long time since I had some. Liquid calories were one of the first groups of food I eliminated: reintroduction is proving difficult. Excluding alcohol (I could drink as much booze as I wanted as long as I cancelled the caloric equivalent from my food consumption), I’ve avoided drinking calories for nearly three decades. That’s an old habit to break.

The fear of consuming liquid calories is a strange phobia. It’s hard to explain it in a way that people understand, so mostly, I don’t. It’s “I don’t like juice,” “I’m a little lactose intolerant,” and “I don’t eat meat-based soups” instead. Just a few more falsehoods for the file:

Lies I’ve told in support of the eating disorder that’s trying to kill me, volume one.

The fact that my disordered eating was caused by my eating disorder doesn’t stop the latter from criticizing me about my eating habits. Eating disorders aren’t concerned with being fair or logical. They want to win, and in pursuit of that, there’s almost nothing – my appearance, my actions, my choices –  they won’t attack.

We’ve been together for a long time:, but my eating disorder is still a lousy partner. I can’t think of a single time when she’s made things better. Even moments of happiness in front of a mirror celebrating pounds lost are ruined because she attacks. I should’ve lost more, she says, and done it sooner. I’m not going to miss her when she’s gone.

It’s easy to believe my eating disorder is murderous. She says mean things and suggests unhelpful, potentially harmful courses of action. Recovery seems like a better friend. She’s not trying to get me dead, so that makes her better right out of the gate.

Memories of what life is like when I’m actively bingeing and purging also keep me on recovery road. Stomach cramps, bleeding fingers, and hours crouched over vomit-stained porcelain do not a good life make. I think life will look better when I’m free.

*Update 2021: I’ve had implants and crowns done. There’s a significant improvement in both functionality and appearance. While I’m happy, my own teeth would’ve been better and cheaper. Bulimia remains a horrible life choice.

** Alanis Morissette’s song, “Isn’t it ironic?” is about things that aren’t ironic.

***Update 2021: I still drink too much diet soda. I choose cans more often now, so my conscience feels a smidge better. “No” to letting go of an eating disorder behaviour, “yes” to me helping save the planet (while I ignore the contradiction inherent in buying plastic bottles of pop).

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