“I’m only eating cabbage and grilled chicken until my stomach is concave,” I say to myself while squeezing my right oblique and studying my face in the mirror. Only I would notice that my jawline seems less chiseled.
For 30 years, I’ve measured three-ounce portions of grilled chicken and choked down steamed cabbage to reach the elusive goal of a thigh gap, which is largely a Photoshop creation and nearly impossible to obtain with my hip structure—regardless of diet or exercise.
Although I consider myself a recovering bulimic, anorexic and over-exerciser, it’s still a battle to nourish myself with healthy food and workouts that feed my body instead of punishing it. While Barry’s Bootcamp, Pilates and morning runs are viewed as a self-care by many, I tend to see them as a means of burning calories to maintain a below average BMI. After countless hours in therapy and many meal plans from my nutritionist, sometimes I find myself back to where I started before I got help: with the constant hum of disparaging self-talk that’s intent on keeping me sick: “You better get your ass on the treadmill three times this week and to Barre while doing Whole-30 until your boyfriend jeans hang off your hips again.”
I was born this way. As a little girl in Houston, Texas, where beauty pageants reign, I looked down at my thighs in kindergarten and thought they were too big. With a personal trainer mom who ate appetizers as her main course and a dad who hit the gym at 5:45 am everyday, striving to be the skinniest, boniest and, unfortunately, the most miserable version of myself was inescapable. In high school, I envied my friends who seemed to eat pizza without a care while I pretended that iceberg lettuce, chicken broth and turkey with yellow mustard were filling. But as a competitive gymnast and swimmer, I was hungry, and my body revolted. I discovered bulimia. I ate what I wanted and threw it up.
A couple years ago, after a lifetime of isolating with my addiction, I became too exhausted from working out to earn my every meal. I had FOMO as my friends brunched together, shared tapas, and engaged in passionate discourse about dipping bread into the leftover broth of mussels. I realized I didn’t want to miss out on the wonders of connecting with others over delicious food. Being underweight wasn’t worth it anymore. I was tired of coming home to measuring cups and tiny portions instead of going out with friends.
According to Melanie Rogers, certified eating disorder registered dietitian and founder of BALANCE eating disorder treatment center in New York City, “Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy can be helpful to gently expose the client to foods they are fearful of, and after eating them, they are able to see that nothing significant happened. One specific food or meal will not make them fat, which is the irrational fear.”
My eating disorder stole my life. It contributed to the end of my marriage. I was too busy romancing the non-fat yogurt and strawberry concoction I ate for every meal to give intimacy with my now ex-husband a chance. After a lifetime of dancing with the scale, shuffling carbs around on the plate, and calculating my worth based on the weight of my Whole Foods salad, I sought help hoping that I would be in the 80 percent of patients who seek treatment that improve significantly with “adequate nutrition, reducing excessive exercise and halting purging behaviors,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. I made headway, but recovery was disorienting.
If I wasn’t deciding between dinner with friends or running home into the arms of my food obsession of the moment, what would I think about? Who would I be if I wasn’t the skinny blond girl who always ordered a grilled chicken salad, dressing on the side please?
Because I wanted more for myself, I had to let go of controlling food rituals and be present for my life. I had to feel the overwhelming emotions I had been running from, stop focusing on my appearance, and look within.
I’d had it backwards. Samantha Lynch, MS, RD CDN, who founded Samantha Lynch Nutrition and might have saved my life, says, “The turning point toward recovery is burnout, maturity, confidence, and maybe a realization that ‘I don’t give a shit about what people think about me anymore and whether I’m 10 lbs. heavier.’”
What’s both comforting and disheartening is that eating disorder recovery is not a clean-cut process with a clear start and finish. Rogers says, “Recovery can take five to seven years for anorexia and bulimia, eight to 14 years for binge eating, and small relapses back into symptom use are common, if not the norm.”
Unlike alcohol or drug addiction, an eating disorder—similar to gambling, shopping and sex—is a behavioral addiction. It’s not the food or exercise that’s addictive but the processes or rituals surrounding them.
“Behaviors and rituals,” says Rogers, “stem from the underlying anxiety that is a hallmark of the eating disorder and are a calming mechanism for the client to placate the anxiety. And they work, but only for a short time, until the compulsion to repeat them becomes overpowering.”
Because both food and exercise are needed to live a healthy life, recovery is learning how to manage and change the obsessive behaviors that used to interfere with friendships, family, romantic relationships and jobs.
According to ANRED, about 20 percent of people with eating disorders make only partial recoveries. Although sometimes I think this is me, I try to remind myself how far I’ve come. Yes, it’s difficult to accept my hunger and not equate my worth to how my jeans fit, but most days I eat to fuel my body, hit the treadmill to break a sweat and clear my mind, and embrace my bigger booty. Progress is slow and imperfect, but I’ve learned to roll with it. With time, I’ve become aware of my triggers and able recognize my addiction’s patterns and take contrary action. When I see a woman at the beach rocking a mile-wide thigh gap, my instinct is to go on a cleanse and do two workouts a day, but recovery has taught me to order a taco, chill out, and be grateful for my healthy body.