By: Erica Johnstone
I just turned 30, and I have counted calories for over half of my life, as far back as I can remember. My anorexia started at age 12, and by 13 I knew the calorie counts of nearly everything I ate, and if I didn’t, I didn’t eat it or I calculated all the components, erring on the side of overvaluing them. In the past few months, I have accomplished a major victory over my anorexia: I have not been counting calories. I never thought this would happen. After years and years of inculcating my mind with calorie counts and the idea of an acceptable daily total that could not be surpassed under any circumstance, I was resigned to the fact that this would be part of my life forever. I have been at a healthy weight for the past few years and in solid recovery for the past 6 years, but I still counted calories, agonized over parties with dessert that did not fit into my daily calculation, and exercised on a rigid schedule six days per week. I was, as everyone else would tell me, “so disciplined.” Let me tell you, this disciplined rigidity is not something to aspire to. It is not inspirational or motivating. It sucks the energy, joy, and spontaneity out of your life. It is more akin to living under an internal dictatorship. You cannot disobey. You complete all reps, limit calories, calculate for the day ahead and the next day and the day after that. You must develop a plan every time a workout is 1 minute too short. You must eliminate something to compensate for this failure. And that is what it really is about – a sense of failure and unworthiness. You must drive yourself to the ground and deprive yourself so that you can earn the happiness in your life.
I felt that I would always be partially recovered. I would be healthy enough, and I would manage well enough, ironically feeling that I was never good enough. I was inordinately happier than I had ever been, so I would settle for that. I am married to an incredibly loving, supportive husband who brings me enormous joy. I am completing my master’s in counseling and will be starting work in an eating disorder treatment center in the coming months. However, I knew that a part of me wanted more freedom from my eating disordered thoughts, and yet another part, the eating disordered one, was scared, telling me “No, don’t go farther. Look what you have already done, how big you have gotten.” It was an eternal battle I would fight forever. During my last period of restriction, last March, my dietitian had me write down the pros and cons of restricting. I had done this before, but this time it was very impactful. Prior to it, I thought there were more pros than cons because in the moment restricting made me feel better. It made me me feel like I had earned the right to live because I had successfully deprived myself. And yet there were so many cons: I was not free, I felt bad for those I was disappointing around me, I had less energy, I was hungry and exhausted from calculating and calculating day after day. I wanted to be truly free. I also knew that I was entering the field as a clinician soon, and I needed to be fully recovered to do so. I wanted to be able to have a baby and be a healthy role model. As I started experimenting with intuitive eating after many previous attempts, I finally got some satisfaction from the freedom, from defying the ED voice. Whereas before I had always thought of how hard recovery from anorexia is because you feel partially bad about it all the time. It seems different from recovery from drugs or alcohol where you can feel accomplished each day sober. With anorexia, a part of you feels horrible because of what you are doing. The eating disorder tells you that you are disgusting and indulgent, and it makes you think you will never be able to tolerate, much less accept, the body you are growing into.
However, I started to think I could be ok with it. I could be ok with this body because it is going to be what it is going to be. I think the biggest contributor has been a subtle shift in trusting my body. Though I have been told that my body will figure out what food it needs, it is incredibly terrifying to believe that, as someone who has feared her body, and particularly changes in it, for her whole life. I was scared that I would never stop eating and never stop growing. However, I am learning that my body tells me when it is full. It tells me what it wants to eat. It does not want to eat endlessly. It also does not want dessert all the time. It craves many different foods. It is not against me. It is me. Making peace with this is so incredibly relieving. It is a sense of freedom, a great weight off your shoulders. It is strange to be 30 years old, to be what I consider now a “real” adult chronologically, and yet I am relearning the most basic of all skills that babies learn. I am learning how to eat again. As challenging as it may be, the taste of freedom is worth it.
About the Author: My name is Erica Johnstone, and I am a psychology researcher and graduate student in counseling. I live in Folsom, CA with my incredibly supportive husband Tyler and our dog Oso. I am starting an internship this Fall at an eating disorder treatment center and will be graduating next June as an MFT intern hoping to work as a therapist specializing in eating disorders.