Cultivating Joy in the Kitchen: A Caregiver’s Take on Meal Prep in Eating Disorder Recovery

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As the primary caregiver of an adult with an eating disorder, I often find myself navigating multiple roles as I support my partner in her recovery. On days when her eating disorder is particularly strong, I play the “parent”. I prepare and plate her food for her according to her meal plan, regardless of any excuse her eating disorder might have. One might think that at 29 years old my partner should be able to feed herself, but recovery in a sense, is about starting over. It’s about learning to feed oneself without their eating disorder controlling food decisions.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get frustrated at times when I have to take on this role, but it helps when I remind myself that food is thy medicine. I have to remind myself to stay present and that right now food for her is her prescription. She can’t miss a dose.

This is not always an easy task. If only a “spoon full of sugar” would help this medicine go down. As I help her complete her snacks and meals, I recognize and subsequently attempt to work through the internalized stigma and shame that I have recently become aware of that I hold. As someone who thankfully has had a “normal” relationship with food my entire life, I sometimes struggle to be understanding and compassionate.

Preparing dinner in our kitchen is part comical, part loving, part gratitude, part frustrating, and part sad. Food prep involves constant inquiries from my partner because she actually doesn’t know how to make something or she feels like she’s not cooking something “right” or she’s anxious and her mind is racing (it’s probably a combination of the three). As an observer to this, it’s interesting to see the eating disorder’s black and white way of thinking continually play out, even in moments of recovery. The dish she is helping me prepare has to be either correct or incorrect, which often leaves her slicing up vegetables or preparing sides dishes, while I cook the main dish.

This amazes me because this is the exact opposite as to why I love cooking and find it therapeutic. I too, like my partner, have a tendency to lean towards perfectionism, but in the kitchen I find that I can be haphazard and playful and the dish will still turn out great. I prefer cooking over baking because I don’t have to measure anything. I know that this lack of methodology and measuring cups is difficult for her, as it leaves much about the dish “unknown”. I know that sometimes it’s easier for her to not be in the kitchen while I’m cooking so she doesn’t see what’s going into a dish.

While I accept this struggle as where we’re at in recovery right now, I’m looking forward to see her move past the side dishes and be able to truly cook meals together that we are both excited to enjoy. Cooking is a past time for me. It’s a way for me to evoke and maintain joy and memories and I want to show my partner that experience with food is possible.

in love and support,

CJ


Jamie Dannenberg (CJ) is the primary carer of her partner, also named Jamie but referred to as OJ, who is in recovery from an eating disorder. As the partner of someone with an eating disorder and a registered dietitian, CJ has had to learn to navigate various roles in their relationship. With OJ, Jamie has become involved in global advocacy work and together they share their experience as a queer couple in recovery on their blog thirdwheelED. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.

Love Conquers All

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By: Michelle Phan

I’ve told this story many times and it never gets old because it’s a tale of how love helped me learn how to survive, thrive, and live. I met the love of my life during my recovery, during a period of time in my life where I was unsure of many things, during a time in my life I wasn’t confident in myself, let alone being someone else’s partner. But the funny thing about life is that it doesn’t quite understand when the right time for things is or maybe we just don’t appreciate enough that things happen for a reason at that exact moment when it happens.

I met my partner during a time I was withdrawn from others. But there was something about him and his energy that allowed me to open up and put myself out there. As we became friends, I fell in love with the person he was and eventually we moved to something more than friends. During the start of our relationship I would be extra self-conscious, worried that he’d think differently of me. I never wanted him to have a bad image or view of me so I was always trying to be careful about what I did or said. Then one day, we were on an ice cream date and I bit too much off the ice cream cone he was feeding me. It resulted in me not being able to eat the whole bite and getting brain freeze. I was looking around for a way to spit back the ice cream or do something to alleviate it. He was gracious enough to let me spit the ice cream into his hand. I know, you’re thinking this is sounding like one of those dates where I won’t get a call back or asked on another date, right? Oddly, we just laughed about it.

That night he told me that dates like that make him laugh and have fun, showing a side of me that’s more carefree and it makes him like me even more. It was then I knew I found the right person because he loved me for who I am – a dorky, clumsy, and anxious girl who easily gets brain freeze but loves her ice cream anyway. During that time we met, I was mentally fragile and unwilling/closed to the idea of dating. How was I supposed to be able to love someone else when I was still trying to learn how to love myself? But when you meet someone as thoughtful, nurturing, caring, and kind as my partner, you’ll learn. You’ll learn that the right person stands by you no matter what, that they think you’re beautiful and perfect even when you think you’re at your worst, that they’ll love you regardless of anything. And in that process, you learn too that they give you a newfound purpose and inspiration to be a better person.

You learn that the image they have of you, which is of this amazing person, is real and that you too should believe in it. So in that process of falling in love with someone, you slowly build the confidence in yourself because you learn of all the things they love about you that you never clearly saw. You get to understand those parts of you better that you once hid but show your partner because being vulnerable can be brave. That’s what I learned when I met my partner. I thank him every day for helping me see the person I really am. Behind the distorted image I have of myself is the real image he sees and he helps me not only see it, but also accept and eventually love it. Everyday I am with him I learn how to be a little more confident, more positive, to love the person he fell for, and to better myself to be the partner I want him to have. Finding love or being found by love, gave me the inspiration I needed to get better. It gave me the motivation to live the healthy and happy life I deserve. To the love of my life, you inspire me everyday to use love rather than hate to better myself. To anyone reading this, I hope you find the love you need to shine a light in your life.


About the Author: Michelle is a graduate of UC Irvine and currently works at UCLA. As an eating disorder survivor she now dedicates her time to advocacy and using her voice to help others. She is a recovery mentor, contributor to the Mighty and social media volunteer for nonprofits. During her spare time she likes to indulge in adult coloring books, geek out over Batman, and hunt down the best tacos in town.

Third Wheelin’ It With ED

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couple-fighting1

Scene opens to women sitting in restaurant with a man

 

Man: What are you going to order?

 

Woman: looks up from the menu with palpable alarm I’m not sure. There- I don’t see anything that I am in the mood for.

 

Man Come on, why don’t you get the chicken? You were just saying how you were in the mood for it the other day.

 

Woman: looks away I’m not in the mood for it anymore. (thinks to herself ‘Cant he back off already? Geez’) Maybe I’ll just get the salad.

 

Man: Come one. You haven’t had enough protein today. begins to look mildly irritated

 

Waiter: Are you two ready to orde-

 

Woman: No! So sorry but we just need a few more minutes.

 

Woman: to man in a harsh whisper I’m sorry but there isn’t anything on here with protein that I’m into.

 

Man: Stop letting your eating disorder win. Get what you want. Come on, we can share it if you want.

 

Woman: UGH Please don’t play therapist with me. I’m not even hungry anymore. Come on lets just leave.

 

Waiter: Ok, ready to order now you two?

 

Woman and man glare at each other in heavy, heated silence

 

END SCENE

 

Relationships are complicated. Throw an eating disorder in there and it really gets complicated. While the above-mentioned scene no longer occurs with anything close to that amount of panic or intensity, this is a more than accurate play-by-play of most meals out that I had with my husband when we were dating, and the eating disorder was in full swing. As you can see, it was a difficult time for both of us.

 

The thing about being in a relationship with someone who has an eating disorder is that, despite the sufferer’s best intentions and efforts, you are not a dyad. The eating disorder is always there, the annoying third wheel that seems to pop up everywhere from dates, to family gatherings, to the bedroom. When my husband and I were dating, I will admit that my ED ruined more days than not. I was constantly preoccupied and obsessed with food, weight, and physical activity. In short, I was not a great partner. I didn’t have the ability to be at that time. If I am being honest, my eating disorder was probably more my partner than he was. I loved him. I don’t really buy that saying that you cant love someone until you love yourself because I did. I loved him more than anything. I think the saying would be more accurately worded if it said “You cannot properly show someone that you love them until you love yourself.” Because at that time, while I swear I loved him with all of my heart, when it came down to the wire I put my eating disorder first every.single.time. And I hated myself for doing so. I just didn’t feel that I had any control over it. Every time he asked me out to dinner I had to choose between turning him down and feeling guilty about that, or going and feeling guilty about the food. In reality the wrath of my ED voice was 1000 times worse than the guilt that I could ever have about anything else.

 

Luckily, with much time and treatment, I got well. It was a conscious choice, over and over again, every single day. And he stuck with me. I still have trouble understanding how he endured this, and why he decided to put faith in my ability to recover and become a real person again in our relationship, but he did. And here we are, years later, married, happy, and a true dyad. ED no longer has a place in our home.

 

The emotional toll that my ED took on my husband both during the phase when I was actively disordered, as well as when I was going through recovery, was huge. Eating disorders are incredibly insidious and all-encompassing. Though I tried my hardest to play the magician, to keep a front of being perfectly fine and perky on the outside, while falling apart on the inside, it just didn’t work this way. The ED had tentacles, and I had no idea at the time how much the effects radiated out and rippled into those around me. I was consumed by ED, so I couldn’t and didn’t see the pain that others were experiencing. During the hardest times, I was drowning, and, because he cared enough about me to stick around, I was pulling him down with me. But don’t take my word for it. Best if you can hear it from him:

 

*I like calling it ED. I was so happy when the therapist explained it this way to me because it showed me that I wasn’t crazy. She was totally different when ED was in control. I don’t want to call her a monster or anything, but when ED was around, she seriously become a different, hardened person- she became cold, calculating, and distant. She did bad things, like steal money from me for laxatives. At the worst of it she seemed to almost consciously change her outside appearance to reflect her inside experience- she wore huge black shirts with tights and, of course, her body changed and became completely foreign to me. Gone was the beautiful, athletic, fun-loving brunette. Here instead, was this frighteningly angular cold little person who rarely smiled. I think that was the worst of it actually- the way her smile changed. It became a “not-smile.” She smiled without her eyes. Now you should know, my wife is beautiful. She is smart as hell, and she cares more about people than anyone that I have ever met in my life. She is compassionate, funny, ridiculously sarcastic, and her smile lights up my day. Her eyes crinkle at the edges when she does and I swear that smile could pull me out of a coma. But like I said, when her eating disorder took over, her entire personality changed. She was a shell. Very sad, very angry, and very lost.

 

But you know what? I stuck around. I went to interventions for her with her family. I held her hands while she cried and cried before going to treatment. I attended the therapy sessions and I learned about the meal plans. I encouraged her to eat (You take a bite I take a bite). The whole thing was a test of my patience, and I learned more about what I was capable of at that time than I have at any other point in my life because it was the most difficult thing that I ever experienced. When she wasn’t eating, I was obsessed with getting her to eat. I begged. I got angry. We fought constantly. There were periods of feeling hopeless. “You look nice” was triggering, but not saying anything at all seemed to be triggering too. Sometimes it just felt like my hands were tied. Some days I felt like I had to recover with her. The hard thing was that when she got out of treatment, she had been through months of intensive therapy, whereas I hadn’t had any. So I kind of had to play catch up. But in the end it was all worth it, because slowly, day by day, week by week, I got my girlfriend back. And being the support for her through that has only made us stronger. Storms and trees with roots and all that, you know? *

 

So for the partner of someone struggling- Remind yourself that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It can be an exhausting experience, but don’t give up on your person. Their eating disorder likely has them convinced that they are not worth fighting for, so keep that in mind when you find yourself falling into the trap of feeling like your partner is intentionally trying to be difficult. Make sure that you take time for your own personal self-care. Remind your partner constantly that you wont give up if they do not. Strive to be a pillar of support as they work towards recovery, because if you do, their chances of being able to recover completely will be even stronger. And always remember- ED tires of consistent effort, vulnerability, and support from others, so keep up the fight! Recovery will happen, and with it will come healing for both of you.