Letter to a Younger Self: A Project HEAL Series

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Dear me (nine years ago),

I’m writing to you because I believe in you. If I really thought you were hopeless, this wouldn’t have a purpose.

I’m worried about your complete and utter denial of how ill you’re getting. Right now, I know it seems like all you’re doing is simply not eating. Maybe that’s true, and maybe it will be for a little while. But let me tell you something: it won’t last forever. I’d like to share with you what’s actually going to happen:

journalYou’ll be worrying about food 24/7, weighing yourself ten times a day, crying at the number on the scale, and bearing through the insane cold in order to stand stripped in front of your mirror for several hours seeing nothing but fat. You’ll be waking up five times every night from body- wracking chills unable to feel your fingers or toes, regularly dozing off at school, fainting in the most inappropriate situations, and running on the treadmill until everything goes black.

Comparing your body endlessly to everyone’s around you, isolating in your room because you don’t want people to see how fat you are, lying to those you love, creating clever excuses for why you can’t eat dinner, hiding food, and seriously worrying people who care about you will become part of your everyday life.

You’ll stop caring about everything that’s truly important, and you’ll eventually lose all the things that make you who you are.

If you don’t reverse it now, that is.

It doesn’t get easier with time; it only gets harder. Don’t wait until you feel inspired – just go for it. Sometimes everyone has to do things they don’t like to do.

Take care of yourself. Be well. I know you can do this, and you will.

With enough love to make up for your lack of love for yourself,

-A


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Project HEAL’s new peer-based support program, Communities of HEALing, will include an evidence-based eating disorder prevention and body acceptance program known as the Body Project. The Body Project is an intervention that was developed by renowned researchers Eric Stice, Ph.D and Carolyn Becker, Ph.D and is backed by two decades of research at Stanford University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Oregon Research Institute. This program has been delivered to over one million young women around the world and is the only program that has repeatedly demonstrated reductions of body dissatisfaction, negative mood, unhealthy dieting and disordered eating. Further evidence indicates that the Body Project intervention reduces the risk of future onset of eating disorders and obesity.
 
Recently, Project HEAL held its first facilitator training of the Body Project with some of our volunteers from NYC and PA, all of whom are in recovery from an eating disorder. One of the activities that all volunteers completed as part of the Body Project program was to write a letter to a younger version of themselves using the information they learned from other sessions of the intervention and advise their younger selves on how to avoid developing body image concerns. The letters shared were truly powerful and we are thrilled to have some of our new facilitators share their letters with you!

Isn’t it Time to Stop Glorifying Exercise?

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By Angie Viets

How you do it? I wish I had the motivation to get up and crank out all of those miles.” Admiration and compliments from others fuel the already obsessive mind of the person with an exercise addiction. The dictator inside of their brain—the one that encourages setting the alarm for 4:30 a.m. to go out and run in the cold—is thrilled. Feelings of superiority masked as they downplay their “dedication.”

Clearly, we wouldn’t congratulate an alcoholic on their ‘motivation’ to race to the liquor store after work and hammer out a case of beer while they stare at a television, instead of helping their child with homework. We can see with ease the dysfunction and impairment when a person is abusing a substance.

So why do we glorify excessive exercise?

It’s because it’s hard to distinguish between moderate, healthy amounts of exercise and addiction. It’s confusing when something that appears to be so “healthy” is harmful.

We’re encouraged to workout, so what’s the problem if it’s too much?

The problem is excessive exercise has many damaging effects on our physical and psychological health.

Underneath the facade of ‘dedication’ is a person who is trapped. Their internal dictator—the one that demands they over-exercise is hard to live with—not only for the person suffering, but also the people around them. It’s no fun to be with someone who is pissed off because they couldn’t get their workout in due to an outside circumstance. Nor is it pleasant when they schedule their entire day, including time with you, around their workouts.

There are ways to assess if something that was once positive and life-enhancing has become a life-interfering problem.

A Few Indicators of Compulsive Exercise:

  • Working out when sick or injured, rather than allowing time to heal and rest.
  • Prizing workouts over social gatherings, trips to see family or friends, even work meetings.
  • Losing interest in things that once were important.
  • Happiness is contingent upon the ability to exercise.

As an eating disorders specialist, I often treat individuals who struggle with compulsive exercise. I ask them to get real honest (there’s a tendency to be in denial) and answer a few questions.

Truth Time:

  • Would you be comfortable with your child, sibling, or best friend working out as often as you do?
  • If someone you cared about had a similar injury or illness, would you help them lace up their tennis shoes and tell them to suck it up and workout?
  • If you were told to stop working out for an entire week, month or year, how would you feel? Depressed? Moody? Irritable?
  • If exercise was not part of your schedule, what would you do instead?
  • Could you take a couple of days off a week and taper your workouts for awhile to see how you respond?
  • If unable to exercise would you cut back on food to compensate?

Your answers will help inform whether or not you’re struggling with compulsive exercise. For a more thorough assessment, you can take a Compulsive Exercise Test.

If you struggle with this issue, meeting with a therapist who treats exercise addictions can help you understand the function of your obsessive behavior and support you in making necessary changes.

 


 

About the Author:

Angie Viets LCP is a clinical psychotherapist in private practice and writer. She specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, and overeating. Angie is dedicated to empowering others to nurture their body, mend their relationship with food, and to embody their most authentic self. Her passion for the field was born out of her own hard-won battle with an eating disorder. She believes thatangie-viets-headshot full recovery is possible!

Angie is currently in the process of writing her first book, where she will demystify eating disorder recovery, and offer inspiration and guidance to those suffering in silence. Her writing is featured in Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and recognized eating disorder treatment centers throughout the country.

You can visit Angie’s website at www.angieviets.com to find further information and recovery resources.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Final Chapter: Reflections

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Seeing me. Photo Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography

It’s hard to believe it’s Christmas. Time has gone by so fast. When I reflect on the state of my being, the difference is profound. If you would have told me a year ago that today I would be at a healthy weight, that I wouldn’t be fighting with my Mom, my sisters, my own head, I wouldn’t have believed you. These things were inconceivable to me such a short time ago. It’s scary to look back and see I only understood myself after my disease destroyed me, but it’s an experience that has allowed me to know myself better, strengthen my relationships with family, and brought me to a place of peace.

“What I see in my reflection in the mirror makes me smile. Gone is the tattered spirit of a young life that held little self-esteem or confidence.”

You’ll find many layers going through the recovery process. It’s almost like peeling back each insecurity I carried on my shoulders.  What I learned in treatment is that there are many facets to my disease that kept me confused and sliding back into destructive thinking. Strategies incorporated and practiced at UCSD IFT program and continued work on communication skills with my family and therapist gave me the courage to keep working at my problems one at time until I climbed the mountain of obstacles my disease always puts in my way.

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Together on solid ground. Photo Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography

 

Everything is different now. Every fragment of who I am, as well as every aspect of my daily life, has changed. This path through turbulent times has given me the ability to face whatever comes my way.

This year, I learned what I am truly capable of overcoming. Not only have I gained freedom from my eating disorder, but I have also been able to accept my diagnosis with a disease called Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension. For me, this diagnosis wasn’t the easiest. My father passed away from this disease almost eight years ago. Additionally, my grandfather had been diagnosed with this as well, not too much earlier than I was. Though treatments and procedures were quite difficult and new, having survived Anorexia, I knew acceptance was possible. I was equipped to handle the emotions that previously could have put me into a downward spiral.

Today, I am living with a level of peace one would not expect to come from a girl having gone through such serious things.  I do my best to help others heal who are struggling, and in turn, that continues to heal me.  My life has vastly changed in just a few months. I am happier, stronger, and braver than ever thought possible. Now, my priority is to help others in any way I can and I am truly thankful to be able to use these blogs to give back.

Always brave.

I encourage you to take a moment and be grateful for all you have. If you are recovering from an eating disorder, be thankful for that. If you’re struggling, be thankful you woke up this morning and have the ability to heal like I did.

If reading any of the #LaurensRoadToRecovery entries authored by me and my family have helped or educated one person, then sharing this deeply personal, and at times difficult journey has been worth every moment.

Peace and love,

Lauren Spencer

 

 

 

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Flowers in her hair – hope in her heart. Photo Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography

 

 

 

CLICK HERE AND MAKE A DONATION TO PROJECT HEAL’S TREATMENT GRANT FUND, WHICH WILL HELP INDIVIDUALS JUST LIKE LAUREN.

 

 

Chapter 3: My Sister’s Eating Disorder

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lauren-tj-3One of the hardest parts of leaving for college was having to move away from my best friend: my little sister, Lauren. I was going to miss our random dance parties, Netflix marathons and going to our favorite restaurant.

What I didn’t realize, however, was how much she was going to miss me and the toll my absence would take on her.

After I left for my first quarter at school, my sister’s eating disorder rapidly progressed. I came home for Christmas and my best friend just wasn’t the same. She looked so frail and the light inside of her was gone. The person I waited months to see was no longer really there.

There weren’t any dance parties or Netflix marathons, nor did we eat at our favorite restaurant or go out for ice cream.

I watched as she locked herself away in our room everyday while my mother begged for her to just take a couple bites of her dinner or to come watch a movie with us.

I watched as this disease took away my sister and tore apart my family. We no longer were a team. In between the arguments over every meal with my sister, we argued with each other over how to deal with this. None of us knew what to do and we took out our frustrations on each other.

We were providing the perfect environment to perpetuate an eating disorder.

img_0156What we now realize after my sister’s treatment is that we play a direct role in her recovery. We must work every day to make sure that we are all on the same page and that we provide an environment in which Lauren can thrive in.

Thanks to a grant from Project HEAL, UCSD Intensive Family Treatment, and the support of our family – Lauren is now on the road to recovery.

My sister and I are now closer than ever and I get to watch her as she rediscovers her love of music. Our random dance parties are crazier than ever and we’ve watched way too much Grey’s Anatomy.

I feel so blessed to be able to have a wonderful relationship with my sister again.

I also had the opportunity to photograph the pictures featured in this campaign and though Lauren has been featured in my photographs since I began doing photography, I have never seen her so genuinely happy and confident as she does in these photographs.

Project HEAL provides lifesaving grants to recipients who might not ever be able to afford treatment. My sister was one of them… her life like so many others can be saved. We are asking the world to acknowledge eating disorders. And to donate to help fund more treatment grants. My sister is worth it and so is every other person suffering from an eating disorder.

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Click here and make a donation to our treatment grant fund, which will help individuals just like Lauren.

 

 

Third Wheelin’ It With ED

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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.

Five Mistakes I Made After Getting Out of Treatment

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They’re always saying that relapse is part of the process. That recovery is never a straight up-and-forward trajectory. They say don’t view relapse as a failure. Well when I was getting ready to leave my treatment center, I didn’t quite see things this way. I saw recovery as black and white- you are either moving towards recovery or you are moving towards an eating disorder. I ignored the warnings and told myself I would take recovery by the horns, that I would do things the way I thought was best. This proved to be a flawed approach to say the least.

 

First things first- lets not call them mistakes. I prefer, learning opportunities. Or better yet, growth edges. Yes that’s it- growth edges. After being discharged from treatment for an eating disorder, I had many growth edges to be learned from. It’s not surprising looking back- I felt like I had just gotten off of one of those tilt-a-whirls at the carnival, and was trying to stand up straight while my world spun wildly around me. I was both stubborn and ill prepared for what was to come. My hope is that putting this down in writing may help others in avoiding the same growth edges. So here goes: My top five missteps that I experienced after getting out of treatment:

 

  1. I ditched my dietician- I always had beef-no pun intended- with the whole dietician thing. I hated having someone try to steer my every food choice. I hated reporting back about challenges. I hated having someone see my weight when I wasn’t supposed to see it. So, after being discharged, one of the first things I did was call and cancel the appointment that they had made for me with an outpatient dietician. Keep in mind, I was still recovery focused at that point. I wanted to recover. Like I said, I just wanted to do it on my own terms. This meant a little less chaperoning with the food stuff. What I didn’t realize at the time was that recovery “on my own terms” really meant recovery on ED’s terms.

 

  1. I didn’t ask my friends to curb the diet talk- I actively participated in groups in which we discussed how we shouldn’t be ashamed of our illnesses. I spearheaded discussions with others about how to be proactive in our recoveries by addressing triggers with family and friends. Yet I failed to follow my own advice. Talking about how to ask friends not to bring up their most current juice cleanses in group therapy is pretty different from actually talking to them. I told myself not to bother them. I told myself that they would become annoyed by me, and that I would have to be the forever identified patient if I discussed my triggers with them. This definitely hurt my recovery. My friends didn’t have eating disorders. So they didn’t intuitively know what was triggering and what wasn’t. Who could expect them to? After all, a lot of the things that triggered me were things that your average college girl would love to hear. (“You look so good!”) Looking back, if I had simply talked to them, I know they would have been receptive. My tensions would have been diffused, the lines of communication would have been opened up, and I would have had one less challenge to work through in my recovery process (I know this because I did end up listened to my own advice and addressing things with them after my relapse. Hindsight hu?)

 

  1. I tried on my old clothing- Everyone said not to do this. I said not to do this! I sat in group and earnestly looked others in the eyes and implored them to just throw out their sick clothes. Who needs em, I said. Why would you ever put yourself through that? What good will come out of it? Eating disorders are weird aren’t they? Most of us can more than eloquently talk the talk, but the walk is another story. I, for example, was actively plotting in my own mind (read: my eating disorder was plotting) how I would be trying on those jeans as soon as I got home, while I was telling my fellow group members to avoid doing just that. “I just need to check” I told myself. “It’s actually more recovery focused in my case to try them on to see how far I’ve come!” Clearly I was being fooled into listening to my ED voice. That actually proved to be a great learning experience- After treatment, my ED became even trickier, using staying recovery focused as a cover up to actually engage in certain behaviors. This realization was helpful to me, after I relapsed, in becoming that much stronger in the fight against ED.

 

  1. I didn’t feng shui- We talked about triggering places together in groups. I talked about it with my therapist. We made a plan together for my college housing- It was pretty simple actually. I associated my college room and bathroom with engaging in ED behaviors, so I needed to break those associations. The plan was to paint my bedroom-cheery yellow instead of the blue that was currently on the walls, and buy a new shower curtain/rug/sink stuff for the bathroom. But did I follow through? Nah. I got home and decided that I could handle it without all of that hassle. I told myself that it wouldn’t help anyway. Spoiler alert- it does and did help. I found this out when I actually did it the next time around.

 

  1. I stopped journaling- Journaling was one of the little pieces of the puzzle that saved my life. I was emotionally immature, stunted by years of retreating into an eating disorder, and consequentially, I struggled with discussing all and any feelings. Then I began to journal. This outlet allowed me to tap into all the tough stuff in a different way. I used it to track my thoughts and feelings, and quickly began to notice links in the environment. I brought it into therapy and had my therapist read it out loud for both of us to process. It was incredibly eye opening, so naturally, when I got out, I stopped doing it. I say naturally because I still had ED in one ear at this point, and he was extremely threatened by this shiny new coping skill. So he yelled back. And I listened. “I don’t have time.” “I had a good day- what is there to even write about?” “It’s too hard, and it doesn’t even help.” “You feel the same, so why bother?” Recognizing that feeling one way in the morning doesn’t mean that I will feel that way four hours later, was important in my recovery process later on. This allowed me to confront those nasty ED thoughts- “I feel like journaling doesn’t help me, but feelings aren’t facts. I had a rough morning, so my motivation is down. But think about how much journaling has actually helped so far. Think about the real conversations I have had with therapists about how this is not only helpful but necessary for my recovery. Listen to yourself, not ED.”

 

Recovery is never a straight trajectory. There will always be ups and downs. But, as I discovered through my own process of trial and error, you either succeed, or you learn. Yes, I relapsed, but you can bet I learned from it. One of the main lessons was this: it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down- keep trying. The more you try, the more likely it is that, in spite of the ups and downs, the general direction will be up. Besides, ED hates perseverance.

Sideways Saunter: What I Learned From My Body Tracing

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Full-Silhouettes

When I was in college, I lived in a house built in the early 1800’s with low ceilings and narrow doorways. The doorway that opened into my bedroom was particularly narrow. So narrow that I used to turn sideways to enter the room, to avoid getting stuck or, ya know, dislocating a shoulder. Did I mention that I was suffering from an eating disorder while I was in college? Ah,- important fact that I left out there hu? My sideways entry makes a little more sense given that my entire body image was grossly distorted (to the point that one therapist even referred to my perception of my physique as “on the brink of psychosis.”) This was a very impactful part of my eating disorder. Cognitively, I knew that it was just a small doorway, that my roommates walked through just fine, but it always made me feel like I was literally filling the entire doorway. I had visions of my hips getting caught between the sides with a solid “thunk” as I tried to saunter through.

In order to fit ourselves through openings like doors, we need to have a basic estimate of the size of our bodies. Most non-eating disorder individuals have a somewhat accurate idea of their general shape and size, and consequentially do not find themselves trying to contort their bodies to fit into doorways that they can clearly walk clean through. This basic body image awareness can often be impaired in individual suffering from eating disorder. As a result, body schema, which relates to how we actually move through the physical world, can become extremely distorted.

As you can probably imagine, the sideways saunter was not the only way my distorted body schema affected how I maneuvered around my world. I refused to sit in certain chairs, nixed standing next to specific people, and contorted my body into odd positions when I sat, desperate to take up less space and positive that I was taking up far more than I should. This symptom of my eating disorder was both anxiety provoking and attention-drawing. That is why, when I finally got help for my eating disorder, I was recruited for a body tracing almost immediately.

Body tracings are a common component of ED treatment, where you draw out what you think the outline of your body is and then the therapist traces your actual body. You then process if and how your perceived outline of your body is different from the therapist’s tracing.

I remember being downright terrified that my drawing would be bigger or even the same as the real tracing. I remember thinking, “What it it’s accurate and there is no explanation for how I feel about my body size except that’s the way it really looks and they are all trying to make me feel better?” Tensions ran sky high as I stood against that wall and watched my therapist trace an outline around me. I remember watching her like a hawk, sure she was going to try to fake something. I remember sweating and clenching my muscles, then unclenching them thinking, “What does that prove?” I remember getting into a near yelling match with my therapist over the fact that the two drawings were so vastly different from one another. “But there’s just no way! How can this be?” And “Who cares if my true body looks one way if I feel like it looks another? Doesn’t how I FEEL MATTER TO ANYONE HERE?”

After the battlefield cleared (read: my 10/10 anxiety dissipated a bit) and I got some time away from the dreaded tracing, I was able to think a little more clearly. My therapist even brought it into our next session, and we were able to process the distortion together. Talking out how much pain this distortion had caused me, and how it had actually gotten in the way of my day-to-day functioning was one of the few “light bulb moments” that I have had in my years of therapy.

So post body image tracing, post treatment, post body-scheme light bulb moment, where am I now? I live behavior free. The ED thoughts come and go, and I am getting better and better at challenging them every day. My body schema has slowly gotten more accurate, but I wont lie to you- I had to put my trust and faith in the fact that I did not see my body clearly for a long time during my recovery (which sounds odd, but for me and my constellation of symptoms, it was just what I needed). I’m not perfect, but each day gets a teeny bit easier. And no, I no longer do the sideways saunter 😉

 

Back to Scale: Taking My Power Back From The Number

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I’ve always been pretty weird about the number. In fact, I would prefer to reveal my number of sexual partners, number of dollars in the bank, number of speeding tickets, number of times I’ve held my head in shame and sobbed- yup just about any other number than that number with you. I’m talking about the number on the scale.

My relationship with this number has been horribly distorted for as long as I can remember recognizing what a scale was. The development of my eating disorder in high school went unnoticed for years, hence for years I was able to live and breathe for the number. I was able to check that number multiple times throughout the day. That number dictated my happiness. It went down? Success! It went up? Complete disgust with myself.

They say it always gets worse before it gets better. This is sure how it was with my relationship with that number. My eating disorder became increasingly worse during my time in college, and then one day, at the beckoning of my mother, I found myself in the office of a therapist, attempting to explain my worship for the deity that we call the scale (read: that number). I spent the next few years in and out of treatment. The battle then shifted to letting go of the number. And it was not a battle that I took on easily. In fact, I resisted picking up my sword and fighting for a good long while. I protected my number with everything I had. I refused to get on the scale at the dietician’s office. I found tricky ways to deceive the doctors when they did get me on the scale. That number proved pretty tricky to let go of after all.

And to an extent, the number was everything—ultimately determining whether or not I could come back to college at some points, at other points determining if my parents were speaking to me. Other times, it seemed to dictate how many friends I had, with a direct correlation to “friends lost.” More importantly, it dictated my ability to think straight, my energy level, and the very life in my eyes. Some days, the number was 99.9% of my thoughts. Some days it felt like a demonic force, like something that was constantly hunched over me, a darkness that I would never shake, that number.

After years of the abovementioned struggle, years of the back and forth, years of holding on tooth and nail to that number, I took a leap of faith out of what I can only look back on as sheer desperation mixed with complete ambivilance. I chose recovery. I chose it day by day. Minute by minute at first. And what was one of the most significant pieces of this choice? You guessed it! Letting go of that number. It started with the suggestion that so many doctors, dieticians, and therapists had been pushing- I agreed to be weighed “back to scale” (This means exactly what it sounds like- you simply stand with your back to the scale, thereby giving up your choice to see that number). It was terrifying. It also made me strangely angry at first. What right does this nurse have to know that number if I cant? But over time I began to experience a sigh of relief. A loosening of the claw grip of that number. It didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen over a few months. But slowly and surely, I began to realize that when I didn’t actually know what I weighed, I could breath. I had freedom from that number. I started asking doctors to refrain from telling me my weight, even when I went for a check-up. I started trusting the fit of my clothing, and (gasp) the mirror a little more. And you know what? It worked. Choosing to forgo knowledge about that number allowed me the breathing room to actually begin to focus on my own recovery, and all the things that I was avoiding by constantly obsessing about my weight and body. It allowed me to see that my eating disorder wasn’t actually about numbers at all. Acknowledging, understanding, and accepting this was ultimately one of the most important pieces of my recovery process.

Don’t get me wrong. This has been something that I have had to work really hard on. I have had to hold myself responsible when I am in other people’s bathrooms or around random scales. I have had to make a promise to myself not to step on those scales because here’s the thing: That number? It means nothing. Absolutely nothing. But for whatever reason, my brain uses it wrong. It uses it against me. So I choose not to know it. I have had people tell me that I am giving the number power by avoiding it. Maybe some day I will move towards taking back that power altogether, to seeing the number and not caring at all. But for now, I am working on simply protecting myself. This means continuing to weigh back to scale when I have to, and not weighing myself when I don’t have to! Works for me. As long as I am actively rejecting my obsession with that number, as long as I am working towards being happy and healthy, then I am moving in the right direction. And any direction where that number is null, and my happiness comes first is a direction that I want to be headed in.

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Not That Size Anymore

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I recently came up upon a journal entry from several years past, which I wrote when I was going through some of the earliest phases of my recovery from my eating disorder. For one reason or another, I decided to read it. At first, it felt like this may have been a mistake. The feelings, so dormant, came flooding back in a surprisingly (and alarmingly) intense way. But instead of running from them (hello, old patterns of behavior in anorexia) I decided to sit with them and learn from this entry.

 

I’m glad I did. You see, this particular entry was written when I was going through the weight restoration phase of my recovery process. One of the darkest, most difficult times for me, hence I don’t care to reflect on it often. My body and mind felt out of control, and I felt desperate for the world to slow down and stop changing so quickly, to just hold on and give me one second to catch up, to get myself together already.

 

“I went jean shopping today. That was fun. No wonder I’ve been avoiding it for so long. Everything. Looked. Disgusting. What is happening to me? I must have taken 10 pairs into that dressing room. Five pairs of my old size. Five pairs of what I guessed my new size would be. None of them fit. Major breakdown. I literally sat there and cried for 20 minutes. I knew I shouldn’t have gone alone. But who would I even want there for that? Too embarrassing. I’m supposed to be “getting better.” I guess it’s time to suck it up and face reality. I’m not that size anymore. I’m not even in that bracket or whatever. God this is hard.”

 

Reading this may not be hard for you, but it literally took my breath away. Once you have some solid distance from your eating disorder, it is easy to forget what it is like to reside in this particular acre of hell. This girl, the girl writing the jeans entry- she seems so angry. So broken. So alone. So-confused. Confused being the most important point, I think. I was not able to think straight at that time. My body and my mind were fighting a battle, and were working hard to heal much damage that had occurred. I remember feeling hopeless and downtrodden, as if the fact that I didn’t fit into those jeans meant that I was no longer special, or that on some level, people wouldn’t love me as much anymore.

 

There is one sentence in this entry that truly catches my ear: “I’m not that size anymore.” This, to me, speaks volumes about my confusion and headspace at the time. Because now, years later, with a well-nourished body, and a mind that has been working towards emotional growth and healing for so long, I am able to see- I was not that size because I was not a size. I am not a size. Let me repeat that because it is just that important- I am not a size. I am not my jean size, I am not my shirt size, I am not my weight, I am not my height. I am not a number. Clothing fits me, not the other way around. If the size of the jeans that I wear happens to change, so be it. And this is a long-term lesson that will apply for the duration of my life (not just during the weight-restoration phase of an eating disorder). My body is dynamic and ever changing. The number will morph throughout the years. If I become pregnant, my body will change, and the number on the clothing will change with it. When the shape of my body changes as I mature into middle age and older adulthood, I am assuming the number will ebb and flow right there along with it. This is more than ok. This is natural. The important part is that I am able to see that I am me, regardless of the number/s.

 

As you can see from my journal entry, this is easier said than done when you are in the earlier phases of recovery. If your own recovery involves weight change, the best advice that I can give is this:

 

  1. Be gentle with yourself. Remind yourself that your body is changing because you are choosing to beat this eating disorder. Give yourself permission to dislike these changes, but never stop reminding yourself that you are working towards eventual body acceptance and love.
  2. Wear clothing that makes you feel comfortable. Before weight is distributed, it tends to settle in our core, because this is where it is most essential for survival. If this is making you feel self-conscious, go out and buy a few flowy tops. These won’t take away the discomfort, but they will not continuously draw your attention to this zone throughout the day like a tight top will.
  3. Try not to buy new pants and shirts until you are finished the process of weight restoration. Wear stretchy comfortable clothing in the interim.
  4. Throw out/ donate the clothes that you wore when you were in your eating disorder. Trust me on this one.
  5. Recognize the distortion. Understand that while you may notice every bit of weight gain, the reality is others around you do not see what you see. Remind yourself of this daily.

 

 

One of my favorite quotes of all time is, “Never run back to what broke you.” I think this applies so well to this part of recovery. It will be hard. It will feel impossible at times. Keep going. Turning back wont speed up the process. Above all else, be kind to yourself. As I said before, give yourself permission to mourn your old body. But only for a moment. Then turn around, toss those old jeans into the trash, throw on your new pair, and tell yourself, “These are size LLA (living life again).”

-C

 

 

 

*Please note: This entry pertains to one subset of the population of individuals in recovery from an eating disorder (i.e. those who require weight restoration). This is not meant to invalidate the seriousness of all other subsets of the eating disordered population. Medical complications and chronacity of illnesses are shown to be positively correlated with all eating disorder diagnoses, hence there is no one type of eating disorder that is “more serious” than another.

Hello From the Other Side: How I Took the Leap of Faith Into Recovery (And How You Can Too)

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I am pacing back and forth in my living room. My family members sit quietly before me and sadly look on as I rant. I rant on and on and get louder as each second ticks by, becoming more vitriolic and more combative each moment. “What don’t you get?” I scream to no one in particular. “Why are you doing this to me? You are all over reacting. Stop projecting your own shit on to me!” I glance, wild-eyed from from my sister, to my brother, and then to my parents, all of whom are still silent. I pause, then continue on in my nonsensical solilique. “Why are you doing this to me!? Who do you think you are anyway?! There’s no way I’m going. I’m just stressed that’s all. I’m just overworked. I’ve just been so busy ok? Just stop over reacting and I will take care of it ON MY OWN!”

 

They were not, of course, over reacting. (As evidenced by the fact that I was the one shrieking like a damn hyeina, whilst they all sat sadly but calmly around me repeating what the counselors had instructed them to repeat. “We love you. We are scared. We don’t want to lose you. We want you to get help.”) It was 2008, and my eating disorder had hit an all-time peak in terms of intensity. They had a right to be scared. Not only was I in terrible physical condition, but my entire personality had changed. I had lost friendships, my grades had slipped, my emotions were muted. I was a shell of their former daughter and sister. They were, as they very well should have been, terrified. All logic would suggest that I would have been terrified too right? I mean I was, in essence struggling with an illness that was literally eating me alive. I wasn’t though. I was furious. You see, my eating disorder was my very best friend at this point. It was my coping tool, it was my reassurance, and though I knew deep down that it was driving me insane, I felt much more strongly on another level that it was keeping me sane.

 

And herein lies the conundrum that eating disorder sufferors face. A push-pull tug of war, mental volleyball game in your own head that spans throughout each day. You know in your soul that you are sick. So sick. Something deep inside you might even be scared. But you are also more scared of letting it go. Letting go of the eating disorder, of the smooth and silent easy calm that counting calories and pouring all of your energy into the number on the scale gives you- letting go of this would mean-what? Chaos? Complete lack of control? Unstoppable weight gain? Outrageous personality changes? Nu uh. Too scary. (Scarier than death? Yes scarier than death).

 

So you decide (Read: I was forced) to listen to your family and friends, and get yourself some much needed help. You are submerged into therapy. Psychologists are encouraging you to kick ED out. Dieticians are telling you that food is fuel. Suddenly you begin to feel guilty when you eat and when you don’t eat! What the hell? When it was just you and the ED at least the guilt only happened when you ate! Now it feels like a lose-lose. And here, is where the giant leap of faith comes in my friends. When you are uncomfortable, sad, angry, terrified, physically in pain, guilty if you eat, guilty if you don’t, and yet you still make an active choice to continue on. A choice to listen to the professionals, and those who have recovered before you, who are telling you that this will all be worth it. A choice to keep going even though every fiber in your being says go back. A choice to believe that there is life on the other side, a choice to believe that you can make it to that life, and finally, a choice to believe that you are worth that life.

 

There is nothing in my life that I am more proud of than the fact that I made that choice. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t even know if I wanted recovery. But I had hit rock bottom so many times, both physically and mentally, and something clicked in me that my next rock bottom could be death. So I stopped clinging to the eating disorder, and became somewhat ambivilant. “I could try it?” I thought to myself. “I know the eating disorder is here if I don’t like it.” Turns out this shift was all that was required for this leap (well that and a hell of a lot of hard work and courage down the line). I took the ambivilance and trudged forward. I started out crawling. Then slowing I began walking. Cautiously, then all at once I found myself running, running towards freedom, running towards happiness, finally running with recovery, not from it.

 

So now I can finally say, I understand what the others were trying to explain when they said that recovery will be beautiful. The joy on the other side is indescribable. I know it’s hard to believe. I know you’re thinking that it can happen for others but not for you. I thought the same and I took the leap anyway. Now it’s your turn.

-C