Eating disorder recovery is not linear, it’s not a finish line that once you’ve crossed it the work is done. My recovery was made up of choices, small and large, that I started out by making occasionally, sometimes unintentionally, and then intentionally, eventually daily, until they became automatic. So now usually, it no longer feels like I’m having to make these choices: to eat every day, to eat enough, to eat when I’m hungry even though I wasn’t planning on eating. But part of having been through my eating disorder is knowing that they are choices, knowing that they’re choices I need to make.
Knowing how hard those choices used to be.
My recovery was made up of battles that I often lost. There were a lot of times I knew I didn’t want to feel that way anymore — I didn’t want to feel so weak or so unable to cope with unexpected changes to my food plan. I felt so bad. So uncomfortable. But I didn’t want to have to gain weight to do that. I wanted my mind to be better but not my body. There was a part of me, the sick part of me, that took pride in the ways my eating disorder hurt me. Like how it hurt to sit. Or in yoga when we did belly down floor poses how hard the floor felt against my bare ribcage. Like this feeling I would get when I’d take a hot shower, a kind of dizziness I felt in my stomach, never being sure if I was about to pass out. It did — it felt like control, like those were the trophies I had for being able to overcome my instincts. They were tangible proof that my choices mattered. And that felt so good that I couldn’t see how bad it made me feel. I was so glad to see the power I had over myself that I didn’t realize I was using my power to cause harm. Not only to myself but to everyone who cared about me, too.
I feel so lucky and grateful for my recovery. But it wasn’t easy, and isn’t always easy. There are moments, good ones and bad, that remind me how far I’ve come from where I’ve been.
Like the time I allowed myself to put butter on my waffles. My illness would never allow that; it didn’t see the point. Why put empty calories, pure fat, onto something that tastes just fine without? It became so easy to believe that. But then one time, in a moment of strength, in a moment of not overthinking it, I buttered my waffles for the first time in years. And I remembered, waffles taste so much better buttered.
I (vegan) buttered my waffles this morning and I didn’t think twice about whether or not to do it. Because I know I like them best that way. I am allowed to, entitled to, deserving of buttered waffles, and I know it. But as I made that now very small choice, I remembered the first time I did. I remembered how much it mattered back then. Life is really hard to deal with when even the choice to butter your waffles feels so immense. That was never control, that was never power. This is power: being able to do what I want.
* * *
I remember one time I was sitting on the subway, and someone across from me was inhaling a sandwich, and I watched them, disgusted. I thought to myself, I will never eat on the subway, I will never eat so fast. I thought about the circumstances that must have led that person to be doing such a thing, that they must be short on time, rushing from one thing to the next, and that they just had to find time to eat, because they just had to eat. That will never be me, I thought to myself. I thought it showed my strength that I wouldn’t need to eat. I thought it showed I had it together that my perfectly planned eating schedule would never put me in a position where I had to so thoughtlessly scarf down sustenance like that. What I couldn’t see at all was that the reason that would never be me back then was because my entire life was about food, and that was not living. I didn’t think at all about where that person was coming from and where they were going. I didn’t grasp that whatever it was they were doing around eating was probably much more meaningful than the eating itself, that what mattered most was that they made time to do all of those things they wanted to do, and that they still managed to use the time they had in between to take care of their body and feed it, even if they had to do it on the subway. I was the sad one. I was the one who had nothing better to do than obsess over food. It was me.
The first time I ate on the subway, I had had a rough recovery day. It would happen now and then. I was supposed to go to a hockey game with some friends, but I couldn’t convince myself to eat dinner. The longer I spent agonizing over not wanting to let myself eat yet not wanting to succumb to my ED thoughts, the less time I had to actually eat. I almost did neither, eat nor go to the game. But eventually, with help, I was able to pick up some waffles from a juice bar, which I ate quickly on the subway on the way to Barclays Center. As I did it, I remembered that person. I realized that now, that person was me. I remembered the judgments I felt about them. And I thought about my day, how hard it had been to get myself to eat, how close I was to losing this battle, and although there was a part of me on that day that really felt guilty and ashamed that I was eating in that way or even at all, I realized what a victory it was. I realized that the part of me that didn’t want to eat also wanted to stay home feeling bad for myself rather than spending time with people who matter at an event I would enjoy. I had felt weak for giving in to the need to eat, but I realized that I was the one that won that battle; it was my eating disorder that lost.
* * *
Not too long ago I accidentally ate something that wasn’t vegan. There was a mixup with the mock meat; the one I ate was only vegetarian. It had both milk and egg. I felt so guilty. I went to the bathroom. I stood over the toilet. It had been so many years of recovery, did I really want to do this? But I felt so disgusted with myself. It’s tricky because the shame, the mistake, the imperfection, really triggers the feelings that drove my eating disorder to begin with. I thought about putting my finger in my mouth. I wondered if I’d even remember how to do it. I remembered the first time how long it took, how much more efficient I got at it as time went by. I remembered the first time how sure I was it would only be that one time, and I wondered if this would be the same. Would I be able to only do it this once this time, because this specific thing happened that I felt was a “good enough” reason? Or was it just an excuse? Would I fall back into that pattern? I was scared of that… but I was also tempted. There was space in my thoughts being filled with the eating disorder that even still, even after so much time, lies dormant in my brain. I started to think, wow, maybe I’ll get skinny again. Part of me thought, maybe people will recognize how much I’m hurting if I get weak again. Part of me thought, maybe if it gets that bad again it can be a good excuse to destroy this life I’ve built and that could make the bad parts go away.
But I thought about the good parts. I thought about my significant other. I thought about all the people I pushed away when my eating disorder controlled me. Is it worth risking losing this relationship? Is it worth losing all of my friends? I thought about triathlon. I thought about how I’ve worked so hard to get as fast as I am and my big plans to get faster. I would lose all of that. Is it worth it? I thought about my job. I thought about my sanity. I thought about the clothes I love wearing. I thought about veganism and the vegans I know. I thought, is this a good way to represent veganism? To act like one mistake ruins every single other day all these years I didn’t make a mistake? Would any of my vegan friends tell me I wasn’t vegan anymore or that I would need to reset my count because of something I ate without realizing? Would I ever tell one of my vegan friends that? Would I recommend they purge it, and tell them that if they did then the mistake wouldn’t count after all? No.
I did not relapse that day behaviorally. But I got closer than I would like to admit. And it reminded me not to take for granted my recovery, not to underestimate what a threatening thing my eating disorder is.
That day passed, and because I did not relapse, the feelings of shame subsided quickly. I remembered I was still me. And I am so grateful that I didn’t succumb, because if I had, I’m not sure I would have been okay so quickly. I’m not sure I would have been okay today. I’m not sure I would have put that butter on my waffles without thinking too hard about it.
My recovery is ongoing. I hope it always will be.