Food, Eating Habits and Grey Areas.
Reactions to A Conversation About and Insight Into What Separates an Eating Disorder and Disordered Eating.
In late 2015, Man Repeller published a moving conversation about food and eating habits between its editors Leandra Medine and Amelia Diamond. It's a layman's look into the disordered norms that dominate their, and many of our, spheres of influence. It struck me as a particularly honest conversation, and one that I felt compelled to participate in. So upon reading An Email Conversation About Food, I sent Man Repeller the following email:
Dear MR, Leandra & Amelia,
I read “An Email Conversation about Food” just after signing off a Skype chat with my de-facto therapist (she’s technically a health coach) during which I’d discussed the agonizing hour-and-a-half during which I ate a bag of granola with two bowls of oatmeal, apple pancakes, pumpkin spice skyr and unsweetened almond milk (and lentils because I needed to make them go away since they’d been in the fridge too long and my anxiety around that is what got me eating in the first place). The central issue was that I’d predetermined that I would come home from a morning of being a personal shopper for Instacart (I am a creative-type supporting myself with a job that is essentially Supermarket Sweep. This does not always ease food stress.) and make a salad using the lentils I had sitting in the fridge. I didn’t however feel much like eating lentils, so I paid attention (good!) and purchased granola at the Whole Foods I shop at with vague plans of sprinkling some on top of skyr and oatmeal I would make at home. By the time I’d made my oatmeal creation, I’d alternated between semi-consciously praising and punishing myself for my deviation from "the plan" enough that I’d turned eating said creation into the crux of a mini-crisis. The only way I knew how to solve this crisis was to eat my creation and a bagful of granola worth of variations on the theme (except for the lentils which were largely unrelated). This happens sometimes (my brain toggles back and forth until I am miserably uncomfortable and need to make the feelings go away), and that is something I hate and live with and work on (even though the work proves to be relentlessly hard).
I am in the “recovery phase” of an eating disorder that has taken all the shapes and been totally debilitating, but usually only for hours at a time. My story is that I got into running and got both skinny and an eating disorder by accident because I didn’t understand how weight loss works. Excluding those first 3-6 months (3-6 because how do you tell when an eating disorder starts when - as Leandra and Amelia pointed out - disordered eating is the norm), I have been actively trying not have an eating disorder for 6 years now. On the days when I don’t remember that I amin the middle of the interminable, all-consuming eating disorder, I still have a “normal” person’s disordered thoughts on food to deal with (being thrilled if I make it through the day without being unimaginably hungry and without having eaten much at all, or agonizing over whether it’s okay to have granola for lunch when I’d set out to eat lentils, for example). For me, the options are disordered or normal (i.e. disordered, but less intrusively so) which makes it hard to perceive my “normal” days as undisordered because there is still so much that is disordered about them. This in turn makes it hard to recognize progress and easy to beat myself up.
As most of us can see, there is a broad spectrum of disordered behavior out there, ranging primarily in how much food and eating get in the way of everything else (such as one’s sanity or relationships or career). For those of us who’ve experienced full blown eating disorders, there is no normal to return to. Yes, many individuals have healthy, comfortable, sustainable relationships with food, but perverse attitudes towards food are everywhere and unavoidable. There are triggers at every meal, in every conversation, no matter how well-meaning or well-informed the crowd. The only solution I’ve found, the only way to be less miserable leading a normal life that includes the inundation of less than normal commentary on food and bodies, is to get better. That is, literally recover from my eating disorder. The farther I get from mentally charting all of the under-frequented public restrooms on my college campus (and then at my workplace) where I can throw up in privacy, from stealing food from roommates, from running seven miles on an empty stomach through 25 degree weather with a 103 degree fever, or from lying awake all night quaking on account of all of the cookies in my system, the less I am shaken by seeing a very, very (“scary”) skinny girl on a nearby treadmill, by holiday meals, by someone unexpectedly bringing by a pie for dinner. I do still shudder when I see my former selves in other girls & boys & women & men, but I see myself in everyone, so I can never know for sure if it’s my paranoia or an epidemic.
I do know that we all do a bit better when we’re honest, though. Thank you, MR.
Apparently in the aftermath of their first piece, they received many comments like (& unlike, I'm sure) mine, and in response, they approached a professional to discuss the grey area of disordered eating and thinking, and came up with another conversation that I highly recommend to you. Combined, the two conversations are accessible, humanizing, and serious without being alarmist, making them a rarity in writing about disordered eating.
There's nothing that's said that I disagree with. The one thing that I would add from my experience is that often times the difference between an eating disorder, disordered eating & "normal" distorted thinking or behavior is a matter of the stake that an individual puts in food and body image, which in turn affects the scale of the problem. Eating disorders have a way of connecting themselves to more and more things, so that eventually, everything from friendships to sexual desirability to academic prowess to familial belonging is staked on being (or being anything under) a certain size or weight.
My recovery hangs on taking it all a little less seriously, by putting less stake in my food and body. I got here by working in reverse: if an excess of "stake" led me to thinking about my food and my body excessively, to balance out the excess, I would have to observe my thoughts & behaviors, and then learn to limit the thoughts that led to the behaviors that comprised my eating disorder.
I started with modifying actual behaviors as they felt concretely within my control in a way that my thoughts did not. As I mentioned, I stopped throwing up (I can't explain it any better than that I told myself, firmly, without judgment and with concern, "you need to stop." I didn't right stop away, but then I did). I challenged myself not to lift up my shirt & check out how convex/concave my stomach was before going into bathrooms with mirrors. I blocked the website I used to visit to scroll through pictures of food for hours. I built in time to my day to practice objectively healthy activities, which for me included drawing, singing and writing.
The hardest part was becoming increasingly disciplined about allowing myself to think thoughts that I knew were not "good" (i.e. not indulging in the shame that characterized my experience with an eating disorder), and acknowledging that these thoughts existed, but then requiring myself to move on. This practice - think destructive thought, acknowledge that, say "okay, that's enough" & then stop thinking about it - is both simple and immeasurably difficult to realize. I found it helpful to have something else, something "safe" to move onto thinking about (designing bathroom tiling, for example).
Two other revelations have been crucial to my recovery, and the first came from Kathryn Hansen's book Brain Over Binge which speaks predominantly to bulimia (purging & non purging) and bing eating (i.e., the later phases of my eating disorder). If you are especially curious, concerned for yourself or for a dear one, the whole book is worth reading, but in summary: it details what is going on the brain during urges to binge, and banks on the idea that demystifying the neurological processes can empower someone who wants to recover to do just that. The neurological principles are largely the same as in addiction recovery: repeated use of specific neural pathways creates habits and impulses which originate in the midbrain. The prefrontal cortex is where we make conscious decisions, it can actually override suggestions from the midbrain, though that feels impossible.
Brain Over Binge also introduced me to the definition of recovery as consistently not engaging in defining characteristics of an eating disorder (i.e. bingeing, throwing up, fasting, over-exercising, chewing and spitting etc.). I spent such a long time thinking that I had to eradicate every single symptom and contributing thought before I could stop the unwanted behavior. I thought that I would have to unbecome a perfectionist, unfall prey to anxiety, depression, OCD & the seduction of thinness, untangle each web of my family dysfunction. I was typically impatient, didn't realize that working on myself and renegotiating these facets of my identity would be a lifelong pursuit. Nor did I realize that just getting better was the first step.
The second revelation is a little harder to pin down, but it came from something like growing up and beginning to pay attention to the overwhelming evidence that little, if anything, is black or white, right or wrong. By extension: there is not a right way to recover from an eating disorder. There is no timeline, no particular method, no school of therapy, no way of eating, no body type that is inherently better for a person in recovery. Relaxing a little and softening the fear that I could be recovering all wrong were the most productive steps I could take towards actually recovering. That softening opened up space to listen to myself, my body and my needs, and listening to myself morphed into something like faith.