Losing Myself to Healthy

Stephanie Hunter Jones, "Evolving"If I have the cookie, I will skip my planned snack. Oh, and I should probably walk home from work since I cut my run short this morning. But I didn’t have avocado on my sandwich, so I can maybe add that snack back in. Wait, how many calories are in four slices of avocado? I think my granola bar is about the same number. Maybe I just shouldn’t eat the cookie; if I don’t eat the cookie, I can have my snack…or I could skip the snack altogether and have wine with dinner. But if I don’t eat the cookie, people will think something is wrong. Solution!!  I’ll have a bite of the cookie and throw the other half away when my coworkers aren’t looking… But I should definitely still walk home.

This was my life.

I was fresh out of college and on my own in a new city, Washington D.C., a city filled with the world’s most ambitious and successful people. I had always been a straight-A student, a fairly popular kid who never got into much trouble aside from TP-ing houses every now and then. But when I graduated college and entered the working world, I felt lost. I didn’t know how to measure my self-worth without the goals and achievements I had always cherished.

As a woman in her twenties, I was vulnerable to the body-obsessed, billion-dollar weight loss industry hidden within every magazine I read and television show I watched. So I set my mind to making my body “perfect.” I knew I could do anything if I worked hard enough. I thought, “what a great goal!” As a child I remember being surrounded by people on diets. I remember my mother saying things like, “I hate that picture, I look fat.”  I remember the Weight Watchers meals that filled the freezer. I remember the looks on kids’ faces at school as they were teased for their shape. Success meant thin and fat meant failure. The idea that someone may not have the ability to “remedy” her large size was foreign to me. Self-love and body acceptance were not concepts I had ever heard of.

“Your body defines you” is what I believed.

My new goal was met with encouragement from others, who praised my ethic and my ability to control my food choices. I increased the frequency of my casual workouts to six or seven days a week and my sessions became longer and more intense. Each time I worked out, the goal was purely to burn as many calories as possible. The thought of “wasting time” with recreational exercise like the dance classes I used to love became unthinkable. I sacrificed pieces of myself to focus on my goal, and the praises I received like “ You look so skinny and fabulous!” made it feel worth it in my mind.

Getting “Healthy”

I read magazines about health and fitness and started counting my calories and weighing myself every day as they suggested. I became a slave to the scale; if the number went down I felt good, if it went up I felt disgusting, and I would add time to my next workout. I measured my self worth by a number and gave away my power to an inanimate object.

I created rules in my mind, which I believed were the key to “healthy living.” No snacks between meals, no exceeding 1500 calories per day, no alcoholic beverages with more than 100 calories each, no meals outside of my set meal times, no dressing on salads, no rest days on the weekends. My work ethic and commitment made this all fairly easy.

I became much smaller than my body was ever meant to be, but not so small that anyone said anything to me other than “ You are lucky you are so thin.” Part of me was proud of how much I’d lost – I felt svelte. But inside, I was sad. Getting anxiety over every calorie I consumed, and constantly striving for any extra time to work out is exhausting.

As my body shrank, it felt like everything else was going with it. As I lost weight, I slowly lost my mind.

I was always anxious, I lost my confidence, and I lost my ability to focus on anything or anyone other than myself. I lost my joyful spirit, my laugh, and my love for life.

I began to miss the old carefree me who didn’t count every calorie and obsess over every bite of food and minute at the gym. The me who didn’t ignore her hunger and wasn’t so temperamental that she would break down over spilled milk; who loved chocolate ice cream and slept in on the weekends; who didn’t feel crushed with guilt after an evening of late night drinking and jumbo slice pizza; who knew balance and trusted her body to just be. Not to mention this all seriously conflicted with my love of dining out, wine, and cooking elaborate new recipes at home.

I had always thought that people with eating disorders completely starved themselves and looked obviously underweight. I didn’t meet that archetype, as I still ate what the health magazines said was “enough,” and I didn’t look sickly thin. But mentally, I was completely lost. I had become my eating disorder and I couldn’t picture living any other way.

My boyfriend encouraged me to seek help; he too was becoming tired of living with “hangry” (meaning “hungry” and “angry” – it turns out that a lack of nourishment impacts your hormones and even basic brain function, making you a pretty terrible companion). I couldn’t talk to my friends, who also counted calories and worried about their weight. I still wasn’t completely sure I deserved help to reverse my “good habits.” I started to read blogs written by women my age who have recovered from eating disorders, and seeing how they now lived freely and ate what they wanted was encouraging to me. I wanted to do that again, too.

Redefining Myself

I broke up with the scale a few months after that first realization, as a small step toward escaping the obsession. I was tired of relying on it to tell me how I was “measuring up in the world.” I wanted to feel like I was enough just as I was.

I found a therapist who specializes in eating disorders and body image. I knew I had a messed up relationship with food, exercise, and my body, but I wasn’t ready to admit I deserved an official diagnosis. A lot of people count calories, diet, weigh themselves, and exercise every day to have a good figure. My issues didn’t feel like they fit into a contained list of problems. I just wanted some of my old self back.

My therapist understood my fear of change and my need for structure, so she helped me very slowly begin to make changes, a lot of which came naturally as a result of new realizations about life and about myself. She showed me that my wonderful qualities that got me to this point could be used in ways that weren’t harmful to myself. She helped me cope with fearful situations like pizza parties at work, which felt scarier to me than watching The Exorcist alone in the dark. She gave me strategies for approaching “bad” foods with the option of moderation. She helped me shift my focus from food to the experience of dining with those I care about. We talked about how food nourishes the body, and about how people show love through food for that reason. She helped me learn to listen to my body and to relearn to listen to my hunger cues. She showed me how to see the praise and love I was receiving from others that I hadn’t noticed before. She alerted me to the lack of compassion I showed myself. She helped me begin to redefine who I was.

Slowly, with her help and then the help of a dietitian, I learned to trust my body. I learned to let go, to enjoy food, life, and friends again. I learned to use exercise to feel healthy and strong. I learned to not beat myself up for having a margarita instead of a vodka soda. I learned to listen to my cravings and nourish my body. I learned the dangers of comparing myself to others, especially to those who choose to live their lives like I did in order to look a certain way. That just isn’t for me anymore, and that is not a life I want to live.

I still don’t like to say I am “in recovery” — it feels more like I am reshaping myself into the person I want to be. I have a much different perspective on life since that cold day in December when I walked meekly into my therapist’s office, and cried my eyes out about how much I hated myself.

As I started to fuel myself properly and rest my legs, I felt my heart grow, and my spirit start to fill me back up. My skin began to glow again, my moods stabilized, and my face became fuller and happy.

Continuing to Grow

Looking back, I see my “recovery” in phases. The first phase was the small step of hiding the scale, my way of escaping my own control. The next phase was with my therapist, where I began to challenge my rules and understand how my good qualities had turned against me. The third phase came when my dietitian taught me “what science says” about my metabolism, and that no food is off limits. Each time I think I have reached my full potential for getting healthier, I have a new breakthrough. This is what has given me hope that I can someday escape from the eating disorder or “ED” thoughts entirely.

I believe that now I am teetering on the cusp of another new phase of my recovery: self-love. I am finally becoming the real me. I am back to the natural shape that God gave me, and I am trying to redefine my definition of health and beauty. I am learning to give myself the love and compassion that I now know I deserve, and to rid myself of any lingering perfectionist thoughts. Though I still have a lot to work on, I have come a long way.

As I write this I am eating my favorite crunchy peanut butter out of a jar. There is a soft whisper in my mind saying only one spoonful allowed. I have no need to respond as I take my spoon back to the jar and reach for my second scoop.