Sometimes things come together in a way that is more than coincidence. I've been thinking about writing more personal posts. Stretching beyond my shyness and letting you in on my personal life could nourish you and me both, but what if you're not up for reading anything deeper than my usual restaurant and recipe reviews? Amid all this thinking, I had the great fortune of finally meeting Gena of Choosing Raw in person for the first time last night. We talked about everything from career to eating disorders to travel over tea at Real Food Daily. When I brought up more personal blogging, she encouraged me, saying that opening up on this blog could help people. And so it can't really be a coincidence that this is the end of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The universe is asking me to dive in and share my experience. (Caveat: I'm going to leave out some details because I know if I'd read about the intricacies of someone else's eating disorder when I was in the thick of it, I would have used it as a how-to manual. The purpose of this post is to help, not hurt.) Here goes...
I grew up in a nice suburb of LA with my nuclear family. I have great parents, but something deep in my psychology had me feeling unloved, misunderstood, and lonely. I've also struggled with insomnia, stress, and some minor obsessive compulsive tendencies since I was very young.
I've always been more of an introvert, but I had a circle of friends and did well in school. I had a couple bullies in elementary school and then a new one when I started middle school. My PE locker was next to a girl who teased me for wearing a bra, which I needed even though we were in sixth grade and 11 years old. She teased me to the point that I stopped wearing one for a while in favor of tank top undershirts. I was lean; I'd just started developing earlier than other girls. Probably a less sensitive kid would have let this teasing roll off her back or would have had a snappy come-back, but it upset me. That same year, two of my closest friends were in cotillion and constantly bragged about their size zero dresses. My mom was a typical stay-at-home mom who tried various diets and complained about her thighs and butt on a regular basis. When I try to pinpoint what triggered my body dysmorphia and disordered eating, these are the external elements that I feel likely contributed. However, those things might not have affected someone else and I know they were compounded by my own sensitivity or maybe predisposition.
I became very focused on the calorie and fat content of foods and asked my mom to buy whole wheat bread, skim milk, and Special K for me. Fat became my nemesis and low-fat, low-calorie food my friend. During recess, I would tell my friends the nutritional content of what they were eating. This must have been obnoxious to them! I don't know where I gained this knowledge or why I anointed myself the unsolicited recess nutritional consultant of my peers. I was reading nutrition labels far earlier than any of the adults I knew. Perhaps I heard something in a science class or on a commercial or the news. Regardless of the origin, I used my understanding of nutrition for evil. I used it against my own body.
I must have started seriously restricting the following year in seventh grade. Our science class that year was anatomy and physiology, one of my favorite subjects. There was a brief nutrition module in that class and we were required to keep a food journal for a week. I distinctly remember making up meals to write in my journal because I knew I'd get in trouble if I revealed how little I was eating. I would wake up earlier than everyone else in my family, making noise in the kitchen as if I were eating breakfast when I wasn't. I'd make myself lunch and throw it away at school. When I realized how wasteful this was, I switched to bringing a puffed-up paper bag that looked like lunch, but was, in fact, empty. I was sneaky. One of my few saving graces was that we usually ate dinner as a family and I would always eat if my parents were watching.
I was obsessed with my weight and was proud of the low number I was hitting on the scale. When I got to eighth grade (this was the year I cut pork from my diet), my boyfriend encouraged me to gain a little, but I wouldn't. Even a 13-year-old boy could see something was wrong!
One of my friends saw me throwing away my lunch every day and told her mom, who told my mom. My mom did the best she could. I would come home to low-fat candy bars she had quietly left in my room, hoping I'd eat them. She kept a stock of Tiger's Milk bars (these were among the first protein bars) and tried to force me to eat them, but I would hide them around my bedroom. She sent me to therapy (I don't think it was an eating disorders specialist), but I refused to talk to the therapist. I'd sit in a chair for the full session and give one-word answers. I was ashamed to be in therapy; I lied to my boyfriend and told him I was babysitting those days. Eventually I was allowed to stop going. I wonder what would have changed if I'd been made to see an eating disorders specialist.
In high school, I had different friends, friends who were not focused on dress sizes. I would eat a little for lunch, usually raw veggies or maybe a yogurt or rice cakes, most days. Low-fat sweets were everywhere in stores (think Snack Wells and the like) and I would sometimes eat those. I was still skipping breakfast and was unwilling to eat food with any significant amount (over three grams) of fat. I continued to be obsessed with the number on the scale and on my clothing tags. I added exercise to my regimen and Kate Moss was my body idol. Now, I realize that I experienced amenorrhoea
for several years as a teenager. I didn't think twice about it then. I
thought it was normal because I was young, but it's a common
side effect of restrictive eating.
The summer after I graduated high school, my best friend and I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland for seven weeks. We stayed with her family and I was never alone during meals. I ate three meals a day there and I had no control over what was served. My digestion did not do well with the richness of European food after about seven years of low-fat, restrictive eating, but I was eating nonetheless. It was the first time since I was a child that I came close to eating like I imagine "normal" humans eat and I grew an inch and a half.
My first two years of college at UC Santa Barbara were full of restricting, skipping meals (mostly lunch), and exercising. I usually ate a couple meals a day; a bowl of Special K with skim milk for breakfast, a salad with lemon instead of dressing for dinner, and the occasional, carefully-measured spoon of low-fat peanut butter or fruit for a snack. I learned from eating ice cream that my body could no longer handle dairy fat. One of my biggest moments of shame was being so hungry from restricting that I snuck food out of a friend's dorm room. I made one attempt at bulimia. Thank goodness I was unsuccessful.
I gave up red meat the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. Going to the gym five to six days a week became an escape from an uncomfortable roommate situation sophomore year. My mom also took me to a nutritionist she was seeing that year. It gave me a little relief to learn about other foods I could eat and to keep a food journal, but I only got to have a couple sessions with her.
I spent the third year of university in an education abroad program in Toulouse, France. It was the first time I lived on my own and had to provide meals for myself. My diet was primarily vegetarian, but contained few vegetables. Since I didn't know how to cook, I was limited to things that were easy to prepare. A normal day had me eating an apple or a yogurt for breakfast, canned corn and chickpeas for lunch, and rice and lentils for dinner. That's a lot of protein and starch and an almost complete lack of fresh foods, so it's not surprising I gained weight there. This was also the year my parents separated. I handled it by taking on the role of the adult and the space-holder for both my parents and my brother. Somehow I saw my emotions as less important than anyone else's and I was busy taking care of their feelings while nobody was taking care of mine. I shared my feelings with my journal and took long walks around Toulouse with my Walkman and mix tapes (yes, Walkman). I talked to my best friend about it, too, but long-distance charges were hefty back then and e-mail a rarity, so I was mostly without a support system.
Back in the US for my senior year of college, my eating was a mess. I bought a steamer and learned how to make steamed chicken, rice, and vegetables, but I also drank Slim Fast, usually in place of a couple meals a day. I took laxatives. I drank diet Coke. There was a serious lack of nutrients in my diet and I was consuming a lot of chemicals in those diet drinks. I was also going through a lot of emotional upheaval dealing with my parents' divorce and my upcoming graduation that would be quickly followed by starting law school.
I moved back to LA that summer before starting law school. Skipping breakfast and lunch became my norm. But I had a big shift when I became vegetarian early that October and realized I had to learn how to feed myself. I continued skipping meals, but I also had access to the Food Network for the first time. I taught myself how to cook by watching the early Food Network chefs (Emeril Lagasse, Sara Moulton, and Ming Tsai) and applying their skills to vegan recipes. My New Year's resolution that year was to try veganism for six months. I had no vegan community then and very few resources, so I knew what to eliminate from my diet, but not what to add to it. I ended up with some minor health issues and went back to being vegetarian after the sixth months were over.
A boyfriend moved in with me around that time and I started eating what he wanted to eat, which was mostly cheese pizza, Chinese food, and Coke. I gained weight. And then I got really, really sick. One night, I woke up with abdominal pain so horrendous that I couldn't even walk. My then-boyfriend convinced me to sleep it off and it was gone by morning. Those attacks recurred, though, every time I ate cheese, so I eliminated cheese from my diet (13 years later, I haven't eaten cheese since). That worked well for a long time. I also lost a lot of weight in the snap of a finger just from eliminating cheese. Then, nine months after that initial attack, I had an instantaneous attack after eating olive oil-topped hummus. I went to the doctor the next day and a week later had my gall bladder removed because it was full of 32 to 36 gall stones. Normally, this was not something a 25-year-old girl would have, but the doctor told me that years (by then, 14 years) of eating a low-fat diet was likely the cause. Simply put, the gall bladder holds bile that processes fat as fat moves through the gall bladder on the way to the intestines. When that bile doesn't have fat to process, it can crystallize and become gall stones.
My weight was stable and healthy for seven or eight years after that surgery. I have two things to thank for this: vegetarianism/veganism and yoga. Veganism changed my relationship to food in a healthy way because eating was no longer only about me. I learned the impact that my food choices had on the lives of innocent creatures and on our planet. Moreover, I learned about vegetables and fruits and ethnic cuisines I never knew existed. My food world expanded. I started reading vegan food blogs and vegan nutrition books, diving deep into self-teaching about nutrition and its impact on overall health. This came naturally and intuitively to me.
I have never, ever wavered from my veganism since I made the commitment over eight years ago. I don't consider this a matter of willpower or challenging in any way. I'm never tempted to eat something non-vegan, no matter how delicious or "sustainably" sourced someone claims it is. Veganism is a complete no-brainer to me; it's a hard-wired fact of who I am.
Yoga completely changed my relationship to my body. I was skeptical when I started, but soon found that my body felt great after class. Before I knew it, I was hooked and going to class about four times a week. I had an incredibly community of yogis. My body was changing, toning, becoming more flexible, and I felt graceful. I learned how to listen to my body's cues, whether they be pain or that great feeling of conscious extension in a pose. My then-boyfriend noticed my posture change; I was walking taller and prouder. I felt good about myself. My anxiety about food and my weight lessened greatly due to taking care of myself.
This healthy routine lasted about five or six years until I moved away from my yoga community. I joined a great studio closer to my home when I moved, but the vibe is different and not quite as supportive. There are incredible teachers there; I just haven't connected as deeply with them as with my original teacher. Instead of pulling myself up by the bootstraps and going despite this, I've let my in-studio practice become sporadic at best. I go in phases where I have a very regular practice at the studio or using YogaGlo, but I always let something get in the way. I'm still trying to find the right balance or motivation for a regular practice without a solid yoga community to inspire me.
As for food and my weight these days, well, I'm in a challenging phase right now. Somewhere along the line, I created a three meals a day requirement for
myself. I stick to this unless I sleep in really late and eat a big
lunch instead of eating breakfast. I'm not much of a snacker. I don't restrict, but when I am going through heartbreak or intense emotional anxiety, the first thing to go is my appetite. I keep the three meals rule during these times; I just won't force myself to eat. My challenge right now is that last year was a difficult one for me and I have gained weight. Part of the problem is that, at night on my own, I'm not eating well and often eat too much. I'm figuring out how to change this in a healthy way. Despite not currently eating at my best, I am always pretty crunchy-granola about what I do eat and how I approach health care, so when I overeat, it's mostly healthy foods. Also, LA is teeming with new (and classic) vegan restaurants and a lot of my social activity includes meeting friends for meals. This part, I think is healthy and I'm not concerned about it.
I won't weigh myself at the moment because I think that could be damaging, but I'm guessing I've gained about ten pounds and my clothes are fitting differently. Body dysmorphia still haunts me. It always has. It's not something that has an off switch; it's something that needs to be constantly managed. I'm able to love my body for how it works, but I admit I'm not always happy with how it looks. I wish I could tell you that I never deal with this anymore, but 26 or so years later, it's still a part of my daily life. Maybe it always will be.
As I'm writing this novella of a post, I'm reminded that, for me, I do best with a routine. I thrive with a regular yoga practice and structured, healthy eating. If most of my eating is structured, my anxiety around food is at its most still, and indulgences aren't a big deal. I generally make lunches for the week on Sundays and what has worked best in the past is if I make dinners for the week at the same time. That gives me something healthful to grab as soon as I get home from work so I don't choose something less nourishing when I get home hungry at 7. So, I have my game plan and I know what I need to return to in order to feel physically and emotionally healthy.
I want to emphasize that structure is what works best for me. It might not be the best path for someone else who has a history of disordered eating. Other people thrive eating six small meals a day or three meals plus snacks or with simply allowing themselves to eat whenever and whatever they choose. When I talk to others about nutrition and healthful eating, I steer them in the direction of what helps them feel most emotionally and physically strong. Healthful eating is a path that should be individually tailored to each person's needs.
I hope knowing my journey is helpful to whomever is reading. It's been incredibly therapeutic for me to write it. Please know that I'm open to questions and to coaching anyone who is going through a similar experience. I'm here for you.