In Which I Address My Eating Disorder With Anger

I haven’t spent a lot of my time in talking about my eating disorder lamenting how much I regret having the mental illnesses I do or wishing that I didn’t. I try to be honest about how shitty they can feel, but I’ve never been the kind of person who honestly hates their mental illness. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with it forever.

A lot of people that I know are angry at their disorders. They’re angry that it’s taken things away from them or gotten in the way of their lives. I never had that kind of anger towards it. I never felt like it was getting in the way of anything. I never wrote open letters of hatred telling my eating disorder how shitty it was. I try to be open about what the experience of having my eating disorder is, but I so rarely conceive of it as anything separately from me that I can’t feel like that towards it.

But for some reason that changed today. I happened to read an article by someone I knew in college. She writes for a site that I love and that I would feel honored to write for. I looked back over what she’s done, and she’s accomplishing so much. I felt a flash of jealousy, because I want to be that person that people look up in a few years and feel awe over how much they’ve done.

I took a moment to remind myself of what I’ve been doing recently, things that I’m proud of. I’ve been published on a number of sites, I’m working somewhere I love, I’m working to build a fund to help people with eating disorders. These were all things that have happened in the last year when I was finally hit with the realization that if I want something to get done I can just do it. I don’t have to wait for permission, I can simply call the people I want to work with and get it done.

And I wonder how much sooner I could have had that realization if I wasn’t so busy telling myself that I deserved nothing.

I have always been motivated by accomplishment. But somehow being obsessed with accomplishing kept me from actually working on getting things done, or realizing my own ability to do things. And now I’m just a little bit angry. I’m just the teensiest bit pissed off that my brain’s particular constellation of oddness managed to convince me that I wasn’t allowed to send an email or show up to an organization and just say “here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it. Will you help me?”

I’m sure that I have grown in my ability to conceive of projects and understand how to accomplish things in the real world as well as in my mental health in the last few years. That’s what happens when you start working instead of living in college world. But I had the critical thinking skills to figure out most of it. I conceived of some of these projects three or four years ago and simply thought that I wasn’t old enough, wasn’t connected enough to make it happen.

I was. And I am angry that I convinced myself I didn’t deserve it or couldn’t do it. If anyone else in the world had told me that I would have put in any amount of hours to prove them wrong.

I wonder if this is a step towards a healthier mindset. Or if it’s just that the eating disorder had never taken anything away from me that I cared about before. Either way, it’s something to fight back against.

That leaves me in a weird position. For the last couple of years I’ve been trying not to fight. Instead I have been trying to find ways to embrace the particular oddities of my mind. I’ve been trying not to make my mind a battlefield, because I do that pretty naturally anyway. So it’s odd to suddenly have a realization that I have violated my own boundaries and hurt my own values in such a blatant way.  I’m not sure what to do with the information, or whether I will start to take on that “fighting” mentality that some people do. But at the very least, I’m thoroughly upset and will make my jerkbrain take a time out for keeping me from being as awesome as I could have been.

 

Taking Anti Depressants Is Actually Really Hard

Last night I got drunk. Really, surprisingly drunk.

That in and of itself isn’t news, nor is it something much of anyone needs to know. It’s the why of it that’s important. You see I am not a heavy drinker and I don’t usually get drunk, definitely not on Wednesday nights. I just went out and had a couple ciders with a work contact. Normal.

Except that less than a week ago I doubled my dosage of my anti depressants. And so halfway through my second cider everything went swimmy and it was hard to focus on words and faces, and it was taking all my concentration just to nod at the right times in the conversation.It was completely unexpected, and entirely disorienting.

But more than that it meant I had to call my boyfriend for a ride home because I couldn’t drive, and cancel plans to see a family friend one last time before she flew home to Germany, and couldn’t do the last hour of work that I had intended to do that night. It interfered with my life to become suddenly, unexpectedly drunk.

Ok, so I’ll take full responsibility for the fact that I drank. I made that choice and I didn’t have to. But what’s difficult about meds that many people don’t always get unless they experience it is that your body will react to all kinds of things in unexpected ways. You can’t always predict how your body will react. There are side effects galore, and even if you find a med that works for you and whose side effects you can handle, it’s incredibly likely that after some amount of time you’ll need to adjust dose or type because brains adapt and change.

So that means that I will periodically not know what I can reasonably expect from my body most likely for the rest of my life. Sure, I can take precautions. But even as my medications make it possible for me to live my life with minimal intrusion from my mental illnesses, they leave me with different kinds of uncertainties. Will my sex drive dry up if I change meds? Will I start gaining weight? What happens if this one gives me side effects like Effexor, and leaves me shaky and weak for days if I miss a single pill?

One of the things that grates on my nerves in discussions of whether medications are the devil beast that’s ruining everyone or the godsend that’s curing all of mental illness is a serious lack of focus on the actual experiences of people who actually take psychiatric medications. Like most of life, it’s a mixed bag. It’s often confusing. And it often seems as if every time you find something that helps there’s some other effect hiding behind it. For me, meds have stabilized me enough that therapy works. But the downside is that they leave me even more out of touch with my body, and even less capable of predicting how basic things like sleep, food, and alcohol will affect me.

I would really love more discussions of what the actual experience of taking anti depressants is like. So here’s what it’s like for me: it’s incredibly helpful because it gives me some breathing room from overwhelming emotions. I don’t feel completely flooded on a regular basis when my meds are working. But it’s confusing and frustrating too. I’ve had meds with awful side effects, and even the meds with reasonable side effects are annoying. They make me sleepy and hungry, they mean I can only have a half a glass of wine before getting unreasonably buzzed, sometimes I can’t tell if my brain is fuzzy and hard to focus because of depression or because of the medication I take for my depression. It’s a confusing experience. You can never suss out exactly what things (good or bad) come from meds or just from life. But so far they’ve helped. And I’ll accept that.

Cooking and Grocery Shopping In Recovery

I recently saw an article of tips and tricks about grocery shopping when you have an eating disorder. Of course I clicked on the link, but I was surprised to find that almost everything on the list was exactly the opposite of how I prefer to approach food.

People’s strategies for recovery are as widely varied as they themselves are, and different people find different approaches to meal planning, shopping, and cooking helpful. So I thought I might throw out some of what’s helped me become more comfortable with the process of getting food from the store to inside my belly in the hope that others might find something useful in it.

I’d also love to hear other people’s tactics. The more we can share with each other what’s helped us, the less alone and confused anyone has to feel. So here are my strategies for the actual shopping and cooking processes while in recovery.

  1. Plan ahead. I never ever go into a store without a list of everything that I need, and I try very hard not to buy anything that isn’t on the list (unless I look at it and realize I meant to put it on the list). This helps me to feel less out of control while I’m in the store, it ensures that my grocery trips take less time, and it means I can focus on crossing things off of the list instead of on all the food around me.
  2. Buy in bulk. Some people really don’t like this one, and I understand. There are times that it’s overwhelming to me to have too much food in my house. But I really prefer to have fewer trips to the store, and so I buy lots of frozen veggies, grains that don’t go bad, and other things that can last me up to a month so I don’t have to venture back to the store for as long as possible. Again, your mileage may vary on this one, and if you feel really overwhelmed with having too much at once then it can be really helpful to start with a smaller store rather than a Cub or a Rainbow.
  3. Produce and other things that go bad: approach with care. For a long time I wouldn’t buy anything that would go bad because it felt like too much pressure to eat it right this instant. If you have worries about things going bad then it’s actually possible to buy mostly long term things (frozen is your friend). My strategy has been to slowly introduce more perishables. I started with milk (because I need it for my mac and cheese) and have now worked up to such amazing buys as spinach. You don’t have to get a lot of any of these, or even a wide variety of perishables. You can make your basic diet one that doesn’t spoil and add on fresh things for more nutrients as you feel comfortable.
  4. Recipes aren’t necessary but they can be helpful to come up with fast and easy things. You in no way need to follow recipes exactly, especially if there are more ingredients than you want to deal with. I recommend doing some brainstorming before going to the store for things that will be as easy and fast as possible. I find the longer I have to commit to cooking, the less likely I am to get my meals in.
  5. Cooking in bulk can be great! I love to make extra pasta or rice so that I have a couple additional meals and don’t have to worry about cooking for a few days. Decreases stress, increases ease.
  6. Eat things that taste good to you. I don’t buy frozen meals even though in many ways they would seem ideal for me. I don’t like how they taste. Instead I try to get things that I want to eat because that will increase my motivation to cook them and put them in my stomach.
  7. With that said, also be aware of things that feel too anxiety provoking. I try not to have chips around too much because I eat them mindlessly and it causes me a lot of stress. That doesn’t mean cutting those foods out entirely, but rather being careful around them so that you can eat them with minimal stress (I only buy one bag of chips at my monthly grocery run so that I don’t feel overwhelmed).
  8. If you’re going to go grocery shopping with someone else, communicate how you shop and what they can do to support you. There are lots of people out there who like to wander and browse in the grocery store, so don’t assume that everyone wants a list or can be in and out quickly.
  9. I prefer to buy things that are not pre-portioned so that I can decide how much I am hungry for.
  10. Eat before you go! Shopping when hungry means everything will look good and it can get overwhelming really fast. I also try to build in some downtime post shopping trips so that I can calm any stress that might have built up.
  11. I prefer to have a few standbys for cooking that are as easy as possible and feel completely possible no matter how bad of a day I’m having. I always keep those around. For me it’s ramen noodles, mac and cheese, and chic’n nuggets.
  12. I also try to make my cooking in general simple. I like to do variations on the same theme. Most of my food comes in the form of grain+veg+sauce all mixed together. That means I only have to figure out three choices for any given meal, but also allows me all kinds of different flavors.
  13. When adding new things, don’t try to do too much at once. I never have enough protein in my diet, so I’ve been working on that, but I don’t try to do many things at once. This week I added protein smoothies to my diet. A few months ago I started adding fake meats to my basic meal template. One at a time is easier to keep track of, less stressful, easier to adjust if it starts stressing you out, and easier to grow accustomed to.
  14. There is no need to be a perfectionist. For a long time I didn’t want to cook because I didn’t feel confident about it and I hate not being perfect. But my food doesn’t have to turn out like the food on Iron Chef. It just has to turn out like something I want to eat. It can be ugly, I can make mistakes, and I can experiment without being some kind of failure.
  15. Spend money on food. I know that sounds privileged and stupid, but it’s an important shift of mindset for many people with eating disorders. For a long time I refused to budget any money for food because I didn’t see it as a necessity. But eating becomes much easier if you like the way your food tastes and if you can buy things that you enjoy, which means putting food as high on your budget priorities can go a long way. This is also part of why I allow myself to eat out more often than I probably should. My health is worth the money.

That’s what works for me at least. I hope some of it is helpful, and remember: if these things don’t sound useful for you then you don’t need to do them. Do what works for you.

 

Recovery In a World of Triggers

It’s extremely common for people with eating disorders to relapse at least once after feeling as if they’re in recovery or on their way to recovery. Some stats put relapse rates as high as 80%, although with more research on good treatment and long term support for people with a history of eating disorders, it’s likely that the number will go down. But unlike lots of other mental health problems, eating disorders live in a place where the bad behaviors are often praised, and triggers are basically everywhere all the time.

It’s astounding to me that anyone manages to recover at all. I’ve been doing fairly well for about six months, but the longer I spend away from the eating disorder, the more I realize how many unhealthy messages there are all around me. I recently had a conversation in which someone who was well aware of my eating disordered history and who brands themself a skeptic and scientifically literature person suggested that a diet of 1200 calories was an appropriate form of weight loss. Almost every day I hear people talking about how unhealthy it is to eat sugar or carbs or gluten or really anything. No matter how many times I try to remind myself that what’s important is eating food that tastes good to me and eating enough food that I feel full, I am constantly and every day reminded that being hyper aware of diet seems to be synonymous with health.

And yes, there is good evidence that being at a mid range weight, not eating tons o sugar, and getting decent exercise are good for you. The problem is how to interpret that statement when your brain is built for all or nothing thinking and perfectionism, for guilt tripping you and punishing you. How do you find any sort of middle ground between “I am allowed to eat what I want” and “I should try to eat in a healthy manner”? This to me is what makes eating disorder recovery so hard. There is no cold turkey to eating disorders because food is always going to be part of your life, which means at least a few times a day you’ll be thinking about the thing that ruled your mind for so long.

In addition, there’s tons of conflicting information out there about what’s healthy. Even for someone who doesn’t have an eating disorder, sorting through the morass of studies and recommendations can be incredibly difficult, and reading about diet studies can be extremely triggering for someone with a history of an eating disorder. That means most of us just want someone to tell us what’s right, what’s ok. No one can and no one will, so instead we’re surrounded with a thousand different messages and left reeling about what is or isn’t appropriate food behavior.

The unknowing is almost more triggering than the obviously pro-skinniness, pro-dieting messages. The deep uncertainty about whether or not your weight is too high or too low, your diet is too unhealthy or too many calories or too few calories, or not enough veggies, that gets into your mind until you just want the clear rules again. Unlike nearly any other mental health problem, eating disorders circulate around something that’s considered completely acceptable to comment on publicly: food. And it’s a conversation that everyone wants to have, so no matter how you try to avoid it, you have a coworker who says “Oh I’ll be bad and have a cupcake” or a family member who says “I’m down 15 pounds!” in a tone of pride. Each time you try to retrain your mind to erase the disordered messages that say “skinnier is better”, someone else comes along and nonchalantly dismantles your hard work.

Perhaps worse is the fact that many people seem to believe that choosing a “this works for me” approach is unacceptable when it comes to eating. You must be doing what is the most healthy, backed up by evidence, best diet ever or you’re not healthy at all. That means that for someone who has an eating disorder and might have to take some shortcuts (like: if I feel hungry for x food I let myself eat x food so that I get enough calories), their (perfectly logical and healthy) choices are derided as illogical and unhealthy. Some of us know that we engage in unhealthy behaviors and have to accept that to get food in our bodies at all. Some of us need to ignore some of the research to convince ourselves that eating more than 1200 calories a day is necessary. Some of us need to be irrational in order to be healthy, and that’s ok.

On top of all of that, you carry your biggest trigger around with you every day: your body. The changes that happen in your body, even if they’re completely natural, are extremely noticeable to a brain that’s used to nitpicking every ounce of fat. The weirdest things will set you off. I found yesterday that I couldn’t fit into a pair of shoes that had been in my closet since last fall, and that my ring size appears to have changed. These are tiny little reminders that I’m moving into uncharted territory, things to be feared.

All of this is to say that I understand why the relapse rates of eating disorders are so high. I hate blaming diet culture for eating disorders, since a mental illness is not just a diet, but it is true that all the conflicting and horrible information about healthy eating has serious impacts on people trying to bring their eating back to a reasonable middle ground. The good news is that there are people who have managed to recover and stay healthy. The good news is that we’re allowed to set boundaries, remove ourselves from conversations filled with diet talk, block the hell out of triggering websites and ads. The good news is that we’re entitled to our own health and well being, no matter what anyone else says about the appropriate way to eat.

When Learning Things Is Triggering

I wrote last week about something called building mastery, and how it can be a struggle to recognize that you’re making progress when your body and mind are worn out from a mental illness. I’d like to expand on that a little further today by talking about what it’s like to have to learn new things, especially skill based things like how to do your job (huzzah!).

One of the things that many people who have bad depression, anxiety, or many other mental illnesses don’t do a whole lot is push themselves far out of their comfort zones. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes just getting out the door is like taking a flying leap out of the places that you feel comfortable, but people in the midst of serious depressive episodes aren’t known for trying out new things or meeting lots of new people. So during the recovery process, it’s pretty common to be working from zero on some new skills, whether that’s starting a new job or learning how to set boundaries for the first time.

If it’s been a while since you’ve been in a space of learning, it’s easy to forget that everyone sucks at things when they first try them. Facts: when you try something for the first time, you’ll probably get it wrong. You’ll probably need help. You might need things reiterated a few times, or you might make a mistake and have to go back and fix it. None of these facts means that you’re really bad at whatever it is you’re doing or that you’re a slow learner or unintelligent, they mostly just mean that it’s the first time you’ve tried something and you need a little bit of time to learn.

So if you have forgotten that these are completely normal and that the first failures you have when doing something new are really just the first steps to not sucking at that thing, it’s really easy to think that there’s something wrong with you or get discouraged. Add on to that a predisposition towards anxiety, depression, or another mental illness, and learning new things during recovery can become a fraught process. The very process of learning and building mastery over new skills and meeting new people that will eventually lead to a strong identity and support network can be triggering.

When you’ve already spent a lot of your time thinking that you’re bad at things, it really sucks to try new things. Because you will be bad at them. It’s just that being bad at new things isn’t some sort of horrible failing. It’s normal and ok, and you’ll get past it. The problem for people who are so used to feeling that way is that it’s hard to remember that it will pass. Negative feelings about oneself seem endless when depressed or anxious, so situations that induce those feelings are things to be avoided at all costs.

This puts people who are trying to recover in a bit of a catch 22 situation in which they’re encouraged to try new things or meet new people, but those experiences leave them feeling overwhelmed and panicked, inducing the kinds of feelings that they were just trying to get away from without the clear memory that this is a normal thing. Like many things that come with recovery from depression or anxiety, it seems that the only way to get through it is to accept that the negative feeling is there and not try to get rid of it. It will probably go away on its own sooner or later. Trusting that it will is possibly the hardest part of recovering though.

So in the meantime, while you’re trying to survive feeling like a failure while you learn how to cross stitch or swing dance, it’s good to be reminded that learning is hard. It might be triggering. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

You Can’t Turn Off An Eating Disordered Brain

Massive trigger warning for eating disorders

For about the past nine months I’ve been feeling pretty good when it comes to my body and my food intake. I still have a few hangups, mostly surrounding times when I should eat, but overall I was getting a decent number of calories and feeling fairly energized. I had stopped thinking about what my body looked like every day, and I had even stopped adding up the totals of what I had eaten each day to try to decide if I was allowed another item (or if I needed to go work out).

It was a massive relief to not have those scripts playing in my head anymore. But recently, somewhat out of nowhere, they’ve started to play again.

I have a lot more tools available to me now. I have more friends to ask for help, a better idea of what I want out of my life and why an eating disorder isn’t compatible with that, a fuzzy kitten to distract me, and a variety of strategies about what makes me feel good in the moment, but none of these things have managed to turn off the voices or the accompanying anxiety. They are enormously helpful when I need to choose a better behavior than restriction, purging, or overexercise, but no matter how often I try to ignore the bad suggestions my brain keeps giving me, it comes back louder.

This is what a lot of people refer to when they say that you never really recover from an eating disorder. The disordered brain will linger on and on and on. And while outsiders might suggest distracting yourself or challenging the thoughts, what they don’t understand is how incessant it is. When you wake up in the morning you wonder about what you’ll eat that day and think about whether yesterday was a “good” day (ran a calorie deficit). You go to put on clothes and are left with the quandary of what fits and what doesn’t, what you can convince your brain is acceptable. You go outside and now it’s the comparison game, who’s smaller than you are, who will see you as acceptable, does everyone see how big you are or do they care?

It goes on endlessly. You cannot turn it off (or at least no one has figured out the magic switch yet except constantly choosing a different behavior and working to focus on something else).

What no one tells you about jerkbrains, whether they’re eating disordered or OCD or depressed or anxious is that they will exhaust you. They don’t tell you that the worst part isn’t the full on meltdowns, but the normal days where you thought you were ok but instead have to spend half of your energy fighting with yourself.

It’s discouraging. While it is realistic to know that someone with a disorder that is highly linked to genetics will probably always have to be on the lookout against a recurrence of symptoms, it makes life feel like a neverending Sisyphean endeavor, even moreso than it might for someone who just has to get out of bed and drag themselves to the office each morning.

Even writing this feels like a repeat of things that I’ve said far too many times. It certainly puts more importance into the question of whether genetics are destiny. But pushing against all of the woe and angst and “determinism means it just doesn’t matter!” is the fact that I know I have changed. The eating disordered brain remains, but there is something in there or in me that can adjust. I make different choices, and the lows come further and further apart. I hate inspiration porn, especially when it comes to mental health, so I have to admit that I have no idea if there’s a relapse in my future or what it means for the quality of my life that self hatred is an essential ingredient of every day. But I am also done with wallowing in the unhappiness, so I also have to say that I have hope. There is the possibility of joy.

Bad Things Will Always Happen

One of the things that many people who struggle with depression or mental illness find extremely difficult is understanding what it means when people say that life can be better. It’s very easy to look at the bad things that happen to basically everyone at some points in life and wonder how things will feel or be better. It’s especially difficult to imagine how other people can go through life without being overwhelmed or sad about the state of the world as a whole. When you’re a naturally fairly reactive person, it can seem as if the only way to not be hurting is if nothing goes wrong.

I have good news and bad news for people who are really struggling with the idea of imagining recovery.

The bad news is that bad things will always happen. Sure, getting some of your emotions under control and learning better ways to interact with people will probably improve your external circumstances to some extent. If you’re doing relatively well at your job and not getting into fights with your spouse, things will feel calmer overall. But there will always be random, nasty things that happen. In the last two weeks I’ve lost my key card for work (which was also holding my bus card and gym membership card), popped a tire on my car, had another tire on my car repeatedly go flat, and had an unexpected fee added to my rent bill.

All of these things are stressful. This kind of stuff isn’t ever going to stop happening. It’s the nature of life that unexpected things happen. Sometimes good things, sometimes bad things.

This is where the good news comes in: bad stuff doesn’t always feel that bad.

All of these things were things that I could deal with. None of them put me in a financial situation that was untenable, I’m fully capable of fixing all of them with a few phone calls or a trip to the lost and found of the bus service. Of course it’s a nuisance and things I have to add to figuring out in my day to day life, but none of them is the kind of irreversible issue that can’t be solved.

The total revelation for me came when I realized that I can both be upset and frustrated, and still be functional and capable at getting stuff done. Maybe I need to run off to the bathroom for 15 minutes and cry in frustration, but then I’ll pick myself up and fix the problem. This might not seem like a revelation for some people, but when a stressful event can trigger a complete meltdown, it’s amazing to realize that the stress and anxiety isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t stop you from being competent.

There is often an assumption, especially in the more competitive and high test areas of society, that if you have an emotional reaction to something, then you aren’t handling it. That can snowball quite quickly, as feeling the emotion will trigger feelings of inadequacy or a sense that you’re out of control. The emphasis on logic over emotion tells us that if you’re feeling an emotion you’re not in a state to deal with problems. That’s straight out not true: one of the most important skills of being an adult is the ability to feel an emotion and act in a way that isn’t dictated by that emotion. In fact feeling stress, anxiety, unhappiness, or anger at situations like these is entirely healthy and can help you set up ways to keep them from happening again (in cases where you might be able to be more proactive).

So for those who feel mired, imagine this: something stupid and shitty happens. You get a parking ticket. You feel annoyed and frustrated, but you get in your car, you drive home, you pay the ticket, and you cut out something fun in the next week to make up the cost. And then it’s over. It can be that easy. That’s what recovery looks like.