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How I Redefine Control When I'm Tempted to Go Back to My Eating Disorder

For no particularly good reason, I skipped breakfast this morning. Except that perhaps some deep need in me was stirred last night and again this morning to take back control of my life — to come back to the helm and steer myself away from oblivion and back into the center of the glimmering sea which once rose about me in undulating waves.

I’m sure you’ll wonder how skipping breakfast might make me feel in control, but it’s part of a long and unhealthy relationship with food. I’ve yo-yo-ed in weight throughout my life from underweight to overweight (I’m currently the latter) and eating disorders seem like an old friend.

My daughter came to me the other day, and pressed the pads of her fingers against the underside of her arm and said, “I need to do something about these flaps. I don’t have triceps.” And she frowned. 

My daughter is a healthy weight for her age and height, but already she is buying into the idea of beauty that is portrayed by the media and other sources. Already, at the age of 15, she knows the power of appearances in this world. And it didn’t just start recently. I remember long ago, her coming to me at the tender age of 9, and complaining to me that she had “grandma flaps.”

When I was thin, I used to look in the mirror, and feel fairly content, save for my cankles.  Yes, cankles. You know… where your calves and ankles have no defining separation? Oh for the slender ankles of Victorian times, framed by the embroidered hem of an ivory petticoat above a small, buttoned boot.

Of course now I’m decidedly overweight, and I face a society that does not even cater to women’s fashion for me. Even though there are more women in the United States who wear a size 16 than there are women who wear a size 6… I have a hard time finding clothes in attractive colors, choices or styles. Oh, I’ve tried it all. 

Control nut? Perhaps. I could argue that I’m a result of society’s definition of what beauty should be. Of course part of the problem is that even in an ideal world, I can’t get down to a size 6. Or even a size 8 or 10. Maybe not even a size 12. Not without starving myself… because the medications I have to take in order to manage my Bipolar 1, PTSD and borderline personality disorder all cause weight gain. One of them is known for causing substantial weight gain. And so I’m fighting an uphill battle.

I look at old pictures of myself from what I call my “skinny days.” I used to get compliments back then. “How do you do it?” Few people know the truth. Few people know I counted calories down to the single digit numbers. That I worked out too much. That I slept less than four hours a night because I was always working out when I wasn’t working full time and raising a family. Few people knew I wasn’t really healthy. I was far from it. I was running myself into the ground and I had an eating disorder.

I remember going to a doctor at one point during that time due to health issues and she said, “If you would just let yourself gain five pounds you’d feel so much better.” I laughed her off. I was unwilling to do that. The idea of gaining even five pounds terrified me back then. I’d let controlling my weight become the controlling factor of my life.

My therapist is now encouraging me to start exercising again. We’ve talked about “reasonable” diets while on the medications that have made me gain so much weight. I worry about slipping back into my days of anorexia and exercise addiction. Because yes, exercise addiction can be real. So we set limits. I’ll start out with moderate exercise two times a week to start with. I haven’t added a diet plan in yet. I’m still afraid of that part.

I think one of the hardest parts of life is that so often we wait on the deck of the boat while others steer the ship for us. We see them as standing at the helm like immobile boulders, taking with them all our control… steering the journey as we wait for a turn at the wheel which may never come. We often forget that we are the captain of our own ship.

It’s true that there are many things I can’t change… just as a captain can’t change the weather when he steers his ship in the ocean. I can’t change the wind. I can’t always control how the crew will react (the people around me). But as captain, we can change the sails to meet the wind, steer away from icebergs (heed those warnings!) and choose our shipmates. 

And we have to remember that it’s OK to fall and to fail. It’s OK to steer toward that lighthouse. It’s OK sometimes to recognize you may have to send out the lifeboats or radio for help.

Speaking of which… I still haven’t had breakfast. And if I’m going to be captain today, I’m going to do it right. It’s time for a bowl of cereal. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via alzay