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How I'm Redefining 'Normal' in Eating Disorder Recovery

I think one of the strongest maintaining factors of my eating disorder has truly just been not knowing how to exist in the world without it and feeling like it is such an ingrained part of my being. It’s hard to change the way I’ve essentially programmed my brain to operate over the course of 15 years. I’m sure this is challenging for anyone in recovery, but I believe it is especially so for those who, like myself, began struggling at such an early age. I was only 10 years old when I first got sick, and during those next few formative years, during which most of my peers were figuring out who they were and forming their individual identities, I was developing a mental illness. I never had the chance to learn how to “be” in the world as a healthy, “normal” person and the eating disorder quickly enveloped everything and just became who I was.

I’ve always been so jealous of the individuals I’ve met in treatment who have only been struggling for a few years, who could talk about “getting their life back.” I don’t mean to undermine or discount their struggle, because I truly believe that any time spent with an eating disorder is too long. I’ve often felt like I would have given anything just to have that point of reference, to have a life to “go back to.” The feeling of almost not knowing what I was working towards has been one of the most difficult aspects of recovery for me. I feel like I’m beginning to establish what I want my life to look like, and that’s definitely been helpful, but it’s still a pretty foreign concept. I think for a while I felt stuck in not being able to let go of the eating disorder until I felt like I had a “full” life to replace it with, but I’m learning it can’t work that way. That instead, building my life is a process that will take time (time being healthy), and one that will take a lot of work and constant effort and awareness.

The awareness is key. There is so much of the eating disorder that just feels so second nature that I often find myself slipping into old thought patterns or behaviors without even noticing. Little things, for example, I usually leave my apartment super early when I’m going hiking. Sometimes, as I’m eating breakfast before 6 a.m., I’ll have the thought that I’m “using up too many calories too early.” And I have to remind myself (for the millionth time) that I no longer have to ration out a certain amount over the course of the day and that the fear of “running out” of calories too early isn’t relevant to my life anymore. And I know that logically, but those thoughts still show up all the time. It’s hard to change what has been my mindset around food for so many years. It’s also just difficult to adjust to eating so much more, after so many years of starving my body and establishing these beliefs around what it “should” and “shouldn’t need.” It’s something I have to constantly catch myself on. When I have those brief moments of panic after having eaten a more calories than I’m used to before 10 a.m., I have to remind myself the amount I was eating then wouldn’t be enough to sustain the life I have now, that those calorie limits that used to dictate everything just aren’t relevant anymore. It’s hard to accept I could actually need this much. I often find myself feeling a lot of frustration with my body and its needs. While I know it’s the goal, sometimes it really scares me when I feel like my body is getting used to actually being fed. It just feels “wrong.” I’m so used to operating under the mentality of “me vs. my body,” that listening to it and actually honoring it is still such a foreign concept.

I also have to continually challenge the way I make decisions around food. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll literally make it to the grocery store checkout and have to ask myself why I have foods labeled “light” and “reduced calorie” and go back and switch it out for the “normal” stuff that will actually meet my needs. It still just feels so instinctual to always gravitate towards the lowest calorie variety of whatever I’m getting, and I really do it without thinking at this point. It’s hard to know how else I would make the decisions if not based on that. I’m someone who tends to get pretty overwhelmed by decisions in general, so when trying to make them around food, (for example, when faced with lots of different kinds of sandwich, breads or cereals etc.) it simplifies the process. 

I remember when I first got out of treatment there were things I had to change like buying bigger cereal bowls that would actually fit an adequate portion or packing a lunch to bring to work. Those things feel “normal” now. And while most of the time I’m grateful that not every meal and snack is such a huge struggle, it can also just feel “wrong” because it’s so different from what my reality has always been.

Another thing I’ve been challenging myself with recently has been eating around other people. For so long back home, no one really expected me to eat and it had really just become accepted that I didn’t. If I ever did, I felt like people paid undue attention to what and how much or they would make comments that made me uncomfortable. Since I already felt a lot of shame around eating and needing food in general, I avoided it whenever possible. The sense of shame and just feeling so self-conscious eating around others is something that still comes up for me quite a bit. I have to remind myself continually, that the people I am interacting with in my life now don’t have the same expectations (or lack of) that the people in my life before did, and to them, it would probably be stranger if I didn’t eat.

The sense of shame around eating and needing food in and of itself is something I’m trying to work on. I feel like this can be especially tough in our society, given the way in which guilt and shame around eating is so normalized. But I know this isn’t what I want for myself. And that’s the cool part about all of this: I get to choose. Recovery is, essentially, deciding what I want my relationship with food and with my body to look like, and then adjusting my goals accordingly in order to move towards that. I’m learning that my “normal” doesn’t have to correspond with what I observed growing up in my family, what I’m surrounded by in my society or what I observe in my peers. I don’t want to feel guilt for eating and choosing to nourish my body or shame for inhabiting the space that I do in the world. I don’t want to feel the need to be smaller, to make myself less. That may have been my reality up until now, but I can choose to create something different moving forward.

As I wrote earlier, I know that establishing this new “normal” is something that will take time and a lot of continued work, but I’m hopeful that if I can keep making different decisions, I’ll get there. Sometimes I get discouraged when I think about the space between where I am and where I ultimately want to be, but I try to remind myself of how far I’ve already come. How just a few months ago, I never would have imagined it possible to be where I am now and I’m choosing to believe that having made it from point A to B, I’ll eventually be able get to C, too.

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 baphotte.