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I Thought I Had Conquered My Eating Disorder... Until COVID-19

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

When I started therapy six and a half years ago, I was in the throes of what I call my third bout with an eating disorder. I had recently had my gallbladder removed. The digestive issues I was experiencing had caused me to be restrictive with what I ate and of course, a natural byproduct of that was weight loss. That old familiar feeling of pride in my new svelte physique encouraged me to keep restricting my intake and to increase my exercise even after the surgery. Quickly I devolved into working out excessively, living off one type of food group, and weighing myself several times a day. My weight wasn’t dangerously low, but my brain was in full-blown “ED” mode.

This wasn’t my first rodeo, so to speak. My previous bouts when I was a teenage ballerina trying to fit in with the look expected of me and then again in my 20s when I had returned to ballet and was living long-distance from my new husband, were very similar. Pick one food you trust, exercise a lot, weigh yourself constantly. Wash, rinse, repeat. And of course, because I also have body dysmorphia, I never saw the image of what I actually looked like reflected back at me in the mirror. I had zero capacity for seeing myself for who I really was. My only litmus test for how I looked was based upon what others said I looked like — a dangerous way to assess health or wellness to be sure, and the one aspect of my disordered eating that still hasn’t changed much.

What had changed, however, was that I was honest with my therapist and new primary care physician about what I was doing. I knew it was a dangerous path to keep on. I wanted to stop, but I didn’t know how. The first thing that happened was that my scale mysteriously disappeared from our house. My therapist had my husband remove it. I was not pleased but didn’t have a choice. Then, my therapist had me restrict my exercise to a more reasonable regimen. She spent time with me going over my basal metabolic rate, the goal of which was to show me that even without exercise, my body required a base amount of calories just to sustain itself. Then we started working on getting rid of the ingrained belief that there were “good foods” and “bad foods,” replacing it with “all calories are calories” and splurging occasionally is both natural and healthy.

Once we had these processes in place, the next step was to understand where my eating disorder came from. Like other addictions, eating disorders often stem from some kind of trauma. They tend to provide a sense of control where none existed before or a means of numbing painful emotions by focusing your attention on something else. In some ways, it’s the mind’s genius way of coping with what we cannot otherwise deal with, even if it ends up becoming destructive in the long run. So we spent some time digging through the recesses of my mind to discover the source of my eating disorder and body dysmorphia. As we unearthed the various traumas involved and I continued to practice my eating more mindfully, exercising less obsessively and not focusing on my weight, I slowly fell into a more healthy routine. It felt like for the most part my eating disorder was beginning to lose its grip on me and I could spend all of that wasted energy on things like work, creative endeavors, my relationships, and trauma therapy.

What none of us banked on was a global pandemic that would derail everything in all of our lives. I had finally begun to feel a sense of security, control, and purpose. Then COVID-19 reared its ugly head. My sense of agency was almost instantaneously replaced with chaos, insecurity, and a complete impression of helplessness — feelings that immediately triggered old trauma wounds. During the initial phase of being locked down, I was preoccupied with figuring out how to sustain our business and finances for what looked to be a long time. That focus allowed me to distract and dissociate from the underlying churning of trauma juices festering in my gut and mind. As time went on and we settled into the mundanity of daily life, yoga pants, and hoodies, I vacillated between having uncontrollable anxiety and debilitating depression. Everything felt hard and it didn’t seem like we’d ever get back to “normal.”

I started regressing into eating a predictable regimen of foods that helped me feel safe, hide my body behind tons of clothes and would hop on the treadmill when I felt “fat” (which isn’t an actual feeling but rather a manifestation of discomfort). It happened so insidiously that I didn’t even recognize what was happening. I’d stare at my constantly morphing body in my funhouse mirror, looking for new rolls, pooches, and stretch marks. The irony is that my weight stayed steady throughout the entire year and a half, without ever weighing myself except at the doctor’s office. 

Last week, when I finally had somewhere to go and unearthed some dress-up clothes to put on, I felt the old familiar panic. I was very uncomfortable even though I logically understood that I looked nice and that what I was wearing was appropriate for the event I was attending. Logic is irrelevant when your “ED-brain” is activated. I was hyperaware of people staring at my body. Several friends commented on how they hadn’t seen me dressed up in years. They were positive and supportive but I couldn’t take those comments in as anything but scrutiny of my body being on display. When we arrived at a restaurant to eat dinner, I found myself unconsciously scanning the menu to rule out certain items because they were “bad foods” and selected something that was fine but not what I really wanted because I didn’t think I had earned it. When I got home, I was relieved to disrobe and climb into the security of my hoodie and yoga pants, hiding my body from myself and others, reclaiming my sense of control. 

This whole event sat with me, leaving me feeling frustrated. I thought I had conquered my eating disorder. I thought I was “over it.” So, why was it rearing its ugly head again? My brain immediately went into self-blaming mode… my natural default. I’m bad, I’m broken, I’m a failure in therapy. I couldn’t stay strong and I let myself slide back into dysfunctional behaviors. This was surprising to me, and not in the good way. I jotted down some notes about what happened and how I felt awaiting to confess my sins to my therapist at our next appointment.

When that appointment came, I unloaded my angst on my therapist, apologizing for regressing and expecting admonition. Instead, what she showed me was compassion. She reminded me that the last year and a half has been traumatic for everyone. We have all struggled in different ways and for someone with a prior history of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this response was not at all unexpected. It wasn’t a failure because I identified it immediately. My awareness of those thoughts, patterns, and habits creeping back into my life was a win. We can nip them in the bud and refocus our attention on building resilience and on reinforcing all of those healthy habits I had spent so much time cultivating. I felt absolved of my shame.

The truth about healing from trauma, addiction, and eating disorders is that it is not a linear process. There will be setbacks and things that life throws our way that may trigger old ways of thinking and behaving that feel comfortable and safe. What is important is that we are aware of when this happens and honest enough with ourselves and our therapists to identify that we are backsliding. We have done the hard work before, we know what works, and we can refocus our attention on reintegrating those positive resources to move us in the right direction quicker than the first time around. As for me, I’m resetting my internal clock, giving myself a little grace and self-compassion, and putting my focus back on those things that I can control, that give me security and that make me feel loved.

Photo by Roberto Leone on Unsplash

Originally published: January 12, 2022
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