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How Retail Therapy Became Part of My Eating Disorder Recovery

Today I bought new clothes.

It might sound like a frivolous way to spend a Thursday afternoon, but for me, it was a big deal. It marks a line in the sand.

I’ve gained weight. These things happen, I know. To lots of people. Possibly you. And if you’ve gained weight then you probably know how I feel about it – completely not thrilled. But I’m someone in eating disorder recovery (doing really well thanks!) and I’m a woman of a certain age (let’s call it fabulous). Weight gain is not unusual in either of these circumstances and weight loss is problematic for both.

In eating disorder recovery, trying to lose weight nearly always equals relapse (in my completely non-expert but fully lived experience). And when the fabulous (?!) 50s hit, fat clings like a limpet on a large rock. So I was faced with two options – the only two I could think of. Fight it or face it.

I’m tired of fighting

So I cracked out the credit card.

Now, if money were no object (rest assured, money is a rather large object) then spending over $400 on clothes would perhaps not be a big deal. But when most of the pennies are fairly tightly budgeted, it isn’t easy to make the decision to buy a pile of clothes two sizes larger than your entire wardrobe. My entire wardrobe that’s now neatly packed away in two large suitcases.

After a session of psychological therapy this morning, I decided retail therapy would be a very nice (and practical) complement. It’s all fine and dandy to talk about recovery and how I’m learning to accept this body I’m forced to live in, but buying new clothes means putting money where my mouth is.

It’s 18 months since I came out of the clinic and the last weeks of my stay were entirely focused on eating disorder recovery. While I can’t say it’s been entirely smooth sailing in the time that has intervened, I can say it’s been a fairly upward trajectory. I go from strength to strength – with the occasional face plant.

In recent weeks I’ve been in contact with someone who I don’t know well but appears to struggle with an eating disorder.

Eating disorders can feel contagious

To those of us who are vulnerable, there can be an overwhelming temptation to regress when we see triggering behaviors. So as I watch someone in their own struggle, I have to make a decision about how I respond. At the end of the day, someone else’s behavior is none of my business and my behavior is nobody else’s responsibility.

As I drove home yesterday I had to think really hard about what to do for lunch – if indeed I should eat lunch at all. But in the end, I decided my recovery can’t be compromised by anyone and I’d eat lunch (anything I fucking felt like thank you very much). So I stopped at the bakery and bought lunch.

I didn’t binge. I didn’t restrict. I didn’t purge. I just looked at the display and picked the thing I most felt like and ate it. With a coffee and a cake. It feels so weird. Apparently, this is “normal” behavior.

The more I engage in eating that reflects my needs and wants, the less obsessive I am. I no longer have an incessant dialogue in my head about the intrinsic moral value of food. I don’t have a list of things I can and can’t eat because they’re good and bad. There’s just food I like and food I don’t like.

And it feels good

When you live with a mentality of restriction (common in almost all eating disorders) then all food is mentally exhausting. You have to calculate whether it’s “OK” to eat something. Natural body cues are completely ignored and over time, you lose the cues altogether. I used to live in a perpetual state of never, ever wanting to eat while being completely unsatisfied by any and all foods. I could eat until I was literally vomiting and it wasn’t enough. But every bite was a failure. There was a hunger deep in my soul that wasn’t satisfied by food.

That has gone now and I’m blessedly grateful.

For many years I’ve tried to recover, but always secretly hoped recovery would mean losing weight and stabilizing at a lower weight. I had to let go of that. And it’s been really fucking hard. I can’t say I love this body. Part of me will always want to be thin and pretty because I grew up being told thin and pretty are the tickets to happiness. But I’m neither thin nor pretty by societal standards (I really don’t need anybody sending me messages to say otherwise… it’s irrelevant). I don’t feel thin or pretty by societal standards, but I’ve been working hard for years on learning that appearance is not the ticket to success and happiness. Happy people come in every shape, size and bone structure. As do sad people.

If I want to be happy, I need to look inside, not outside

Purchasing clothes may seem like I’m still focused on appearance, but I’m not. I’m being practical. We all wear clothes and I need something to put on every morning. Something that fits my body. Something comfortable. Something suitable for the climate and my activities. It’s not about being precious, it’s being practical. Buying a new summer wardrobe represents acceptance. Acceptance of the fact that this is the body I live in right now and that even if it changes in the future, today this is me.

Trying to change my body for over 50 years made me really miserable. Even when I was at my smallest, I was still miserable. Nourishing my body and soul with food is finally bringing me a level of peace. There’s still room for improvement; this is not a flawless process, but now I’m going to be making continued improvement in comfortable pants.

Getty image by jacoblund

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