Can I really be sober from disordered eating?

I have a confession: I cheated. I asked friends what I should write about.

Coincidentally, two people said the same thing: talk about what it means to be “recovered” from an eating disorder.

Sigh. Two people - that probably means it’s the right answer. And full disclosure: lately, I’ve been avoiding the topic.

I had a couple of reasons. For one, it’s possible that the world doesn’t need another relatively small person complaining about “feeling fat.” It’s possible that it’s even less important when you’re “feeling fat” as a young, white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied female. Maybe that reason is valid. Definitely, that reason is boring.

Plus, in this case, it would be a little too convenient. It would be convenient if my experience was too stereotypical or redundant to be worth sharing, because it also happens to be hard to share. Which brings me to my second, more powerful reason: The eating disorder has been louder lately.

Here's a snapshot: If you eat, you’ll feel uncomfortable. If you feel uncomfortable, you won’t want to be around people. If you avoid people, you’ll be isolated. An isolated life is not worth living.

Alcoholism and disordered eating are similar in that the disease denies its own existance. Alcoholism says, you’re fine. You don’t have a problem. Other people are worse. You don’t have to quit. Disordered eating says That’s not a diet; that’s a lifestyle. You’re eating way more than you used to. Maybe you’re not hungry at all - just thirsty. If your weight loss was significant, people would notice it. You’re only cold because it’s cold out.

So that’s how they’re similar. But here’s how they’re different: while you can abstain from alcohol, you can’t “abstain” from food. On the days where you don’t want to eat at all, you still have to eat something. And on days where you want to eat everything, you still have to eat something. Abstinence from alcohol is clean and measurable. Abstinence from food is a non-starter.

And it’s not just food. Abstinence from “disordered eating behavior” is hard to pin down. I know lots and lots of women who previously met criteria for clinically significant disordered eating, and no longer perform the “obvious" behaviors. Previously, they did not eat enough to sustain a healthy weight, they lost their periods, they vomited up their food, they binged frequently and uncontrollably, they abused laxatives, and they exercised like maniacs. In short, they did all the things which unquestionably steal your life away and qualify you for an eating disorder.

And now? Well, now they don’t qualify, and by and large they have their lives back. They live in ostensibly healthy bodies, they’re devoted partners, friends, and mothers, and they’re pursuing careers that really matter to them. They make the world a better place.

And yet: most honest people in recovery will tell you that the eating disorder is still with them. For me, the urge to drink has left entirely. But in times of stress or self-hatred or sadness, the urge to control my food is often just below the surface.

Are you really hungry?

Are you eating sugar again?

Were those jeans always tight?

Will he notice if you don’t eat?

You’d feel better if you skipped lunch.

If it was serious, they’d say something.

See how easy it is to be totally nutty without being officially nuts? See how easy it is to be chalk full of symptoms and yet clinically “asymptomatic?"

My own eating disorder was and is associated with chronic digestive issues. I’ll never know which came first, but I do know that disordered eating is associated with a down-regulated metabolism, which is why my heart rated slowed, I felt cold all the time, and my digestive system effectively turned itself off. (It never quite turned back on, so it's technically true that I often feel pain when I eat.) Importantly, all those things happened before any weight loss was noticeable by others. Even the physical symptoms of an eating disorder are largely invisible. You can feel very sick, mentally or physically or both, and not look any different. It's very isolating, and the disease thrives in isolation.

30 minutes after eating this bagel sandwich, I hit my deadlift max. The events were related.

So how do you know if you’re fully recovered? If you’re reading this and relating to any of it, the answer is you’re probably not. And it isn’t because you’re broken, or lying, or not working hard enough, or trying to sabotage yourself. It’s because you have a disease. And sometimes, when it comes to managing the symptoms, you kick ass. And sometimes, you’re too sad or tired or preoccupied to kick ass.

I could blame it on the culture - yes, we technically live in a fundamentally fat-phobic society that constantly assigns moral value to food and exercise. Again: probably valid, definitely boring. I'm not interested in blaming the culture for my malaise. I don't find it helpful. If it helps you, feel free to take it up with with Abercrombie or Victoria’s Secret. And if it doesn’t, just know this: I don't always have the mental fortitude to eat a thousand-calorie breakfast sandwich. But when I do, it sure hits the spot.