September 19th, 2020, will mark one year of recovery from my eating disorder.
If you have any familiarity with disordered eating, you might be wondering, how can she be sure? What does she mean by "recovery?" What does it mean to "relapse?" I wonder that, too.
In the fall of 2014, I spent a month or two attending twelve-step meetings for disordered eaters. For some people in the program, relapse meant straying from their rigidly defined food plans (eating too much sugar, for example, or eating sugar at all). For others, relapse meant regressing to old behavior, like eating too much and throwing it up, or sometimes simply eating too much.
It was never clear exactly what "relapse" meant for me. I'd leave the meetings feeling calm - it was nice to hear from others with roughly the same obsession - but I was also confused. I'd stop at the grocery store on the way home, purchase whatever weird combination of foods I was permitting myself that week, and wonder the degree to which this particular behavior represented a "spiritual malady."
Four years later, I again made a late-night drive to the grocery store. I again bought the food I was permitted. But here was the difference: I was permitted everything. The only rule was, "there are no rules." And that's what recovery meant.
It didn't mean eliminating certain foods. It didn't mean chewing slowly or eating mindfully. And, perhaps most disconcertingly, it didn't mean getting mostly normal, and stalling out at good enough.
I called it going "all in." I'd heard the term from a YouTube influencer, then another one, then many more swiftly supplied by the YouTube algorithm. No, these content creators weren't experts in anything in particular, but they were experts in their own experience. And they happened to combine eating disorder recovery with the same spiritual tenets that I'd come to accept in AA - so they spoke to me, too. "Easy does it." "Let go and let God." "Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today."
In practical terms, the prerogative was to eat what I wanted - exactly what I wanted - and accept that the results were, and had always been, outside of my control. Yes, I had proven to myself that I could control what went into my body. But if I'd sooner die than eat a pint of ice cream, was I really controlling the ice cream? Or was it controlling me?
No sooner had I given myself permission to buy what I wanted for dinner (and, more significantly, to do that same thing the next day), than my eating disorder began to protest. You'll regret this. You'll give yourself diabetes. Or tooth decay. Your clothes won't fit. How will you look 20 pounds from now? I wrote a blog post documenting the thoughts, and I bought groceries anyway.
That night, I had cheese, crackers, and ice cream for dinner. The next morning, I woke up ravenous, as if a million bodily processes had switched back on while I slept. I devoured a granola bar at 5am, a full 10 hours before I'd normally "break my fast." Later that day, confined to a chair at an all-day conference, I suffered through the belly aches and bloating that accompanied any deviation from my diet.
Despite the discomfort, I felt optimistic. The prospect of sufficient nourishment made everything else feel possible, too.
This isn't to say that my eating disorder gave up quickly. While I recovered, anorexia was at the 24-hour gym, trying to beat her personal best on the stair master. She became more determined, more strategic. Remember when you were in control? Maybe "thin" is all you ever had. Maybe you lost it. Maybe you can get it back.
If recovery referred to the absence of disordered thoughts, I certainly would not be approaching a year. If recovery meant eating exactly what I want every day, I'd be out of luck, too. For me, that's not what recovery means.
Here's what it means today: September 19th will mark one year since I've tried to lose weight. For nearly a full year, I haven't denied myself sugar or other carbohydrates. I've bought bigger clothes. I haven't tried to ignore my hunger, and I haven't exercised for the purpose of getting smaller. I've sat through stomach aches without calling myself a glutton. I've felt like a glutton, and it hasn't led to a diet.
Furthermore: Even when I have felt depressed and dissatisfied and as if I were losing whatever made me special, I haven't seriously entertained the idea that changing the size of my body would fix it. Any of it. As if in third person, I've watched as my disordered brain repeatedly sought out an easier, softer way. Repeatedly, I've responded: Maybe tomorrow. Not today.
Maybe, like me, you wanted to stand out. To be special, to be cared for, admired, loved. To matter. Maybe you hoped that a different body could get you there. So I'll ask you now the question I never wanted to answer: What if it can't?
What if embodiment is merely a place to start?