Three things that didn't fix my eating disorder (and two that did)

There are people in this world who say things like, “Finding out what doesn’t work is just as important as finding out what does!”

Then there are people I like.

Anyone who loves the process of elimination that much has no respect for time. They don’t keep an agenda, but if they did everything on it would be “tentative” because they’re “flexible.” They don’t often make lists, but when they do, those lists do not control their lives. In contrast, when I make a to-do list, it takes on a life of its own and starts stomping around my laboratory. I’ve created a frickin' monster.

It’s harder to segue back from Frankenstein than you might think. My point is: I like to be right about "what works" the first time. And despite that, when I tried to fix my "food issues," I wasn’t right the first time. Or the second. Or the third. I’ve run up a long and admirably comprehensive list of things that don’t work.

If it’s true that knowing what doesn’t work is as important as knowing what does (and again, that probably isn't true), maybe a list like the following could save you some time.

Here are three things that didn’t fix my eating disorder.

1. Drinking more alcohol

I once wrote an entire blog post about using alcohol to solve anorexia. Spoiler alert: it didn't work.

It did for a second. I would temporarily forget about my body. Food was less interesting because it could not get me drunk. When alcohol was an option, it was baffling that anyone could focus on food. They needed to get their priorities straight.

One side effect of this "solution" is the pretty epic shame spiral and your life falling apart. (That's the kind of fine print you read in a really fast voice.) And when your life falls apart, a latent eating disorder is a pretty weak consolation prize.

2. Going Paleo/Keto/Vegan

Yes, I tried all three. No, none of them worked.

The underlying dogma to each was that it is the type of food I was eating that facilitated this unhealthy relationship with food. Maybe “food these days” is just so damn addictive. Maybe if our primal ancestors had fought “King Corn,” they would’ve lost, too.

Veganism said: Maybe the solution is sweet potatoes. Paleo said: Maybe the solution is sweet potatoes and sustainably sourced meat. Keto said: maybe the solution is literally just sustainably sourced meat.

Wouldn't that be a letdown - if these were the solutions gained with age and time? What if the old and the wise said things like, “My dear, peanuts have been legumes this whole time. You can’t just treat them like tree nuts.”

That would make real life at most 10% more complicated than The Sims.

3. Training for a marathon

The other day, someone asked me if there are any conspiracy theories I actually believe. Yes. Namely: “Food is just fuel.” People say it, they even purport to believe it, and it is conclusively untrue. (Or at least: conclusively annoying.)

When I decided to train for a marathon, I hoped my brain would transform into one that just saw food as something to “keep my body going.” Suddenly my neuroticism around food would dissipate, only to be placed by a harmless analogy. Food is like oil in a machine! Gas in a car! Or fuel! Just fuel!

Here’s what happened instead: exercising like crazy made me want food like crazy. Big shocker. I lost zero weight. I spent training runs thinking about what I could eat afterward. (Or, in the gross moralistic language of dieting: what I had earned.) I remember the meal I ate after the marathon better than I remember miles 22-26. (Since you asked: a burger with a fried egg on it and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.)

And now, for two things that actually kinda helped

1. Understanding the source

Although there is some truth to the parallels between alcoholism and disordered eating, their treatment is different. The "solution" to disordered eating, for me, was not refraining from "addictive" foods, or biting my nails through late nights when all I wanted was something to eat. Conceptualizing my desire for food as a spiritual failing only exacerbated the problem. Now now, Anna - are you trying to fill the God-sized hole in your heart with pizza?

One thing that helped me to better understand the source of my disordered eating was listening to the free podcast Food Psych by Christy Harrison. I began understanding my fascination with food as the natural byproduct of restriction. I began contextualizing my fear of weight gain in a fundamentally fat-phobic culture. And I began understanding my digestive response to food as inextricably linked to fear, distrust, and anxiety.

1. Doing it anyway.

Understanding the source is great. Action is even better. It's a rather sick joke on God's part, but the antidote to fear is often doing it anyway.

Create what is known in therapy as an exposure hierarchy: a list of things you are scared of doing, in order of how scary they are. (E.g.: going to a restaurant; going to a restaurant and actually finishing your entree; going to a restaurant, finishing your entree, and ordering dessert.) Over time, do them anyway. Each time you "level up," observe that the roof does not cave in. You are fine. Sometimes uncomfortable, but always fine.

Over time, even, happier.