The most important thing to know about eating disorders

One thing you should know about eating disorders is that there’s more than one thing to know, because eating disorders are multi-dimensional mental illnesses. In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week  I want to give you my top three things that are important to understand about eating disorders, whether you have one, think you might have one, or have a friend/family member who is struggling with one.

1) Eating disorders have no single cause. Eating disorders are biological, psychological, physiological, social and familial, which means experiences, beliefs, trauma, and behaviors that start/happen in any of these areas will be exacerbated and distorted by experiences, beliefs, trauma, and behaviors in the other areas.

For example, I grew up in a household with emotional and mental trauma (familial, psychological); experienced bullying in school and had an abusive romantic-relationship (social & psychological); believed I was slow, ugly, and stupid (psychological); had disordered eating habits/behaviors that threw off both my metabolism and ability to read my body cues properly (biological and physiological); and struggled with anxiety and depression (familial, psychological, physiological)

So, if anyone has ever asked you “Why do you have an eating disorder?” or you’ve asked yourself, “Why does my loved one have an eating disorder?”–there are many reasons!

2)   Eating disorders don’t make sense to those who don’t have one. There is nothing logical about starving yourself (anorexia), eating more than your body can handle (binge eating disorder), throwing up after you eat (bulimia nervosa), or eating a strictly righteous “healthy only” diet (orthorexia nervosa). It’s important to understand that all of these eating disorders have nothing to do with the food itself or even the symptoms of the disorders. Eating disorders are diagnosed by the compulsive behaviors and thought patterns that stem from distorted beliefs about the body and food and overall self. You can’t attach logic or use logic to solve or change behaviors that are rooted in distorted beliefs. The beliefs have to change before the behaviors will, and that takes professional help!

If you’ve ever said to yourself or to a loved one “Just eat” or “Just stop binging” or “Just stop throwing up,” please understand that no one with an eating disorder can “just” do or not do anything. It would be like the brakes in your car failing and your passenger telling you to “just stop.” You can’t because the brakes are broken. With eating disorders, the brain is broken; eating disorders are mental illnesses.

3). Eating disorder recovery is 100% possible! Recovery takes professional help with a team of specialists who deeply understand the nature of eating disorders, who know how to properly care for the physical damage done by the disorder, and who are extensively sensitive to the mental misfires that are happening in the brain.

There are different schools of thought on whether or not eating disorders can be completely healed or if you simply remain in recovery your whole life, similar to that of an alcoholic. I can say from personal experience that my body is completely healed from the damage done by anorexia; however, my brain is still recovery and may always be because the mental paths worn by the eating disorder for 13 years are deep and automatic, especially when I am stressed, sad, disappointed, or even just tired. My healthy voice (healthy beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors learned in recovery) take effort when the eating disorder is loud. But most days my healthy-self is intuitive and strong.

Last but not least–

If you think you might have an eating disorder or want to seek help for a loved one you can call the National Eating Disorder Association helpline: 1(800) 931-2237 or they have an online chat option.

You can also visit my Resources page for some helpful places to get started.

You don’t have to earn your food

My son and father-in-law came home from skiing yesterday all damp, chilled, and tired. My daughter and her friend just finished baking chocolate chip cookies, so our house was all warm and smelled of freshly baked goodness. My husband handed the plate of cookies to my father-in-law and said, “Hey Dad! Have a cookie. You deserve it.”

“No,” I said. “We don’t earn cookies. Have a cookie because they smell amazing, and you’re probably hungry after a long day of skiing and driving.”

My husband smiled and gave me a soft, knowing chuckle. “Yes. You’re right. Dad, you want a freshly baked cookie? They just came out of the oven.”

My father-in-law partook, of course! As did my hungry son.

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There’s a message in our culture that you have to earn your food, especially foods that are deemed “special,” “guilty pleasures,” or “bad for you.”

And you believe that message. You wait for special occasions to have that “sinful” chocolate cake; you wait until you’ve eaten your grilled chicken salad with balsamic vinaigrette to enjoy the mint chip ice cream in the freezer (but only a bite because you already indulged in a brownie earlier today); you eat the plate of fettuccine Alfredo because you earned it on the hike this afternoon; you reward yourself with dessert this time since you’ve been “so good lately.”

The opposite is also true. You punish yourself when you’ve “been bad” and ate the extra cookie or two or the whole plate. Working out has become both the reward and punishment for how you earn or eat your food– burning off the doughnuts Joe brought into work today (dang you, Joe!); or burning an extra few hundred calories in preps for the family dinner tonight, because mom is making her dutch apple pie, and you know you won’t be able to control yourself to just one slice.

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You don’t have to earn your food. You don’t have to “be good” to enjoy the foods you love, especially the sweet stuff. You also don’t need to punish yourself for eating, enjoying, and even craving certain foods…you know, the foods with all the rules and regulations about sugar, fat and calories.

When you try to earn your food by being good enough to deserve it (whether through restriction or avoidance of fun foods, or burning off calories in exercise) you are defining your value based on food: “I was bad today; I ate the brownie. I need to run two hours to work that off.” OR “I was so good because I didn’t eat the brownie.”  You may think you’re being healthy by controlling yourself through reward and punishment, but what you’re doing on a deeper level is attaching or diminishing your self-value based on your behavior with food. And that, my dear friend, is not healthy. Nor is it kind to you.

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Your body has no rules about food. Your body doesn’t value foods as “good” or “bad”; your body doesn’t define you as good or bad.  Culture does, but your body doesn’t. Listen to your body, sweet friend.

Your body doesn’t judge you if you feed it mint chocolate chip ice cream before or with your chicken salad (or a bacon cheeseburger for that matter); your body loved the doughnuts Joe brought today because that maple bar sounded delicious to your brain, and your body was able to use that energy to get you through the 10:00 meeting; Mom’s dutch apple pie is both delicious and nostalgic because she would make it for your dad when he returned home from long business trips and your family was together again. Dutch apple pie literally makes your heart happy and your body thanks you for feeding it something you enjoy.

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Eat what sounds good, when it sounds good. You don’t deserve it because you don’t have to earn it.  And you don’t have to work it off because you didn’t eat anything wrong.

May you find joy in your food and peace in your body.

Much love!

 

 

 

What does self-love look like?

Self-love does not look like self-centeredness. These are two very different things, and I am learning how to do one without feeling like I am being the other. The last couple of weeks have been stressful in our household, to the point where I haven’t been sleeping through the night for nearly two weeks. The less I sleep, the harder it is to do life well, especially when it’s stressful. I realized that in order for me to cope the stress and maybe even sleep better, I needed to take care of myself. Self-care is self-love.

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I was starting to feel sick. Normally when I start feeling ill, I simply state “I don’t feel good” and keep moving full speed ahead until the sickness bullies me onto the couch and holds me there in a death-grip for several days. This time, I decided to let myself take it easy before I was actually fully sick. I didn’t go to Taekwondo class; I didn’t clean the house; I made super easy dinners with no side items; I watched movies with my kids on school nights; and I laid down for an hour or more. A lot. For two days, I let myself rest how I felt like it and by the weekend, I was feeling great. Sickness never hit.

Resting when we’re not feeling well, even though we aren’t technically sick= self-love.

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My daughter, Haley, and I went to Taekwondo class on Saturday morning. When we got home I said, “Hey, let’s go wash our feet.” I filled the tub with warm water and mixed in some Epsom salts and lavender essential oil. We sat together on the edge of the tub with our feet soaking; we both let out a satisfied sigh. Haley said, “Ahh. My feet feel like they are melting. Feels so good.” We talked about how much we demand of our feet–we shove them into shoes; wrinkle our noses at them; we walk, jump, run, kick, bend, tromp on them. Oh my, how much we stand on our two feet. They work so hard to hold us up all the time! What a treat to show some love to the two things that keep us moving forward in our life.

Gently tending to the body parts we ignore, don’t notice, or don’t like= self-love.

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I was watching the Taekwondo black belt class train the other day while waiting for my class to start. A fellow teammate approached me and said, “That’s going to be you soon! You’re testing in April right? Then you’ll get to go to the black belt classes.” I shrugged my shoulders, “I don’t know. Yes, I am testing in April, but I don’t know yet if I will continue on.” He looked at me with furrowed brows and wide eyes. “What? You aren’t going to quit are you?” I explained that my knee and hip have been swelling up and experiencing severe pain since I moved into level 4. I’ve been working with my sports medicine doctor to prepare for and endure my black belt test without injury.  “I’m not sure Taekwondo is the right sport for me long term,”  I said. He shrugged, “Yeah. We all have hip and knee problems, though.” I looked at him in the eyes and replied, “I love Taekwondo, but I have to be kind to my body.”

Quitting a sport that’s hurting your body= self-love.

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Self-love looks like taking care of yourself–body, mind and heart. I think it starts with taking care of our physical bodies, though. And I don’t mean diet and exercise. I mean listening, noticing, and understanding what our bodies are asking for. Self-care feels counter-cultural; culture says it’s not okay to quit because then you’re giving up on yourself; it’s not okay to rest if you aren’t “really sick” because people are depending on you; it’s not okay to spend time acquainting yourself with your body parts (and maybe even loving them as is) because it’s weird and self-centered. I disagree with culture.

This week, pick one part of your body that you typically ignore or maybe even don’t like–then tend to it. You don’t have to fall in love with the body part, but I want to find a way to love on it– you can say something  nice to it in the mirror, or get really into it and find a way to physically show care and compassion to it. There are no rules… tend to yourself however it feels right for you.

Much love! <3

When God gave me the moon

“Lord, I just need to connect to your world right now. I know you’re here right now, but I can’t see you or feel you. Refine my spiritual senses so I can connect with You.”

I was sitting in the middle of my living room feeling squirmy in my meditation, wondering if I had prayed enough for other people and if it was okay to pray for myself. Somehow I have this ingrained belief that my prayers need to be for other people–the suffering here and across the world, my friends, my family, my town, and my country. When I want to pray for myself it’s usually prayers of thanks and asking for forgiveness for the sins I know I must have committed and the ones I am not aware of. But the whole “ask and you shall receive” thing I have a hard time with. It’s a problem.

I digress. On this day I just needed something from God. I just needed Him. I cautiously flipped my hands over so they were facing palm up as an act and symbol of wanting to receive. I prayed my prayer and I waited in silence, forcing myself to turn off my thoughts and just be. Seconds later I heard my son’s bedroom door open.

Don’t lose focus. Don’t lose focus. Breathe.

Then the upstairs toilet flushed and the sound of the water rushing through the pipes overtook the precious silence.

Don’t lose focus. Don’t lose focus…

“Hey, Mom? Mama?”

I let out a gentle and disappointed sigh.

“Mama? Are you there?” my son called from the top of the stairs.

“Yes, Buddy. What’s up?”

“You have to come see this. Come here.”

I confess, I didn’t really want to come upstairs. “Alright, I’m coming, Buds.”

As I ascended the stairs, Sean said, “The moon woke me up. You gotta see this.”

We walked into his bedroom and to his window. A crystal clear, bright white full moon was glued to the indigo backdrop of the early morning sky. It was gorgeous. I thought I should grab my camera to capture this moment.

No. You’ll miss it. This moment is just for us, said the sound of my thoughts but in a voice that wasn’t mine.

“You can see the craters, mom.”

“I can. You said it woke you up? What do you mean?”

“I was sleeping and all of a sudden a bright light came to my eyes and I woke up. I didn’t know where the light was coming from. So I turned on my bedroom light, but that wasn’t the right light. So I turned it off and laid on my bed and I saw the moon out my window. It was the moon making the light!”

“I want to see how you saw, Buddy. Show me.”

We climbed onto his bed, and as I lay my head down next to his on the pillow, I saw what he could see. This crisp brilliant moon framed by the tree branches pressed against the sky. For 25 minutes my son and I watched the moon ever so slowly lower itself through the branches while we talked about how the earth moves.

I thought out loud, “This is what the passage of time really looks like, Buddy. Isn’t that weird? Usually time feels faster because we’re so busy filling it up with activities, we forget how slow time actually moves.”

“Cool,” he said.

Then my own light came on. “Hey, did you know that right before you called me up here I was praying to God that he would help me connect to his world? I wanted to see God and the next thing I know you’re calling me up to your room to look at this amazing moon and we’re having this really neat conversation, just you and me. He used you to talk to me. That’s really special. I feel so much better now.”

Sean turned to look at me and gave me his signature smile.

The moon landed behind a cluster of branches where we couldn’t see it from where we were lying. Sean squirmed to adjust his position to get a better view.

I let out a gentle laugh. “It will drop below those branches in a few minutes, Peanut. We’re getting impatient because we can’t see it, but we know it’s still there.”

Ah. Just like God, said my thoughts again, in that familiar voice that wasn’t mine.

We lay there several more minutes, but the moon never reappeared from behind those branches.  But I knew it was there. I could feel it.

 

 

 

 

 

What anorexia recovery looks like 2 years later

Eating disorder recovery during the holidays feels like swimming against the current. Pushing against the flow of people, friends, and family who all ride the desires of wanting and striving to eat better and live in better bodies.

The triggers at the holidays are exhausting for me. When I first entered anorexia recovery in 2014, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were excruciating because I was in the re-feeding phase. My body was learning how to accept and process food again, so I spent 12 weeks feeling swollen and ill. In 2015, I was focused on figuring out which holiday foods I loved, getting them on my plate, and noticing how I felt: “Am I hungry? Am I full? Do I like this turkey? Do I actually not like green bean casserole or am I just scared of it? Do I want some more mashed potatoes?Did I enjoy that gluten free pumpkin pie?”

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This year, the food was easy. I know what I love. I am confident in the kitchen (borderline showing off my culinary skills), and I am publicly outspoken about there being no rules around food. A giant spread of good eats splayed in front of me causes no angst and I feel freedom to eat.

Yet the eating disorder that lives in my brain is pounding on the walls. I’ve written and talked about and advocated for food and body love all year long; I am learning, expressing, living and enjoying the freedom to eat and move intuitively without being bound by the rules and expectations of cultural norms. But the people with whom I share the holidays–from the friends in my Facebook feed to the family members sitting across from me at the dinner table do not feel freedom to eat and verbalize judgement of their bodies, the food on their plates, and the food being served. Constant chatter about pre-meal workouts, post-holiday cleanses, new year bodies, new and improved eating grows louder as the new year creeps closer.

The triggers are everywhere and it takes copious energy to remain strong against the flow of old thought and behavior patterns because they align with the current cultural… well, current. The eating disorder in my brain is casting doubt on everything I’ve learned in my two years of recovery. I know the truth about calories, food, and how the body works. I understand and believe the power my body has to be healthy without the need to control it. However, the old feelings of wanting to “just not eat” are strong; insecurities about my body shape and flaws are rising to the surface.

The thing about anorexia recovery, though, is I know too much now. Recovery has opened my eyes to what happens biologically and mentally to my body when I starve. To blatantly skip meals or snacks would be like running a red light on purpose. On the other hand the eating disorder is a sneaky  because it argues that I don’t have to skip eating altogether, I could just little by little put less on my plate or not eat every bite. It tells me that even though my stomach is growling, I’m actually not that hungry so eating less is okay.

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I can’t control the anorexia voice; it just sort of inserts its opinions into my life without invitation. I can recognize it, though, and use my healthy voice to respond. I’ve worked hard the last two years to find and grow that healthy voice, and it has served me (and maybe you) well this holiday season. The following posts were born from that healthy voice as I was coping with triggers:

Why you’ll enjoy Thanksgiving dinner this year

You’re already in shape

What is self-love?

Resolution Revolution

What does healthy mean?

You guys, I’m tired. Each of these posts is me swimming against the current, and it takes lots of mental and emotional energy. Recovery has made me better, no doubt. At the same time, I am only two years into healing from a disease I’ve had for over 13 years. This is what recovery looks like for me. I’m doing awesome while at the same time living with the reality of an ongoing process of a mental illness.