Hello! I’m Isabella :) Welcome to my column!
My name is Isabella and I’m currently studying at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. In middle school and my earlier years of high school, I struggled with anorexia, but sought help in January 2017 and have been extremely dedicated to recovery ever since. In this column, I’ll share things I’ve learned along the way in my recovery journey, especially relating to balancing adolescence, school, and recovery. Enjoy!
Have comments or questions about my column? Let me know! :)
Note: I refer to ‘treatment’ quite a bit in this post. My experience in recovery may not look like yours. Take the word ‘treatment’ to mean any sort of focused time that you spent recovery from your eating disorder/body image struggles.
When I was in treatment for my eating disorder, everything felt a little sheltered. I ate what I was given, I read what I was given, and I thought about what I was prompted to think about. This sort of environment is necessary for recovery— you need stabilization before you can move onto the real world.
Except that’s where everything happens— the real world. After graduating from treatment, every step I took was daunting. The transition from treatment to the real world is (excuse my clichéd simile) like the transition from biking with training wheels to biking without. Don’t let me minimize the difficulty of treatment— the months I was at the Renfrew Center were the hardest months of my life. But there, you have a safety net. If you fall, your team and peers will catch you. In the real world, all of this is your job. It’s your job to eat, it’s your job to devise your treatment team, and it’s your job to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s not easy.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible, and it doesn’t mean that it’s not the most worth-it thing in the world. I meant what I said before: the real world is where everything happens. You can’t get a dog in treatment. You can’t go on dates in treatment. You can’t go to school and learn new things or drive with the sunroof open or stay in and order pizza while watching The Office in treatment.
Treatment is wonderful and it saved my life, but I belong in the real world. I am a real girl, and I have a real body and real feelings.
I am finally a real girl, but I have always been one. My body is real and it is mine. My mind thinks real thoughts and they are mine. My heart feels real feelings and they are mine. I am real, and I am mine and mine alone.
Now that I have entered and graduated from treatment, I can breathe again.
It has been almost 2 years since I graduated and I still struggle. Actually, there are times when I struggle a lot. It’s not easy to work on recovery when you also have school and family and friends all going on while you’re trying to nourish yourself, too. But it’s possible and so worth it. When you are struggling with an eating disorder or body image difficulties, your realness fades.
What recovery is is reclaiming that realness. It is yours. You get to be real, and no one (and no thing) can take that away from you.
I’m throwing away my gum. To someone without an eating disorder, this seems like a waste of perfectly good gum. But to me, this is a huge step in the direction of recovery.
My first column on Body Banter was about emotional eating and the struggles I’ve encountered while dealing with it. For a while, things got to be really intense—it felt impossible not to emotionally eat almost every day. So, just as every human naturally does, I developed a coping mechanism. This coping mechanism came in the form of gum. When I felt the urge to emotionally eat, rather than eating, I would chew gum. This might seem like a good idea, but it’s not: it simply replaces one unhealthy behavior and dependency with another unhealthy behavior and dependency.
I got to be attached to my gum. I would chew it before breakfast, after meals, etc., not because I was trying to use it to restrict, but just to stifle my appetite (which, by the way, is just restricting). I became very dependent on food to get me through the day, and gum did the same thing without threatening my eating disorder as much. I had myself convinced that it was a healthy coping behavior.
It wasn’t until I had a conversation with an old friend whom I met in treatment that I realized how secretly toxic this new behavior was. She simply said to me, “I can’t chew gum anymore. It’s a behavior and I won’t use it.” For some reason, her saying this seemed to snap me out of my disordered haze. I hadn’t realized what a slippery slope gum presented: first, you tell yourself that you chew gum instead of emotionally eat, then, the next thing you know, you’re chewing gum three times a day instead of eating three meals a day.
So, when I was ready a week or two later, I threw away my gum. I decided to ride out my emotional eating waves—I would just choose not to do it when it didn’t feel appropriate, but, as there is a balance with emotional eating, I would also choose to do it when it became appropriate. And, so be it: I was able to ride out those emotional eating waves successfully, and after doing so for a long period of time, my urges just went away. Now, not only do I choose not to chew gum—I don’t feel the need to, either.
I’m not telling you to throw away the pack of chewing gum you have in your purse or backpack. Maybe you like to freshen your breath after a meal—that’s normal! I’m telling you to throw away whatever behavior, especially the unadmitted ones, that you keep in your purse or backpack which are holding you back from recovery. Mine happened to be gum; yours may be coffee, tea, exercise, or something completely different.
Whatever it is, you owe it to yourself to say goodbye.
Recently, I was asked to return to my treatment center, which is the Renfrew Center of Charlotte, to talk to some current patients about what recovery looks like a year or two down the road. I was given a list of questions to prepare answers for and thought I’d share my answers with you.
What do you know now that you wish you would’ve known prior to treatment?
Prior to treatment, I wish I would’ve known that everything about recovery is worth it. Every ounce of joy, pain, suffering, and elation, is all worth it. Why? Because for once you’re fighting for yourself. When you’re stuck in your eating disorder, you’re constantly fighting against yourself, pushing your values and your soul away. In recovery, every tear shed is because you are choosing life.
One thing I don’t wish that I’d known how difficult treatment was. Actually, I think I think that would’ve made it harder. You will figure out how hard treatment it is, but no matter how difficult, know that it is worth it.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself and/or the process during treatment?
I learned that no matter my number of accomplishments or extracurriculars, awards and honors, etc., I have a sort of fiery streak in me that I never would’ve found had it not been for recovery. Treatment taught me resiliency. It taught me that, if I can fight an eating disorder, I can fight absolutely anything.
What has been the most difficult part of recovery?
This is a tough question to answer. To me, the most difficult part of recovery has been separating myself from my eating disorder. I know that this is an answer that is often given, but it wasn’t until these past few months that I realized just how attached my eating disorder is to me, and I to it. It clings to me and, at times, I do the same. What I didn’t realize is that all of those negative thoughts I have — I can’t do this, he doesn’t like me, she’s so much better than me — it’s all the eating disorder. Is it part of the human condition? Sure, but then again, so is disordered eating. In this, the most difficult part of recovery has not only been cutting off my eating disorder’s voice, but also finding my own. What do I like? What do I value? Who am I outside of my disorder? That’s what I’m determined to find out.
How have you cultivated motivation throughout the treatment process and afterwards?
Motivation is under no circumstances easy to cultivate. I’ll be honest— in order to keep my motivation, which I can’t always do, I have to rely on a lot of things and people. My treatment team and mother are great reminders of why I’m in recovery, as they’ve seen me at my worst and at my best. They can help me remember why I’m doing this, and that I never want to go back to my worst. At the same time, I also have to rely on this one, underlying core belief that I’ve grown, which is: the eating disorder is no longer an option. It’s not acceptable to me anymore. I refuse to engage in behaviors because they do not serve me — they never have, and they never will. It’s because of this that I can turn on a sort of autopilot mode, in which I think, I don’t quite know why, but I’m going for recovery right now.
Many people ask what they can expect recovery to look like. How would you define recovery for yourself?
To me, recovery is balance. To be perfectly candid, I’m not recovered. I probably won’t be for a long time. Recovery is a long and, at times, grueling process. But I know what recovery looks like, because I’m invested in it, and every now and then, I get these amazing peeks into what recovered life is like. Recovery is this balance that I find so difficult to achieve between not controlling and not being controlled. By this, I mean that recovery is this state in which you aren’t controlled by your thoughts of food or body image, but you also don’t have a death grip on your food and weight. Just as well, you aren’t controlled by your emotions, but you also don’t control your emotions to a point that doesn’t allow you to feel. Recovery isn’t a state of euphoria; recovery is the middle. And let me tell you, it is worth it.
What does normalized eating look like for you?
Normalized eating looks completely different for everyone, and I’m sure the way I define it looks really different from the way anybody else would. I view normalized eating very similarly to the way I view recovery: it’s a balance. It’s food freedom. It’s not having your thoughts being consumed with food one way or another— whether you tend to fret about your next meal or plan every activity on your agenda around dinnertime, food freedom is a sense of weight being lifted, and it’s being able to participate in life without the baggage of the next meal. Normalized eating is rocky, and frankly, quite abnormal in today’s day, but it’s possible.
Does recovery ever get easier?
Yes and no. There are days where my eating disorder doesn’t cross my mind once. There are also days where all I can think about is my disorder. Recovery really is cyclic, and by this, I mean that it all comes in waves. At times, recovery is easy and enlightening. At others, I feel like I’m back in the hell that is my disorder. Either way, you’re fighting the fight that saves your life this time around, not the one that steals it from you. So no matter if recovery gets easier or not (which, truthfully, it does; there is a general upwards trend), you are choosing what is right for you.
How are your relationships different now post treatment?
My relationships are so much better post-treatment and post-disorder. They’re more honest. When I was in the depths of my disorder, I hid. I hid things, I hid behaviors, and I hid myself. Now, I’m honest with people, for better or for worse, because I’ve realized that life is much too short and too special to spend time lying and hiding. Just as well, my relationships are more genuine. Because I’m able to be myself more, I’m able to connect more readily with those around me. I’ve found that I’m much more well-received when I’m using my recovery brain, and it’s for good reason. We all know that our disorders can turn us into some pretty nasty people.
I thought I would also add that, since I’ve been in recovery, I’ve started dating someone, and this has done a real number on my eating disorder. What I mean by this is that my eating disorder doesn’t quite know how to deal with this notion that someone else finds me attractive and maybe even loves me. My disorder refuses to accept this notion as an actual possibility, but it’s my reality now, and I love it.
I love my reality, because my reality now is recovery.
Just like I said, I appreciate every second of pain and joy that comes along with it. I’ll say it a million times over: recovery is worth it. The lessons learned are worth it.
You are worth it, and you are worthy of recovery.
It’s that time of year where everything seems to sort of pile up. School is well into session and things are getting busy with people trying to get work in as holidays quickly approach. This time of year, it’s easy to bury your head. I’ll concede that it’s not only easy but convenient to bury your head this time of year, too. You can bury your body in big, comfy sweaters, or bury your anxieties in your school work or job, or you can bury your emotions in a variety of things. One of the most prominent things that people choose to drown their emotions in is food.
Before we get into any sort of conversation about emotional eating, we must first define it. Emotional eating is using food to deal with emotions or feelings instead of using it to satisfy one’s hunger. It’s a highly nuanced concept, as simple and straightforward as it may seem. Most people engage in emotional eating from time to time, and, in fact, it can be quite a normal behavior. However, at some point, it becomes problematic. This is what I’d like to investigate today: where does one draw the line between normal emotionally-driven eating and disordered emotional eating? How do food and emotions interlock? Why do we emotionally eat, and why do we care?
Let’s begin by visualizing instances of normal emotionally-driven eating. We have all seen quite a few in today’s media. The most common example is, after a breakup, a female will often resort to food, like ice cream, in order to console herself. We’ve also seen people eat more when they’re happy, as a form of celebration. In these examples, food is used as a tool to better one’s state of being, which is just what emotional eating is. These examples are generally seen as socially acceptable, especially eating while happy or excited. It was previously believed that emotional eating was solely used for coping with negative emotions, but a study published by Peggy Bongers and Anita Jansen details how emotional eating is a term that can also be used to describe eating in response to positive emotions. You may wonder how much of your eating fits into the category of emotional eating, if this is the case, and, in turn, you may begin to worry that you are an emotional eater. Here’s the deal, though: we’re all emotional eaters. Food is an integral part of human nature. We live and breathe because of food, and we can’t survive without it. Therefore, it’s heavily incorporated into the way that we interact with the world around us.
We eat cake on our birthdays, we go out to nice dinners and order expensive meals on our anniversaries and to celebrate graduations and new jobs. We get our favorite foods on Superbowl Sunday and we have holidays that revolve solely around candy and home-cooking. Food is a great way to express culture and even love. All of these examples are not examples of emotional eating, but rather, examples of the ways in which food and emotion are connected. In this, emotionally-driven eating is normal, because we are animals that survive off of food intake, and we are also animals that possess emotions, so there’s no wonder that these two key parts of our lives interact.
Another great thing that food does is it makes us feel good. I, of course, say this with some hesitation, as we’ve all had negative interactions with food and emotion, whether that be guilt over eating a little too much or anything else. However, although I’m no neuroscientist, I do know that there are pleasure centers in our brain that light right up when we eat something that tastes good. Food has this wonderful ability to make us feel good in a way that nothing else can. How perfect is it, then, that our body has these pleasure receptors, and that our bodies need food to survive! One could presume that our bodies have wired themselves this way in order to promote survival. It’s similar to the way that sexual arousal and stimulation cause pleasure-- our bodies want us to reproduce, and so why not make that feel good to promote it a little more? Our bodies want us to survive via nutrition, so why not make eating a pleasurable experience?
In this, emotional eating makes sense. When we’ve had a bad day, it makes sense to self-soothe by engaging those pleasure centers in your brain. So, why is emotional eating sometimes problematic? Because, at times, we can become dependent on food to make us feel better. It’s dangerous to toe this line because, as I said, food has an ability to make us feel a way that nothing else can. This sensation of consuming something and going through the manual motions of digestion can make one feel fulfilled in places in which life fails to do so. So, while it’s normal to dance with food and emotion in small doses, it’s also easy to become reliant upon and attached to food to make us feel better in a way that we can’t easily replace with other coping mechanisms.
One thing I’d like to clarify, though, is the concept of “food addiction.” I put this term in quotation marks because I do not believe that it is a concept which exists. For one, you can’t be addicted to something you need to survive. If this were the case, we would be addicted to air and water. You can be addicted to drugs, alcohol, and sex, among many other things. This is convenient, because you can remove drugs, alcohol, and sex from one’s life. However, you cannot remove food. If food addiction was real, then how would one recover? They would not be able to. You can’t be a recovering alcoholic who still drinks one beer a day. A recovering food addict would either starve or fail at recovery. It’s a problematic concept, and I’d like to state that emotional eating and food addiction are not the same, because food addiction is not possible.
So why do we care about emotional eating? Can’t we just stop, if addiction is not a problem? Well, no. Addiction may not be a problem, but reliance is. When one has turned to food repeatedly in order to soothe themselves and they can’t find anything else to help themselves, they will find that food cannot fulfill every need that they have. When you’ve had a bad day and need a little pick-me-up, food can do the trick. But when you’re in a fight with your significant other and decide to eat instead of engaging with them, food can’t fix your relationship. When you have a project due tomorrow that you’ve not begun and you decide to eat instead of work, food can’t do your project for you. Emotional eating becomes problematic when you set unrealistic expectations as for what food can really do for you. Unfortunately, food has its limits, and while it can make you feel better temporarily, which may be all that you need at times, it can’t cure depression or anxiety and certainly can’t solve any problems for you, unless your problem is that you’re hungry and need nourishment!
Emotional eating is not easy to navigate, especially if you’re worried about whether or not you are reliant on food. It’s easy to wonder what to do at the point where you realize you are reliant on food to get through tough times, and the answer isn’t one that’s easy to hear. If you are worried that you are dependent on food, you have to turn to other things, and you have to deal with just not being as satisfied as you could be. It’s not a good feeling, but it’s more gratifying than feeling trapped by food, as emotional eating can make you feel. Food is a part of life, and should not be put away or ignored. We need food to survive, and we should embrace it. At the same time, though, we need to respect its limits, as well as our own. Food can only do so much, but we can always do more.