So what does freedom from an eating disorder look like? In my last post I talked about the freedom that I now have from bulimia. But “freedom” is a bit vague. It can be frustrating When you are actively in recovery, it can be frustrating for people who have already recovered to toss around words like “freedom.” When I was in recovery I always found myself wondering, How did you get there? and What exactly does that freedom look like?
Although I have no perfect formula for ‘how I got here,’ I do know that a big part of it was acknowledging the disorder as an addiction (I talk more about that here and here). But I know now what freedom means for me. Every day, day after day for the past three years it has looked like this:
The way I view myself has radically changed. I am more at peace with my weight, even when it fluctuates. I know it fluctuates because I do still weigh myself, not on a daily basis as I did before, but maybe once a month or less. And the number doesn’t have a hold on me. Yes, there are times when I look at the scale and think I’d be happier if it was a couple pounds less. But I don’t allow that thought to take root. As best as I can, I take it “captive” by acknowledging that it is a lie and that if I allow myself to believe it and act on it, the result would take me back to a place I do not wish to go.
I think I can safely say that ALL women are conscious of their weight and their appearance. What is important is the degree to which you let that consciousness become a ruling factor in your life. The longer I am ‘sober’ from bulimia (it has been three years and three months today), the easier it is for me to accept my body and my appearance. And because I am at peace with my body, I can be at peace with food.
I enjoy food like never before because it is no longer the enemy. I stopped fearing it would make me fat (because I accepted my body) and started to see it as a powerful and wonderful tool that could sustain and bring health to my body.
During my first pregnancy I became keenly aware of what I needed to put in my body so that my baby would be healthy. I started to eat a diet high in iron and folic acid and I embraced fat as an important nutrient. I started to allow myself to eat all the foods that had been on my “Do Not Eat” list: red meat, butter, avocado, nuts and nut butters. The more freedom I allowed myself in my food choices the less I obsessed and the less I felt the urge to binge.
I have since become a firm believer that you should, in moderation, satisfy the craving you have. Denying and suppressing a craving can lead to bingeing. So if I want a brownie, I have a brownie. Then I find that the next time I am around brownies, I don’t feel a strong desire to eat one. My bulimic-self would have denied myself the brownie when I wanted it. Then a few days later, made a whole pan of brownies in secret, eaten them in secret and then purged them behind a closed door. There are times too when I deliberately stop myself from eating something even if I want it. Like on Saturday when I walked past the pretzel stand in the mall and they smelled sooo good I kind of wanted one. But thought, If I have one now I won’t be hungry for lunch and I want to have that Bulgar & Chicken Salad I made yesterday. So, I say “no.” I have the freedom to say “yes” and I have the freedom to say “no” to certain foods.
Freedom in Food
Allowing myself freedom has certainly been the anecdote to obsession. But freedom does not mean “letting myself go” and it certainly does not feel “out of control.” In fact I feel now, after three years of sobriety that I have more self control than I ever had before when it comes how much I eat. Although I am not obsessed, I am still conscious. I try to eat balanced meals, with healthy, wholesome ingredients. My diet consists largely of quality proteins, healthy fats and is slightly lower in carbohydrates. (For a while I stuck strictly to the Paleo diet, but found that its restrictive nature was too reminiscent of past habits. I still follow many of the principles of the philosophy: eliminate all processed foods, eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies, protein and healthy fat. But I deviate from the diet when I include carbohydrates like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal, bulgar and quinoa).
My relationship with running has changed too. After I ran the San Diego marathon in 2007 I nearly stopped running. I was sick of the obligation. I had used running as a way to ‘purge’ excess calories and lose weight and because of that I had grown tired of it. It had lost its appeal. When I first started running I ran because I loved the sense of freedom in going long distances and the peace of running down country lanes and through wooded trails. From 2007 to 2009 I barely ran at all. I continued to exercise but only really used the elliptical or the bike and not because I enjoyed them, but because I was afraid of gaining weight.
Freedom in Running
I started running again in December of 2009 not long after my daughter was born. At that point I had been ‘sober’ from bulimia for nearly a year and the same freedom I had found in other areas of my life: body image and food, I now found in running. Its original appeal returned. I ran not to burn calories, but to explore, to see how fast I could go, to think, to pray, to feel alive. In January of 2010 I started training for my first big goal post-baby: a half-marathon. In May 2010 I ran 1:55 at the Big Lake Half Marathon in Alton, NH. A year later in 2011 I dropped my time by 10 minutes and finished in 1:45. Last year, I PR’d in every distance from 5K to Marathon. It is amazing what a healthy body can do. I feel stronger and faster than I ever have before and my goals are getting more and more ambitious because I know I can do it because I am healthy.
There are days when I don’t want to run, but I do anyway. And there are days when I don’t want to run and I rest. I can listen to my body now in a way that I never was able to do before. I used to feel obligated to run no matter how I felt because I feared being “fat,” fear was my motivator. But now specific goals guide whether I rest or run, my motivation is to be the fastest me. Sometimes being the fastest me means running when I don’t feel like it and sometimes it means resting. There’s no obligation, no fear, just the desire to be the best that I can be.
Because my mind isn’t a constant buzz of obsessive thoughts I am much more ‘present’ in every moment. My relationships with family and friends have improved. Most family gatherings are around food, as are times with friends. These occasions used to produce huge anxiety for me: what was I going to eat? how much? what if I lost control? I could never focus during a conversations with anyone as I was always thinking about what I had just eaten and when I would get the opportunity to sneak off and purge it.
Freedom in my Relationships
Now that I am free, these same situations are enjoyable occasions that I look forward to. There are times when I eat more than I should–when I feel really full. But I accept it because the fear of becoming fat no longer grips me. If I trust my appetite at the next meal then it will all even out. I trust that my body will digest and use the food as it needs. I don’t feel the fear or pressure of “compensating” for overeating. It happens. I accept it. I let it go.
My relationship with my husband is also much more honest: I don’t have to hid behind a closed door anymore. I share my thoughts and worries and anxieties freely and we talk openly. Occasionally we talk about the way it used to be. These conversations are usually brief because they drag up painful memories for us both. But they are important because they remind us of how wonderful the freedom I have found is for both of us.
Freedom from bulimia doesn’t mean perfection. I am still conscious of my weight and what I eat. Lies about my worth still creep into my mind. Freedom doesn’t erase all the root causes of my addiction. It just means they no longer have a hold on me.