Let me give you a picture of me 10 years ago. I am what most would describe as a health nut. I drink skim milk with my (sugar-free) shredded wheat. I eat couscous and chickpeas for lunch. On the weekends I bake big batches of granola. I dress my salads with only lemon and olive oil. During the school year I hit the treadmill and the weights circuit before my morning classes. In the summer I run everyday, uphill. I only eat dessert on Fridays. I’m not just a health nut. I’m a health addict. I’m 20 years old and 98 lbs.
“Those pants are looking a lot baggier on you than they used to.” My mother-in-law says this to me one Sunday afternoon before a family dinner. Everyone has overheard. I laugh at the remark, my face reddening, but later complain to my husband. “The nerve of her! How embarrassing.” But secretly I like the attention. I like the way these size zero jean capris hang off of my waist. Being the skinny one is the identity I’ve clung to for as long as I can remember.
3 years later I find myself sitting in a large brown leather armchair, legs curled under me, in a therapist’s office. It’s our third meeting and he’s just told me that I show signs of an eating disorder. ARFID it’s called, which I learn later that night while lying in bed googling “types of eating disorders.” Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
I laugh right in his face when he says it. Eating disorder?! My mind immediately conjures up the images we were shown in Health class of people suffering from anorexia — arms and legs as thin as sticks, faces sunken in and pale. I think of the stories I’ve heard of the girls who gorge themselves with food and then force themselves to throw it all up in the bathroom stall. No, that’s not me. I love food. You must be wrong. Denial. How dare he accuse me! He barely even knows me! Anger. Maybe I haven’t explained myself correctly. I actually eat more than what I told you. Bargaining. I start to cry. Depression. Okay, maybe you’re right. Maybe there’s something I need to change. Acceptance.
You see, some people go through life with grey coloured glasses. They understand what is good for them, but they have no problem breaking the rules once in a while. They just intuitively get the whole idea of balance.
And others of us see in black and white. Rules are rules and we follow them rigidly. We like the control rules offer to us and the pride that comes with abiding by our strict standards. We are the ones prone to obsessions, to extremes, to eating disorders as it turns out.
My eating habits didn’t seem unhealthy to me. They were the water I was swimming in, I didn’t see another way until my therapist said, hey, there might be another way. A freer way. I way that didn’t have me so obsessive, so constrained, so skinny.
Two slices of peanut butter toast, every other morning. And grab a Big Mac sometime with your husband.
Oh, and no more running.
This is my therapist’s prescription for me. I reluctantly obey.
It’s not easy to let go of the rules you’ve made for yourself. The ones you’ve clung to, been admired for, placed as trophies on your life’s shelf of accomplishments. It’s hard to let go of the rules that have gifted you the 100 lb body (post-baby).
But I want to get better. I want to feel happier than I am. I want to have another baby.
So I stop running. I eat the toast dripping in peanut butter (it is so good!). I gain a few pounds. My missing period mysteriously returns. The second baby my husband and I were hoping for is conceived. I begin to enjoy the late night chocolate and wine with friends. The take-out on the weekend.
My eyes are starting to open, to what normal actually looks like. I see the people around me who have much healthier attitudes towards food than I do, even though they aren’t labeled as “health nuts”.
Healthy is taking on a whole new meaning for me.
I don’t write this so we can start to point fingers at one another, or place false labels and judgments on people. I write this only to bring awareness. That what we see on the outside — the thin body, the outstanding workout routine, the self-control around the dessert table that makes us envious — does not always reflect what is happening on the inside.
Some people can achieve all of these things with healthy motives. We cannot be the judge of this, and should not make assumptions about someone unless the person is near and dear to us and we are solely concerned for their well-being.
Again, some of us don’t know the obsessiveness we are swimming in until it is pointed out to us. And we are lovingly shown another way.
I’m running again now. Just a few times a week. But I’ve thrown out the size zeros. I try to eat mostly “healthy” food but I do these things because I want to feel good. My healthy choices now stem from a place of love for myself, not for the rules themselves.
I realize I am only human and cannot be all the things I want to be all of the time. There is room for my humanity. There is room for sleeping in instead of working out. There is room for chocolate (okay, A LOT of rooms for chocolate). Yet I am not a completely new person. Once an alcoholic always an alcoholic, is that what they say? I still need to be careful, I am still prone to obsession, I am still prone to perfectionism and a poor body image.
Knowing this about myself has made all the difference. Awakening to see there is a different way forward, a more loving and wholesome way, has been my saving grace.
If you’re interested in learning more, visit the National Eating Disorder Information Centre .