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When did disordered eating become so…normal?

I may have abandoned the pursuit of a career in nutrition, but I’ve been more than tempted to put on my dietitian hat and start lecturing lately.  Good lord, there are an awful lot of unhealthy habits being encouraged in the name of “health”!

When did such a disordered relationship with food and fitness become so…normal??

I work with nearly all women so, naturally, the topic of dieting comes up pretty frequently. To minimize my nutrition-ignorance-related rage, I try to ignore it as much as I can, but the things I do hear leave me incredulous.  Weight-loss plans that allow you to eat no carbs, no fruit, no sweets, no alcohol…and very little of the few foods that are deemed acceptable.  So little, that exercising is considered risky and off-limits.  To me, all those limitations sound far too familiar, too close to being an eating disorder.  And yet, it’s not some get-thin-fast diet found on a sketchy pro-ana website.  It’s a certified “lifestyle program”, run by (seemingly) professional nutritionists.

WHERE did these people get their education?  How are they getting away with giving people such terrible advice??  It makes me angry, how irresponsible it is for nutrition experts (who should know better )to be promoting such unhealthy ways.  They of all people should know the damage that this kind of diet can do to a person’s health, both mentally and physically!

And then there are the macro-tracking, health-obsessed, superfood-of-the-week people. I can’t log onto Facebook or Instagram without seeing someone’s plate of protein pancakes, complete with the fat/carbs/protein captioned below the picture.  Does everyone really need to know the nutritional info of everything you eat?  Do you??  Your body isn’t obsessing over whether or not it’s “reached it’s ideal macros” for the day, why should you be?

Oh, and the “fitspiration” craze.  Whether it’s the thin, toned, muscled-but-still-feminine girls or the bulking up bro, the gym time involved seems a little obsessive to me.

Between overheard conversations, Facebook statuses, and Instagram progress pics, I could go on and on about the unhealthy mindset everyone seems to be wrapped up in.  I cringe to think about how many of those “healthy” lifestyles could lead to some seriously unhealthy consequences.  How long can you follow that strict diet before anorexic thoughts creep in? At what point does counting macros and eating clean become orthorexia?  Will the need to workout every day turn into a legitimate addiction?  It makes me worry how the best of intentions can go so far astray.

It seems I’m in the minority in this thinking, however.  Everywhere I look, these behaviours are admired, encouraged, and seen as accomplishments.  Of course, diet and exercise changes can be for the better, if it’s done in a healthy way.  In everything, moderation is key.  But these all-or-none approaches take it past the healthy, and edge into the disordered.

I don’t know.  Maybe the general public needs to be better educated about nutrition and wellness.  Maybe, coming from a history of eating disorders, I know too much?  Maybe I’m just more sensitive about such things.

Maybe a little bit of all three (everything in moderation, of course).

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Recovery Revelations

After two bad days spent loathing my thighs and debating over every bite of food, I’ve had a beautiful realization that has put me back in the recovery mindset. I feel like every time I run out of enthusiasm for beating ED, it takes a revelation like this to get me back. Each time it’s a different, new idea that just makes me remember “RIGHT! THAT’S why recovery is so important”, and I feel like eventually, they’re all going to add together, and be ever-present in my mind. Eventually, they won’t even be conscious thoughts in my head. It’ll just be fact: Recovery is worth it; Life is so much more than having an eating disorder.

Anyway, today’s “brand new thought” was really something that, when I really think about it, should be an obvious, duh, thing. But that’s what an eating disorder does. It warps your brain, so the normal, rational thoughts don’t seem so normal, and the crazy ones make sense.

Life is too amazing to waste precious moments worrying about food.

Obvious, right? Apparently not. There are so many times in my life where I should have been having an amazing experience, and my most prominent memory of it was how I stressed about the food involved.

Specifically, I think about my trip to Thailand last year. Thai food is delicious (Or what I dared to eat was delicious; there was plenty I wouldn’t go near, because of all the “unnecessary” calories and fat). And it’s incredibly cheap. And a huge part of travelling is getting to try out all the local cuisine. But I missed out on that, because in my crazy lil mind, staying thin is more important than getting the full Thai experience.

Pad thai on the street for lunch? Maybe, but only if I’ve had a really “good” day up until then, and I’d have to have a light dinner later. Group dinner at the Indian restaurant? Nope, that’s pretty risky, I’ll have to find a safer meal somewhere on my own. Clubbing the night away in Bangkok? Whoa, I do NOT need all those liquid calories.

WHY DID I LET THOSE THOUGHTS HAVE SO MUCH POWER OVER SUCH AN AMAZING OPPORTUNITY???

I’m going to Bangkok (along with a few other Asian destinations) again in a few months. I don’t want a repeat of last time; I want to soak in every bit of the experience I can. I don’t want Ed to hold me back from doing the things I want to do, and from joining in on all the group’s fun.

In my mind it’s easy to be like “Of course I won’t let Ed ruin my holiday; I’ll be stronger by then, I can eat whatever I want”. But if I were to be offered a big plate of curry tomorrow, I’d still probably panic and try to avoid it. I still have a lot of work to do towards recovery.

More and more though, I can see that it’s worth it.

Even outside of the big things like travelling the world and tasting its foods, it’s worth it in everyday life. Birthdays, family dinners, Christmas; they all revolve around food, and they’re all supposed to be enjoyable experiences! As long as you keep listening to Ed, however, they’re still going to be stressful! Life shouldn’t be all about the food and the calories and your weight. It should be about enjoying each moment, and appreciating each moment.

Each day, I have to force myself. Some days, I have to force myself with each bite. But little by little, it’ll get easier. And eventually I’ll have that final realization that links all the little ones together, and sticks. Recovery is a struggle, but it means a full, amazing life, and I have to keep reminding myself how very much I want it, and it’s worth all that struggle.

Just think of all that pad thai…mmmmmm.

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Mental Health Secrets

Despite all the hate that Cosmo magazine receives for its trashy articles and ridiculous sex tips, I have to admit that it’s always been a favorite guilty pleasure of mine. Sure, some things they suggest are a bit out there, but in recent years Cosmo has started publishing more articles on things like health, careers, and world issues. After reading through the September issue, however, I’m a little dismayed at a a piece of “advice” they printed.

In a career-focused article about how to “Stay Cool When Life’s a Mess”, one issue discussed was what to do if you have an eating disorder or addiction and need to get treatment for it:

Don’t tell your boss. If your workplace offers an anonymous wellness program, use it. If you need to go into treatment, say that you’re going on vacation.”

As someone who has recently had to come clean to her boss about having an eating disorder and needing some time off to get professional help, my first thought was how ridiculous this suggestion was. How much time does the average workplace allow as vacation time? As a relatively new employee, I’m guessing two weeks would be the longest period of time I’d be given in one chunk. And that’s not gonna cut it for “fixing” the issue.

I’ve been dealing with an eating disorder for over ten years, and I’m about three months into the recovery journey. Psychologists, dietitians, and group therapy are all part of the process, but so is time. I still have a long way to go before I’ll consider myself all better. Two weeks is definitely not enough to take care of an eating disorder, and to suggest that you could pass off entering treatment as a vacation is laughable.

After rolling my eyes at the impracticality of Cosmo’s advice, I gave it more thought, and actually became really annoyed. In past Cosmo articles, and in today’s society in general, it’s been a goal to raise awareness and stop the stereotypes about mental illness. But by saying that an eating disorder is something to keep hidden, they’re really just perpetuating the stigma attached to it. Mental illness is real, and it’s definitely not a thing to be ashamed, or secretive, of.

I’ll get criticized for using the cancer comparison, but the facts of the matter are there: both cancers and eating disorders can kill. But how people perceive them, and treat the two issues, are totally different and unfair. A person diagnosed with cancer and having to undergo chemo would never be told to lie to their boss about needing to go get help. In just about all situations, it would be completely understood that they needed medical help, so they’d be off work in order to receive it. So why is it okay to tell an anorexic to cover up their health concerns with the ruse of “going on vacation”? In both cases, medical treatment is necessary, and there really shouldn’t be a reason to keep secrets or disguise the issue.

In my experience, I’ve been open and honest with everyone I know about having an eating disorder and finally seeking treatment for it. And so far I’ve been met with nothing but compassion and encouragement to get better. Even at my job, it’s been no issue to get time off in order to attend appointments and therapy, and everyone knows what’s going on. So I’m very disappointed in Cosmo’s advice to do the opposite and keep quiet.

What do you think; should it be the norm to keep mental illness under wraps in the workplace?

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Strength in Numbers

Misery loves company”.

There’s strength in numbers”.

I’ve heard lots of variations of the same basic message: having people around you who understand makes a world of difference. Only recently, since beginning to attend a recovery therapy group, am I realizing how very true that is.

Growing up with an eating disorder, I honestly thought I was the only one who had ever had these feelings. Of course, I realized thousands of other girls struggled with body image, diets, and eating disorders. But no one understood my demons; I was a special kind of fucked up, beyond understanding, and without a chance of recovery. On the surface I denied I had a problem, but inside I knew I was far from having normal, healthy thoughts about food and about my body. I just assumed (because of my special, one-of-a-kind, eating disordered brain) that I’d stay this way forever, so acknowledging that I needed help, and getting it, would be a waste of time. So, for ten years, I obsessed, stressed, counted, and restricted; the whole time trying to convince myself I was living a normal life.

Stumbling upon the book “Life Without Ed” by Jenni Shaefer was a harsh eye opener for me. She writes about her journey with her eating disorder; all the way from her first negative thoughts about her body as a small child, to the depths of her struggle, to her eventual recovery to health. As I read, over and over I found myself thinking “Holy crap, WHY would you do that, that’s crazy!”, only to realize a half a second later that I’d done the same thing; I was every bit as crazy as her. For the first time, I realized just how messed up my thinking had gotten, and I couldn’t deny it anymore. But instead of scaring me, it gave me comfort and hope. This girl, Jenni, had gone on to be happy and healthy, so maybe there was a bit of hope for me, too.

A few months later, and I’m accepted into an intensive recovery program, part of which is a weekly group therapy. Going into my first session, I was pessimistic; none of these girls seemed like likely allies in the pursuit of recovery. At first glance, it was a broad range of women; young, old, skinny, overweight. Honestly, if I had met this group in a normal, everyday context, there was no way we’d somehow emerge as friends.

Before the end of the first meeting, though, I wanted to hug each and every one of them. As each girl talked about her own issues and struggles, it became clear we were all much more similar than I’d thought. In every story, there were feelings and thoughts and confessions that I was all too familiar with, that I had thought I was alone in feeling. Just knowing I wasn’t the only one feeling like this was a huge relief. Knowing I wasn’t alone in all this made it just a little bit less scary.

Being able to talk to people who are fighting the same demons as I am is incredibly comforting. My friends and family try to be understanding, but they’ll never truly get it, and a small part of me is always worried they’re judging me, just a little bit. The girls at support group though, they’ve been there. They’ve had the same crazy thoughts; they’ve gone to the same crazy measures in order to obey their eating disorders.

I’m less than a month into the group sessions, but already I feel such a sense of solidarity with everyone there. Each weekly session feels like entering a safe zone, where I’m not the odd man out. I’m surprised by how comfortable I am, sharing things I’ve never talked about, and crying in front of near strangers. I’m even more surprised by how much I care for these girls; I want each of them to be healthy and happy, and I find myself wondering about how they’re doing in between meetings.

Maybe in time I’ll get to know these girls more personally, and we can bond over things other than our eating disorders. Ideally, eating disorders won’t even be an issue, and we could just be “normal” friends. For now though, I’m just incredibly grateful to have learned that I’m not alone, and I’m not incurable, and that there are amazing, beautiful people right by my side in this battle against ED.

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Intro to Recovery

I really, really hate myself for it, but my first thought was along the lines of “Good. I’m one of the skinniest girls here.”

I had my first orientation meeting with the recovery group today.  Just like after my solo meeting last week, I left feeling discouraged.  I go to the Centre feeling so motivated and so ready to change my life, and I leave feeling defeated, or like I’ve come to the wrong place.

I’m not like those other sick girls though, I eat all the time.  I just need someone to talk to; I don’t need to see a dietitian; I can just talk through some stuff with a psychologist and then I’ll probably just be all recovered!  Even while I’m thinking these things I know they’re not fully true, but these are the “facts” my brain chooses to cling to.

I want to get better, and then I don’t.  Mostly, I’m terrified.  I was diagnosed with an eating disorder at age twelve, and had unhealthy food/body issues for god knows how long before that.  At age twenty-one, I really can’t remember ever having a life that wasn’t governed by Ed’s rules.  Recovery would mean a whole new standard of “normal”, and I really don’t know if I’m ready for that, or ever will be.  I don’t know if I want to give up that feeling of control.

In theory, recovery sounds great.  I’d love to be able to not worry about what I eat or how I look or how much I weigh.  I’d love to relax and not be so uptight and worried all the time.  I’d love to be able to mindlessly eat a bag of chips, and then not feel sickened with guilt afterwards.  But right now, all of those things equate to the same thing in my head: fat.

I keep hearing about these girls who manage to beat their eating disorders, and live normal, healthy lives, and they still look amazing.  And I know their stories are meant to inspire me and convince me that recovery is possible, yet I keep writing myself off as a lost cause.  Mighta worked for them, but this is just the way I am.  This is how my life is, and it’s probably not going to change.  And I hate these thoughts, I hate myself for having these thoughts.  I want to believe that I can do this, that life after recovery will be so much better.

But right now it’s a huge struggle.

Help??

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Ignorance is Not Bliss

“So what, you just don’t like food?”

This is how my boss responded when I confided that I was seeking treatment for an eating disorder and would need some time off work.

“You know, I just don’t get the eating disorder thing. I’d eat anything you put in front of me. They say you live longer if you’re skinny anyway.”

Really? REALLY?? Despite the fact that talking about it nearly brings me to tears every time, and that I had to work up my bravery all morning to tell you this, THIS is how you reply??

It’s 2014. Aren’t people more aware of the seriousness of mental illness? I’ve been a big supporter of Bell’s “Let’s Talk” Day, and Eating Disorder Awareness Week in the past few years, but I’ve never really stopped to think about how necessary it might be to raise awareness.  I thought, this day in age, awareness wasn’t even an issue; people had to know how real and how debilitating mental illness can be.  But apparently not. My boss is a prime example of how ignorant (and rude) people can still be.

Mental illness, eating disorders especially in this case, are not to be taken lightly.  To put it in perspective, anorexia nearly killed me ten years ago.  My body had deteriorated so badly, and my heartrate was so low, that I was immediately admitted into hospital and hooked up to a half-dozen machines.

After a three month hospital stay, I was healthy enough to go back to “normal” life, but now, even ten years later,  I’m not truly healthy.  Almost every single day since then has been a struggle; every calorie that enters my body has been a tiny battle.  I’m constantly aware of what I eat, and how or if it might affect my weight.

After ten years of stress and anxiety over something as basic as food, you know what? I’m sick of it. I’m sick of letting anorexia and its evil little voice in my head control every day of my life.

I’ve talked to my parents and close friends, and I’ve been to several professionals already.  I’m in the process of getting enrolled in an out-patient therapy program. I’m taking steps to make myself healthy, mentally and physically. It’s not going to be easy, and to be honest, I’m terrified, but I know it’s a HUGELY positive thing in my life.

So, when I went to my boss to try and explain the situation, at the very least I was hoping he’d be happy to hear that I was doing something to improve my health. I never expected to be trivialized, as if the struggle my life has been for the past decade was no big deal, a joke.

The more I reflected on the conversation, the more annoyed I got.  Here I am, making one of the scariest decisions of my life, and you act as if I should just be able to get over it?

And I’m sure he’s not the only person around who is so oblivious.  So I write this hoping that even one person will read it, and become a bit more aware of the issue. Please don’t be one of those assholes who says hurtful things simply because they don’t know any better. Inform yourself, even if it’s just from this article. And if you don’t want to take it upon yourself to learn, don’t. But please, don’t ever ever make someone feel as if their problems don’t matter, whether it be mental illness or something else.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

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