One of the trickiest things about recovering from an eating disorder is that nasty progressive “-ing.” It’s one thing to be weight-restored, and I’m by no means belittling the time, work, and distress that accompanied my getting there. But unlike the flu or mono, there’s no clear-cut moment when you can say, “I’m recovered. I’m healthy now.” Or, if there is, I haven’t found it yet.
I’ve reached a point where I no longer need to worry about not weighing enough. Anorexia dominated my doctor’s appointments for at least the past five years, and it set the limits about what I could and couldn’t do. I couldn’t give blood. I couldn’t go out in public without a sweater, since the least amount of air conditioning left me freezing. I couldn’t experience one of the most basic signs of womanhood: my menstrual cycle. Now, it’s my body that decides these things, not my disease.
Not that I particularly enjoy the miracle of menstruation, mind you. Whoever came up with that idea is a sadist. Still, it’s nice to know it can happen.
The point is, this all has to do with physical recovery. Mental recovery, as I’m learning, takes a lot more elbow grease, and is infinitely harder to pin down.
There are days when I think I’ve more or less moved on. Some days there are spans of hours when I don’t even think about meals or my weight. Some days, I can tell myself that I look fine, that no one is judging me because of my weight, that there are things (like my essay on Shakespeare’s Richard II) that are more important. Sometimes this works. But it doesn’t work all the time.
What I wish someone had told me about weight gain after anorexia is that it doesn’t work like weight loss did. At my most controlling, I could tell exactly what my weight was going to do the next day based on my calorie intake and my exercise time. Now, I feel like my dad when he tries to watch Real Housewives of New Jersey with me: completely lost.
How do I maintain this new healthy weight? I think I’ve forgotten how to “maintain” like a normal person.
A certain amount of weight gain from the depths of my struggle with anorexia was necessary. I accept this. I’m not suggesting that I was healthy at my lowest weight, and I’m not trying to go back there, either. No, the problem that I’m wrestling with at the moment is differentiating between the healthy weight I’m comfortable with and my body’s apparent “set point.”
I’ll admit, I’ve been trying to reject the notion that my body had a set point ever since a doctor mentioned it to me years ago. It seemed both ridiculous and horrifying that my body, independent of anything I told it to do, would decide that a certain weight was its “happy place” and would hang out there regardless of how I felt about it. Isn’t gaining and losing weight just an equation? Shouldn’t I be able to weigh whatever I want, if I want to?
Apparently not. I set myself a comfortable weight in recovery, deciding with the best of intentions that I would not go past this number. It was, I thought (and still think) a reasonable number. No doctor would warn me that this number was dangerously underweight. It was a compromise: give my body the extra layers of fat and muscle that it was crying for, while still allowing me to decide what my body looked like and how far I was comfortable going. I didn’t think that was too much to ask.
My body, on the other hand, had different ideas.
Weight gain, for me at least, is like taking a Slinky and putting it at the top of the stairs. All it needs was a little push, a little push that felt more like leaping out of an airplane without a parachute and hoping everything would work out all right. After the first push, the Slinky begins walking down step after step on its own, getting closer and closer to that goal weight at the bottom. Thing is, though, my recovery Slinky decided it would be a good idea to turn the corner, pass the landing, and start heading down the second flight. Not to push the metaphor, but I’d be perfectly happy to get off at floor two, thank you very much.
I haven’t quite come up with the perfect way to deal with this issue. I’m attempting to enlist the help of a nutritionist, who could hopefully explain to me how the calories I’m eating and those I’m exercising aren’t balancing the equation like they sued to. I’m trying to pay less attention to the size of the clothes I’m wearing, and to let it go that the pants I bought before beginning this year of college don’t fit me the way they used to (okay, let’s be honest, at all). While I still do weigh myself, I see the numbers that I don’t want to see and then have to try and push them out of my mind.
It’s a balancing act, I’ll tell you that. Weight-restored, but not entirely comfortable with it.
Why can’t I decide where my set point is? Who says my body gets all the control here?
Then again, I suppose it is my body that’s most concerned with my body weight. It seems to know what it wants. I wouldn’t be opposed to giving it a few helpful pointers along the way, but it might take more time than I’m comfortable with before it’s ready to listen to me again. Heaven knows it has no real reason to trust me, considering all the lies and manipulation I’ve been putting it through over the years.
For those of you either going through recovery or beginning to take similar steps, let me assure you of this before my words get misinterpreted: it is still worth it.
All the things I can do now that I couldn’t do while in the stronghold of anorexia more than make up for this fear and discomfort. My parents no longer need to worry about me medically. I no longer need to worry about me medically. The physical recovery needed to come first; the mental recovery might take longer.
But I think it’s going to take this fear and pain to arrive at the place I so desperately want to be. That place where I can go out to eat with my friends and family and never worry about the calories in the meal or what other people are thinking of what I eat. That place where I exercise because it makes me feel strong and powerful, not out of fear or guilt. That place where I am me, and my eating disorder is closed in the pages of a journal that I will never open again, not even for the nostalgia.
And I’ll keep working until I get there, one flop of the Slinky down the staircase at a time.