mental illness

4 Small but Powerful Benefits of Eating Disorder Recovery

If there are two things I know I love in the world, they are:

  1. Recovery from an eating disorder, and
  2. Numbered lists.

And when you do a quick Google search of “signs of recovery from a restrictive eating disorder,” your search results will list the main, clinical diagnosis points: weight stabilization, less rumination and disordered thoughts, etc.

But recovery doesn’t always work in broad strokes.

Sometimes it’s the little things you didn’t realize were messed up — until, all of a sudden, they’re not.

These are just four awesome items on my list of recovery benefits, but they’re ones I didn’t really think about until much later. They weren’t the reasons I chose recovery, but hey, I’m sure as hell happy they’re here.

As always, these reflect my personal experience: Your personal mileage may vary.

But if you’re wondering what life in late-stage recovery actually means in concrete terms…

And if you, like me, have an ever-abiding passion for lists…

Well, this one’s for you, my friend.

1. Better Sleep Patterns

In the midst of my disorder, my sleep schedule was whacked all to hell. I’d sleep maybe 45 minutes a night — but would spend a full nine hours in bed, tossing and turning.

This wasn’t because I was ruminating about what I had or hadn’t eaten that day, although I certainly had nights when that was the case.

I was just laying there, staring at the ceiling, exhausted, but totally unable to fall asleep.

Why? Because my ED had screwed up my body’s internal workings so much that it didn’t know when to sleep, or for how long. I’d trained it not to listen to its innate signals, and as far as I can tell, it extrapolated the pattern all the way to sleeping.

I don’t have the science to back this up — scientific method is not exactly my forte — but I do know that after a few years of recovery, nine out of 10 times I’m sleeping about thirty minutes after my head hits the pillow.

As someone who loves sleep like Pitbull likes listing city names, this is no small benefit.

2. Functional Digestive System

TMI warning: I’m gonna talk about poop real quick.

My ED really did a number on my digestive system. I never used laxatives (for obvious reasons, my support team shot that option down), but the effects of not using them went on for weeks at a time, which was kind of awful.

Now, keeping my system regular really isn’t so hard.

And for y’all who are wondering how awesome it is to have a digestive tract that actually digests things the right way, let me just say this:

It’s fucking glorious.

//end poop talk.

3. Enhanced Creativity

I didn’t really think about this one until recently. I was a creative writing major in college, and when I was working on cranking out a short story a week, it seemed to me like my creative juices were flowing pretty regularly.

But I flip through old notebooks from time to time (a dangerous endeavor, not to be attempted by the faint of heart), and I can see the difference.

My characters are more developed now. They’re more confident. More interesting.

And my scribblings in the margins of my school and work notepads reflect a mind considering more than food.

My college notebooks boast wordless scribbles, black squares, mindless doodlings, the occasional frustrated outburst on a bad day.

The notepad on my phone now features marginalia like:

Did Renaissance Jews wear hats?

Villain’s personality: Artful Dodger + Ursula + Loki 

Cross-pollinating a hangover with an exorcism

What does the early modern tradition think about the bottom of the ocean?

Now, maybe these examples say more about the nonsense that goes on in my mind than any rise in functional creativity. But I think the point stands.

And in case you were wondering, yes. Renaissance Jews did generally wear hats.

4. Fearless Media Consumption

I went through this phase — OK, it was like two years — when I read almost every piece of fiction about eating disorders I could find. I would pour through books looking for mentions of people with anorexia, and then reread the passages over and over, without really knowing why I was doing it.

I wrote eating disorder fiction myself, and for all the wrong reasons. I’m not proud of it, but it is what it is.

There are plenty of theories about why people dealing with EDs fall into these patterns, but whatever the cause, I fell hard.

In early recovery, I veered in the opposite direction. Nothing that mentioned eating disorders made its way into my purview…

Or dieting.

Or weight.

Or bodies.

Or food.

I just wasn’t equipped to handle it, and it was easier to push it to the side.

Now, I can flip on the TV and see a preview for a Biggest Loser–style show or new diet pill without feeling the need to hop on the treadmill, or to turn off the set and engage in a healthy coping mechanism.

With every day my recovery grows, it’s easier to watch and read content that used to trigger the living shit out of me.

And it makes it easier to work in an office where diet talk is practically a daily thing, too.

Sure, big-picture recovery is the end goal. But sometimes it’s worth it to celebrate small victories — however they show up for you.

So, fellow recovery warriors, what are some of the small but kickass benefits of recovery you’ve noticed in your own journeys? Let me know in the comments!

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The Art of Not Thinking About It

blank-page

Ask me three years ago what recovery looked like, and I’d have painted you a fairy tale story that would have made the Brothers Grimm shake their heads and mutter about “suspension of disbelief.”

I simultaneously wanted a world where food was delicious and abundant and unrestrained, yet in control and socially acceptable and restrained and guilt-free.

I wanted a life where my body and my fears didn’t hold me back, and yet I never wanted to let go “too much.”

If you’d offered me a bag of magic beans to go along with it, God knows I’d have taken you up on that offer.

Well, here I am now, summer of 2015. Out of college, full-time employed in corporate America, wielding my English degree like a weapon. Suddenly I’m worrying more about figuring out health insurance than the homoromantic subtext of Twelfth Night. (Although let’s be clear here: I still think about that a lot. Sebastian and Antonio are a love story for the ages. I just also need new glasses.)

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about my recovery, it’s that 98% of the journey is an exercise in “not thinking about it.”

Yes, I still wish Starbucks would stop posting calorie counts on their menus so I could get a damn latte in peace. And I wish I could learn the art of short runs, instead of waking up far too early before my 8 a.m. shift starts so I can get my workout in on its designated days.

But those moments used to dominate my long- and short-term planning. Now, they’re occasional nuisances.

No, not quite that. They’re like a fan you turn on before you go to sleep. The longer you lay there, the more used to the sound you get, until eventually you forget it’s there at all — except for those weird moments you jolt awake at 3 a.m. and snarl at the wall, “Has that fan always been so goddamned loud?”

But gradually — gradually — you start to notice you’re sleeping through the night.

That one of your best friends comes up to visit and you’re in the living room eating gelato out of the container while watching Voyage of the Mimiand you genuinely aren’t nervous.

That you go for a walk not because you’re anxious about burning calories, but because your legs got antsy after sitting at a desk for hours, and going for a walk is a great chance to listen to the latest episode of Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars.

That you sit down in front of your computer and start to write, not about your eating disorder, but about what would happen if the Fates started accidentally bringing people back to life instead of killing them, and how Zeus would feel about that. (This is a half-apology for my less-than-stellar posting schedule, for those playing along at home.)

That those painful, infuriating, scream-inducing moments drift back at the worst possible times, and while it hurts like a mother in the moment, you know it’ll be better in the morning, or in a couple mornings, because you’ve felt this before, and it does get better.

That you’re genuinely angry sometimes about the years you spent studiously avoiding broccoli cheddar soup, because broccoli cheddar soup, guys. There is no way I’d have made through this frozen hellscape of a winter without broccoli cheddar soup.

That you still feel the nagging urge to ask family members, when they visit, “Do I look different to you than I did at Christmas?” but you catch yourself, sometimes, most times, because what would the answer matter anyway?

That I’m reading articles submitted to us over at Adios Barbie, my Internet home-away-from-home, and I no longer have to pass ED-related pieces to my co-editor every time, because I will not always be triggered.

And that I know and trust myself enough to ask for help when the opposite is true.

This is not a one-size-fits-all recovery blueprint. Your mileage and experience will vary.

I can’t pretend to be an expert on anything but my own life, and even that feels like a poorly dubbed foreign film nine times out of 10.

But I’m gradually getting better at the art of not thinking about it.

And for what it’s worth, most of the time “not thinking about it” is a pretty comfortable place to be.

The Taper-Down: Antidepressant Meds and Me

Yes, I know that's a tapir and not a "taper." But look how cute!

Yes, I know that’s a tapir and not a “taper.” But look how cute!

As you know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, I recently celebrated my one-year-in-recovery anniversary. Technically as of last week it’s been sixteen months, but I’m not going to do that thing new parents do and announce every month like it’s a birthday. Suffice it to say, I’ve been recovering for a little while now, and I’ve made more progress than I imagined I would during that time.

To wit, a few accomplishments I didn’t think I’d be typing so soon (I’d tag this #humblebrag, but it’s totally not. I’m not humble, I’m proud!):

1. I’ve re-discovered that pizza and French fries are God’s work and should be enjoyed as such.

2. I’ve started re-instating an exercise routine that’s flexible – I didn’t go to the gym this morning because it’s -11 degrees outside and I’m not about to walk there in that weather. Will I go when it’s warmer in Michigan than on Mars? Probably. Does it bother me that I didn’t go today? Not too much.

3. I went pants shopping and it wasn’t the most painful thing of all time. I actually found a pair that, in my rarely-generous opinion, looked good. Hats off to you, Old Navy. Your “short” pants are actually the right length for short people. It’s a good deal.

4. I’ve started tapering off my antidepressants.

Now, if that last one doesn’t sound exactly body-image related, let me assure you that it’s linked. I started taking generic Celexa about three and a half years ago, at the worst point in my eating disorder. I’ve always been an emotional person (I can tell you stories of crying in public for no reason until the cows come home), but with the added stress of an eating disorder, it got to the point where I wasn’t sure I could function without help. I was nervous about starting SSRIs at first – it felt like a cop-out, like I wasn’t strong enough, like I was too weak emotionally to behave like a normal person without drugs.

For anyone out there considering SSRIs, let me assure you, there’s nothing more wrong. Depression is a  legitimate and painful mental illness, and deserves to be treated that way. Would you say that someone with cancer shouldn’t start chemotherapy because that would mean they weren’t strong enough to stop their cells from multiplying on their own? Should people with diabetes not take their insulin because that means they’re weak?

Antidepressants, or any other prescription drug for mental illnesses, are legitimate medical tools, and mine worked wonders for me. It didn’t make me happy all the time, of course – that would be too easy. But what it did do was help me maintain an even keel. I would get sad, but I wouldn’t be so sad that I couldn’t function. It helped me climb back onto some kind of middle ground. It didn’t change my mind into something I didn’t recognize. Instead, I finally felt like myself again.

But sixteen months into recovery, I started to get the feeling that the stability and even-keeled-ness of my mind wasn’t coming from Celexa anymore. Don’t ask me to explain the difference, because I don’t really understand it objectively, but I could tell that what I was feeling was actually me. And I wanted to see if it would hold up without medication.

For anyone in a similar position, either now or at some point in the future, do not start tapering off of SSRIs or any other medication without speaking to a doctor first. I skipped one day about a year ago because I forgot to bring my meds with me when I left town, and the side effects of a sudden, cold-turkey approach (even an accidental one) were awful. But gradually, bringing down the dose little by little, can help you avoid most of those symptoms.

I still haven’t entirely stopped with my pills yet. The process is gradual: first half a dose every day, then half a dose every other day, then half a dose every three days until finally the bottle is empty and I don’t need to refill it again. Going at this slow, easy pace, I haven’t noticed any huge problems. There have been some side effects, sure, and if you experience similar things going off of SSRIs, you’re not the only one:

  • mild nausea (I also had the stomach flu at the same time, but I think the taper-down affected it as well)
  • mild headaches (ditto)
  • occasional depressed mood (like I said, I’m a cry-for-no-reason kind of person. But as long as I know that it’s a side effect of the taper-down and not me having a terrifying breakdown, it’s manageable with a few moments apart from other people and a few deep breaths)
  • “brain shivers.”

I know that last one sounds like something out of an HG Wells novel, and it was the one that freaked me out the most, so I’ll take a few seconds to explain. Coming off Celexa, I started feeling what I could best describe as my brain vibrating. It’s not like my brain is actually moving around in my head or anything. It’s not painful, and it’s not harmful in any way. Let’s describe it this way: imagine you’re sitting on top of a moving washing machine. Can you remember what it feels like for your body to kind of be buzzing, even though you know you’re not moving? Now isolate that feeling to only in your head. That’s a “brain shiver.”

Wikipedia (where I turn for all information nowadays) tells me that these are a result of a “down-regulation of serotonin receptors in the synaptic cleft.” Hearkening back to the glory days of Psychology 111, this means that the parts of my brain that have been receiving serotonin from the Celexa are no longer receiving this constant artificial supply of chemicals, and so it doesn’t need to work as hard anymore. Like a General Motors plant in Michigan, cutting off the third line because nobody wants to buy the Buick Rendezvous. (Because I think the Rendezvous is the ugliest car on the planet. But I digress.) Those “brain shivers” are my synapses getting used to accepting only chemicals I produce. I imagine after a few weeks, the adjustment period will be over and this particular symptom will stop.

If you’re currently on antidepressants, or are thinking about starting them and have talked about them with your doctor or psychiatrist, know that there’s nothing to stigmatize about them. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. You’re deciding to take control of your life.

And they don’t have to be forever. Maybe they will be, and that’s okay too. But I’ve reached a point where I no longer think I need them. I’m not in the same place I was when I started medication. It makes sense that a different place needs different tools.