triggers

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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Don’t Mind the Gap: Why Critical Reporting on Thigh Gaps is Counterproductive

London Underground Mind the Gap

Trigger Warning: This post discusses specific body image issues and the discourse of thinspiration in a way that may be triggering to those in recovery. Please do not read if you think you may be triggered. I won’t take offense. Actually, I will hi-five you for respecting your needs and wish you a good day.

Okay. So let’s sit down together for a moment.

Before I go off (and I don’t usually go off like this, so please bear with me if I sound a little rant-y), let me add in a little disclaimer. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, I think talking about issues of body image, eating disorders, and self-esteem is a good thing. There’s already so much stigma around people struggling with these issues that the best thing we can do to ensure equitable treatment and cultural understanding is to open up a dialogue about it.

Look at me. I’m a body image blogger. If I didn’t feel strongly about open and honest dialogues, what the heck am I doing with my time?

That said, this is a public service announcement to all body-image-slash-feminist-slash-lifestyle-slash-whatever websites and news services out there:

PLEASE stop talking about thigh gaps.

Seriously. Stop.

For those of you who don’t know, don’t worry about it: I started an internship with the fabulous body-image website Adios Barbie in February, and before that point the only gap I was paying any attention to sold me overpriced sweaters. But now that I’ve started swimming more exuberantly in the positivity side of the Internet pool, it seems like I can’t visit a single site without reading about teenage girls starving themselves so that the tops of their thighs don’t rub together.

The point is, though, writing up exposés about girls and their specific body-image hang-ups being perpetuated by the media is perpetuating these body-image hang-ups. And it’s making it worse.

Do you want proof?

It’s pretty self-explanatory, really. Before I knew that there was something “wrong” with the way my thighs looked, I didn’t funnel all that much energy there. Sure, I’m not quite at the point where I can say, “I love my body despite all its socially-constructed flaws! Hooray!” but for comparative purposes, let’s say it was just another item on the list of things I was dealing with at the time.

And then the media told me that I was supposed to be worried if my thighs touched, and suddenly that became a thing.

warning-stickerEven though articles and videos are clear in saying that this is not a healthy ideal to strive for, it’s not realistic for most body shapes and sizes, and that working this hard for the “thigh gap” may or may not be a sign of disordered eating or body dysmorphia, all these articles served to do was to point out a flaw that I didn’t even know I had. Now, oriented in positive change as I’m trying to be, I still can’t help glancing down when I’m putting on my pants in the morning and wondering whether it’s weird that my thighs rub against each other when I stand.

As if I needed another part of my rapidly changing body to be self-conscious about.

Well-meaning media reporting about the “thigh gap phenomenon” (or TGP, as I’m going to refer to it because I dislike the phrase in general), serves essentially the same purpose as the “thinspiration” communities proliferating like sexually enthusiastic rabbits all over Pinterest and Tumblr: it presents a socially-constructed “ideal” of the slim, pretty, attractive woman, and then invites women all over the nation to freak out and stress when their bodies do not measure up to this construction.

It’s the equivalent of writing a piece against thinspo while peppering the article with the very images that you’re trying to stop the spread of.

It’s like trying to put out a forest fire with a blowtorch. It just doesn’t work.

If the entire online community is worried about the TGP, shouldn’t I be worried about it too?

No.

Let me repeat that just one more time, for clarification:

NO.

The media has taken the TGP and blown it up into the problem itself, when in reality it’s just a manifestation of a much larger problem: the need to conform to socially constructed and unrealistic standards of beauty. The TGP is just another variation on painful beauty practices dating at least all the way back to Elizabethan England, where women painted their faces white with lead to appear more “fair.” (Clearly, lead poisoning was not a known issue at the time…) Society has always told us that we are less than ideal, and we always have a shifting standard that we’re expected to conform to.

Let’s talk about this instead. Let’s talk about social expectations and beauty norms and what industries are benefiting from making people feel insecure about their appearance, because God knows they’re benefiting from it.

But let’s not make the problem worse by inadvertently participating in the same tradition. Stop counterproductive reporting, and stop spreading the hysteria to consumers who are as susceptible to the message whether it comes from a pro-ana site or the Huffington Post.

Because let’s face it, at the end of the day those suffering from or susceptible to eating disorders are not going to remember the url at the top of the page. They will remember the image and the message. And that is not a message that we, as media producers, should be spreading.

Finger on the Trigger

imagesSometimes conversations make me laugh when they shouldn’t. Call it a weird sense of macabre humor.

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who I’ve confided in about my eating disorder, one of those chatty, meandering, mostly pointless conversations that you’d have with any friend. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but at one point she looked at me, horrified, and gasped, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry! I hope I didn’t just trigger you!”

I looked at her and laughed. “Kid,” I said, “if I wanted to avoid everything that triggers me, I’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning. I deal.”

Like all dark humor, there’s truth to this. If I wanted to avoid everything that reminded me of my eating disorder or made me feel uncomfortable about my weight and my appearance, I’d have to invest in a lobotomy. (Which doesn’t sound like the best of all ideas, considering the only lobotomy I really know involves getting impaled through the prefrontal cortex with a piece of railroad track… Thanks, Psych 101.)

What I’m finding now is that my eating disorder has been so entrenched in so many parts of my life for so long that it’s turning the most random things into triggers. Foods I used to eat when I was restricting more severely, certain clothes I used to be able to wear and can’t anymore, songs I used to listen to when I exercised, even specific smells can send me off onto a mental tangent that I don’t particularly want to be on. It doesn’t have to be significant; it just has to connect to something in my head. Neurons are weird that way.

NOT TRUE! STOP THAT!

NOT TRUE! STOP THAT!

There are times when I’m a little ashamed of my triggers, which I realize is pretty much the definition of a vicious cycle. When you start feeling bad about feeling bad, there’s really nowhere to go from there. But I’m not proud that there are people I don’t even know that trigger me when I see them walking around my campus, because they wear the same size I did before I started recovery.

This is not helpful. No. I know that. But it happens.

What I’m coming to realize, and what I hope can be helpful for other people dealing with unavoidable triggers, is that these things are always going to be there. There will always be somebody working out more than I am, losing weight when I’ve forbidden myself to, engaging in behaviors that would be unhealthy for me at the present moment. And, most likely, this will continue to set me on edge for a while.

Will the feeling go away? Will I be able to amble around the world with my head in the clouds, never being bothered by the disordered eating and super-health-conscious behaviors (side note: even though they both trigger me some, diets and eating disorders are not the same thing!) around me? Honestly, probably not.

But I can control, and am controlling, how these things affect me.

I still see my “trigger people” (as I uncharitably call them) and feel a little bad and miss the days when I weighed less than I do now. But that doesn’t mean I have to act on these feelings. I can allow myself a few minutes to feel sorry for myself, and then continue on with my day.

And most importantly, I can stop going looking for triggers.

Self-triggering doesn’t just have to be pro-ana or pro-mia websites, or Thinspiration Tumblrs, or websites promulgating the diet industry. If you’d like to read more about these phenomena (I’d call them travesties and blights on humanity, but I don’t want to get melodramatic), check out the links I’ve included. We all know that thinspo and pro-ana sites are terrible for people in recovery. No shocking news there.

But some of the other things I used to use to trigger myself on purpose aren’t quite so obvious. A few years ago, when I wanted to indulge my eating disorder, I would spend hours trolling the Internet and the public library for eating disorder literature. I know, I know, this seems counterintuitive. But I stocked up on body image websites, eating disorder recovery blogs, and ED fiction in the young adult section. I read Wintergirls, I read How I Live Now, I read Thin…

If it was in the YA section of the library and mentioned eating disorders, I read it.

I’m planning on doing a post about ED fiction sometime in the near future, but I don’t want to go off on too big of a tangent here. For now, suffice it to say that depending on your stage of recovery, indulging your eating disorder by allowing thoughts about it to take up all of your free time is not the way to go.

There are so many other wonderful things we can do with our lives.

Image via Sex with Timaree

Image via Sex with Timaree

Now, when I start to feel myself getting triggered by the people and foods and sights and sounds and smells around me, I’m not going to give in so easy. I’ll give myself about five minutes to feel sorry for myself, if it’s a particularly bad day. But my action plan is to throw myself into doing something else. Instead of watching True Life: I Have an Eating Disorder (don’t watch this if you’re in recovery, it was a terrible idea), I’ve had so many more productive experiences. For example:

I’m working an online internship.

I’ve written a novel

I practice Ashtanga yoga.

I’ve knitted about seven hats since January.

I’m actually making progress on my Goodreads “to-read” shelf. (Halfway through Gone With the Wind, in case you’re keeping tabs)

And that’s not even counting the little monotonous everyday things that I actually have time to take care of now. Triggers will always be there, and they often leap out at us when we least expect it. But we don’t have to take it lying down.

What do you think? Are there certain situations in which you have trouble dealing with triggers? Do you have suggestions for coping strategies that you’d like to share with others? Pass it along in the comments.

In the meantime, there’s a half-finished hat lying on my dresser, and I have five episodes left of Firefly waiting for me on DVD. Now there’s a coping strategy.