This is the worst time of year to be recovering from an eating disorder.
Starting in late November, the pressure is on. This is the holiday season, and that means we eat! We eat in excess! With tables full of food and counters laden with sweet desserts, we’re forced to test our boundaries – not by dipping our toes in the pool, but by being unceremoniously shoved in fully-clothed during the party. For me, a month into recovery, it meant it was the first time I wasn’t in control of the food I spooned onto my plate in portions that seemed too big, the first time I let myself eat dessert, the first time I was consistently full for weeks at a time, and it was overwhelming. For nearly two months during the holidays, I could no longer restrict my meals or manipulate food, but I also wasn’t able to determine for myself what I was eating via meal plan. I wanted all these delicious meals I had banned myself from for three years, which meant I ate a lot of them, which also meant I counted down the days, waiting and pining for the end of the holiday season to come around because nobody ever tells you how exhausting, how triggering, how pleasantly unpleasant, eating can be.
And then, when you think you’re free, January hits. And now, instead of everyone telling you to Eat Eat Eat! everyone is telling you that you should feel Bad and Guilty, that eating was not eating but Overindulging, that now you require lose-weight-quick diets and detoxes and fasting, that you need to hit the gym five times a week for thirty to sixty minutes, that it’s time to set resolutions that involve less less less food and more more more burning off all those calories.
January hits, and it’s somehow worse than the holidays ever could have been, and now your goals to eat more and work out less are suddenly targets for scrutiny and criticism, and now you’ve got another beast to tackle on the already-fraught road to recovery.
My eating disorder started, in part, as a New Year’s resolution. Having swapped glasses for LASEK, it seemed an opportune time to cut off all my hair and, while I was at it, lose some weight. It started with eating 1200 calories and 30 minutes at the gym a few days a week. It progressed a little more during each successive year, where my resolution was to hit an impossible 100lbs by consuming under 600 calories a day and spending no fewer than 4 hours working out.
I bought into the fads. I went vegan, bought whole foods when I did eat, added spirulina powder to my smoothies, made sure my ED looked Instagram-good. I was afraid of fats and carbs, worried about toxins, doused everything with dried red pepper flakes in the hope that the spice would speed up my metabolism, stopped going out to eat, spent every free moment at the gym, tried to maintain my image as Healthy and Fit.
It was exhausting. I could feel my body wasting away as my fingernails snapped in half, my toenails popped off, my hair fell out, my teeth ached. When I wasn’t at the gym, I was in bed berating myself for not being at the gym. When I was doing homework, I was mostly just thinking about eating (or, really, not eating). I was living in a perpetual state of anxiety about my weight and appearance and food intake, which meant I really didn’t have time for things like friends because that usually meant food, or going home to see family on the weekends because that meant I wouldn’t be able to spend the entire day at the gym, or going to class because there just weren’t enough hours in the day.
There’s nothing wrong with changing up your lifestyle in pursuit of a healthier self and nothing condemnable about using the first of the year to get a fresh start at eating better and discovering how awesome it can feel to work out. But the health industry has turned our insecurities into marketing strategies. It’s an exercise in exploitation, where the only aim is to make a profit on a lifetime of self-doubts by fostering new problems, by making you constantly think you’re not doing anywhere near Enough, that you aren’t Enough. You can always be skinnier, stronger, prettier – and here’s how eating only these foods or signing up for this fitness center or adopting this diet can give you the body of your dreams. You should constantly be scrutinizing your body, trying to incorporate as many health trends as you can. But, because it’s subtly peddled by beautiful down-to-earth Youtubers and Instagrammers, because it’s reinforced in every single store and restaurant, because your friends and family all pick up the lingo – it seems normal.
No one actually teaches you how to be healthier. They don’t teach you how many calories you really need, how to have a healthy relationship with the food you eat, how to work out because you love what it does for your body, how to even find the kind of workouts you enjoy because not everything works for everyone. They don’t teach you that, for as much as you can enjoy food, it doesn’t need to be the sole consuming feature of your life. They don’t teach you to love and honor yourself, because that’s not profitable. And that’s a goddamn shame.
It feels like no one takes the time to think about how harmful our “normalized” relationship with food is – year-round, but especially during the holidays. We eat delicious foods and talk about how rich and indulgent they are, how we aren’t going to eat for the rest of the week, how we need to find ways to burn all those calories, how “bad” we are, even as we eat more of them. And then, suddenly, we do a full 180. Now, we weren’t “bad” cheekily, like we were when you have that second cookie at the Christmas party. Now, we were just bad, and we have to do penance for our sins. We need to restrict, diet, get back in the gym, be “good” again.
We don’t think about how much better it would be if we let ourselves enjoy those holiday foods without guilt or shame, if we didn’t separate our year into times of indulgence and restraint, of excess and abstinence. How, maybe, we wouldn’t feel like we need to overeat if we let ourselves enjoy food every day and how, then, we wouldn’t need to diet. We don’t think about how our body fluctuates like this naturally, how it’s normal to have days where we eat more than usual and how, if we listen to our body, it will tell us we need to eat a little less the next day. And for someone going through recovery and trying to understand that a few extravagant meals aren’t the end of the world, it’s so, so frustrating. I have to manually remind myself at every meal that eating is okay because, societally, we preach food as Bad when we enjoy ourselves and Good when we eat less of it.
November and December are hard, but January royally fucking blows. Everywhere I look there’s another reminder that I am not skinny enough, not fit enough. Everyone has opinions on how I should treat my body to make it acceptable for someone else’s standards. I don’t even have to leave the house to run into another trigger, but now I know better. Every day feels like a balancing act as I walk the thin rope of recovery overtop the abyss of relapse, but I know.
I know what it’s like to have energy. I know what it’s like to lift heavier than I thought possible, to feel satisfied, to not be so hungry and so paranoid about losing weight that I have to think about restricting food or how to earn my next meal every waking second of every single day. I know how to take a rest day, how to have cake for dessert, how to go for a run because the sunshine and the fresh air and the capability of my body feels good and not because I need to end the day in a calorie deficit. I know what strength and health feel like. I know I want that again tomorrow, that I want to feel even better next month, that I want to sustain that for a year.
And I know that my resolutions – that eating more, working out less, learning how to love myself and really mean it – aren’t the ones I’m Supposed To Have. But they’re the ones I need to hold onto right now, and I’ll be damned if January gets me down.