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Archive for August, 2011

Starter: Mezze platter (for two to share). Consists of bread, hummus, cous cous, falafel, olives, sweet potato crisps and salad. Shared with my nephew but ate more than half myself.

Main course: Kerala Curry. Huge portion. With pear chutney and more cous cous.

Side dish: Chips, to share.

Dessert: Blueberry crumble with vegan ice cream.

 

So I just got back from the meal. To say that I’m full would be an understatement. Bursting at the seams is more like it. The portions are generous, and I have a large appetite.

Or do I? I desire a lot of food, but is it my brain that craves it or my stomach? If I’m honest with myself, I was full after half the starter. I had reached the stage of discomfort three quarters of the way through the main course. By the time dessert came my stomach had reached its capacity and food was instead settling halfway up my esophagus.

I forced it down because it tasted good. I did manage to stop rather than finishing my main course because I recognised that I was no longer hungry. However, ordering dessert after this was pure greediness.

I make no apologies for that greed either. I enjoyed the meal and I don’t feel guilty about it. But I do wonder if I will ever learn to enjoy a meal without eating beyond the point of satisfaction. As I changed into more comfortable clothes, I caught a glimpse of my stomach in the mirror. It looked visibly overstuffed. I began to have a few negative thoughts about myself. “Why must you always do this?” I thought. “Why can’t you just eat a normal amount? Why can’t you control yourself?”

This negativity is counter-productive. I recognise that now. For many years I thought that the way to make changes to my behaviour was to subject myself to a barrage of self-criticism and anger. I would tell myself, “You’re a worthless piece of shit, you’re useless, you can’t do anything right!” And the more I participated in unhealthy behaviours, the louder these criticisms became.

Recovery meant learning a new way of doing things. When I struggled to make changes to my behaviour I continued to ask myself why, but this time the questions came from a place of curiosity and compassion. They weren’t rhetorical questions that were designed to insult; I was genuinely seeking to discover the reasons for my behaviour.

When I recognised the negative feelings I was having towards myself earlier this evening, I decided to turn it around and look at the situation from a positive angle.

First of all, I am not the only person in the world who overeats at restaurants or on special occasions. In fact, it is so common that if I retained complete control over myself during these times I would most likely be in the minority. So while it might not be a healthy thing to do, it certainly doesn’t make me abnormal or deserving of self-criticism.

Secondly, rather than thinking of myself as a failure and framing the situation in such negative terms, perhaps it would be helpful to identify which aspects of my behaviour I am unhappy with and would like to change, and set some little goals for the future. Instead of calling myself fat or useless and worrying about the family meal I have to attend tomorrow (“You’ll fail at controlling yourself then too”), I could see it as an opportunity to improve upon today. This way I can turn every potentially negative food experience into a lesson to be learned, and a chance to work out what I’m doing well at and where I might be able to do better.

So. Which aspects of the evening went well? What do I feel happy with? Well, I didn’t allow calories to factor into my decisions when ordering the food. I looked at the menu, and chose what I wanted the most. When my starter came, I shared plenty of it around the table (I ordered the platter to share because I couldn’t decide between two starters that I wanted, and both of these came with the platter). I found out that the bread was vegan and had two small pieces. I could have easily eaten more but chose not to. During the main course, I began to feel full and chose to stop eating and leave some. I also left some chips and olives despite the fact that they weren’t going to be eaten by anyone else. I chose to order a dessert and felt no guilt about doing so.

That’s what went well. So what am I unhappy about? Despite sharing plenty of the platter with other people, I still ate too much. I allowed myself to eat until I was nearly full, which is only natural seeing as I was hungry when the food arrived. But instead of identifying what a reasonable amount of food would be so that I would feel satisfied yet still hungry enough for the main course, I just ate carelessly. As a result, it took very little of the main course to fill me up. Despite this, I continued to eat to the point of discomfort. I then ordered a dessert on top of this. By the time I finished it (I ate the whole thing) I felt a little sick and couldn’t drink all of my coffee because there just wasn’t room in my stomach.

In light of this, what could I have done differently? I don’t regret ordering the food that I chose, including the dessert. But there is no doubt that I would be unable to finish all of those dishes without pushing my stomach beyond its natural capacity. If I had set aside a little of everything from my starter to begin with, I could have enjoyed tasting each of the foods without filling myself up by trying to finish them off. Then, when the main course came, I would still have been hungry. Had I also spent some time assessing the portion size before starting to eat I would have realised that there is no way I could fit all of it comfortably in my stomach. I could have worked out what a reasonable amount would be and eaten that first. If, after taking my time and savouring the flavours, I still felt hungry (stomach-hunger, not brain-hunger) I could have eaten more. I knew that I would want a dessert at the beginning of the meal, and so with this in mind I could have eaten a little less of everything to ensure I had room. When the dessert arrived, I could have gone through the same process as the main course – identifying a reasonable portion and consuming this before deciding if I still wanted more.

With this in mind, what goals would I like to set for tomorrow? I am visiting my parents’ house to give my dad his birthday presents and cake, before attending a barbecue that a relative of M’s is having. At my mum and dad’s house the obvious worry is the chocolate cake that I will probably feel guilty about eating. Considering that we will be attending the barbecue straight after, it would be wise to limit myself to a tiny taste of the cake so that I can enjoy it without spoiling my appetite. I don’t know what foods will be available for me at the barbecue, but from previous experiences I know it is likely that they will provide me with a larger quantity of food than I need to feel satisfied. I also know that I will be tempted to eat too much, especially as his family are all big eaters themselves. My goal is to take a step back when presented with any food and identify a reasonable portion size rather than diving straight in. I am unlikely to require more than one serving of anything, so another goal is to consume only one plate of food, even if I am offered more.

This may all seem like a great deal of analysis over something as simple as a family meal. And one could argue that there is nothing wrong with stuffing yourself on the odd occasion. Everyone does it, right?

I agree, to an extent. There  is also nothing wrong with getting drunk on the odd occasion. But if you are an alcoholic, then even one drink is too much. As someone who is in recovery from an eating disorder, I have to take greater care in these situations than others who have never had problems with food. It might be fine for them to overeat, but for me it causes anxiety and damages my ability to remain in tune with my body’s needs.

Pre-recovery, had I returned from the meal feeling as full as I do now, I would almost certainly have spent the evening purging. If not, I would have been sitting here focusing intensely on how uncomfortable I was feeling. Either way I would have been consumed by negative, angry thoughts.

Mid-recovery, I find that I am still prone to such thoughts. Except now I am able to recognise that they are unhelpful and channel them into something positive. Writing this has given me a focus for all of that potentially negative energy and allowed me to identify the areas in which I could still make progress. And I have approached myself with love and respect throughout.

See, that’s progress in itself.

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When I first became vegan, I had dreams of one day being able to experiment in the kitchen, baking cakes and muffins and cooking up delicious dinners. At the time, it seemed impossible. Stuck in the midst of an eating disorder, the idea of keeping unsafe foods in my kitchen cupboards filled me with fear. I didn’t value food enough to spend so much time and effort making it, only to experience tremendous guilt at having eaten too much followed by the inevitable purge to alleviate those feelings. It would be such a waste.

And so in recovery, one of the first things that I discovered was the joy of making food from scratch. Where previously my obsession with food was a negative one, characterised by denial and anxiety and excess, cooking allowed me to channel that obsession in a positive way. I replaced the hours spent worrying about food and trying not to eat it with hours in the kitchen concocting exciting new dishes and sampling indulgent baked goods.

I clearly remember heading to the supermarket to buy my first ever bottle of olive oil. I was like a child who had been trusted to go to the shops alone for the first time, as I nervously scanned the aisles for the right section. It took me so long to find, as this was the first time in my adult life that I had ever attempted food shopping. Yes, I had bought food before but previous excursions had always been dictated by my uncontrollable cravings, or the latest restrictive rules that I was following at the time. Immediately prior to my first steps into recovery, I had been living on a specific brand of muesli, and plain grilled tofu dipped in sweet chilli. This, and only this, every day. Unless of course I binged in which case my shopping list was extended to include pink wafers, ginger biscuits and crisps.

At last, I found the oil aisle. Honestly, I was a little self-conscious. I felt as if people would spot my lack of basic shopping skills from a mile off. I was scared that I looked inept as I frantically lapped the store, unable to find grocery items of which I was sure everyone else would instinctively know the location.

Soon I learned which items tended to be grouped together. My shopping trips became faster, more skilled. I would whizz around the aisles like a pro, throwing in various ingredients for my latest experiment in the kitchen. It took a long time for the excitement to wear off though. Most people would find buying a bottle of cooking oil mundane; for me, it was exhilarating. I had to dare myself to pick that first bottle up. Was I really going to do this? Could I be trusted with such a high calorie item in my cupboard? Would I be overcome during a weak, hungry moment and attempt to drink the whole thing?

I wasn’t alone on these shopping trips. My eating disorder always came along for the ride (and still does). It loved to taunt me, to instill in me these ridiculous fears. As my food shopping skills improved, so did my ED-ignoring abilities. I would argue back. We would sometimes spend the entire trip bickering but I usually won and as I waited for the bus back home, I would munch triumphantly on the vegan chocolate buttons that I often bought as a little treat.

These days, I bake less frequently. This is partly due to a lack of time, having spent the last few months juggling a stressful placement and large assignments. But this isn’t the only reason. As I have become comfortable in my recovery, those arguments with my eating disorder have quietened down. At first it seemed like I was winning, because I felt less need to fight back. Perhaps I was just instinctively making the right choices?

No, it wasn’t that. Not all of the time, anyway. The truth is, I have become complacent and as a result I have begun to experience some of those whispers as my own voice, rather than that of the ED. I don’t fight back because I don’t realise that there is anything to fight against. I hear a voice hissing in my ear telling me that I don’t have time to bake that delicious-looking brownie recipe and anyway, I could do without the extra calories. “Let’s just buy some fruit instead… that makes just as good a snack”. Or, even worse, “You can’t be trusted not to eat the whole lot anyway”.

I hear this voice and, wrongly assuming that these are my own thoughts, I willingly comply.

Since realising this and starting to question myself again, I have felt more able to challenge these whispers and enjoy treat foods without feeling the need to justify it (and as a result of being injured, without the extra justification of having run miles and miles that morning). So having agreed to bake my usual vegan carrot cake for my dad’s birthday meal this evening, I felt inspired to seek out a new recipe to try instead. In the process, I stumbled upon an interesting recipe for polenta muffins. It just so happens that I had a packet of polenta in the cupboard that was purchased months ago and had remained unopened in the absence of any inspiration or ideas about how to use it. The other ingredients were fairly standard, and I had them all in stock. The recipe looked quick and easy. And it used agave nectar instead of sugar. So as far as muffins go, they were healthy and natural and looked delicious.

Despite the dubious smelling batter that had me slightly worried, they rose beautifully and while they cooled I nipped out to buy the morning paper. On the way back, I popped into the French bakery at the end of the street for a coffee – the perfect accompaniment to a freshly baked polenta muffin.

They were indeed delicious. Just the right amount of sweetness without being overbearing. The batch I made were plain but I imagine they would be lovely with some raisins or berries added, or even cocoa. The recipe produced six decent sized muffins. Not Starbucks-style mega-muffins. Probably closer to cupcake size.

Despite my best efforts at savouring every last bite, I finished the muffin quickly. Too quickly. I wanted more. I still had most of my coffee left to drink, and there were five more still-warm, moist muffins sitting right by me.

“Just one more.”

I enjoyed a second. Again, I tried to eat it as slowly as possible but before long it was all gone. Immediately I wanted a third.

I stopped myself.

This is where my problem lies. I just don’t know when to stop. Or I do, but I find it difficult to listen to my body. The fact that the muffins were delicious and I could physically have eaten another one is not a good justification for doing so. When your relationship with food has been dysfunctional for a long time, it takes an immense effort to learn when to stop eating, and what the ‘right’ amount is.

I felt guilty for having two muffins. I asked myself what ‘normal’ people would have done in my situation. Is having two muffins an acceptable treat when you have baked them yourself or is it simply excessive? It was approaching lunchtime, and I knew that I would not be eating much today. I planned on having a light lunch in the middle of the afternoon, to preserve my appetite for the birthday meal tonight. Aside from that, I didn’t plan on eating much. So why not have a second? I wasn’t full from the first one.

All of these questions circulated in my head and eventually I came to the tentative conclusion that there was nothing wrong with eating two muffins, because I remained in tune with my body at all times and didn’t eat beyond the point of satisfaction.

Still, it’s an awful lot of worry over something (two things?) so small. And this is one of the reasons that I don’t bake as much as I used to, because the energy that goes into it is often so great that I just can’t be bothered. It is a sure-fire way to piss off my eating disorder and start a fight, and while my attitude in the early days of recovery was “Bring it on, bitch!”, these days I find that I prefer to avoid the argument to begin with.

And that’s when the problem starts, when you stop doing things to piss your eating disorder off. You should piss it off as often as possible. You should go out of your way to do things that it doesn’t like, things that will make it shout at you.

And the louder it shouts, the louder you will learn to shout back. Yes, it is tiring and sometimes you lose your voice in the process. And sometimes it doesn’t seem worth all of that shouting, for what can be a seemingly insignificant food decision.

But no decisions are insignificant in recovery. Every single bite of food is an opportunity to not only enter into a battle with your eating disorder, but to win. And you might not win every single time. There will be days when you are feeling weak, and don’t have the energy to triumph over the ED’s loud and relentless whispers.

But one thing is for certain. You stand no chance of winning if you choose not to fight in the first place.

A few weeks ago I watched Chasing Legends, a documentary about Team Columbia-HTC in the 2009 Tour De France, and a quote by one of the cyclists really stood out. He said that in breaking out from the crowd and moving into the lead, he takes a big risk because he becomes a target and ultimately he might not succeed. He calculates that he has perhaps a ten per cent chance of success, and a ninety per cent chance of failure. But if he doesn’t take that risk, he argues, his chance of success is zero per cent.

I must try and find a clip because he explains it so beautifully. And it has really stuck with me ever since. In any pursuit, however small your chance of success may be, you can guarantee that by failing to try at all you will reduce that chance to zero. When I watched the documentary I was having conflicting thoughts about racing. Having done very well in the two races that I took part in earlier this year, I was beginning to realise that I would be a serious contender for a top three spot in future races too. M was encouraging me to race more often but I was reluctant to do so for fear of failing to live up to my own expectations. Hearing the logic of this cyclist, I realised that in any race, there is is a chance I may not win. But by not racing at all, I am removing the possibility of winning altogether.

The same can be said for recovery. Fighting an eating disorder is a daily battle, and you can’t guarantee that you will always come out on top. But if you avoid the battle in the first place, you can guarantee that nothing will ever change, and the ED will remain in control.

Surely the possibility of success, however small it may seem, is worth that risk?

For me, today, it was. I stormed into battle with my eating disorder, and I won – this time. I’ve got another battle to fight this evening, when we eat out at one of my favourite restaurants. It will be a tough challenge, and I can’t say with absolute certainty that I will win.

But I can be certain that I will try, and that is all I ask of myself. In this way, I have the opportunity to be successful every single day, simply by showing up to the battlefield in the first place.

 

That’s the choice I have made. What about you?

 

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As a complete bookworm, when I develop a new interest it is natural for me to seek out as many books as possible on the subject. When I thought I wanted to study English literature at university I went out and bought the entire recommended reading list for the course. Having decided I wanted to work in the field of international development I quickly purchased a number of books on the subject. I have an extensive collection of vegan cookbooks, sociology books, books about food politics and agriculture, and running books. And, of course, there are very few eating disorder-related books that haven’t made their way onto my bookshelf. Despite my shameless book-hoarding tendencies I gave most of those away when I decided to recover, seeking to symbolically remove as many traces of my disordered behaviour as possible.

It is no surprise then, that I have acquired a number of books on the subject of recovery. Having read them once, they sat on the shelf for many months as I internalised their advice and began to rely more upon my own instincts. Having hit a plateau in my recovery however, I dug out one of my favourites, The Rules of “Normal” Eating by Karen Koenig, for a little inspiration.

I highly recommend this book. There are so many quotable pages that I can’t choose one, but if you’re looking to improve your relationship with food either as an undereater, overeater or chronic dieter, it’s a great place to start. The book is small, and slips easily into a handbag so it’s a good one to carry with you on the go if you want some pocket motivation.

While I am on the topic of recovery books, perhaps it would be helpful to list my other favourites in the hope that other people might also find them useful.

Of course Jenni Schaefer’s Life Without ED is up there as one of the best recovery books available. I bought this while still stuck in the midst of the disorder with no real intentions to recover. I used to seek out triggering material and when I read this I soon realised that it was totally different to many of the books out there written by therapists and filled with examples of their clients’ disordered behaviour. It didn’t satisfy my craving for triggers, and so I abandoned it on my bookshelf. Only once I returned to recovery, this time with a genuine motivation, did I pull it out, dust it off and discover one of the most inspiring books that I had ever read. The concept of an eating disorder as a person, or personality, is strange to some but I found that it was immensely helpful when trying to separate my true identity from the disordered thoughts. After many years of failing to recognise that these thoughts were not my own, and were in fact coming from the disorder, this was invaluable.

The follow up to ‘Life Without ED’ is also worth a mention. I bought Goodbye ED, Hello Me a few months into recovery and it was a perfectly timed purchase as it deals with the issues that arise further down the line.

There is one more book in my recovery collection, although whether it classifies as a favourite or a recommendation I am not so sure. I haven’t yet made it all the way through Eating in the Light of the Moon so the jury is still out. I have read good reviews and so I want to give it a chance, but it wasn’t as immediately or obviously inspiring as the others. It approaches the topic differently, using folk tales and metaphors to explain the meaning behind disordered behaviours. Her suggestion that food cravings tell us something greater about our desires in life sits a little uneasily with me. When I crave sweet foods, I have my doubts that it is a sign I am not feeling ‘sweet enough’. I think I’m just a big fan of chocolate. And I tend to crave warm foods at dinner time, which I would argue is simply a habit (I tend to prefer a cold breakfast over a hot one but like a warm evening meal), rather than an indication of my desire for emotional warmth.

But I will persist with the book, because it is already on my bookshelf and now that I have a renewed energy for addressing these issues it would be good to have some new material to read.

If anyone has any good suggestions for books that have helped them please feel free to share so I can expand my collection!

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Undoubtedly, the best way to start the day is with a run. After the initial sting of pulling yourself out of a warm cosy bed, putting on a tiny pair of shorts and running outside into the rain to sweat your way through a 6 miler before your eyes have even opened properly, comes the warm post-run glow that you experience having returned home, showered and sat down to a hearty breakfast. The discomfort that you feel to begin with is one hundred percent worth it.

So this morning, despite every part of my body screaming in protest, I dragged myself out of bed and shuffled out of the door in pursuit of that feeling.

I’m not entirely sure that I achieved it. The problem with running, and my personality, is that the better I get the higher my expectations become. I remember those early, heady days when I first fell in love with running and would feel like the luckiest person in the world having returned from a 3 mile jog around the park.  These days it takes nearer to 18 miles to come close to that sense of pride.

And so, after a period of injury when I am slowly trying to build my mileage back up again, I struggle with the fact that in order to take care of my body I have to limit the length of my runs. Five miles is better than nothing, but it doesn’t feel like an accomplishment.

 

A good, long run is like a story, or an adventure. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. And you go through so much in such a short period of time. Setting off on a long Sunday run, my thoughts are on returning home for breakfast and my plans for the rest of the day. Still half asleep, I stumble down the street hoping to get the run over and done with quickly. Soon, however, I find my stride and my thoughts drift onto other things. I run up the Billing, a spectacularly steep hill that leaves me gasping for air. As I descend into the patch of woodland at the summit, my breathing slows and regulates. Another little push uphill and I am rewarded with breathtaking views as I break out from underneath the trees and speed across lush green fields. There is no one else here, although I do pass the occasional dog-walker or fellow runner. We nod and smile, and I feel like we are sharing a secret that other people are unaware of. They might think that they are the lucky ones, as they stay curled up under their duvets. They don’t realise that by doing so, they are missing out on an opportunity for an exhilarating kind of self-transcendence.

By the halfway mark, the thoughts that I was having at the start of the run are a distant memory. It feels like I have been running forever, yet simultaneously as if no time has passed. I run through the ruins of an old abbey, over a bridge and through some more woodland, and I turn onto the canal tow path. This is the turnaround point, at which I begin running back home. It feels as if I am nearly there. By the time I turn off into Cragg Wood, however, it feels like hours have gone by. I brace myself for one last push as I run up up up, all the way from the bottom of the valley to the top, alongside the river and under the train tracks, past the little house in the middle of nowhere. Sharp turn to the right, along a dirt path and then left onto the lane where the road flattens out and I catch my breath. At the old church, I make a right turn up the steps and along a hidden pathway that leads to another flat stretch. Catch my breath again. One more hill. As I power up it, half-formed thoughts flit through my restless mind. I am concentrating too hard on the task in hand to think properly. I am nearly there. I reach the top of the hill, panting, and I turn left along the final, gentle downhill stretch towards home. By this point I can barely remember setting off. It feels as if I have been into battle, and I have the scars to prove it. Nettle stings, bramble scratches and salty sweat clinging to my forehead.

“It’s just you and me”, I say to my body. No one else was there. Our little secret. We worked hard, and we are running together towards the house. Pause by the front door, breathing steadier by now, and we step inside. Back to reality.

Everything looks the same as when we left. The skin of the banana that I scoffed pre-run lies on the kitchen top still, a half drunk glass of water next to it. M is just beginning to stir. He has slept peacefully the whole time.

Meanwhile, I’ve stepped into an alternate reality in which time has stood still. I have thought about a million different things, felt a million different feelings. I have planned what to have for breakfast and what to do with my day, wondered about the meaning of life, and tried to decide what colour we should paint the living room. I have felt pure freedom and joy, and exhaustion. I have wished with every ounce of my being that I could just stop running, sit down, have a rest. I kept going.

I was strong, and unstoppable, and my mind and body worked seamlessly together to experience something beautiful.

And now I am home, and M is turning on the shower and I am unstrapping my running watch and hobbling up the stairs.

“How was it?”

“Fine. Good.”

“How far did you do?”

“Fifteen.”

“Shit.”

Sitting on the bed and peeling off my shorts, it feels like only minutes have passed since I set off. I wonder if this is how Alice felt when she woke up. Maybe I fell down a rabbit hole too.

“Who are YOU?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

 

And so to the present. I did not fall down any rabbit holes this morning. I ran two and a half miles less than I had intended to because my calf started to twinge, sending out a warning that it just wasn’t ready. I listened, and I responded appropriately to what my body was saying. And while it might not have been an epic adventure that we experienced together, there is some joy to be found in the simple act of listening to your body and recognising its needs.

And so today, my pride and sense of accomplishment comes not from the miles that I ran, but from the miles that I didn’t.

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I had a dilemma yesterday. It involved whether or not to go to the cinema with M after I was done babysitting. At first I didn’t want to go, then when he suggested it again I changed my mind. And so when he said that in fact, he had too much work on, I was disappointed. I had begun to look forward to it.

Not the film, mind you.

The popcorn.

Yes, the entire decision making process that I went through had nothing to do with whether or not I wanted to see the film and everything to do with what I would consume whilst watching it.

I am a hopeless screen-eater. I HAVE to eat while watching TV or sitting through a film. In fact, if I was banned from eating during screen time I would almost certainly watch less of it. A lot less. Food and television go hand in hand for me. I know this isn’t a good thing. It’s mindless eating that satisfies a mental desire rather than a physical hunger.

As a part of the cinema experience, I know that consuming large amounts of popcorn is normal and completely acceptable on the odd occasion. Spending hours worrying about it and researching the nutritional information of the food that’s on offer, however, is not.

Eventually, M decided that he would be able to get his work done in an hour or so and still make it to the film on time. At this point, I had accepted that we weren’t going and felt relieved that the popcorn dilemma wasn’t something I would need to worry about. Realising that my indecisiveness was entirely related to food anxieties and not whether I actually wanted to go, I admitted this to M. The look on his face told me everything I needed to know: I was being ridiculous.

“We’re going!” he said.

We went, and I ordered a medium sweet popcorn. It tasted great, in a completely unhealthy and sickly sweet kind of way. Still, recovery is about learning when it’s okay to deviate from a mostly healthy and fresh diet in order to indulge in a little treat. This is something I have not yet quite grasped.

But I’m getting there. There is something that allows me to feel confident about that, and it is this: my anxiety about consuming too many (unhealthy) calories was trumped by my unbreakable, non-negotiable rule that skipping a meal is unacceptable. Despite the timing of the film and the fact that we had got home late, and despite knowing that I was about to consume a significant amount of popcorn-calories, I refused to skip dinner. I didn’t have time to cook and it was more on principle than to satisfy a genuine hunger, but I made do with some avocado on rice cakes. In this situation, most people would have chosen to forego dinner and filled up at the cinema.

For me, however, no matter how seemingly innocent the justification, missing a meal is always risky. Once you allow yourself to justify it in one situation, where does the line get drawn? It’s a slippery slope. If one day it’s okay to skip dinner because you were going to the cinema, what’s to stop you missing breakfast the next because you’re running late? Or working through lunch because you’ve convinced yourself that the work is more important and one meal won’t hurt?

Popcorn doesn’t count as a meal. Regardless of how calorific it may be, it has no nutritional value and therefore consuming it in place of dinner is, for me, unacceptable.

So despite my concerns about the calorie content of the popcorn, I and despite the perfect excuse to skip dinner that the timing of the film provided me with, I chose to make a little something for dinner as well.

(I must add at this point that ordinarily avocado and rice cakes would certainly not suffice for dinner, and it was only due to time constraints and the fact that we had run out of bread that I ate it… given more time or a properly stocked kitchen cupboard I would have had something of greater substance!)

Moving on from my not-at-all pathological and obsessive preoccupation with the nutritional properties of popcorn, I was reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ with my nephew yesterday and I had another little lightbulb moment. It wasn’t the full book, it was a finger puppet version designed to teach counting and so it simply has pictures of the fruit on each page and counts up from one to five.

And after eating his way through ‘one delicious apple, two crisp pears, three tart plums, four sweet strawberries and five juicy oranges’, the caterpillar appears on the final page as ‘a beautiful butterfly’.

What a simple and yet powerful message. Maybe I’m crazy for finding such meaning in a children’s counting book, but it seems so obvious to me. In order to flourish and reach his potential as a butterfly, the caterpillar has to eat.

We’re all caterpillars!

(I could mention at this point that in the full story he basically goes on a gigantic binge and eats himself sick before realising that ‘one green leaf’ was a much better choice of food for his stomach…but I think I’ll leave that analysis for another day!)

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Babies

Two and a half days a week, I take on the incredibly important (and exhausting) role of ‘nanny’ to my one year old nephew. I will gladly use the cliche that looking after children is one of the hardest jobs you could ever do. The only saving grace is that I get to hand him over at 5pm and spend the evening recovering in time to do it all over again tomorrow.

However, as tiring as it may be, I treasure the time that we spend together. And while the majority of learning that takes place during these times is on his part, I have found that I am able to also learn from him.

So far, as a baby, his experience of society is limited and his early interactions with the world have taken place within the bubble of a close-knit, loving family. A significant amount of his behaviour remains instinctive, and this includes how he experiences food. While he is in the process of learning about the social conventions surrounding food, and has begun to eat in a more structured way now that he is eating solids, he is still at the stage where he eats what he wants until he either tires of it or feels full. At which point he stops eating and does something else instead.

Put that simply, it seems strange that food could ever become a problem. You feel hungry, you eat, and when you feel full you stop eating. Your body lets you know when it’s had enough.

So at what point are other factors introduced that obscure what begins as such a pure and uncomplicated process? We all experience it to a degree, whether it’s too many biscuits in front of the television after a stressful day or ordering dessert at a restaurant despite still feeling full from the main course.

For some of us, this relationship with food and ability to recognise and respond to our body’s hunger cues becomes skewed to a pathological extent. I often wonder when this happened to me. If you ask when my eating disorder began, I say without hesitation that it was at the age of 13, when I decided to stop eating in order to provide my parents with some focus other than (arguing with) each other. But I know there were signs before that. I never trusted my hunger. I used to ask my mum, before eating any sweets or chocolate or treat foods, “How many will I be sick if I have?” (clearly a result of being told “You’ll be sick if you have that many!” by my mum when I overindulged). There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and no one in the family has ever seen it as anything other than a childhood quirk, something that we laugh about now.

But looking back, it’s an obvious sign that I already perceived myself as unable to make that judgement for myself. I was always allowed as much as I wanted. My parents never restricted my intake of sweet foods, although they did let me know when they thought I have having too much. I don’t see anything wrong with this approach; it’s consistent with how they treated me in other areas. They wouldn’t ban anything outright, but should I behave in a way that I knew was wrong or unacceptable, I knew that they would be disappointed. That served as more of a deterrent than being told ‘No’.

Maybe that grammatically-incorrect question was simply my way of asking how much of something I was allowed. I don’t remember food causing any anxiety at that point.

Perhaps if my weakness wasn’t food, it would have been something else. I don’t doubt that had I not developed an eating disorder the inner turmoil that I was experiencing would have been expressed in some other, equally unhealthy manner. Perhaps, then, the question of where my relationship with food went wrong is irrelevant. Perhaps I should be asking where my relationship with life took a downward turn.

Fortunately, I feel much stronger these days than I did throughout the period in which I was actively eating disordered. I think I have developed healthier coping mechanisms and an emotional resilience that eluded me during my adolescence and early twenties. While this was in part due to natural maturation, I do believe that it was only after I started eating properly and changing my behaviour around food that this strength truly developed. Prior to this, I had insisted that once I felt strong enough I would give up the eating disorder. “When I feel ready, I will change my behaviour”, I insisted. It turned out that I had things entirely backwards. My inability to cope was not the reason for my eating disorder; in fact, the eating disorder was responsible was my inability to cope.

Despite being in a more positive frame of mind these days however, the evidence of a decade spent at war with my body remains and my relationship with food has not spontaneously fixed itself. It is still a daily battle. Mostly it is one that I enjoy fighting. At times though, it becomes tiresome.

And so I look at my nephew –  fresh, young and inexperienced – and I wonder how it is that he could so easily have the relationship with food that I have to fight so hard for. I know that I could learn a lot from him. I suspect that it has a lot to do with his lack of exposure to societal and cultural values and norms. And I feel thankful that he is male, because when these factors are introduced at least he stands a better chance of coming out unscathed. The pressure on girls is significantly greater.

He is still learning from the people around him though, and his relationship with food and his body will be largely determined by his early experiences. As a close member of his family, I am someone who has the potential to exert an influence in this area. Do I want him to witness me weighing my food, or worrying about eating too much, or continuing to eat beyond the point of satisfaction? At the moment his attitude towards food is instinctive and simple. I want it to remain that way. Really, there is no reason that is shouldn’t. He has it right; he has nothing to learn.

Part of my job during the days that we spend together, as well as frequent cuddles and trips out and nappy changes, is to set an example. And so when we eat meals together, I make sure that I sit down with him. Wherever possible, I ensure that we are eating the same thing. I want him to see me eating and taking pleasure in it. I don’t believe in one rule for him and another for me. We both deserve to sit down and take our time over a proper meal, and I want to reinforce that.

He doesn’t know that until recently none of this came naturally to me. I have had to teach myself what he does automatically. Sometimes I feel like a fake, as I sit joyfully through messy meals with him and then frantically count the calories later.

But I am able to overcome my anxieties when I am with him, because he shows me that there are a million more important things in life. Through spending time with him, I learn that there is joy and laughter to be found in even the littlest of things. He’s too busy to be anxious, as am I when I’m keeping up with him.

I think that learning to approach food with a desire to discover and explore, from a completely experiential point of view, would really help me to separate societal conventions and norms from my enjoyment of food and allow me to appreciate it at face value.

And his way looks a lot more fun.

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Yes, a BBC Three documentary presented by ‘immersive journalist’ Cherry Healey is the inspiration for my second blog entry.

It’s hardly high brow stuff.

But weirdly, it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. And while none of the material was particularly groundbreaking, and she ultimately came to the conclusion that we should all worry less what we look like and enjoy ourselves more, it did get me thinking.

Like me, the first thing she does on a morning when she wakes up is step on the scale. Every day. For the documentary, she attempted to break this habit by hiding the scale. Apparently, she failed. Its gravitational pull proved too great and she later admitted to continuing to weigh herself daily.

I share this habit (compulsion?) and have so far been unsuccessful in my own attempts to become less reliant on reading that number every day. How odd that a little digital display could hold so much power over me. And even stranger that it has the same control over others. Did I really think I was the only one? And is it a symptom of an eating disorder? Does this mean that Cherry has/had an ED (there were certainly hints that suggested so)? Or does my obsession with the scale make me the same as every other woman out there?

Regardless, it needs to stop. It perpetuates the idea that those numbers matter. And how can I argue that they don’t, if I need to see them every day? I am essentially saying one thing and then doing another. And as someone who has repeatedly stated the importance of behaviour in recovery (I believe a change in behaviour is the first thing that must happen for recovery to begin, long before your feelings and attitudes begin to change), it’s a little inconsistent of me to remain so attached to the scale while preaching how unimportant weight is.

The documentary also profiled a female bodybuilder, a pursuit that Cherry couldn’t understand because of her aversion to gaining muscle and looking ‘bulky’. Interestingly, I developed a similar interest prior to beginning my official recovery and I think it was a significant factor in helping me to adopt a healthier attitude towards my body. For the first time ever, exercise was not about burning calories but gaining strength. As I saw my muscles develop, the pride I felt in my body increased. And this pride wasn’t dependent upon deprivation and starvation. It wasn’t a pride that disappeared immediately after a meal because I felt that I’d ‘screwed it up’. It was a positive attitude towards my body that existed completely independent of food. Once I saw that this was possible, it opened up that little window of opportunity that would become my first true attempt at recovery.

It was only after I took up running and became so serious about it that my interest in weightlifting began to wane. There simply wasn’t time for both. But it taught me something about my body; it showed me that it is possible to have a healthy relationship with it. This was something that I had never experienced. And ever since, I have channelled what was previously an unhealthy and abusive preoccupation with my body into a force for good.

But I do wonder if I would have reached this point in recovery had I not found an outlet for all of that negative energy. Would I have thrown myself into some other, non-body related pursuit? Taken up a new hobby? Or do I still rely on a preoccupation with my body, even if it now occurs in a healthier way?

Is there anything wrong with exercise taking such a central role in recovery?

Perhaps the way I feel when I’m injured provides the answer to this question. Thanks to my biomechanically inefficient running style (when the physio imitated my knock-kneed running style I thought she was exaggerating for demonstrative purposes…turns out she was pretty accurate) this is not the first time that I have had to cut back on my running due to injury. This is certainly one of the more stubborn injuries however, and I have been forced to rest for weeks at a time to avoid my leg exploding (I’m not entirely exaggerating: Google ‘compartment syndrome’).

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who suffered from an eating disorder for so long, I have no problem with eating a great deal of food. I don’t try and restrict the amount I eat whatsoever. Okay that’s a lie. I do restrict it but only because left to my own devices I could eat far more than is good for me (a decade of bulimia will do that to you). So, I count calories. And I try to keep the number below a certain amount. But that number is still significantly higher than most people my size would consume. Part of the reason for this is that, uninjured, I run so many miles that I require more food than most people. And I thoroughly embrace this aspect of running. Being able to eat lots and knowing that you need every single calorie of it is a good feeling.

But when injury strikes, I go from running 40-odd miles a week to zero in an instant. Yet my appetite stays constant. I no longer have the luxury of eating dinner after a big run. I have to eat dinner anyway. I can’t justify dessert at that restaurant with the knowledge that I ran 15 miles earlier. I have to find another justification. Or – dare I say it – make no attempts to justify it at all. Learn to eat for eating’s sake, not simply as ‘fuel’ for a greater purpose.

I have no doubt that taking up running has made recovery easier by providing me with a little extra reason to eat when things were difficult. And if my recovery was dependent upon this then I would be concerned. In fact, if normal eating was only possible when I was burning the calories off through exercise, that wouldn’t be recovery at all.

But here I am, injured. And still eating. I haven’t reduced the amount of food I’m eating in the slightest. In fact, I have a theory that exercise somehow suppresses my appetite because whenever I’m injured I seem to eat more. In the past, I have struggled more during times of injury and I have perceived myself as gaining weight (irrationally, seeing as I would continue to weigh myself daily and the number would be stable). This time, I have found this to be much less of an issue. This tells me that, while I may not be making the progress that I was at the start of my journey, I have clearly moved further into recovery than I was earlier this year.

And another thing: I took up running after I went into recovery. So my ability to eat has never depended upon it. It simply made running possible. And running made eating easier. But while it might be easier, I have proved that I can still eat just as well without it.

That said, I’m just itching to get out into the hills again. I’ve been running along flat, uninspiring routes for too long. After Sunday’s run which has so far caused very little shin pain, I may be turning a corner and I am crossing my fingers that this means the injury is clearing up.

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