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Archive for the ‘Recovery’ Category

Do your early experiences of work shape how you view it later in life?

 

My dad seems to think so. In a conversation we had a few days ago, he attributed my nervousness at starting placement soon to my first job, which he seems to believe has scarred me for life. According to him, I need to work through the anxieties that it created and get rid of the negative view that I have of all future employers and colleagues – namely, that they’ll all dislike me, criticise me and think I’m incapable of doing my job properly.

He might have a point. If my first experience of work had been an office in which I was bullied or undermined by my employer. If my first job had lasted a long period of time.

 

If my first job wasn’t three weeks at Domino’s Pizza.

 

But it was. Could those three weeks have had such significance? Not only did I have an intensely negative experience of employment at the tender age of 16, I also met my future fiancé there. Is this a good thing? We spent two and a half intense years together, before a suitably intense break-up. If I hadn’t met him, I might not have isolated myself quite so much in sixth form. I believe I grew apart from friends as a result, and my social life suffered. But equally, without our break-up I probably wouldn’t have gone to Canada. And I wouldn’t have met as many wonderful people as I did. And the friends I had in high school? Two of them I still see, and they have been my closest friends since childhood. The others… well, they were kind of bitchy anyway. I don’t need people like that in my life.

So, back to the job. Yes, the manager was a dick. He yelled at staff, he was mean and rude, he patronised me… his personality was completely at odds with mine. At that age I lacked confidence, and although I was confident with peers, I was shy with authority figures. I had (and still have, to an extent) phone anxiety and so having to take calls with people reeling off large orders while working the computer system and trying not to get the orders wrong sent me into a total panic. Once I got so flustered that I entered someone’s address and phone number incorrectly, so we were unable to call them back to correct the order. He shouted, in front of everyone, ‘WHAT IS SO COMPLICATED?!’

At that moment, I felt like the stupidest human being to ever live. Because he’s right. What was so complicated? How come everyone else managed, and I didn’t? How come my boyfriend was so good at his job that he’d be left in charge when the manager wasn’t there, yet I was on the verge of being fired because I couldn’t even work a basic computer?

I mean, people make jokes about staff in fast food places. It’s hardly seen as a high end, difficult job. On the contrary, it’s seen as a low-skilled, easy job to do. So if I’m not even capable of doing something so simple, how can I ever expect to perform in a real job?

 

The fact that this still stirs up so many emotions in me makes me think that maybe my dad was right. It also makes me doubt my sanity. I mean, come on! The job lasted three weeks before I quit – partly out of a desire to be free from the nightmare of working there, but also because I was scared that if I didn’t quit I’d eventually be fired.

But can this experience really be to blame for my anxiety today? Am I that sensitive? I guess I do lack confidence. All evidence since that horrible job has pointed to me being a perfectly competent individual. I’ve volunteered with organisations and done a good job, and I’ve held other jobs successfully.

And my previous feelings of not fitting in and of letting my shyness creep in and spoil my experiences motivated me to do everything to avoid that in my first placement on the course. I steamed in with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, worked hard, chatted to everyone and basically just fought to be seen as positively as possible. As a result, I aced the placement, everyone had good feedback about me and I avoided ever being on the receiving end of the manager’s infamous bad temper.

 

This is getting long. Less blog post, more confessional.

 

I guess I’m just working through things. I start the final placement of my course on Monday, and I’m terrified. I’m envisaging various scenarios, each with a negative outcome. They won’t let me leave early on a Monday to get to yoga class, so I’ll have to quit it for 6 months. They won’t let me do four days a week if I struggle with the workload (the university expects you to do four days until all assignments are handed in, but they seemed surprised when I told them that and said they’d prefer me to do five). My colleagues won’t like me. I won’t know what to do. I won’t enjoy the work, and will feel constantly depressed about having to go there. I’ll make a fool of myself in court. I’ll embarrass myself. The service users won’t like me. I won’t form good relationships. I will be ineffective when carrying out direct work with children. I won’t know what to say to them. My life will be one long feeling of dread and anxiety from start to finish.

All of these thoughts are genuinely going around in my head. Of course, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. The fact that they’ve stressed how flexible they are. That I can work from home on days that I just have a report to write. That as long as I get the hours done, I’m free to start and finish when I want (within reason). That everyone I’ve met so far has been really welcoming and friendly to me.

But my head tries to predict every scenario possible and attaches a negative outcome to it.

I think it has a lot more to do with my personality in general than one three-week-long job. I’m just a terribly anxious perfectionist. I can’t bear the thought of criticism, of falling short. Saying that, maybe my dad has a point. That first job, the one that it took guts to pursue because I already had fears about not being good enough, smashed any tiny bit of confidence that I might have had in myself when it came to work. And at a time of real personal crisis in my life too. If I had been more resilient, it wouldn’t have affected me.

But I wasn’t.

The thing is, I am now. I have so much more confidence, and I know better. I know better than my 16 year old self, and I believe in myself more than she did. I have no reason to doubt myself anymore.

So when I walk into that building at 9am on Monday morning, I have no reason to assume that it will be anything but the beginning of a wonderful, exciting, educational journey. And if I do happen to catch myself making any other assumptions, I will just have to remind myself that it isn’t Domino’s, I’m not 16, and I don’t have some spotty jumped-up little shit of a manager yelling in my face.

I’m a better manager than he’ll ever be, in every sense of the word. I’ve learned to manage my fears, my anxieties, my eating disorder… and the journey continues. He might have been the manager of his tiny little pizza empire, but I am the manager of my whole life, and I’m starting to think that I kick ass at it.

And my achievements in life are so much bigger than work. Work does not define you. Your success or failure at work has no bearing on your worth as a human being. I’ve managed to learn this about food. I used to think my eating habits, and my weight, were related to my intrinsic worth. If I could overcome that huge error, surely I can overcome this too?

And if those negative ruminations turn out to have some grounding, and I do have a shitty time on placement, I know that I’m strong enough to not let it affect my happiness as a person. Because it’s just work, you know?

My real job is pursuing contentment and doing the things that make me happy. Work is just one tiny part of that. In my life, I’m the boss. And it’s my job to be the kind of boss that I deserve. That means no unhelpful criticism, no putdowns, no unfair appraisals and no unrealistic expectations.

 

(I would like to be able to say that writing this has helped me to feel less nervous about Monday morning… but it hasn’t. Ah well, it gave me a break from studying – that’s one area that I DO need to improve in!)

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As is customary at this time of year, I’ve made some resolutions. Yes, I know that everyone makes New Year’s Resolutions, and no one ever keeps them. But I think there are two reasons for this.

 

1. They set unrealistic goals.

2. They make a general statement about where they want to be, without looking at what needs to be done to get there.

 

I’m hoping to avoid these errors. I remember making resolutions every new year when I was in the midst of an eating disorder. Of course, every year I would plan to lose weight. That was all I ever wanted. Of course it wasn’t all I wanted, but in the absence of sound mental health and with no feeling of self-efficacy or control in my life, I imagined that everything else just happened to me. Losing weight was the only thing I could actually control, and so I resolved to do that, every year.

It’s not just those with eating disorders who make those kind of resolutions. It’s maybe one of the most common ones to make – to lose weight. Especially after the excesses of Christmas. And I’m betting most people usually fail.

But here’s the problem – you’re making a resolution that involves denying yourself, punishing yourself, and adopting a lifestyle that is less desirable than the one you currently live. When you make a promise to lose weight, more often than not it’s attempted through dieting and denying yourself of the things you enjoy. And it’s accompanied by reluctant, frenzied exercising which is done purely as a means to an end and not for enjoyment in itself.

Of course people fail, when you look at it this way. And the same goes for any resolution – if you’re not excited about it, truly motivated, and without a clear idea of what you’re doing and why, it won’t be important enough to you to stick at it when the going gets tough.

So I have promised myself that although I AM making resolutions, they’re not just for the sake of it – they will be things that are important to me. I will not make promises that I don’t think I’m capable of keeping. In fact,I’m not making any promises at all, just setting goals. And as well as those goals, I’m going to look at what needs to be done to achieve them. I’m going to ask myself every day what I can be doing to bring myself closer to those goals.

And I accept that I won’t be able to progress towards every single one of them, every day. The list is too extensive! But to get where you want to be, you need to work out exactly where that is first. And so by identifying what I want to achieve this year in every area of my life, I’m taking the first step towards getting there.

 

My New Year’s Resolutions for 2012

 

Food and Recovery
Stop weighing myself on a regular basis
Pay more attention to hunger signals, and eat slowly

Running and Fitness
Achieve a sub-40 minute 10K
Achieve a sub-1:30 half marathon
Run a mile in under 6 minutes
Work up to completing a full run in my Vibrams
Join a running club
Establish a home practice in yoga

School and Work
Pass my placement, hand everything in and qualify as a social worker
Get a job as a social worker!
Enjoy what I do, and not feel so anxious all the time that I’m not good enough
Stay on top of assignments and don’t let myself get too overwhelmed

Relationships
Stop taking my anger and frustration out on Matt
Spend more quality time with Matt that doesn’t involve watching TV!
Make new friends, by pursuing things that I’m interested in and reaching out to people more

Money
Set a budget and stick to it

House
Do all of the home improvements that Matt and I are planning as soon as possible. Aim to be finished my mid-February?
Establish a weekly cleaning day – Matt has suggested Thursday

 

So I’ve done the easy part. I’ve made a big list of everything I want to achieve this year. The hard part is doing it! And that’s where running comes in.

Running? What’s that got to do with sticking to resolutions?

Well… my experience of running has taught me that I am capable of things that I never thought possible. This time a little over two years ago, I was a complete non-runner. Not just a non-runner actually, an anti-runner. I disliked people who ran. I couldn’t understand it. And like many things in life, when you don’t understanding something you tend to be fearful of it. I wasn’t homophobic, I wasn’t xenophobic but oh boy was I runner-phobic! I would actually scowl at them in the street. And when my dad, sister, brother, sister-in-law AND boyfriend went running, I would shake my head in disbelief and mild pity.

But deep down, what fuelled my negativity towards running was the fact that I just could not do it! I had tried. I knew it was good exercise. I wanted to be able to run for miles. But every time I tried, I would make it no more than 100 metres before I decided it was too hard and walked back home with my tail between my legs.

Fast forward two years later. Not only can I run, I am GOOD at running. I LOVE to run. I eat, sleep and breathe running (and eat, sleep and breathe BETTER because of running!). How did this happen? Could it be that somewhere deep inside me there lies a well of determination, stamina and willpower that had gone previously untapped?

So if I can go from despising running to it being an indispensable part of my life, what else could I do if I set my mind to it?

That, dear friends, is why I feel confident in my ability to achieve – or at least work towards – my goals. That, and a loving, positive approach to them. So if I don’t always do what I know I should, or if they fall to the wayside at times, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I’m going to remind myself why they’re important to me (if they still are… because things change, right?), and if I decide they’re still worth pursuing I’ll pick myself up and get on with it again.

Of course it’s easy to pick and choose which goals you want to work on and neglect others. Sitting here in the library blogging about ‘staying on top of assignments’ is a convenient way to avoid actually doing them! So I have a plan. I’m going to identify one thing from each area, every day, that I can do towards a goal. It doesn’t have to be big or time-consuming. I just have to set that intention at the start of the day, so that I can be sure that the way I’m living is consistent with where I would like to be headed.

I’m sure you’re thinking this all sounds lovely and idealistic… but it’s only January 6th, how long will I keep this up? I’ll be honest, I’m asking myself the same question! But then I remember how determined I was to run, and how that determination has stayed with me – and I am reminded of how capable I am of making changes when I really set my mind to it.

So I’m going to finish this mammoth post off with my list for today. It’s a little late in the day now, so my intentions will have to be small ones.

 

  • Concentrate on eating my dinner mindfully
  • Go for a run, and do another mile in my Vibrams
  • Spend half an hour reading for my next assignment (seeing as I’ve already done some – but not enough! – today)
  • Be nice to Matt for the whole evening (yes, unbelievably, I have to set this as a goal because I usually find something to have a go at him for!)
  • Stay within my weekly budget (I doubt I’ll be spending any more money today, but so far I’ve done well)
  • Clean the bathroom

 

See, those are all easily achievable daily goals! And they correspond to each area of my life that I identified bigger goals in.

Maybe I should have added ‘Update blog regularly’ to the list! I’m not quite sure where it would fit so for the moment I’ll just keep it in my head – but at least I can tick that one off for today!

 

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Someone from a wonderful, supportive online community that I am a member of responded to a post I had written about the progress I had made in recovery. In her response, she indicated that at times she had been a little worried because my behaviour had perhaps seemed less recovery-oriented than it should have done. But I insisted I was fine, so she didn’t say anything. And she suggested that maybe it was just a necessary step that I had to take.

Writing a response to her, I was really able to think things through and gain more clarity on the issue. What I wrote came off the top of my head but I think it explains where I am, and how I got here, quite succinctly. So I’ve copied and pasted it here… because why rewrite something that came from such an honest place?

 

I think it was a necessary step. And I was fine, absolutely. Sometimes I wasn’t eating quite enough for my own body’s needs (considering the level of exercise), but what I was eating was probably what most people eat during the day. The excessive control meant that I didn’t indulge as much as I do now, or if I did I put way too much thought into it. It didn’t come naturally. But day to day, I was enjoying food, eating plenty of it, cooking healthy meals and feeling a kind of freedom that I had never experienced in adulthood.
But you start to want more. When I first started to recover, I was pleased with myself if I managed to eat three meals and healthy snacks. Just basic stuff. If I got up, and regardless of how I felt or what the scale said, I ate breakfast. That gave me a sense of pride. After a while, the pride wore off. It became routine. It wasn’t enough just to eat three meals. I got good at doing that, and so I had to take it a step further.

That’s all recovery has ever been, and at no point do I think I could have done any better. I have been completely aware of where I am at all times. When I was being too rigid, I knew it. But I had no choice. It was where I needed to be. It was the stepping stone between completely disordered and completely healthy. Well, there are many stepping stones along that path and I’m still somewhere in between the two, although a lot nearer to completely healthy.

I got to the point where I was learning to indulge without feeling guilty (although I actually started in recovery that way…not feeling guilty, enjoying little indulgences…but when the novelty of recovery wore off, I let some of the old guilt creep in). And then I was still so reliant on the scale. But I managed to break free of the calorie counting. And I needed the scale still there. Reassurance.

Well I guess now I’ve taken another step along the path and don’t need the scale anymore. Or I’m learning not to. I’ve had two years to play around with my body and what it needs. I’ve dropped weight, I’ve gained a little and now I think I have a good, intuitive grasp of what it needs to maintain considering the training that I do (when I’m not injured). I think recovery is different for everyone. Maybe some people go straight into not weighing themselves, not counting calories…just like that. I couldn’t. At times I felt like maybe I should have been stricter with myself. Thrown the scale away.

But I think I was right to trust myself. Because I feel like I’m getting to a point where I can do that, naturally. I’m outgrowing the eating disorder. It doesn’t fit who I am anymore, and I’m shedding that old skin. And I’m doing it at a pace that feels right. There are a lot of changes that you go through in recovery, inside and out. Those inner changes can’t be rushed. And I feel totally comfortable with the pace that my recovery is going at.

I have felt very stuck at times, and wondered if I was actually making progress. Particularly because I couldn’t understand why, if my attitude was so pro-recovery and I was adamant that weight and calories didn’t matter, I couldn’t stop relying on those numbers. And now I know that I was always making progress. It just happened in tiny steps. Or in big steps, followed by periods of standstill.

I woke up this morning, and I looked at my scale. The temptation was there, but I knew I wouldn’t weigh myself. It just didn’t seem important. I know I ate plenty, but not too much, yesterday. My body has no reason to gain weight. I have no reason to seek reassurance.

I’m trying to decide whether to buy a bag of (vegan!) sweets from the deli before I head to the library. My healthy alternative is grapes. I do grapes by the box. They’re awesome snack food. Particularly when you’re working and want something to nibble on. And the dilemma is between the sweets that I really do quite fancy, and something healthier considering how much ‘unhealthy’ (for the body…but good for the soul!) food I’ve been eating over Christmas.

This dilemma is not characterised by feelings of guilt and anxiety. Whether I choose the sweets or the fruit has no bearing on my worth as a human being.

I’m simply wondering what to do, quite casually and without great emotion. This is the kind of dilemma that would have caused great stress once upon a time.

I’m so pleased to start the year feeling like I’ve made a big leap in recovery.

 

Her reply to this was, ‘Here’s to wanting more’. And it really struck a chord with me. Because that is the key to recovery, is it not? Wanting more. Realising that although you could carry on living with an eating disorder, and hiding from your problems through food, actually you want more from life. You don’t want to live the shadow of who you are, the pale reflection of your authentic life. You want the real thing. You want to taste, smell, feel again. You don’t want to be numb anymore.

And when you get started on recovery, it’s wanting more that keeps you going. So I could have stopped once I got to a stage where I was eating regularly and not purging. My body was sufficiently healthy again. I wasn’t experiencing the inner turmoil that my eating disorder had previously caused. But again, I wanted more. And so, through all of the hard times and the days and weeks where it felt like my journey was slowing down, my recovery stagnating, it was wanting more that kept me inching along.

And so I have entered the new year by almost accidentally achieving a goal in recovery that a few months ago felt near impossible. I have stopped weighing myself. And not through sheer willpower. I haven’t had to battle with myself to avoid the scale. I’ve just arrived at this point naturally. The desire to be free has outweighed (sorry for the pun!) my need for reassurance and control. That number no longer seems relevant to my life.

The eating disorder is no longer relevant to my life. It’s not who I am anymore.

And that is a delightful, beautiful, gratifying thing to be able to say with total honesty. I wanted more, and that is what I got. That’s what true self-respect is – when you recognise that you deserve more than you’re giving yourself, and you set out to achieve it.

I like to think that this will be a theme for 2012. Not settling for second best, not coasting along on one level when I know I’m capable, and deserving, of reaching so much higher.

 

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It’s been a while.

One of the problems of blogging about – at times – such personal thing is that when everything isn’t going quite as rosy as you’d like, it can be hard to admit.

I stopped counting calories on holiday, a big step in my recovery journey. This enabled me to eat a greater variety of foods, and more of them. Because when I didn’t know how many calories were being consumed, I found myself less worried about it.

So I got even more into baking than I had been before. And I baked. I baked, and baked until my kitchen was overflowing with sweet treats and I just HAD to eat them all up.

Of course, no matter how much exercise a person does there is a limit to the amount of indulgence that you can partake in before gaining weight. I believe I exceeded that limit. Now we’re not talking piling on the pounds, in fact the weight gain has been barely noticeable and would probably have been overlooked had I not been unable to break the daily weighing habit that has stuck around despite the leaps I’ve been making in recovery. So the scale says I’ve gained a little.

And whereas most people would barely acknowledge such tiny change in their weight, for someone who is recovering from an eating disorder, it isn’t quite that simple. Despite the fact that I probably needed to gain weight, because all of the running and (accidental) accompanying weight loss sort of made me stop getting periods (I know… doesn’t sound healthy, right?), this little weight change has caught me off guard.

The reason I have avoided this blog is because I didn’t want to admit that. I’m supposed to be super healthy all the time now. I’m not supposed to freak out about weight gain. I’m not supposed to try and maintain an artificially low weight. I should be embracing whatever weight my body is comfortable at.

But it isn’t that simple. Perfectionism is probably one of my biggest vices. And if part of recovery from an eating disorder is learning to accept imperfection, then why should I expect the process of recovery itself to be perfect?

It isn’t. And I am not.

So I will break my three week blog-draught with an admission: I am not perfect. And I am learning to be okay with that. I am also learning to let my body be whatever weight it wants. The key word here is learning, because I am most certainly not there yet. It’s a work in progress.

Saying that, I did decide that perhaps I was baking a little too much and letting my previously healthy-to-the-point-of-obsession diet slide. I think this has been part of the journey. I went the other way for a few weeks, indulging a little too often and choosing treats rather than my usual healthy snacks of fruit, and veg, and wholefood bars. So I learned to enjoy foods that would previously have stirred up guilt  – for consuming a lot of calories, but also for filling up on something that didn’t contribute anything nutritious to my diet.

Now I’ve decided that it’s time to find a balance. Of course I still love to bake, and I’m not going to stop doing that.  I also enjoy cooking, and I think I’m going to put some of my energy into playing with savoury foods a little more. And maybe some healthy treats (I’ve always wanted to make my own snack bars).

With that in mind, I listened to my hunger as much as possible today and tried to respond with my body’s nutritional needs in mind. With no sugary alternatives, my post-dinner snack was a bowl of fruit and yogurt.

 

 

I got myself into a bit of a fruit rut – which may have contributed to my desire for baked goods where before I’d be happy with an apple – and so I decided to jazz it up a bit. Admittedly my idea of ‘jazz’ just involved buying a passionfruit (the first one EVER!) and a kiwi (not the first one, but not a fruit that features in my kitchen often).

 

 

I also added some clementines that I bought the other day (to make this vinaigrette – absolutely delicious!). I was so excited when I saw that they had leaves on. It feels so festive!

 

 

To my absolutely beautiful, vibrantly coloured fruit bowl I added some soy yogurt.

 

 

I’ve got to admit, the addition of the yogurt did take something away aesthetically! It tasted lovely though. And I felt so much better for having eaten something nutritious.

I have also discovered a love of sandwiches lately. It’s getting expensive – the hummus salad on multigrain bread that’s on offer at the deli right by my house has tempted me too many times when I’ve needed a quick snack to keep me going while studying (epistemological debates really whet my appetite).

So today I realised that instead of spending my very limited student budget on sandwiches that other people have made for me, why not make them myself? And being the natural-type that I am, this doesn’t mean buying store bought bread and fillings and just putting them together myself.

It means making the bread myself too. With the assistance of my very dear friend, the Panasonic SD-257 Breadmaker.

(I was once a breadmaker snob, and insisted upon making loaves with my bare hands. I shunned modern technology, determined to learn the fine art of traditional breadmaking. It turns out I’m not very good at it, and have neither the time nor the patience to improve. Still wanting an alternative to commercially manufactured bread, I gave in and bought the best breadmaker I could find. It’s one of the most worthwhile purchases I ever made – not only do I adore it but self-titled bread connoisseur Matt loves it too, and we now make all of our bread at home).

It has all sorts of settings – white, wholewheat, gluten free, rye, pizza, loads of fancy breads and cakes, dough… and a funky raisin dispenser that drops nuts, seeds, raisins or whatever else you want to add into the dough at just the right point.

 

 

 

The dough setting on the machine is great fun, because you toss all of the ingredients in and three hours later, it produces near-perfect (we’re not aiming for perfection, remember!) dough that just needs to be shaped, proofed and baked.

I made a batch, and decided to shape it into six large breadrolls. I could have got more out of it, but I wanted them to be sandwich-sized!

 

 

After they’d risen in the oven, I added some extras.

 

 

 

After a quick 12 minutes in the oven, they came out slightly crispy, and baked to perfection.

 

 

I brushed them with a little soy milk mixed with maple syrup before adding the pepitas and poppy seeds, and I’m hoping that it’ll add some extra flavour. But I’ll have to wait and see because I haven’t tried one yet! I’m waiting until tomorrow, when I make a sandwich to take to uni.

So I’m going to use some of my kitchen-ergy (see what I did there?) to make nutritious, healthy foods. Of course this doesn’t mean I’m going to stop baking, and it doesn’t mean that I’m denying myself treat foods.

But having an eating disorder is like hanging onto a giant pendulum, which swings wildly between extremes. And part of recovery is using every ounce of strength to hold it still somewhere in the middle, and find that balance. It’s a monumental task, and one which I’m still working on – but I think I’ve taken some big steps lately, and I’m proud of every single one.

I just need to learn that it’s okay to write about the tough times, too.

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While I was in Ireland, on my birthday no less, I made dinner for everyone. I didn’t offer. I believe it started with a suggestion that I would start chopping some vegetables so my brother and sister-in-law could go out for a run, and then they would take over cooking when they returned. The next thing, my brother is telling me how much pasta to put on.

Before I know it, I’m cooking for seven people.

Being a typical inquisitive toddler, my nephew James wanted to watch what I was doing. He dragged ‘his’ step up to the counter and climbed up to oversee the vegetable chopping. Before long, he was wanting to join in.

 

 

I managed to find him a sufficiently blunt knife and a plate to chop on, and I set him to work slicing the mushrooms. His eagerness to help made up for the fact that I had to chop most of them again after he had finished. He was taking an interest in food, and learning new skills, and I was grateful to be able to provide him with this opportunity.

It reminded me of when I was little, and I would help my mum out in the kitchen. More often than not, I was a complete nuisance. My interest would wane quickly, and I would end up sitting on the floor playing the drums with a wooden spoon and all of the pans that I had dragged out of the cupboard. Or I would help to mix batter with great enthusiasm, and watch the buns go into the oven – and as soon as it was time to clean up I would decide that I was bored of this whole baking lark and plant myself firmly on the counter with the leftover batter and a spoon.

But my mum never let this stop her from encouraging my interest, however fickle. As a result, some of my earliest memories are of us in the kitchen together, the smell of a warm oven, the sickly sweet taste of unbaked dough, and the pride of being able to say that I had helped.

Everything my parents did in my childhood set me up for a healthy relationship with food. So where did it all go so wrong? I guess if it wasn’t food, it would be something else. Everyone develops unhealthy coping mechanisms at some point, whether it’s too much coffee or too much alcohol or food or drugs… there are just some crutches that are more socially acceptable than others.

Arguably, my eating disorder wasn’t socially acceptable. Binging and purging isn’t sanctioned by society, it isn’t something you go shouting from the rooftops about. On the contrary; I felt ashamed and went to great lengths to hide my behaviour.

But it started with food restriction. The bulimia only came later. My first thought was ‘If I starve myself and become anorexic, my mum and dad will stop fighting with each other because they’ll be worried about me instead’. I actually had this thought, clear as day. I remember where I was when it came into my head. It was like a lightbulb switched on.

And even though my subsequent behaviour caused concern, and raised whispers amongst friends and teachers, I actually think that what I was doing was socially acceptable. Young girls receive messages from everywhere about how they should be – pretty, and feminine, and attractive to boys, and skinny. You learn this early on. Is it any surprise that so many young women choose food (or the lack of it) as their drug? There’s a fascination in our society with skinny women. And despite the faux-concern displayed in magazines that run stories about too-thin celebrities, really what underlies it is a twisted kind of jealousy. Anorexics are untouchable. They’re performing a great feat of self-denial. They’re demonstrating inconceivable willpower.

And other women, who are also battling with their bodies in an attempt to conform to this ideal, look at these girls and feel a little envy at their ability to deny their bodies with such apparent ease.

Yes, some men experience eating disorders. It’s not all about women. But the same can be said for domestic abuse. Yet the vast majority of sufferers are women. And it’s the same for eating disorders.

You have to wonder – what is it about this that makes it such a predominantly female problem?

What messages – direct or indirect – are little girls receiving about who they should be? Everything about the way we relate to children passes on some message, some lesson, about right and wrong, what is acceptable in society and what is not. Every play-kitchen that has a picture of a girl on the box, every monster truck pictured with a little boy… we’re building their expectations and teaching them what they should aspire to be.

So even though my parents raised me in a warm, loving environment and taught me balance, and moderation, and an enjoyment of healthy food, I still developed an eating disorder. Because it wasn’t just about them. I needed some way of coping with the difficulties that we were facing as a family and, no doubt in some part because of the constant association of thinness with success, acceptance, happiness and beauty, I chose to starve myself.

I don’t know if there’s anything my parents could have done differently. If it wasn’t food, would it have been something else? What’s important, I think, is that as a result of their love and security, and by setting an example of how to overcome difficulties and work through problems healthily, I was able to break free of the eating disorder and begin the long process of redeveloping my relationship with food.

In many ways, I reverted to childhood when I started recovering. For my entire adolescence and adult life, I had abused food. Everything I had learnt in early childhood about appetite, hunger and responding to your body’s cues, I had essentially spent the past decade unlearning. The same goes for food preparation. I was way behind my peers when it came to cooking and preparing meals. It just was not a priority for me.

I’m almost two years into recovery now, and I think I’m doing pretty well. Taking an interest in cooking has been an essential part of the process for me, and in many ways I’ve taken my unhealthy obsession with food and replaced it with a healthy one.

It was a nice feeling to be able to take these new skills, and a healthy attitude to food, and share them with James. He is learning so much every day, and the outside world is shaping who he is. I want him to learn about food, and cooking, and the importance of taking care of yourself.

 

 

I even hoped that by getting involved with the preparation of his dinner, he might learn to embrace some of his least-favourite vegetables!

(It didn’t work – when I pointed out what a good job he’d done and suggested he try some of the broccoli he had chopped, he repeated his regular dinner-time refrain –  “I don’t like broccoli!” – and meticulously picked out the pasta instead).

 

 

But even if our cooking session didn’t ignite in him a love of green vegetables, or have any lasting impact on his relationship with food, I hope at least that it gave him a cosy memory, and a sense of pride at having helped, and the feeling of safety and security that I always used to get from time spent in the kitchen with my mum.

He’s just starting out on his own journey in life, learning about food, and relationships, and emotions. And in some ways, so am I. It wasn’t so long ago that this was all new to me, too. We’re learning from each other.

I can teach him how to chop vegetables, and how to wash mushrooms (hint: you wash them inside the colander, not by tipping them out into the sink!), and how to make a healthy pasta dish.

And he can teach me that while healthy eating might be important, there are times when it’s just absolutely necessary to fill your mouth as full as possible with sweets!

 

 

That pure, unmoderated enjoyment of food that babies and toddlers possess, before society and its rules and regulations about how and what to eat get in the way, is what I aspire to now. They feel no shame about enjoying their food, and indulging in treats – so why should I? Why should anyone?

I’m proud of my little guy for growing into such a sweet, thoughtful and helpful person. And I’m a little bit proud of me too. For not only taking on the long, hard challenge of recovery but for becoming someone who my nephews can look up to.

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It’s official. I’ve been referring to myself as a 25-year-old for a few weeks now, but I was always comforted by the knowledge that I wasn’t really that old. Not yet. So I soaked up every last moment of my life as a 24-year-old as my birthday fast approached.

But I couldn’t hide forever. And on Friday 28th October, I officially hit my mid-twenties.

The heat was taken off me somewhat by the fact that my little baby nephew decided to steal my birthday thunder and arrive the day after my birthday last year, and so the whole family headed over to Ireland to celebrate him turning one. This meant that I got to celebrate my birthday there too, with my brother, sister, parents and nephews all together. With my brother living in Ireland, this doesn’t happen often.

I got cuddles with the birthday boy (it was a fancy dress party!)…

 

 

…and admired all of the party food and decorations.

 

 

 

 

Yummy cupcakes…

 

 

 

More cupcakes!

 

 

Green cupcakes!

 

 

As well as all of the cupcakes, there was an abundance of proper, traditional party food. It reminded me of my childhood, when parties were a chance to stuff yourself full of little pizza slices, crisps and sweets…

 

 

After my nephew woke up from his nap and came to join his party, we all sang happy birthday. It wasn’t until afterwards that we realised how unnerving the situation must have been for him when immediately upon waking he was carried downstairs into a room full of people dressed in scary costumes, all of whom began singing to him at the top of their voices while shoving a cake in his face! No wonder he burst into tears!

Fortunately, there were plenty of volunteers on hand to help him eat his cake…

 

 

Everyone grab a spoon!

 

 

The abundance of party food photos is due in part to the fact that I couldn’t eat any of it! There were no vegan cupcakes, no vegan ice cream, and no vegan pizzas… and so I got my fix by frantically photographing everything.

But I had not been forgotten. My sister-in-law failed in her attempts to find a vegan birthday cake for me, and so she improvised with a mandarin orange, raisins and some squares of dark chocolate…

 

 

I munched happily on my birthday orange, and opened some lovely gifts. And when I went to bed that night, I contemplated the kinds of things that you usually contemplate around significant events like birthdays (particularly those on which you turn a quarter of a century old!).

I thought about where I was this time last year, and the year before. This time last year I was in the first year of my MA, and I had been living with Matt for just three months. It was my first full autumn in recovery and I remember throwing myself into Halloween food-making with a vengeance. Despite the fact that I was going through a rough patch at the time, I made a pumpkin pie and ate it defiantly (I even got Matt to take a photo).

 

 

In terms of running, I was coming towards the end of my first year and I was smashing PBs left, right and centre. I had just completed the Great North Run and I was due to run in the Abbey Dash a few weeks later, where I would come tantalisingly close to my sub-40 minute 10K goal.

And the year before? I remember going for a birthday meal with my family and Matt, shortly after they found out that we were together. I had blonde hair (it didn’t suit me). I wasn’t in recovery yet, but I was about to be. I was in the process of applying for the MA, and made ends meet by working as a teaching assistant for an agency. Things were going well, although I was dissatisfied with my job. It was easy work though, and knowing that I was going back into education again the year after helped.

Come to think of it, my life has progressed fairly steadily in the past few years. Previously, when I played ‘this time last year’ games, I was usually astonished at the twists and turns my life had taken. Starting university engaged and living with my long-term boyfriend, and then breaking up and fleeing to Canada, then restarting university after returning to Canada for the summer and travelling around America. Getting together with Matt in secret (because you don’t expect your big brother to be particularly happy when you start dating his best friend…as it happens he was!), taking off for some more trips to Canada and doing generally crazy things, acquiring tattoos. Graduating from uni.

I always felt unstable, sometimes in a good way but sometimes in a bad way. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or who I was. And I lurched around, trying to find something to cling onto that would define me. I used the eating disorder for that, a lot. As friends settled down and seemed to be growing up, I felt myself becoming more chaotic. My parents stood back and let me do my own thing, but I’m sure they despaired when I announced another trip to Canada where I stayed with a dear friend who was very much in the same place as me…I don’t think either of us knew what we wanted from life, or where we were going. We sure had fun trying to find out, but it wasn’t always healthy.

I am reminded of these times every day by the little maple leaf that sits on my left wrist. And the huge fairy, curled up sleeping on a bunch of leaves on my right wrist. And the spiral on my foot that says, “When she dances she goes and goes…”

I got all three of these tattoos in one summer, with no more than a day’s thought going into each one. I laugh now, but really…who gets themselves permanently inked with such little care?

One day, as we were driving along, I saw a sign that caught my eye.

 

 

It felt profound. I suspected that it carried an important message. But back then all I could do was photograph it, and store it away somewhere for a day when I was ready to truly believe it. And it’s only recently that I feel as if I really appreciate who I am, rather than trying to be someone else.

I also saw this…

 

 

I imagined myself living in the Beaches, in a big house with a balcony and a hammock. And I would get up on a sunny morning, and I would do yoga on the beach. Never mind that I hardly ever did yoga back then. It wasn’t about the yoga. It was about the image, the ideal. I created a picture in my mind of the perfect existence, and I saw my life as being so far away from this. I allowed myself to dream of living this way, without any real idea of how to get there. I thought that in order to achieve happiness, I needed to work out a way to move to Canada. And afford one of the pretty houses that I would drive by and admire. And meet a handsome Canadian husband.

It never occurred to me that, while all of this was no doubt a desirable way to live, it wasn’t the key to true happiness. It took years before I accepted the reality – that in the quest to be happy, you have to start by looking inwards.

So, twenty-five years old, eh? Despite the chaos I’ve lived through over the years, it seems that I’m pretty much where you’d expect a girl to be at this age. I’m living with my long-term partner, and I’m a postgrad student. I worry about grown-up things like paying the mortgage. I’ve started to prefer staying in and baking to going out drinking (okay, confession time –  I always preferred staying in. But now I’m getting older it’s becoming socially acceptable!). I’ve made some sacrifices – I’ve chosen to abandon the Canadian dream to stay in England, close to my family. I’ve realised that you can spread your wings and fly away, and you can experience a taste of true freedom by taking off to a new country and opening up a whole new world of experiences…but eventually you have to make a choice. And my family are more important to me than any of that. I couldn’t move that far from them.

So I have begun to develop a little of the wisdom that comes from experience. Some of Matt’s younger friends (team mates) recently went to university and I found myself smiling knowingly at their optimism as they insisted upon staying with their current partners. I remember saying that myself, and I remember other people’s equally sceptical attitudes. And now I am one of them. I watch them starting out in a new phase of their lives, and it feels a million miles away from where I am now.

This has been a rather long train of thought, and although I have so much more to say I think I should save it for a later entry. It’s time to go to yoga anyway. I’m not going to get there by walking out of my large house in Toronto to the end of my street, where I will perform perfect downward dogs in the sunshine with the sand between my toes. Instead, I will wrap up warm to cycle in the dark to a studio, where I will fight myself into a very imperfect downward dog.

But this is real. This is my life. I will meet my friend at yoga, and we will giggle together at lion’s breath and catch up on the gossip and I will come home to a cosy house with a freshly carved pumpkin (Matt doesn’t know it yet, but this is his first job when he gets home later!) and make soup. The Canadian fantasy life is just that; a fantasy. I have all of the ideas in my head about how my life would look, but none of it is real. It’s empty.

Meanwhile, my real life is full of family and friends and love. And I appreciate that now. I realise that everyone else is taken and unless I want to be completely unhappy and dissatisfied, I have to find joy in just being myself.

 

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Mindfulness

There is also, of course, the happiness which comes from the satisfaction of a desire. This can be very vivid, but it is limited by its own nature to a comparatively short duration. For the satisfaction of one desire immediately gives rise to another, and so the moment of happiness ends in further anxiety.

I reached aphorism 42 of the second chapter today (“Contentment brings supreme happiness”). The quote above is taken from the commentary.

It really struck me, because I think it perfectly describes my relationship with food. While my binge-purge cycles may have stopped, my attitude to food is still along the same lines as my attitude to everything else that I enjoy in life… I indulge in it to an obsessive degree. I am able to keep it healthy these days, and although I spend a lot of time thinking about food I make sure that I eat reasonable portion sizes, eat regular meals and cook healthy, nutritious food. I’m also able to do all of that without relying on counting calories now.

But I still experience that sense of compulsion when I enjoy something. I can’t do things in moderation. This isn’t specifically a food problem, although my behaviour around food is a significant manifestation of it. I might not over-consume but I think about it too much. And lately, because I’ve been baking so much, I have been over-consuming. I want to be able to enjoy baking without the inevitable war with myself which follows. I refuse to let it stop me from doing something that I love, and so I continue to bake in the hope that the more I do it, the faster the novelty will wear off. It hasn’t yet.

But it’s not just baking. When I go to a restaurant, I find myself overwhelmed by choice and despite promising myself that I’ll take it easy, I usually eat too much. I know most people do this when they eat out. But for a recovering bulimic, it’s not good. And I don’t want to learn how to be like the average person around food; I want to be better. I want to take it a step further and learn true moderation. So I can cook and bake and eat out and enjoy all of it without feeling any strong attachment to the pleasure that it brings.

So that particular quote stood out. It’s true that the enjoyment of food is the satisfaction of a desire. But eating never brings true satisfaction; it simply breeds more desire. This will be the case until I can learn to fulfil my needs in a deeper way, and not rely on external sensations to provide me with pleasure.

I have a feeling that the book ‘Life With Full Attention’ will be useful in achieving this. If I can develop mindfulness in every day life, maybe I can feel content without seeking physical satisfaction.

For week one of the course, you are asked to make two resolutions and find three ways to ‘reduce input’, i.e. reduce the constant stream of information and mental clutter in your life. My resolutions were to be in bed by 10pm every night, and to do at least 5 hours of study. My ideas for reducing input were to limit television time to two hours a day, laptop time to 3 hours and to not eat meals while watching TV.

So far I haven’t accomplished any of those. I’m not even trying. It’s easy to come up with these ideas, but much harder to motivate yourself to put them into practice. I think the key is to really believe in it. Part of me must remain sceptical about the potential benefits. Mindfulness is a nice idea, but can it really make sufficient difference in my life to be worth making these changes?

I have a feeling that the answer is yes. I also suspect that the changes I resolved to make would have a positive effect on me regardless of whether or not they led to a greater goal. Going to bed early and not spending so much time sitting on front of a screen can only be good things, as can ensuring I do plenty of study.

So having accepted that all of the changes I proposed will positively benefit me, I have to accept that they’re worth doing. And if they’re worth doing, then they deserve my motivation.

Maybe I should come up with some ideas to help me achieve these goals. Not watching as much TV is a hard one. I often have it on in the background when I’m in the living room (which is also my kitchen… damn you, tiny cottage!). And when I decide to switch it off, Matt comes home and puts in on himself! And my only option to avoid watching it would be to go upstairs. Maybe that’s an idea. We have the top bedroom which doubles up as an office, and now that’s tidy I could sit up there and read or study.

However I manage it, I think it’s worth making an effort here. Because by being mindful I’ll be forced to become more in tune with my body and how it feels, which will make it harder to over-consume (in every way, not just with food).

So now the challenge is to apply this new-found wisdom this evening and not eat all of the banana walnut muffins I just made!

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