I ate a pizza the other day – the whole thing, crusts and all. The phrase rolls off my pen like some clandestine confession, or the lazy lyrics of a new indie rock song. It’s not information I’m particularly prone to sharing, other than in the privacy of my dietician’s office, or from the vantage position of my therapist’s couch.
There’s another ‘part’ of my brain though that quickly rebuts my declaration of food-fixation: so what? That’s normal. Eat a pizza as often as your body craves it. Ah, in-house intuitive eating guru, how well I have trained you. After all, for over five years of life, eating a pizza — a whole, half, or even a few bites — would have left me crying on my bedroom floor, wondering what I had done and how many days of fasting it would take to undo.
Needless to say, most people don’t experience heated internal dialogue in response to bread, tomato and cheese. However, for me, any slice or stuffed crust is simultaneously a victory, and a moment of grief: it’s coming up to two years into my recovery, and I am leaving behind the disease that was – for so long – the only prescription I needed for profound internal malaise.
The weeks leading up to the anniversary of my divorce from anorexia and bulimia nervosa – and all the other complicated labels doctors wanted to attach, despite the fact that to me they seem to be many faces of the exact same pain – are a moment to pause and reflect on what’s changed, as well as the challenges that remain in my quest to be healed.
Life after an eating disorder is neither easy to define nor easy to live through, even though to the outsider this may sound paradoxical: “you’re finally free, aren’t you happy?” I often hear, from medical professionals and loved ones alike. “Well, actually, it’s not as simple as being free. In many ways, I’m still shackled.” At this point, my unamused audience usually frowns and furrows their brow; then, they develop in their eyes the look of ‘oh-aren’t-you-so-broken.’
My verdict is lighter on myself, rather in favour of the opinion that my supposed ‘brokenness’ attests instead to how few people understand long-term illness, and the multi-stage process that is recovery from it. When you begin recovery, medical professionals, therapists, dieticians et al rightly drip feed you just enough information to understand each phase as it arrives – or rather sweeps you up in its hurricane winds. I initially thought that weight restoration, that colossal, Sisyphean task, would be my only rock to bear in recovery. Spoiler alert: not so.
Nearly two years in and my weight is normal, stable, and not at the precipice of the diagnostic abyss of ‘underweight’. In front of you, and on paper, I’m doing well. The problem-child between my ears, to be sure, has improved – my near immediate reply to the pizza-chastising brain waves is evidence of that fact. However, I perhaps more than ever find myself navigating no man’s land. For example, I have learnt to eat a lot of exactly what my body wants, with less and less concern as the months roll by.
Yet, in the face of what should be a victory, I inhabit a society that pervasively body-shames women for whatever they look like unless it is a very lean, muscular size zero. Throughout advertising, this message is ubiquitous, and we women have been trained to absorb it and enact it, as if it were akin to achieving enlightenment. Unhelpful messages around food and weight are so prevalent. Not only does it remind me every aching day I live that my recovery is an unwanted act of rebellion, but it also genuinely makes me worry about how women are supposed to thrive in the 21st century – because frankly, you can’t do it on calorie-restriction and guilt-driven exercise.
Even in a medical school lecture the other day, I heard a distinguished lecturer staunchly contend that only a third of your plate should be carbohydrates, not half, since that is too much. I thought: well, my whole meal last night was practically carbohydrates, and it was bigger than a plate. Plus, I’m healthier than I have ever been. Granted I am only one example, but overall I’m not buying this semi-restrictive one-size-fits-all approach to food that even our medical institutions are selling. It makes recovery harder, and I am not convinced it’s making our populations healthier or happier.
So, this is one challenge that I face. Carving out a space in which to eat a pleasurable and varied intake that suits my body’s needs, without excess planning or forethought, when many industries would probably rather I forever engage with dieting.
The second test is less obvious, more nuanced. It centres on existing in an unjust, often sore world without the eating disorder that in some ways comforted, and certainly defined me, during ten years of my youth. This has been the more recent part of my recovery, and the one that I was shocked to find out I needed to engage in when I thought the hard work – i.e., weight restoration – was finally finished. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, I can now clearly see that there was always going to be more with which I would need to deal.
After all, with an eating disorder you feel no pain, only numbness. You rely on ‘your beauty’ and ‘thinness’ to feel seen and valuable to yourself and others. I firmly believe that this is why many women are so reticent to let their disease go: it gives you a safety that you haven’t known elsewhere. I had to make the choice to let go of my protection – and I have, often literally kicking and screaming.
Indeed, in the absence of my once shield, I have found myself weeping on the floor, vulnerable, afraid of failure and of being forgotten. The pains that were really at the core of my illness, oppressed by a ruthless dictator with an appetite only for thinness, have been freed to pour from my body, inelegantly and uncomfortably.
For others, it can sometimes seem as if I am more unwell than ever – at least the eating disorder is neat, tidy, presentable. I and many of those who would judge me – even clinically – are not necessarily used to the messiness or unfairness of life. I suspect that coming to terms with it will prove my long-term burden to bear.
I am working on it though. Supported by a relentlessly kind therapist, I’m healing through my trauma. I’m learning to redefine myself. I’m hoping that one day pizzas will elicit absolutely no response from me except ‘yum!’, and that I can exist at any weight believing this: that I am worthy, and I am awesome.
I’m not there yet. Two years in though, I’m a hell of a lot closer.