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Habits of the Mind: Beating Back Anorexia

I spent my youth despising the way I looked, from my (real or imaginary) pooch or my rounded thighs to the creases in my upper arms that skinny girls didn’t have.

I took this obsession with my weight to the next level during my junior year of high school and went full-blown anorexic, taking the same mental traits that made me a classic overachiever — disciplined, conscientious, results-oriented — and turning them on my body.

It takes a lot of discipline to ignore your body’s hunger signals — especially once it figures out you’re starving. Tracking my restrictions became the anchor habit underlying the anorexia, and I managed to whittle my total daily caloric intake down to 750 calories, starving my body but feeding my mind with goals reached and control expressed.

Let’s be clear: Anorexia is not just a disorder of the body. To thrive, eating disorders require a perfect storm of mental, physical and environmental triggers. It’s complicated. Like, woah, complicated.

Fat is not a feeling. Anxiety is a feeling. Loneliness is a feeling. Anger is a feeling. Frustration is a feeling. Sorrow, grief, loss, uncertainty — all feelings.

It only took me ten years to realize the road out of my eating disorder was going in the opposite direction of the road in: habits.

But please note: I’m no doctor. People come to their eating disorders in different ways, for different reasons. Some are able to leave, and some get stuck. We all need support on our way out.

I wasn’t motivated by sudden insight but rather by fear of dying. (Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illnesses.) After I passed out in a McDonald’s with friends and woke up in the emergency room, I got scared. And so I broke my 750-calorie habit and generously allowed myself 1,000 calories a day. I gained 15 pounds in a few months — which made me like other college girls on the outside.

But I still had eating-disorder brain. That and the low metabolism I’d created in myself, caused by years of surviving on very little food and excessive amounts of exercise. Because my metabolism was so low, every time I would try to increase my caloric intake above 1,200 calories a day, I’d gain five pounds. This was incredibly frustrating, and it kept me stuck somewhere between anorexic and recovered for those ten years.

But slowly the metabolism healed itself when, after college, I got an office job and could no longer sustain my workout schedule. I dropped from 90 minutes, seven days a week to five workouts a week varying in time. I didn’t know the varying workouts would reset my metabolism. Then my eating habits changed again when I got pregnant. I couldn’t really track my calories because I had morning sickness and the calorie math was beyond anything I could handle. Plus, I was pregnant. I knew I had to eat for the baby.

But the habits of my mind persisted. One thing I couldn’t shake was having strictly categorized “good” and “bad” foods. When I became anorexic, I also became vegan because it was a simple and socially acceptable way to not be able to eat 90 percent of the food available in small-town Iowa in the early ‘90s. As I recovered, I gradually began adding food groups back in until I ate meat for the first time in a decade — and my weight did not change. That’s how I learned that It is actually easier for me to maintain a healthy weight eating a wide variety of foods.

But the absolute hardest bad habit to overcome — and one I still struggle with today, almost a decade after full recovery — is “feeling fat.”

Fat is not a feeling. Anxiety is a feeling. Loneliness is a feeling. Anger is a feeling. Frustration is a feeling. Sorrow, grief, loss, uncertainty — all feelings.

It is still easy for me to look at my thighs when anxiety hits and blame them for everything that goes wrong in my life. But now I really do know for sure that my thighs are innocent.

My thighs did not cause global warming, my recent fender bender or George W. Bush’s presidency. Changing their size or shape won’t change anything about the world around me or lessen my anxieties about any or all of the above, and dealing with those hard feelings the wrong way will serve only to, at best, make me miserable. And at worst? It will kill me.

Now, every time I start to have the reflexive mind trick of “feeling fat,” I force myself to practice a good habit of self-care instead: Drink a glass of cold water, go for a walk or at least step outside, pet a furry animal, hug someone I love, pay someone a compliment, read a good book, take a hot bath or shower, take a nap, smell a flower, call a loved one and beg them to tell me something good. And then I wait — sometimes with white knuckles — for the feeling to pass.

I know that I have the potential to relapse into an eating disorder. It’s not as if my brain changed. But my habits did. I also practice another habit every day called taking Zoloft and Wellbutrin. But even when medicated, I’m fully capable of going into a full-on panic attack.

But! I remember that in order to fall into the trap of anorexia mind, I need physical, mental and environmental pieces to fall into place. If things start going south, I remind myself I very much want to be resilient, and that I can choose how I react to hard situations and circumstances. I remind myself that I have tools and visualization exercises and a history of making it through the day without falling back on restricting. I can choose not to hurt myself.

Turns out, habits are powerful things. And for me, I now choose to use those habits to love myself and take care of myself. Especially on the days when that feels hard.

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2 Responses

  1. Alexandra Rosas

    The daily work, the commitment, of changing those tapes. It’s not easy, Rita, and I admire how honest you are about this struggle and how no magic happens that takes it away. It’s commitment. Thank you. Sharing with one of my friends, for her daughter.

  2. Lindsay Bell (@belllindsay)

    Love this piece, Rita. I doubt there’s a woman alive today who hasn’t blamed her thighs (and in my case, my fat ass) for *something*. I teetered on the “anorexia precipice” in my late teens/early twenties, and at 5’2″ and with healthy Scottish genes, I only need look at a picture of food to gain a pound. And yes, the “weight gain” is definitely a HUGE component of my issues with quitting smoking! But now that I’m pushing 50 (G’AH!) I try and cut myself some slack. Good for you for getting healthy again. You should be super proud of yourself. Cheers, Lindsay


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