Tuesday, February 25, 2014

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: My Journey

A few years ago my cousin introduced me to Post Secret, a movement created by a very compassionate individual by the name of Frank Warren who created an outlet for people to anonymously mail secrets to him. The secrets can be funny, ridiculous, serious, sad, and anything in between. Every Sunday, he posts new secrets that millions of people read. Every Sunday, I am one of those millions of people that do. It’s a way, I think, for people to feel connected with others around the world. Sharing these secrets is a way to let go as well as bringing people together. It’s a relief know that there are others who are going through similar things or thinking the same thoughts.

Last Sunday’s secrets really hit home for me. They revolved around eating disorders. Here are a few examples:

(Probably the one that was the most personal and relevant for me.)

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week brings into light a very personal matter for a lot of people. It doesn’t just affect a certain weight, gender, age, or nationality. It affects a wide ranged of people for different reasons. It mostly is about a sense of control or the desire of being this ideal image or weight, but those aren't the only reasons.

I remember becoming extremely offended when this fight of what ‘real women’ look like started. Suddenly, naturally slender women were subjected to scorn in the media. I have friends of various height and weight combinations, and they are all exceptionally beautiful people. They have shown me that there is no one-size-fits-all aspect of beauty.

One of the things CK told me (and that I love him for) is that there is no such thing as the fairytale relationship. And so, this past weekend, he asked me a very hard question: “So then, why do you demand for the fairytale body?” This applied not only to my appearance, but also my health. It was one of those questions that not only broke down everything I tried to ignore, but once I let it out I couldn’t stop.

I don't refer to having had disordered eating as an eating disorder  because I believe the term 'eating disorder' places blame on the person suffering. Disordered eating is also more inclusive and, in my opinion, something you can rise from and have the power to change. Disordered eating has traveled with me like a codependent ally, needing me to need to control what I ate, when I ate, and how much. When I went to college, I lost a lot of weight. In total, my weight loss journey resulted in over 40 pounds. Most of it was due to changing my eating habits and preferring healthier options and exercising more. But when I became ‘thin’, I was deathly afraid of gaining it back. I’ve had panic attacks in the past because it was so terrifying to me to go back to that time when my body was a prison to the wonderful person underneath.

*Photos are from 1990 - 2012.

The evolution of my disordered eating habits became more about earning and deserving food than not eating. To be fair, I didn’t decide one day to be anorexic my sophomore year in high school. I just felt I didn’t have time to eat in the mornings and simply wasn’t hungry for lunch (and believe me, the food options in the cafeteria were not appetizing). So I would go almost twenty hours without eating, snack when I got home and then eat dinner. I drank hot tea in the mornings with lemon and sugar, but that was it. By the end of the first quarter, I was under 140 pounds, a first since I started puberty.

And then I got sick and began vomiting blood. The trip to the ER showed stomach ulcers from drinking tea (which is extremely acidic) on an empty stomach, and put a slight hole in my esophagus. I called this experience the time I was “accidentally anorexic”.

By college, I went gluten free (soy free and cane sugar free came about a year or two after). I started eating healthier and exercising and was rather happy with where I was at body image-wise. I changed my appearance often, even cutting my hair in a pixie cut. My exercising, however, became something I had to do and a way to cut calories. I would do the math and think: “Okay… I’ve burned a certain number of calories, enough to have burned off breakfast, and maybe that smoothie I want to have later.” (This is also known as exercise bulimia and a very common form of disordered eating.) I looked at my body more critically, wondering why I wasn’t getting the body I wanted. At one point I tried to survive on 1200 calories a day. I guesstimated my intake, so I’m sure I ate more than that. But it still stands that, while I was active and walking to class, I wasn’t eating enough. I think I even blacked out while driving at one point on my way back to campus housing for lunch.

When I started this blog, the first post began with me being hungry really early in the morning. The echoes of healing are apparent in many posts and recipes I’ve published in the last three years. Seeing a holistic nutritionist (Cheryl Harris of Harris Whole Health and Gluten Free Goodness) probably saved my life. She encouraged me to take small steps, read Johnston’s (2000) Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors, and Storytelling, and I slowly changed how I perceived eating and food. My self worth and image built itself up and, in increments, stopped focusing on calories and focused more on what my body needed and when.

Being diagnosed with hypothyroidism in 2011 also changed by body image and eating habits, and it really helped in knowing my struggles with weight weren’t entirely my fault. Yes, I could have eaten healthier and exercised more, but growing up with an underactive thyroid literally makes you the underdog. Not only does your metabolism suffer, everything does. How could I be healthy when I was sick all the time? How could I get better if it was my body that wasn’t working?

Since receiving treatment, I’ve noticed my body doesn’t get sick as often or as easily. And the slow change of feeling like I have to exercise to wanting to exercise as well as removing ‘good’ and ‘bad’  as labels for food (also called orthorexia, or a fixation of only eating what the person believes is healthy or ‘good’ food) really helped transform my mindset toward loving my body. I still have old paradigms rear their ugly heads when I’m stressed or feeling vulnerable, but I know where I am right now is a pretty awesome place to be.

The last thing that really changed everything for me was doing the Insanity Challenge. I went from 125 lbs to 142 lbs, eating up to 2500 calories to maintain efficiency. I started learning how to take cues from my body, and was absolutely fascinated how I became more solid, but didn’t get bigger. In horror, I realized just how much I denied my poor body nutrients in the name of fairytale beauty. I knew in theory that not eating enough will actually keep you from losing weight because your body is trying to keep you alive. But after completing the Insanity Workout, it finally resonated.

Even today, while I have moments (and they are fleeting, I’m happy to say) where I think I’m not pretty enough, smart enough, thin enough, whatever enough, I have a fantastic support system and I am dulling the words of that harsh Inner Critic we are all capable of having. I cook and eat because food nourishes my body and my soul. I exercise to see how my strength has improved physically and mentally. I have learned to treat myself with compassion and empathy, and am learning what situations open the door for negative thoughts (usually sleep deprivation, sickness, or getting stuck inside my own head for too long).

The one thing I really hope the world comes to realize is that people who suffer disordered eating do not do it for attention, and telling them about how there are people without food in other parts of the world do not help. And while it helps to receive reassurance (because I admit to needing reassurance from time to time), the only thing that will change their outlook on themselves and the need of control is their desire to change it. It may mean getting professional help (as I had), changing the environment that encourages this disorder, and taking as well as celebrating the little steps. And while I believe it is most certainly acceptable to change yourself to feel better health-wise, I have learned that seeking perfection is impossible, mostly because there is no such thing as the perfect person. It's okay to be any weight that makes you feel comfortable, so as long as you don't risk your health or happiness to get there. It's also okay to have a 'type', but just remember that the other types out there are equally awesome.

It also means looking at body shaming as it is: a form of violence and bullying. We need to stop focusing on beauty as a surface phenomenon and looking to create the word to mean something that is all-inclusive. Let's stop comparing ourselves to one another and looking for acceptance based on what the scale says or what the media tells us. We need to stop diminishing someone's worth based on their appearance, and STOP STOP STOP saying someone isn't beautiful in order to make someone else feel that they are. It is NOT okay. And the first step to achieving this is inward.

I am so grateful to my family, friends, and partner for changing my life. And thank you all who were so brave as to sharing their stories, with me personally, and on Post Secret. And for those who are still suffering, are recovering, and everywhere in between, I want to say this to you:
  • You are beautiful in the present. At this very moment, you are the perfect you and you are on the path you need to take.
  • You are the ideal you.
  • You matter.
  • You are loved, honored, and appreciated for being yourself.
  • No one’s opinions of what you should look like or be like is important. The only thing that matters is how you feel.
  • It does get better. I promise you.
I made this recipe as a way to honor those struggles, and to reach out to others. Following this recipe are some stories about disordered eating and body image. I cannot express to you how much I appreciated the bravery of these individuals to share their story. It will be updated throughout the week, but feel free to leave a comment also.

Mashed Potato Biscuit Hearts

420 g mashed potatoes*
75 g Garbanzo bean flour
100 g ground almonds (i.e., blanched almond flour)
65 g Brown rice flour
60 g Flaxseed meal
120 ml Whole milk
1 Large egg
1 tsp. Sea salt
3/4 tsp. Baking soda
3/4 tsp. Cream of Tartar

Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C.
Mix together the wet ingredients (potatoes, milk, and egg) in a large bowl and add the dry (the dough will be a bit tacky).
Let the dough sit for five minutes.
On a floured surface, take a handful of dough** and flatten it to about an inch thick.
Using a heart-shaped cookie cutter (or any for that matter), press through the dough and place the cutouts onto a greased baking sheet (or parchment paper).
Continue to do so until all the dough has been formed, and bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Remove from the oven and let them cool for about 10 minutes before eating.
Can be served hot or cold.

Makes 11 or more biscuits, depending on cutout size.

* I used the potato ricer to make the mashed potatoes and didn't add anything to them.
** I found it easier to take a handful of dough at a time than to just roll it out and cut.

Other's Stories (Coming Soon)

Story 1: The Legacy
The Influence of family: My first negative body image messages came from my own mother when I entered puberty. She made me self conscious about my weight gain. (Replaying the messages from her own mother about her struggles with weight gain. To lose weight that she gained during her own puberty, she ate only mayonnaise sandwiches for an entire summer. She did some severe dieting after each of her children to lose the baby weight, which affected her mood and energy levels.) I also remember my father making comments that 125 lbs was an ideal weight (for my mom) so that was a weight goal I strived to attain. No matter that I was actually 3 inches taller and actually looked ghastly at 125 lbs. As a result, I went through puberty and early adolescence (in the 1970’s)  “knowing” that I was “fat” and unattractive. As a result, I became anorexic in my mid-teens, something that was acerbated by a bout of mononucleosis.

The influence of media and product advertisements: Dress size, body weight, body image, attractiveness and perceived sexual desirability have always been interconnected. No matter that I actually felt my best when I weighed a certain amount. In order to fit into certain styles of clothing, I had to be a certain size. In order to accentuate my eyes and my cheekbones I needed to have a certain contour to my face (achieved only by dieting). The mirror: It lies. What I see is not what others see. As a result I have to use a tape measure; it doesn’t lie.

My regrets: I hate how I look. I have always hated how I look. Once in a while, when some time has passed and I see a picture of myself, I think, “Wow! I look really great in that picture.” But, if I think back to when the picture was taken and how I felt about my looks, I would say that I felt ugly or at least not attractive.

Legacy: I have watched helplessly as my own daughter has struggled with this amorphous monster, wondering what I could have done that I didn’t do; how I could have better protected her from the jaws of this gaping beast. I tried to offer unconditional love and support as she has struggled. I tried to keep my own self criticism and self esteem issues to myself. I tried to make every effort to not taint her with the family legacy of toxic messaging. I have tried to be her best cheer leader. But, as evidenced by her very public struggles with disordered eating, love isn’t enough. This dis-ease is insidious. It’s in our wiring, it’s in our cells…

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