Why Do I Talk About An Eating Disorder I Don’t Have Anymore?

Somewhere, tonight, someone is hurting. I know because I have been her.

I have been the girl who will not answer the telephone, who walks through rooms without speaking. I have met insomnia and the noises night can make. I understand going for late night drives and lights shining on grass, the crippling fear of social functions where food is served, the failure to know what is hunger because it all feels terrible all the time.

It’s embarrassing, terrifying, and sometimes a freaking fucking relief to sit on a hospital bed when you are about to die because of your own actions. This was all so many years ago.

I have recovered from an eating disorder. I am not going to stop talking about it.

My life is gleefully full with other things, yes. The depression that narrowed my world and told me I could never be small enough is a shriveled snake skin that has blown thousands of miles behind me. Instead, I shimmer. The grueling hard work of recovery let me live, and so I’m living life in neon lights.

Because I am blessed with a life that is full, I could easily make the choice to not talk about these things. But I share my story and my experiences because I have come to realize that when I do, people who are locked in hell as I once was feel hope or a little less scared to share what’s going on with someone else. It’s not just people with eating disorders, it’s people who struggle with other mental health issues, addictions, and things that are stigmatized and hard to talk about.

Me sharing my eating disorder story without shame or fear is one of the most political things I do — and I work in politics on life-or-death issues (DEFEND DACA!). It is an invitation to compassion and believing that more is possible, a rejection of shame and stigma about the shit real people go through every day, and a direct and personal expression of my belief that it’s revolutionary for women and all people to tell the truth about our lives.

I am not stuck in the past. I am sharing my past for the purpose of helping others become unstuck. Over the years, so many people have come to me with their stories. Our struggles and conditions are not the same but we are united in our defiance of demons and the stigma that gives them the upper hand they never deserved.

To those of you who are still fighting, keep pushing. It’s worth it. Love you!

 

 

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Eating Disorders And Unforeseen Consequences

I broke my shoulder when I was 28. The surgeon asked me where I had my skiing accident. When I explained that I slipped and fell Christmas shopping, he told me that my injuries were consistent with a woman in her eighties doing that.

So, let’s settle in for a conversation about eating disorders and how much they can fuck up your health in ways you never imagined.

Anorexia almost killed me in my late teens. The health problems that came with it were self-evident and scary by the time I got into treatment. Insomnia, blacking out, feeling insatiably cold. Easy bruising, blue nails, extra hair on my body. My pulse was 32 the first time I saw a doctor and it’s a miracle I’m not dead. But honestly the worst part of that life was that I was so sad, ashamed, and unable to break free from thoughts and obsessions that took up almost all of my brain.

Recovery from eating disorders is no walk in the park, but I’m glad I did it. I love my life. What I went through turned me into an unstoppable fighter for women.

I broke my shoulder several years deep into recovery. I had no idea all that previous dieting would turn my bones into twigs, to the point that slipping and falling on the sidewalk would turn into a visit to the official orthopedic surgeon for the Baltimore Orioles (a wee bit embarrassing, yes)? I’ve been dealing with chronic shoulder pain almost 10 years later because of a stupid fall that never should have broken a bone. Without my history of eating disorders I would have laughed, brushed off my pants, and stood up within 30 seconds.

Dieting sucks, my friends. Eating disorders suck. We all know about the link between eating disorders and the after-school special that, blissfully, my life no longer is. Many times eating disorders will tell you that you can outsmart slipping into the dance with death or that you’re not that far along (hint: I tried that and believed that, and you can’t and you’re probably wrong).

Fewer of us know how eating disorders can produce all kinds of unforeseen health consequences that can mess with your life on an ongoing basis. I’m waking up at night with pain in my shoulder because I wanted a perfect body twenty years ago.

If you’re doing weird things to yourself with food or have nasty feelings about your body, I urge you to reach out for professional support. Getting your life back is amazing. Also, you’re less likely to encounter health problems you’d never associate with looking at fashion magazines or social media posts that make you feel like shit about yourself.

PSA: I’m Not Pregnant — My Stomach Sticks Out

I’m not pregnant. My stomach sticks out. This is my body. I have survived anorexia and now, your question.

A few years ago I was asked if I was pregnant when I wasn’t, and I cried. I am open about my recovery from eating disorders, and while most of the time I can smile and tell anorexia and negative self-image to go shoe-shopping in hell, I think it’s important to acknowledge that recovery can come with bad days.

I don’t think I looked pregnant two years ago. This time, it is more likely I do. In recent weeks I’ve been asked several times if I’m pregnant by a variety of people who mean well (all of whom apologized profusely).

The reality is that my stomach protrudes. Compared to some pregnant people, I probably do look pregnant.

It’s not practical to walk around sucking in all the time. I’m not particularly interested in giving up my cute, form-fitting clothes. Most important, I don’t want to go on a diet. I know that, for me, the words diet and death are too close for comfort. And so, I’ve had to learn how to deal with people thinking I’m pregnant without turning knives into myself.

I’m not pregnant. My stomach sticks out. This is my body. It takes up space. My body takes up space in ways that some people do not readily understand.

Loving yourself is a radical act. You can hate oppressive systems and the self-doubt and presumed right to question that comes with them. You can forgive the people who push the buttons that are supposed to hurt you (though refusing to forgive can be righteous, too). You can find transcendence. I am choosing to forgive others and myself, while working to change the culture. I am finding transcendence.

The best gift I can give to myself, my activism, and the people who love me is to move on. The radical gift I have for all of us is to share this information without shame.

Burying An Ex, Or Why I Hate Drugs

I nearly died for anorexia twenty years ago. It was stupid but maddeningly complex, and I couldn’t get out. I went to the hospital. I left the hospital. I went to college. I relapsed. I relapsed again. I spent a summer in hell, living with my parents, floating through rooms, speaking to no one. I let the phone ring. Message boards were pretty much my only contact with humanity, if you can call them that.

And then one night I went to a party. I spoke with this charming, funny guy I’d gone to school with earlier. I was sick as hell, but he treated me like I was human. We started flirting and fantasizing about getting married and having kids. We were basically kids. We became boyfriend and girlfriend. He stood by me when I was a pile of immobilized insecurity crying in the bed, terrified about my body and my future. He told me he loved me. I wanted to impress him so badly I ate a real dinner one night on a date, above the screaming voices that had kept me locked in deadly patterns for months.

He died in his twenties. He used drugs, kind of big time. Drugs were never my thing, but I looked away from his unhealthy behaviors and he looked away from mine. I got healthy. I married. I divorced. I found new love. We lost touch.

He died when I was 28 and felt like I was getting my shit figured out. He died when I was on a trip to D.C. and the mentor I idolized asked me to run on her ticket for the next NOW executive officer elections — basically the apotheosis of my dreams at that stage of my North Minneapolis, volunteer-feminist life. I came home with my suitcase on this incredible high and learned this man with the flowered sunglasses and spring in his step was dead. I sat outside and stared at a crack in the sidewalk.

I felt a sorrow I’d never known before. I saw him in dreams. I stayed in bed. I cried. I cried so hard it felt like someone had jammed a cantaloupe in my throat. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know how to grieve an ex-boyfriend in front of a boyfriend, so I shut the door and turned out the lights. Was I an enabler? What would saving him have looked like? I don’t believe you can save people; I learned quite directly that people who tried to “save” me from anorexia failed and our friendship ended. I thought and still think people who are struggling need love and not direction, but it was hard not to second-guess myself.

I attended his funeral by myself, sitting in the back. It’s been almost 10 years, but I still remember what I wore and that I thought I looked hot. It seemed like the least I could do for him. I walked by his casket and saw his embalmed body. I hated, I hated, I fucking hated drugs in that moment. I still hate drugs. I hate them with my whole being. I don’t know if drugs killed him and it’s not really my business. But I know he struggled, and I know I hate drugs.

It is possible to hate things that cause people to suffer, and to not judge people. I hate drugs and still want to decriminalize them; I think locking people up for drugs is a tool for oppressing people of color and preventing people from accessing the care they need. I’m writing about this because I don’t want stigma for anything.

I’m getting old. Thank God I’m getting old. It’s a privilege to get old.

Root Your Activism In Your Moral Clarity

I’ve been at social justice work since I was a kid. It didn’t necessarily start with my parents — though they discussed public affairs with me as if I were an adult, they were hardly activists or political people. I just liked to read newspapers and books about politics, and had a strongly felt sense of right and wrong.

My activism started out as general liberal/progressive-type stuff. I started phonebanking in middle school for what could have become Minnesota’s first woman senator, and by the time I hit high school I was dodging the police officer assigned to the outside of the school to catch skipping students (I was out campaigning for Senator Paul Wellstone).

It wasn’t until late high school and early college that my general leftist activism channeled into explicitly feminist activism. I developed anorexia and nearly died, fighting tooth and nail for my life. When I got on the other side of that, I vowed to do whatever I could to help prevent other women and girls from having to go through what I did — or at least, to make it easier for them to get out. I saw my eating disorder as a manifestation of a society that demands women and girls take up less space.

I took a wider view and went into general feminist activism. Women and girls are consistently pressured to take up less space in public life, to have bodies held to impossible standards and open to the public approval and judgement of others, subjected to violence and control, paid less, respected less. The areas where women are most praised for stepping up — presenting ourselves in sexualized ways, for the pleasure of others rather than ourselves; or taking notes at the meeting or having a really clean house —  do not refute my view of less space because they, too, support rigid gender roles that help no one, woman, man, or gender non-conforming. I should note, here, that my commitment to feminism has also kept me on track and in some ways, helped to save my life on an ongoing basis. Having the views I do now makes it pretty hard to go back to hurting my body the way I once did.

Over time, I have specialized more and more in reproductive health, rights, and justice issues, and I see strong links between cultural control over women’s bodies in the form of impossible standards of physical beauty; legal control over women’s bodies in the form of sexual repression and the shame and stigma that supports it; and medical control over women’s bodies in the form of forced C-sections, “religious freedom” with the effect of denying women access to health care in health care settings, denial of accurate medical information for fear we might choose to have abortions, and the like.

Reproductive activism can be a hard field to be involved in — our side loses a lot, the opposition is unhinged more often than not, and terrorism and violence is part of the pro-life movement’s playbook. But frankly, all activism is hard. That’s why I shared my story. The reason why I do my work is rooted in my moral clarity: I’m doing this work because I survived, and I feel a sense of purpose in advancing women and girls. I’m doing this work because if I could stand up to my eating disorder, I can certainly stand up to anti-abortion, sexist, racist, homophobic bullies who are trying to intimidate activists and ordinary people out of the discussion.

If you’re an activist, I encourage you to think about your story. Why do you do the work you do? This is the moral clarity you bring to your work. It will feed you when days and nights are long, and help you avoid burnout (though you also need to take care of your own life or you will burn out — for more on that, see my old post Time Management: Activism Without Losing Your Mind).

Your story and your moral clarity are not a set of political views. They are not an emulation of people you admire or a repudiation of people you can’t stand. They are not about what you think other people should do to move closer to justice in the set of issues you advocate. They are not even your theory of change, or how you think the work should be done.

Your story and your moral clarity are why you, uniquely you, feel motivated to do the work you do. I encourage you to take some time to think about yours, and remember to come back there every so often. This will nourish your work for the long haul. At least it has for me, for my entire adult life.

If you’ve read this far you must be an activist; so long as you’re fighting the good fight, thank you.

Learning To Cook

Putting a pastry in the toaster used to be my definition of cooking. When I was active in the National Organization for Women, for a time the juiciest gossip making its way back to me was: She doesn’t know how to cut a tomato. I remember the older feminists I revered watching me clueless in the kitchen — and I was 31. What hath feminism wrought? was all over their faces.

I did not grow up in a family of cooks. Dad and I went to Burger King every Thursday on the way home from my cello lessons, and by my ’20s I would come home on Friday nights for ‘girls night’ with Mom — frozen pizza, Franzia, the best conversation, and me doing free laundry before heading out on the town.

My cooking ignorance could be thrown into a larger life theme of not appreciating food. I sure as hell didn’t. I nearly killed myself with anorexia a few times. Body image is something I continue to navigate, even if many days I don’t think about it.

As an eating disorder survivor with all the attendant dieting and more extreme behaviors going with that, significant portions of my life have gone by with food as an object of disdain, lust, or both. I feared food because I feared my body, and I feared my body because I feared myself.

But y’all, I’m in total ‘fuck it’ mode now. I love to eat and also, I love to cook, including from recipes with ingredients I need to Google image search before heading to the grocery store. In the last few days I have prepared several things for family and friends from recipes — goat cheese toasts with pistachio and mint, pumpkin bread with olive oil, and green lentils with spinach and chipotle. Off-recipe and just having fun, I have made roasted brussels sprouts with a hint of olive oil, pumpkin, almond milk, anise, and cardamom seeds, and a salad with baby beets and homemade oil and vinegar dressing.

Cooking is an art. It is creative. It is relaxing. It is becoming as much fun for me as writing poetry, fiction, and essays. As I have taken to following recipes, I have learned how to improvise on my own. We do not need to choose one approach or the other; we can keep trying, scrubbing our pans, and starting over each and every meal.

Cooking is also love. It is how I spice things up for my husband on a Friday night and give him ‘date night at home’ now that we stay home with a little one. It is seeing my daughter’s joy in having leftovers earmarked for her the next day. It means everything that we remember her.

The other day, I was startled with an additional realization brought to me by the joy of preparing food. Food is no longer my enemy. It is not just taste and adventure. It is literally life. When I cook, I am giving joy and life to others and myself. The act of eating a hard-cooked meal is an act of consuming and becoming one with love, creativity, and unexpected beauty in the form of presentation on a plate.

Also, by the way, feminists can cook.

Brussels sprouts

 

When Your Brain Tells You Dumb Things

For a week, I’ve been convinced my scale is broken. I think I weigh five to 10 pounds more than I do. I’ve weighed myself first thing in the morning maybe three times. Each time, I think the scale has stopped working. I have not lost weight; I’ve been consistent around my current weight, shape, and size for the past few years.

My brain has started telling me I’m 10 pounds heavier.

I’m wearing the newest undies I have. They are hot pink and and adorable, and yet they are too big. I bought the size I believed I was. When I put them on, I told myself they needed to shrink. The next time I wore them, I decided the manufacturer must be marketed to older people and practice vanity size inflation.

It turns out I am smaller than I earnestly believe I am.

This isn’t new. It just that I’ve learned to recognize it, interrogate it, and work around it. I remember the first time I was hospitalized for anorexia, literally half my life ago, and a nurse had me put a string in a circle on my hospital bed to represent how big I thought my waist was. She then used another string to measure my waist, cutting it, and placing it inside my circle, which was probably four times as big.

I have learned to identify and not align my behavior to my conquered loser of an eating disorder. It doesn’t mean the thoughts have gone away. Often, they are gone (and thank goodness, because the rest of the world is vastly more interesting than dieting). But even in the strangest of times, they get the best of me — like my latest reaction that the scale is broken, and these undies that are hot and a little bit floppy.

There appears to be a misconception, and in some cases a tremendous pressure on eating disorder survivors to foster the misconception, that folks who have recovered from anorexia, bulimia, and more simply love ourselves all the time and it’s fucking fabulous with a unicorn giving us a hug on our non-obsessive, all-foods-can-fit way to the cupcake boutique. I think it’s important to break through that misconception.

My brain is a weird place. Recovering from this eating disorder has made me one of the toughest people I know. And yet it — real recovery — also means acknowledging the shitty parts of yourself that exist to defeat you. My self-conception of my shape and size is unreliable. I know that.

I don’t think this means I am not fully past my eating disorder. I do believe I am. I am a survivor. Yet, I negotiate this thing sometimes. I’m doing it with this size nonsense right now, and I’m grateful for it. It’s making me think about other areas in my life where I am afraid I am taking up too much space. That fear is probably unreliable, too.

Body Hatred, Raising A Daughter, And Real Recovery From An Eating Disorder

Each Wednesday, my daughter and I put on our swimsuits and walk into the community pool until the water gets so deep I bend down and carry her. It is a long ramp into the deep end. Packed benches and risers span the perimeter and they are crowded with parents and siblings. It is quite a catwalk for those initiated into the lethal art of body comparison and body hatred.

My history with an eating disorder is one of the coolest and shittiest things about me. Cool because you recover from anorexia like I did, and no one can fuck with you. Overcoming my demons has given me a fearlessness and strength that stuns even me. Shitty because there is no intrinsic value in a bullying voice that tells you to stop eating and lose all the weight.

As it pertains to parenting a girl, it’s terrifying to know personally the reality of eating disorder culture taken to its logical extent — the acts of fainting, obsessing, and starving turning into a body that elicits jealousy, praise, and near-death experiences that blur into a loop of hospitals, treatment, and crying your damn eyes out because it hurts so much. It starts with pink onesies that ask if this diaper makes you look fat, and turns into magazine covers asking for twenty fucking years if Jennifer Aniston is pregnant because she is a woman and has a stomach. It is friends and family saying they are good or bad depending on what they ate or how they exercised. Eating disorder culture is everywhere, and it is unavoidable.

So as this swim class taught my daughter to swim, it taught me to wear a swimsuit in public without holding in my gut. It taught me to throw my towel over my shoulders instead of wrapping it cautiously around my waist or under my arms. It taught me to sit on the floor because the benches are too packed and let the rolls bunch over my bikini bottom. I want her to breathe, and walk, and sit like this. Being her role model helps keep me clean. The best way to teach her to love herself is to show her that I love her, and myself.

I consider myself fully recovered from my eating disorder. But the reality is, my actions don’t always match my thoughts. I eat regular meals, don’t restrict my food, and exercise only when I have time, which for someone who fits my work/life profile means not so much. I have a gut, two thighs, and a body that reflects this. My actions are good. My thoughts can be brutal.

Recently I have had a series of conversations with someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. She will often ask me how I moved past nasty eating disorder thoughts. This would be a different answer for anyone, since everyone’s thoughts and motivations are different, but I do think the one commonality is that we all need professional treatment to break free (this is my regularly scheduled reminder that I do not believe it’s possible to self-help your way out of an eating disorder, and if you are struggling I urge you to seek professional treatment).

But more important, it has helped me to realize that these thoughts may diminish in frequency and severity, but they actually do not go away. I’m not going to tell you what I think because I am not here to provide instructions for how to be an anorexic (you should live because it’s cool!), but let me tell you that I’ve been recovered like solid for close to 15 years and still have ridiculous thoughts every day about a new diet plan I should follow. What has changed is that they float in and out in seconds. I don’t listen to them. I don’t follow their instructions. Most of the time, I don’t even register what’s happening.

Until I did a few weeks ago. There I was in Pilates class, being physically strong when I started beating up on myself for the bulge above my elastic waist. It was in this moment of strength and sweat when it all registered. “Oh my gosh,” I thought in a high, indignant voice rising to my own defense. “That’s so meanWhy would you say that to yourself?” I did this the way a friend would chase away the worst bully. The release nearly made me cry, realizing that I had been holding this self-hatred in my muscles and I could be a good steward to myself and sweep the toxicity out with a non-self-blaming admonishment and a huge exhale.

Having been to hell and back, I can verify the basic building blocks of self-hatred have never gone away. The best I can do is acknowledge them, ignore them, and rise above them. It feels good when I demonstrate loving my body for my daughter, and it feels good when I insist upon it for myself. I’ll see you at the pool and I’ll be walking in real slow.

Getting Old And Loving It

I turn 36 in a few weeks, and I’m excited.

Aging is cool. It’s the ultimate affirmation of having “made it.”

I have written about loving my first gray hair as a political act, because the whole you’re-old-you’re-done message sucks. It is a privilege to age. I’ve long thought women get prettier as we age; there is something sculptural about the way lines cut a face.

36 feels significant to me because this is literally twice the age at which I thought I might never have another birthday. Today, half my life ago, would have been about the first morning I would ever wake up in the middle of the night to flashlights making sure I wasn’t killing myself, going to the bathroom in front of someone so I couldn’t vomit, and taking a shower observed after my razor was retrieved from the locked cabinet in the back.

You see, both my 18th and 19th birthdays were spent in the hospital because I had been starving myself to death. I think about all the destructive things I did, and all the ways I tormented myself with what I thought was my fatness and unacceptability.

I’m not ashamed that this happened. I’m appalled that society does this to people every day, that gender roles suck as much as they do, that it’s hip to brag about how “good” or “bad” you were with your food or your exercise, that size 00 is a now a thing — like literally, now the size for women to strive for is less than nothing.

I’m significantly larger now than I was before that eating disorder started. And you know what? I am fucking alive and fighting.

As I get ready to go into my later thirties, I’m proud to be alive. I think about loving all of my “imperfections” — including my wrinkles, crows feet, gray hair, C-section scar, cellulite, varicose veins, shoulder scars, and especially the laugh lines.

I remember what it felt like to laugh and cry this hard, to get these lines on my face. The condition of my forehead is intimately related to the number of occasions I’ve had to raise an eyebrow at total bullshit. My stomach and thighs! After so many battles, I am soft, triumphant, and strong enough to run a steep hill.

Loving yourself and your body as it is is truly revolutionary. I’ve spent half of my life on the other side of rock bottom; long enough to learn that the kind of lady I want to be SCREAMS HER AGE, has a belly roll and acknowledges it, and encourages others to do the same.

No, It’s Not Cool To Lose Weight On The Stomach Flu

I had norovirus, the kind where you are this pathetic, shivering creature crouched on the ground beside the toilet at 3:47 a.m. In the process of this unwelcome “total body cleanse,” pounds fell off my body.

Okay, they didn’t fall. But providing accurate detail about what happened is too disgusting.

It’s at least as disgusting that it’s an option to say someone looks good after they’ve been sick, or that it’s cool to lose weight on illness.

Not that my post-eating disorder brain wasn’t willing to play this trick on me. Of course I stepped on the scale after that night from hell, and of course it was shocking how much weight I lost.

And the old gremlins flared up. Maybe it’s a good thing, I wondered.

But actually fuck no.

Losing weight by process of being miserable always sucks, whether via stomach flu, eating disorder, or this week’s ridiculous dieting fad.

The way to look radiant is to feel radiant, and the way to feel radiant is to possess outrageous courage in a world that tells women we must keep ourselves in check, in line. Losing weight is not an act of courage. Losing weight possesses no intrinsic value, but we do — and it’s a radical act to accept ourselves as we are.

I’ve probably gained all my norovirus weight back by now, and thank goodness. My body knows exactly which size it wants to be, and I’m proud to have flipped my old eating disorder the bird one more time.

Every day presents these little opportunities for resistance. Against our own demons, and/or against societal things that suck. We should be so grateful to take them all.