30 Dec 2010

Numbers, numbers everywhere.......

Calorie counting - a lot of us do it. But we do it to varying degrees. For me, it became a kind of obsession for many years. At the peak of my calorie-counting-mania (around this time last year) I kept a detailed journal detailing the calorie content of every scrap of food or drink that passed my lips. It lasted for months. If I wasn't sure of the calorie content of something, I'd look it up online. When I started seeing a therapist, one of the things she asked me to do was calculate how much time I spent looking up nutritional content online. On bad days, it could be up to 4 hours! I would add up the total points for each day before bed time, but I'd regularly 'check-in' over the course of the day to make sure I wasn't going above my self-imposed 1,000 - 1,200 calorie limit. Even worse, I'd get competitive with myself. In the same way that marathon runners try to beat their own best time, I would try to beat my lowest calorie intake. 

Thanks to therapy and hard work I managed to get my behaviour under control. But 'under control' is not the same as 'gone'. 'Under control' is good enough for my therapist but not for me. I don't want calorie counting to play any part in my daily life and my food choices anymore, because I know its preventing me from making healthy food choices that respect what my body needs. But unfortunately my internal calorie calculator has not been totally switched off yet. When you've counted calories for as long as I have, it becomes second nature: something you do without thinking. I'll often be day-dreaming, letting my mind wander (last thing at night, for example, or when I'm walking to the shops) and suddenly realise I've accurately calculated my calorie consumption for that day. And, once I have that information, I find it very difficult not to start worrying or obsessing about it - deciding I've either eaten too little or too much based purely on the numbers, no matter how full or empty I feel, and then making 'action plans' to compensate later by eating more/less. Years of calorie counting also means that I now have a pretty good memory of the calorie content of most foods and I find it very hard not to make food choices based on that, even though I know that's not the healthiest way to be. I also find it difficult not to check the labels on food and not to let the numbers influence whether I eat it or not. I know that this is not a way to be healthy or happy, but how do you break the habit of a lifetime (almost)? If you have any hints and tips, or have your own calorie counting stories, please share them with me.........

28 Dec 2010

The Whole Sausage

So, now that the festivities are over I have a loaded question to ask: did you enjoy Christmas? Like most people who have had or still have an ED, I have a love/hate relationship with the festive season. I love getting together with my family, I love crowding around the Christmas tree and I adore getting and giving presents. But ultimately there's no getting away from the fact that a lot of Christmas is all about food. Lots and lots of food. Rich food, creamy food, meaty food, stodgy food. Whereas most of the year you can get away with refusing something that's out of your comfort zone with the old 'I'm not hungry'/'I'm trying to be healthy'/'I just don't like that' excuses, at Christmas excuses cease to be socially acceptable. You just HAVE to eat. And this year, for the first time in years, I wanted to. I really did. I desperately wanted to be normal and enjoy Christmas in a normal way, but I just couldn't quite break the old habits. I've made some progress, but I'm still not able to completely let myself go and quit restricting for just one day. I ate a few chocolates on Christmas afternoon but ended up 'compensating' by  refusing canapes later; I said 'yes' to a chocolate biscuit on boxing day but then didn't allow myself a snack when I was hungry later; I took a sausage at Christmas dinner, but only ate half. Still, given that my last few Christmases have been well and truly sausage free, I guess half a sausage is kind of progress. Perhaps next year it'll be a whole one. Here's hoping! 

23 Dec 2010

Health Food Bloggers

First of all I have to say sorry for being silent so long! I moved out of my parents house and into a flat and things just started getting a little manic. Anyway, the good news is I didn't use food to cope with all the change etc.

Anyhoo, I recently read a (now out of date) article on Marie Claire online about health food bloggers, entitled 'The Hunger Diaries': http://www.marieclaire.com/health-fitness/news/articles/health-blogger-controversy. The basic argument in the article is that these bloggers purport to advocate healthy eating and healthy living but, in fact, their detailed chronicalling of their exercise routines and eating habits is obsessional and borders on disordered. The article goes on to suggest that these bloggers might actually encourage eating disordered behaviour in others.

 I decided to check out some of the blogs myself to form my own opinion. Some of the blogs mentioned include katheats.com, carrotsncake.com, graduatemeghann.com, healthytippingpoint.com), hangrypants.com and  eatliverun.com/. Well, after checking them out I have to say: Marie Claire, I think you're wrong! I actually really liked the blogs, particulary  katheats.com and eatliverun.com/. The blogs seemed more like celebrations of food and eating, than the diaries of obsessional, punitive undereaters. Most of the bloggers described healthy, varied diets; if you follow them, you're just as likely to come across a recipe for rice pudding or peanut-butter cookies as a grilled chicken salads and there's not a diet food or weight watchers ready meal to be seen. It's true that many of the bloggers do have weight loss stories to tell, but all of the seem to have gone from being genuinely overweight to a healthy weight, none of them resorted to drastic diets and only one of them mentioned calorie counting. I suppose describing what you eat and cook each day could be described as obsessional, but then, surely you can be passionate about food without having an ED. I mean, has anyone every accused Gordom Ramsey of having an ED? I can't help thinking the fact that the bloggers are (1) woman and (2) young and attractive, has something to do with Marie Claire's spin on their blogs. No, I think these blogs are more about health and balance than obsession and starvation. If anything, I've learned something about the difference between 'normal' healthy eating and the kind of disordered-eating-marquerading-as-healthy that I engaged in in the later stages of my own disorder.

Finally, here's an extract from a post I read on eatliverun.com/. It's the author's explanation of why she chose to quit the gym:  'I realized the gym made me miserable and I really didn’t like running, cycling or the elliptical. [.....]So I quit the gym and really, quit working out all together.[...]Now, my exercise comes purely in the form of walking (hiking in the summer) and yoga. Sometimes days go by and I’m too busy to do either…and I’m totally cool with that.'
She adds: 'I’m really not scared of gaining a few pounds because of something extremely delicious. I’d gladly gain five pounds if it means I get to indulge in a daily sweet and bacon every once and a while. I honestly can’t imagine life any other way.'
Does that sound disordered to you? Me neither. Now, if only I could be a bit more like that.......

7 Oct 2010

How to cope when a friend has an ED too.

So, my dilemma is this - I'm recovering from my eating disorder and I think my recover is going so-so so far (which is no small achievement!) but I have a friend with an ED too, and she's struggling. She's not someone I met through a support group or anything. I knew her before either of us had any issues with food and eating. We were at school together from the age of 11, in the same friendhship group and always got on well.

Unfortunately, however, our decent into the dark world of ED coincided. We did an internship at the same place the summer we were both turned 17. My friend (let's call her Jane) had just started the Atkins diet, even though she was slim, healthy and beautiful. I was already starting to worry about my weight and calorie count. I think, on some level, her extreme dieting motivated me to go to take my restrictive eating to another level. By the end of the summer we were both looking noticably unwell. Our weights had plummetted and neither of us could function well in school because we were on such low-calorie diets. However, whereas I managed to drag myself back to weight that was non-anorexic (although still unhealthily low for my height) over the course of the next year or so, Jane just got worse. She ended up in and out of different eating disorders treatment hospitals for the next two years, until something snapped and she found the strength to gain weight, enough weight to convince doctors to discharge her, let her move on with her life and go to university etc.

But, like so many people (including myself) her issues with food and weight were far from over. Three years have now passed since she was finally discharged from hospital, and she still uses her eating as a way to cope with stress, just as I sometimes do. But, whereas I feel I'm making some progress, I think she's going backwards, and I don't think she's committed to complete body-mind recovery in the way I am. The problem is, when I see her, it sometimes destabilises me. I look at her - she is still very beautiful and glamorous - and I wonder whether I might not look better in jeans if my legs were as thin as hers. Its a dangerous path to go down. But what do I do? Do I cut her out of my life completely, after over 10 years of friendship? It seems a shame and, to be honest, I'm not even sure it's an option because we have so many friends in common. I would love to have the strength to continue to be a good friend to her, without letting her issues effect the way I feel about myself, and perhaps I do have the strength to do that....but I'm not sure, and maybe hanging out with her is therefore too much of a risk. I'm really at a loss as to what to do in this situation. If anyone has experienced anything similar, I'd love to hear your stories and if anyone has any wise words, I'd appreciate it.

30 Sep 2010

Calorie counting and coping

Yesterday, I felt like I was doing so well. I’d eaten a snack without agonising over it, eaten a breakfast without weighing the cereal. Then came lunch time. I went out for lunch on my lunch break, went to a salad bar (Tossed) and promptly began to agonise over what to chose. It doesn’t help that each sandwich has a little card next to it with the calorie content. Eventually I chose a feta cheese salad. Choosing feta was brave, and I even had a vinaigrette on it, but it didn’t fill me up. On the way back to work I stopped off at Pret a manger and bought their Love Bar and ate half of it. Back at work I resisted and resisted looking up the calorie content of my lunch on line (both Tossed and Pret have online nutritional info) but after 20 mins I caved. There I was, back to square one, calorie counting. And, what’s more, it was awful! 484 calories! A whole 184 calories outside my comfort zone! I felt like screaming: ‘Will there ever be a day when I can eat a filling meal without agonising over it before and after?’
But then, something interesting happened. It got to 4pm (the time that I’m usually crawling the walls with hunger) and I felt.....fine. I could concentrate on my work without being distracted by a gnawing feeling in my stomach. Even by the time I left work I was still only peckish, not ravenous, which meant I could chose a pre-dinner snack calmly and sensibly. Suddenly a 484 calorie lunch didn’t feel like such a big deal after all. Sometimes, I guess, you have to sit-out the bad feelings in order to get to the point where you feel okay. I suspect that's true for short-term situations but also for longer-term recovery.

29 Aug 2010

I've got the power!

 Personally, I’ve found my eating disorder very disempowering, and I know a lot of other people do to. People who binge often feel that they are at the mercy of their compulsion to eat. As someone who restricts what I eat and when, I’ve come to behave as if the rules I’ve lived by for so long were imposed on me by something separate from me, and more powerful than me. In fact, on a subconscious level, I think I believe that they really are externally imposed rules – as if special food police are ready-and-waiting to arrest me if I dare to eat a BLT or eat my morning snack before 11am. My therapist would call this ‘faulty’ thinking…. most people would call it bonkers. In an effort to unlearn it, I’ve decided to remind myself constantly that I have free choice in everything I do: that I am responsible for me. When I start to feel guilty about ‘breaking’ a rule or start to feel trapped by my rules, I am trying to remember to say to ask myself: ‘what do you chose to do?’ That way, even when I’m making bad choices for myself, at least I’m acknowledging them honestly as my own decisions, reminding myself that I could have made different ones and reinforcing my sense of my own self-determination. 

Interestingly, I've found this empowering not only when making decisions to do with eating, but also in the rest of my life. For example, yesterday I decided not to go out shopping with friends, but to spend the day studying at home instead (I'm taking a correspondence course). I was feeling so sorry for myself that it was distracting me from my work. I kept thinking, 'this is so unfair. My friends can go out and have fun, while I have to work. If I didn't have such pushy parents/ academic insecurities instilled in me by cruel primary school teachers/ such a puritanical drive to 'better myself' etc etc, then I could be having fun too!'. This went on and on until I stepped back and asked myself: 'What do I chose to do? It's not to late to call my friends. I could still go shopping'. I considered, then decided I'd rather get the work out of the way, so I wasn't trying to frantically do it after work over the next week. Decision made. I was able to go back to work feeling like a self-determining, responsible adult (well, for 10 minutes or so at least). 

Let me know what mind-tricks have you found helpful to reclaim power from your eating disorder.  

Ps. I find this trick works best if you have Snap!'s 'The Power' playing in your head at the same time:

28 Aug 2010

Eating Disorder recovery - the alternative gap year trip

So, I know I sounded all but defeated in my last post. Well, the good (or bad?) news is, apparently, that's a normal part of recovery. According to the psychologist and ED specialist Glenn Waller, recovery from an eating disorder can be likened to a long-trek across the coastline of South America. When we start treatment, we usually think we've hit rock bottom and that things will improve smoothly now that we've sought help, but then we realize we're in southern Chile baby, and things start to get really tough as we confront everything in our lives without having our eating disorder to plaster over the pain. It's only after a long time that the positive changes will become obvious and we'll start to see the top-most tip is we make our way up through Brazil.  
I don't know if Glenn's predictions of eventual improvement will prove true for me. But I do know that its helpful to believe that they will. And I really do believe its worth believing anything that will help you recover. As I wait to find out for sure, I guess all I can do it buckle down and keep eating. 

26 Aug 2010

A whinge for a rainy day

I have to confess to being on a bit of a downer today. This recovery thing is definitely not all smooth sailing and sunny skies. Not being hungry and not obsessively counting calories frees up a hell of a lot a head space to take a long hard look at your life and, frankly, I'm not sure I like what I see. At school, I was a straight-A student, the lead part in plays, editor of the magazine, head girl etc etc. People predicted good things for me and, to be honest, I did too. My struggles with eating should perhaps have been a hint that being a high-flyer was taking its emotional toll, but I believed I was a sharp, committed, ambitious person who would go far. Since graduating, however, my attempts at a career have been little short of pathetic. I find it hard to commit to whatever I'm doing. Whenever I get anywhere along one path, I become anxious that it won't work out or that it's not the right thing for me. I'm not sure if this has had anything to do with my eating, although I have heard a few other people with EDs mention that they too struggle with indecisiveness. Any thoughts?

22 Aug 2010

Is there a genetic component to EDs?

In her comment on my post 'Why I chose hunger', Renee pointed out that I hadn't mentioned genetics in my post. The issue of whether there's a genetic component to eating disorders is one I personally find pretty interesting and am undecided on. 

 I think it's pretty much an established statistic that people with a first degree relative with an ED are more likely to develop one themselves than people without. However, since family members tend to share the same environment and tend to influence one another, we can't be certain whether EDs run in families as a result of nature or nurture. Studies which compare the prevalence of EDs in genetically identical twins (monozygotic) verses non-identical (dizygotic) twins are a bit more helpful. In my research of my problem, I came across a study by Holland & Kendler which took a whole bunch of anorexics who happened to be twins and checked whether their twin hand an eating disorder too. They found that, where one a twin has anorexia nervosa, there's a 55% chance that her twin also does if her twin is identical, but only a 7% chance if her twin is non-identical. This does seem to suggest there's a genetic component involved. Some researchers even think they're getting closer to identifying a gene that might make carriers more vulnerable to anorexia: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC384957/ 

My real difficulty with the genetic theory is not really evidence, though, so much as whether its helpful to my recovery. For me personally, focusing on the genetic arguments doesn't motivate me to work on recovery. Instead, it leaves me feeling hopeless - like a victim of my genes. After all, you can't change your genes. So, I prefer to remember that 45% anorexic girls in Holland & Kendler's study, had a genetically identical twins who hadn't followed their sisters along the self-starvation road. How inspiring is that?! Imagine having a twin who looks exactly like you and thinks they're fat and refuses to eat, and yet finding the strength to just soldier on, stay healthy, and ignore the pressure to diet. What that tells me is that we can over-ride the power of any genetic pre-disposition we may or may not have, if we stay strong. That's what I want to do, so that's what I chose to focus on. 

20 Aug 2010

The Conflict.

One of the worst things about my current state as a ‘recovering’ under-eater/anorexic/whatever, is the indecisiveness that overwhelms me on a daily basis. I spend literally hours each day trying to decide what to eat. Some people suggest that eating disorders leave us disconnected from our bodily desires, making it difficult for those in recovery to know what they want or need to eat. But I think for me, it's chiefly because I’m still conflicted about what to eat now that I’m trying to fully recover. I’m constantly torn between the wish to eat what I feel psychologically comfortable eating (ie. what I know won’t send me into ‘Oh-my-god-I’m-going-to-wake-up-a-whale-mode') and the wish to eat what I crave or what I know will keep me energised for the next few hours. On a wider level, I’m conflicted between my nice, predictable eating disorder rules and the ‘great-unknown’ of spontaneous, unrestricted eating.  

In her book ‘Goodbye Ed, Hello Me’ Jenni Schaefer talks about how import it is to let go of all of your restrictive eating patterns and allow your body to find its natural weight. She uses the metaphor of parachuting off a mountain. The problem is, even though I definitely want to get the hell off the mountain, I still can’t trust that my parachute will open. But perhaps the alternative, continuing restricting, is even more dangerous? I’ve been doing it for years – keeping my weight just below normal. Sometimes it feels okay for a period, but at other times it makes me uptight, disconnected from life and preoccupied with food and weight. In the long-term, it risks my health and has probably contributed to some of my relapses. But committing to letting go completely still feels like a big ask.

18 Aug 2010

Why I chose hunger over happiness.

It’s the question well-wishers and psychologists always want us to answer – 'But sweetie, why are you really doing this?' There are lots of convincing psychological theories to explain why some people develop eating disorders. Believe me, I’ve read a lot of them in the hopes of having that ‘Bingo!’ moment when all will be explained and I’ll understand myself fully. Freud saw anorexia as a neurotic response to the onset of adulthood and sexuality. Susie Orbach thinks it has more to do with the pressure that society puts on women to conform to stereotyped ideals of femininity. The therapist Minuchin sees it as a passive yet defiant response to a stifling family environment. Yet others argue for a genetic component. My hunch is that eating disorders have multiple causes, many of which will be unique to each suffer. What’s important, is finding an explanation that makes sense to you.

Here are a few things that I believe contributed to my eating disorder:

1. Anxiety I’m a worry-bug. In the past, I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which basically means there’s pretty much nothing I don’t worry about. Terrorist attacks? Missing the bus? Getting dumped? Malaria? Exams? - you name it, I’ve probably worried about it today. I’ve used under-eating to keep my worries at bay by numbing my emotions, and to help me feel more in control.
2. My mum I really don’t want to admit this, because I love her, but I do think she’s had an inadvertent effect on my relationship with food and weight. She’s super-skinny and, even though she usually eats three meals a day, she has the ability to go for long stretches of time without eating very much. I don’t know to what extent her skinniness is natural or deliberate, because I’m too close to her to judge objectively and, frankly, I’d rather not go there. But the fact remains that, growing up with my mother as a model of women-hood, has made my own relationship with food and my body that much more fraught.
3. Self-hatred From about the age of 11 I’ve had a complicated relationship with the mirror. But beyond that, I’ve had difficulty loving and accepting myself – soul and mind, as well as body – for as long as I recall. I was mad enough to believe that, with a new body, would emerge a new me, a better, prettier me, that I could love.
4. My body This relationship’s not so peachy either. I started getting IBS in my mid-teens (again, like so many other people), and found the experience of my body behaving in a way that was so uncontrollable and unpredictable (not to mention gross) profoundly upsetting. I believe dieting was my own cruel way of reminding my body who’s boss.
5. The black dog There’s a lot of debate about whether depression is a cause or consequence of anorexia. Obviously, it’s different for everyone, but my hunch is that it’s usually both. It certainly was for me. Like my anxiety, my feelings of profound emptiness and sadness was numbed when I stopped eating. On another level, I also now suspect that starvation was my subconscious attempt to way of communicate my feelings to the people around me.
6. The media I’ve read too many fashion magazines and have taken them too seriously.
7. My friends Too many of them have had too many of the same problems I have. The other side to this coin, however, is that a recovered or recovering friend can be a tremendous support when you’re trying to recover too.
8.ME! None of the above explanations take away the fact that I chose and have continued to chose, to obsess about food and weight instead of filling my mind and sould with more important things. When I look at all of the explanations listed here, I realise that I have not struggled with anything that most privilaged Western girls and boys haven't also encountered. What makes me different from healthier people is the dysfunctional and irrational way I chose to deal with these minor difficulties. And I have to take responsibility for that. 

17 Aug 2010

Why I'm writing this

Aged 16 I went on a diet and didn’t stop. Then, I couldn’t stop. My weight dropped to 5 and a half stone (34 kg). With a BMI of just 14, I was in every way anorexic. I didn’t get professional help because my mother didn’t approve of the idea, but I did manage, with tremendous will-power, to eat my way back to a safer (though still clinically underweight) 6st 10lbs. Now, seven years later, I’m a healthier weight but obsessive thoughts and anxieties about food and weight-gain continue to dominate my life. I still have not spontaneously eaten a chocolate bar or eaten any rich or filling food without guilt, since I was 15. I haven’t gone a day without mentally or literally, with a calculator, counting calories. I still frequently react to stress and unhappiness by deliberately and systematically losing weight. Recently, work-place bullying triggered one of these uber-diets and, after quitting my job, I sought professional help for the first time. Seeing a psychologist and following the eating plan she gave me helped me to get up to 7st, a weight I have never been before in my entire adult life. Nevertheless, I still only hover on the peripheries of the ‘healthy’ weight-range for my height, I still feel like I’m ‘running on empty’ much of the time, and I’m still tortured by an obsession with food. I long to eat spontaneously and guiltlessly, without caring about the calories in every mouthful. In short, I don't want to just not be anorexic, I want to have a happy and relaxed relationship with food. In this blog, I’m going to document my struggles to do so. Partially because I find it cathartic, partially because I hope it will help me look at my relationship with food/weight more objectively but also because I hope you’ll share your own thoughts and advice with me.