Here's an inside look at the first line of my latest journal entry: "I am an eating disorder survivor. I am not an eating disorder savior." In other words, I have no power to rescue anyone else from a harmful relationship with food, exercise, or body image. No matter how desperately I want to be of help and service, I cannot force another person to embrace their healing journey. I can cheer them on toward recovery, but will never be able to control their actions or decisions. Nor should I even attempt to hijack that responsibility in the first place. It doesn't belong to me. But if I already know that I am not an eating disorder savior, why do I still need a reminder? The short answer is because I always think I can manage this self-proclaimed role—until I can't.
For most of my life, I was plagued by the question, "What will I do without an eating disorder?" It felt unattainable even to imagine an alternate reality in which those obsessions with food, exercise, or body image weren't constantly humming at the forefront of my brain. Each waking moment was a conquest to burn calories—or simply avoid them altogether. At the time, it seemed euphoric, but now I can see just how bleak of an existence I forced myself to live. So these days, I ask another question: "What can I do without an eating disorder?"
Last week, I wrote about feeling embarrassed to talk about my eating disorder in face-to-face conversations. This week, I remembered why I experienced that level of embarrassment. I was raised in a climate of body shaming, forced to interact with relatives who see no issue with fatphobic comments and behaviors. I have family members who are insensitive to recovery from my eating disorder (ED).
When I spent three months in residential treatment back in 2010, the clinicians would frequently encourage the other patients and me to communicate and honor our needs. This practice was meant to teach us how to separate our own inner voices from the control and influence of an eating disorder. As well-intentioned as these clinicians were, however, I remember asking myself: "How can I learn to express my needs if I'm not sure what they are?"
I was raised in a family that took holiday celebrations to a stratospheric level. We started listening to seasonal music in August. We had Christmas trees in almost every room of our house. We hosted multiple events—from Secret Santa exchanges with my parents' friends to cookie decorating parties with my aunts and cousins to the traditional feast with all of our exuberant Italian relatives. In this whirlwind of festivities, my mom turned entertaining into an art form, and her energy was infectious. But now that I am an adult, celebrating the holiday season on my own terms feels essential in order to prioritize my eating disorder recovery.
I’ve chosen to avoid pregnancy conversations over the years. I hesitate even to broach this subject in therapy sessions, and the reason is simple: I'm ambivalent about motherhood. The irony is I love children. I am a huge fan of my friends' little ones. I find my nieces and nephew irresistible. But I don't feel strong maternal instincts, and I lack the desire to parent children of my own.
Each year, as the calendar flips to November, I'm hit with a reminder of how complex the holiday season feels in eating disorder recovery. Of course, that's not unique to those with a history of eating disorders. This time of year can be overwhelming for anyone. In 2021, three out of five surveyed Americans felt their mental health worsen over the holidays, with 60 percent noticing a rise in anxiety and 52 percent noticing a rise in depression. Now couple all that with eating disorder stressors or behaviors, and this hectic season can become even more fraught. So with the 2022 festivities just around the corner, let's acknowledge it: The holidays are complex in eating disorder recovery—and that is alright.
I prefer the version of me without an eating disorder—honestly, I do. Just a few short years ago, I never thought I would be able to utter those words from a sincere, authentic place. But so much about a human can change and transform in recovery. I used to fear that I would not recognize myself in a healed state, that I would lose my sense of personhood in the absence of those compulsions and behaviors I identified with so strongly. This fear still creeps in sometimes, but now I can spot the distortion beneath it. These days, when I look in the mirror, it's deeper than recognition. I see the real me, not the masked, hollow pretense I once believed was me. It feels exposed and vulnerable, but it also feels right.
As someone who has been a professional writer for almost 10 years (and a writing enthusiast for my whole life), I am a firm believer in journaling. Granted, I have not maintained a consistent journaling rhythm in the season where I find myself now. But when I commit to this self-care practice on a regular basis, I feel connected to my goals, priorities, and intentions for healing. Moreover, I am compelled to take meaningful, decisive actions that align with those priorities. So if you, like me, have fallen into a journaling rut over the past weeks or months, here are some journaling topics to refuel your motivation in eating disorder recovery.
When I operate within the framework of an eating disorder, my life orbits around fear. I am afraid of consuming three balanced meals. I am afraid of not being able to squeeze in enough exercise. I am afraid of the number staring back at me on a scale. I am afraid of seeing the calorie count on a nutrition label. I am even afraid of existing inside my own skin.