Hello from beautiful NYC! It’s hard to believe that I was in New York only a week or so ago, for Blogher 12 (full recap here). Though plenty has happened since then–the end of summer class, the trip back to DC and now back to NY–the topic of my Blogher panel has stayed on my mind. That topic was “dedication vs. obsession,” and it’s a topic I’m fairly certain we’re all acquainted with: most bloggers and blog readers have at least brushed paths with the obsessive urge, either in the realm of food or in fitness. I’ve personally had an intense history of it in both arenas. While it would be dishonest to say that I’m no longer prone to obsessive urges of either kind, they’re rare, and I’ve learned to manage them effectively. I told you all about how my co-panelists and I tackled this topic at Blogher; today, I want to talk about how I’ve confronted it in my own life.
It’s hard to talk about the obsessive urge and EDs without considering which came first: the obsessiveness, or the disorder? Most women and men I’ve spoken to about this feel that obsessive tendencies (or even fully realized OCD) were present before the disordered eating began, and in fact were/are an integral part of it. (Abby has some really interesting thoughts on this, and you should check out either this post or this one if you want to read more.) My personality in general walks a fine line between “passionate” and “obsessive,” and I think this had everything to do with my own ED experience. That said, I do have friends who say that their eating disorders seemed to precede their obsessive tendencies. One friend of mine once told me that she still finds it shocking that she–a person who’s generally laid back and unfussy–became through anorexia the kind of person who could weigh an apple over 10 times before dividing it into small, uniform pieces.
It’s also hard for me to talk about obsessiveness without admitting that I wouldn’t root my obsessive tendencies out of my personality if I could. If I weren’t prone to reading the same poem two hundred times, listening to the same song on repeat for days, or becoming fixated on certain kinds of ideas or themes, I wouldn’t be me. As with so many of the traits that make us prone to disordered eating, this one isn’t black or white. Perfectionism, drive, obsessiveness: they do me a lot of good, a lot of the time. Unfortunately, they also make me prone to disordered eating.
So, how have I learned to maintain my capacity for intellectual and artistic obsession, as well as my single-minded pursuit of goals, without allowing obsessiveness to bleed into my relationship with my body?
Time. Time, and lots of learning the hard way.
For all of my teen years and a chunk of my early twenties, I was obsessed with my body. Not with thinness so much as with lightness; I wanted to be ethereal, tiny, petite. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining this to people who assume my fixation with thinness was driven by the desire to please men, or because of the media. I have no doubt that those feelings often drive EDs, but when I started developing my ED at the age of 11, attractiveness to others wasn’t my main motivation. It was the pursuit of a feeling–the feeling of lightness (later on, social pressures and media pressures entered into the picture, too).
The obvious avenue toward that end was to restrict my food, and I did that pretty effectively. After many painful years of periodic weight loss and restoration, I realized that I could not sustain those habits and be healthy at the same time. I learned–with great struggle–to let go over the obsessive habits we all associate with disordered eating: weighing my food, cutting it up, setting magical numbers of how many calories I ate, imposing rigid rules about how I ate, and when.
Then–like many people with this sort of history–I started transferring the obsessive urge to other places. I wasn’t obsessed with thinness or undereating, but I became fairly fixated on fitness. Fortunately, I just couldn’t sustain enough interest in running or exercise to develop a full blown case of exercise addiction.
A little while later, however, I started transferring the obsessive urge to my health, and this obsessive phase did have longevity. It was also more complicated than either my obsession with thinness or my obsession with fitness, because it grew out of a fundamentally positive urge. As someone who had lived with an ED and with GI illness for all of her mature life, I needed to pay close attention to my health. I’d learned firsthand how small changes in diet and lifestyle could radically improve how well I felt, and I’d seen that feeling better–especially when it came to digestion–actually helped to bolster my self-image. The danger was that my reverence for health could easily veer into hypochondria, or the feeling that my body was a fragile entity that was ever on the cusp of breaking. And when I felt that way, it became easy to vilify all sorts of foods as culprits. Even as recently as five years ago–right before I started CR–my body was healing, but I was still prone to fearing various foods, and feeling certain that the slightest dietary misstep would spell ruin for my health.
As with most steps in ED recovery, time and discipline have been crucial to helping me relax and loosen the obsessive urges. My obsession over food choices, meal planning, weighing, and counting fell by the wayside after my final ED relapse. Life has been so much better without them that it’s hard to imagine how entangled I once was in them; hard to imagine lying in bed awake at night, trying to plan precisely what I’d eat the next day and tabulating the calories therein. Obsessiveness about exercise abated when I realized that overextending my body through exercise always made me feel unbalanced and worn down, rather than energetic and healthy; yoga was an especially transformative discovery for me, because it showed me that certain kinds of challenging, yet compassionate movements could actually energize, rather than deplete me. This made me more balanced and calm about food choices in general, and worked synergistically with my ED recovery.
And as for obsessiveness over health (orthorexia, if you will?). Time has helped to heal that, too. Time, and reality! Allowing my diet to be inclusive of foods that have little health benefits (certain kinds of vegan “junk foods,” to use an expression I don’t like, desserts just for the heck of it, soy lattes even when I know they’ll probably keep me up, etc.) has shown me that a) my body is not so fragile that a few foods that aren’t pristine from a health perspective are going to hurt it, and b) enjoying certain foods solely because they afford me pleasure is “healthy” in a subtle and profound way. It’s healthy because it embodies my recovery, my hard-won ability to cherish food for pleasure’s sake, rather than needing to reduce each and every food I eat to the status of “fuel.” Don’t get me wrong: I eat a very healthy diet nearly all the time by choice, and love to think about the ways in which my food choices nourish my body and support my health. But for me, part of the recovery process has been embracing food as a pleasure as well as fuel, because rejection of that pleasure was an enormous part of my ED.
When we were speaking on our panel, Stephanie used the expression “mindfulness vs. madness” to talk about the tension between dedication and obsession. I like that expression, and I’ve been thinking about how it applies to me. Eating whole, healthy, raw and vegan foods is how I take a mindful, conscious approach to my health. Not insisting that each and every morsel food I eat be explicitly health supporting is how I avoid the madness that can come of too much health fixation. Exercising consistently is how I remain mindful of my body’s need to be active and limber; avoiding exercises that I don’t enjoy (distance running, any fitness class where I feel as though I’m getting yelled at) is how I avoid the madness of feeling as though I must excel at each and every kind of athletic activity. Eating consciously and with love is how I remain mindful of my ED history; not allowing myself to obsess over my food choices is how I avoid the madness of my past life.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have struggles. I realized not so long ago that I almost never feel guilt about a rich restaurant meal, an indulgent dinner, a generous helping of a sugary dessert, a big bowl of carbs, or anything that would have used to make me panic. But I do tend to feel anxious when my food is rushed, on-the-go, or not very appealing. Lousy restaurant meals, poorly planned and disappointing dinners, grab and go food when I’m super busy: this is the kind of stuff that throws me off kilter. Learning to labor over and love my food was such a tremendous part of recovery that–well, what can I say? Food that doesn’t feel mindful to me actually makes me sad; it feels like an opportunity lost. It violates my desire to take aesthetic and sensual pleasure in what I eat, and it also makes me sorry that I haven’t reaped any health benefits.
But this, too, is something I work on actively. Because the truth is that life sometimes asks us to put aside our desire to make each and every food choice beautiful and delicious, and focus instead on our lived experience. So you grabbed a banana and a snack bar and some trail mix because you were on a road trip with your friends, and it’s all that you could find at the gas station; so you came home and threw together a lackluster dinner because you were exhausted from a day of long (but exhilarating) day of work; so you had a so-so dinner at a non-vegan friendly restaurant because you were busy laughing and celebrating with friends; so what? It’s not every day. It’s a moment in which there happened to be something more urgent, exciting, and fundamentally important to pursue than an ideal meal. You won’t make it a habit, because good food matters tremendously to you. But if it just so happens that, now and again, food doesn’t come first, that’s OK.
Or at least, that’s what I tell myself. And it’s been a very important lesson for me, another one of those very fine lines we encounter in recovery. Recovery, for me, has meant learning to value my food consciously, celebrate good taste, and make beautiful dishes. But it has also meant learning how to accept that food isn’t always the only priority in my life. It’s just a big one.
Of course, dedication and obsession mean different things to us all. I’d love for you to consider this topic and let me know how you’ve found balance–or how you’re trying to find it. All thoughts are welcome!