Thanks to everyone who entered my giveaway to attend the Take Back Your Health Conference in October! I’m excited by all the interest. True to form, I forgot to announce the deadline for this giveaway: we’ll make it July 13th (and on that evening I’ll announce my winner). That’ll still give you two days to catch the conference’s early bird registration special if you don’t win.
I’m here today with a Green Recovery submission that gave me chills the first time I read it and every time since. It’s one of the most thoughtful and expressive submissions I’ve gotten, and I hope that you’ll read through it all to catch its many insights and observations. I’ll hazard a guess that there is not a single CR reader who won’t hear a glimmer of her own voice in here.
Over two years ago, I started exchanging emails with my now-friend Laura C., whom I’d met through CR and other raw community resources. Laura and I quickly realized that we had a great deal in common, including, but not limited to, our harrowing ED histories. We met for salad, smoothies, and juice last year at One Lucky Duck, and it was as if we were old friends.
Since then, our conversations have expanded to include our mutual interests in psychology, medicine, cooking, and eating. She’s one of the women I can count on most to express a healthy and sensual love of food, and moreover, she’s one of my most thoughtful commenters: I always wait eagerly for Laura’s comments on any topic-driven CR post, and I’ll confess that, when I announced my intention to get a post-bacc, I wanted very much to get her blessing.
So far, we’ve had both under-eating and over-eating Green Recovery stories: I hope that Laura’s submission illustrates how interrelated and overlapping ED’s can be. I hope she also inspires you with her resilience, her clearheaded and honest self-reflection, and her enthusiasm for plant-based food. As you’ll see, Laura is not 100% vegan, but she is honest about where she is in her journey, conscious in her food choices, accepting of her body’s needs, and open to whatever evolution lies in store.
I am excited to share this story for so many reasons. First, I have experienced a large range of body sizes and relationships with food and eating. So often people think of overeating and anorexia as opposites: they are not. Both arise from an interaction of genetic predisposition, environmental triggers, and personal distress. Being overweight can predispose a person to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders; conversely, dieting and weight loss can lead to yo-yo dieting and weight gain. I am a great example of how these behaviors are flip sides of the same coin, because I’ve experienced them all.
Second, I’m excited to share my story because mine is a story of truly realizing that gray is beautiful. For so long my thinking about food and bodies was black and white: my intake was on target or not on target, my weight was under my magic number or over it, I was in control or not in control. While my definitions of black and white changed over time, they always dominated my thoughts and feeling. I am finally realizing that my true health and happiness lie in the gray: rules that are guidelines but not absolutes, diet styles that reflect my own evolving values and preferences, and a weight that I am comfortable with but that does not require undue discipline to maintain.
From my own experience, I think about eating disorders as a manifestation of profound discomfort with oneself. For me, this began early. I was an anxious and pathologically shy child. From as early as my parents or I can remember, I was afraid to interact with my peers. In grade school I spent most of my recesses standing again the side of the school building, watching everyone else play. Later I tagged along with a few friends, eventually muttering a few sentences that I had planned or edited for minutes or hours. I was terribly uncomfortable with my presence and with how I was perceived. I was very lonely, and let my emotions out at home through tears and rage. I have slowly grown out of my social anxiety with each passing year- I made good friends in high school, and more in college. Today it is often unnoticeable, and much less of a presence in my day-to-day life. Still, I believe this massive discomfort and self-consciousness lay at the core of my struggles with food and body.
As a child I was also overweight. I’m not sure whether I ever fell into the range of obesity, but I was distinctly overweight. I had to wear plus-sized clothing, often ordered from catalogs. My weight probably had something to do with genetics, but I think it also had a lot to do with my loneliness. My favorite activities were reading, drawing, and eating. My whole family LOVES food. My favorite foods- garlic bread, ice cream, and fruit, I could eat endlessly, and day-dreamed about obsessively. I remember saving my allowance money to buy a pint of rainbow sherbet, and eating it all in an afternoon. I remember taking a second plate of spaghetti, then a third. I remember mindless, compulsive, and emotional eating, dipping my finger into the cookie dough again and again, reaching for yet another serving of mashed potatoes, begging my parents to let me have just one more taco. Luckily my family’s food choices were pretty healthy- I was raised on organic food, lots of vegetables, and little to no processed junk food. My tastes were largely for foods that were wholesome when eaten in reasonable quantity.
At the same time that I was overweight, I hated my body. Entering puberty early did not help- nor did being at times a foot taller than my classmates. To make matters worse, I was also a dancer. I loved ballet and studied it casually throughout my child and teen years. I was never overweight enough that my weight was any huge impediment to my dancing, but my body definitely stood out. In my mind, it was grotesque. I always felt bad about my body and felt that it set me apart- I felt like I did not deserve to have friends who were thin, or deserve for others to like me.
It’s funny how we gain consciousness sometimes in sudden leaps. It was not until 8th grade that I realized I had the potential to change my body or my relationship with food. In 9th grade, I began a mission to lose weight. I was 35 or 40 pounds above my ideal weight. In my mind, losing weight was conflated with making more friends and being less lonely. I wanted to fit in, but first I felt my body had to fit in. I remember my first, innocent step: no more chocolate milk at lunch. I lost weight slowly for a year through a massive effort to reign in my compulsive love affair with food, and I ramped up my exercise. I lost about 20 pounds that first year, more or less healthfully lost. My sophomore year in high school I grew emboldened, and my goals more grandiose. I would have a true dancer’s body; I would prove to everyone that I was normal, that I was not a FAT person. FAT, of course, meant so much more than overweight- to me, it represented everything that felt uncomfortable to me about my self and my ability to fit in.
In the summer I swam every morning, then walked to my afternoon dance classes. I cut my food intake back further- a granola bar for breakfast, a small sandwich for lunch, a normal dinner. During the school year I took aerobics PE classes and told my mom I was full at dinner. My weight was dropping quickly, and I began to fall in love with my progress- trying on new clothing, measuring my body, pinching and feeling and watching as the pounds dropped off. This is not to say it was easy- as a true lover of food, and a long-time compulsive eater, it was a daily battle. I employed all manner of psychological techniques to trick my mind away from food.
By winter of junior year I was bony, and I was ecstatic. My period had stopped, and I was freezing cold in 80 degree weather. I figured these were temporary effects of weight loss, because I could not see how thin I was. Because my weight was right on the boundary of a healthy and unhealthy BMI, I thought that I couldn’t have anorexia. I now know that for my body frame and composition, I was severely underweight. This was obvious to the people who saw me in leotards and pulled me aside to express deep concern. My thinness and the attention I received, however, were powerful opiates. I was high on my own success and, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, felt more socially comfortable than ever. As the months passed, though, fear creeped in.
Ironically, it may have been my own anxiety that saved me. I began to realize that protruding bones and constant cold temperature were signs of unhealth. I read a newspaper story about a study of dieting girls whose low iron levels led to loss of several IQ points. I decided I should gain just a little weight.
To speed my story up, I’ll just tell you that for some blessed reason I simply recovered on my own. I was fearful of dying and fearful of damaged health or intellect. I had never wanted to be the skinniest girl in school – I had just wanted to be normal, and my quest for normalcy had gone too far. In college, however, old habits and predisposition kicked in again. Over several years I regained the entire 60 pounds I had lost in high school. In a way, it was a sign of health- I was more comfortable with myself, and comfortable with my body. It was also simply the next chapter in my lack of ability to separate food from emotion and issues of control.
After college I set forth again to lose the excess weight, and I came upon a raw foods detox program that held massive appeal in its black and white style of thinking. It combined the natural foods focus that was native to my upbringing and aligned with my values, but it was radical enough to satisfy the psychologically eating-disordered person that I was. Slowly I replaced breakfast with green juice, lunch with salad. Once again, with ups and downs, I began to lose weight. The program unfortunately had a lot of rules, however, that turned me once again into a fearful and restrictive eater. My weight dipped slightly low. I was eating vegetarian and high-raw, and food combining. I cut out the majority of dairy in my diet, and began experiencing better health than I had ever known. As a child I had suffered chronic sinus infections and bronchitis, and caught the flu whenever it went around. My allergies all but disappeared, my sinus infections diminished to once a year if at all, and I seemed to avoid the bugs being passed around my department. My weight rose here and fell there, but I was holding steady around my ideal weight- a place I had never experienced.
It was in this place, a couple of years ago, that I first found Gena’s blog. And it was through Gena’s blog that my disordered eating really began to recover. While physically thriving, I was emotionally suffering with the constant battle to adhere to excessive restrictions and guidelines I had bought into. My diet was lacking somewhat in diversity and low on a couple key nutrients. Through Gena’s blog I have weaned myself off of guidelines that I no longer find necessary, and shed some fear about my own ability to judge what is best for my body. After a lifetime of being unable to regulate my relationship with food, it’s very difficult for me to trust my body about what it wants. I’ve been able to reshape my palate to some extent so that my cravings today are far healthier than they used to be, and my sense of what is too sugary or salty or fatty is much more in line with what is healthy for my body that they used to be.
It is still very difficult for me to rely solely on my body’s cues to decide when to eat and when to stop. (It would be a whole other blog post, but I wanted to mention as a side-note that therapy has also played a very important role in my recovery, primarily through helping address my anxiety disorder.)
In the context of my lifetime of struggles with food and body, I am in a fantastic place. I like my body most of the time, I love the food I eat, and usually I am able to eat with relish without too much fear or guilt. This is because I consider my recovery to be a “green recovery.” For me, this means that my meals are usually plant-based: fruit-green-nut smoothies, blended soups, veggie and bean burgers, veggie-tempeh stir fries, kale chips, and salads and wraps are mainstays. Nutritional yeast, garlic, and cold-pressed oils pack more flavor and health. I love my favorite treats as well: banana soft serve, raw cookies and frozen peanut butter-chocolate-oat balls, or chocolate bars now and then. When I’m struggling with emotional or compulsive eating, I do my best to approach it with high-volume plant-based snacks- large smoothies or soups, veggie chips, or watermelon.
Sometimes my eating derails a bit, and stress or circumstances bring less healthy eating. I always feel the difference- less energy, more bloat, more colds, more weight fluctuation. These symptoms nudge me back towards a way of eating that makes me feel my best psychologically and physically. I’m not perfect, but I no longer believe in perfect. I believe in beautiful shades of gray.
I’m also not completely vegan. My kitchen is almost always vegan, but I don’t deny myself my favorite non-vegans foods out- quality pizza or frozen yogurt now and then, or some egg in a stir fry. I’m not there yet, and I don’t know whether I will ever choose to be. My elimination of animal products and seafood from my diet were based in genuine ethical and environmental concerns, and I don’t have the same level of concern about ethically produced eggs and dairy. When I buy these products for myself, which is rare, I only buy from local family farms whose ethics I have researched. As for that occasional pizza or frozen yogurt- well, as I said, I’m living in the gray. I am a person recovered from an eating disorder, and I believe in balancing my own needs and preferences with my values. I have eliminated probably more than 95% of the animal-based products I used to consume from my diet, and to me that is my way of living in harmony with my body, mind, and values. I look forward to further evolution if and when it feels right for me.
(I love this photo of Laura!)
But enough about my food- I want to talk a little about green RECOVERY. Green recovery means that I feel in harmony with the food I eat, almost all the time. It means that I fuel my body with the abundance of plants and seeds and nuts and grains and fruits that grow on the earth, and that give me the most wholesome synergy of nutrients and digestible, recognizable building blocks my body needs. It means that my food is my medicine: my greens keep me feeling smooth and energized, grains balance my mood with B vitamins, beans and nuts and seeds give me strength and mass, and fruit fuels my brain with simple sugars and sensory delight. My diet keeps my blood sugar and mood more regulated than they used to be, gives me more energy than I used to have, and keeps my skin healthy. I am almost entirely free of the respiratory problems and minor toenail fungus I used to have. I also feel free from the processed sugars and fats, dyes and preservatives that clutter the body and disturb its natural regulation of mood and health. I’m free of implication in the suffering of factory farms for meat production, and I vote with my dollars for food production that supports human rights and environmental protection. I’ve also begun working with a naturopath I trust and been helped my supplements of B12 and vitamin D that I was low on. I feel that my eating can bring both me and my body joy, that the food I crave can heal my body and bring me happiness.
I will reiterate that it isn’t a story of perfection- my weight sometimes fluctuates, and anxiety will return. But on the whole it’s a story of balance- it’s about developing habits that stick, and tastes that eventually align with health. It’s about finding food that I love that my body loves as well, and savoring that food without overeating or restricting it. It’s about buying foods that I’m proud to support- organic, local, or vegan, and knowing that my values and my body and my taste buds are in harmony. And it’s about realizing that my body is just right the way it is, and will be its most beautiful when I’m most in balance. Green recovery means that I am establishing a food identity that is distinctive and admirable, for reasons that are positive and life-giving, rather than disordered and health-draining. It means making my choices as green as I can, without surrendering to definitions or values that are not honestly my own. And it means being proud of the food boundaries I set up, because they are boundaries that set me on a straight-sailing path of health, not boundaries that imprison me.
Finally, I want to thank Gena and my fellow readers, because this community is a source of empowerment for me. Thanks for reading!
Thank you, Laura!
What a wonderful tribute to recovery and everything it means. When I first read that CR had helped Laura to free herself from some of the orthodoxies she’d adopted in the raw and detox communities, I was deeply touched. Raw foodism and veganism (and health consciousness in general) can be a double edged sword for the recovered, triggering certain demons while silencing others, so it makes me glad to hear that my blog can evoke the best of what plant-based eating has to offer those in the recovery community, without inciting the worst. Laura, congratulations on your ongoing discovery of balance. I love sharing our stories with each other!
And now, friends, I’m off to read on my old friend the Bolt Bus. I’ll be in NYC in a mere two hours, and I’ll be dining with Melissa tonight, and I could not possibly be any happier right now.