by Susanna Lancaster
2016 was both a difficult year and a wonderful one. This is the year that I learned how to do one of the hardest things a person with an eating disorder can do: eat. After I first ended the PHP program I was in, I religiously stuck to my meal plans, took photos of my meals for my dietician, and learned how to tell others what I needed and what triggered me. I was doing well for sure, but when my lunch plan changed one day at work, I found myself debating if I was going to eat. Going to a restaurant alone to order food was something I had hardly done before. Figuring out a new meal idea and seeing the calories posted beside each item was scary and caused me to worry to the point of crying, breaking out in hives, and wasting half my lunch hour sitting in the car fretting about what to do. Despite this, my recovery won the battle that day. I ate every bite of my sandwich, and my relationship with food shifted in a way it had never before, even during the weeks spent in treatment. It was the day I discovered the most important thing my disorder had taken from me: joy. As the New Year approaches, we hear lots and lots of diet-related talk that is often negative and triggering. Someone recently asked me what my goal is with all my meal plans, and I’m glad he did because my answer was simple, yet surprising to me. I immediately said I wanted to be healthy. I said I wanted to live. I reflected a lot more on this year and how far I’ve come in recovery. Here are five ways that I have learned to find joy in food.
1) My plate is the most important before and after. Like most illnesses, the first noticeable changes that become apparent to others when someone recovers from an eating disorder is appearance. This can bring about good comments or triggering ones, but either way, I’ve noticed that most people believe that those with an eating disorder are recovered once a lot of these physical changes occur. Sadly, this isn’t always true. Looking back at photos of myself last year in comparison to now shows changes in my complexion, hair, and even my eyes—changes that aren’t even all weight related. The difference is sometimes startling. There are days when my whole life seems as if it could be a before and after picture. Yet, this particular day I sat struggling over a sandwich was the day I learned that the only before and after picture that truly matters for me isn’t of myself. It’s of my plate. Though my appearance had changed, my fear of food hadn’t disappeared, and the disorder was still strong. However, I can look at hundreds of meal photos stored in my phone that were taken for my dietician, and knowing the unique struggles behind each one indicate on a much higher level how far I’ve come along. Despite how strong the ED voice may have been at the moment, what kind of triggering comments were made to me, or how busy I was, I still ate. Recovery still won. Eating is becoming less of a rigid meal plan that I’m forcing myself to do and instead something that is natural and enjoyable.
2) I love to celebrate my victories. Let’s face it. Eating disorders are hard to defeat. There are times when I feel amazing and am excited about the changes I’ve experienced. Then there are moments or days when I think I’m about to relapse and wonder how I can keep doing well. There are many ups and downs. I’ve learned that’s okay and it’s normal. I’ve also learned to celebrate my victories by treating myself to a new book, going to one of my favorite stores, watching a good movie, or planning something fun on the weekend. It doesn’t have to be a big or expensive treat, but recognizing progress is vital in continuing to progress. Looking back on this year and remembering the times when my body violently rejected food after eating it; the meals where I cried or felt guilty; the lunches I only managed to consume because I called my fiancé and he talked to me the entire time; the times I ate something that had once been a big fear food—I see how each and every single victory is precious. In fact, I wish I could list “eating disorder survivor” on my resume because if anyone understands how consuming these disorders are, he or she will know that anyone who has survived one is capable of doing anything.
3) I deserve to eat and enjoy it. This may seem so plain and simple, yet it’s taken me forever to recognize. I still struggle daily with feelings of guilt when I eat, especially whenever I eat a fear food in the middle of the day. But as the months since treatment have passed, the thought that I don’t deserve to eat or shouldn’t be eating is becoming more distant. When I have these negative thoughts, I try to answer them with a question. Why do I not deserve to eat? Why shouldn’t I enjoy my lunch, the same as everyone else? What harm is going to come from eating this sandwich? Better yet, I often question what will happen if I skip a meal. Is anything good going to come from not eating? Will my family or friends love me more if I’m two pounds lighter next week? If I skip eating, will I have the energy to get through this day? Is there anything wrong with enjoying the way something tastes? Learning how to separate feelings and stressful situations from food is hard, but asking myself these types of questions makes things more logical and lets me realize how much I need to eat, even when my ED voice tells me not to.
4) I am my most important dinner guest. One night after work, I was sad to find myself alone for dinner. Treatment had ended, and I desperately needed encouragement and motivation. I was just going to skip dinner, but I decided that I needed to at least try. I began by asking myself what would I make if I had others over for dinner? What might I use as my table centerpiece? I realized that there are times when we need to be our own most important guests. For some reason, it’s sometimes easier to give to others and not ourselves. The part of me that had been missing out on food for so long deserved to have a nice meal, and I prepared one and was kind to myself.
5) Meals should always be fun. One thing that has helped me in recovery so far is to make meals as fun and pleasant as possible. Avoiding negative conversations and stressful topics, especially if they deal with diets or exercise, is ideal. Using cute, colorful plates and bowls, napkins with patterns or characters on them, crazy straws in drinks, and even silverware with encouraging messages or designs makes me look forward to meal times more, particularly if I know I’m eating alone. Placing my lunches in colorful, happy lunch bags and containers, keeping fresh flowers on the table, and even writing a friendly reminder or quote to myself are all ways that meals are more fun than before. Planning meals with family and friends as much as possible has also been a huge aid in recovery. It not only eases my anxiety with food, but it makes me excited that I don’t have to let this disorder isolate me anymore.