I am a pretty black and white thinker. I also struggle with the desire to be perfect. Those two things combined don’t really leave room for error, self compassion or flexibility. A lot of people struggle with these things, but from what I know, people with eating disorders struggle deeply with these things. It’s an all or nothing mentality.
One of the things that a lot of people don’t know about eating disorders is that it’s like being in a mental prison. The stakes of every decision are VERY high. This often leads us to have high levels of anxiety and stress. The way we deal with this anxiety and stress is…ding ding ding, you got it, our eating disorder behaviors (1). These tend to happen without any thought. I have a stressful day, I then restrict. I don’t say to myself, “I think I won’t eat today because I’m stressed.” It just happens. It’s my automatic way of dealing with a difficult issue. With the grey areas in life that I can't seem to handle.
In recovery it is important to explore this grey area, or as my therapist calls it, the middle path. Without it I get stuck in the all or nothing type of thinking which almost always leads me to anxiety, stress and eating disorder behaviors. The ultimate goal is to open my mind up to a new way of thinking and stop getting caught up in the perfectionism of the black and white. For example, when I am told I can work out again, but only for three hours a week, my all or nothing mind goes straight to thinking that I must do all three hours. If I only do two, I am bad and if I do three I am good. So if I have a busy week, or I’m not feeling well, it doesn’t matter because I have to do the full three hours. I must be perfect. Doing it all is good, doing less then it all is bad. Black and white. All or nothing. Perfect. If I don’t do all three hours I get stressed and anxious. This anxiety and stress needs to be remedied, because I can’t listen to the thoughts all day about how bad I am. Since I suffer from anorexia the way I automatically remedy this is to not eat. There is a lot of science behind why this happens, but it pretty much sums up to, not eating makes me feel better. It alleviates the feelings that I’m bad. It gives me back control of at least SOMETHING. It literally gives relief. SO, when I try to remove the eating disorder from my life, I’m stuck with all the bad feelings and find myself desperately funneling through my toolbox of healthier ways to deal with them.
One way to alleviate these things so I don’t turn to the Eating Disorder is to find the middle path. Finding the middle path takes compassion. It takes slowing down. It takes searching for the facts and checking the emotion at the door. The middle path doesn’t make everything sunshine and rainbows, but it does keep it all from spiraling down the dark path of an eating disorder. The faster I can remember to search for the middle path, the smoother life seems to go. It keeps my emotions from being all over the place and my mind from racing around and around.
Often I will find myself in a therapy session, going on and on about how I have this certain problem. I’ll share last weeks! I’m entering my busy season of work. As a photographer my schedule is very random and lots of weekends. In the fall it becomes INSANE. Everyone wants a photo shoot with the beautiful fall colors and they want it in November because that leaves enough time to order Christmas cards. I go from doing a few shoots a week or a wedding, to two shoots almost every single day and on the weekends. Someone might say, yay, your business is doing great! This is true. God is blessing my business ten fold! However, there is a lot more to this picture then meets the eye.
First of all, my body is not healthy. I was sedentary for over a year and then broke my ankle on top of that. I have very little muscle and am a lot heavier. Photo shoots are physically taxing. I feel like I’m doing 1000 squats a day and my arms feel like jello from holding up a large camera and lens. This is a great workout, except when you have no muscle it is actually a very painful workout. It’s basically like I am all of a sudden doing two-a-days and my body is screaming WHAT THE HECK?! It makes me hungrier, which makes my eating disorder angrier which makes fighting the eating disorder harder and more exhausting. Then I have to actually edit the shoots, so it is hours of sitting in front of a computer, with legs that continue to swell as my body heals.
Second of all, I don’t only work. I am still in treatment. So I go to a dietician and therapist every week. Each week I am working on new challenges or dealing with some new body image issue or why I won’t eat Mexican twice in one week because of a stupid food rule. This stuff takes mental energy and time. I also am doing a bible study one night a week and I lead a youth bible study another night during the week.
On top of all of this I have a phone alarm going off every hour to remind me to be mindful of my hunger. I am trying to train myself to know when I’m hungry (a blog post for another time) so I have to stop every hour and check how my body is feeling. If I don’t do this, I will go most of the day without eating and my body doesn’t really send me the cues that this is a problem (consequence of anorexia). I HAVE to eat because I want to recover and my body needs to heal.
After all this there is going to church, going to my recovery group, dealing with personal issues, making dinner, walking the dog, grocery shopping and making sure my house doesn’t look like a disgusting disaster.
Now, I know that there are people out there with a LOT more on their plate then me, so I’m not complaining, I’m just sharing that I’m a bit overwhelmed. This all leads to anxiety and stress. I feel like I have to do all of this, by myself, and perfectly. Which ultimately, for me, leads to the eating disorder taking over.
This is about the time that my therapist will say, “Sounds like you have a lot on your plate, it’s overwhelming, and will be hard. How can we find the middle path so that you don’t get drained and leave room for your Eating Disorder to sneak back in and take over?”
I don’t know why but my brain never thinks to find the middle path. It goes straight to, I just need to do it all and do it perfect, or, I’m a failure, defeated and should hide, or even, if my body was thin and back to normal, all this would be great and not a problem so lets skip lunch. LIES! So with the help of my therapist I find the middle path.
Here is what the middle path looks like for me in this situation.
-How can I cope ahead? Can I plan my photo shoot strategically so I don’t have to squat as much? Can I get up every twenty minutes while I’m editing to walk and get my leg swelling down? Can I set a timer for meals so I don’t forget to eat?
-I will ask for help. GASP! I am one of the most independent people I know. Asking for help is like saying the F word to me, but alas, I need to find that middle path so I don’t break down. I ask my husband if he can do the grocery shopping this week. I let him know I need him home to walk the dog for the next four days because my body will be exhausted or I’m at a shoot.
-I practice self compassion. I’m always so nice to everyone else when they have are having a hard week, so it’s about time I do it for myself. I can tell myself, “This is hard, I know you are sore and tired, and you are killing it! Keep going! Take a moment for yourself and then move forward!” Instead of becoming upset that I didn’t finish all my bible study questions, I will go to bible study because I know I won’t be sent to hell because I didn’t do four of the questions. Plus, the fellowship gives me some awesome human interaction!
-I practice mindfulness. I try to be mindful of how I’m feeling and not overdo it. Instead of editing until 10:30pm, I can acknowledge I’m tired and say it’s time to go to bed. This way I’m refreshed and ready for the next day and not wasting away and drowning in exhaustion.
-I can acknowledge my eating disorder thoughts and put them on the shelf. I have a constant run of E.D. thoughts going on in my head. Sometimes its ok to just say, “Yep, I hear that E.D. telling me Doritos are “bad,” and I’m hungry and this is what I have so I’m going to eat it any way.” Instead of pushing all though thoughts down until the explode, I acknowledge them and move on.
-REST! This one is hard because I always like to go go go, but in order for my body to be able to handle this amount of work, I must rest. If it means someone gets there photos Thursday instead of Wednesday because I need to lay down and re-charge, so be it.
-I choose to only think about today. If I start thinking about the entire week I get overwhelmed VERY fast and the all or nothing thoughts stampede. The middle path is knowing I have a lot to do, but truly taking it one day at a time. It slows me down. It shortens my list. The night before when I go to bed, I write down what needs to be done the following day. When I wake up, I only do the things for that day. Tomorrow will take care of itself! (Thanks for that bit of wisdom God!!)
-I practice self care. I don’t have time to go get a massage, but maybe I can blast some awesome music while I edit so I feel some joy! If I find a spare thirty minutes, I can lay down and rest instead of vacuuming the rug that no one is coming over to see. I eat! I need the fuel to keep going, so I look at food in a way that it takes care of me.
-I set boundaries. I decide that I can’t take on anything more and it is ok to say no. This is hard for me to do. I hate saying no to people as much as I hate asking for help from people. But, if my goal is to respect myself and not get overwhelmed, then saying no is just what has to happen, as disappointing as it is.
-Last, I give it up to God. Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” I need some of that! When I find myself stressed, I ask God to help guard my mind from my eating disorder. It works. Not kidding!
This middle path brainstorming with my therapists set me up for a successful week! Now that the week I was worried about is almost over I find myself coming out of it, not as stressed. I'm in pain, but not as bad as it could have been. I had eating disorder thoughts but they didn't turn into behaviors. My eating disorder didn’t win.
Sometimes I think, I will NEVER have my body back because I feel so out of shape now. This isn’t working, I should just go back to cutting out carbs. I will be fat forever. This all or nothing type of thinking gets me stuck. The middle path looks more like, I will get my body back, but it will take time. During that time I need to eat healthy and enough because that is what the doctors say works. I can acknowledge how hard it is to be this heavy and uncomfortable, and it isn’t forever. So keep going.
Finding the middle path removes the rigidness of the all or nothing mindset and instead gives space to live a bit more freely and peacefully. I always think there are only two ways to deal with things in life, when in actuality, there are a lot more.
I hope you can find the middle path if you are overwhelmed or struggling this week!
- Sara -
1 - Eating Disorder Behaviors are behaviors that a person with an eating disorder do to maintain or appease the eating disorder. For example, restricting, binging, purging, self harm, excessive exercise, food rituals, food rules etc.