TRIGGER WARNING! I want to start off by giving a trigger warning. The content of this specific blog includes talk of calories, numbers, deficit, compensatory ED behaviors etc. If these things trigger you please take care of yourself and pass on this weeks blog!
The other day I had a bit of an epiphany.
I worked out earlier in the day and was now standing in front of my pantry looking for a snack.
Then this thought just hit me.
“It’s not literally calories in, calories out......Holy crap (probably not the word crap), I put my body in a scary place.”
You might be asking yourself, what the heck is this girl talking about?!
Let me explain.
(But before I do....I want to give a SECOND warning that I will be talking about restriction, numbers, calories, deficit etc. Please take care of yourself.)
In the depths of my anorexia I took the saying “calories in, calories out” very literally.
I had this rule that I had to work off all the calories I ate. Bonus points in the control column if I worked off even more then I ate. Calories in, extra calories out.
For clarification, I had to exercise off what I ate. Thus the reason I would work out at the gym and then go on a long run that was at least four miles.....daily.
If you look back at my calendar or any piece of paper I wrote on during those years you would see the columns full of numbers counting and counting and counting my calories and subtracting whatever calorie amount my watch said I was burning. It got to the point where I constantly wore a watch and heart monitor around my chest for more calorie accuracy.
This was obsessive, controlling and to be honest, dangerous.
I would start to compete with myself to make sure I burned off MORE than what I was eating, because if burning off what I was eating was good then burning off more then what I was eating had to be better, right?
Fast forward seven years to entering treatment for anorexia and bulimia non-purging (exercise bulimia) and my body was in BAD shape. One run away from a heart attack my doctor said.
As we all know, in treatment and recovery I gained 100 pounds.
That wasn’t fun to say the least.
I have often wondered why that happened. Why did my body feel the need to gain ONE HUNDRED FREAKING POUNDS? Why in recovery was my body SO swollen, in pain and not working right? I mean, recovery is no joke. I’m 38 and have been through a LOT and it is THE hardest thing I have ever done.
I’ve read basically all there is to read on the inter-web, I’ve gone to a gross amount of doctors (John Hopkins and Cleveland Clinic specialists) and asked anyone at my recovery center who had a pulse why my recovery was like this and why the extreme weight gain, swelling and pain was happening.
The answer was always the same. “Sara, your body was in deficit for a very long time and a lot of damage was done. It holds onto and stores up nutrients as fat so that if you choose to go through another famine it will be ready. This takes time, consistency of eating and rest to recover and heal from.”
Ok. Fine. I accept that answer, but THAT much weight and for THIS long?! What gives?
aaannnnndddd then I had my pantry epiphany this week.
“It’s not literally calories in, calories out. Holy crap, I put my body in a scary place.”
What I mean by this is that most days, when I was anorexic, I would burn off the amount of calories I consumed or more. Most of the time that was around 500 calories. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
What I didn’t account for is the amount of calories my body burned if I simply sat around all day and did nothing. (I know, I know. You are probably thinking....umm Sara...are you dumb? Everyone knows the body burns calories even at a resting state! My answer is no, I did not account for this, I suffer from anorexia so calm down judgy-mcjudgerston.)
Are you picking up what I’m putting down here?
If you do a simple google search the average person burns about 1800-2000 calories a day doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.
My mind started reeling when I thought of this.
It’s like a light bulb went off in my head and I immediately understood how bad I had treated my body.
Lets just do the math real quick.
Lets say my body burns 1800 calories in a day doing nothing. So I'm starting out with 1800 calories I can consume to break even in order to not be in deficit.
I then only consume 500 calories.
Now I’m at a deficit of 1300. (-1800+500 = -1300)
I then go to the gym and burn off 700 calories. I am now at a 2000 calorie a day DEFICIT. (-1300 + -700 = -2000)
Some more quick math....
2000 calories every day for 365 days = 730,000 calories deficit a year
730,000 calories a year for 7 years = a 5,110,000 calorie deficit.
5,110,000 CALORIE DEFICIT.*
(Please see my note at the bottom. This is a simple ballpark equation based on an average 1800 calorie burn at rest and some of my worst anorexic days..This is an approximate number. There were days I didn't have a deficit and days I had a small deficit. I go into more detail below as to how I did not die with deficit like this!)
I get it. I get it now.
I get now why I was near death. Why my heart and bowels and organs stopped working right. I understand why I was so thin and cold and my hair was dry and my eyesight got worse and I couldn’t think straight and why I would black out and have sharp chest pains when I would go up stairs or even become the slightest bit upset.
I get now why my body gained 100 pounds.
I get now why recovery has taken seven years so far.
I get now why I was in so much pain, swollen and completely wiped out during recovery. Mentally, physically, emotionally and even spiritually drained.
I almost starved and exercised my body to DEATH.
The average person becomes weak in 30-50 days of no food and can die within 43-70 days.
I mean it when I say this, "It is by the grace of God and God alone that I did not die from anorexia.” Can I get an AMEN?!?!?
Of course these are just quick numbers. It could have been worse or maybe a bit better. Even if I was only 1 million calories and not 5 million, my body was in deficit, extreme deficit.
My body ran on empty for a very long time. It’s like I gave my body just enough gas to tucker by each week and it was only a matter of time before it ran out of gas because it simply just needed more fuel. It slowly burned my fat, then my muscles and then my bones to stay alive. It slowed down my metabolism and started to shut down unnecessary functions (like the female cycle) to conserve energy. My body needed more fuel and I simply wasn't giving it what it needed. Instead, I was taking and taking and taking.
Let me put this another way.
Can you imagine if you piled up 5 million dollars in credit card debt? How about even just 1 million? 500,000? How long would it take for you to fix that? How long would it take to pay it back and dig out of that giant of a hole?
That would be REALLY bad. Like, REALLY, REALLY bad.
My body was millions of calories in deficit. (again, ballpark)
This has given me a very new perspective on my recovery and what it feels like to be given mercy and grace.
I’m lucky I only gained 100 pounds.
I’ve complained for years that recovery is SO long and SO awful and I’m SO fat now.
Dang, I’m lucky to be alive and my poor body is fighting for me and trying to dig out of a huge deficit while I whine about how long it's taking and not being “skinny” in a fat-phobic society.
It makes sense why my first doctor told me it can take the same length of time I was anorexic to recover from anorexia and sometimes longer.
I wanted to recover in a year and barely gain weight. (There is a river in Egypt and it’s called denial....)
Now I’m here, starting year 8 of my recovery. My weight continues to slowly lose the overshoot and get stronger. I am no longer swollen and in extreme pain. I can eat without immediate reflux. I no longer take 800 pills a month. I don’t have to lay down for hours after doing any sort of minimal activity.
I am SO LUCKY that this is where I’m at in just seven years. I have such gratitude to God for plucking me up out of the wilderness that was anorexia and giving me the chance to heal.
It’s all about perspective isn’t it?
Seven years and 100 pounds seems awful, but when I consider the state my body was in when I entered recovery I would almost say I’m something beyond lucky, I’m actually blessed. Can I go so far as to say maybe even a miracle?
It has also given me a new perspective on eating. I suddenly understand why I had to eat and rest so much during re-feeding. I understand now why if I don’t fuel my body enough it stops and hangs onto that overshoot again.
I understand why I feel like garbage when I have those weak moments and restrict.
I understand why my body shut down the ability to have children and why I was diagnosed with the beginning stages of osteoporosis in my spine as well as arthritis when I was only 30 years old. I understand why in recovery my body triggered an auto-immune disorder and doesn’t take certain nutrients correctly.
I didn’t get to be that far in debt only to escape without consequences.
But lets focus on the good! A few long term consequences aside, in seven years of recovery I’m doing pretty dang good!!!
I was given the chance to dig myself out of deficit and heal. I took it. It was hell. It was worth it.
I wouldn't say I'm fully recovered YET, but I'm getting dang close guys! It's like the 5 million is down to it's last couple hundred thousand and I'm hanging in there!!
If you are in recovery right now. If you are gaining and gaining . If you are swollen and in pain. If you don’t know why the heck your body is doing this. If you don't want to follow your meal plan or eat THAT many calories or exchanges. If you feel like you have lost complete control of your body....please remember this... YOU ARE HEALING. Your body is smart and divinely created. It takes time to get out of debt. Eat! Rest! Be kind to yourself and work on your values, worth, faith and thoughts while your body takes this much needed time to store up and heal.
If someone is rude about your weight gain tell them how you are a walking miracle with a second chance at life and a body that is healing and awesome.
Trust me, I understand how embarrassing, horrific and shameful recovery is and feels, BUT, grab that second chance at life. Give yourself time to heal. Dig out of the deficit. Change your perspective. Your body is working FOR you not against you. We are blessed to be able to fix this! Practice self compassion and turn to God for comfort, peace and strength as you daily take on recovery!
* I just want to take a minute to qualify some things here that I think might come up.
1) That much of a calorie deficit is solely based on an 1800 calorie burn of a resting body and the extreme years during my anorexia. I have no idea how many calories total I was actually in deficit. All I can do is look back at how I know I ate and exercised back then. There were days I ate more then 500 calories and days I ate less then that. There are days I didn't workout and days I worked out for three hours. I'm sure there were days where I had no deficit and those are probably the days that kept me alive. The point is that upon entering treatment, there was a deficit and a very large one.
2) You might be thinking, well Sara, if you had that much deficit, how did you not die within forty days. Again, that was just a very black and white equation to show my point. I think we need to remember that our bodies are not that simple. First of all, as I just stated, there are days I ate more and my deficit was maybe only 100 calories not 2000, or I didn't have a deficit and had surplus, but the deficit WAS almost always there and added up. Second, I don't know how but I was eating just enough I guess to keep my body alive...but only for a period of time.
Remember, the last five years of my anorexia were my worst and I would not have survived another one. I was having heart problems. Third, my body did break down slowly. First I lost all my fat. Then I lost all my muscle. Then I started to lose bone density. Then it went after my organs. My period stopped to conserve energy and my heart started to enlarge and overwork, thus the reason people who are anorexic don't die from "calorie deficit" they die from heart attack and organ failure. Also, our bodies are smart. My metabolism slowed down to conserve energy. I'm sure in my later anorexic years my resting calorie burn was not even close to 1800 calories. Last, I was a ticking time bomb. It's why I say it is by the grace of God that I survived what I did. Many don't. I have long term repercussions from this. I can't have children, my bones are like the bones of a 70 year old, most of my teeth are fake, I have celiac and digestive issues to name a few. I was anorexic for about seven years...five of them were very serious. This means that within five years I went from healthy to near death. It's not 40-70 days but again there was some food consumption and that's still a pretty quick decline. I thank God for the days I ate more then I burned in order to keep me alive long enough to get my you know what together and recover.