Pt. III: Recovery
I last left off at what I would classify as the worst phase of my eating disorder. I was: 25 pounds lighter than I am now, moody, freezing cold, and under a year and a half long spell of amenorrhea. In essence, I felt like sh*t, looked like sh*t, and any other variation of that that you could possibly think of. Something desperately needed to change.
My tipping point:
My cousin, who is the big sister figure in my life, went to study abroad in France for a year and prior to that, I hadn’t seen her for a year as she was off in college. Once she came back, she was instantly invited over to dinner with my uncle (her dad). My mom prepared this rich, delicious eggplant and lamb stew that had a dangerously intoxicating aroma. You bet your sweet tushy that there was smooth, buttery marrow in the lamb bones. Mmm. Accompanying the stew was the usual saffron rice with butter. But today it was different, I was so happy to see my cousin, and for that reason, I think that the excitement and joy I was experiencing flooded my olfactory system and made everything smell and look 100x more delicious — not to say that my mom’s cooking isn’t divine.
During the morning, before my cousin and uncle came over, my mom requested that I bake a cake for dessert. Despite my extremely disordered eating, I adored cooking and baking. Food Network was the ONLY channel I would watch since the 7th grade, still is. It kind of gives you an idea of how dysfunctional my relationship with food was. So, I complied to my mom’s request and baked my specialty: banana cake with banana frosting topped with caramelized walnuts. It might sound like too much banana, but it’s not. It’s perfect. As you may have guessed, I wouldn’t eat my creations; I would simply create food, yearn to eat said food, and then get rid of it by giving it to others. Man, I missed out.
So my cousin and uncle come over for dinner and as everyone is eating, laughing, talking, and relishing in the exquisite dinner my mom has prepared; I am viciously salivating (like Niagara Falls style) as my hunger would gnaw at my innards. I was SO hungry and seeing everyone eat with such zealousness and gusto made me even hungrier. I tried to just eat a little bit of rice and just fill the rest of my plate up with salad but the eggplant was literally singing to me. Just like the Sirens in the Odyssey.
My cousin kept on raving on about how delicious my mom’s cooking was and I was literally becoming psychotic by fighting my thoughts. Somehow, someway, eggplant enrobed in a rich, fatty tomato sauce found its way onto my plate. I took one bite, and my taste buds went wild. Not only that, but I felt awoken by the flavor, the fat, the savoriness, and the joy of eating that gosh darned eggplant. I proceeded to ladle the sauce into a little bowl and began drinking it. While my body was thrilled that it was getting actual sustenance, thanks to the high-quality animal fat infused in the sauce, my psyche was flooding every bit of my brain with deep, rooted-in-your stomach, you-might-throw-up, kind of guilt.
But the food was compulsively delicious.
Then came dessert. I was dreading this moment from the INSTANT my mom requested me to make dessert. I told myself that my steel will power could make it through this. To distract myself from just staring at the cake I decided to serve everybody a slice. I didn’t serve myself as I felt that I had already consumed too many calories at this point. So I sat, and stared.
My cousin takes a bite of my cake and goes on to tell me that this is the “best cake” she has ever tasted. She says to me, “Venus, this is delicious. How did you get it be so moist? I just got back from France and I’ve eaten all these delicious cakes there and this is by far, the best cake I have ever tasted.” I mentally let an “oh sh*t” slip because I knew that I had to bake my cake and eat some too. And just like the eggplant, a slice of my cake found it’s way onto my plate. I took a bite and boy was my cousin right. Gosh I love her for saying all of that. Well that slice disappeared quickly. The sweet, buttery frosting; the moist, spongey, amber-freckled cake; the crunchy, salty, savory caramelized walnuts; had made me its slave. I was pretty much done for. My cousin then proceeded to serve herself another slice, and when in Rome, ya gotta eat another piece of the cake. So I did.
When they left, I had two more slices of cake. It was good.
Well, the guilt I felt for consuming said foods was practically debilitating. I don’t know how I could have ever come off as “normal” in front of others. It surprises me sometimes.
Following that dinner, I could not control my appetite, not like before. I had unknowingly and unwillingly awoken the monster inside of me (also know as your appetite). Often times, I would have difficulty just stopping. I felt like a whirlwind when it came to eating. I would be so desperate to just get out of the house and get AWAY from food that I would run to my mom for comfort and practically beg her to take me out somewhere with her.
School started shortly after this “awakening” and in attempt to ameliorate my out-of-control eating, I joined cross country. I also partially joined cross country because I wanted to be, for once in my life, a part of a “team,” but mostly because I wanted to purge myself of the excess calories I had consumed via exercise. Thanks to the whole bingeing after the aforementioned dinner, I rapidly gained 5 lbs. After the end of the cross country season I had gained another 5 lbs. I was mortified but running 7 miles of hills a day (okay, not maybe ALL hills) makes you RAVENOUS (hehe) which would lead me to binge eat even more. Some days I would drain my will power of whatever it had left and just try to eat a little salad and an apple for a meal. A few hours later, my hunger would take over. After the cross country season was over, I was dead tired; you know, just really worn out from everything: school, running, fighting myself, etc . . . So for about a month after, I didn’t exercise. I just came home everyday and slept. I didn’t eat much either because I was sleeping and so I maintained my weight.
Eventually, I wanted to start exercising again which led me to join a gym. I would eat what I felt like, with food binges often thrown in, and then scurry over to the gym, filled to the brim with remorse, to burn off all of those calories. The stupid crazy workout from before took over once more. Hello exercise bulimia. Fortunately, because I was actually eating, the exercise didn’t feel half bad. It gave me an escape from my horrible food relationship. But other problems persisted, my hormone problems, my poor immune system, my grouchiness, everything.
In this exercise bulimia phase, I had just started going out on dates with this guy. I don’t know what gave me the confidence to even do that. So many times I would talk myself in and out of the plans we had made but in the end, I would go out with him. Good thing I did, he’s my man now :) After officially becoming a couple, we started hanging out a lot more and well, when you’re around someone a lot you kind of have to eat with them. But nooo, not me, I would go the opposite way and say I’m not hungry because I was EMBARRASSED to eat in front of him. You should see me eat with him now . . . or maybe not. Well that whole “I’m not hungry” thing didn’t really work for too long. After dating for a while and constantly hearing the nice things he would say to me, I slowly but surely stopped being so crazy about my food. . . which led me to gain another 5 lbs. At this point, I had gained 15 lbs and would stop stepping on the scale because it would cause me to mentally relapse. You know what’s cool? I can step on the scale now and be totally cool about it. Like a cool cat. It makes me so oddly happy.
As I entered university as a freshman, I had stopped being “crazy” about my food (as in, not eating it), but instead, I had become orthorexic. For those who don’t know, orthorexia is when someone is obsessively consumed by eating ONLY “healthy” foods and usually exercising obsessively. I thought that this was a good place for me; I ate oat bran and squash for breakfast; a coconut butter sandwich on low calorie bread with salad and fruit for lunch; nuts and fruit for a snack; and salad and cooked veggies and some kind of forced-on-me, meat protein prepared by my parents. I still identified as a vegetarian, despite my parents “making” me eat meat at dinner. I’m so grateful they did. In terms of exercise, I was dancing 6x a week and tried to work out on my own but couldn’t really muster up the energy.
By some miracle, I discovered the blog Heather Eats Almond Butter and started reading about how Heather was trying to undo a similar orthorexic mentality that she had obtained through losing weight, it slowly dawned on me that orthorexia wasn’t helping me either. I was just as unhealthily obsessed with food as before!
Heather’s blog led me to various other blogs, some of which discussed the Paleo lifestyle. For those of you who don’t know, the Paleo diet allows one to eat meat (of all kinds), nuts, vegetables, fruits, and sometimes, high-quality, raw dairy. Beans, grains, commercial vegetable oils (canola, soy, corn), and low-quality dairy are all excluded from the diet. What you’ll often see in the “Paleosphere” is that coconut is a popular food item. It’s full of incredibly beneficial fats which the Paleo diet advocates eating much more of than the Standard American Diet. Having this exposure from Paleo blogs and Heather Eats Almond Butter and learning about the benefits of consuming more fat in the diet, slowly guided me away from lipo-phobia a.k.a. my fear of fats. I was still a vegetarian, but more and more I was becoming convinced that I do, in fact, need meat to achieve optimal health. My boyfriend also played a big role in this as he would mention how crappy he felt when he experimented with vegetarianism (this was his way of pushing me to over to meat consumption). Paleo blogs also exposed me to organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, humane meat. Prior to that, I didn’t really have a notion that meat consumption could be ethical and humane. Gaining knowledge of ethical meat consumption had to have been the biggest factor in convincing me to even consider becoming an omnivore again.
In the time that I was contemplating consuming meat on own my account again, I adopted a Paleo-vegetarian diet. Cutting out grains caused me to consume a lot more eggs which was awesome because I was still lacking animal sources of protein and their respective nutrients (that I desperately needed) in my diet. My digestion got a lot better which told me that oat bran and bread wasn’t really working out for my poor gut. As you can imagine, I started to get sick of eggs, and reading all of these Paleo recipes made me crave meat even more.
With the new year of 2012, I officially declared myself to be a vegetarian no more! That was my new year resolution, and a good one at that :) That being said, I ate meat like there was no tomorrow. I became a carnivore with a vengeance. It seemed like I was still hungry for nourishment that I had lacked in the five and a half years of my vegetarianism/disordered eating. Guess what happened? I grew a half an inch, I stopped being freezing cold, my moods normalized (not alllll the way, but a lot more), my hormones balanced themselves (not completely, but a TON), and I was actually enjoying my meals and having a healthier relationship with food. This caused me to gain another five lbs. But for some reason, it didn’t bother me as much. I knew that I needed to re-nourish myself, get healthy, normalize my hormones, and fill up my nutrient stores before I could even consider fretting over weight loss.
I’ve continued this way of eating but I’m somewhere more along the lines of gluten-free and dairy-free eating rather than just straight-up Paleo. I do gluten free simply because it doesn’t agree with me, and that’s fine because I can eat rice and injera and other cool gluten-free grains/grain products. The dairy-free thing is actually a recent thing, as I’m attempting to optimize my hormonal health. I’m experimenting with dairy elimination as dairy can be laden with both naturally and unnaturally occurring hormones. Despite those two dietary eliminations, I eat whatever I please, when I please. However, I do NOT eat just any crap handed to me. I make sure my ingredients are as wholesome as can be; I owe it to myself. I think we can all mutually agree that red dye #40, aspartame, pesticides and like are not good for our health. Based on what I have available, I like to reach for grass-fed, pasture-raised meats; wild seafood; organic produce; nuts; and properly prepared gluten-free grains. I don’t eliminate any particular food unless if it make me feel crummy, sensible logic, right?
My exercise style has definitely changed too; I no longer exercise with the motive to burn calories, lose weight, and look like death. I exercise to gain strength and flexibility (and a bit of muscle, while we’re at it). I pass at the torturous multiple-hour workouts on the treadmill and opt for one that’s a maximum of a one and a half hours. My workouts now consist of kettle bell swings, ballet barre workout (which I teach), yoga (it is incredibly healing for me, in every way possible), and falling in and out of my newly discovered skill: headstands. I love flexibility work so I definitely take my sweet time when it comes to stretching. It’s very soothing for me as it lets me check in on my body and notice various changes and needs within my muscles and joints. It’s great for body awareness, which quite frankly, I believe is a skill that all of us need to develop and refine. Dancing, which I have now been doing for 5 years, holds a very special place in my heart and I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as working out as it is an incredibly technical fine art. Unfortunately, I must take a break from dance this semester as I have such a high unit load and simply cannot fathom both the time and financial commitment of dance. It’s a bummer but I think it’s better to keep dance as something I love rather than morph it into a potential stressor.
No, not everything is perfect in terms of my health, but I think I’m damn well near it. I love listening to my body’s needs. I love eating delicious, wholesome, soul and cell nourishing foods. I love exercising because I want to. I love feeling strong. I love the empowerment that I have now gained. I love it all.
Some people may ask why I chose to post my journey to eating real food as it was chockfull with personal, hard to talk about, personal problems. It was incredibly hard to write this, put it on display for all to see, and just wait for a response. Absolutely terrifying. But the response that I have gotten has made me so happy that I chose to write this series. So many of my former classmates have contacted me, thanking me for writing these posts and that has meant the world to me. I want everyone to know that no matter where you are in terms of your health, you can recover. You are not your health issues, you are not your eating disorder, you are much greater than your health issues.
You define you.
A few of my followers had questions regarding my real food journey, here are a few:
1.) How do you choose your meat?
A) Ideally, I go for organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, local meat. For seafood, I opt for sustainably harvested and wild raised. My family tends to buy meat at Whole Foods and we will buy whatever fits our criteria and is on special. Sometimes, we will buy ground beef from Organic Pastures at the Campbell Farmers Market. We will buy some of our meat at Costco as they’ve been bringing in grass-fed and organic options lately. When I move out for grad school, I plan on ordering meat in bulk from local farmers. It’s much cheaper in the long run and it’s some good quality stuff!
2.) How did you overcome your morality issues?
This is a whole post in itself which I do plan to write sometime in the future! But here’s a short version: I read the book The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Kieth. The author used to be a vegan for over TWENTY years. She discusses how vegetarianism does not fix any issues, whether they be moral, political, or health related. I also read the book Deep Nutrition by Dr. Cate Shanahan (MD) where she discusses the importance of animal products in the diet and uses cultures world-wide to support her statement.
3.) What were the differences you noticed when you began eating meat and quit soy?
I quit eating soy my senior year of high school when I started learning about how detrimental it can be to hormone health. Problem was, I didn’t really replace it with any viable protein source until I converted back to vegetarianism. While eating eggs and dairy as my protein sources, I still felt incredibly lethargic and dealt with lots of physiological and emotional issues. When I started eating meat, I felt amazing. I no longer needed to nap for hours every day. I didn’t feel hungry and freezing cold all of the time. My hormones started normalizing and because of that, I wasn’t nearly as moody as before. I also slept better, gained muscle much easier, became stronger, and retained information much more easily as well.
4.) What do you eat when you go to your mother-in-law’s?
This question makes me giggle a bit. I’m not married; I’m only 20 years old (to me that’s still baby age), but I do have a very handsome boyfriend ;) Whenever I’m over for dinner at his parents’ house, I eat whatever they make and avoid my problem foods (bread/gluten/dairy). Because his family is of the same ethnicity as me, they tend to eat fairly similar foods as my family. I’m lucky because our families eat fairly similarly, with the only exception being that we tend to eat a lot more fatty meat cuts at our house, but that’s not a big deal at all :) I’m also super lucky because his parents are great cooks!
Me now, happy as a clam :)