If you follow my Instagram account you probably know I’ve been dealing with disordered eating for over a year.
When I was in high school, I used to say there was no way I could develop an eating disorder because I loved food so much – but that’s just one of those things people say before they understand what being in a situation is like. Loving food – eating it, preparing it, taking Instagram-worthy pictures of it – wasn’t the stamp of invincibility I thought it was. Eating disorders don’t really care how much you love(d) food.
I plan to write a series of posts about different aspects of my experience with disordered eating because it’s not the kind of thing that you can flesh out well in one post. This week, I want to talk about the role cooking has played in helping me heal and develop healthier strategies around meal planning and eating. I’m choosing to start here because right now a lot of my self-care is centered on being in the kitchen and reconnecting with the love of food I’ve lost.
I had(have) this really intense fear of food. When mealtime approaches, I usually feel one of two things: a need to exercise extreme control and itemize each ingredient’s calories to make sure I’m restricting “properly,” or a need to exercise extreme lack of control and scarf spinach-artichoke dip, a veggie burger, fries, and two desserts in about an hour flat. Either way, I’ve used food as a tool to punish my body – either by depriving it of the nutrients it needed because it didn’t look a certain way or had been “bad” the day before, or by eating myself sick because I had dared to satisfy a craving…because what’s the point of trying to be healthy if you’ve already eaten a few too many fries? I used to keep a calculator on my phone to make sure I didn’t eat more than a certain amount per day, and the second I realized I was going over it (even by as few as five calories), a switch flipped in my brain and I no longer understood the difference between ten calories over my “limit” and one thousand.
A big part of recovery for me has been unpacking the underlying motivations behind the disorder. Surprisingly (or maybe not-so-surprisingly), body image wasn’t really at the top of the list. It was definitely there, but when I thought about what was causing me to stop eating (or eat in gross excess), it mostly came back to a lack of self-compassion and feeling out of control amid so many huge life changes (new rule now that Boyfriend is graduated and we’ve moved into our new place: NO MAJOR LIFE CHANGES, GOOD OR BAD, FOR SIX MONTHS). I realized what an awful job I was doing taking care of myself, and how low self-worth and high anxiety lead me to restrict my diet so I could feel some kind of control or accomplishment and eventually go on huge binges because that’s something that can happen when you’re only eating 1000 or so calories a day.
I remember someone asking me once as I began my recovery process, “do you talk about this at every meal?” I know how hard it is to understand disordered eating when it isn’t specifically affecting you – refer back to high school Katlyn’s “I love food too much” assumption – so I try to limit how much I talk about it because I know it’s exhausting. I know that because I’m living it, and unfortunately I don’t get to decide which meals are going to trigger disordered thoughts or patterns. I can’t always predict when the switch will flip and I’ll go on a binge, and I can’t always be stronger than the voice telling me I need to skip a meal to “make up” for that binge or keep my bloated tummy from “getting worse.” Sometimes, the only thing keeping me grounded is voicing the inner turmoil out loud.
There are lots of tools and strategies I’m employing to get to a healthier place in my life – but like I said, I want to talk about getting back in the kitchen.
It was really scary to cook again after months of telling myself that eating adequately meant I was “weak” or a “failure.” It was scary cooking meals that were healthy but almost half of the caloric intake I “allowed” myself on restricting days. It was scary to approach fear foods like pasta, cheese, chocolate, and wine and use them in recipes that tasted good and nourished my body. It was scary to feel nourished for the first time in almost a year.
I had to be very deliberate with meal planning when I started cooking again. I tried my best to focus on nutrients and setting aside time to eat during the day to ensure I was feeding myself often enough. The first time I brought a full snack to work again was strange because I didn’t feel that mid-morning fogginess – the kind that just didn’t go away with a cup of tea that pretended to fill me up. I constantly fought(fight) the internal beast telling me to “just eat half” of that lunch or calculating the miles I needed to run to “make up for it” when I got home. Sometimes, the internal beast won(wins) – and often those times were(are) what lead to another binge.
There wasn’t one moment when I suddenly enjoyed food again – and I am still fighting with that internal beast during most mealtimes. But she’s quieter now, and the days when I enjoy cooking dinner and packing lunch in the morning are beginning to outnumber the days when nourishing my body makes me feel guilty.
Pushing myself to be in close contact with food again has been one of the most powerful strategies of self-care and healing I have employed. Taking the time on weekends to plan out recipes for the week, taking the time to go grocery shopping (sometimes with Boyfriend if our schedules allow!), and taking the time to prepare meals has helped me reconnect with the love for cooking and meals I once thought would protect me from the struggle I’m going through. At first I wanted nothing more than to be as far away from food – physically and emotionally – as possible. But I am finding that in seeking closeness with the very thing that scares me, I am able to get closer to myself again.
There are still many days when I want to abandon the work of planning meals and cooking to skip a meal or order that specific takeout that I know the exact caloric value of (and that I know will keep me under the calories I’m supposed to have per day that still seems like “too much”). There are still many days when I feel bloated or frustrated that I don’t look a certain way or completely out of control – those are the days when I want to stop eating in controlled defiance or binge eat in reckless defeat. Sometimes, the inner beast wins and I give into self-numbing and self-punishment instead of self-compassion. When I have those days, I work to start fresh the next day with greater compassion and intention. Some days I do that well and some days I need to try again tomorrow.
Lucky for me, tomorrows keep coming and give me another chance to make an enemy a friend again.