ED (my eating disorder) and I were old friends, if you even choose to call him that. I hadn’t heard from him for quite a while, other than a sporadic hello or an unwarranted knock on my door, so it was to my complete surprise when he invited himself to our family brunch this past Monday morning – unannounced and most certainly unwelcome.
I can’t even tell you the last time I felt a ping of food-related guilt, until yesterday. It had been months since any feelings of regret or anxiety came to the surface during mealtime, and I was beyond proud of myself for how far I had come. In fact, I had almost forgotten what it felt like to walk into a restaurant, open the menu, and hear 2 opposing voices in my fragile head demanding my adherence. It had been so long since I heard ED’s demands, and I was hoping it would stay that way for quite some time.
Throughout my recovery, I’ve learned that progress is most certainly not linear. It is not a straight line up, or even a straight line in any direction. Recovery is filled with loops, circles, reverse arrows, and every single bump you can imagine. It’s hard for most people to understand this concept, because as a gal who proudly publicizes a full recovery from her eating disorder, I often get questioned as to why I still hear ED’s voice every now and again.
So before I begin talking about my recent breakfast date with ED, let me clarify that full recovery does not mean that I don’t ever hear ED anymore – full recovery is rather having the ability to hear his ruthless commands, but not give in to them. It is the strength to face my demon head on, and still walk away victorious. It is being able to now stand tall when for so many years all I could do was crumble.
So let me set the scene. I am on spring break in beautiful Marco Island, Florida. I have spent the past 3 days baking my pale winter skin on the sunny beach, sipping on ice-cold mojitos, and treating myself to a daily ice cream cone or slice of peanut butter pie. I am livin and LOVING this freedom. I am exercising as I want to, sleeping in as I please, and enjoying every precious moment I have with my family. And most importantly, ED was nowhere to be found.
Now, on our final day in the sunshine state, we decide to hit up my favorite brunch spot on the island. I woke up drooling over the pancakes and eggs I was about to feast on. I was so relieved to know that I no longer needed to earn my food, or validate a “cheat meal” by telling myself that I would compensate for it later. Since reaching recovery, my brain just didn’t think that way anymore (instead, all food was now seen equally as fuel and nourishment), and that within itself was the biggest blessing.
We pull up to the restaurant and the line is out the door, which typically doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but today it instantly threw me off. I didn’t want to wait because I could begin to hear ED whispering in my ear, “make sure you choose the right meal this morning.” The longer I had to wait for our table, the more time ED had to hound me with his demands. As I stood and stared at the menu, his voice got louder. My hunger cues were overpowered, and I was no longer looking at the menu through fully recovered eyes, but rather through eyes that were clouded by his rules.
I narrowed the menu down to 3 potential choices, but none seemed to satisfy my demon. No matter what I suggested to him, there was always something that needed to be tweaked or changed before it was “acceptable.” I knew deep down that my body wanted a combination of sweet and savory, just as it always does for breakfast, but for the first time in a long time, ED wasn’t allowing it.
“You cannot order two meals, Hannah. That’s disgusting. You can either pick the eggs or the pancakes, but not both.”
“If you order the pancakes AND you eat the toast and hash browns, you will have to restrict your carb intake for the rest of the day to compensate for it.”
“If you just get a traditional omelet, I’ll leave you alone. But don’t eat the sides that come with it.”
“You’ve already eaten a lot this weekend, why don’t you substitute the eggs for egg whites. Save yourself some calories.”
So now imagine trying to sort through these thoughts, while holding a conversation, while trying to not look like you’re a crazy person. I’ll be the first to tell you, it’s even harder than it sounds. And to add to the fun, ED decided to use all of the people in the room as sources of comparison. I was now comparing myself to every man and woman in my line of vision, making sure that I would order a meal smaller, or less calorically dense, than they did.
And now the moment we’ve all been waiting for…the waitress arrives. I demand that the rest of my family orders first, giving myself a few extra moments to breathe, but before I know it the waitress is positioned toward me with her pen in hand. “And what would you like this morning?”
So I visibly take a deep breath (and then one more for good measure), close my menu, and look up. For anyone who has never experienced an eating disorder, you may be thinking I am the most dramatic human being to ever walk this planet.
“Just order the damn pancakes, Hannah.”
Believe me, I would be thinking the same thing if I were you. You may not understand why such a simple skill of decision-making was so difficult for me. You may not be able to fathom hearing 2 opposing voices in your head. And that’s okay.
To try to clarify, think of it in these simplified terms: you’re torn between going to your best friend’s party to celebrate her acceptance into her dream graduate program or your mom’s 50th birthday party. You fear that regardless of where you go, you will feel guilty for letting the other one down. And on top of that, you fear that you’ll regret your choice, regardless of which one you make, because the grass is always greener on the other side. You’ll weigh the pros and cons of each situation a million times over, making sure you’ve accounted for every aspect of the two parties. You will lie awake every night for a week straight feeling like you cannot possibly please everyone. Your best friend tells you that she will be disappointed if you don’t show, and your mom tells you that you will break her heart if you aren’t there to celebrate. You wish you could just disappear and fly under the radar for a little while to escape making the final decision, but that’s not reality. By the time the day comes to actually make your decision, your brain is fried and you're absolutely exhausted.
So now, let’s bring it back to the pancakes and expedite the process. All within a matter of 60 minutes, I went through this entire debacle in my mind and became tragically afraid of the guilt and regret I would feel for listening to my cravings, but I was even more afraid of the disappointment I would feel in myself for listening to ED. I was torn between a rock and a hard place, neither option seeming better than the prior. I wanted to either scream or run away, or scream AND run away. I was exhausted from the back and forth, and just wanted to walk out of that restaurant and try again another day.
But guess what? By some work of God, I found my strength right in the knick of time. I opened my mouth, and before even realizing what was coming out, I ordered exactly what my body was begging me to get.
“Can I have two meals please? I’d like the scrambled eggs with toast and home fries, and then a short stack of your pancakes topped with strawberries and powdered sugar.”
Woah…where did that come from?
So now the hard work was done, but what I wasn’t expecting was for the food to take about an hour to get back to our table. From the time I courageously opened my mouth to the time my plates circled back, ED got nasty. He was pissed that I went against his rules. He was screaming louder than I had heard him scream in years. He told me that I needed to ask for the car keys, take myself home, and call it quits. He demanded that there would be no breakfast for me today. I broke the rules, and now I would be punished.
But I decide to stay, and stand my ground. I had made it this far, and now I wasn’t going down without a fight. As my two plates get placed in front of me, ED tries to compromise. “If you eat all of this, you’ll just have to skip lunch and dinner and then I’ll leave you alone.” His deal sounded promising, because I wanted nothing more than to dive face first into those syrupy pancakes and then just restrict for the rest of the afternoon, but I knew deep down that taking ED’s bait had never solved anything in the past, so why would that change this time?
So, do you know what I did? I picked up my fork…and I ate. I ate to a level of comfortable fullness, satisfied my cravings, went heavy on the butter and syrup, and smiled pretty damn big the entire time. And no, I wasn’t eating because I knew that I could compensate for it later. I was eating because I knew that one meal couldn’t hurt me, change me, or make me blow up like a birthday balloon. I knew that I could trust my body, listen to its signals, and remain on the right track. I knew that one big brunch every now and again was 1000% okay to do. I knew that spring break was a time for me to enjoy, relax, and unwind. I knew that pancakes were so damn good, and that a giant pool of sugary syrup was an absolute must. And I knew that I was lucky to be at breakfast with my beautiful family.
No matter how hard he tried to convince me otherwise, I knew that ED held no power over me anymore. I am recovered. I am in control.
As the waitress cleared my plates, I felt a sense of empowerment I haven’t felt in quite a while. It’s not the same empowerment you feel after getting an A on your paper or crushing a killer workout – it’s a sense of strength, pride, and relief that reminds you just how capable you are. It’s a feeling I had taken for granted throughout these past few months, and although I am pissed ED felt that my spring break was the best time to come visit, I am grateful beyond words that he did.