Mental Illness

Eating After Eating Disorder

Trigger warning for frank discussion of food issues and eating disorders.

Recently I read an article listing common eating disorder symptoms that tend to linger long after the major issues are conquered. It really struck a nerve. My major lingering personal hurdle? Juice.

I know, right? Juice. Juice is good for you! Juice is delicious! Juice is like water, but better! I think so, too, but even after I convinced myself that eating a whole pizza won’t make me feel better about my life, nor will waiting three days before eating after that “just to see if I can,” I still have a hard time with juice. My standard beverage is about an inch and a half deep of juice in a glass, and the rest seltzer. When I run out of seltzer, I stare long and hard at the juice bottle explaining patiently to the crazypants part of my brain that it is juice, but some things simply refuse to go away.

Eating disorder recovery is special kind of torturous labyrinth. It’s not easy, but people give up cigarettes, people give up alcohol, they give up porn, but you can’t give up eating – trying that is likely what landed you here in the first place, yes? Everyone’s recovery is different, and it’s common while trying to recover from one disorder to slip into a different kind. It’s a difficult thing to do, and what really sucks is that the work never, ever ends.

It’s pretty common knowledge that “you never fully recover” from an ED, but what that entails is of course variable from person to person. My eating disorder was largely symptomatic of my struggles with depression and anxiety, and I tend to downplay it to myself as just a phase of my life and not that big a deal. Unscientific polling of other recovered EDers suggests that this kind of thinking is pretty common. Unscientific hypothesizing on my part suggests that after telling yourself every day that it’s no big deal if you wait another three hours and another three hours to have a bagel is not too far a jump from telling yourself that your painful life experiences are no big deal.

I think one of the most important things that people recovering from eating disorders have to face is this kind of thinking. The kind that says, “No, accomplishing things/doing other people favors/engaging in various avoidance behaviors is more important than taking care of myself.” This is especially challenging if you’re still struggling with depression. Eating mindfully requires energy, and it’s tough to expend energy on yourself when you’ve placed yourself at the bottom of your priority list and life saps what you have before you get there.

It’s also tempting to slip back into disordered patterns when you’re under stress or anxiety, which can be frustrating for both the disordered and rational parts of your brain. I can’t count the number of times a day I have conversations with myself that go, “I have to write a paper later and I don’t have a thesis, so no, I can’t have that free doughnut.”

“That doesn’t make any sense, Crazy Brain.”


My trick, if I have one, is to listen to both sides. Recognize the signs of the downward spiral from the first, and counter strongly with the second. I make deals with myself, offering a slice of pizza and a cookie as an alternative to a binge on a whole pizza, or suggesting that if I don’t feel comfortable having a doughnut right at that moment that’s fine, but I have to have a real meal after class.

The best step I’ve taken in learning to eat after an eating disorder is to fully acknowledge that these daily battles are a part of my life, something about which I have to be constantly vigilant. (I’m Mad Eye Moody with a hip flask full of seltzer.) As a result, I’ve gotten ever so slightly better at communicating about my food issues with the people in my life so that they can help me take care of myself.

Life still throws curve balls. They’ve started putting the calorie count of just about everything on menu boards, which – while I understand the intent – is extremely obnoxious. However, things have improved steadily over time. I recently reintroduced salad dressings to my diet. Who knew that even iceberg lettuce could taste delicious? All you have to do is dump some delicious stuff on it! This year I’ve started making tuna salad sandwiches with mayo again. Someday, maybe even someday soon, I won’t think twice about a full glass of juice.

(Image via acvphotography Flickr)

By (e)Kelsium

Kelsium lives in Southern California with her partner and collection of almost (almost!) kill-proof plants. She enjoys the beaches, but finds the lack of acceptable bagels distressing. She considers herself an expert in red lipstick and internet rage.

20 replies on “Eating After Eating Disorder”

This is a really amazing and thoughtful post. It may be the first time I really related to an ED post.
It’s nearing on 5 years since my hospitalization, and I’ve been evaluating myself lately. There have been some ups and downs. BUT I no longer use alcohol has a crutch (which happened approximately 2 years after the hospitalization); I am learning how to cook (badly, but edible); and best of all, I’m responding to what my body needs. I still do not use any kind of dressing for my foods though.

Thanks for this. I am in recovery and I made the crazy decision to become a therapist working with inpatient ED clients 2.5 years ago. Half of the time I love it and half of the time I feel like it is keeping my disease alive and thriving in the dark corners of my crazy brain. The other day I ate a hotdog and obsessed about it for HOURS. I don’t know why, honestly, because I have eaten several hotdogs without obsessing. For some reason, on that day, I didn’t feel like I was “allowed” to eat it. Sometimes it seems that just speaking the crazy thoughts out loud to someone can help, so I still see a therapist weekly and try to talk to my bf about this stuff whenever I can.

Do your clients know you’re still struggling? Were I in your shoes I’d be as troubled by the broader ethical issues as I’d be any ‘feeding my own ED’ concerns.

That aside, though, you’re one courageous creature. I’m not sure I could handle a work environment where body / eating issues were always–no pun intended–on the table. I like being able to at least pretend a world exists in which self-image and diet are utter non-issues.

Kelsium, I can’t thank you enough for this piece. This bit in particular spoke to me:

I think one of the most important things that people recovering from eating disorders have to face is this kind of thinking. The kind that says, “No, accomplishing things/doing other people favors/engaging in various avoidance behaviors is more important than taking care of myself.” This is especially challenging if you’re still struggling with depression.

This is the hardest part of recovery for me: not only remembering to prioritize myself but also to begin to recognize that I have to start rethinking how I conceive of self-care. Some of the mechanisms you’ve described are really terrific. I truly respect the way you approach your recovery. I am inspired!

Thank you for this post. It’s hard to explain why some foods seem worse than others, as though sausage is worse for me than pepperoni. My biggest thing is any beverage with carbonation: beer, soda, champagne, you name it. I tell people that it makes me feel sick, but I think it’s leftover thinking from my days of disordered eating. It’s slowly getting better, and it’s good to know that other people can understand.

I’m in my mid30s, but have been dealing with ED on varying levels since my teens. Even though I’ve been doing pretty well for the past couple of years, I still consider myself a recovering disordered eater – it’s so easy to fall back into those behaviors that I have to monitor myself.

My problem was always dinner. Even at my worst, I always ate something for breakfast (b/c breaky is the most important meal of the day, right? And if I eat that meal, I don’t have a problem, right?). But, dinner was always an exercise in eating just enough lettuce to make the ache stop.

@leesie A good friend of mine has struggled with both OCD and anorexia, and I very much see how the two often go hand in hand and how similar they can be even when they don’t. The descriptions I’ve read from people with OCD about the obsessive thoughts or the behaviors meant to reduce anxiety sound a lot like how I used to obsess over food and calories or use exercise to help relieve my anxiety over having eaten too much or the “wrong” things.

Mine is peanut butter. I can’t enjoy it anymore on its own, although I can still use it in recipes without anxiety. This aversion is strong right now, as I’m currently on the upswing of a restriction cycle. Somehow the ache in my abdomen is less distressing than the horror of knowing that I just had a serving or two of pb. It’s so strange when I think of it objectively, and its hard to know if it’s ED or just me being weird.

I was actively bulimic for a while in my 20’s and early 30’s and that old feeling has been popping into my head lately. Late at night. Ricky is away for 6 weeks. Little Rickys are sleeping. I’m lonely, bored, feeling empty emotionally and physically. It is taking all I have not to slip back into that behavior.

I will always have a weird relationship with eating, I know. I can’t diet because I can’t willingly go back into that mindset. It becomes EVERYTHING. I have 2 daughters to raise and, goddamnit, I don’t want them to feel ashamed about eating.

This really hits home for me. My biggest ongoing issue is with breakfast. I’ve gotten better about eating normal dinners and my lunches are pretty standard most of the time,but I feel like if I consume too much (and what I have designated as too much is really not much at all)for breakfast then I’ve blown the whole day and I end up going on a shame/unhealthy eating spiral.

I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I did develop an eating phobia a few years ago after almost choking. I understand the frustration of looking at food while crazy brain yells “You’re going to choke again!” and sane brain says “You’re being silly, you’ve known how to eat since you were a baby,” and body just says “I’m hungry.” It waxes and wanes with my stress level, but I’m coming to accept that it will probably be with me for a while.

I never knew how common this was. I have a coworker who refuses to eat dozens of foods because of a choking fear. Nuts are entirely out of the question along with most other small, hard foods. She chews her food dozens of times before swallowing to make sure it’s all small enough. She seems to know objectively that she won’t coke but still struggles with the anxiety that there’s even the tiniest chance she might.

I tend to downplay it to myself as just a phase of my life and not that big a deal. Unscientific polling of other recovered EDers suggests that this kind of thinking is pretty common.

Oh, I feel this so much because this is exactly what I do / how I think about it, and I can really relate to what you said about salad dressing as well. Pizza was one of my big personal hurdles that lasted a long time – I still feel a twinge of anxiety and guilt every time I eat it, but now I’m willing to eat it and admit I enjoy it. Thank you for writing this.

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