Carly Czajka describes the journey back to health after addressing an eating disorder. Carly, a talented and experienced writer, is a new guest blogger on QueenAnntics.net.
Eating disorders get a bad rep.
To some parts of society, I am an over-privileged, bored American girl wanting to shrink her thighs. I am vain. I am wholly self-concerned. And if I wanted to stop, I could just stop; health is an option I’m just not interested in. For those of us experiencing an eating disorder, however, they are just the opposite. An eating disorder, we know, is soul crushing. Overpowering. Ubiquitous. And they are difficult as all hell to get rid of. To be normal is almost inconceivable and, as (I suppose) I get closer to that goal, I constantly wonder how wide the gap between my illness and my health actually is. As I improve, I am often perplexed by this ever-shrinking gap between normalcy and sickness, health and disorder. Again and again, the question that keeps coming up in my mind is “how much of my treatment philosophy am I supposed to forget as I get well?”
To truly understand what I mean by this question, it’s crucial to understand what the treatment process was like for me. In August of 2011, I checked into the River Centre Clinic is Sylvania, OH. The program is based on calorie counting and meal planning; with daily weigh-ins, the program is aimed at determining the amount of calories necessary to maintain a body’s natural “set point,” or the weight at which it functions most naturally and comfortably. A perfectly reasonable philosophy, it seems. The tricky part, however, was the way the staff at RCC expected a patient to meet their given calories: through frozen and packaged food. Now, of course, given the way that our culture consistently demonizes any food that isn’t fresh, free of fat, and “wholesome,” the prospect of eating nothing but these processed foods for weeks at a time was truly terrifying, especially to eating disorder patients afraid of eating anything, let alone foods they associate with weight gain, personal weakness, or shame.
In structuring the program this way, patients such as myself were forced to face whatever food related fears they have head on; to finish the program was to consider each food, whether ice cream or pizza or a frozen meal, equally. Everything, RCC purported, is safe if it is consumed in the right proportion. On an individual basis, then, each patient (after about a week or so) was responsible for creating their own daily meal plans aimed at particular challenges for the week. To spread the choices out evenly, we not only had to meet a calorie amount, but also had to stay within a fat range, or a certain proportion of fat grams relative to the calories consumed. This rigidity of diet was terrifying for us; how this method could teach us to eat again was a black box that we couldn’t possibly comprehend. How, if we are told to eat only fresh, organic, and wholesome foods, could we be healthy on packaged food alone? It was a philosophy that, in order to get well, we just had to trust would work.
Obviously, following this program at RCC was difficult enough, but after a couple of weeks patients traveled home for a day or a weekend to test out their skills, to see how well they could use what they had learned in therapy to manage the stress of an often triggering environment. Sometimes, we failed. To eat everything was a triumph, to make it through the weekend without symptoms a cause for elation. Leaving RCC for good, when I did so six weeks after my check-in date, felt like being thrust into a world I did not understand. No more supervised meals, no more weigh-ins. I could flush the toilet myself (embarrassing, yes, to give up this right, but as I said once in group, “this is where my life is now, sorry ‘bout it”); I was no longer being held accountable by RCC staff. I could get rid of food without anyone knowing. I was responsible for my own recovery now. The only way, I knew, to survive the trials of the coming months (because eating disorder recovery is by no means a quick fix) was to trust in what I had learned: meal plan, forgo exercise, and believe.
And so I did.
But now, symptom free for almost ten months, I wonder how much of what I learned I still need to hold on to. I no longer sit down each night with my calculator, working out how to exactly hit my calorie amount. And strangely, I no longer need to. But I still wonder: am I healthy by eating what I want and not feeling bad about it? I often feel like my eating disorder is a constant presence, lurking around every corner waiting to jump out. It’s everywhere: a bad angle in a mirror, a seemingly innocent comment about how I used to look, a serving of dessert. Do I or don’t I? Is the way I look okay? Or the million-dollar question: when, if ever, will I be normal? And how, when I’m there, will I even know what normal is?
Maybe this is how: a few days ago, I tried to run. To work out this way, as a therapist once told me, could be like crack; once I did it, I might be hooked. To do so, for a person like me, was a risk. While tying up my shoes, guilt. While walking down to the lake, guilt. First few strides, guilt. And then I realized how much fun I wasn’t having. And then I stopped. No guilt. As I walked, I looked around. To my left, a sparkling lake. Surrounding it, trees. And for the first time in my life I realized how beautiful it all was; even more importantly, I realized, while I was sick, how much of this I couldn’t see. Ten months ago, I would be too busy having symptoms, trying not to feel, to even take this walk. In a moment I realized that this was normal: to enjoy a day, by a lake, and to simply not run.
Treatment and that philosophy, then, was a crucial stepping stone. It was a tool I once needed to get to where I am now. Meal planning brought me to a place where I could understand food. Not exercising brought me to a place where I could understand the perfect validity of just not wanting to do it and, if I didn’t, that it was okay. In wondering how much of RCC’s lessons I’m supposed to hold on to, I’ve been led back to the experiences I’ve had, which demonstrate that a gradual letting go is probably the most natural thing I could do.