Two boys - one was younger, the other older. Their stories are different, but they both arrived in Taiping, China on crutches, seeking in the Eastern practice of energy healing, or Qi, a remedy to manage their illness. Turns out they walked out on their own feet. Both walked out cured.
Their stories are incredible, and their resilience is what strikes me the most. Deciding to dedicate their life to practicing Medical Qi Gong, they became Grand Master’s students, and are now Master Wu’s disciples. It is how I met one of them.
My story is not the same. If you ask me today, I’ll wholeheartedly say I was lucky to be in my shoes and not in theirs. But if you asked me a few years back, I would have swapped my illness for any other. Getting out of my eating disorder brain, invaded by all consuming, critical and torturing thoughts was the miracle I was dreaming of. In the midst of a mental illness, when your recovery journey starts, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than how you have it in that moment. I don’t say this enough but I really suffered.
When I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand I was what you call “weight restored” but very aware that I wasn’t my old self yet. Not only was I still consumed by disordered thoughts, more worryingly I was feeling very weak and fatigued. But empathy was no longer there. One could now scan me and say how healthy I looked. Oh how many times I’ve heard this phrase as I regained weight… Perhaps even more times than being told I was too thin, which mind you, was daily. People are quite vocal about what they see as positive, ignoring the fact that appearances can be deceiving!
Master Wu however, he saw me for how I felt. Without me saying anything, he diagnosed me as vulnerable to disease, holding an acute blockage in the body, which had to be attended to. His recommendation was that I start opening up about experiences, sharing my worries and struggles, confiding in family. “Release that which you hold inside” he said, and my eyes filled up with tears I this once wasn’t able to restrain.
Two months after returning from the trip, I started my recovery blog and instagram account, and a few months after that, I was openly speaking about my experience with anorexia. I vocalized it more than I thought would be beneficial, but it was very much part of my life, so I stopped negating it happened; I stopped trying to oppress that period of my life; I stopped trying to move on. I admitted to myself and to others my fascination with eating disorders and recovery and I ceased to feel weird about how enlightening of a journey suffering has been.
And here’s for the cringe punch line:
One year later, I was back in Bangkok, Thailand for a follow up with Master Wu. I didn’t even get the chance to sit down comfortably for the examination before he said: “You look strong”. I smiled and responded, “I am strong”.
Back in College, I had a personal, more accurately labeled as “shared”, trainer that would come coach my friends and I three times a week. We were four in the group, doing some variation of what’s now known as circuit training. At the time, I viewed exercise as an activity that’s supposed to be enjoyable, and for the sessions when it wasn’t, at least it was healthy, with the perk of keeping me in “good shape” - whatever that meant. Like PE in High School, I didn’t like the sweat as much as I loved bonding with friends when submerged in assorted activities.
It is smack dab what exercising with this trainer felt like. Dragging my ass to my building’s 14th floor, where the gym was, didn’t come without laziness. But in between the sets when I’m breaking a sweat, I’m laughing with friends, usually conspiring on how to cheat the “x reps” system.
During training, we’d often talk about the yummy food we treated ourselves to the day before. Our culture can’t seem to separate the two: the gym and kitchen table that is. As I share details of the chocolate fudge I enjoyed the previous day, in a half serious - half “it’s her job” way, my trainer would say, “AK, you’ve been so bad!” I’d laugh, replying that had she tried it, she’d have no regrets either. I couldn’t have cared less about what I ate before the gym, or what I was going to eat after. I may have pretended I did, the same way I play-act in front of my doctor agreeing to have plenty of fluids, or in front of my parents claiming I won’t stay up late: consenting out of habit, but without it registering in my brain.
My friends A. and P. wanted to loose weight, while E was desperately trying to put on muscle, fat, just something! He was what the French call “une crevette”: the teenage boy who lives off pizza, burgers, nutella crepes, you name it, and still looks pre-pubescent. I, myself, worked out for all the aforementioned reasons – Mens sana in corpore sano or, a healthy mind in a healthy body.
A couple of years down the road, E. finally grew some facial hair, which coincidentally came with a gut, achieving that sought out “manly” look. Under the supervision of qualified doctors and a change in lifestyle, P. went from being overweight to healthy, and comfortable in his skin. If you ask me, the transformation came from within. His sudden illness over one summer, led him, in his search for answers, to finding belief in a higher power, which brought to his life a deeper meaning. As for A., she got engaged and married her big love, finding the fulfillment no amount of thinness would ever bring. And I, well I developed an eating disorder, lost 50 pounds, and missed A’s wedding to my illness.
But I’m fighting to gain every single ounce of my life back, so that I can be that girl again. The girl who rocks up at the gym, pretending she’s been bad for overindulging, but her brain not ever registering the thought. And what a freeing thought that is!
With most things I do, I try to keep a balance. It’s one of those things that recovery from an eating disorder makes you hyper aware of, “balance”.
If there is an intuitive way for humans to enjoy things in moderation, subconsciously preserving a “good enough” balance, it looks something like this: resting when tired, eating when hungry, running the extra mile when energetic, having sex when in the mood, and so on.
For me, and if I were to guess most of you who dove into recovery, life doesn’t feel so intuitive. I believe that the heightened awareness the process calls for makes subsequent decisions, no matter how trivial, feel quite managed, as if deliberately exerted.
If I find myself eating one too many cookies, I intentionally remind myself it’s ok because nutrition’s about overall balance. If I find myself going to yoga for three days in a row, I consciously refrain from making that four. If I happen to be out for a full week, I tend to decline a couple of the next upcoming invitations. If I read too many eating disorders related books consecutively, I make it a point to buy a fiction novel after that. This type of “constructive” awareness tends to stay even after making a full, lasting recovery.
Yesterday, as I looked over my blog, I was under the impression of having neglected to share more about my experience whilst in the trenches of recovery, in favor of blogging about what comes after - not just post weight restoration, but when feeling well, holistically.
So in good ole balanced fashion, I decided to revisit an early concept of recovery, not any other than the good ole scary and confusing extreme hunger.
If you recently started your recovery from anorexia, you likely wonder why, now that you’ve agreed to increase the amount of food you eat, you not only can’t stop eating but you also can’t stop thinking about eating. So let me explain from experience, in clear, simple words first. It is not because you have lost all control, nor have you drifted into binge eating disorder; you are not doomed to “obesity”, and rest assured that if you keep going with recovery, you will not feel this way forever.
The dual - physical and mental - pull to food is a result of bringing your body and mind out of a state of perceived famine, after years of undernourishment. It is evidence that your brain and body want to heal.
Extreme hunger doesn’t come knocking on your door. Oh no! Extreme hunger storms in violently, breaking down the most fortified gate. Like a tornado, it sucks in all the food that meets its way, fiercely continuing the ravage until it then weakens. From that point, it dissipates. Rather quickly actually, like the tornado, leaving you devastated by what just happened, but nonetheless in a state of clarity.
Given an environment your body and brain perceived to be lacking in food, as soon as you start feeding, your primal cue for survival, which interprets it is a one-off, will start to live and breathe food. Your body underwent an extended period of famine, so making food seem available again will activate a survival mode that looks to restore your health and prepare for the next drought, triggering a desire to feast.
I would wake up in the morning craving hummus and cheese. Those are highly nutritious and my body desperately needed energy. So before I even got the chance to brush my teeth, the two containers were gone.
I would go food shopping, then, later at night, usually after dinner, I’d sit on the kitchen floor, eating one energy bar, after another. It felt really good consuming food. I would not allow myself to think there was something wrong for being this hungry, so I purposely tried to enjoy it. I went so far as to speak comforting words to myself, out loud.
One night, I went to my friend’s house and they ordered Pad Thai, a dish that to my anorexic ears screamed, “fried”, “dripping oil”. And yet, my hunger was so strong that I happily ate. And man it felt good! I went home shortly after because my stomach kept yelling for more food. So I ate one slice of bread, which led to another and another and another and another, until the whole loaf was gone and again, it felt so good! Then, I had a bag of nuts. And by the time it was done, I continued onto whatever else I could get my hands on.
At night, my heart started beating very fast but irregularly, my stomach was experiencing a burning sensation, and I felt dizzy. I lay down until I fell asleep, waking up a couple of hours later, nauseous, and with fever.
(It’s very important to be monitored by a physician – I can’t stress it enough.)
This was such a difficult time, but in retrospect, I am thankful for the dizzy spells, tachycardia, nausea, and brain fog, for without them I wouldn’t have left work to focus on recovery. And I don’t think I could have recovered whilst working.
E, girl, you saved my life! I know a lot of people were involved and I know a lot of you probably wish to have confronted me sooner. Unfortunately, the illness is such that it had to be me. Forever thankful you stepped in and mediated the process.
Back to extreme hunger - it’s real, it’s strong, it lasts for months, it will take on different forms, you will yield and you will fight, you will laugh and you will cry; at times it will be physical, other times mental; it will burn and it will hurt, it will scream and it will fade. Yours is to keep on eating.
Once your body is nutritionally rehabilitated and your brain trained to understand that food is available for you whenever you want it, and in any quantity you desire, the pull to food, the “binging”, the obsession, they dissipate. It takes time, but this too shall pass.
So how to approach it, you may wonder – not easy, but quite simple actually… Adopt a “fuck it” attitude. As hard as eating is and as terrifying as responding to mental hunger seems, give in. It’s kick-me-in-the-crutch difficult but it also feels extremely good. The best support going through it is someone to validate that it’s ok, that it’s exactly how things should be right now.
Every time I read about extreme hunger: how it is part of the process, how it is there to protect the body, how we shouldn’t fear it, how we should honor it, all those times, they made it easier to move past the panic and succumb, easier to recover in the long run.
I’m not really sure how it all happened. Perhaps my lower brain was now in charge, triggering a sympathetic response that I would fail to control no matter how hard I tried. Perhaps it became slightly easier as I began to feel hunger, no matter how uncomfortable of a feeling that was. Perhaps all the imploring to eat I received over the past few years came to hit me at once, in the most convincing manner. I don’t know. What I did know is that I looked pretty bad, felt pretty awful, and food was my prescribed medicine. I was at a place where I was choosing recovery.
As hard and unpleasant this stage is, keep going - keep eating. Do your best to try and welcome extreme hunger, for it is there to heal you.
I know it doesn’t happen like that. We don’t miraculously “snap out of it”, because someone tells us something that in theory makes sense. But I’d say that hearing validation of your recovery feelings might ease off some of the anxiety that steams from the unknown.
During the weight restoring stage, I wanted and could eat so much food in one sitting. And when I did, I felt so uncomfortably full. But physiologically, it felt right. With a body starved of nutrients, no wonder the experience is this intense. Describing it as intense doesn’t even pay justice to the feelings that followed my surrender to food.
In retrospect, I miss it - wishing I allowed myself to enjoy it more often. In retrospect, it is only memories of it that I carry - wishing I could experience a similar euphoria today. But in reaching energy balance, food becomes so “whatever”. And for that, you’ll have recovery to thank.
This weekend I attended my 10-year High School reunion. And what a weekend it was. From the moment I reached the train stop, the madness began. Two days fuelled by the excitement of coming together, in a place that made us so happy, to celebrate each other and the experiences we lived here together. It is a beautiful encounter. Still, had this been last year, I would have passed on it.
From a recovery seat, I can’t help but notice how little has changed over the year, yet how much freedom I have gained.
About this same time last year my therapist pronounced the magic words. They touched me profoundly, and I still remember his thoughtful phrasing:
“You’ve been well for a while now, but I think this is you. This is the fully recovered AK. I don’t say it to everyone, but you did it. You recovered”.
Fully, he added.
I shared his opinion. But I also thought “recovered” came at a price: I would never feel the same. And I was ok with that. After all, I was a kinder, more empathetic person for it. But I still grieved the bliss of ignorance, the bliss that comes from never knowing suffering.
This weekend however, I did feel that little bit closer to naïve, that little bit more like my old self, that “extra” recovered.
I loved every superficial greeting I received, took pleasure in every meaningless conversation I had, endorsed every ridiculous behavior I witnessed. I laughed at things I would previously force a smile to, I cheered to madness that only 12 months ago provoked tears. All in all, I reconnected with the bliss of ordinary life.
Bringing this weekend’s thought piece to conclusion: I realize there is no secret sauce in this journey.
The tips and tricks I resorted to and journal’ed about in the process of recovery are effective crutches. I stand by them. Those resourceful techniques can make the arduous experience more bearable, perhaps even pleasant. But achieving recovery comes with letting time run its course and never giving up.
‘Twas a long walk my march to recovery. I try to think of when it is that I passed the destination, but then I question whether I’ve even reached it yet?
At first, it’s all about the finish line. While the idea of recovered life couldn’t be more vague at this stage, it’s also crystal clear. Evidently, recovered meant I’d no longer feel the way I do now. But then, how is it that I envisioned being, that I foresaw feeling, once recovered?
Having lost all memory of what a life un-ruled by anorexia used to be like, the concept remained vague.
If you’ve had the flu for many years, naturally, you forget how it is to breathe normally, how it is not to be stuck in bed, feeling weak and drained. In that sense, whilst trapped in an eating disorder a healthy life may be hard to imagine. But it’s out there for you, and I hope that the promise of a different future can keep you marching to recovery.
Having come the other side, perhaps I can help shed some light on what it’s like outside the grips of an eating disorder.
#1 You stay the same person
While compelled to change on endless aspects to accommodate for the rules and rituals that come with this life-restricting illness, your core self stays. The illness impairs your mind, and thus actions, but you, you’re still there. Whether trapped in the depth of illness, fighting to reach surface, or swimming towards shore, you are still the same Lisa, Laura, or Liam.
Your eating disorder may command your mind, but your core self doesn’t leave your body. Put in other words, the part of you that is controlled and lead by the illness does things that once recovered you will no longer think of, let alone do. The examples are endless: lying to friends and family, loosing your temper after a meal, forgoing pleasurable experiences in the name of dodging uncertainty, not being able to spend money on food, studying nutrition labels and restaurant menus, not allowing yourself rest, hoarding food and utensils, and many other things I luckily can no longer remember.
While ill, you believe all such choices to be yours. But from a recovery seat, those same decisions, you see them for what they really are: actions you take because you are suffering from an eating disorder.
In the grips of anorexia, you forego ever eating out. When recovered, you no longer miss on experiences because they involve food. In fact, food no longer matters.
In the grips of anorexia, your day is consumed by what you ate, are eating, or will eat. When recovered, you no longer realize, remember, or pay attention to the act.
In the grips of anorexia, you cannot, for shit, make a decision. When recovered, you no longer face paralysis when asked trivial questions like “when would you like to have lunch?”
When recovered, you no longer care about what others are eating, you no longer find your mind taking you to places of comparison, compensation, or remorse, you no longer get annoyed for eating something that doesn’t taste the way you expected, you no longer find yourself anxious in the absence of food, you no longer carry around snacks, you no longer give a fuck about which restaurant you are going to, you no longer bloat with every meal, you are no longer drained of energy after supper, you no longer have an insatiable appetite, you no longer experience mega cravings.
When recovered, you eat what you fancy and you get on with your life.
#2 You grow to become very aware.
I found this to be a recovery curse.
I’m a sucker for examples, so here’s what comes to mind.
On the one hand, trapped in the illness, you escape your thoughts and the capitulation to food by keeping yourself busy, at all times. In recovery, you start questioning these actions.
Consider the decision to go someplace. Is it because you think you should? Is it because someone is making you? Is it because your eating disorder justifies it? Or is it because you want to? (It’s rarely the latter).
On the other hand, haunted by some very new and overwhelming feelings, you often ask yourself where did they steam from. And so, you are forced to retrace all steps that may be involved in simply experiencing an emotion. Up to this date you never considered feelings. Now it’s all about the feelings.
You see, having to track your every meal, your every thought, your every move, in order to then challenge those parts driven by compulsions, you end up paying a high level of attention to your mind’s patterns and cognitive processes. And so, recovery becomes a game of closely monitoring thoughts and feelings, followed by the very uncomfortable practice of honoring those you tend to dismiss, while challenging those you tend to feed but which in reality don’t serve you.
#3 You must figure out who you are
The idea that anorexia becomes your identity is a hard concept to explain, and so, the question of who you are outside the eating disorder cannot be more confusing.
Stripped of the rules and habits that currently dictate your life, the options of which direction to go are endless. Not only do you have plenty more mind space to think of the things you enjoy, you also have a lot more time on hand to do so. This is when an eating disorder can continue to serve a purpose; or, during blurry times, creep back in - perhaps in a different form.
I never cared to trace the root cause of my eating disorder. I knew that in getting better it was quite irrelevant. Comprehending that my genetics, coupled with a diet gone awry, in an environment that made feeding incredibly easy to miss was good enough of an explanation. I never really bought into the psychoanalysis of the illness. That said, with time, analyzing how food and weight occupied me, I forged the belief that the initial and ongoing focus filled the lack of purpose and meaning my life presented.
I didn’t really think about the void of my existence when I was busy hopping from one party to the next, from one group of friends to the next, from one destination to another, working fourteen hours a day, day in an day out. I was very occupied, but that doesn’t mean I felt challenged or fulfilled.
I believed I was happy. And I was. But coming to the realization of how empty a life it was, led me to reject all those things that purposelessly used to fill my days. Coming eye to eye with the futility of mindless hangouts, or the lack of interest my daily work brought, I not only started spending less time “out and about, socializing”, but I also resigned my job.
Good luck filling all this newly cleared up space!
#4 You gain perspective and explore new values
In today’s culture, we are fed messages that make us believe that achieving a certain body, or an idealized thinness are goals for success. But it is only in the absence of a rich life that such promises find space for focus. Lacking real purpose, we look for distraction, occupying our minds with menial targets like abiding by rules of what to eat, which exercise routines to follow, how to plan an early sleep, and all sorts of other “healthy” habits.
Absent a meaning that leads one’s existence, the objectives and rigor that come with following an acclaimed regime can serve as the direction to follow.
Even after getting better, to truly leave my eating disorder I had to look for new ways to fill up my “mind space” and time. And in order for it to work, these endeavors needed to come from the heart. For this full life, I had to realize my values, so that the way I proceeded living could bring me meaning, rather than simply present a means to occupy my day to day.
For some, carrying for a family can do it. Others, they find purpose advocating for causes that are close to their hearts. Numerous will consecrate themselves to a job they love. Some, dive into disciplines of true interest. A few plunge back into previously neglected passions. And most discover spirituality, whatever this means for the individual person.
The punch line is to shape a life that keeps feeding the soul.
I found that it is only with purpose and meaning that the empty successes of abiding by cultural trends can take on an appropriate role - one that has no influence on how we live our lives.
For a decent length of time now, I danced around the idea of writing about my Yoga journey. To be clear, it’s hardly an Instagram-able one. I still haven’t made it into a headstand, let alone a handstand. I still lay my mat at the back of the room and look up to see others, each time the teacher blurbs up words that sound all the same to me - something along the lines of SH-gibberish-ASANA. But today was different.
Today, I found myself in crow pose, for a mere few seconds. I didn’t plan going into it. For the time being I’m still feasting on my recent ability to carry out a Chaturanga flow – using my arms and core to lower down from plank. However, as I was finding stillness in my own variation of crow, my body told me to go for it. It wasn’t telling me to go for the full posture. It specifically told me to go for a tiny jump. One that practiced with consistency would eventually (which to my belief was still a few years out) take me there. But then, something remarkable happened. As my right foot lifted off the ground, I felt my arms strong, strong enough that I gave it another go, this time going for both feet up. And so, there I was, my thighs resting on the elbow-to-shoulder part of my arms, before I hit back the ground.
But let’s start where one ought to start, at the beginning. My first time on the yoga mat, two years ago, I couldn’t even sit legs straight. I was emaciated; my spine and neck impaired by osteoporosis, while my hips were spared the more severe diagnosis, only making it to osteopenia. Having once been strong and flexible I was shocked by what I saw – an inability to move really.
As I embarked recovery from anorexia nervosa, I found a soothing release in Yoga. I couldn’t stand the anxiety and thoughts that came with following my meal plan. But on the mat, my mind was occupied. Also, it was exercise…
If you’ve been there, you know exactly what I’m on about - the high found in putting our bodies into further deficits. Or, using scientific terms, the increase in serotonin levels caused by starvation and/or excessive exercise, to which we become addicted.
While anorexic thought processes get us stuck in highly rigid routines that quickly grow to be destructive, on the crazy spectrum, we still qualify as sane. My rational mind (the Healthy Self, as treatment philosophies classify it) knew better than to injure myself. That’s not to say I didn’t battle with compulsions. But I did know to choose my classes, and went for gentler, more meditative practices.
But this road that I initially embarked to keep busy, with the extra perk of burning calories, lead me a whole different direction: one that, for lack of a less cliché word - saved me.
I learned to observe my thoughts, to choose ones I feed, to let go of those that don’t serve me. I learned to accept pain, to cry, to be grateful for my blessings. I learned to appreciate my body for carrying me through life, for allowing me to come to practice, for keeping me alive. I learned to embrace suffering; I learned to focus on the present moment; I learned to live in acceptance; I learned to be compassionate toward myself; ultimately, I learned to love myself.
I was favoring mindfulness-inspired practices over Vinyasas and more advanced levels. On top of the desire to be kind to my body, I wanted to nurture my mental strength, for I knew it was a powerful mind that would ultimately give way to my body regaining its long-lost strength.
This afternoon, as I consciously noticed my body’s own initiative to go into crow pose, I confirm that strength I have regained. This strength came from practicing acceptance, for acceptance had the immeasurable quality of softening both my body and mind into goals it had set to achieve: the goals of recovery.