Change is hard. Whether you are trying to be less sarcastic, quit smoking, eat healthier or even wake up earlier—it is hard to change ingrained patterns, especially those that have persisted and carried you for years. I am embarking on a change in my life right now that requires the undoing of many, many years of learning how to control my body, my intake of food and most importantly, how I perceive myself and my place in the world.
For many years I have struggled to maintain a healthy body weight and disordered eating. This began in high school when I was a long distance runner and went vegan for the first time. Like many female distance runners, I stopped getting my period (a condition known as secondary amenorrhea). After seeing a doctor and a nutritionist, it was determined that I needed to gain weight, and I also went on birth control to restore my menstrual cycle. I didn’t see at the time that I had any psychological issues with food, and chalked up any struggles to all the running I did on a daily basis.
I slowly increased my caloric intake, and didn’t think much about the fact that if I wasn’t on birth control, I still might not be having a regular cycle. I was stuck in a fear based mode of restricting the food that I ate, and was extremely dedicated to my regimen of running. I was also very committed to my schoolwork, and found a rigid discipline in academics and athletic applied equally well to my diet as I maintained excellent grades, superior athletic performance, and (what I perceived to be) a “healthy” weight. No one called what was going on an eating disorder. I even went to see a counselor on more than one occasion, and I talked about my anxiety with food, but when she found out that I was eating, (I never restricted completely), and she dismissed the idea that I might have a problem. And perhaps that problem was only beginning to form, but I had a tremendous amount of anxiety about the food I ate, and felt happy and calm only if I allowed myself to eat within a certain range of calories.
I knew I had “issues”—but I was also doing pretty well in many areas of my life, and I was actually a really happy teenager. I was very dedicated to eating a plant-based diet, mostly out of compassion for animals and their suffering, and concern for the huge toll the meat industry takes on the health of the environment. I
Things didn’t really spiral downward until college. I started out pretty well, involved in cross-country, an emerging leader on campus, happily finding ways to explore and grow and loving my major in English literature. I loved being a college student, I was a Resident Assistant, taking piano lessons, enjoying horseback riding for the first time and working hard in all of my classes. The restriction even relaxed a bit, and I put on some weight in my freshman year.
Several things changed for me in my sophomore year. I lost a friend to a tragic accident, and had to travel home for her funeral. She was very young, and although I wasn’t extremely close to her, for some reason the loss rocked me to my core. Also, classes got much harder and I felt like things were no longer in my control. I found myself restricting my intake, almost unconsciously, and the summer between my sophomore and junior year I lost nearly 15 pounds. I was just too sad and too scared to swallow. Somehow the smaller I got, the less space I took up in the world, the safer I felt. Somehow by reducing my size, reducing my feelings, I could push away all of the grief and fear that was truly pulsing through me.
I attempted to return to school in my junior year. I say attempted because I remember my Mom saying as she drove me to school that year that if I was still struggling, she would come back and get me. I was supposed to be an RA again, this time with an entire floor of my own. Still running cross-country and tutoring underclassmen, and holding another part time job at the writing center. I was also hanging on to a relationship that had formed in my freshman year. He was a wonderful person, incredibly supportive, but I found myself drifting away from him too as I descended further into my own secret struggle.
At barely 90 pounds, I simply couldn’t keep up with all the demands of college that year. I stepped down from my position as an RA, and my Mom drove from Ohio to New York State (where I was going to school) to help me move off campus. For some reason we thought this would solve things. They just got worse. I was eating less than ever, waking up extremely early in the morning to drink black coffee and do an extra run, even with cross-country practice later than afternoon. My food intake became my sole focus. Several friends told me in unequivocal terms to go see a college counselor, which I did. The counselor there was the first person who looked me in the eye and said “you’re anorexic.”
This was eye-opening for me and my entire family. No more hiding now. It actually felt like a relief. I remember saying to this counselor, “I can’t go on like this anymore.” She gave me two options. Hospitalization or my parents had to pick me up that night and seek treatment for me. I would have to take a medical leave of absence from school. In a seeming whirlwind, I found myself home from college, and in a treatment center near Cleveland, Ohio. To save costs, my parents drove my over 2 hours one way to the treatment site daily, and then back again so I could sleep at home and save the cost of a bed. It was an emotionally and physically exhausting time for everyone.
I worked the program hard, determined to get my weight to the point that I would be discharged. I felt guilty at the money my parents were spending and I desperately wanted to be back in school. So I ate like crazy, even though it felt awful. I started drinking milk and eating meat at the insistence of my nutritionist who said it would help me gain weight more quickly. It did. But it never felt right. It seemed I was doing everything still for everyone else. To please my counselors and nutritionists, and my parents, (even though they never pushed me, I just wanted them to be proud.)
SO I tried again to return to college in the winter semester. And promptly returned to all of my old habits. I was up early working out on an empty stomach, counting calories, and scared about everything. I had never processed my grief, my fear, my obsessive need to please others. After only a month I returned home again.
Back at home things started to get better. I found a counselor who really understood me. She had recovered from an eating disorder and she just “got me.” Living at home meant I was surrounded my support and unconditional love. I didn’t return to school right away, but worked part time and pursued other interests, like learning to sew, and rekindling friendships from high school. I did eventually return to school, although I choose to stay in my hometown and attend school where my father works. It couldn’t have been a better fit. I was happy again, healthy enough eventually to run cross-country again, and excelled again at my academics.
Unsure of what was next for me, after graduation I applied for Teach for America, a nonprofit that sends recent college graduates to teach in low income schools. My older sister had done the program, and this seemed like a good fit for me as well. It would be about giving back, and help me learn what the working world was like, as well as get me out of my hometown.
I was accepted, and found myself in rural North Carolina, teaching 7th Grade Special Education. I loved my students, and found I eased into the job after a few rough months! But personally I still had no foundation. I was attending church, which was very fulfilling for me. But I was also very lonely and didn’t feel like there was enough support for me. During this time I went back to a vegetarian diet and began to explore yoga more deeply. I had been practicing on and off since high school, and for the first time began a very regular personal practice. This grounded me more than anything else in my life at the time.
I made the decision after that first year to attend a yoga Teacher Training program at Mount Madonna School in Watsonville, CA. It was an immersion in all things yoga: meditation, philosophy, asana, and pranayama. It was like heaven on earth to me. I was so relaxed and happy. I was a sponge, literally absorbing everything I was experiencing and learning. I even got my period (without birth control) for the first time I could recall since high school.
Many of the lessons I learned there I was able to carry with me. I was certainly transformed by the experience. But again, returned to old habits after leaving Mount Madonna, particularly once I began teaching for my second year. Things got so bad, that by spring my weight had reached an all time low since childhood. This was right around the time that I met my husband. And things began to truly change this time.
Although I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, our relationship did become very close, very quickly. I knew he loved me unconditionally and knew he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with when he accepted me, along with all the brokenness and fear of my past, with open, loving arms. With this loving support, I went back to therapy, saw a nutritionist, and got serious about my health. Over the course of the next few months, I restored my body weight to a healthier level. I improved my relationship with food and even made the decision to enroll in graduate school.
Two years later, I received my graduate degree in Mental Health Counseling and expressive art therapy. I found my way to greater freedom through an increased personal awareness, and the love of my husband, who I married in August 2011.
My yoga practice has become still more important to me than ever, and in June 2012 I made the decision to return to a plant-based diet. After reading “The World Peace Diet” by Will Tuttle, I felt convicted to return to a vegan diet. I knew this way of eating was congruent with my spirit of compassion, my commitment to ahimsa, and the peace I wanted to carry in my heart and share with the world. My fear, as well as my parents’ and husbands’—was that it would cause me to lose the weight I had worked so hard to gain.
This brings me to the present moment, and the reason for writing this story of my personal relationship with food and my body. My husband and I are seriously planning for a child, and at my physical with my family doctor this week she told me that in order to carry a baby, I had to gain 5 to 10 pounds. (By the way this was exactly what my husband had said the day before my appointment!)
Of course, I know that someone with a long-term history of an eating disorder has a much greater risk of infertility problems that those who maintained a healthier body weight throughout their lives. And I recognize and accept that I may struggle with “food issues” throughout my life. I still do not believe this means I cannot choose to eat consciously and compassionately.
So I am embarking on a goal of trying to increase my weight, (while on a plant based diet) for my own health and for the health of my family. There are so many stories out there about people successfully losing weight, and I am happy for them and their newfound health! But there are far fewer about those who are working to heal their relationship with food and achieve better health, but may need to increase their weight in order to do so.
And this is why I went “public” with my story, and with my resolution. I hope that simply sharing my story might help someone else who shared this struggle to know they are not the only one. And to ask for support. I am still working at letting go of old patterns that do not serve and honor me, or the spiritual being I know I am.
I am deliberately not sharing numbers (how much I weigh, how much I want to gain, etc). I fear that might be a “trigger” for those who read this and are really struggling. Also, this goal is not an exact science. I know I have to gain weight in order to have a normal cycle and eventually conceive and carry a child. But I do not know how much!
And that is where the letting go comes in for me. Because at its core, that is what this is all really about. It’s about letting go of control, and allowing myself to know who I am as a spiritual being—not as I am in this body. And I believe that is a resolution we can all make for the New Year. To become more deeply aware of who we really are, our authentic, unchanging and spiritual selves, whatever this means for our physical, material bodes.
Happy New Year, may you see yourself with new eyes and a new and deeper love.