Anorexia and bulimia are famous, but there's a whole spectrum of eating issues that aren't covered under the umbrella of these two most famous disorders.
There is a really awesome book called Almost Anorexic, co-written by Jenni Schaefer and Jennifer J. Thomas, PhD, which addresses this subject. While, as the name implies, it particularly deals with sub-clinical anorexic behavior, there is a lesson to be learned from this book: not all eating disorders are the stuff of after-school specials. There are plenty of disorders that lurk just below the surface of what is considered a clinical eating disorder. While the physical symptoms may not be as severe, the psychological ones certainly can be.
An "almost" eating disorder can still make your life a living hell.
Technically speaking, I only fell into the clinical diagnosis of anorexia for a very short time. But for the most part, I hovered in “almost anorexic” territory--skirting the line, but not quite below. Doing just well enough that I could tell myself I didn't need help.
But even as just a marginal member of the anorexic in-crowd, I still suffered plenty. I lived in a black and white world. Joy was meted out in crumbs: the list below shows what I thought was happiness or at least gratification. Today, it sounds bleak and sad.
What brought me joy as an almost-anorexic
- Being told I looked skinny. Variations on “you don’t look like you eat dessert!” were always good.
- Watching others eat. Cooking for others so I could watch them eat. Nobody cooks like an anorexic (or almost-anorexic).
- Sweet, salty, sour, bitter. I went for extremes in flavors. If I was not going to eat much, I wanted every bite to be throbbing with flavor.
- The other person ordering first at a restaurant, so I could order slightly less than them.
- Heat. Summer. Everything that is the opposite of being cold.
- Bonus exercise: Parking far away, so I could get a mini workout walking to the store. Taking the stairs instead of the escalator. Taking walks in the mall. Malls in general. It’s always warm in the mall.
- Shopping at grocery stores. I loved being around food so much that I would go to four different grocery stores to do our shopping. Whole Foods for produce, Albertson's for peanut butter, Trader Joe's for frozen veggies. I had different portion sizes or brands I “trusted” at one versus the other. For instance, I loved the size of the rolls at Whole Foods. But the ones at Albertsons stressed me out just looking at them.
- An empty fridge. That’s also why I had to go to the grocery store every day. I bought only enough for one portion, or if I was feeling dangerous, two. Having too many apples or carrots, much less bread, around could be really frightening. I maxed out at two of each.
- Talking about food when it was nowhere in sight.
- Going down a size in clothing. Even if it was shopping at a place with vanity sizing.
- Protruding bones: ribs, clavicles, hip bones.
- Shopping in the children’s department, because I was swimming in adult sizes
- Casually mentioning that I didn't menstruate. You’d be surprised at how often it came up in casual conversation.
- Backing out of social engagements where I would have to eat with other people and not being called on y always-lame excuses.
I'm thankful to say I am not almost anorexic anymore. I wouldn't say I'm fully recovered. I definitely still have moments when someone tells me I look skinny and it feels a little too good, or when I can really start thinking about all the rich and decadent foods I wish I was eating but "shouldn't" because of my health.
When I let myself start eating again, it's like my world went from black and white to technicolor. I turned the lights back on in my life. I began to rediscover things that gave me true joy. They were the things that had always given me joy--only the disorder had taken precedence and muffled them.
What brings me joy today
- A perfect watercolor wash-nailing a sunset, say, with seamless lines in paint.
- Dressing up with my shoes coordinating with my glasses and being told my outfit is great (it usually is).
- Baking bread and sharing it with someone who says "this tastes like it's from a bakery!".
- Long drives while playing really loud and really cheesy music.
- Ponies. Pony rides. Petting farms.
- Traveling with my sweet one. Going to cool places and discovering them together: Portland, Madison, Austin, et cetera.
- Painting murals for private customers or bakeries. I've oddly painted four separate murals in bathrooms!
- Getting outside. If it is cold, that is ok, because if I keep moving (walking, frolicking with Porkchop, doing a cartwheel) I can get warm.
- Getting letters from my friend Phil. He's a beautiful writer.
- Going to a yoga class where we do all the poses I am good at: pigeon pose, splits, compass pose, et cetera.
- Going to the library and getting one "literature" book and one "beach read" type book. A sort of naughty and nice thing.
- Treating myself to whatever kind of cake I'd like for lunch, every friday. It's one of my favorite rituals; read about it here.
- Time with my two sisters. Watching ridiculous YouTube videos with my little sister; going out to lunch with my older sister and little nephew.
- Making things from scratch that you don't think of as being "made": brown sugar, confectioners' sugar, butter, yogurt, sweetened condensed milk. Things you'd normally just buy. It's fun to learn how they work.
As mentioned previously, these things had always brought me joy. But when being skinny stopped being the most important thing in my life, I was able to remember them above and beyond any food-related gratification passing as joy.
Remembering real joy has been a huge step for me in terms of recovery. It's a way of being present and mindful, and allowing myself to enjoy the here and now rather than waiting for the next thing to happen, for "real" life to begin (it would always happen when I was skinner, I though). Real life is what's happening right now, though. It's a powerful thing to not only realize it but embrace and enjoy.