I identify as "mostly recovered". To me, this means that while I have ditched a lot of the unhealthy food behaviors that characterize an eating disorder, I still have work to do. In particular, that work has to do with breaking my own habits and rules.
Nearly everyone I know who has suffered from an eating disorder has been bogged down by a weirdly intricate set of dictates which govern the disorder. Sometimes, they become so deeply ingrained that it's like they form a neural pathway groove: you don't even realize it's a habit or a rule. It's just what you do.
However, by being able to identify the habits and rules that form the infrastructure of your disorder, maybe it's possible to begin lovingly and compassionately--yet assertively--tearing it down.
Ideally, without having a mental breakdown.
OK. So here's where I will own up and share some of my own rules and habits and things that need to be just-so before I can eat comfortably. I'm sure that there are some things that I don't even realize I do, but there are plenty that I have identified. Here are some of the big ones:
The plates, glasses, forks, knives, must be just right.
The wrong plate, or glass, or bowl, can ruin my entire eating experience. Before I go to a restaurant, I will try to find yelp images of the food to ascertain whether or not the food will be served in a way that I can deal with. If a restaurant serves food on huge plates, or uses oversized glasses for their drinks, I will probably avoid it. If I find myself at an establishment with non-pleasing plate sizes, I will often ask for an extra salad plate and use it to ration out what I see as a suitable serving. I despise large forks; I prefer to use a salad fork for every part of the meal.
Ice cream cups are also a big thing that I have rules about. Many establishments use the same size vessel (usually an 8-ounce cup) whether you are getting one or two scoops. I hate this, and will actually avoid ice cream places, even good ones, that do this, because I can't "trust" the amount of ice cream in the cup. Even a single scoop seems like "too much" in the larger cup. I prefer a smaller cup so that my ice cream appears plentiful in the cup, and so that I feel I can trust the amount.
Another rule is that drinks must never be served in oversized cups or glasses. I went to a local brewery not too long ago where they let you order the beer in various sizes. I ordered the smallest size, but they were out of the smallest sized glasses. "I'll pour the small amount in a larger glass", the bartender said, reasonably enough. I'm not sure which was more horrifying: the idea of carrying a gargantuan cup, or getting a drink that only filled the glass 2/3 of the way. "I'll wait for one of the smaller cups", I said, and there was an awkward pause. She honored my request, but likely thought I was crazy. I didn't care, because I knew that the awkwardness was better than feeling shitty the whole time I was drinking from the wrong sized glass.
Acceptable meal times.
I wake up early, largely thanks to my two pugs, who reliably wake me up wanting to go out between 6:04 and 6:15 am each day. Often, I wake up hungry and my first thoughts are of food, but eating at 6:30 in the morning seems out of the question to me. I'm not exactly sure how or why it formed, but there is a rule running in my head that "You Must Wait Until After 7:00 AM to Eat". So usually, I will feed the pugs and give them their vitamins, maybe make coffee, check my email. But I am looking at the clock every 2 minutes to see if it is 7:00am yet and if I can eat.
Likewise, lunch can only be after 12:00pm. Even if I'm really, really hungry, every clock in the house (even the one on the oven that registers a full five minutes slower than the one on the wall) plus my cell phone must register noon or later before it's OK for me to eat something.
Dinner can only be after 6:00 pm. You get the picture. These rules make it very difficult to be flexible about eating, sometimes. And it can be hard in the in-between hours, because I get hungry. But it simply does not feel OK to eat at non-scheduled eating times.
I should note, though, that I relish opportunities to eat later than the scheduled eating times. Like, if I am held up running errands and can't have lunch until 1:45 pm, that feels great. Like I haven't been ruled, but made a decision. But really, it's not the case because even though I was busy, I am still holding on to the "after 12" rule.
No snacks, no between-meal eating.
That last entry brings up this big rule: NO SNACKS. NO BETWEEN-MEAL EATING. This is, happily, a rule I am working hard to break. Usually, if I have eaten breakfast between 7 and 8 am, by the time noon rolls around, I am really hungry. A sensible person might have a handful of nuts or a piece of fruit at 10:30 or so. Not me. I bravely wait for the clock to register the time it must be for it to be OK for me to eat. On a day when I'm hungry, it's definitely "hangry" territory--you don't want to be around me between 11 am and noon.
I have taken some steps in this regard. For instance, if I am having a piece of peanut butter toast and apple slices for breakfast, I will only eat half of the apple and reserve the other half for my 10:30 "snack". Or if I know what I am having for dinner, I will have a small piece of it at 4pm and then have slightly less at dinner time to compensate for the "advance" I snacked on. Every now and again I do something crazy like eat four cashews in the afternoon. It's a bit regimented, yes, but it does feel like progress.
What I'm allowed to eat.
There are certain things that I feel I'm not "allowed" to eat. For example: both halves of a hamburger bun (I'll take off the top part and slice it like an open-faced sandwich, which is awkward at many establishments, especially the type that serve burgers in baskets). Or french fries. I'm just never allowed to eat french fries. I've talked myself into believing I don't like them, but I am not sure that is true, because doesn't everybody?
I'm not allowed to eat a second slice of pizza, unless they are small slices and two are really the size of one normal one.
I'm not allowed to eat more than 2 eggs. Three-egg omelet? I am going to divide that baby into thirds and only eat two of them.
I'm not allowed to eat both halves of a sandwich. Sometimes I do (I detail more about this in my fear of sandwiches post) but it's usually not pretty.
This is related to, but slightly different than, the above entry. Food combinations remain a big issue for me. This can be foods combined in a single mealtime, or combinations of meals throughout the day. For instance: at a single meal, I am allowed to have chips or potatoes or pasta or bread, but only one. Not any combination of these carbohydrates.
The combinations can be a day-long thing, too. For instance, if I had a grilled cheese and egg sandwich for breakfast, I would not be "allowed" to have pizza for dinner, because it would be too much "carb and cheese" for one day. Or if I had peanut butter toast for breakfast, I would not be allowed to have a spoonful of peanut butter for a snack because that would be too much peanut butter. If I've had French toast for breakfast, I am not allowed to have even a bite of cookie later--too much sugar. It has to be one or the other.
This is one that I am still exploring, because sometimes the "OK" and "not OK" options will present themselves as the day unfolds.
Tasting what I'm making.
I have to taste the baked goods I make, and a good chef should be tasting dishes while cooking, but this can be very stressful for me. Even if I am taking a minuscule bite, I will still often wait until the "acceptable" meal time to do so. You will never have much success saying "taste this!" to me as you cook. This can throw a wrench in the process for sure.
Lately, I have been making a lot of progress on this. I have been making sure that I am baking in manageable portions, so that I don't have to taste more than one scary, between-meals thing per day.
A few months ago, I was teaching a baking class at a place that does catering, and the chef was working on tarts for a catering gig while I taught. I walked in to the kitchen and he handed me one and said "taste this!". Now, it wasn't a prescribed meal time, but they were beautiful and freshly made and he was a scary chef so I did it. And you know what? I didn't die from having a two-bite treat that wasn't on my schedule.
Knowing the "plan".
As you have likely gathered, I am not the most flexible eater. So when I am eating with others, or going on a trip, etc, etc, I like to have a plan in place.
If I know what will be for dinner, I can eat foods that feel safe in combination with that dish for breakfast and lunch.
If I know I will be making a cake, I can plan on that being my treat for the day and can "eat around" it.
If I know that I am meeting a friend at a restaurant at this time, I can plan in advance what I might order and prepare myself for the scary silverware and serving dishes.
Unfortunately, when things don't go according to "plan", I can feel like I am imploding. I still need to do a lot of work on this one.
I love places like Whole Foods because you can buy things like nuts in bulk, and they have those carry-out containers full of things like brussels sprouts or mediterranean salad etc that are priced by weight. I will go to the carry-out section and feel the weight of various containers, feeling all of them if I need to to find the amount that feels just right for me.
I will heft the weight of a potential apple in my hand, making sure it doesn't have bruises and has the perfect texture. I will not settle for a substandard apple.
While I can't necessarily feel them, in bakery settings I will zero in on the pastry that looks to be the size I want and identify that I want "the ginger cookie three down from the front".
For me to enjoy them, foods have to be the right size, weight, and feel.
Gum means the eating is over.
Once I unwrap and begin to chew a piece of gum, the meal and eating is officially over. This is a habit (usually after breakfast, sometimes dinner) I have had for a couple of years now. If I feel scared that I want to eat more, I will knock that out as an option by popping a piece of gum. Having the gum in my mouth is a signal that eating is over, and a way to make my mouth taste such a way so that eating more wouldn't be pleasurable but minty-tinged.
My rules and habits: how can I break free?
As I write and read back through these rules and habits, I realize that a lot of it is very Goldilocks-like: it can't be too much this or too much that, but it has to be just right. Interestingly, it seems less like an eating disorder and more like control issues or some sort of compulsive disorder (though I am not a doctor so that may be totally off!).
While these habits / rules don't have to mean that I have an eating disorder, I recognize that in some ways, they keep me from getting completely better.
The idea of abandoning all of them right now seems liberating yet also impossible. I need these rules, because without structure, what would I have to protect me? It would be like going out in the the winter freeze with a bathing suit on. I need the protection. The rules are my fur coat.
But at the same time, listing them like this makes it seem possible to begin to tear down these rules and regulations. Like:
- What if just this once I was OK being served a beverage in a martini glass, or OK using a regular fork to eat?
- What if I did eat at 6:42 in the morning, instead of looking at the clock every three minutes until it's 7:00 (the safe/acceptable time)?
- What if I had a bite of cookie, and a slice of cake, on the same day?
- What if I went out for pizza because someone suggested it, even though I had had grilled cheese for lunch?
When I pose these questions in that way, it seems like maybe they would not kill me.
So for now, I remain curious. I'm like a teenager, finally identifying the rules set by parents and testing which ones can be bended and broken, which ones I want to call "bullshit" on. I'm sure that at some point these rules and habits were formed as (misguided) attempts to protect myself. But I don't need them any more, and every time I break a rule, I will relish in finding my own freedom.