Let me set up a scene for you. I'm traveling and much to my dismay, I find myself on a lunch with three people I don't know all that well (if you're reading this and thinking "is this me?", let me just say right here and right now: it's not). The reason for my dismay? I don't like lunch and I don't like eating with people I don't know. But wait, it got worse.
Each of them orders, and as they do, the orders get more and more complex. One "can't do gluten", even though I had seen her drinking a beer the night before. Another orders a menu item and proceeds to edit every single component. I already wanted to slap her; even more so once she added a cup of hot water with lemon to her order. Another, apparently fearing fat, inquires about how each item is cooked and edits anything including oil or butter.
Then the waiter comes to me, and I order an item with no special instructions.
"Like, just how the menu says?" he said, somewhat incredulously.
"Yep" I said.
"No substitutions? No changes?" he looked twitchy, like he doesn't know quite how to handle this.
"Yes, just how it is."
I need to tell you, that stuff like this happens a lot, and it never fails to make me feel smug and slightly superior. I eat anything. I have no restrictions. I eat gluten, I eat doughnuts, I eat pizza. Sure, I don't like onions, but I can just pick them off if they're brought out, I'm not gonna make a big thing about it. See? Everyone else has a problem with food, but not me.
Oh, but you see, it's not really the case, when we really get down to it. I'm far from a breezy, take-it-as-it-comes eater.
It's tempting, in my eating disorder recovery, to take the stance that I'm ok and everyone else is crazy. But really, it's not fair, and it's not helping my recovery to persist in this black and white thinking.
Recently, I attended the NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) conference in Chicago, and something happened there that I would like to share.
There was a panel discussion entitled "The Dirty Side of Clean Eating: The Risk It Poses to Recovery". It most strongly dealt with a disorder called orthorexia, in which "clean eating" or obsession with pure, healthy, or "good" foods really gets in the way of eating normally. It is a frequent side-by-side condition with other eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. For disordered eaters, the trend of clean eating can be a sneaky way to let the ED behaviors persist. I can't eat that because I can't eat gluten. I can't eat this because dairy isn't good for my digestion. I can't eat. I shouldn't eat. The lines are blurred.
For much of this session, I took the same smug stance I briefly detailed above.
"There are no good or bad foods, I know that", I am thinking. "These people who are fasting are just using it as a way to keep their eating disorder going". I've already aced this, and it's not even a test.
But then, a fellow attendee raised her hand and made a comment that changed it all for me.
I forget exactly how her comment went, but let me share the gist of it. Basically, she identified that she felt that she was on the opposite end of the spectrum. That she sees right through these clean eaters, and that she prides herself on eating "anything". But then, she said that this session had helped her recognize that even in spite of having a more inclusive diet, her behavior wasn't totally healthy, either, because her thinking was not inclusive. And that she now recognized that this was something she needed to work on.
I could totally relate to this.
The thing is, for me to defiantly say "I eat everything!" is kind of like jumping up and down and brattily saying "Look at me! I Don't have an eating disorder anymore!". When honestly, it's not true.
The fact is, I still do restrict sometimes. I still do calorie-count sometimes. I still feel a cold, hard panic arise in my heart when presented with a food that doesn't "work" in tandem with the list of acceptable foods I've already declared in my head for the day.
And the fact that I don't subsist on smoothies or that I haven't cut out gluten from my diet doesn't change the fact that I still have work to do on recovering. I cannot assume that since I'm not being annoying or insistent about my dietary restrictions, that it means I don't have a problem.
So what does this mean for my recovery?
As I see it, my work now is this:
Be kinder to others. Listen, I don't think I need to like the annoying way that other people order. If I feel like smacking them, I think I deserve to feel that way. But, I shouldn't be using them as a barometer to feel good about myself because I'm "better" or more evolved or eating "normally" compared to them. Eyes on your own plate, you know?
Be kinder to myself. Quit acting so defiant. Instead of broadcasting "I'm great! I'm normal!", maybe I could serve myself--and others--better by admitting when things are hard. By admitting that I can't always handle it all, that I'm not always OK, actually.
Be more inclusive. Ironically, even though I realize that there aren't necessarily "good" and "bad" foods and I'm not dismissing entire food groups from my diet, that doesn't mean I'm being inclusive. I'm shutting out anyone who isn't on my path and who doesn't agree with me. And quite frankly, that's not very fair of me. Especially if I am preaching to others that they should eat more normally and let themselves have things when ultimately, I am not doing so myself.
Get comfortable with the grey area. It's a lot easier to exist in a black and white thinking sort of world. There's an order to it. There's safety. There's structure. But there's not a lot of joy or acceptance or room for understanding. It's hard to truly connect with others when you think in black and white.
I might not ever enjoy those icky in-between grey areas, but it's worth sitting with them and getting more comfortable with them. Because honestly, so much of life occurs in this area.
I think that it's great to attend conferences like this because you never know what you will take away from it. Sometimes, the biggest takeaways aren't in the presentations but in the conversation that they inspire. This was a huge takeaway for me!