Can a Gratitude Practice Help Heal Your Eating Disorder?

In terms of my eating disorder recovery, I'm happy and proud to file myself under "mostly recovered". But "mostly recovered" doesn't mean "fully recovered". And I do believe in full recovery.

Don't get me wrong. I have no delusions that full recovery would mean that I am free from worry about food forever. Because honestly, even people who don't identify as disordered eaters get crazy about food sometimes. In a way, that is a relief. Being only normal-people crazy about food seems do-able to me. If it's ok to be sort of crazy about food sometimes, then I believe that I can fully recover.

"Full recovery" doesn't mean I will never have an ill thought about what I ate or never think about food as anything other than fuel again. For me, "full recovery" means living in a way that food doesn't dominate my thoughts and dictate how I act. But that having been said, I also consider full recovery a moving target. At a future point, I may need to redefine what recovery is. But for now, this feels good.

It also still feels like a goal. 

Reaching the aforementioned definition of full recovery still remains aspirational, because I still exhibit some troublesome food behavior. For example: 

  • I can only comfortably eat at certain times. For instance, breakfast has to be after 7am; lunch has to be after 12pm but before 2pm; dinner has to be after 6pm but before 8pm. I don't allow much flexibility with this, and on the days when meals don't coincide with these times, I feel a
  • In addition to safe times to eat, I also gravitate toward safe foods. While I am getting better about adding more variety into my diet, there's still a fairly limited pool of foods from which I eat, I'd say 80% of the time. 
  • I have difficulty with intuitive eating. Even with my safe foods, I still portion them in amounts that I think are appropriate or that I should eat, rather than listening to my body's cues about whether or not I want more or less.  
  • I still get stressed out eating with others, and very much prefer advance notice about when and the style of cuisine I will be sharing a meal with someone. 
  • I still have trouble combining certain foods. For instance, I can't eat pizza if I have eaten something else with cheese or bread on that day; there are more examples, but I won't bore you. 
  • I think about food a lot--when I will eat next, what I will eat, how much of it. More than I need to. 

None of these things individually are super major, and certainly not "get this disordered eater to the hospital"-worthy. But together, they form enough of an eating disorder noose that know I am still trapped. I'm smarter than the eating disorder, but at the moment, I still am a little trapped.

OK, so maybe this means I have entered the "fine tuning" portion of recovery. While I'm no longer exhibiting really worrisome behaviors with food, there's still important work to be done. And at this point, it's tricky work, and subtle.

There are tons of books out there for recovering from the more urgent stages of an eating disorder. Not so much written about later recovery. 

In an effort to figure out how to rid myself of some of those last vestiges of ED, I have become curious about the idea of cultivating a gratitude practice.

Honestly? I am hesitant to even say this because in spite of the fact that I teach yoga part of this seems hokey as get-out. But I decided to give it a try nonetheless, because what could it hurt, right?

So I tried a gratitude practice. Here's what I did. 

I wanted to make it easy, so that I could maintain it and not burn out. Basically, each day for five days, I took 5 minutes to write about what I am grateful for. Here's how it went.

Day 1: 

I am grateful for my two pugs. They joined my life in 2009, and now I cannot imagine my life without them. In many ways they could have the potential to annoy me or make me feel bogged down: I have to carry them down stairs, lift them on the sofa, and when I travel I have to drive so I can take them. But I don't feel bogged down, because when they look at me their eyes sparkle with true love.

I am thankful for the friends I have made in Asheville. Last night we had a yoga meet-up in the park by my house and while we didn't do much yoga, there was so much love in the circle within which we set up our yoga mats. I made cake. When we had kicked it, we came back to my house. I have never had so many people in my house. It made it feel real and happy because of their presence. It was a classic evening, and though I forgot until after people left, it was the first day of summer. I remembered that there was some crazy moon, so even though I was in bed I got out and went outside so I could say I saw the crazy moon. I saw it through the trees, and it shone brighter than any moon I remember. I went back to bed happy. 

Observations, Day 1:

I found it easy to get going but after writing the above I realized I still had a full minute left, so I thought about thinks I was grateful for for the rest of the time. But I was stressed about maximizing that last minute. I also felt doubts coming in with some of the last grateful things, like when I thought "I'm grateful for my sweet boyfriend" the thought boomerang-ed back: "but where is he right now". 

Day 2: 

I am thankful for Ashtanga yoga. I love my two teachers, and I love how I am getting stronger. When I first started doing Ashtanga the idea of lifting myself or jumping through or back seemed like things for other people. They're still not effortless for me but I can see how one day I could do all of these things. 

I'm thankful that I am getting more confident in headstand, I still can't do it away from the wall but I can do it next to the wall without touching it. It's just that the wall needs to be there so I feel safe. 

I'm happy that my friend  has started coming regularly to yoga with me, because I know that she is getting strong too. 

I'm so happy to have my two sweet tender pugs. Just looking at them sleep and watching them breathe-snore makes my heart grow ten times like the grinch. Just looking at them. Sometimes I bury my face in their necks and smell their little puggy smell, which is not necessarily sweet--it's a very dog smell--but it is sweet to me. Stinky tender loving pugs. 

I'm happy to live in such a beautiful place. 

I'm thankful that I have regular work and resolve to keep doing the best I can so that I can keep doing this kind of work. 

I'm happy that it is sultry summer. Summer in the south, it is my dream. HUMIDITY FOR LIIIFE.

Observations, Day 2:

I got a little critical while saying what I was thankful about, like when I said I was getting stronger part of me was saying "yeah but you can't do it yet". Later on my mind went to when my pugs die, and then when I wrote about work I worried that maybe I was jinxing myself and my brow furrow got deep. 

I need to be able to be thankful for things without conditions! 

Day 3:

I am thankful for my thighs. They are strong. 

I am thankful for my pugs. They are both snoring on either side of me as I write. Their presence gives me joy. Adding them to my life is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I am thankful that I am not in Santa Fe at this instant.

I am thankful that I have had so many experiences in my life, and that I have had the opportunity to see the things I have. 

I am thankful that I finally got to see Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was pretty good, if not life changing. As usual I saw it years after everyone.

I am thankful that I am learning how to eat savory food for lunch. For many years, all I have had for lunch is a cookie and an apple. I am learning to actually eat food, which tends to make me feel more energized than a snack. 

I am thankful that I am learning to listen to my body's cues about food. I have been surprised to learn that I really crave fat, and sometimes I need fat and no carbohydrates. I don't think I am restricting, it's more a realization that sometimes the carbohydrates make me feel heavy and seem to sap me of my energy rather than give me energy. On the flip side, I am also learning to listen to my instincts when I have the "I need pizza" Feeling.

I am thankful that I have a new book deal. I am thankful that I have been trusted with this responsibility. 

I am thankful that my blogging work has taken off and I am getting additional assignment from one company that hired me. 

I am thankful that I have a new apartment. 

Observations, Day 3:

What would have been my 9th wedding anniversary is coming up, and I am encapsulated this week by a sense of self doubt. It makes it harder to think these gratitude things and think I really deserve them. I needed to say thank you for my thighs because I was tempted to think that they are fat and that I have too much cellulite. 

Day 4:

I am thankful for my pugs. I am thankful that sometimes when I sit with my legs crossed, one or the other or both will put their delicate little chins on my leg, using it as a rest. That level of trust and sweet love is hard to even absorb. It fills my heart with pure, true love. It makes me feel like they see something good in me. There's something to those cheesy sayings like "be the person your dog thinks you are". 

I am thankful that my sweetheart is such a good man. 

I'm thankful that I am in Asheville.

I am thankful that my sister is happy. Through her cancer experience, I know that all of her friends coming together has meant something true and deep to her. I am thankful that she is able to see that. 

I'm thankful that I have friends all over the world. Yesterday an Asheville friend was passing through St Louis on her road trip and I had this idea that she could hand deliver a little gift to my dear friend from Seattle who lives there now. Then I had the idea to include a note to another friend, too. Jenna delivered both and everyone's day became brighter. This made me feel connected to what makes me feel best: delight, a little mischief, and sweetness. 

I am thankful that I have started opening my heart more. 

I'm thankful that I have the ability to be attractive to others, and to be attracted to others. 

Observations, Day 4:

Today the time of gratitude went by very fast. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that I had a great night last night with friends. My heart feels full. 

Day 5:

I am thankful that I have a sense of humor.

I am thankful that I have a friend like the one in Asheville who said the words "do you want to talk about it?" to me yesterday. I needed that so freaking bad at that moment.

I am thankful that I got to go in a "swim-hole" yesterday. It felt very classic and very summer. 

I am thankful that I am no longer 19. 

I am thankful for my pugs. I am so thankful that I turn on the air conditioning for them even though I personally hate it! 

Back to the pugs. Porkchop and Olive's faces. And when they adjust to cuddle deeper into me while we sit together. True love. 

I am thankful that I don't have to look at my bank statement before I go grocery shopping. I can pretty much buy what I want without worry. 

I am thankful that I have a great book deal.

I am thankful that I have a new apartment.

I am thankful that I live in Asheville.

I am thankful for my friends. I am thankful for my friends. I am thankful for my friends. I am thankful for my friends. For not only accepting but celebrating me. 

I am thankful that people think of me whenever they see something unicorn themed. 

I am thankful that my arms are getting stronger.

I am thankful for seltzer water. I am thankful for coffee. 

I am thankful that I am now able to identify anger and frustration. I am thankful that I am learning to identify my feelings and emotions.

I am thankful that I am seeing the connection with how I feel and how I eat. 

I am thankful that Greenlife is so close to where I live.

I am thankful that I can go to New Jersey this week if I choose. 

I am thankful that I am healthy.

I am thankful that my hair is long.

I am thankful that I win at yoga almost every time, there, I said it.

Observations, Day 5:

I felt almost angry while writing today's gratitude listing. I felt with many of them that I had to reframe them simply because the initial thought was negative. Like, for instance, I thought "I hate this person". And I had to transform that into "I am thankful that I am now able to identify anger and frustration. I am thankful that I am learning to identify my feelings and emotions.". And then I thought "I am fat" and then I transformed it to "I am thankful that my arms are getting stronger". 

I don't get my period regularly, but I just did, and it seems hard to be thankful because I hate getting my period. It hurts, it makes me angry, and because having a baby is on my mind it seems like a slap in the face like that is never going to happen. It's hard to resist the evil pull of negative thoughts telling me "it's never going to happen, not for you, Jessie." But interesting, I think that there was power in that reframing. 

Final Observations: 

I think that there is something to this gratitude practice. It was particularly interesting to do the "reframing" bit because I really felt like I "got" one of the things that is talked about a lot in recovery books and in therapy--reframing your thinking. It's talked about, but I feel like I kind of accidentally put it to work in a way I could really understand, and that this exercise allowed me the chance to do that. That part felt like a breakthrough.

Also, it was interesting to observe that while I repeat some of the things I am thankful for frequently in the exercise, each time I felt thankful anew for them. Like, I talk a lot about my pugs, and I'm sure that part of that is that they usually sit with me while I write. But each time I felt my heart swell with love for them while I wrote. And it felt sweet and good and pure.

Maybe the things and people and creatures that we love can act as a limitless well of love for us, if we keep letting them.

Like a daily meditation practice, I think that this is a great exercise and worthwhile, but really easy to forget about or let fall to the wayside. I would like to make a goal to do this at least a couple of times a week, because I really think that I could start seeing serious results on those last vestiges of the eating disorder. 

Have you ever tried a gratitude practice?