Last week in our monthly department meeting at work we did this cute team engagement exercise called “What’s on your Plate?” At first I thought it was going to be a literal “What’s on your plate? What did you eat today?? Full nutritional breakdown, please!” and my anxiety surged a little, haha. But no, it was not that. Thank god. We were given three minutes to write down (with dry erase markers on real ceramic plates!) everything that was metaphorically “on our plate.” This could include job duties, personal/family responsibilities, or anything really. We then went around and shared some of the things on our lists– responding to emails, attending meetings, preparing presentations, taking care of children or pets, cooking, cleaning, driving, volunteering, etc. We were then asked to identify the things we wished we could spend less time on, along with the things we wished we could devote more time to. Not surprisingly most of us said we would love to spend less time on the tedious and mundane tasks (e.g., meetings, laundry) and more time on the things we find personally fulfilling (e.g., spending time with family/friends, doing truly meaningful work). I was thinking about this activity later in the day and how it could apply to my eating disorder, or any disorder/habit(s) one may wish to spend less time on.
Even though my life is a million times better than it was at the height of my eating disorder, the ED still interferes more often than I’d like. My life in “recovery” (said in quotes because I still don’t really know how to label it) is a series of ups and downs. Thankfully the “downs” are usually nowhere near comparable to the “downs” I experienced when deep in my eating disorder. And the “ups” can be pretty wonderful. Sometimes I’ll have a period of days or even a full week where I feel truly happy, like not just “content” or “not depressed” but really happy. Usually these periods coincide with times when I’m doing quite well with my eating disorder and its “interference” is on the relative low side. Naturally though, life is not always this nice. I also go through periods where the eating disorder is very loud, intrusive, and downright exasperating. Not surprisingly, my mood tends to be lower during these times as well. (What came first? The eating disorder or the chronic depression and anxiety? Coming soon to a blog near you. Uh… this one.)
One of the “downsides” to getting better from a mental illness is that once you get a taste for what “better” is like, the inevitable lower, darker periods can feel even shittier than you remembered (even when those times are not nearly as low/dark as they were in the worst of the illness). Now that I know what I’m capable of and how good things can be, I get extremely frustrated when things are not up to that standard. I also get scared of things continuing to get worse and ending up at rock bottom again. Hello, all-or-nothing thinking! I mistakenly believe things have to either be completely awesome or absolutely horrible.
I like knowing I’m in control of things so when things start to go awry, I like to tell myself I can fix it all by coming up with the perfect plan. The problem is, these plans are usually way too elaborate to reasonably implement all at once, and I have the false idea that I can only implement certain changes at the start of a new week. This means that if I notice things starting to go awry on a Monday, I know it’s unlikely that I’ll actually change anything until the following Monday, although I will definitely spend the entire week coming up with the “perfect plan.” I wish I could be less vague.
In terms of food, I eat basically the same foods everyday. Now I’m sure some of the Recovery Warriors out there would have plenty to say about this, because true recovery is supposed to be all about variety, mindfulness, intuitive eating, and all that good stuff people like Oprah write books about. To those mighty Recovery Warriors I would say, “I’m glad that works for you. It doesn’t for me. At least not now. Have a nice day.” The way I eat generally works for me. As much as I would love to be free from calorie counting altogether, that is not realistic for me right now, so it’s much easier only having to do that once when I first decide on a daily combination of foods. It also frees me from having to make on-the-spot decisions about what to eat each day, which has never been an easy thing for me. So yeah, it works. Sometimes though, I may decide I don’t like a particular food anymore, or something is discontinued, or a certain food starts to cause issues for me. A food may be perfectly safe and fine for years and then all of a sudden it starts triggering certain behaviors. WHY? I don’t know; I wish I did. Therefore what was once the perfectly safe and effective food plan is suddenly… not, and I feel the need to change it. It always starts out as a simple “Ok, I just need to get rid of [specific food] and replace it with something else.” I start brainstorming calorically equivalent foods and sure enough I become overwhelmed. Nothing seems like the right choice. Then I realize it’s not even feasible to change just that one food. If I’m going to change [specific food #1] I must also change [specific food #2] because [insert reason that seems illogical to most people but is completely logical to me]. Then I decide that while I’m at it, I might as well play around with the times I eat too, because maybe eating a tad earlier or later would make all the difference. I become very ambitious and start thinking about all the little changes I could make that may result in happier, less stressful days/weeks. Before I know it I’m drafting a whole new “daily plan” that includes not just specifics about what/when I eat but also a very precise schedule of new wake-up times, mandatory yoga, walking, exercise, cleaning routines, etc.
At first I’m thrilled; the new plan seems absolutely perfect and flawless and I don’t see how it could ever fail. I almost always start these new plans on a Monday, so the whole weekend is devoted to setting things up and preparing for success. Monday is usually a very exciting day and sometimes even Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday… but more often than not I start to get very overwhelmed and impatient with myself, because rarely does it all come together exactly how I planned. I may decide that the new “perfect food” that took me a whole week to decide on is not actually the perfect food. Maybe this food causes the same problems as the food I just switched it out for. Or maybe it causes different problems. Why do I even bother? Cutting out food altogether would be easier. I may collapse on my bed after work and end up missing a night of yoga. Why am I so lazy? I may not get through my whole cleaning list on a particular day. Why am I so gross? This all puts me in a (surprise!) bad mood. I may resort to my eating disorder, which may temporarily lift my mood, but eventually it just makes everything a whole lot worse.
I know I’m not alone in these struggles. Many people with eating disorders also struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, but the kind of obsessive thinking and planning described above often affects even those of us without a formal OCD diagnosis. It’s the nature of the eating disorder. I was talking to my friend about this the other day. She was like, “Hey, at least we bother to make plans. That’s more than a lot of people can say!” And that’s true– our intentions are always good, and our plans are always well thought out (sometimes maybe too well thought out). We’re not blindly going through the motions of our lives hoping for stuff to change. Maybe we just want it all a little too soon, all at once.
It should come as no surprise at this point that I rarely think residential treatment is the answer, but even I will admit that one of its major advantages is that it allows (or rather, forces) you to make big changes all at once. You don’t have to worry about what to eat, when to eat, or what to do all day because that’s all decided for you. The problem here is you eventually have to go back to your outside life, the same environment that got you into the big mess in the first place. All the “major changes” you made while in treatment are likely to be a million times more difficult to maintain outside the bubble of treatment.
So what now? Life seems kind of impossible. Can we all just retire to some tropical island with our cats and watch Netflix all day?
At the end of the “What’s on your plate?” exercise, we were asked to imagine what it would be like to change just 1% of whatever we wished we could change. How would that look? If your long commute to work is making you irritable, you could try taking a different route or leaving slightly earlier or later. That may or may not solve the problem, but at least you’re thinking of ways to deal with the issue. As explained above, it’s often difficult for people with eating disorders to make even small changes without feeling the need to change a million other things, and when those changes don’t “work” it’s easy to become super frustrated and even give up. For this reason, the “just change 1%” thing may be a little too simplistic. Instead maybe we can focus on accepting less than perfect results when we do attempt to make changes, as well as being realistic about the power of one tiny change. In other words, the world probably won’t end if I miss one day of yoga, and switching out [Food A] for [Food B that is almost identical to Food A] probably won’t be the long-lost answer to my eating disorder. I don’t see myself discontinuing my ambitious plan-making any time soon, but maybe I’ll eventually realize that the “perfect plan” doesn’t exist and I’ll be okay with that.