Therapists’ self-disclosure of recovery status (not into coming up with a creative title tonight, haha)

I recently read this article about the pros and cons of therapists’ self-disclosure of their own eating disorder history. I’m not going to say a lot about this now because it’s something that I’m sure will come up more and more the further along I get in this journey, and I expect my opinion to shift some, but I wanted to at least mention it.

I’ve decided that I really do want to work with eating disorders one day– maybe not right away when I start seeing clients, but eventually when I’m ready. Do I disclose that I’ve recovered from my own eating disorder? Do I not mention it but be honest about it if asked? What about this blog? Should I stop writing in it once I’m a practicing therapist? Do I just make sure it stays completely anonymous (which it pretty much is except for the pic in the “About this Blog” section and my gravatar thing)? I know how people love to google their therapists… what if they found this? Would that be absolutely disastrous? Am I getting way ahead of myself in worrying about this so early in my journey? I haven’t even gotten accepted into a program yet, haha… but I like to be prepared. 😉

I’d love to hear your opinions– from the therapist side, the client side, or the average Joe side.

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When the most exciting part of your day is planning that perfect binge

I’ve been sitting on this blog for several weeks, but I decided to finally post it. My instinct is not to talk about bingeing (b/ping in general, but particularly the bingeing aspect), because to me it’s the most shameful part of my eating disorder. I know I’m not alone in this though, and I hope that the more I address it the less ashamed people will feel about confronting this behavior.

The article “Investigating the Reinforcing Value of Binge Anticipation” talks about binge eating in terms of alleviating negative emotions. A person apparently binge eats in the context of these emotions and through negative reinforcement the binge eating behavior alleviates this negative affect. When I first read this, I kind of disagreed. In the worst of my eating disorder, I binged/purged in the context of any emotion. I sought to numb myself completely but I was also physically starving, so I relied on the constant b/ping behavior to distract from the never-ending hunger. I was either severely restricting or bingeing on large quantities of food and then purging until completely empty (or well, as empty as was possible for me). That was in the worst of my disorder though. When I’m not as physically starving, I do notice the urge to binge is related more to negative emotions and anxiety.

I also noticed right away that the article focused no attention on the role of purging, which makes me wonder if their generalizations apply more to individuals who binge eat without purging, rather than those with bulimia or anorexia- b/p type. For me (and I’m sure others), bingeing is always paired with purging, and purging almost always follows true binges, not regular eating. This is why I usually refer to the entire behavior as “binge/purging” or “b/ping,” because those two behaviors are always linked for me.

That said, the article then goes on to talk about the unique role of binge anticipation, which is rarely, if ever, discussed in the literature. Ah, binge planning… so many memories of scrambling to write down all the foods I was craving in the moment and hoping they’d be the same foods I craved hours later when I actually got the chance to binge. Clearly for most people, bingeing directly following negative emotions is not always possible. You may be at school, at work, or simply unable to obtain the food necessary for the binge until a later time. This is where binge anticipation comes into play. Researchers hypothesized that often this binge anticipation phase may serve the same purpose as the binge itself, in terms of alleviating negative affect. This may explain why so often I’d be in heaven while planning my perfect binge only to be sadly disappointed when the actual binge failed to live up to expectation (or when the streneous purging part ruined it all).

The article talks about a recent pilot study that examined the brain activation of women with bulimia using an MRI scanner. The experimenters used a mood induction technique to place the subjects in a negative mood. They then measured the subjects’ brain activity when they were asked to plan a binge versus when they were asked to pick out furniture for a fictional apartment. They found a large drop in amygdala activation when the women were planning a binge, but almost no change in amygdala activation when picking out furniture. The pattern of amygdala-related change observed when the subjects were planning a binge has been associated with a decrease in negative affect. They also noticed an increase in activation of the caudate, which may indicate positive reinforcement and “appetitive reward.” In other words, this data suggests that the decrease in negative emotion that has been long associated with bingeing happens (also? instead?) during the binge planning stage. Another study they mention involving the anticipation and actual consumption of a milkshake suggest that this reduction in negative affect is solely associated with the planning, and not the eating itself. However, I think there are too many variables not accounted for to make this conclusion, including the role of purging and level of physical hunger before the binge.

The authors go on to suggest more mood induction, ecological momentary assessment (i.e., rating moods in the moment using some kind of mobile device), and longitudinal brain imaging studies of binge anticipation. I would add that studies should be done with a variety of diagnoses that involve bingeing (binge-eating disorder, bulimia, and anorexia- b/p type).

So the answer is simple then? Just do all the fun planning and skip out on the actual binge (and purge). Negative emotions sill reduced! Problem solved! Haha, right. Up next, how to actually apply these brainy findings to real life…

Using the past to your advantage: When comparisons may actually be helpful

I was reminded by Facebook that eight years ago today I was sitting at the tiny wooden hallway tables of good old  “4 Center” at New York State Psychiatric Institute writing a sitcom about life on a mixed diagnosis psych unit. Sadly but not surprisingly, that sitcom never got off the ground– I wasn’t exactly known for finishing the things I started back then.

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Aside from bringing back both hilarious and horrific memories, it also reminded me just how different my life is now. Eight years ago, despite being 24 years old, I still had not graduated from college; I was too busy being dragged from one treatment center to another in hopes of making any dent at all in my eating disorder.

Recently I’ve experienced a spike in some super frustrating behaviors. Of course things are nowhere near as bad as they once were, and often I would consider this kind of thinking dangerous (i.e., “Things used to be way worse so things must be fine the way they are now” –> no reason to change or progress further in recovery). However, sometimes I think it truly can be worthwhile to compare the past to the present, even just to ease your mind that not everything is coming crashing down around you.

So, while the actual behavior (e.g., binge/purging) may be the same, the frequency, duration, intensity, and/or circumstances may be completely different. I know for me there are certain aspects of the behavior that have not been a “thing” for me in years– like regularly purging in public restrooms, stealing food, or using the scale and other devices to obsessively (in the moment) monitor my purging “effectiveness.” I no longer wake up and b/p first thing in the morning and continue straight through the day into night. I no longer walk around with scary looking eyes due to all the blood vessels I’d break from purging so excessively. I no longer drive my roommates away by my weird and intrusive habits (it kinda helps that my roommates are now both cats, but still).

So no, things are not perfect now, and I wish they were better, but at least I can look back and remember how far I’ve come. Failed psych ward sitcom writer without a college degree to… accomplished research analyst with a master’s degree (x2, eventually) and an exciting new life plan, with two roommate cats who haven’t kicked me out yet. Yay, total failure this is not!

 

When the “best years of your life” are an awkward disappointment: College and eating disorders

Seeing as it’s “that time of year again,” I wanted to write a blog about college and eating disorders. For a lot of people, college is the first time they ever live away from home. I think it’s pretty well known that major life transitions are common times for mental health issues to develop. However, transitions can be just as difficult for those already dealing with these issues.

I was very excited to go off to college my freshman year. I didn’t have that great of a high school experience, but everyone kept telling me that college would be so much better. “People are more mature in college. You can totally reinvent yourself and you’ll definitely fit in because there are no cliques or ‘popular kids’ in college. You’ll love it!” Well, maybe. I guess it depends on where you go. I went to a fairly small liberal arts school for my first three years of college, and I found it to be eerily similar to high school. My freshman dorm quickly became divided into high school-like cliques. There was drama and gossip and people still had to work hard to fit in. Honestly though, that stuff exists everywhere, even in the adult working world. I think I was just mildly disappointed that it wasn’t the drastic culture shift that so many people tried to to claim it would be.

At the time I was heading off to college, I had already been struggling with my eating disorder for six years. By the end of high school, though, I had at least reached a kind of stasis with my ED that I expected to maintain through college. After all, every one kept telling me college was so much better than high school, so I figured I’d be super happy throughout and have every reason to do well. I said goodbye to my therapist of five years; I figured I’d just go back to her if things started to slip but I really didn’t see that happening. This was definitely a mistake. Things did start to slip, almost right away, but I was too ashamed to admit that I wasn’t thriving in the amazing college scene so I suffered in silence for the first year.

I started having major issues accepting my body. Going in I could at least somewhat accept it– I was significantly bigger than I was at the worst of my anorexia, but I was still technically underweight and could see that most people probably still saw me as ‘thin.’ Within a couple months of starting college, that was no longer enough. I started really missing my old (smaller, sicker) body and my eating disordered behaviors intensified. This is when I first began to struggle with bingeing/purging, a behavior that still to this day remains incredibly shameful for me.

There were also certain factors specific to the college experience that probably didn’t help. For example, my dorm’s Resident Director (who managed all of the RAs) was really into encouraging us to record our calories and participate in these awkward weight loss challenges. She posted signs on the elevators advising us to take the stairs instead, complete with handy pictures of food crossed out with red x’s. Drink all the alcohol and smoke all the pot you want, but whatever you do– SAY NO TO THE COOKIES!!! Yeah, she was weird… I also had two friends who were always trying to get me to join their diet groups, even though they knew about my history with eating disorders. None of these things were solely to blame for my relapse, but they certainly made what I was doing seem more socially acceptable, at least at first.

It was also in college that my anxiety related to eating with others became pretty extreme. Eating with people was never an easy thing for me, but I could at least make myself do it when absolutely necessary and I went into college hopeful that I’d be able to eat with my friends from time to time. While I started the year off going to the dining hall with the few friends I made, this quickly became an almost impossible task for me, perhaps largely due to my increasing b/p behaviors which I kept strictly secret.

During the first few weeks of going to the dining hall, I noticed a girl who I knew had an eating disorder. She was quite thin, but even aside from that, it was clear to me. She had all the physical signs of chronic purging, and she always sat alone and ate the same exact foods in the same order. She would finish each meal with a huge bowl of ice cream and then would disappear. I’ll admit at first I was almost envious that she at least had the ability to eat out in the open like that, because my bingeing (and actually at that point, eating anything at all) always had to be completely secretive which made it harder to maintain this behavior that I hated and was so ashamed of but unfortunately couldn’t stop. I also just felt really bad for her though, and often wanted to run up and hug her (but yes, that would have been super creepy so I restrained myself).

I later learned from a mutual friend that this girl did indeed have an eating disorder, and that her original roommates had voted her out of the suite they were living in because they couldn’t deal with her b/ping. Little did I know at the time, this very same scenario would play out for me my junior year.

Now, I want to say something about college counseling centers. Some really suck. I’m sure there are good college counseling centers out there, but the two experiences I had (at two different schools), were really shitty. If you have access to a qualified therapist outside of the school, you’re probably best off sticking them them. I find a lot of therapists staffed at college counseling centers will claim to have experience with eating disorders when they really do not. I was dragged to my first college’s counseling center by my roommates and it could not have been more of a disaster. I was made to feel even more ashamed and at fault than I already felt, and I spent the rest of my time at that school going out of my way to avoid running into these crazy “experts.”

At the end of my junior year I got stuck in a cycle of revolving door inpatient admissions that eventually led to me taking an extra four years to finally graduate. Today, at the old age of 32, I can recognize that while this seemed like the end of the world at the time, it actually wasn’t. I did eventually graduate and even went on to get a master’s degree. That said, if I could magically go back in time I would absolutely do things differently. Sometimes it really is necessary to leave school and get more treatment. I don’t regret ever doing this, I just regret doing it as many times as I did. I wish I would have put more effort and time into making the first few rounds really worthwhile, so that the subsequent times wouldn’t have been necessary. There were also times when I wish my treatment team would have given me more of a chance to turn things around on my own, instead of throwing me back in treatment as soon as I struggled. Hindsight is 20/20 though, right?

I used to get really sad when I’d hear people talk about the great college experiences they had. Mine were filled with lots of shame, secrecy, tears, and hospitals. Can I go back and do it all over again? Like, the whole freshman dorm experience? It could be a reality show– 32 year old ‘cat lady’ poses as a college freshman and infiltrates most popular dorm. Will she finally be cool??

I no longer let myself get sad. I had lots of experiences, and not all of them were good, and some were really, really bad. However, I eventually managed to move on and had it not been for those crazy eight years, I probably never would have ended up here, in Los Angeles, with a graduate degree and a life I finally like.

Moving, planning, and changing: What is realistic and what is self-sabotage?

I’ve moved a lot in recent years– four times since moving out of my parents’ house in 2010, five if you count my couple month stint in St. Louis a few years earlier (which I usually prefer to forget about because WTF was I thinking?!? haha). Last weekend I moved into my latest place, and so far things are going pretty well, minus the currently non-functioning WIFI (grrr… this seems to be an issue whenever I move).

I know it’s common to see moves as “new starts” and I’ll admit I’ve bought into this cliché pretty much every time I’ve moved as an adult. Not once has the experience lived up to my grand expectations. I’ve made some really significant changes over the past few years, just none of them have perfectly coincided with any of my moves. Not a big deal, but knowing this did cause me to second-guess myself when I once again started coming up with big changes I was going to make to go along with this move. Had I not learned my lesson by now? Things don’t magically change for the better when you move to a new place, whether that place is 3,000 miles away or 3 miles away. No, things don’t magically change for the better when you move; you have to plan and work for them just like changes you expect to make at any point in your life. The truth is though, I’ve been meaning to make some pretty big changes for a while now, and the recent move just gave me more of a push to finally get serious about them.

Usually when I move, I make really ambitious statements like “Once I move, I’m never going to purge again!” which is pretty funny considering up until this most recent move, the first thing I checked out in every apartment I looked at was the bathroom to make sure it was “purge-friendly” (sorry if this is TMI for some people, but it’s just reality for many people with chronic EDs). Every time, I would fail at this goal by night one or two and then I’d just laugh it off like, “Well, this is me! It’s just what I do!” It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I was able to make any meaningful dent in this particular behavior. At the risk of possibly revealing too much to people who may have thought I was doing better than I am, it’s still a behavior that exists for me. It is considerably less frequent and not nearly the burden it was for the majority of my life, but it does still exist. All of the same urges are still there, I’m just better at fighting (most) of them, but I still give in at times. It’s still something I have to think about and factor into my every day life (i.e., how to avoid it or how to do it without letting it completely spiral out of control).

I have never lied about my progress and it is 100% the truth that I’m doing better now than I’ve ever done before. Overall, I’m a pretty happy person these days (which I never thought I’d be able to say) and I’m able to live a pretty full and active life. That said, certain things about my eating disorder are still pretty present and bothersome and I’m just now realizing it’s okay to admit that while also maintaining that my life is pretty good right now. It can be both.

I’ve said before that the main thing that has allowed me to make any progress has been accepting that I’ll have this eating disorder forever and that the myth of “full recovery” doesn’t really exist for many people with long-term EDs. I still feel this way. However, I’m now more open to the fact that maybe I still have room to get better from here. I’ve talked a lot about the progress I made in the first couple years after leaving treatment the last time in 2012. Since then, things have been pretty stagnant ED-wise (although lots of awesome stuff has happened since then in other areas of my life). For some reason, I kept thinking this was as good as it was going to get for me. After all, I’m no longer b/ping for 10 straight hours a night, avoiding any and all social food situations, or refusing to leave my room if my weight is even 1/10th of a lb higher than the previous day. As long as things are more than a step up from that, I figured I should just shut up and be grateful!

The truth is though, even considering the very reduced rate at which I’m engaging in that behavior now compared to before, there are still many, many reasons why I wish I wasn’t doing it at all. I wrote all of these reasons down, along with the reasons I continue to do it (because yes, those exist too, I’m not doing this because it’s fun). There have always been points on each side, but the difference now is that the “reasons not to do it” far outweigh the “reasons to do it.” There’s no comparison. In fact, I’d say the “reasons to do it” are actually reasons WHY I still do it and not reasons WHY I WANT to do it, because I don’t want to do it. Not at all. It did used to give me something, but now it doesn’t really give me anything that I can’t get in other ways. I do it almost completely out of habit now, and possibly still to some degree, out of a physical need. My dietitian has been reminding me for years that I’m still not eating enough, and while on some level I know she’s right, it’s also hard to accept considering what my intake is now compared to at all other points in my ED. I usually think, “but I’ve gotten by on so much less food!” which is true. However, “getting by” usually meant resorting to hours of  b/ping each night and only having enough energy to do the bare minimum with my day. There’s no way in hell I’d be able to do all that I’m doing now on that little food (kept down) and that level of b/p intensity.

Over the past several years, I have actually made many attempts to reduce this behavior further. I’ve taken up yoga, started this blog, meditated, read many dumb self-help books, seen several psychiatrists to change up my meds, etc. Some of these things have helped a little, but nothing has been a total game-changer. I’ve even changed up many food-related things, hoping that would help. I’ve played with the times I eat, the setting in which I eat, the ratio of macro-nutrients in what I eat, etc. The one thing I haven’t changed, however, is the amount of food I eat. Well, that isn’t entirely true. I’ve made minor changes, like increased my overall calories by 60, 70, 80 or even when I’m feeling really daring—100 calories. Rarely have these small increases made a difference in my hunger levels or how I feel physically though, and I just end up getting mad at myself for “wasting” the added calories for no noticeable benefit (i.e., feeling less hungry during the day and having fewer urges to b/p). Throughout all of these attempts, my dietitian would encourage me to make bigger increases to notice a difference and I would really want to. I would tell myself that even if I took a major plunge and increased by 4-500 a day, I’d still be eating less than most people. But, what if I gained weight? Let’s face it, I’ve gained on less food thanks to my lovely f#cked metabolism, so it’s quite possible that I would, at least at first. One day I hope to be able to tolerate being a truly “normal” weight, but I’m not there yet and as controversial as it may be to some of the hardcore ~recovery warriors~ out there, remaining within the confines of the “underweight” BMI range while still being otherwise healthy is what’s kept me from completely relapsing since 2012, and I’m grateful to have people in my life who understand/support that.

So yeah, I might gain weight, but hopefully not much and hopefully just temporarily. I have proof that it is physically possible for someone with a functioning metabolism to maintain my current BMI while eating quite a bit more than I’m eating now, so I guess I’ll just pray that my metabolism regulates after the initial increase. It has before and I guess it can again.

The thing is, I’ve made so many plans to do exactly what I’m talking about and I always end up backing out or abandoning it after a day or two when it gets too hard. I actually enjoy the planning process. I absolutely love making plans for things I would allow myself to eat (without compensation) if I could. I makes lists of all the foods I’ve dreamed of for so long but haven’t allowed myself to eat (at all or without purging) and I get really excited. If only I just got to eat one of those foods on a regular basis, that would be awesome. I get excited about the possibility of eating a bigger snack at night that I can extend to take X amount of time to eat instead of only X amount of time, which pathetically makes me so happy because omg, food!!! And then I smile when I think about  actually getting to enjoy the food and not have to worry about ~getting rid of it~ immediately after. It is all so exciting and fun to think about.

Reality, however, is far less thrilling than the planning phase. In reality adding new foods or increasing amounts of a food is usually more anxiety-provoking and guilt-laden than it is exciting, so much that it often doesn’t feel worth the effort. This is where I always get stuck. Can’t I just remain in the exciting planning phase forever?

I realize this may all sound crazy to some non-EDed readers. I just think there should be no shame in being a little more honest about some of the things I still deal with, even while appearing so healthy and functional to the outside world. I know when I was deep in my ED and would look at people like the current me, I would assume what they had was so out of reach. I want to show people that it is possible to have really cool shit going on in your life even while you still struggle with many of the same ED things, but it’s also always possible to continue making progress and working towards a better “recovery” than what you currently know.

I promise I will finally get to my point. When I decided to move, I decided it would be the perfect time to finally take the plunge and increase my calories by a real amount, because if there’s any chance it might help further reduce that behavior I so deeply hate but can’t completely stop, it would be worth it. I didn’t want to bring the same problems associated with that behavior to yet another apartment (and there are many– things people wouldn’t even think about until they happen, and they all suck). This time I didn’t make the overly ambitious statement of “I’m never going to purge again!” I also didn’t come in with the expectation that my new ~plan of action~ would begin perfectly on Day 1 of living in my new place (which is good because this week has been riddled with unexpected and shitty events, none of which have been conducive to starting this new plan). What I have done is make very detailed and honest lists of why I’m doing this, the good things that will come out of it, and the bad things that could happen as a result of continuing not to do it. I’ve read these lists over and over to myself and have tried to imagine how good I’ll feel once I’m finally able to make a bigger dent in this behavior that  continues to follow me wherever I go.

Will it finally “work” this time? What does it “working” even look like or entail? Will I last longer than a day or two this time? Well, my friends, 13906825_10100726571122622_5367965971188160289_nI make no promises. I don’t want to be that obnoxious person who proclaims to the world via the internet that she is finally DONE with her eating disorder, like FOR REAL this time because life is now SO AWESOMELY AWESOME that there’s no room or reason for  some dumb eating disorder… only to come back a week or two later to report that sadly, she was wrong.  Life actually still sucks and the eating disorder is her only reliable friend, so like… back to square one. No, I will not be that person. I do feel that this time is “different” for me, but I’m not naïve enough to think it will all go exactly as planned.

As per usual with me though, the plan starts Monday. In the meantime, I will continue badgering Charter to finally fix my WIFI because phone typing long blog entries is not fun. 😉

 

When yoga gets complicated: How to appreciate the mental aspects of yoga

A little over a year ago, I was on the phone with my best friend. I remember telling her, “Ok, so don’t hate me, but I think I want to start doing yoga. Like, real yoga. For real.” She had a good laugh and then was like, “Wait. You’re serious?”

What’s so funny or unbelievable about wanting to do yoga? Well, for most people, absolutely nothing. It was funny to us though because up until that point we both had a strong mutual dislike for yoga. I’ve found this to be true of many people who’ve been through a great deal of eating disorder-related treatment, as yoga is often incorporated. I’m not just talking about the fancy residential centers; I’ve been to inpatient EDUs and even general psych wards that incorporate “yoga.” NYPSI, 2008– a unit comprised of patients with eating disorders, depression, and pill addiction are led in weekly sessions of “yoga” which consist of a bunch of dirty makeshift mats spread out on the tiled dining room floor (yes, we yoga-ed where we ate). Because ED patients were usually on restricted exercise there was very little movement involved, so it usually ended up being 90% meditation with maybe a tree pose and one downward dog thrown in to spice things up. It was often led by some random psych-tech and very rarely by an actual licensed yoga instructor. Is it any wonder why people exposed to this kind of “yoga” would develop an aversion to it?

This isn’t to say that all of the therapeutic yoga I experienced was horrible. For example, the place I was at in 2012 actually had a really awesome (licensed!) instructor teach legitimate yoga to patients once we were medically stable. It was experiences like this that led me to wonder if maybe I really could/would enjoy “real” non-treatment yoga one day.

So, in May of 2015, I took a leap of faith and signed up for my local yoga studio’s newcomer special that allowed you to take three weeks of unlimited classes for just $30. By my second or third class, I was hooked and I signed up for a membership as soon as my 3-week trial was up. I loved almost everything about it. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I maintained a lot of my gymnastics days flexibility. I loved that it was 60, 75, or 90 minutes at a time where I could temporarily escape from my everyday worries and stressors. I loved that the body image aspect I was so worried about (more on this later) wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. People really seemed to be focused on their own practice. And finally, I really loved the social aspect. Even though it was several months before I got comfortable enough to casually talk to the people I regularly saw there, just the experience of being in a space with 10-20 other people was surprisingly really… nice. I sometimes think I’m an extrovert stuck in an introvert’s mind/body; I do love people and can feel energized by them when I allow myself. In time I started being more friendly and open with people. I quickly became “good enough” to attend the advanced classes. Yoga life was good.

I’ll admit, my major motivation initially was physical. I suck at most regular exercise, so I thought yoga could be my thing. I made myself go to at least one class a day, often more. I gravitated to the most physically intense and advanced classes. More often than not my thoughts during savasana were along the lines of “I wonder how many calories I just burned?” Super deep and spiritual, I know. When yoga was a purely physical thing for me, I was convinced I had to be super compulsive about it. If yoga wasn’t going to help me achieve/keep the body I wanted, there was no point. Yoga twice a day everyday or not at all.

Gradually, however, I started noticing the more mental and emotional benefits. I noticed I just felt generally better after yoga, in every way. I went to sleep in a good mood and woke up excited for the day ahead, which was not typical for me. I started being easier on myself if I had to skip a class due to a scheduling conflict because after all, beating myself up for only going to yoga 5x/week instead of 7 was kind of silly. When my one-year yoga anniversary (yoga-versary?) came up in May, I was feeling pretty good about my yoga journey over the past year. I had managed to embrace the more spiritual side of yoga without becoming a hippie pot-smoking flower child (no offense to hippie pot-smoking flower children; that just isn’t me).

Then, a couple weeks ago something happened that kind of threw me for a loop. After class one night I was chatting with a fellow yogi. I mentioned that it was recently my one-year anniversary of being at the studio, and how crazy but cool it was that I had come to be such a fan of yoga. And then, out of nowhere, she started telling me how she had noticed a remarkable transformation in my body (yes, my body) over the past year. This came completely unprovoked; I didn’t give this woman any indication that I wanted her to give me a detailed analysis of the changes she noticed in my body (my body!) over the past year. It was so completely bizarre and uncomfortable. I just stood there with a blank stare on my face until she finally stopped talking long enough for me to kind of awkwardly laugh and tell her I had to be getting home.

I remember driving home that night thinking, “What seriously just happened??” As for the specific comments, it took me a long enough time to figure out what she was even trying to say. I think she was trying to pay me a compliment, but not unsurprisingly nothing about it felt good to me. I had recently worked hard to convince myself that even though I may be X lbs higher than I was at this time last year (thank you daily weight records), it’s not the end of the world, and it’s even okay because I’m generally happier and in a better place. I should also note that this wasn’t the first time this woman had made comments about my body, although this time was definitely the strangest, as she actually made reference to changes she’s noticed in specific body parts. What…the… actual… f*ck?

This woman is not aware of my history with EDs. That said, I truly think comments like this would make anyone uncomfortable, even people with no ED history whatsoever. I was telling this story to a close friend today, and she passionately validated for me that this woman’s comments were completely inappropriate.

One of my major hesitations to joining a yoga studio was the fact that it would mean major “exposure” for my body. In general I really hate the thought of anyone looking at or even noticing my body. This used to be so bad that I would avoid leaving the house entirely on bad body image days. As such, willingly choosing to put myself out there via group yoga was a pretty huge deal for me. Whenever I started to feel weird and anxious about my body being “on display” I’d tell myself that no one was looking at or examining my body; everyone was too focused on their own practice. Listening to this woman give such a detailed assessment of my body negated this completely.

I think this woman is a perfect example of someone who does yoga purely for physical reasons. This is absolutely fine; I respect that everyone does yoga for their own reasons. That said, I’ll admit that being around people like her make it harder for me to embrace the other more mental/spiritual aspects of yoga, as it brings the entire focus back to the physical.

I don’t intend to let this woman spoil my love for yoga, although it’s definitely been a mindf*ck of a couple weeks as I try to make sense of and put to rest these comments. I’m grateful for the very candid conversation I was able to have with a friend today who was able to offer much needed perspective and insight into this and related body concerns. Thank you, friend, your input today meant more than you know.

“Welcome. You’ve got mail.”: Recalling the early days of online support forums

I met my best friend (K) online. We “met” on an eating disorder-specific message board in late 2008. About a month into our friendship we were already corresponding on a daily basis, through emails, texts, and phone calls. We didn’t meet in person until nearly four years later when she came to stay with me for five days shortly after I moved to Los Angeles. We were scared it might be weird, but it really wasn’t. Today, seven and a half years later, she remains one of my closest and most loyal friends.

I used to be afraid to tell people how we actually met. I even lied to some people and told them we met at gymnastics camp or at a treatment center. Both of these were actually plausible as we were both into gymnastics as kids and we both had been to some of the same treatment centers, although never at the same time. I was afraid that if I was honest about having her met online, especially on an eating disorder site, people would get the wrong idea. You’ve probably heard about the “pro anorexia” movement and their large presence online. I was never into any of that, and neither was K. Still, people hear “online” and “eating disorder” and assume you must be talking about some graphic pro-ana site where you drool over emaciated pictures and trade tips on how to lose 15 lbs in 3 days. To people with actual eating disorders, this assumption is pretty insulting. I know others may disagree, but I don’t consider those people to have real eating disorders. They’re struggling with something, surely, but that something is usually completely unlike what I and most others like me have struggled with. I don’t want to give too much attention to this topic because it’s pretty irrelevant to what this blog is about. Anorexia is not a “lifestyle” that anyone should strive for and people who treat it as such are doing everyone a disservice by perpetuating ridiculous stereotypes.

Moving on… I’m no longer ashamed to admit where I met K. I wanted to write about my many positive experiences with online connections and support because so much of the talk around this topic is about the negatives. The truth is, the online world is a completely different beast than it was 15-20 years ago. Both K and I agree that what so many people with eating disorders do online today in the name of “support” is not at all conducive to real recovery, and is in many cases harmful. I’m not talking about pro-ED forums. I’m talking about the ever-expanding “recovery community” that exists on sites like Tumblr, Instagram, and to a lesser degree, Facebook. I want to keep the focus of this blog on the positives of online support, so I’ll save my discussion of the current Tumblr/Instagram situation for a future entry.

My first encounter with eating disorders on the internet was in late 1997 when I was 13. One of my teachers had recently picked up on my eating disorder and turned me into the school nurse, who then got the school psychologist and my parents involved. It was not a fun time for anyone. I had been secretly dealing with stuff for a while, but this was the first time it was “exposed” and people were labeling it as anorexia, or an eating disorder. That alone scared the shit out of me. I knew what anorexia was and I was convinced that was not what I had. I was nothing like the girls in the Lifetime movies about eating disorders. I didn’t start losing weight to look good in my prom dress or to impress a guy. I didn’t eat 3 sticks of celery a day or faint dramatically after a run. That was not me.

I knew there was something weird/wrong about me though, so I started doing my own investigating. This was before Google, but I managed to find quite a few resources, such as the AOL “support forums” dedicated to eating disorders. Yes, AOL; this was 1997. It wasn’t long before I realized how many people out there were dealing with very similar struggles. There was a close-knit group of “regulars” who I quickly got to know well. We were girls, women, and men of all ages from around the world, but we had no problem relating on the level of our shared struggles. I started waking up early so I could “check the boards” before school and more often than not I’d go straight to the computer after school and spend several hours catching up. Some would call this isolating, and yes, it kind of was, but consider that before this I would spend this time completely alone and depressed in my room. The few friends I had from school were not people I could talk to about this, and I never wanted to burden my parents. I started seeing a therapist but it was years before I trusted her enough to really let her know what was going on. My “boardies” as we so cheesily called each other, were my biggest confidants.

AOL

The following summer I went to a routine doctor’s appointment only to be told I was being admitted to an inpatient facility that very night. They gave me an hour to go home and pack my bags. To say I was terrified would be an understatement. This would be my first encounter with out-of-home treatment and all I could think about were the horror stories I heard from my friends online about these places. “If you refuse to eat, they’ll put a tube up your nose and feed you high-calorie liquids all day. They want to make you fat. You can’t do anything unsupervised, even take a shower or go the bathroom.” This was my absolute worst nightmare; I begged everyone to give me one more chance and not make me go to such a prison.

Once I realized it was a done deal I knew I had to “check my boards” one last time before leaving. As soon as I got home I threw a bunch of clothes and (unbeknownst to me at the time) contraband in a bag and ran down to the family computer. Lucky for me, one of my closest “boardies” was on good old ICQ, which was a super old-school instant messaging system for all you youngin’s reading this. I told her what was happening and she assured me it would be okay. She told me not to believe all the horror stories about treatment; it wasn’t all that bad. Maybe I’d even get something out of it. And hey, I was finally going to have “permission” to eat! I made it through that first admission, I believe, partly thanks to the support I knew I had back home via my snail speed dial-up.

Through the years the forums themselves came and went, but I continued to find similar online support. The longest stretch of time I continued visiting any particular forum was from about 2004 to the very recent present. Many of the people I met on this board became close friends, including K, the person I consistently refer to as my best friend. I gradually stopped visiting this board over the past year or so, mostly because I found it had changed greatly from the board I originally fell in love with. Even without regular visits to the actual forum, I still remain connected to many of the people I met on this board. I actually have plans to meet up (for the first time in-person) with a long-time friend from this forum soon, as she happens to be in town.

I won’t pretend my experiences with these forums were always 100% positive. There was the inevitable competition and drama you find in any group of disordered individuals. There were the compulsive liars, the manipulators, the bullies. We also witnessed the unfortunate deaths of many; that’s what happens in a community of 900 people with eating disorders and other mental health issues. However, none of this was any different than what I would have experienced had I known these people “in real life.” That’s what a lot of people don’t seem to understand. The way we conversed online in these contexts was completely different from how people converse online today. Today people do nearly everything from their smartphones. We’re connected 24/7 and it’s not uncommon to be replying to emails in the car, in line at the store, or even while simultaneously holding several other conversations. We’re not just sending each other words but pictures and videos, often highly edited to ensure everyone sees us in our very best light.

“Back in the day,” I remember staying up until 3 and 4 in the morning on my clunky laptop having in-depth conversations with people. We didn’t have constant internet access that followed us everywhere we went. Connecting to others through this channel was a truly special and treasured thing. I got to know people online better than I knew most of my day-to-day acquaintances from school, work, or other “real life” places. I may never have met 80% of them in-person, but they were my core lifeline over many years of depression, hopelessness, and interspersed crises.

These days, most of my interaction with people is through “real-life” scenarios. I’m thankful for that because it means I’ve finally built a life for myself outside of my disorder. I no longer have to rely on secret online forums to be validated, understood, and engaged. This wasn’t always the case though, and I will never forget “where I came from” and all of the good that came from those avenues of support.