So, there's this great TED Talk. (How often have you heard that lately? It seems almost Portlandia-like, how often I hear this).
But joking aside, there is this great TED talk. My friend told me about it. The subject of the talk is addiction, and while the "addicts" in question are drug addicts in recovery, I found that a lot of what the speaker had to say held true for food addictions (and eating disorder recovery), too.
The big takeaway--and the thing that my friend told me about the talk that drew me in--was this single sentence:
The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is connection.
The opposite of an eating disorder is not recovery from disordered eating behavior. True recovery is connection.
How many of you in eating disorder recovery have found that after you ditched the behaviors with food, far from becoming better, your life just became massively empty, with the days seeming to have too many hours?
While it is tempting to blame depression, I really don't think it was that. I think that part of the hard part of recovery was realizing how much of who I was had been wrapped up in the eating disorder. Like parents who don't know what to do with themselves after the children have moved out and gone to college, I was lost without my eating disorder.
Because of my eating disorder, I had never really established a strong social life or a core group of friends that I hung out with on a regular basis. I couldn't; I was too busy having my eating disorder. Even having a job, having a boyfriend, was secondary.
It was a surprise to me that as I became better at coping with the food behaviors, ditching the bingeing and the purging and the restriction, life itself seemed to get harder. I was lonely. I was bored. I didn't want my eating disorder back, but I wanted something.
Turns out, the solution was maddeningly easy: connect with people.
The solution to that boredom was not taking up a new hobby or working more or going back to school (though those things could be part of the solution). It was reaching out to others. For me, this project has taking shape in three major steps, which I will detail here:
My first step was trying to connect with people on a basic level.
At first, my reaching out to others felt awkward. Why wouldn't it? Basically, I had shut down my emotional self at 13 to have an eating disorder. So in breaking out of that shell, I had to contend with the awkwardness of feeling like a fledgling person coming into the big scary world and saying hello and hoping someone would say it back.
- I practiced being social. I would comment about the weather (the weather!) to grocery store clerks.
- I would ask someone next to me in yoga class how long they had been doing yoga. I would commend them on a cool pose they could do.
- I would ask someone with long hair what kind of shampoo she used.
Basically, I would try to find something interesting about anyone and everyone I encountered, and try to use that to have a moment with them.
While at first this felt somewhat artificial and forced, I found that over time, I really was interested in these things about people. People, as it turns out, are really interesting and have cool stories and thoughts that make me think, too.
My second step was to socialize with people.
It was hard for me to take it "to the next level" with people, but I began trying. I began inviting people on social dates (coffee, tea, for a walk, etc). I learned early on that going out to lunch or dinner wasn't the best mode of socialization for me, because it would stress me out and bring me back into the dissociative state of disordered eating. I was not necessarily pleased about that but was able to acknowledge it and be gentle with myself about it - it was, after all, still a really big step just to go out to tea and actually talk with someone without constantly looking at the time and half-listening to them because there was already a ticker tape of disordered eating thoughts running through my mind.
Some of my keys to success here were:
- Inviting people to do what I considered "safe" activities. Walking, having tea or coffee, going to a gallery opening, going clothes shopping. Basically, activities that didn't involve food.
- Not looking at my phone. Not to say I didn't do it at all, but I really tried to not seem like I was eager to be anywhere else. Interestingly, by deciding that you want to be with the person you're with, you will have a better time. If I had somewhere else to be, I would set an alarm on my phone so that it would tell me when it was time to leave, rather than me looking at my phone every 2 minutes to check the time.
- Asking questions and listening. I have a lot of trouble listening! I often try to think of a clever response while the other person is talking. While it's good to be clever, it's not cool to be ignoring what the other person is saying for your own vanity.
- Being interested. Related to the point above, but it requires a certain amount of energy to really be interested. It's worth it.
My third step was to make friends.
This is the step I'm currently on, and it's close to my heart. It's embarrassing to admit that I really never made a core of friends as an adult. I liked to tell myself that it's because I'm a better one on one person, but even that isn't quite it. I made friends as an adult, but never the types of friends like I made in middle or high school, with whom I'd have late night heart to hearts and really tell things. My adult friends were usually at a cordial distance, largely wedged between us by my eating disorder.
But to really recover, I really needed--and need--to connect, so it's time to upgrade those semi-friends into the real thing, and pursue true friendships. Here's how I am doing that:
- Do what I say I will. If someone invites me to a gallery opening or a concert and I say "sure", I actually keep my word and go. In the past, it was easy to say yes to everything but then frequently flake out when it actually came to be time to live up to my end. This made me feel bad, and undoubtedly made the other person feel bad, too. Now, I really try to do what I say I will. I'm not perfect, but I have gotten better.
- Keep in contact. When someone texts me or messages me, I can be tempted to think "too hard" and not respond for days. Now, I really try to be responsive. I think it shows respect, and it shows my commitment to them and "watering" our friendship.
- Doing things. I don't actually do a lot of social things, but that has been changing. I have been trying to really do things, like go for hikes, or go to music shows. It's hard for the introvert in me, but it often feels really good to do things with other people, so I am willing to keep on trying.
- Listen. This is a carry-over from step 2: actually listening. I think this is an ongoing practice that may get easier with time, but will always require a little attention and work.
- Caring. As I previously mentioned, I used to keep friends at a cordial distance. This was nice in some ways because there were never any extremes: no big fights or disagreements. But then again there wasn't really any intimacy. Part of caring, I have realized, is being my true and authentic self with people, and being fully available. This closeness can sometimes cause friction, but it is real, and there is a beauty to that.
- Overcoming fears. If someone wants to do something during a time that I would usually be eating or doing something else, that can be difficult for me. I miss my routine. But now I try to challenge it. Like, recently after a class I took someone asked me to take a walk. Well, I had been planning on going home and treating myself to a fancy beer I'd bought and making brussels sprouts (I like simple things). But I realized that what I would gain by going "offroading" on the path of my day would outweigh delaying my dinner. So we took a walk and I felt a happy glow all night after. Stepping out of the comfort zone isn't appropriate all the time for me, but I can be rewarded for taking baby steps out now and again.
Connecting with people after an eating disorder is an unusual and sometimes strange and scary territory. But I want to tell you that based on my experience, it is a path well worth exploring if you want to take your recovery to the next step.
It's a huge step to let go of the food behaviors that were holding you back, whether it was bingeing, purging, restricting, whatever. I don't want to take that away from you; it's HUGE. But once you've done that, there's a bigger challenge ahead: not just being in the world, but engaging with it. Are you ready to live your best life and truly recover? The world is waiting.