I ate a piece of toast with peanut butter at lunch today.
The sentence sits innocuously on the page. Small and unassuming. For almost anyone, peanut butter toast holds no significance. Unless you happen to be recovering from an eating disorder. In that case, eating peanut butter toast means a lot. Behind the words are the battles, fears, contradictions, and choices that characterize recovery.
Let me explain
Recovering from anorexia means I live daily with an anxious, nagging voice inside my head.
The voice takes a simple thing like toast with peanut butter and generates a storm of misery.
Both are bad. By eating the toast, I failed. I lost control, succumbed to the basic urges of my body.
Maybe if I’d gone for an extra-long run, I might deserve the toast. Or maybe if I compensate by exercising afterwards, I’ll be able to live with myself (but likely not).
Moreover, I’m not actually that thin: my weight is “healthy”, “normal”, “stable”. And sadly, those are synonyms for fat and in anorexia’s eyes.
The dialogue goes on and on.
The conclusion? It would have been much easier not to eat the toast.
Imagine having a paralyzing fear of heights. You might choose to challenge that fear every once in a while, looking down from the top of the ski lift or ascending a rock-climbing wall. Or you might just choose to stay on the ground, avoiding the situations that provoke your fear.
Unfortunately, avoidance isn’t an option when recovering from anorexia.
The thing that my mind misidentifies as “threat” is biologically necessary. To live, I have to eat. So I must face this fear not just once a day, but multiple times each day. Fear arises with every bite.
The “rules” of anorexia
Over time, I’ve come to realize that all of anorexia’s voices stem from several golden rules. “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, says the eating disorder:
- All weight loss= good. All weight gain = bad.
- Changes in my body toward “less thin” are signs of failure and reasons to be miserable.
- There are only two categories: underweight, or too heavy.
- “Healthy,” “Strong,” and “normal” are all negative terms.
- If I’m at a healthy weight, I don’t deserve to eat and I don’t need to make eating a priority.
- Being physically thin and ill is the only way to express pain and wrongness inside of me. If I look healthy, that means everything has to be resolved and good in my internal world.
Looking at these statements, they seem ridiculous. They’re full of obvious errors: black-and-white thinking, exaggerations, and merging of events and outcomes that aren’t logically linked.
Yet for a long time I fully believed them.
For years—all through high school and early college—it didn’t occur to me to question the eating disorder. Hunger, misery and rigid control were the norm. I thought I deserved the misery. It was simply seemed it was the way things had to be.
More to the story?
Then came the slow realization that maybe these rules aren’t the whole story. I learned there’s a name to the lies:
Anorexia, a biologically and genetically-based mental illness that I did nothing to “deserve,” for which treatment is possible, and from which there’s a hope of recovery.
Two years ago — the semester I first started recovery — I happened to take a course called Social Movements. While reading about the women’s rights movements in the 60s, I came across the term cognitive liberation.
“People will not rebel against the status quo unless they feel it is unjust and sense a possibility for change,” writes McAdam, a social theorist. The term applies to collective political action, but I was floored by the personal relevance.
What if I name anorexia’s lies for what they are: wrong, unjust, and untrue?
This changes everything. Suddenly, I have truth and justice on my side. I have the righteous indignation of a body too long oppressed by lies.
The daily voices of anorexia are horrible, but they’re nothing compared to the belief that I deserve them. Once I’ve begun to question this core belief, the tide begins to shift. My voice can grow stronger while anorexia’s subsides.
The pragmatic part
Realizing the need for change is not the end of the story. Cognitive liberation and insight aside, the majority of anorexia recovery is humblingly pragmatic.
It’s weekly weight checks and therapy and nutrition visits. Recovery is the daily effort to get enough calories in and to avoid the energy deficit that triggers relapse.
It’s mantras like, “Food is medicine” It’s the recognition that certain activities that may be normal for others — missed meals, uncertainty about food, or training for marathons — will probably never be healthy for me. Over a year into recovery, even at a healthy weight, these things still hold true.
Maintaining recovery requires constant vigilance and active effort.
There are days when my healthy self is clearly winning. And there are days when, despite my greatest effort, the thoughts – “you’re fat, you’re ugly, you don’t deserve to eat” — are so loud I can’t ignore them.
But progress is measured in subtle terms. In the depth of the eating disorder, anorexia controlled every minute of every day. Now, entire hours and even weeks become your own. Take notice.Eventually, the overall balance will shift.
But let’s get back to the peanut butter toast…
It’s not the amount of food that scares me. As much as anorexia distorts my perception, even I can see it’s just a piece of bread and a spoonful of peanut butter. What scares me is the voraciousness with which my body demands to be fed.
I’m terrified by the strength of the desire to eat. It feels dirty, primal, shameful, low.
These feelings are much bigger and deeper than physical hunger. I’ve spent a lot of my life putting my own wants and needs on hold. Tailoring my behavior to conform to what others expect, performing the good girl, fitting in. Never demand too much. Be quiet and meek and perfect.
Which is why a piece of toast paralyzes me.
Responding to hunger means acknowledging that I, like any other person or living organism, have needs and wants.
If I follow this urge, what will happen? What if my greatest fear is true: that hunger actually isn’t okay?
I fear that following my body’s urges will lead to a weight that’s excessive and a body I can’t stand. I fear that other people — nutritionists and doctors and friends — will tell me to stop eating, back off, reign it in. And this will confirm beyond reasonable doubt that my hunger truly is bad. And that my deepest urges are wrong, that I don’t deserve to eat.
This fear is deeply ironic.
The ultimatum that I must control and repress is already my operating principle. What more do I have to fear? But it feels safer to impose this on myself than to allow others to do it for me. Better to hold myself to the strictest standard than to get to the point where the outside world confirms that my needs should be denied.
Hunger= bad, dirty, shameful, base, wrong. Where did this come from?
Perhaps a better question: where didn’t it come from?
I can look back to personal history: a tendency toward perfectionism. An environment that valued achievement. A brother whose disability made me feel forced to be the “perfect” child.
But the roots are far deeper than that. Examples abound, in literature and history and popular culture, of women made to feel that our needs and desires are selfish or improper.
Others have written more rigorously and specifically about these things — I only mean to gesture. But it’s important to recognize that I’m a product of a specific sociocultural context. My distorted beliefs are not universal truths.
Back to reality
From this realization, other cracks begin to form in the wall of anorexia’s certainty. I think as a biologist: all organisms eat to live. Succumbing to the basic urges of biological beings is not actually shameful and debasing, but unifying and equalizing.
I have another trick that brings me back to reality: above my bookshelf, I hang a picture of myself as a baby, asleep on my dad’s chest. I’m only a few hours old, small and delicate and pink. No matter how loud anorexia’s voice becomes, I can’t help but soften my gaze. I look at my self and say, “Of course she deserves to eat. Nourishment and fullness and abundance are her right, just because she is alive.”
Shortly after the toast incident, I found myself reading the 20th-century French philosopher Simone Weil (who, coincidentally, is rumored to have had anorexia). She says,
Through joy, the beauty of the world pierces our soul. Through suffering it penetrates our body. We could no more become friends of God through joy alone than one becomes a ship’s captain by studying books on navigation. The body plays a part in all apprenticeships.
That’s it, I thought. By fighting anorexia, I’m learning the lessons of the soul on the level of the body. Recovery is a privilege.
Then I laughed. Here I am, reading a 20th-century philosopher and mystic, contemplating the duality of body and soul. My mind can span these ideas, yet it also gets stuck debating the morals of peanut butter.
I could spend my life agonizing over this contradiction—feeling small and conflicted and misunderstood. Or I could hold these opposites inside myself, surrender to the process, and laugh.