Trusting the Soft Animal of My Body
How I went from an eating disorder to intuitive eating
This is Part 3 of my ongoing series on my eating disorder recovery. See Part 1 and Part 2 here. Please note this article contains descriptions of disordered behaviour and may be triggering to some. Reader discretion is advised.
If you have or have ever had an eating disorder you will be familiar with the feeling that the body cannot be trusted. So it was with myself.
I had come to believe that I liked food “too much”, and that if I didn’t maintain an iron grip over my own pleasure-seeking nature, I would inevitably overeat, gain weight and balloon into obesity in a short space of time. To counteract this, I taught myself over time to base all my food decisions on a set of more or less stringent “rules” that I would follow. Moving an instinctual bodily function (satisfying hunger) to the realm of the intellect.
I could eat a certain amount of kilojules in a day, and I could do so at different times of the day. If I ate more than the number I had assigned myself one day, I would “make up for it” by undereating an equivalent amount the next day.
This process had become so second-nature to me during the second half of my eating disorder that it was almost subconscious, and for several years I thought I had recovered as much as was possible.
In 2020 that all changed. COVID 19 struck the world and upended everyone’s lives, making us all acutely aware of our lack of control over the world. My job became precarious for a while. My incarcerated fiancé was sent into solitary confinement for months due to COVID restrictions at his prisons, unable to even call me. I sent him letters via JPay but he could only respond via snail mail, which took up to 5 weeks to arrive in Australia. I worried endlessly over his mental health, unable to know whether he had attempted suicide again, or if he had contracted COVID. My best platonic friend developed “pure O” OCD which led him to feel suicidal, and another of my friends experienced a deep depressive episode.
Added to that, my normal habits and patterns that I felt comfortable in with regards to my exercise and eating changed. Lockdowns meant I wasn’t able to exercise as much as I normally would in the course of a normal day. Normally a lot of my daily exercise would be done by walking to and from public transport on the way to work, not done “for” the purpose of exercise but just a natural part of my day. Now I had specific times I was allowed out of the house, and only for exercise purposes. I turned to videogames, weed (which came with munchies) and UberEats as coping mechanisms. I had to be the “strong one” for everyone in my life.
The pressure expressed itself in me as a recurrence of my eating disorder symptoms and extreme anxiety over the idea of losing my loved ones to COVID, suicide or abandonment.
Ironically, this was a good thing for me. Feeling unable to fully confide in my friends due to not wanting to burden them with my struggles on top of their own pain, I started reaching out to mental health professionals instead.
Feeling the eating disorder symptoms begin to ratchet up again, in the form of crying spells over perceived weight gain, desire to purge, and more rigorous calorie counting, I decided I couldn’t let myself fall back into the abyss of a full-blown relapse. I couldn’t let it get as bad as it had been in 2015.
So I called the Butterfly Foundation and asked them for advice on the best eating disorder therapists available. They recommended BodyMatters Australasia which focuses on not only treating eating disorder symptoms but perfectionism and anxiety, received a Mental Healthcare Plan (which gave me 20 Medicare subsidised visits per year) from my GP and scheduled my first Zoom session.
A crucial part of the therapy was the use of the app Recovery Record. In fact, I believe it was the most useful part of the therapy.
Recovery Record is a free app that you use to track your food and feelings throughout the day. I would take photos of each meal I ate and log the time I ate it. More importantly I would record:
- My hunger and fullness levels before and after the meal
- How mindfully I had eaten
- The emotions I felt before and after the meal
- Whether I felt the urge to engage in eating-disordered behaviours like restriction, body-checking and purging,
- Whether I actually engaged in the eating-disordered behaviours
- Personal thoughts about my situation, potential triggers for the feelings I had
My therapist also had access to my Recovery Record account, and she would use the results and notes I wrote throughout the week as the basis for each session’s therapy, where we would untangle the emotional basis of my triggers and behaviour.
When I first started using the app I was unable rate my hunger cues before or after the meal. I genuinely couldn’t tell if I was hungry or not.
I had so dissociated from my body’s cues, after a decade of not trusting myself, that I no longer recognised what it felt like to be “normally” hungry or “normally” full. I only recognised “extreme hunger” and “extreme fullness”. Everything else felt the same.
This was the result of my overreliance on calorie counting for so long. My brain had learned to ignore the body’s cues and care instead about the numbers I was constantly adding up in my head.
After using the app every day for a few weeks, this began to change. I could tell when I was hungry! I also could tell when my body had had enough to eat.
I had started “intuitively eating”.
Intuitive eating is a relationship to food that is the goal of eating disorder recovery. It is the opposite of restriction, purging OR bingeing.
It is founded upon the understanding that the body naturally knows what it needs to eat, when to eat, and how much. It rejects diet mentality, and encourages practitioners to learn to honour their hunger and recognise satisfaction.
Eventually, you find yourself eating healthily and naturally WITHOUT forcing yourself.
However if you have an eating disorder, intuitive eating is very difficult, not just because there are emotions trying to prevent you acting upon the body’s hunger cues, but because you might not even be able to feel the hunger cues anymore.
That’s why the app was so powerful. It literally retrained my brain to be able to recognise hunger and fullness cues. I was also able to identify the patterns in my life that were triggering the emotions of shame, panic and desire for control that led to the urge to engage in eating-disordered behaviour. As such, they started to fall away on their own.
I cannot understate this. Recovery Record is one of THE MOST useful tools you can have to recover from your eating disorder. It works best with therapy, but if you can’t afford a therapist yet, you can download the app for free for Apple or Android and start using it on your own.
Within six months of starting therapy and using Recovery Record, I was fully recovered from my eating disorder. There was one more crucial piece to the puzzle (nondualism) that I will discuss in the final piece to this series, but I don’t think this would have worked in the dramatic way that it did, had I not already undergone therapy and retrained my brain to recognise hunger and fullness cues.
Seeking professional help was one of the most important things I ever did for my own recovery. It enabled me to trust my body again.
I am an animal. My body evolved to know what it needed to eat, just like other animals who don’t understand what “calories” and “nutrients” know what they need to eat, how much and when.
Intuitive eating is why wild animals are in general much more healthy than humans. They are unselfconscious. They don’t restrict or purge. They are free.
And now, so am I.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.” — Mary Oliver, Wild Geese