Achieving Balance after Bulimia: How I left my disordered past behind
I think we all want to achieve balance in our lives. At times it seems illusive: we want less stress, but we don’t want to feel disconnected. We want to make more money, but we don’t want to lose time with our family.
Balance means different things to different people and to a former bulimic balance is difficult terrain to navigate.
Bulimia is a game of extremes: you binge on large amounts of food, then go to extreme measures to purge either by throwing up, using laxatives or exercise. I did all three.
After nine years of work with mental health professionals I finally came to a place where I was ready to put the bulimia behavior behind me. Once I stopped bingeing and purging, finding balance was difficult.
My relationship with food were still distorted. I still ascribed to a list of “good” and “bad” foods.
I didn't know my body. I didn't know what true hunger felt like and I didn't know what satiety (that feeling of being satisfied and full) felt like either.
Exercise was still a way to burn calories. I was compelled to exercise through fear of gaining weight, not an enjoyment of activity.
To avoid relapse I needed to overhaul my relationship with food, get to know and start honoring my body, and establish a healthier view of exercise.
Achieving Balance with Food
Allow yourself Unconditional Permission.
To restore a healthy relationship with food I had to let go of the idea that some foods were "good" and others were "bad." I started to give myself permission to eat things I previously had labeled “bad” like all fat (nuts, avocado, oils, butter etc.), pizza, ice cream, brownies and fried foods. Giving myself unconditional permission meant that if these foods were presented to me I didn't avoid them and I worked really hard after eating them to silence any shame and guilt.
Stop tracking food.
When I was in the thick of of my struggle with anorexia and bulimia I obsessively recorded my food in a little notebook. I kept track of every calorie. I got rid of the notebook and stopped compulsively checking nutrition labels. I know that many people use food tracking apps or write down what they eat and for some this is an important tool. However, tracking food still NOT part of intuitive eating and if your goal is freedom then it is important to recognize when tracking food stops being a tool and starts becoming a distracting obsession.
Have specific goals.
Even though I gave myself freedom to eat what I wanted I knew there would be occasions where I would want to lose weight. Specifically after giving birth to my daughter. I'd gained a lot of weight during my pregnancy with her. This was the most difficult area to find balance, because to some degree I felt like even the desire to lose weight might force me down the slippery slope back into bulimia. I was scared that even the desire to lose w
But I knew that it was another area where balance was necessary. During pregnancy you gain a significant amount of weight, necessary for a healthy child and birth, yet it is unhealthy to keep that weight after your child is born. After a period of several months of adjusting to life with a newborn I started to make an effort to lose the baby weight. I had a specific, reasonable goal (one that wasn’t oriented around fear) and started to work towards it. I added structure to my diet (though it was not rigid) and started to incorporate exercise into my daily routine. And because I was not longer engaged in a vicious binge/purge cycle, the weight came off much more easily than I expected. There was no need for extremes, because my body was naturally finding a new balance. Last year, when I was running and racing competitively my diet also had more structure. I new that if I wanted to preform well I needed to cut out some of the less beneficial foods (pizza, chips etc) and focus on eating foods that would optimally fuel my body (lean meats, complex carbohydrates etc.). Again, I had a specific goal, added structure but stayed away from rigidity and extremes.
Achieving Balance with Body:
- Learn to eat intuitively. Giving myself the freedom and permission to eat all foods was the first step in learning to eat intuitively: meaning that I would eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full. It took a while for me to learn my own body’s cues. But with time I began to follow what it was telling me. I began to fuel it properly. There were (and still are) occasions where I overeat. It was important for me to recognize that these are normal and not let guilt force me to “punish” myself for overeating: meaning I wouldn’t let myself feel like I had to exercise to burn off the excess calories. Another way I eat intuitively is that I honor my cravings, maybe not every single time, but if I want a certain food I eat it. I’ve found that satisfying cravings prevents the impulse to binge later on.
Achieving Balance with Exercise:
- Check your motives. If exercise, specifically running, was going to be a part of my life after bulimia, I had to get back to my original motives. Fear of becoming fat, fear of what other people thought of me and obsession with my weight and appearance had become the primary drivers of my activity. It sucked the fun out of running and made it an obligation, rather than an enjoyable activity like it had once been. So I had to get back to that original motivation: loving running for the freedom I felt, for the possibility of achieving great things and for the realization that out on the road I felt good enough--I didn’t have to strive to prove anything I could just be me. I say that I run for the road ahead, the unknown and the possibility of greatness. It sums up the feeling I get from running. I fell in love with running all over again after beating bulimia because it became something I did for love, not out of fear.
- Determine what is extreme. This could be considered different for everyone. A marathon to some may seem extreme, but to others is something they do on a regular basis throughout the year. I love running and I love the learning process of training for and racing a marathon. I love the challenge of the distance and the uncertainty you face on race day, wondering how your training will pan out, whether or not you’ll be able to pace yourself properly and if you’ll have that extra kick at the end to finish sprinting. For me a marathon is not extreme. But it is important that I recognize cues from my body and rest when its telling me I need rest. Almost like intuitive eating I have to run intuitively.
- Find a place for it. Training for marathons takes time. Lots of time. It is important to find balance with family, work, friends and other responsibilities. I don’t want to become obsessed with running, I know I have the personality of an addict, I could easily replace one addiction with another. It is important that I have perspective. It is important that I structure my life so that my running serves me instead of me serving my running. When my running serves me it is enjoyable, it is a stress relief, it is the alone time that I need to re-charge. When I serve my running, it takes over my thinking, it feels more like an obligation and it takes me away from my family. One of the ways I create balance is by running early in the morning before my husband and kids are awake (although that is becoming more of a challenge) or if my husband is home I run during my kids' nap time. And if I need to take a day off because it gets in the way of family, then I do it.
- Have a specific goal. To achieve balance with my running I set specific goals that allow me to cycle through periods of intense training and rest periods. That way I give my body the break that it needs and don’t let running take over my life. Yes I am a runner, but that is not the only thing that I am and it certainly is not the most important thing that I am. So I set specific goals, such as a spring marathon and early fall marathon and then spend the late fall and early winter resting before the next training cycle begins. If I have a specific goal, work towards it, have the opportunity to achieve it then I'm less likely to get caught up in letting fear and obsession drive my motivation to run.
Our culture bombards us constantly with extremes. Many of them unhealthy and unachievable. Finding balance is essential, whether or not you have had or have an eating disorder. It can be especially difficult as a woman, because we are often told we can “do it all:” we can have the career, the marriage, the kids, the hobbies, the clothes, the body, the lifestyle. And so we do what we can to achieve it, but in the process lose sight of what is most important. Balance is all about living deliberately: deciding what you value and what adds value to your life and eliminating the things that don’t.
How do you find balance in your daily life? What tips can you offer to others? Are there areas where you struggle to find balance?
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