This post is about how I recovered from 20 years of anorexia nervosa, compulsive exercise, orthorexia, and general eating disorders and body dysmorphia and self-hatred.
While this is about my experience, I’ve read enough and communicated with enough people who have struggled with or do struggle with these problems to believe that my experience is very instructive.
For nearly six years I have been free. Free to eat. Free to be. Free to allow all my feelings and thoughts without getting caught up in resistance.
I am alive for the first time. I want to share that with you.
I started restricting at age 11 or 12. I was a chubby boy with breasts. I was humiliated about that. I innocently decided to take matters into my own hands.
Over the years the restriction and over-exercise took many twists and turns. I was sometimes at a normal weight. For much of the time I was severely underweight. Sometimes I was so underweight that I was in danger of dying as a result.
I was sometimes so emaciated that I looked like a skeleton. I could barely walk from malnourishment/starvation. Yet I would frequently push myself to exercise.
I did a lot of different diets that I rationalized in a variety of ways. And apart from in the early years, I never had as my conscious intention to lose weight. I was trying to be “healthy” and “fit”.
I was vegan for 17 years. I was non-fat vegan for several years. I did grain-free vegan. I was a raw food vegan for a while. Then a fruitarian. I did whole food vegetarian. I eventually made a major shift to paleo. Then low carb paleo. And a variety of other hijinks thrown in along the way.
I did weightlifting. I did yoga. I did gymnastics. I did hiking.
Everything I did, I did fanatically.
And I did it all because I was obsessive.
And I was obsessive because I was terrified of feeling the feelings I felt.
I innocently believed that my obsessiveness would protect me from the unwanted feelings.
It didn’t work, of course. But I was stuck in a vicious cycle. I didn’t know how to reverse it.
I was stuck performing mental rituals day in and day out. I was checking nutrition labels ritually. I was examining my food obsessively. I was reviewing what I ate and worrying about whether it was okay.
All of which was miserable. And none of which actually got rid of the unwanted feelings.
But I kept doing it because I was terrified that things would be worse if I stopped.
When I tried to stop, the feelings were so intense, I eventually caved and started the obsessions and rituals again.
When I tried to eat less restrictively, the feelings were so intense, I eventually would restrict again.
If any of this sounds familiar, then I hope my story will be useful to you.
Eventually I was so sick and so miserable for so long that I had the good fortune to realize that I had to do something truly different.
And I had the further good fortune to realize that I had to address my avoidance of feelings along with eating enough.
Here’s what I did.
First, I began to inquire directly through my experience – not through thinking about it – to discover how I tried to avoid feelings and whether it was necessary.
What I found was that I was in the habit of holding a lot of tension all throughout my body – some obvious, some subtle – because I unconsciously felt it necessary to protect me from my feelings.
I realized that the tension didn’t protect me from the feelings. So even though it was scary to let go of the tension, I knew that the tension wasn’t actually protecting me.
So I began to persistently practice releasing the tension bit by bit. I tried to do it all in one go, but that turned out to be disastrous. So I committed to doing it slowly, bit by bit for as long as it took.
Through doing that, I discovered that I could accept and live with the feelings of openness, chaos, discomfort, and fear that I had tried to keep at bay for so long.
And that offered me a new freedom.
It wasn’t and isn’t always easy, of course. But it is free. And it is so much better than trying to always avoid my experience.
The second thing I did was commit to eating enough. I decided that whatever the outcome – if it made me fat and uncomfortable and ugly and unlovable – I was going to do it. I was going to keep eating enough every day to the best of my ability for the rest of my life.
I decided that whatever the outcome, it would be better to actually live than to hide from life.
So I started eating enough.
Along with that, I started researching the food myths that I had used for years to justify my restriction. I wanted to see if they were founded or not.
Turns out, they weren’t.
I write books now about this stuff. I’ve got a book titled In Defense of Sugar, for example. It is about how the demonization of sugar is unfounded. It’s about how I came to make peace in my mind with one of my demons.
Some people read a book like that and it opens their mind. It relieves them of the burden of hating and striving to be pure and perfect. It gives permission to be fully alive.
That’s why I write.
But sometimes people read my books and are unwilling to open their minds. They just want more ammunition for their war.
There’s nothing I can do about that.
But if you are somebody who is ready to let go of the burden, you may find some of my writing to be useful.
First of all, if you have’t already, get a copy of Cleansed, which is free on this site.
Second, you can get a free copy of Food Myths on Amazon.
And third, if you are looking for support on letting go of the emotional struggles in your life, you may want to check out my free book, Lose All the Way.