Eating Disorder Recovery means addressing the small things as well as the big and obvious ones. That is what I am writing about today.
If you have an eating disorder, you are going to hate this post. Or rather, your eating disorder is going to hate this post. You will understand that the information it contains is important and you’ll want to listen to it. But, you will also probably feel very overwhelmed at the amount of work you have to do if you — and you might not know where to start. Don’t worry, I’ll address that too.
I’m going to talk about the little things, and I am going to explain why it could actually be those — seemingly harmless — little things that could kill you. Unfortunately I am not talking figuratively. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychological illness, which is why I need you to read this and pay attention.
The little eating disorder behaviours.
What do I mean by this?
- Taking the stairs rather than the elevator.
- Cycling to work every day and taking the longer route at that.
- Getting up to fill a water bottle multiple times a day.
- Getting up and down from the table to get things during mealtimes.
- Having to walk the dog every morning come hell or high water, and always having to take the same minimum length route or longer.
- Having to go up and down the stairs at home or work (or both) X number of times or more each day.
- Having to take the stairs rather than the escalator in shopping malls and airports.
- Always insisting on walking rather than paying for a taxi, taking the car, or getting the bus.
- etc, etc, fill in the ones that are specific to you.
If you don’t have an eating disorder, you’ll read through these examples and think “What the hell? What’s wrong with taking the stairs?”
If you do have an eating disorder, you’ll have justified to yourself a thousand times already that there is nothing wrong with taking the stairs — but deep down you know it is much more entangled, convoluted, and complicated than simply taking the stairs, isn’t it?
Why the little eating disorder behaviours are dangerous
These little eating disorder behaviours are a route for your eating disorder to stay in control of your life. Here’s how:
- They mask themselves as harmless so that you think you don’t have to worry about them.
- They are small enough that other people don’t notice them and won’t therefore call you out on them. (Other than people like me … you’re welcome 🙂 )
- They are often praiseworthy behaviours that society aspires to when they are noticed, which makes them both justifiable and strokes one’s ego.
- Because of this, they have the ability to go unidentified and therefore untreated even in late stages of recovery.
True story of how it was easier for me to quit a job than take the stairs:
Eating disorders have a knack of contaminating every facet of one’s life, and the longer a person has suffered from one the worse and stronger this is. As I had Anorexia for ten years, it’s safe to say that there was no part of my life that hadn’t been touched by it. In recovery it was hard for me to untangle myself from my eating disorder in the decisions that I made and the actions that I took on a daily basis.
In the end, I found the only escape was to make some major life changes in order to be forced to stop behaviours that I suspected were eating disorder behaviours … but didn’t know where to start with attacking them one by one.
So here’s my example: I worked in a place that was in theory “bike-able” from home. (I say “in theory” because most people would have said it was a hell of a way, but biking that distance alone wasn’t something that anyone would call crazy. It was a bit too far, but not out-of-the-question far.)
So every day I cycled to work. Then, when I got to work, every day I carried my bike up the stairs to the office rather than take the elevator like 99 percent of other people did. One time, a colleague did ask me why I did this, and I told her that I took the stairs because I got trapped in an elevator once as a child and had been wary of them ever since. That was a lie. ED loves to lie.
Now, anyone who knew I biked to work every day congratulated me on it. This made me proud, and it also made me attach biking to work to my identity, and this meant that not biking to work would have been all the harder. My ED told me that biking to work made my colleagues value me more. My ED told me that biking to work set me above everyone else. My ED told me that biking to work was good for the environment. (My ED is one nefarious son of a bitch, and it told me a lot of things that aren’t true.)
Now look, for a person without an eating disorder, biking to work everyday is arguably good thing. But I think that you know as well as a part of me did, that for me, biking to work was my ED controlling me in one of the sneakiest ways possible.
And this is just one example. The elevator is another. The fact that I had a rule that I had to walk to the far end of the office and get something from the printer X times a day was another. My colleague at the next desk used to print a lot more than I, and every time I heard the printer start I’d tell her “I’ll grab that for you,” and go and retrieve it. I am sure that she just thought I was a lovely helpful girl, but in truth it had nothing to do with her, it was my ED making me create walking rules. Yeah, that’s fucked up.
Long story short, when I was trying to recover I became suspicious of all these quirky and seemingly harmless behaviors I had, but there were so many of them I struggled to know what was my eating disorder and what wasn’t. In the end, quitting my job, and going to work somewhere else was actually way easier.
I know how crazy that sounds to anyone who has not experienced a severe eating disorder. But this is how fucked up it is.
I also know that those of you reading this who do have or have had a severe eating disorder “get” exactly what I am saying.
Why such drastic action? Why not just try and take the elevator?
Because if you let the eating disorder decide it will never make the right choice. It is a mental illness, and I found that my ED would win at the last moment every time. By removing myself from the the daily routine of going to work, I had taken the choice away from myself, but more importantly I had taken the control away from Anorexia.
I could have tackled the stairs, and I could have made myself take the elevator, but then there would have been the question of biking to work, and all the other tiny little eating disorder behaviours that were entrenched in my workday routine. The fastest and by far the easiest route for me was to nix them all instantly by stopping going to work. I found that in my new workplace, because there were no eating disorder behaviours already set in place, I was able to make a fresh start — with me in the drivers seat not Anorexia.
Would taking the stairs for the rest of my life really killed me?
I think it would. Not in itself, but because it was a way that Anorexia could continue to exert control over me. It was a way that my eating disorder could still operate and reinforce itself in neural pathways in my brain. It was a way that Anorexia could stay alive. I could have continued on for years more, but I would have never reached the degree of recovery that I have now. I would still have been very vulnerable to my eating disorder, but most importantly I would still be being controlled by my eating disorder.
We all know how lonely, depressing, and exhausting having an eating disorder is. If they don’t kill us via malnutrition, they kill us via suicide. Every time I took the stairs I felt like a hostage. Every time I took the stairs I was reminded how out of control and miserable I was. Yeah, I may have met my colleagues at the top with a smile and accepted their admiring glances with grace, but deep down I knew that I didn’t want to take the stairs any more than they did. But I didn’t have the choice.
Now I do.
What can you do?
Know this: If you have to quit your job and find another one just so that you can get out of taking the stairs every time you go to walk then this is what you should do. Your mental and physical health is more important than anything else. Period.
Once you have made a full recovery you have the rest of your life to work on your career. If you don’t make a full recovery, however, you might not have that long at all. Yes, it is that important. Yes, those little ED behaviours are that serious.
- Make an Eating Disorder Behaviour list and include everything. Yes, everything. Not just the obvious food and exercise stuff, but all those weird and sneaky little non-specific behaviours that define you.
- Go through this list with your ED Check person (also defined in the links above) and work out what you need to do in order to stop being controlled by these behaviours — all of them no matter how small and innocent they seem — now.
- Get serious. Have checks and balances in place to make sure that even the smallest blip or slip up is recognized and leant from. Then, take action to make sure that when those circumstances arise again you have a plan to help you not slip up.
- Don’t be afraid of taking drastic action in order to get control of your life back. Don’t let your ED tell you that it isn’t important if you take the stairs everyday. It is. This is your life and you have to be able to make your own choices. You are never free from your eating disorder so long as it control some of the things.
I hope that you find this post and the other information on my site helpful. I am not a professional, just a recovered adult sufferer. Comments, emails, suggestions are welcome for both the blog and the podcast.
Dear Ms. Farrar,
I’m so glad I found your site. My daughter is currently hospitalized with severe malnutrition which she may not survive. She has lost fifty pounds since she left residential treatment. She started college with a nutritionist and therapist, but could not stop herself from doing 36 staircases a day and walking to avoid a three mile bus ride. This is the same kid who biked to school, 13 miles and 1300 feet in elevation gain each way, when she was in middle school. I did not see what was happening then because she was still eating normally. She doesn’t know who she is anymore and all she wants is to fade away. She might very well get her wish. To hear the story of someone who has recovered gives me some hope. Thank you.
Kimberley I am so happy that I gave you some hope. She and I sound so similar. It is so difficult to have the time and space to know who you are when almost every waking minute is governed by exercise and movement rules.
I’m hoping for you.
I have done and/or still do pretty much all the behaviors you mention (I “resent” exercise and walks and even morning/evening stretch sessions because it all just feels so non-negotiable), but I’m always so afraid that I’ll throw the good out with the bad if I stop doing everything. After all, it’s “healthy” to ride instead of drive, or to “always take the stairs” as a sheer policy… how does one deal with the fear that they’ll go from being “obsessively healthy” to way too sedentary? This stuff always trips me up…even though I intellectually understand everything you’ve said in your post!
That’s a pretty “standard” ED line of thought. I thought the same thing too for sure. You just have to know that you won’t. I didn’t!
It’s such a hard position to be in. I have found myself working in obesity research (as a coincidence, it was the only policy job that I could find) and its a killer to have those messages around losing weight confronting me every day. But the reality is that there isn’t a lot of other work out there at the moment and, due to ED’s destructive forces, I don’t any longer have a partner to rely on financially. Thank you for this post, it has opened my eyes to the dangers around me.
I told my psychologist I noticed the stairs thing, when I was will, so I consciously second-guessed my choices the moment I started to recover, to take the elevator when in doubt. She said that this is a different extreme of doing nothing physically instead of too much and insisted on physical fitness. I was already back at a healthy weight. I am the one in charge of recovery and to blame, but this really allowed for some behaviors to creep back in over the course of more than a year in which I resumed my life, which, of course also had some stuff like people talking positively about exercise, workplaces that friendly nudge you to take the bike instead of the car because it is less than a kilometer to get there etc. You probably get what I mean.
Unlike my psychologist, who says taking the stairs is what healthy people do, I know…it, because healthy people don’t overthink and get asked if it is a compulsion by the people close to them.
I always took stairs with so proud feeling of:I am doing this for my heart health. Actually no, it was my ED…