Why having an eating disorder sucked: Part 2

I’m just gonna say it: Constipation.

As someone who grew up listening to Avril Lavigne, I learned at around thirteen years of age that the correct way to sing the chorus for ‘Complicated’ is, in fact, “Why’d you have to go and make things so constipated?”

Yes, eating disorder, why??

Because of my irregular eating habits, I was severely constipated for years. As you can imagine, this was incredibly uncomfortable. I had no idea that it was related to under-nutrition — in fact, I was convinced that I needed to eat even more kale and drink even more black coffee to get things moving (for the record, this didn’t work). Not to get into too much detail, but sometimes I went over a month without a poop.

…Yeah, not good.

I was drinking dandelion tea every day and trying all kinds of laxatives — nope.

The other gastrointestinal symptom that bothered me was getting full very quickly. I remember going to lunch once and being full from exactly 1 piece of sushi. Even when I tried to re-feed myself by setting calorie minimums for the day, I would get nauseous and be unable to take in more food. This inadvertantly fueled my eating behaviors, and helped me “prove” to myself (and concerned others) that I simply wasn’t hungry. I’d snap defensively, “I don’t want to eat because I’m honoring my natural hunger cues!” True, but my hunger cues were no where near natural or healthy – they had gone into hiding, defeated by years of being ignored. (This doesn’t mean I was never hungry: sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night with unbearable & piercing hunger that I can only describe as ‘primal’ – and I don’t mean paleo).

So, what the heck was going on body-wise? It turns out that a condition called gastroparesis that can help to explain things. Gastroparesis literally means “paralysis of the stomach”. It is also known as “delayed stomach emptying”. It’s a major traffic jam. Gastroparesis is practically universal whenever there is severe caloric restriction (source). As your body tries its best to conserve energy, your digestive system starts slowing down. Moreover, since food intake is inadequate, your wonderfully smart body holds on to whatever food there is for longer, so that more nutrients can be absorbed.

The fallout: unpleasant GI symptoms.

Gastroparesis can make recovery very difficult. For someone who has an eating disorder, the idea of eating more is already terrifying, and having GI discomfort can be a big roadblock. This was the case for me. Shortly after I started working with a Registered Dietitian (RD) who specialized in eating disorder recovery, I started feeling sicker. I was nauseous and bloated and all kinds of miserable and absolutely convinced that I needed to STOP recovery and go back to my restrictive diet, which involved staying under the daily nutritional requirements of a toddler. I’m grateful that I had the professional support and medical monitoring from a specialized PCP to keep going in a way that was safe for my body.

The good news? Full nutritional rehabilitation usually results in 100% restoration of normal bowel moments. My husband and I often compete for the bathroom in the morning. When I struggle in recovery and start to miss my smaller body, I think about how my GI system lets me know (in no uncertain terms!) that it is thriving and happy now that it is being fed appropriately.

I’m not even touching on the very trendy ~gut-brain connection~ here because I don’t have anything definitive to share, but it wouldn’t shock me at all if it turned out that major disturbances in the gut and disturbances in mental and emotional health were intertwined. One more reason to prioritize (or be grateful for) a happy gut 🙂

Why having an eating disorder sucked: Part 1

Hi again! I’m writing a several-part series on why having an eating disorder sucked for me. I don’t know how many parts there will be (because it sucked in so many ways), but here is part 1 🙂

Disclaimer: this was only my experience; everyone’s lived experience is different. However, I think it’s safe to say that eating disorders universally suck! Even if you don’t feel like you have a clinical eating disorder, one study showed that sixty-five percent of American women report disordered eating of some sort (source). Having an unhealthy relationship with food is practically the norm. I hope that sharing my experience helps to shed some light on how devastating and completely un-glamorous it is to struggle chronically with food and body image.

With that out of the way, here’s the first thing that came to mind when I thought about why having an ED was horrible: Being freezing cold all the time.

For years, I had ‘ice fingers’ – even in the heat of summer. It wasn’t very nice to hold hands with me either on a date or if you were next to me in an awkward group prayer. I remember crying in bed one night because I was just so cold in spite of my ensemble of Uniqlo Heattech gear and duvet covers.

When your body isn’t getting enough fuel, your brain goes into survival mode and tries to figure out how to conserve energy so that your body can continue to support vital functions – like keeping your heartbeat going. One major way to save precious energy is by lowering your core body temperature. That’s why you can feel abnormally cold all the time.

For the most part I dismissed this as a sort of personality trait of mine – “Oh, I’m just constantly cold.” But what really broke my heart was when I noticed that babies would recoil from my touch and cry when I held them. Yikes! Poor babies. When I nannied, I would try to blow on my hands before touching them. This made me realize that something was a little off – bodies are supposed to be welcoming and nurturing and safe for little ones.

When I went through recovery and starting eating much, much more (like 5-10 times more) my body actually started radiating heat – the air around me would feel warm! I felt like a furnace! After several months, my metabolism calmed down a little and I’ve noticed that my body hardly feels distressingly cold anymore (except in a Philly sub-zero snow storm).

 

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Today marks the last day of National Eating Disorders Awareness week. This is close to my heart — I’ve walked through recovery with a team of professionals, and am acutely aware of how much chaos and disruption an eating disorder can bring. A general lack of education among both sufferers and their communities makes the recovery journey even harder. Here are some myths about eating disorders that I encourage you to challenge:

MYTH 1. Eating disorders only affect a certain type of person – typically white, female, young, thin, upper-middle class. Media representations have perpetuated this stereotype and even glamorized the illness. Eating disorders affect people from all sorts of backgrounds and with all kinds of body shapes. Never feel like you cannot seek help because you aren’t thin enough, or don’t fit into a certain profile. Check out this article.

MYTH 2. Eating disorders are a choice, or a type of attention-seeking behavior. Research shows that eating disorders arise when someone genetically predisposed to certain physiological behaviors experiences a situational trigger. This has to do with a different set-up of the brain’s reward system in conjunction with certain personality traits such as perfectionism. Don’t take my word for it — look at the research.

MYTH 3. Eating disorders are just diets and are not that serious. Extreme dieting is an ED behavior, but they are NOT the same thing. An eating disorder is a psychological illness. Often, the sufferer has lost the capacity to stop restrictive or compensatory behaviors well beyond the point of reason or health. They can’t “break the circuit”, even though they very often want to. This is because their brain is rewarding them for behaviors that are harmful and compulsive. As a side note, diets are terrible too…but they’re not necessarily EDs. More information here.

MYTH 4. Eating disorder sufferers can never fully recover. Untrue! The brain is amazing and has the capacity to re-wire itself. However, this almost always requires professional help from dietitians, therapists, and medical professionals. A big component of an eating disorder is deception, both of others and of self — it’s hard to be objective when you have gotten so good at denying what is happening in your body/mind. Read more in this article.

Finally, I want to link to some resources that I find very helpful: here, here, here, here. Nothing beats having a treatment team and getting the proper care that you need, but hopefully these resources can be a good stepping stone to full recovery.

6 months: Reflections on being in a seminary counseling program

Finally, I’m attempting to write a little about what being at Missio Seminary for counseling has been like…i.e. the original purpose of this blog, heh. The past six months have incidentally been the most turbulent season of my short (but not short) life thus far, marked by a vocational transition, a cross-country move, grief & loss, relational turmoil, and loneliness. I often tell people who are kind enough to ask about how school is going that it has been the one stable, good thing in my life. Here are some budding thoughts:

The people make the program. Honestly, I didn’t consider this enough when I was making my decision on which program to choose. Sure, things like accreditation, location, tuition, etc. are really important, but the relationships and interactions that I have with my cohort, professors, and staff form the crux of my education. Meeting face-to-face is inconvenient, but 100% worthwhile. We are a small cohort (under 20 students) but incredibly diverse. Training to be a counselor is emotionally exhausting because of the things we talk about and what that can trigger in us, so tears in class are fairly normal. Having people alongside of me to be present in those moments of heaviness — and to make me laugh! — is the biggest gift of being in my program by far.

I’ve learned not to be in ‘counselor’ mode all the time. We spent our first semester intensively practising the foundational ‘building block’ skills of counseling, such as listening, reflecting, nonverbal cues, word choice, etc. We practised a lot on each other. Initially, I was eager to practise my counseling skills everywhere — with Karl, with my friends, at work with customers, with family, etc. I feel bad for them now! Although these skills can be applied to any interaction, I’ve since learned that it is NOT healthy for me to be ‘counseling’ the whole wide world. First up, it’s exhausting and anxiety-inducing to be over-analyzing my conversations all the time. Second, it’s actually not appropriate to be in full-blown counselor mode with people who aren’t clients. My relationships with my husband and my friends are a two-way street; counseling is largely a one-sided relationship that comes with a power dynamic (that is set up in a way so as to benefit the recipient). Third, I wouldn’t be acknowledging the fact that I have deep relational needs! I need my friends and I definitely need my husband to embrace & challenge my ‘whole’ self, not just a certain part of me.

I’m so grateful that I’m in a faith-based program. Being in seminary has pushed me to ask a lot of difficult and painful questions about God. It’s one thing to have a general understanding that the world is “messed up”. It’s another to constantly encounter stories of evil in their cruel particularity and to wonder what on earth you can possibly say to the wounded individuals who come to you for help. Studying theology and counseling together has alerted me to the fact that these stories are recorded in scripture as well — and that God is not, in fact, neutral or absent. If I weren’t in this program, it might have been easy for me to conclude that the hope offered by my faith is insufficient to overcome all the evil that I see, hear, and feel around me. As it stands, I’m still fighting to believe in reconciliation, restoration, and shalom.

Final thought: it’s interesting that the school itself has been undergoing its own season of significant transition (a name change, moving into Philadelphia, etc). Opting into change is painful and often involves loss and vulnerability — this is true for an individual as well as for an organization. Probably much more complicated for the latter! #beautybetween

pre-empting SAD

After several months of anticipation, Fall finally came to Philadelphia…and then left in a hurry. It’s supposed to snow this week (?!), so I’m glad we got to go hiking two weekends ago. Pictured: Wissahickon park.

I love the festive season, but having spent the past three years in an essentially Mediterranean climate, I’d forgotten how bad seasonal depression can be. Some people say there’s no such thing; fine. All I know is that it’s getting increasingly hard to resist the urge to hibernate all day and that everything feels 10x more difficult than it should. I’m sure this has something to do with the fact that I am a Type 4 on the Enneagram (moody…melodramatic…angsty…etc). Oops.

Recently, I’ve been learning that while there is no easy way to feel “all better” in a flash, there are some simple and practical ways I can care for myself. I definitely believe that there are spiritual, social, genetic, etc dimensions to mood disruptions, but I’ve found that physiologically-based self-care can a great starting point when I feel overwhelmed. Here’s my list:

  1. Getting enough vitamin D via a supplement
  2. Eating foods high in omega-3s (sardines, walnuts, salmon, etc)
  3. Breaking a sweat a few times a week…usually dancing to tswizzle in private
  4. Making an effort to leave the house every day
  5. Establishing a morning routine (iced lemon water, stretching/yoga, journaling, hot tea)
  6. Playing the keyboard and singing for a few minutes before dinner
  7. More iced lemon water and more yoga

Some things I want to try:

  1. Light box
  2. More non-screen-related hobbies (like a huge jigsaw puzzle)
  3. Prioritize humor & laughing

That’s all. Stay safe everyone!