Going back to places that you haven’t been since your disordered eating days.
There were times when I was doing well not engaging in eating disorder behaviors in my day to day life (i.e. no overexercising or restrict-binge cycling), but then I would go to a place I hadn’t been since pursuing ED recovery and all of the sudden it felt like my brain forgot all the progress I’d made and was like, “let’s go back to what we used to do in this place.”
In particular for me, I noticed this scenario pop up on our annual trip to Laguna Beach. In my life at home I’d had time to practice the skill of waking up and dealing with the discomfort of not allowing myself to go exercise (rigid exercise was a behavior that kept a pattern of restrict-overeat-exericse food off alive in my life), but in places I hadn’t been since being healthy it was almost like my healthy self hadn’t had time to process and practice being my healthy self in certain locations. I would revisit those places and my brain would pipe up with memories of the eating disorder routines I did in those places for a decade.
For a while, even just being in my childhood home (I imagine the holidays were tricky for some of you because of this), college town, or our family’s lake house was challenging and I always found myself in a bad mood when there and met with this pull to go back to not taking care of myself and not using all the new skills I’d developed.
I noticed being in some locations took more intentional focus on 1) eating based on hunger, fullness and cravings, 2) moving my body in a way that felt good and not in a way aimed at changing my body size, and 3) focusing on using the healthful coping mechanisms I’d decided on and been practicing for handling stress and anxiety, rather than the maladaptive coping mechanisms of restriction/over-eating/overexercise.
I didn’t and don’t view the more intentional focus required in certain locations as a regression into the eating disorder, instead it was just my brain going back to old patterns I did in that place. Many times it was just a thought popping into my head and then me saying, “brain, we don’t need to do that anymore. We’re safe and we take care of ourselves. And when we feel unsafe we have skills to go to.” I’ve heard numerous clients say many times how they feel like their ED behaviors shift to more of a habit than a reflection of their values (once aware of their true values and they’ve unearthed the root cause(s) of their eating disorder with their therapist) and they wonder why they still occasionally choose the ED behavior. It reminds me of Paul in Romans when he is deeply distressed by how his sin separates him from God:
This scripture isn’t saying sit and wallow in the shame of your actions. Rather, instead of sitting in that shame we are so prone to feel, when we are believers and mess up, we get to turn and run right back to Jesus who is has already forgiven every sin and fall straight into his unending grace. He really is with us through every moment of suckiness of this life, even if we don’t feel like he is. While in recovery, there will be desires you have that serve the eating disorder (i.e. pursue a body size you aren’t meant to be, refuse to follow a meal plan set by your treatment team that includes all food groups, etc.), but we have to actively choose not to pursue them. Engaging in ED behaviors will halt your life and separate you from Christ (here’s a post on how being in pursuit of our culture’s version of being a good steward kept me separated from Christ). People don’t end up with eating disorders for no reason. They can serve to keep you from drowning for a temporary amount of time, but your eating disorder will never be enough. Your eating disorder is a less-than-gospel that won’t ever bring you peace and saving.
So what’s an actionable step to take…
Before going to places where your eating disorder was strong (or if you’re in the early stages of recovery this is also a good idea whether going anywhere or not), it can be good to make a list of the mood states, environments, comments, situations, or foods that trigger unhelpful thoughts (you don’t have to believe your thoughts) or behaviors. Also, I always found it comforting to know that eating disorder behaviors are predictable and you can use that predictability to break out of your routines and fuel your recovery. Below is an activity to help you increase awareness around the predictability and the function of your eating disorder behaviors.
When you return to places you haven’t been since your eating disorder days, it can be a moment of:
- “wow, look at how far I’ve come in my recovery!”
- a regression back to old thoughts/behaviors
- or, more typically, a mixture of the above two
Is this something you can relate to?
What has been helpful for you to focus on when returning to places where your eating disorder was present but you haven’t gotten to practice being your healthy self there much?
(also. I’m not biblical scholar and sometimes I’m gonna get scripture interpretation wrong. If I take the true meaning of a scripture out of context, I’m sorry and I don’t mind being corrected! But I don’t think that’s a reason not to share the application of scripture to ED recovery. I know the holy spirit lives in me and gives me knowledge to share and I don’t think my faith in meant to be lived in my head in private without sharing. So here we are!)