How did you let go of the fear and pressures around food and weight?
How did you finally surrender to hunger and to your body’s changes during recovery?
These are questions I receive frequently. And in them I hear the despair that plagued me, too, before I took the long leap that landed me in remission. Like many of my readers, I had been flailing for the evasive lever that could halt the crushing cycle we know so well: starvation, followed by days- or weeks-long efforts to eat more, and soon enough the inevitable capitulation to anorexia’s mandate to starve.
So how did I finally reach it?
First I looked back—way back. I contemplated my shift from freely eating to anorexia at age 23. If you’re suffering with an eating disorder, you’ve made this changeover, too. If you struggle to recall being a younger person with a self-regulating appetite and weight, consider this this well-known optical illusion of the young and old woman:
Both images exist in the drawing, but you can see only one at a time. To perceive the other image, you must force your brain to adopt it.
For this metaphor, let the large-nosed and -chinned older woman portray the mode of the eating disorder and distorted messages about weight control and correlating health and beauty. Let the younger woman gazing over her right shoulder represent the world of unrestricted eating and accepting our bodies as most content and optimally functioning when they are fed on demand. As children, before we might absorb any messages about body size or even know what a calorie is, we see only the young woman.
But when we find ourselves entwined with an eating disorder, our brains rearrange the perception of bodies and food to something distorted and fearful: the tyrannical old lady who insists that we must diligently and forever limit our energy intake in order to be healthy or beautiful. We hear her snarl, You know, you need to be even thinner. There is no attractive or biologically vital purpose to that fat on your body. You’ll be happier without it. The old lady petrifies and bullies us, and we cannot stop seeing her image, no matter how much we wish to replace her.
So in my readers’ questions I hear: I’m trying again and again, but I just can’t stop seeing the old lady. I don’t know how to see the young woman. Show me where she is so that I can see her and only her, like you’ve been able to do.
I recognize that I had an advantage over many others in my position: I could recall seeing the young woman when I was in my teens and early twenties. I could evoke sharp memories of a young adult body, eating whatever it desired while it maintained its size, and one I was satisfied with. Any urges to tweak my proportions through dieting really didn’t seem worth all the strategizing and deprivation.
Later, during my decade of restriction, I maintained a line of hope that I could somehow return to that place…if I could just coerce my brain to commit to the perception of the young woman again. I failed and failed, and I was tormented by those precious remembrances of life unencumbered by calorie tallies and scales and ensuring that my pants hadn’t become any tighter. I knew those mental and physical freedoms were right there, but I couldn’t figure out how to make my way out of the corner I had backed myself into.
I couldn’t force my brain to rearrange the image until I had hit rock bottom. I was at the thinnest I’d ever been, wretched in every sense, and my body retaliated with robust eating that the intimidations of the eating disorder could not curtail. During that string of days, fueled by food and driven by desperation, I happened upon an enlightening and ultimately life-changing article by Gwyneth Olwyn. And then my brain finally was able to muster enough strength to banish the image of the old lady and usher in that of the young woman—the nurturing perception onto which I clenched during the throes of my recovery and I refuse to relinquish ever again.
For me, that shift manifested as an epiphany that cemented in a matter of a few dire hours. But no one must wait ten years, as I did, for the stars to align. Despite any failure at previous attempts, you can commit to meeting daily calorie minimums and observe and embrace the slow changes in your nourished brain. You might notice that sometimes you see the old lady, and at other times the young woman. But you keep eating nonetheless. And eventually you will amass both the resolve and the calorie-supplied energy to direct your brain back to your preferred perception, the one we are all born with.
In this way you can and will toss the eating disorder goggles forever, choosing to see the young woman for the rest of your life, honoring your body and reaping all the freedoms it affords.