By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
As an eating disorders therapist and survivor, I am often asked if there were certain turning points along my personal journey of recovery. You know, those fork in the road, “Aha” moments when things began to turn around, really turn around for the better?
While I have countless memories of disordered behaviors and thoughts: fad diets, isolated binges, and shamefully sneak eating, just to name a few, I have also had a handful of “Aha” moments that stand out as beacons along the path.
If you are deep in the throes of an eating disorder, or in the midst of climbing your way out, may you begin to gather some healthy turning points of your own.
Before I dive in, I want to note that each and every one of these significant crossroads was preceded by many moments of striving, glimpses of hope, and big bumps along the way. When they say (whoever “they” is!) that recovery is a process and not an event, they weren’t kidding. So if you have been feeling like recovery is hopeless for you, I am here to tell you it’s not. I spent years in the grips of food and weight obsession, daily restricting, and out of control eating. But I never gave up, and if you keep going and don’t give up, your awareness will deepen and your progress will reveal itself, often when you least expect it.
1. All foods shall remain equal
One of the most significant turning points for me came when I decided, after decades of restricting and binging, to take a new vow with food. After years of calorie counting, point calculating, and massive rebellion, my new vow was this:
All foods shall remain equal. There are no longer any good or bad foods. When preparing to make a food choice, I will tune into my body and ask what it truly wants. I now pronounce heart, mind and body as one.
I was terrified to take the leap. I’d tried countless times to let go of dieting only to end up bingeing. But what did I have to lose except constant obsession and dizzying rides on the diet/binge roller coaster? So I gave it yet another try, a deeper try. And unbeknownst to me, this time turned out to be a critical turning point, because I never went back.
So, instead of entering the kitchen or opening a menu already knowing what I “should” have, or will-have-cause-I never-get-to-have, my new vow was to truly ask my body what it truly wanted and then stay tuned for the amount that felt truly loving.
And for the first time in my adult life, I ate whatever my body guided me to eat and a sane amount was totally satisfying.
2. Intuitive eating does not equal perfection
At times, I knew exactly what and how much my body wanted, and the clarity felt fantastic. But other times, I still wasn’t crystal clear. I’d taken my vow to let go of dieting and rioting, but there were still times when I just wasn’t totally sure what or how much to eat.
My internal dialogue during those moments sounded something like this:
Is this craving physical or emotional? Is this my body or my mind that’s telling me to have dessert? Am I really still hungry or am I just having feelings? If I skip dessert, am I restricting? Is this my intuition or my eating disorder I’m hearing?
While some internal dialogue is necessary for clarity, I realized (surprise, surprise!) that I was trying to intuitively eat, perfectly. And since perfection was part of what got me into my eating disorder in the first place, it certainly was not going to help me climb out!
So, telling myself I didn’t have to do this perfectly was quite a relief. I just needed to continue inquiring with my body to see what it needed, wanted, liked, and loved. And just like any relationship, it didn’t have to be (nor would it ever be) perfect. Phew!
Loosening the reigns of perfection would often help me get clarity, and even when I wasn’t crystal clear, with perfection off the table, I was off the hook!
3. How would I feed a loved one?
Another turning point along the path of non-perfection came when I was trying to distinguish my intuition from the rubble of old food rules and I still, at times, did not know what to eat. Perhaps I was too filled with feelings or thoughts to gain clarity. Perhaps I was still making too much of the decision. In any case, when I couldn’t figure out how to feed myself lovingly, I asked myself this simple question: How would I feed someone I love?
Somehow, imagining how I would feed someone else, freed my intuition loose from the brambles of rules and rebellion. Sometimes I would even imagine a beautiful tray of food that I was bringing to someone I love, someone who does not diet or overeat. Then I would allow an image to come to mind. I’d spent so long dieting and rebelling, that at times it felt impossible for me to know how to lovingly feed myself, so imagining how I’d feed someone else helped elicit a menu of options until the new way of feeding myself became more second nature.
So sometimes I had crystal clear clarity on what and how much my body needed and wanted. Other times, I’d ask myself how I would feed another body who I truly loved and cared for. And all the while, the freedom of not having to do either one perfectly kept me going and growing.
4. Swerving isn’t rolling
There are many factors that can lead someone to a binge. My top contenders were: feelings I didn’t want to feel, thoughts I didn’t want to think, restrictive eating, diet mentality, and believe it or not, overeating. I would actually overeat because I overate! You may have driven down this old road a time or two thousand: I blew it. May as well go all the way and start again tomorrow
I recall the turning point that turned this illogical logic on its heels. I realized, for the first time that just because I started to binge, it did not mean I had to keep going. If I’m driving a car and swerve, I (hopefully) wouldn’t just roll the car.
So, I stopped. Mid-binge. This had never happened before. I swerved, but I didn’t have to roll the car. Did this mean I had to feel my feelings? You bet. Did it mean I had to tolerate being full till the food digested? Yup. Did this mean my unkind mind would try to have it’s all or nothing way with me? Perhaps. But this time, I responded back.
I do not have to overeat just because I overate! I can stop now. Yes, it’s super uncomfortable but so will more bingeing be. I can turn in and out for support and figure out what led me to the overeat in the first place.
And for the first time in my personal history, I was able to steer myself back to center rather than roll my vehicle in the muck of all-or-nothing hopelessness.
5. Change your mind – not your body
Wanting to lose weight had been a goal of mine for as far back as I can remember. In fact, if I’d had a pie chart (pardon the pun!) of the different ways I’d spent my time on the planet, trying to lose weight would have been the biggest slice. I don’t blame myself. You get told enough times that something will bring you love, approval and happily ever-after-ness, you seek that sucker and you seek it hard. And sought I did. Starting in early adolescence, losing weight became my main mission in life.
Until I changed my mind. (Not my body, my mind!) I remember many years ago, walking on the beach with a dear friend. I had been telling her how absolutely sick and tired I was of trying to lose weight and she lovingly said four simple words that somehow set me straight: “Well knock it off!”
Prior to that time, I would not have been able to heed her sage and simple suggestion. But given that this turned out to be a turning point, I could. So, I knocked it off.
She meant it playfully of course, but having spent the prior several decades in the grips of weight loss obsession, I was somewhat shocked by my ability to say, “Okay,” and then proceed on with some new life goals: self-love, self-acceptance and peace, leading the pack.
It was as if I’d spent years trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together: welcome feelings, self-compassion, speak authentically, release perfection, reach out, ditch diets… And then one day, out of the clear blue visit with a friend, a puzzle piece found its way into place.
6. Move for fun
Another turning point that stands out took place in a gym of all places. I was doing my sets and reps of whatever I had been told by someone to do, and something occurred to me. It sounded something along the lines of: I am not having fun!
In the same way I’d taken a vow to eat what and how much sounded really good to me, it was time to take the same vow with movement. That turning point led me down the road of deep rest and enjoyable movement that I am still on today. I sincerely hope you will join me!
I know these ideas and concepts may seem way easier typed than done, and I know we all have to do our emotional work before our demons lose their grip. But, if you stay committed to the path of recovery, whatever juncture you may be facing, you too can have turning points right around the corner!