Why I’m Not a Vegan, Part 2: What Happened When I was a Vegan

mike-the-vegan-dilbert

[source] My Disclaimer  My decision to stop being a vegan was based on a gut feeling–literally and figuratively: the blog post(s) that I’m about to provide you with are simply based on all of the research I’ve done since making … Continue reading 

UN-Podcast 019: UNtimed

Moon-Silhouette

[source] I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating (again and again, since it seems to surprise me every time): our paths are inexplicably intertwined with the paths of those who need to be a part of our … Continue reading 

A Day in the Life of Calories In < Calories Out

A typical day of “calories in < calories out:”

"I am on a 30 day diet. So far I have lost 10 days."

Is this any way to live?

  • Wake up at 4:30 am after about 5-6 hours of sleep. Raises my ghrelin (the hunger stimulating hormone) and lowers my leptin (the satiety stimulating hormone). Lower leptin means lower endorphins. 
  • Coffee with artificial low-fat creamer. Raises my cortisol, stimulates insulin response. 
  • Get to the gym by 5 am. Take an hour long spin class. Physical stress of intense endurance workout raises my cortisol, artificially increases my endorphins. 
  • Down a protein shake (dairy proteins, lactose, and artificial sugar). Stimulate insulin response with lactose and artificial sugar, irritate gut with dairy proteins. 
  • Get to my job, which stresses me out (because I hate my job, because I have a big project on deadline, because I hate my coworkers/my boss/my direct reports, whatever). Cortisol stays raised. 
  • Stomach starts growling at 10 am. Have a Greek yogurt with berries on the bottom. Stimulates another insulin spike, more dairy proteins for the gut.
  • Starving by noon. Have a big salad with tofu, low-fat dressing, and a piece of whole grain bread. Snack on a banana. More gut irritation from soy (lectins and phytates and phytoestrogens, oh my!), bread (gluten, wheat germ agglutinin, etc. Another insulin spike from influx of glucose and fructose from both the low-fat dressing (added sugars to make up for the lack of fat, for taste purposes) and the banana. Promote hormone dysregulation with phytoestrogens in soy. 
  • Start yawning around 1 pm. Desperate to stay awake. Another cup of coffee. Cortisol stays raised, body/mind still physically exhausted. 
  • Starving again by 3 pm. Forage in purse of 100-calorie pack of cookies with goji berries. They’re gluten-free and low calorie so they must be healthy. Also, some doctor on the Today show said that one of the ingredients was a superfood. Superfoods are good for me, so I’ll eat more of them. Feeding my gut processed foods, feeding my liver glucose. More insulin.
  • Leave work and head back to the gym because I am feeling guilty for “not working out hard enough” this morning. Another hour of weights should do it. Drink a Gatorade throughout, to replenish electrolytes. More cortisol, more glucose. Liver is pumping insulin like it’s nobody’s business. Body isn’t hurting for electrolytes, but someone tweeted an article that said I needed them, so…
  • Get home and make dinner. It’s Meatless Monday, so, after weighing and measuring all my portions, it’s gluten-free pasta with soy-meatballs and beans for extra protein and canned spaghetti sauce. Pasta is gluten-free and therefore, in my mind, a weight loss food. Two helpings! More soy. Beans are primarily carbohydrate; proteins are incomplete. Also contain anti-nutrients called “phytates.” Canned spaghetti sauce has added sugar. Gluten-free pasta is still densely packed with carbohydrates, which will be broken down into sugar (glucose) in the body. 
  • Still hungry. Need dessert. Start foraging for anything sugary to take mind off of hunger. Cereal it is: one bowl–okay, two–with fat-free milk. If it’s low fat, it’s okay to have the extra bowl….right? More carbs and sugars, sugars and carbs. Nighttime binge courtesy of leptin resistance and one last wonderful spike/drop in insulin from the sugar eaten for dinner. 
  • Spend about 45 minutes logging all my food and exercise with an online calorie counter. Have used it every day for the last 6 months, so I already know exactly how many calories I’ve eaten, but I’m doing it anyway because I feel guilty if I don’t. May or may not have fudged the pasta and cereal amounts. Secretly hate myself because I know how much I really ate. Not a big enough deficit. Negative self talk as a result of using a calorie counter. “Staying accountable” to my disorder (and who says I have a disorder, huh?) makes me feel like I have a sense of power, even though I’ve actually just lost the last 45 minutes of my life to pointless worrying. 
  • Off to bed. Hating myself for the second bowl of cereal, thinking about chocolate cake. Guess I’ll have to go to the gym twice tomorrow to make up for it. Feeling depressed about it. Stay up late reading on my tablet–shut down around 11 or 12 and then toss and turn before falling into a light and fitful sleep. Cortisol levels kept unnaturally high by the afternoon coffee mean that sleep is going to be disrupted. Blue-white glow from the tablet screen disrupts melatonin production, which helps the body to fall asleep. Melatonin production also thrown off by disruption of natural circadian rhythm (staying up too late, getting up too early). Lack of sleep also promotes leptin resistance and stimulates ghrelin. Excessive exercise (stress) can contribute to depletion of serotonin, which leads to depression. Depression from lack of serotonin can lead to insomnia, which contributes to further serotonin depletion. (Vicious cycle.) 
Mom's logic junk food vs. balanced meal

The wisdom behind the standard American diet…

Okay. So remind me again why this lifestyle is considered healthy? Remind me why we “love” exercising and having to snack all day? Remind me why people get upset when anyone suggests that it’s not dedication but obsession?

If you’re a slave to the foods you eat or the amount of exercise you do because you believe that you’re benefitting from it, ask yourself if that’s helped you lose weight, get fit, or enjoy your life at all.

Eat Good Look Good Feel Good Fitspo

Can we just strike the middle one from our list of priorities? If you’re doing the first and third, then the second just comes naturally.

And if you’ve taken it to the “eat clean” orthorexic extreme (as I most assuredly did), then you’re definitely in the camp that believes that extreme measures are needed to stay healthy. And while I commend you for eliminating the 100-calorie packs of cookies, you’re in the same boat if you’re snacking on homemade gluten free cookies with dried goji berries instead. You’re in the same boat if you believe that you have to down a protein shake or some concoction made with egg whites and fake sugar. You’re in the same boat if you already know in advance how many calories you ate and burned because you’ve used the calorie counter for so long that it’s no longer even a necessary tool (especially if you have the mobile app on your phone because you want to log every morsel of every meal the second you eat it, so you won’t forget).

But we’ve been taught to eat less and move more for so long, that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that there could be another way.

I’ll post next about some of the changes I made this summer, but I’m interested in hearing what you guys have to say. Does any of this sound familiar to you? What does your day look like?

- K.

Dirty Secrets from Eating Clean: Food Addiction, Part I

A quick disclaimer before we get into the (lean) meat and (sweet) potatoes of today’s post: I have nothing against Tosca Reno or Kennedy Publishing or the fitness industry in general. In fact, I think the Eat Clean Diet books are incredibly helpful in taking many unhealthy individuals through the painful and confusing first steps of rejecting processed foods and healing their bodies. I think that often, however, the message is muted (or mutated) when “eating clean” becomes “Cooler 1,” and unprocessed foods become meal replacement. There is a fine, fine line between counting calories for awareness versus counting calories for restriction, and, all too often, that line gets crossed. Obviously, it’s easy for an individual living with ED to take any diet recommendations too far–as I did and still struggle not to do; therefore, please keep in mind that I’m not singling out Tosca and friends–I’m just writing about my experience and the particular avenue through which I found new ways to restrict myself. 

Also, for full disclosure, I still read & subscribe to Oxygen Magazine. I think it’s one of the better fitness magazines for women available today–I just take everything I read with a grain of (pink Himalayan sea) saltEDIT: I no longer read, subscribe, or even suggest Oxygen Magazine to anyone. Ever

Let me just start by saying that I was really not interested in starting another “diet.” I obliged my mom by doing the Whole30, but I was, by this point, sick of fads, trends, challenges, and set “end dates.” I was finally starting to open my eyes to the fact that ED’s restrictions were…well, restricting. 

But, that being said, I had NO idea how to break free from that system. I had spent too long following my bodybuilding diet, spent too many years structuring my life into low-calorie meal-sized chunks, spent too little time thinking about anything but the advent of my next meal.

When I first met ED, he didn’t bother explaining the hows and whys behind my manipulation of food and exercise; he only demanded that I limit the former and overdo the latter. I understood (or thought I understood*) that controlling my body involved a relationship between calories in and calories out, but I didn’t dare waste the extra energy trying to dig deeper when ED had already shown me the method that required the least amount of energy for digging my own grave.

So when I started on my “Eat-Clean” journey, the journey that began when I picked up my first Oxygen Magazine and learned about the carefully controlled food-world of the figure competitor, I didn’t see ED’s simple “calories in-calories out” formula lurking behind Oxygen’s glossy pages.

If you’re not familiar with the Eat Clean Diet, as devised by Tosca Reno and her late husband Robert Kennedy, it’s a series of rules (and books) devoted to giving men and women control over their diets. The basic premise is perfect: eat unprocessed foods (as close to natural as you can). Avoid packaged goods and ingredients you can’t pronounce. Eat fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins. And those, if anything, are perfect recommendations from which to begin building a healthy diet.

However.

Tosca Reno's Eat Clean Diet Just the Rules Book

There are also rules. Eat six small meals a day. Eat every 3 hours. Eat meals high in lean protein and complex carbohydrates, limiting fats (although they do recommend eating some healthy fats like avocado and olive oil). Limit “cheat” meals.

Again, not terrible recommendations. And for individuals who have been struggling with weight or eating processed foods their whole lives, these recommendations and rules can incite huge changes in habits, body composition, health, and lifestyle. The problem is that they were written (and promoted) by individuals whose background is in the restrictive and disordered world of fitness–and when restricted and disordered individuals (such as myself) pick up the same book of rules, we see validation for our disorders and a challenge to restrict even more.**

Let me explain:

First and foremost, eating clean for fitness involves more than a simple calories in or out equation. It involves knowing how many calories you’re eating, the calorie-per-gram breakdown of the macronutrients, the ratios of your macronutrient intake per meal and per day, and the correct times to eat said macronutrients. If protein and carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram and fats are 9 calories per gram (and alcohol is 7 calories per gram, but you aren’t drinking it anyway because it was made of empty calories that would get you fat and eff all those studies about resveratrol in wine, take a capsule and stop whining about being the designated driver…), then obviously there are two macronutrients that can “fill you up” for fewer calories (i.e. protein and carbs–and don’t get me started on complex versus refined carbohydrates…), meaning fat-will-make-you-fat-so-eat-oatmeal-instead.

The idea behind the six small meals, the high protein, the diet itself, is to trick you into thinking you’re eating a lot. And, technically, you are. I probably went through enough extra-lean turkey breast and chicken breast and egg whites in a week to feed a family of four. But that being said, there aren’t that many calories in any of the lean proteins (120 calories per 4 oz give or take according to my online calorie-counting program). And there aren’t that many calories in the non-starchy vegetables I was carefully measuring and steaming. I filled the void with oatmeal, oatmeal, more oatmeal, and some sweet potatoes, until I got on the “leaning out” kick.

Fitness Model Prep Too Thin

Sure, I could do a pull up, but you could probably snap my arm just by looking at it funny.

Sure, I was “encouraged” to eat more healthy fats, but there was also those 5 extra calories per gram lurking in every improperly measured tablespoon of olive oil, so it felt safer to use a canola oil spray for cooking and to leave my salads dry.

While the suggested meal plans in the magazines boasted daily calorie counts of anywhere from 1600-2100 calories, I thrilled in being able overachieve by taking my counts lower. 1200 calories, the amount the female body needs just to exist on a daily basis, was my daily goal (although my nightly peanut butter or cereal binges usually put me over to about 1400-1600 until I went cold turkey).

Moreover, for all the preaching about ditching the packaged goods and eating “real food,” there was a lot of processed junk that made its way into the sample recipes and suggested snacks. Whey and casein protein powders, soy and almond milk in cardboard boxes, packaged yogurts and protein bars…I even ate my egg whites from a carton (no need to buy the whole egg since the fat in the yolk was offensive to me).

And while the foods themselves were barely enough to keep me sated, the routine and the counting and the measuring fed my obsession. And obsession, if you remember, is one of ED’s favorite foods.

Because what I was doing had been encouraged as part of a “healthy” lifestyle, I ate my protein-powder-and-egg-white microwave muffins from beneath my health halo.

Protein Powder Egg White Muffin Microwave Mug Cake

Doesn’t this look appetizing? (Protein Powder Egg White Microwave Mug Cake from The Nondairy Queen)

And my food routine–100-300 calories meals eaten every 3 hours–led me into a cycle of starvation and reward, of intense hunger followed by the brief, beautiful moment of indulgence followed by regret and sadness (for having eaten so much, for having finished the meal, for still wanting more) that became intense hunger once again as the hours passed.

And the cleaner I tried to eat, the healthier I tried to become, the faster I fell toward a mental and emotional rock-bottom:

I was a food addict.

- K.

Dirty Secrets From Eating Clean, Part II

Dirty Secrets From Eating Clean, Part III

*I’ll discuss the implications of this statement in another post soon…

**And I suppose I’m technically just able to speak for myself, but go take a look at some fitness models’ twitter feeds or read their blog posts, and then tell me that I’m the only one who thought (or thinks) this way. Anyone who can wax poetic about egg whites sweetened with stevia needs to seriously reconsider her relationship with and understanding of food. Again, personal opinion, but…

Acne and ED, Part III: Un-Becoming Vegan

Update: If you want to read the whole series in order, start here: 

Acne and ED, Part I: How Vegan Began

Acne and ED, Part II: The Never Ending Detox

As I became more and more invested in my mostly-raw vegan diet, my face become more and more pockmarked and scarred. Despite my pristine diet, the promised detox never came–or else it just kept coming and coming.*

While the PD cleared up around my mouth, the hormonal, cystic acne intensified, and I developed worse regular acne. I had to start wearing bandaids on my face nearly every day, just so that I could go to work without scaring my customers away with my broken, bleeding face. It was horrific, and I was embarrassed to no end.

My acne at its worst

I honestly didn’t know what to do. I hated myself even more than ever–and, mind you, this is the recent history I’m talking about.

Worse yet, the “vegan glow”  had already begun to fade. While my first few months of veganism made me lose weight and feel like I was filled with light and hope, the glow quickly wore off.  I started putting on weight again, feeling leaden, bloated, and constantly hungry. I would have mini-anxiety attacks when I couldn’t take my scheduled 15 minute breaks on time at work, because all I wanted to do was just get to my next meal.

And in case you’re wondering my diet looked something like this:

Breakfast:

  • Green Juice (made with 1/2 pear, 2 stalks celery, kale, swiss chard, and broccoli) and a piece of Ezekiel Low-Sodium Sprouted Grain Bread, or
  • Green Smoothie (made with broccoli, kale, frozen berries, vegan raw protein or hemp powder, and a tiny bit of coconut oil)

Mid Morning Snack:

  • Apple & 2 brown rice cakes

Lunch:

  • Homemade raw hummus (chickpeas, a minuscule amount of tahini, lemon juice and serrano chili peppers) with carrots and broccoli or on a pita with sprouts and bell peppers
  • Raw vegan meal replacement mixed with just enough water to make a pudding

Mid Afternoon Snack:

  • Apple & 2 brown rice cakes

Dinner:

  • Tempeh and stir-fried peppers, broccoli, and kale, with Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and Quinoa

Dessert:

  • 2 tbsp raw almond butter with vegan chocolate chips and cinnamon (and if I was still hungry–which I usually was, several servings of dry Publix cereal or two pieces of toasted Ezekiel Sprouted Grain Bread)

Low calorie? Check. Low fat? Check. Animal-free? Check. Besides my nut-butter-and-chocolate-chip addiction (I couldn’t go to bed without having that snack) and the constant need to pad my days with extra bread and cereal, my diet seemed pretty impeccable.

Why wasn’t veganism curing my acne? Why wasn’t I able to fit into my work pants anymore? I started to question my investment in the whole thing.

The camel’s back broke** in May, when I went back to Florida for my little sister’s college graduation. The thought of being featured in a single family photo made me sick–and the impossibility of finding a single meal to eat during that trip made my heart (and stomach) ache.

Rollercoaster Hair

Me and my brother on graduation weekend. Wearing no makeup and a bandaid on the cheek turned away from the camera.

I subsisted on apples and meal replacement powders nearly the entire time (and I dipped liberally into the container of raw almond butter I had packed in my suitcase). When we went out to restaurants, I bothered the waitresses with requests for substitutions until there wasn’t anything but a few limp pieces of salad left on the plate anyway. (And, of course, I asked for the salad dry, leaving even olive oil and vinegar untouched despite the fact that olive oil is definitely vegan. My fear of fat was stronger than my hunger and sense of taste.)

On the last night, we went out to dinner at a chain restaurant, where the only vegan option on the menu was an appetizer: white bean hummus with pita bread. I had eaten nothing but meal replacements and apples all day, so by the time the meal came, I was starving. I ate the whole thing, sopping up every last bit of hummus with my family-sized order of pita. When the waitress came to take my plate, she actually looked me in the eye and said, in a most condescending tone, “Well, looks like somebody was hungry…”

I went back to the hotel and looked at my bleeding, scarred face in the mirror, ashamed for reasons I couldn’t even name anymore. That was it. I was done.

My mom, a scary-ripped crossfitter and lifelong health nut, had been pushing me to stop being a vegan and try this “paleo” thing she’d been doing since she started crossfit the year before. I had been actively ignoring her for months–I was already exhausted following one diet; I didn’t need another set of rules and restrictions to learn. Moreover,  by this point the idea of eating meat made me ill–I knew it was unhealthy, I felt I was above that, I didn’t want to admit defeat…but when I returned to California, exhausted, hungry, and pimply as a schoolgirl–with no other isolate-able reason for my problems but my diet–, I told her I’d at least give it chance.

And thank god I did, because I wouldn’t be blogging here today if I hadn’t.

Acne Breakout While Vegan

- K.

*When writing of detoxes, medical professionals and their ilk often forewarn of a few weeks of side effects like acne, as the body rids itself of the toxins through the skin. However, I was either so full of toxins that my skin just never healed or else I was just deluding myself and permanently damaging my skin for nine months.

**Metaphorical animal cruelty signaling the end of my vegan experiment?

We Interrupt This Program…

…for a couple of random updates and thoughts:

- First and foremost, the surgical procedure was short and simple, and now my ankle has no choice but to heal. The doctor put me in a hard cast this time so that there would be less chance for reinfection. So now I’m once again hopping about on crutches, but hopefully for the last time.

cast, crutches, surgery

The doctor chose a white cast–don’t they know that white is taboo after labor day?

- The allergic reaction also appears to have calmed down. It still hurts to run my skin under hot water, but I ate grapes without dying, so I suppose that’s a good sign.

- Most importantly, I am absolutely flabbergasted by the response to my blog. It’s funny: when I started writing a few months ago, I was just planning to share this new way of eating and living that had helped start to free me from my ED, and it’s become so much more. As I started to explain why I first ate red meat after 13 years, I fell down the rabbit hole that was my introduction to ED, and in the process, was forced to face some of my hardest truths–truths from which I’d hidden for a very long time. And that inspired me to go out and seek help.

But nothing has helped so much as your support, and your willingness to share your own stories.

And I can only hope that, as I get through my story and start sharing solutions, that you will continue to share your stories with me. I can only hope that this blog becomes a place for recovery–not just for myself, but for all of you out there. I can only hope that we can, together, find a way to stop becoming a nation of starving girls, yo-yo dieters, fad dieters, overweight-and-hating-it, calorie-counters, over-exercisers, and people out of touch with our own bodies. I can only hope that we can all work together to find a solution.

Anyway, I promise to keep up my end of that as best I can, and I hope that you’ll stay with me–and invite others–along the journey.

Dog, Babysitter, Puppy Love

Home after surgery, with a dog on my shoulder!

Thanks for sharing the love, guys.

And now back to your regularly scheduled programming!

-K.

P.S. Be sure to check out my spiritual bucket list below. Maybe it can be inspiration for one of your own?

The Skinny on “Strong”

Today, I just wanted to say a few words on the “strong is the new skinny” phenomenon, since it seems to have popped up in my life multiple times over the last few days.

And I know that the following is out of context if you don’t know the rest of the ankle-and-ED story, but bear with me, since it’s what I’m dealing with right now:

Right now, I am not strong. Right now, I can barely stand on my own two feet. Right now, I literally have no balance.

The infection in my ankle, the synovial inflammation, the atrophy of the muscles, the months of poor, compensating movement patterns–all of these things have kept me from pursuing my “strength” and “health” goals.

I am not fat, but I am not muscular. I am not large, but I no longer wear my “skinny jeans.” I am not unhealthy, but I am not fit.

HOWEVER: I am deconditioned, but not decommissioned. 

I am no longer able to do what I used to do, but I have been given a new agency: the power of acceptance. I have let my ankle be an excuse for why I couldn’t achieve the aesthetic goals I thought were so important, but in the end, it became an excuse for me to tell ED “no.” I can’t do hours of cardio. I can’t even go swimming. There is no outlet for my obsession, and so I have had to learn instead how to cope.

And in learning how to cope, I opened my eyes to the Monster in the Mirror who was terrorizing me with images of fitness models and unrealistic goals. I opened my eyes and looked at some of the women who are competing and realized how thin and sickly they look. They are “strong” and they are “skinny,” but I know all too well that somewhere, gestating inside of them, are the seeds of malnutrition, adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalance, and mental/emotional disorders such as BDD and ED.

I know, because even though I never had the chance to compete, I was there with them. I have all of those problems because I allowed myself to believe that I had to fit an ideal–not of the waif-like skinny models of the 90s, but of the 0% body fat fitness models of the millennium.

Yes, strong is important. But strength has nothing to do with an aesthetic ideal. Strength–and health–can happen even without fasted cardio and tupperwares full of boiled chicken and steamed broccoli. And, yes, I still think muscles are sexy; however at this point, I’ve been forced to accept that it’s not about body fat levels or lack of cellulite, it’s about nourishing my body enough to survive until tomorrow, and as many tomorrows as I can after that one.

I also opened my eyes to the “regular” women (and men) I know, who post and tweet and talk about eating less and exercising more and how fat they think they look. All of the negative self-talk, all of the unnecessary worrying…wouldn’t life be so much better if they could learn to appreciate, nourish, and augment the strength they are already capable of?

Yes, being strong is an admirable goal, but what is strength without balance?* What is weight loss/gain without confidence? What is life without happiness? Where is the strength in a world dedicated to ED?**

I spoke to a woman the other day who couldn’t understand why I was against the fitspo images of “strong is the new skinny.” She is strong, and she is proud of her muscles. And she has every right to be. But for her, muscles are a means to improving athletic performance, not augmenting the clothes she wears. She is concerned with how many pounds she can lift in so much time, not by how much her triceps “pop” in a sleeveless shirt. She uses her abs instead of looking at them. Every person should be so lucky to have that kind of relationship with his or her body. “Strong is the new skinny” makes us want to get fit because we want to look a certain way; the athletic/muscular performance is considered only a side effect.*** But right now, “strong is the new skinny” is something I am not and cannot be–and I am not alone in this.

Letting go of the look and striving for the be is the only cure. And that means letting go of the have to and the should. It means investing in a strength other than the one that ED offers–call it a spiritual strength, call it an emotional strength, but call it anything but “strong is the new skinny.”

With my injury, I have lost the ability to train the way I used to. Even the basics are less available to me as I try to keep the inflammation in my body down (and let the antibiotics do their work). It has been a long time since I have been able to devote hours to the gym, but I have made do. And I am still strong.

No, I can’t do a pull up, but I am still strong enough to chin. No, I can’t run a mile, but I can hold a plank for 2 minutes. I will celebrate whatever strength my body will let me have while I heal, and I will be gentle with myself until I can get my ankle strong again.

That’s the kind of strength I can believe in–and skinny be damned.

Happiness, Choice

Happiness is a choice, and today I choose to be happy.

-K.

*And I’m not just talking about being able to do an overhead press while standing on a bosu ball…

**Even if you don’t have a clinically diagnosed ED, by continuing, spreading, and promoting the negative self-talk, the abnormal and unattainable body ideals, and transmutation of health and wellness into aesthetic goals, you’re helping keep ED alive–even in your own life.

***I’m sure if personal trainers+ had a dollar for every client who came to them seeking to look better and then complained about having to work out, training would be a much better paid profession. If you go to the gym because you want to look a certain way but hate every second of it, there’s something wrong. Find a way to be active that makes you happy, and the aesthetics will follow.

+To clarify, I’m talking about general population trainers, not specialized trainers like strength coaches, athletic coaches, physical therapists, etc.

Retail Therapy

I’ve been thinking a lot about Stefani Ruper’s post on Paleo for Women about doing away with our mirrors in order to promote a better self-image. I think it’s such an empowering idea (if not a little difficult)…can you imagine what life would be like if we didn’t have to answer to our own judgments? Ever since I read that post, I’ve had Sesame Street’s “Monster in the Mirror” Song stuck in my head. I find it kind of fitting, though, when thinking about my ED. 

“Saw a monster in the mirror when I woke up today
A monster in my mirror but I did not run away
I did not shed a tear or hide beneath my bed
Though the monster looked at me and this is what he said:

…’Do not wubba me or I will wubba you.’”

In the song, Grover wakes up and has to face a scary looking monster in his mirror–a monster who, he realizes, is actually him. And he has to learn how to sing along with the monster or else the monster will “wubba” him–sort of like how I learned how to deal with my ED. Because the stronger ED became, the scarier he was–and the harder it was to summon the strength to look at my reflection. I had to learn how to stop looking–or find a way to sing along without letting the Monster “wubba” me. And for me, that song was Retail.

“…If your mirror has a monster in it, do not shout
This kind of situation does not call for freaking out
And do nothing that you would not like to see him do
‘Cause that monster in the mirror he just might be you…”

I found myself thanking my lucky stars that I wasn’t being forced into inpatient treatment now that I had found myself an effective form of retail therapy. Instead of being force-fed bagels and weight gain shakes, I supplemented my high-protein, bikini competition diet with a steady stream of metaphorical Kool-Aid.

And it’s no wonder that the Kool-Aid worked wonders: for the last several months, I had been entirely alone with my own thoughts and constantly confronted with ED, the Monster in the Mirror. Once I had a job at the mall, I was stuck for 9-plus hours in a windowless box, confronted with an endless stream of other people who had problems to solve and needs to be met. And my meal breaks were programmed into my day (each small snack eaten on a 15 or on a 30-minute or hour-long lunch), so I didn’t have to worry that I wouldn’t have time to eat. For the first time in a long time, I was focusing my attention outward–and like garlic to vampires, other people helped me ward off the Monster in the Mirror.

Moreover, I finally had “friends.” No, I still went home directly after my shift and panicked if I had to go out after dark, but I at least had an incredible, dynamic, amazing cast of characters to look forward to seeing each time I worked. No, I never called any of them or offered to sit with them in the food court, but I felt accepted and loved, if only for a few hours a day.

My therapist urged me to get to know these people better. She saw a breakthrough coming–and so did I. So I did the only thing I knew how to do: resist it at all costs.

With the holidays approaching, my managers started approving massive overtime, so I was working constantly. I was still a part-timer and not receiving benefits, but I needed the money, so any offer my managers made for extra hours I gladly accepted (so long as those hours did not overlap with a feeding time for which I hadn’t packed and planned).

During this time, I also started taking my fitness to a different level. I was doing serious squats and deadlifts, and turning heads at the gym with my strange-looking plyometric routines (remember, this was before box gyms started buying into the whole “functional fitness” thing and stocking their new, open, functional areas with bouncy medicine balls, battle ropes, and speed ladders). I cut way down on my cardio (mainly because I just didn’t have time, now that I had to get to work after my workout), and started picking up heavier and heavier weights.

I even ventured into the gym with one of the guys from work–my first real friend in this new life I was living. I gave him some tips on training, and we spotted each other at the squat rack. I even spent time post-workout with him–talking about nothing in particular and worrying about the future. It was liberating.

My food, however, was still a major issue.

Because I had so much less time to cook (and because working a retail schedule meant unpredictable hours, all of which spent away from a source of healthy, non-mall food), I started to rely more and more heavily on egg whites and protein powders. In fact, my entire diet became based on combinations of egg whites and protein powders. I learned ways to mix in oatmeal, apples, berries, cottage cheese, peanut or almond butter and massive quantities of stevia, cinnamon, and cocoa powder in order to provide enough variety for six meals per day.* Sure, I still had my boiled chicken and dry turkey breasts with defrosted stir-fry vegetables, but those taste sensations didn’t stop me from craving my protein-powder-and-baby-food puddings. Yes, I ate baby food. I was hitting nutritional rock bottom.

My body started giving out on me during my workouts, and I was showing up at work with an impinged shoulder or a pulled hamstring.

I pushed through these “minor” injuries, and continued working out. Since the store wasn’t open all night and my shifts couldn’t last forever, working out was all I had to keep the Monster in the Mirror at bay.

ED couldn’t follow me to work, but he damn sure tried.

-K.

*I think some of these recipes are actually better than the crap that I actually shoved down my throat, but here’s an idea of things people actually do instead of eating real food : “20 Delicious Protein Powder Recipes That Are Not Shakes“+

+”Delicious” is disputable, although I suppose it’s a subjective thing; anything is probably delicious when you haven’t eaten anything but plain chicken for six months. And if you add enough fake sugar, well, then anything is possible.

Walking Into Spiderwebs

Imagine that you were afraid of spiders. Not just “get-your-roommate-to-squash-it-with-a-shoe-because-you’re-too-scared-to-do-it-yourself,” but also “too-scared-to-venture-out-of-the-house-without-a-can-of-RAID-just-in-case.” The kind of afraid that leaves you physically unable to function at the very thought of leaving the house and entering a world where spiders could potentially jump out at you from any corner or fall on your head as you walked through your front door. Sounds like a pretty miserable existence, right?

Well, by mid-summer 2010, life outside of my kitchen had become a giant effing spider.

By late July, ED and I had taken up residence in the corner of the kitchen. We two spent nearly all of our waking hours standing at the counter and surfing bodybuilding and fitness meal plan blogs.* Even when I wanted to leave, I had nowhere to go–the other areas of my house were filled with mirrors (from which ED would leer at my not-yet-perfect body), and to leave the kitchen meant that I was separated from my food. To go anywhere but the gym would send me into a panic that left me nearly incapacitated and suicidal.

At the suggestion of my poor, beleaguered psychologist in NYC (and much encouraged by my parents), I found a therapist who practiced “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” I figured I would try it, since CBT is intended to help lessen anxiety through exposure.

To give you an idea of how CBT works, we can use our fear-of-spiders example: In the first few sessions, you might talk about spiders. Eventually your therapist might bring in a picture of a spider. Soon, you’d have your sessions with an actual spider in a cage on the other side of the room. Perhaps one day you’d be able to go up to the cage, or even touch the spider.

For me, CBT meant leaving my house for something other than a trip to the gym or Publix. CBT meant attending group sessions and building relationships with the other women who attended. CBT meant being okay with leaving the house without a cooler filled with snacks just in case. CBT also meant letting go of my obsession with becoming a bikini competitor.

Dying to be a bikini competitor. Literally.

The problem with therapy was that, while I wanted help, I was still in love with the ideas that ED had planted in my head. Why couldn’t I be healthy and also a Bikini competitor? If the way I was behaving was keeping me thin, what would happen to me if I gave up those behaviors? Though I wanted help, I wasn’t ready for it.**

I argued with my therapist in every session. I attended the group CBT classes grudgingly, and I refused my therapist’s repeated assertions that I should come to her weekend eating disorder meetings. I had no faith in her methods; she was beautiful but overweight, and therefore a repulsive example of what I could become if I listened to her. She and I disagreed on what foods could be considered “carbs” (she said that vegetables weren’t carbohydrates, and her ignorance made me hate her). She wanted me to go out and make friends. I wanted to stay in and build muscle.

She wanted me to go to a physician so that she could have tests run to prove that I was an anorexic. But first, I needed insurance. And that meant I needed a job.

I had been putting my resume out various places, and was finally hired by a gym to work the front desk. This was a part-time, no benefits position, but at least if I had to go out I was going somewhere I felt comfortable. At the gym, people understood me. There were bodybuilders who ate every three hours like me, men who brought in tupperwares of tuna and steamed broccoli or downed their whey protein during their 15 minute post-exercise window for optimal protein uptake by the muscles. There were the spin and boot camp devotees who were as addicted to their post-cardio endorphin highs as any druggie. There were the women who would stop me in the locker room and beg me to tell them my “secret” for looking “so fit.” (And I would smirk, because I knew that no one else had the dedication to do what I was doing, so they would never be as thin as I was.)

Too thin.

I would wake up at 4 am, get to the gym by 4:30, have the coffee brewing and the doors open by 5, make small talk with the old men who came to “work out” (read: do a couple of pec-deck flyes and then socialize for a few hours before going home), and then exercise as soon as my shift ended at 10. It was an almost perfect arrangement. I just needed that insurance.

As August drew to a close, I got an email inviting me to interview for a part time retail position. This wasn’t just any retail position, however; this was a position with a Very Important Technology Company. One that doesn’t just grant interviews willy-nilly, and one that even more rarely grants the interviewee a job. Since I had no background in either sales or technology, I was ready to write this one off.

But I went to the interview anyway. Just in case.

-K.

*So many of these blogs were just thinspo/pro-ana in disguise–often unbeknownst to the women who where writing them. Looking back at my bookmarked and most-visited pages now, I realize just how sick so many of these women actually are. It’s one thing to have a healthy interest in food and its effects on the body/body composition, and it’s another to spend one’s entire day obsessing about manipulating macronutrients and photographing tupperwares filled with protein powder pudding.

**If you’re in the same place I was–where you can acknowledge that you have a problem but aren’t yet ready to change–don’t despair! If you can, try to find a therapist or a person who you can talk to. Sometimes, just talking helps. Eventually, you will be ready to accept change, progress, and hope for your future.

A Measure of Worth?

Just a quick note: we’re getting into some of the most recent (and, frankly, most difficult) parts of the ED here. I just wanted to post a little disclaimer here that NONE of this is to be considered “pro-ana” AT ALL–please, if you feel yourself identifying with some or all of the thoughts and behaviors I’m posting here, please please please seek help. Tell a friend or family member. Find a doctor. Reach out. An ED is a very serious disease with some very serious consequences, both psychological and physical, and you do not deserve to live in pain. Please don’t isolate yourself: there is hope and there is help outside of your own mental prison. 

Moving back to Florida felt like failing.

Here I was: 23, salutatorian of my high school class, having both graduated from college a year early (and summa cum laude) and successfully managed a high school drama department, and yet now I couldn’t manage my own life. I was moving back in with my mother. I wasn’t going to get my MFA from an Ivy League or become a dramaturg at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or work for the New York City Center’s Encores!.

I felt like my life was completely out of control. Fortunately, ED was right there beside me, offering the magic pill: control your body, control your life.

I was aware that I had a problem–that I was addicted to my new Eat-Clean lifestyle–but I was hellbent on not giving it up. Even though I didn’t yet have a car or a job, I went to the Busy Body Fitness Center up the road each day and worked out. I was nearing the end of my eight-week transformation challenge, and I refused to miss a muscle-building moment.

My post-”transformation” photo

As soon as the transformation challenge ended, I knew that I wasn’t thin enough. Looking at the pictures of the other women online, I knew that I still had work to do. I beat myself up, knowing I hadn’t been compliant enough with the transformation diet–some days I had had a bowl of cereal before bed (old habits die hard) or had even god forbid snuck a handful of chocolate chips past ED.

At the gym, one of the trainers there asked me if I was training for an NPC* competition. I said I wasn’t, but immediately went home and signed up. This was going to be how I made up for my transformation failure: I was going to train for a Bikini competition.

My reasoning was this: if I wasn’t good enough to use my brain to impress everyone–my Ivy League dreams were still stuffed inside the boxes I’d shipped home but never unpacked–then I was going to use my body to prove I was worth something.

I started a new regimen of training, which involved alternating squat and deadlift days–with plyometric days in between. I cut down on some of my cardio since I was no longer running to and from the gym, but I still managed to log hours upon hours on the arc trainer. I poured over pictures of figure competitors and studied training logs and meal plans in my copies of Oxygen, Muscle and Fitness Hers, and Fitness RX while I elliptical-ed away my calories.

I was also becoming more and more obsessed with eating–and eating the right things at the right times. I was downing protein powder two to three times a day (whey in the morning after my workout and mixed with water and cinnamon as a pudding for my mid-morning snack, and casein mixed with water and cinnamon as a pudding for dessert). I cooked batches and batches of boiled chicken and ground turkey and stored them in the freezer for easy access. I made egg-white and oatmeal pancakes. I ate sweet potatoes and green beans and lettuce and didn’t taste a single thing.

The Eat-Clean Diet told me to eat six meals a day, spaced three or so hours apart. I took that to heart and, of course, to the extreme: If I wasn’t shoveling tasteless fuel into my body every three hours on the dot, I would start to panic. ED would start to whisper threats in my ear: My muscles were going to shrink. All of my hard work was going to be thrown away. I was going to gain weight. If I couldn’t get to my cottage cheese and blueberries or dry tuna fish, I would start to hyperventilate, my chest closing up and my head spinning. I felt like I was going to die.

That also may have had something to do with the hypoglycemia from the fact that, despite eating six meals a day, I was starving myself.**

This was no way to live my life. I knew there was something wrong. But I loved looking in the mirror and seeing my beautiful muscles and knowing that they were my justification for not killing myself. My muscles were going to prove that I had worth.***

-K.

*NPC stands for “National Physique Committee.” It is one of the amateur bodybuilding, fitness, figure, and bikini organizations, and certain NPC shows act as qualifiers for a pro committee like IFBB (International Federation of Body Builders).

**I lived my life from meal to meal because I was only eating 100-200 calories at a time. I was constantly hungry, counting down the seconds until I could eat again. When it was finally time to eat again, I would inhale the food, torn between consuming everything as quickly as I could and savoring every last bite. When the food was gone, I would sink into a depression that would last until the next meal time. Needless to say, I wasn’t much fun to be around between meals–and god forbid you get in my way when I was cooking…

***I spent most of my time worrying about what my friends from high school would think of me. I had been one of those “most-likely-to-succeed”, type-A kids who everyone just assumed would go far. I had such a low sense of self-worth, that I took their dismissive “stop-worrying-you’ll-be-great-at-whatever-you-do’s” as threats–in other words, if I wasn’t great at whatever I did, then I would be a complete failure. I was so afraid of disappointing everyone, that I just went ahead and disappointed everyone (read: myself) to prove they were wrong for having had faith in me. It’s taken me a long time to start to separate myself from this need to live up to what I have falsely believed are other peoples’ expectations of me. (And there are still days when I wake up and wish I had a better life to display for those acquaintances on Facebook. On those days, I have to remind myself that I am on my own, non-traditional journey–and that I can’t base my destination on what I imagine is someone else’s ideal.