As an overwhelmed new mom, I finally admitted that I had an eating disorder. I had been coping with stress and heartache through both under-eating and overeating for almost ten years, and my negative thoughts about myself had become debilitating and all-consuming. I didn’t want this struggle to continue impacting my growing family, so I sought help from a counseling center near my home.
As part of my counseling, I participated in “narrative therapy” during which I was asked to embody my eating disorder as a character in a story–a person separate from myself with whom I could interact and analyze. My counselor told me to write my story in three parts: past, present, and future. I chose to write about how my eating disorder and I met, what our relationship had been like, and what I imagined my future to look like without her in it.
The result was eye-opening and powerful. I was able to see even more clearly how destructive my thoughts and behaviors had been, and I more fully committed to pursuing recovery. I share my story now with the hope that it might offer insight and hope to someone who is feeling desperate and alone.
Almost three years after this narrative was written, I am now in a healthier place emotionally and physically. I am so grateful to be free of the darkness that I felt when I was trapped in my eating disorder, and my gratitude compels me to share my journey with others.
If you read this and recognize some of yourself in it, please know–you do not have to live like this! It is possible to be free of these cycles of destructive thoughts and habits. Resources and links for overcoming eating disorders are included at the bottom of this post, including two podcasts (here and here) about what I learned in counseling.
There is hope, and you are not alone.
Meeting my Eating Disorder
She came to me one night when I was out for a chilly evening run under the stars and streetlamps of my college town.
She pulled up beside me in running shorts, falling right into stride with me–as if she knew me, as if she’d been waiting for me.
“You could run faster than this, you know,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“Huh?” I asked, vaguely confused about who she was, but so taken by her nonchalance that I almost felt like we’d planned the meeting.
She repeated herself. “You could run faster than this.” I didn’t respond, but I didn’t have to. She hadn’t meant it as a question. “And I hear your mother is dying,” she continued.
Again, it was a statement of fact. And as we plodded along in side-by-side silence, breathing heavily, taking in the night air, I didn’t say anything more.
“It’s okay. I’ll be here for you,” she said simply. “I can make it better.”
These runs, which had started just a few months earlier when I’d left home for my freshman year of college, had never been about running fast, or burning calories, or counting mileage—they had been a time of solitude and peace, a time to think and to try to make sense of my vastly changing life.
I wasn’t sure I wanted company.
But I didn’t tell her to leave. And as we reached my dorm hall and I watched her jogging off into the night, her long blonde hair swinging with her steady stride, I knew that I would be seeing her again.
Living With my Eating Disorder
Over the ten years that I allowed this friendship to be part of my life, she manipulated me and told me all sorts of lies.
She told me that I had to run every single day or else I was a failure. When I had mono and was emotionally exhausted from news of my mom’s terminal cancer diagnosis, she told me that I had to go running with her at 11:30 p.m. when I got home from studying at the library. If I ever got more than four or five hours of sleep a night, she told me I was worthless and unproductive. A true friend would’ve told me to climb into bed and be gentle with myself during such a difficult time.
She told me that if I ate more than half a salad wrap at any one time, I was going to get enormously fat. She told me to stop eating sweets altogether except for once a week—once a week was all I could risk if I didn’t want to be obese.
She made me hyper-aware of what I ate because she was constantly making comments about it: “You’re going to eat a second cookie? Looks like you won’t be able to wear those jeans that you just bought for very long…” “Are you really going to order Fettuccine Alfredo?” I could always hear her critical commentary running through my head.
The summer that my mom was so sick and I was her caregiver while my dad was at work, she met me every morning on the running path. In and of itself, a daily jog was not an unhealthy way to cope, but she pushed me to run farther and farther each day, telling me that my run was a “waste of time” if it wasn’t at least five miles. She would tell me I was pathetic if I missed a day or didn’t feel up to running as far as I had the day before. Five miles…six miles…seven miles a day…it wasn’t enough. I often ran eight miles or more in the early hours of the morning, and then went home and took care of my dying mother for the rest of the day.
She told me that she would help me fix the negative emotions that I felt about my mom’s impending death. She reminded me to stand on the scale every morning to make sure that something in my life was still in control. The decreasing number on the scale seemed like the only thing that was measurable in the midst of all of the pain. During those months, I did feel comforted by my faith and my family, but I couldn’t bear to just sit with the agonizing grief that I was feeling—so I tried to run and starve it away.
A few years later, when I started my career as a high school English teacher and got too busy to jog every day, she told me it wasn’t worth running at all. “What’s the point?” she would say. “At this rate, you’re going to get fat anyway, so why even try?” When she said this, I felt utter panic—I don’t want to be fat!—and she seemed to love getting that reaction out of me. She always told me it was “all or nothing.” I believed her.
She told me not to go to parties and social gatherings because I wouldn’t be able to resist the food there. I usually ignored her and went anyway, but I spent the entire time telling myself that I “couldn’t” eat any of the refreshments. I often ended up eating them anyway, which made me feel guilty and weak, so I ate more than I even wanted to because “tomorrow I will start my diet—tomorrow, I will start being ‘good.’” I left those parties feeling sick to my stomach and awful about myself. “I told you so,” she would say with a smirk.
She told me I never deserved to have time to myself. “You are so selfish,” she would say when I felt too tired to participate in a service opportunity organized by my church. When a student seemed to need extra help on something (whether or not he or she had even asked for the help), she would tell me, “If you want to be a good teacher, you need to give up your lunch break to help that student.” I would often go an entire day without eating anything, only to realize at 3:15 when the students left my room that I was ravenous and utterly drained.
Despite my fatigue, I stayed at the school until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. every night, grading papers and planning lessons—working, always working. During those long afternoons and evenings at the school, she brought me candy bars from the vending machine. “You’re tired, you’ve been working hard,” she would say to me. “This candy will make you feel better.” In those moments, she seemed sweet and supportive, but it was always her underhanded attempt to make me feel reliant on her and bad about myself. I sometimes ate two or three candy bars to make it through those exhausting work sessions. Slowly, just as she knew it would, the weight crept on.
She told me that I must be disgusting to my husband with the weight I’d gained. “I bet he doesn’t find you attractive at all anymore,” she would say. This sometimes made me cry when Ryan and I were together, because I was sure that she was right.
When I was struggling to get pregnant and going through infertility treatments, she started hanging around even more. She would wait in the car after my appointments, and as I drove away from the clinic, my heart breaking and numb, she would say to me, “Well, if you can’t have a baby, at least you deserve to have a dessert. Dessert will make this feel better.” She encouraged me to stop at the grocery store and buy myself a mini pie, or go home and scour the refrigerator for something to temporarily numb the pain—chocolate frosting with graham crackers, ice cream…foods I didn’t even really like or want, but that she assured me would make things feel better.
In the midst of my fertility treatments, I was also going through the adoption process, and when I was corresponding with expectant mothers who were considering adoption, she was always the first to remind me that things were uncertain. “Don’t get your hopes up, Rachel,” she would say. “Remember the last three birth moms you communicated with? They all changed their minds. I’m sure this one will too.” Her words filled me with anxiety that never really went away, no matter what I was doing. I tried praying and reading scriptures, I tried going out with friends—all of those things helped, but the stress and pain still gnawed at me from the inside. Always, always there.
Months later, when my miracle son finally arrived to us through adoption, things didn’t go as smoothly as I’d imagined they would. My son had colic and cried most of the day, and I was filled with inadequacy, loneliness, and desperation. Instead of encouraging me that things would get better, she told me I was a terrible mother. She told me I hated being a mother. She told me the rest of my life was going to be miserable. Then she’d say the inevitable: “Here, eat these brownies. After all, it’s the only thing you have to look forward to, and you’re never going to be skinny again anyway, so you might as well.”
She told me to lie to my husband, something that I never thought I would do until she infiltrated my life. She didn’t want me to be close to him—she wanted to be my only friend and confidant. “He will think you are a failure if he knows how much you eat,” she would say. “He will realize that you can’t follow through on your goals and you are weak and unworthy of his love. You should only make cookies when he isn’t home and then throw away the evidence. And you better make up a reason to leave the house instead of telling him that you want to go get a treat.”
After a long day stuck at home with a crying baby, I would tell Ryan that I was running an errand but instead meet up with her to indulge in a dessert that she assured me would help me feel better about my life; but even as I was eating it, I knew she was lying. I would silently resolve to be rid of her, starting the next day. “This is the last time I will ever hang out with her,” I would tell myself, “so I better live it up now.” Sometimes we’d stop at multiple drive-thrus to get various treats in one evening, because nothing was making me feel better so I had to keep trying different options. A few times I felt so physically sick and so full of self-loathing when I got home that I made myself throw up before I went into the house.
It was in the midst of that final nightmare that I decided that I had to break off my friendship with her. I wasn’t sure how to do it, so I recruited help. I prayed and plead for strength. I sought help from a professional counselor. My husband, my family, and a few trusted friends were at my side when I told her to get away from me. Get out of my life. I told her that I never wanted to speak to her or see her again.
She didn’t take the news well, and she was slow in leaving. There were times when she knocked on my door, and in a low moment, I let her in. We’d sit on the couch and talk, and she would start feeding me lies again, and sometimes I would listen, but it wasn’t like before. I never really let her back into my heart.
Now her visits are few and far between. Sometimes she still knocks. I look through the peephole and see her standing there—sometimes she even tries to talk to me through the door—but I generally don’t respond. I may hear her words and wonder if they are true, but I don’t respond to her, and I don’t let her in, and I think she is starting to get the hint. She comes around less and less often these days.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I allowed myself to be abused and manipulated for so long. It makes me feel sick and a little embarrassed to think about the years that I wasted on her. But it also makes me proud to realize that I have almost broken free, and it makes me feel hopeful to realize that she has left a big space in my life that I can fill with relationships that actually nourish me, instead of leaving me empty, alone, and in pain.
Living Without my Eating Disorder
I am the mother of five beautiful children. It is a busy, chaotic life, but, for the most part, I am able to keep my cool and mother with love because I love myself. I am close to my Father in Heaven. I feel His love for me, and I know my worth.
I am able to take the stresses of life in stride instead of eating my way through them. When I do revert to emotional eating, which happens on occasion, I forgive myself and move forward. My eating disorder rarely comes knocking anymore—she knows there is no point.
I teach my children to take care of their bodies, minds, and souls. We eat lots of delicious fruits and vegetables—and of course some awesome treats too. Food isn’t the center of our family and universe, but we aren’t afraid of it.
We get outside and exercise together a lot as a family. We go for hikes and bike rides. We go for after-dinner walks around the neighborhood. A few nights a week, my husband and I put the kids to bed and have a teenaged neighbor come over and sit with them, so we can go walking or jogging under the stars together, just like we did when we were dating. We are active and strong.
I take the breaks that I need from mothering my big family, and I don’t feel guilty about it. I have a sitter twice a week for a few hours, so I can go to a local coffee shop and write. I also take an evening every week to myself, meeting up with a friend for dessert, going to a bookstore to read, or just taking a walk by myself at sunset to think and pray. Because I want to be present and relaxed for my family and friends, I say “no” to extracurricular activities and responsibilities that will leave me feeling overwhelmed and drained.
I am someone whom people can call on a whim. I am available to talk and to help—I am not stressed and overly busy all the time.
I find joy in serving other people, and it’s a big part of my life and the lives of my children. It is one of the things that nourishes me and fills me. I tutor underprivileged kids in reading and writing, and I know I am making a difference to them. I teach my own kids to look for opportunities to serve others, and I help them follow through on their ideas for service. It gives me so much joy to see the light that comes from service in my children’s eyes.
I am happy. I am fulfilled. I am able to see the value and meaning in my life. I no longer feel stress or self-loathing on a daily basis. I get enough sleep. I take care of myself. I feel my emotions instead of fleeing from them through starvation, exercise, or excess.
I love and savor life, with all of its ups and downs.
I love and nourish myself, with all of my weaknesses and imperfections.
I am grateful. I am at peace.
I am free.
Confronting Eating Disorders: Resources
-Listen to me share some of what I learned in counseling in these Power of Moms’ podcasts:
- Unhealthy Stress or Habits? Break the Cycle!
- Listening to and Loving your Body through Intuitive Eating
-Resources I used in counseling to overcome my eating disorder:
- Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (Ten key principles summarized here)
- How Much Does Your Soul Weigh? by Dr. Dorie McCubrrey (my counselor)
- Women, Food, and God by Geneen Roth
-If you think you could benefit from the help of a counselor, I recommend Googling “Intuitive Eating counselor” along with the name of your city. There is probably someone nearby who can help you.
QUESTION: Did any of the thoughts and experiences in this story resonate with you and remind you of your own relationship with yourself and/or with food?
CHALLENGE: Listen carefully to your self-talk this week, and challenge the negative voices that tell you that you aren’t enough or that you should be ashamed of having weaknesses and needs.
Edited by Rachel Nielson and Anna Jenkins.
Image from Shutterstock with graphics by Julie Finlayson.
Originally published on November 19, 2014.
What great encouragement. Thank you!
Rachel Nielson says
Thank you, Mel!! Thank you for reading and taking the time to leave a comment!
Pamela Neves says
Thanks for sharing your powerful story. As a certified Pscyhology of Eating Coach with past struggles, I so understand the compulsion and yearning for food freedom.
Rachel Nielson says
I need to learn more about this Psychology of Eating Coaching. Maybe that’s something I could do in order to share my experience and my freedom with others. I feel so passionate about it. Thank you for commenting!
Sarah Westover McKenna says
It is more powerful every time that I read it. You are so amazing. I am proud to be your sister!
Rachel Nielson says
Thank you for being such an integral part of my recovery journey (well, and my ENTIRE life). I love you!
Jody Moore says
This is beautifully written and thank you for sharing such a personal experience. I love the idea of the narrative and how it allows you to no longer be your thoughts…but to be the watcher of your thoughts. Eckhart Tolle talks about the power of becoming the Watcher. Feeling your emotions is so important and when we allow them (even the negative ones) and lean into them instead of resisting them they wash over us like a wave. No negative emotion can ever really harm you. So incredible! Thanks for sharing.
Rachel Nielson says
Thank you so much for commenting, Jody! It sounds like you have lots of really valuable knowledge on this subject. “Become the Watcher”–I love that! I recorded a podcast for Power of Moms in which I discuss this idea of leaning into emotions instead of resisting them–I would love for you to listen to it and add your thoughts and additional insights in the comments! Here is the link: http://powerofmoms.com/2014/11/unhealthy-stress/
Rebecca Cooper says
Beautifully written – I really loved this! So hopeful and encouraging!
Rachel Nielson says
Thank you so much!
nest of posies says
such an incredible story. you and your sisters were amazing caregivers! thank you so much for sharing. i am so glad that you are taking care of you! it’s so hard to do that and to find the time as busy moms. i think it’s so important for OUR health & the health of our families.
Rachel Nielson says
Yes, it is SO important for our health–and if we aren’t healthy, physically and emotionally, how can we care for our families?? Thank you for reading and commenting–and for spreading beauty and joy throughout this world via your blog!
Amber Price says
Love this so much Rachel. I think that what you described is not uncommon among women. I sometimes fight with similar feelings-I call them my demons. At times they tell me that I am fat too (or other negative things) even though logically I know I am not. I can fight them away but I have to work at it and pray for help. Sharing your story will help so many!!!
Rachel Nielson says
Thank you for commenting, Amber! Yes, we all have “demons” and that’s a word I use a lot too. I love that you said you CAN fight them away with work and prayer–so true. I talk about the strategies that I use to fight off my demons in a podcast I recorded for this site. When you have 45 minutes of quiet time (haha), you should listen to it: http://powerofmoms.com/2014/11/unhealthy-stress/ Maybe when you’re crafting or baking your amazing creations? Josh should listen to it too–I know he is hard on himself sometimes. You are both amazing, and I am so lucky to have you in my life! Love you.
Tanisha D. says
Incredible! Thank you for sharing what I’m sure is the secret and quiet struggle of so many other women. I hope your brave, honest, and heart-touching story gives hope to and encourages other moms!
Rachel Nielson says
Thank you, Tanisha!!
Sally Jackson says
Thank you for sharing your insights on such a tender subject. I know that many women struggle with similar feelings about themselves and don’t know where to turn for help. I think that the more people that share their experiences will empower those to seek out the help they need. And I’m so sorry about your mom. I feel like I could’ve written this myself 12 years ago only it wasn’t a mother’s death, but instead my parents divorce. So stressful, so hard, and my ED was all I had to numb myself. It took some counseling to get over it and I’m now at a great, healthy, happy, place. Yes, it feels good to be free.
Rachel Nielson says
Thank you for the comment, Sally! You and I have corresponded a little bit when you have written for the site, and I remember asking you if you liked your name because I was considering it for my baby girl. Well, she was born in July and we named her Sally Grace. 🙂 Sally was my mother’s name, so it is in her honor. I still miss my mother every day. I’m so sorry about your parents’ divorce, and I am so glad that you, too, have found freedom from your ED. Thank you for your involvement with Power of Moms! Hope to see more essays from you in the future!
Dawn Wessman says
Rachel, this is so powerful–and what a great writer you are! Thank you for being so specific. When negative thoughts come-like the “I’m a terrible mom” or “I’ve already messed up, so why try?” ones, what could I do in the moment to combat/deal with/un-invite them?
Rachel Nielson says
Thank you so much, Dawn! And thank you for the question–I actually recorded a podcast with April recently discussing some strategies that I learned in counseling for combating negative thoughts in the moment: http://powerofmoms.com/2014/11/unhealthy-stress/ I would LOVE for you to listen to it and comment with your reaction/thoughts/input.
I have definitely felt the “I’ve already messed up, so why try?” that you mentioned. That was a huge problem for me in my eating disorder years. I would promise myself that I wasn’t going to eat sugar for a specified amount of time, which just made me want it more. So then if I ate one cookie at a party, I would think, “Well, I failed and I am pathetic, so I might as well eat five cookies now!” It makes no sense. If I were refinishing a car and accidentally dinged it a little, I wouldn’t say, “Well, I scratched the car, so I might as well take a baseball bat to it.”
In my counseling, I learned about a philosophy of health called “Intuitive Eating” where you really learn to listen to and respect your body. I swore off diets for good and started just asking myself, “Do I really want a cookie? If so, I can have one.” Sometimes I didn’t want one after all; sometimes I did; rarely did I want FIVE because that doesn’t feel good in your body, and I was listening to and respecting my body instead of letting my emotions rule me. Much more about Intuitive Eating here: http://www.intuitiveeating.com/content/10-principles-intuitive-eating
It has changed my life!
Thanks again for commenting, and I hope you will listen to the podcast about combating negative thoughts! xo
Sarah Monson says
Wow! So descriptive and powerful. I’ve never read anything about eating disorders like this. It seems like when the topic is discussed it’s usually extreme examples, but I’m sure there are many more people who experience the type of thinking and behavior you describe here than those who deal with more extreme manifestations. Thanks for sharing!
Rachel Nielson says
SO true, Sarah! I think a lot of women experience these types of thoughts and behaviors to some extent. In his podcast with April, Jonathan Bailor (author of The Calorie Myth) said that in psychology, a “disorder” is defined as an “unnatural preoccupation” with something or a preoccupation that “interferes with your daily life and activities.” When defined that way, I think LOTS of women have mild eating disorders–preoccupation with calories, food, weight, exercise, etc that impacts their daily lives and happiness.
When I first wrote this narrative therapy, I thought that my behaviors were so shameful that no one would understand them; but the more I’ve shared this essay, the more I’ve gotten the same reaction: “I have thoughts like that too!” It has been comforting to realize that I am not alone but also concerning to realize that so many women are struggling. I hope that when reading my story, more women realize that they don’t have to live this way. I am incomparably happier now than I was during my eating-disorder years–and I want so many others to find freedom as well!
Courtney Crofts says
Thank you so much for writing and posting this article. I have to admit, life is so busy and I am trying to simplify things so I usually just delete my Power of Moms emails but for some reason the other day I opened up my email and immediately the title of your article caught my eye. I have struggled with anorexia and bulimia since I was a teenager (I’m 32 now) and I often feel completely alone in my struggle. I have been hospitalized and in inpatient treatment centers an embarrassing number of times and despite hundreds and hundreds of hours of therapy, doctors appointments, nutritional counseling, and group therapy I have never been able to find a way to keep myself in recovery. I’m grateful for what you shared because it reminded me what a powerful tool writing is and how I need to more effectively utilize it in my life. I used to blog quite a bit and then a couple years ago I totally stopped and reading your post has motivated me to start back up again. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your story has inspired and given hope to a complete stranger so thank you for your bravery in sharing.
Rachel Nielson says
Thank you so much for your comment!!! It sounds like you have been on a long road, and knowing that my narrative therapy was helpful/inspiring to you means a lot to me. I highly recommend sitting down and doing something like this–embodying your eating disorder as a character and writing about him/her. It can feel overwhelming to write about something so BIG, but I just sat down and forced myself to do it–I didn’t think about the words being perfect or something that I would want to present on a blog read by lots of people. I just let it all come out. A few months later, I looked back at it and edited it so it would be something I felt I could publish–but the first step was just getting it out for ME and me alone. Come back and comment if you decide to do it! I would love to know if it was helpful.
I’m so sorry that you have had such a battle. Eating disorders are excruciating. The fact that you have continued to try to seek treatment despite “set backs” shows what a fighter you are. My counselor always reminded me that recovery is not linear–it’s okay to have major setbacks and relapses. Just don’t give up! You are not alone!!
That was beautiful! Thank you for sharing your story.
Rachel Nielson says
Thank you, Leigh! Thank you for reading and commenting!
Sally Jackson says
I love that name, Sally Grace. 🙂 Your daughter will love it, too!