Eating Disorder Recovery: When “healthy” is a lie.

TW: If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, please care for yourself. None of this is meant to upset you, but if you’re sensitive to photos or talk of disordered behaviors, maybe skip this one. We’ll return to your irregularly scheduled sass soon enough.

There’s never a convenient time to talk about eating disorders. Trust me, I’ve been waiting on it for years. There’s always something: What will X new friend think? What will X future employer think? What if X potential suitor googles me (bigger threat: what if he DOESN’T? What kind of sociopath are we dealing with here?), freaks out and says gurl, bye?

Short answer: GURL, BYE. I need people in my life who can deal. Easy to understand, harder to implement.

The bigger issue is that nearly five years after entering treatment for (what started as) bulimia, I don’t consider myself recovered. Recovering, yes. I go days, weeks, even months feeling like I’m over it. Spoiler: I’m not. Recovery has been far from linear and is complicated by the fact that my ED followed a sizable weight loss. I have no normal to return to. Instead, I have these:

the overweight overeater

the frustrated yo-yo dieter

the out-of-control bulimic

the hyper-controlled health nut

the food-obsessed waif

the gluten-free vegan

the compulsive gym rat

the anxious, run-down shell who said, holy shit, this could go on forever.

And now I’m…what? Tired of thinking about it. Tired of hiding from it. And kind of wanting to talk about it, even if the words are as clumsy and circuitous as the journey has been.

Unless you’re being force-fed in a hospital — and often even if you are — recovery is rarely a simple prescription. I sought salvation from bulimia in “healthy living”: If what I ate was good for me, I could commit to keeping it down. I developed a love of wholesome cooking and got into running and weight training. My binges got fewer and further between. My weight stabilized and actually dropped. I figured out how to incorporate the odd baked good or rich meal, and got a real kick out of publicly Eating While Thin.

Double-fisting Shake Shack! …Followed by a slice of watermelon for dinner.

What I didn’t know is that I was way underfueling my body type and activity level. For YEARS. I wasn’t consciously restricting, but I look back and do a quick tally and guys. It was just not enough. I knew I sometimes went to bed hungry. I knew I kept a food journal and planned all my meals in advance. I knew spontaneous eating stressed me out and my rigidness interfered with my relationships. I knew I spent all day lusting over recipes and restaurants. I thought I was just, I dunno, really into food.

Dead eyes + bones = you’re doing it wrong.

I was fine until I wasn’t. I hit a wall a little over a year ago. I couldn’t understand why despite eating “healthy” (read: tiny portions of so-called clean food), I felt sick all the time. Exhausted, edgy, foggy, bloated, plagued by dry skin and acne I never got as a teen. I was a model of health…and I looked and felt like shit.

“So I says to the guy, ‘Sternum? I hardly know ’em!'”

I confused the bloating with weight gain — unacceptable, since my self-identity had come to revolve around Eating While Thin. God forbid anyone see me looking a little squishy. I cancelled plans and eventually stopped making them, convinced that what little social life I had left was pulling me away from my “healthy” routine. The good times could resume once I got things under control.

Me on a fat day. Def.

I saw a doctor, who basically told me it was all in my head. He said I should focus on reducing stress and give up gluten despite testing negative for Celiac. I realized I could control the bloating by basically never eating more than a few bites at a time. My energy temporarily spiked, which is a biological response to starvation (…so you can find food). Then it got 10x worse.

(Could it have been because I was barely clearing a thousand calories on top of a rigorous workout regimen, and my organ function and hormone production had slowed to a crawl?! Dammit, Emma, you with your spoilers.)

Much swoll. Very muscles. I could barely carry those eye bags.

I spent all my free time googling symptoms and digging through forums for answers. Then I did a few things at once. I quit caffeine, knowing it wound me up tight. I adopted a totally gluten-free, vegan diet — by that point, my digestion was so suppressed that I was convinced I had real intolerances — and I told myself I could eat as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted, as long as it was “healthy.” While plenty confining, it was a system I’d never trusted before. Whole avocados instead of anemic slivers. Almond butter feasts straight from the jar. Full-fat coconut milk with raw cacao and honey every night before bed.

And something wild happened. I gained weight. Not a ton — maybe ten or fifteen pounds — but it came on quickly and settled evenly. Wilder still, I didn’t become hideously unattractive. Quite the opposite. The bloat deflated, my skin calmed down, and my face and curves filled out. This was not the unflattering layer of water that had settled under my skin in response to a chronic deficit. This was straight-up fat – honest and womanly, firm to the touch, and just what my body needed.

My eyes brightened. My cheeks flushed. I had never been hit on more in my life. More importantly, I felt relaxed and silly and social and sensual — like myself for the first time in longer than I knew.

Selfie-improvement.

Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get it yet. I gave my narrow diet’s contents more credit than its flood of usable energy. Upon realizing I couldn’t do the gluten-free vegan thing forever, I fell back into restrictive patterns: small portions paired with a serious cardio habit. Pretty standard — maybe fine for someone without such fraught digestive and nervous systems — but not nearly enough for my barely-healing body. The weight fell off, and my symptoms returned with a vengeance. I couldn’t leave the house without throbbing headaches. I couldn’t run without swelling up with stress-induced water weight for days. Are these my choices? I wondered. Chronic inflammation or morbid obesity?

Well, as it turns out, no.

I’ve arrived at the final frontier: permission to eat, full stop, “healthy” or not. Recovery 2: 4 REALZ THIS TIME finds me trying to reset my metabolism and get to my body’s natural weight on what is, for me, an unprecedented amount of food. On top of my regular meals (which have doubled in size), I’m trying to eat when I’m hungry, even if I just had a full meal an hour ago. The more I resist, the longer it will take for my body to trust me and use that energy for good. There’s science to back it up, but it goes against every tenet of mainstream diet culture — a hard sell for someone not underweight by the scale.

It’s incredibly daunting to eat like a teenage boy after being so careful for so long. But once I stopped suppressing my hunger, I was shocked by how much of it I felt. Far more than I could physically fill with my old staples. I’ve had to embrace fats and simple carbs — which make me feel great — and avoid anything with too much fiber, which makes me want to explode. Instead of overthinking it, I’m taking my multivitamin and hoping my body is smarter than me. As first world problems go, there are worse things than eating a lot of cheese.

I’ve been doing it for about two months — no cardio, to boot — and it has not turned me into Jabba the Hutt. It’s that same fifteen pounds, and that same vitality I lacked as a paragon of “health.” Even without the pristine diet. I can and do eat everything, and my skin and mind are mostly clear. The weight is honest and womanly. I know that it is good.

Not every day is good, though. Water retention can be unpredictable and drastically change my appearance in a matter of hours. I’ll catch sight of an old photo or something that no longer fits and think, Maybe I was just doing it wrong. If I tweak my macros. Load up on fruits and veggies. The “Bad Blood” music video, while epic, was triggering as fuck. I went to bed hungry three nights in a row in pursuit of uber-svelte Swiftyness. Lo and behold: Headaches! Joint pain! A fresh crop of zits! My body simply will not do it anymore, and neither will I. Anyone who judges the weight gain does not have my best interests at heart. I am not letting myself go. I am letting go of a compulsion that kept me from living fully.

My body feels awkward right now, but I’m finding my peace with it. I also know I may need to gain more, and I have to accept that too — even if that weight comes from eating cake for breakfast, or having three snacks in the time I’d have formerly allowed myself one. The definition of “healthy” changes after an eating disorder. Finding that mental freedom — challenging my fears and my systems — is so much more important than a little bit of vanity weight. The best thing I can do is focus on developing value markers outside of my size and surrounding myself with people who couldn’t care less.

No witty bow to tie up this one, friends. Thank you for letting me share. I hope for your sake you can’t relate, but if you can, I hope this spurred you toward a positive change, or at least made you think. If you want to talk more, I’m only an email away.

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15 responses to “Eating Disorder Recovery: When “healthy” is a lie.

  1. I love you beyond the universe ~ Emma Emma Aubry Roberts ~ your voice is full of verisimilitude and astoundingly brave~and at the same time empowering and full of hope and encouragement! I am most proud of you for sharing your journey, speaking your truth, accepting your reality and importantly for your recovery of healthly eating and emotional healing. Your speaking out will help many girls, woman, (and men) to hopefully recognize symptoms, reconsile and explore healthy eating and physical habits, and realize food is good and can be enjoyed and is necessary for our physical and mental health and well-being and does not have to be the enemy- but nutritionally and in moderation can be savored and enjoyed. SO amazed and so grateful you are in my life.

  2. Sending you all the mental fist bumps and a couple hormone-rich bearhugs, dude. I can relate to more than a little of this, and while I’d love to tell you it completely goes away one day (from my vast life experience of all of, what, two years ahead of you?), I *can* say you sound like you’re on the right track to it at least becoming a monster you can keep on the leash. Good on you for talking publicly about it — I’m convinced it’s one of the best things we can do to battle our demons. And, per usual, your writing is a pleasure to read.

    • emmaaubryroberts

      Justine! You are food/fitness #goals to me (which just shows that we never know what goes on behind the scenes, but FWIW, you set a great example of sane approaches to both). Can’t wait for you to raise a little lady who has her mind right about this stuff. I hope you’re crying hormone-rich tears right now.

  3. I like the part about no witty bow. What a journey.. I had a long one too. Now I hardly think of it at all. Blessings to you.

  4. You have such a beautiful writing voice and I can totally relate to a lot of what you said. I will go weeks thinking “oh yeah! no more ed for me!”, only to spend the next week going to the gym compulsively. It’s a constant process<3

    • emmaaubryroberts

      Thanks for your sweet note. And yes, it’s tough when the actions are positive but the motivations behind them are not. It’s our job to fill up our lives with other wonderful things so those habits stay in their place. Could be worse, no?

  5. Recovery is TOUGH. And an endless battle. I struggled with anorexia for a few years and then disordered eating for a LOOONNNNGGGG time after that. And I can honestly say that it wasn’t until very recently that spontaneous eating or having dessert didn’t stress me out. I’m definitely not 100% recovered and probably never will be…but it’s worth the struggle for each step in the right direction!

  6. Pingback: Still here, still hungry. | BITE

  7. Cathy Muskett

    Emma,
    You know I’ve always been a fan of your writing, but this is by far my favorite piece. The specificity in your honesty really made me think about a lot of disordered behavior purported as “healthy”, “clean”, or “raw” eating. I think the way you describe your journey sheds a light on all the ways we try and convince ourselves that there’s some trick to looking like the women praised in the media for their thinness. It’s funny, because I was just thinking about body image today, and even posted a rambling FB status about it! Anyway, I’m glad you can see the beauty everyone else does.
    Take care!

    • emmaaubryroberts

      Totally. The categorical food fear is problematic. The idea of “burning off” food through exercise is fucked. Calories are energy! Being alive requires calories! I’ve been amazed by how effortlessly I can maintain a steady weight — albeit one a few pounds higher — AND ALSO have that much more headspace to invest in being a good person and cultivating a passionate life. THAT is beauty.

      Great to hear from you, Cathy!

  8. You, Emma, have always been bold and confident in my eyes. You have always had style, class, intelligence, snark, and wit to inspire those around you. I am immensely proud to know you, as I always have been. Keep rocking the boat and celebrating yourself, and know that we’re all out here celebrating you too. 🙂

    Blog tops.

    • emmaaubryroberts

      YOU are just the best. Your creative hustle lights a fire under my ass and it makes me so happy to see good things coming back to you. Kindly continue to WORK that ponytail. Miss you!

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