With most things I do, I try to keep a balance. It’s one of those things that recovery from an eating disorder makes you hyper aware of, “balance”.
If there is an intuitive way for humans to enjoy things in moderation, subconsciously preserving a “good enough” balance, it looks something like this: resting when tired, eating when hungry, running the extra mile when energetic, having sex when in the mood, and so on.
For me, and if I were to guess most of you who dove into recovery, life doesn’t feel so intuitive. I believe that the heightened awareness the process calls for makes subsequent decisions, no matter how trivial, feel quite managed, as if deliberately exerted.
If I find myself eating one too many cookies, I intentionally remind myself it’s ok because nutrition’s about overall balance. If I find myself going to yoga for three days in a row, I consciously refrain from making that four. If I happen to be out for a full week, I tend to decline a couple of the next upcoming invitations. If I read too many eating disorders related books consecutively, I make it a point to buy a fiction novel after that. This type of “constructive” awareness tends to stay even after making a full, lasting recovery.
Yesterday, as I looked over my blog, I was under the impression of having neglected to share more about my experience whilst in the trenches of recovery, in favor of blogging about what comes after - not just post weight restoration, but when feeling well, holistically.
So in good ole balanced fashion, I decided to revisit an early concept of recovery, not any other than the good ole scary and confusing extreme hunger.
If you recently started your recovery from anorexia, you likely wonder why, now that you’ve agreed to increase the amount of food you eat, you not only can’t stop eating but you also can’t stop thinking about eating. So let me explain from experience, in clear, simple words first. It is not because you have lost all control, nor have you drifted into binge eating disorder; you are not doomed to “obesity”, and rest assured that if you keep going with recovery, you will not feel this way forever.
The dual - physical and mental - pull to food is a result of bringing your body and mind out of a state of perceived famine, after years of undernourishment. It is evidence that your brain and body want to heal.
Extreme hunger doesn’t come knocking on your door. Oh no! Extreme hunger storms in violently, breaking down the most fortified gate. Like a tornado, it sucks in all the food that meets its way, fiercely continuing the ravage until it then weakens. From that point, it dissipates. Rather quickly actually, like the tornado, leaving you devastated by what just happened, but nonetheless in a state of clarity.
Given an environment your body and brain perceived to be lacking in food, as soon as you start feeding, your primal cue for survival, which interprets it is a one-off, will start to live and breathe food. Your body underwent an extended period of famine, so making food seem available again will activate a survival mode that looks to restore your health and prepare for the next drought, triggering a desire to feast.
I would wake up in the morning craving hummus and cheese. Those are highly nutritious and my body desperately needed energy. So before I even got the chance to brush my teeth, the two containers were gone.
I would go food shopping, then, later at night, usually after dinner, I’d sit on the kitchen floor, eating one energy bar, after another. It felt really good consuming food. I would not allow myself to think there was something wrong for being this hungry, so I purposely tried to enjoy it. I went so far as to speak comforting words to myself, out loud.
One night, I went to my friend’s house and they ordered Pad Thai, a dish that to my anorexic ears screamed, “fried”, “dripping oil”. And yet, my hunger was so strong that I happily ate. And man it felt good! I went home shortly after because my stomach kept yelling for more food. So I ate one slice of bread, which led to another and another and another and another, until the whole loaf was gone and again, it felt so good! Then, I had a bag of nuts. And by the time it was done, I continued onto whatever else I could get my hands on.
At night, my heart started beating very fast but irregularly, my stomach was experiencing a burning sensation, and I felt dizzy. I lay down until I fell asleep, waking up a couple of hours later, nauseous, and with fever.
(It’s very important to be monitored by a physician – I can’t stress it enough.)
This was such a difficult time, but in retrospect, I am thankful for the dizzy spells, tachycardia, nausea, and brain fog, for without them I wouldn’t have left work to focus on recovery. And I don’t think I could have recovered whilst working.
E, girl, you saved my life! I know a lot of people were involved and I know a lot of you probably wish to have confronted me sooner. Unfortunately, the illness is such that it had to be me. Forever thankful you stepped in and mediated the process.
Back to extreme hunger - it’s real, it’s strong, it lasts for months, it will take on different forms, you will yield and you will fight, you will laugh and you will cry; at times it will be physical, other times mental; it will burn and it will hurt, it will scream and it will fade. Yours is to keep on eating.
Once your body is nutritionally rehabilitated and your brain trained to understand that food is available for you whenever you want it, and in any quantity you desire, the pull to food, the “binging”, the obsession, they dissipate. It takes time, but this too shall pass.
So how to approach it, you may wonder – not easy, but quite simple actually… Adopt a “fuck it” attitude. As hard as eating is and as terrifying as responding to mental hunger seems, give in. It’s kick-me-in-the-crutch difficult but it also feels extremely good. The best support going through it is someone to validate that it’s ok, that it’s exactly how things should be right now.
Every time I read about extreme hunger: how it is part of the process, how it is there to protect the body, how we shouldn’t fear it, how we should honor it, all those times, they made it easier to move past the panic and succumb, easier to recover in the long run.
I’m not really sure how it all happened. Perhaps my lower brain was now in charge, triggering a sympathetic response that I would fail to control no matter how hard I tried. Perhaps it became slightly easier as I began to feel hunger, no matter how uncomfortable of a feeling that was. Perhaps all the imploring to eat I received over the past few years came to hit me at once, in the most convincing manner. I don’t know. What I did know is that I looked pretty bad, felt pretty awful, and food was my prescribed medicine. I was at a place where I was choosing recovery.
As hard and unpleasant this stage is, keep going - keep eating. Do your best to try and welcome extreme hunger, for it is there to heal you.
I know it doesn’t happen like that. We don’t miraculously “snap out of it”, because someone tells us something that in theory makes sense. But I’d say that hearing validation of your recovery feelings might ease off some of the anxiety that steams from the unknown.
During the weight restoring stage, I wanted and could eat so much food in one sitting. And when I did, I felt so uncomfortably full. But physiologically, it felt right. With a body starved of nutrients, no wonder the experience is this intense. Describing it as intense doesn’t even pay justice to the feelings that followed my surrender to food.
In retrospect, I miss it - wishing I allowed myself to enjoy it more often. In retrospect, it is only memories of it that I carry - wishing I could experience a similar euphoria today. But in reaching energy balance, food becomes so “whatever”. And for that, you’ll have recovery to thank.