There is a universal truth that all women know to be true: Our culture is obsessed with thinness. Ask literally any woman, eating disorder history or not, and she will tell you the pressures that society places on her to be “pretty enough,” “thin enough,” “sexy enough.” Watch any television program, and the female lead will always be a beautiful, rail-thin woman with perfect skin, hair and teeth. Then, during the commercial breaks of said program, every other ad will be for either a beauty product or a weight loss program. We are fed the message that as women, our worth comes from our outward appearance, and we are only desirable — we are only good enough — if we match the media’s air brushed image of beauty.
Those pressures and messages are hard enough for a woman without an eating disorder to be bombarded with day in and day out.
For a woman with an eating disorder in her past, these messages and images are beyond difficult to face. They are, in a word, triggering.
“Triggering” refers to something, whether it’s an image, or a comment, a behavior someone else is doing, -anything really- that stirs up the voice of ED in her head, and makes her have to, in that moment, consciously choose recovery and fight off her instinct to fall back into ED behaviors.
Triggers are one of the hardest aspects of recovery. Why? Because they are everywhere. I remember one night in college, post-relapse, when I was actually recovered, my entire sorority was over at the house and everyone was watching the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. I just couldn’t do it. I made an excuse and had to get up and leave. I couldn’t watch unnaturally thin models parade around in underwear, while listening to my sorority sisters proclaim that they’re not eating for 3 days, or how fat they are, or how they need to go to the gym, or that their juice fast starts tomorrow. I could feel ED’s strength growing with every minute I was sitting there, and I just had to leave.
That’s another one. Juice Cleanses. For lack of a better phrase, “I can’t even,” with juice fasts. For a split second, I look at them longingly, and then immediately realize that those thoughts are coming from ED.
Weight loss commercials, yeah that’s obvious. Fast food “porn” as I like to call it, sure that’s one too.
But I’d like to talk about a couple triggers that don’t often get talked about as much, and are not as obvious.
First: Idiotic Comments Made By Moronic People
Ok, maybe I’m coming on a little bit too strong here. But there will come a time when you’re in recovery, when you’ll run into someone who you haven’t seen since you were drastically emaciated. You’re in recovery, restoring your weight, and this amazingly smart person will say something along the lines of, “Wow, you’ve gained weight!” Seriously? This is just…I just…Way to point out the obvious, buddy! Clearly, I am recovering from anorexia, and I have some serious body image issues, as in, I hate my body, so thank you for twisting the knife, good sir!
Another thing people will say, is “Oh, you look great!” Or, “Oh, you look so healthy!” Or, “Oh, you look so much better now!” And I get it, people are trying to be nice, be supportive, they don’t really know how to address the obvious change…I get it, I really do. But my goodness, this is one that ED really likes to use to get a foothold in her mind. You see, these comments usually come when she first comes home from inpatient. So chances are, she will most likely not be at her target weight yet. She will most likely still be in weight restoration. So she will panic when she hears that she looks healthy, that she looks great, because she still has more weight to go. This was a huge one for me. When I got back from inpatient, I still had to gain 15 pounds to reach to the very bottom of my weight range. Fifteen pounds that I was absolutely petrified of. So when I heard that I looked “great,” this is how my ED-filled brain heard those comments: “Oh, you look like a normal, fat, American teenager now. Just think, when you do gain these 15 pounds, you’re going to be a disgusting, obese whale! Nice knowin’ ya, fat ass. [evil laugh]”
Secondly: Idiotic Jokes Made By Insensitive Moronic People
I can’t tell you how angry this one makes me. Anorexia is a disease. A mental illness. Not the butt end of an insensitive joke. I saw a meme on the Internet of a morbidly obese person wearing a t-shirt that said, “I Beat Anorexia.” I mean, get real buddy. Girls die from anorexia. I almost did. And you know what, those who don’t die, end up struggling every. single. day with their body image. So yeah, I’m sure those heroic warriors who survived such a terrible disease would really appreciate their weight restoration being mocked.
Along the same lines, are people publicly making light of your disease. I had a UC doctor once – I’ve since changed after this incident – and it was the first time I had seen him since my recovery. So clearly, I looked different. I last saw him when I was 78 pounds. So yeah, I look like a different girl, thank God. So he walks into our exam room, (I was with my mom), and he goes, “Oh my Gawd, look at you! The difference a year makes! Remember last time you were here and you weren’t eating?! I see you’ve found McDonalds!” I mean, you couldn’t have scripted a more jackass response. Seriously. I mean, I was not fat. I was 103 pounds for crying out loud! I still had weight restoration to go, and you’re telling me I freaking found McDonalds?!
Next, food policing by parents.
This is a big one. And it’s hard to hear, I know, but this is her recovery. She is the one who has to choose to nourish her body everyday. And when you make a comment about what she is or isn’t eating, it sends her back to the dark place, and can make her re-engage in ED behaviors. Now, yes, when she first gets back from inpatient you will need to keep an eye on her intake. And if you see her skipping meals, or not following her meal plan and eating only egg whites and carrot sticks, then, yes, you should address the issue. But this is her recovery and she needs to learn to be accountable to herself.
Lastly, and this is the biggest for me, are environmental triggers.
Now what do I mean by that? Well, sadly, it’s any place or setting, or piece of clothing that reminds you of your eating disorder. In completely transparency, my hometown is one big reminder of my eating disorder. My bedroom, with its full length mirror that I used to scrutinize my body and keep my weight graph on; the parks and the nature preserve where I would sneak out to power walk; different gas stations where I would throw away my Ensure drinks; my car that I would use to speed off to “get away” from my parents; any food that was part of my regimen: (I’m looking’ at you, White Label Albacore Chunk Low Sodium Light Tuna in water, Carnation Instant Breakfasts, & Kashi GoLean instant oatmeal). Seeing those foods now send chills down my spine. I literally never will eat canned tuna again. Too many horrid memories. My high school, the tanning bed salon, the grocery story, my neighborhood where I would take walks – all these bring up horrible memories. Brutal reminders of the eating disorder literally followed me around everywhere I went. Even relationships with certain people can be triggering, and yes, you may have to distance yourself from some people to protect and guard your recovery.
So what’s the best way to deal with these triggers. For me, I have to fill my mind and my heart completely with God. I go to Mass every day, listen to Christian music and podcasts throughout the day. If I am every confronted with a trigger, I take a deep breath and try to see myself the way God sees me: as his precious daughter. Or, you could adopt a phrase that is the contradiction to The Lie that fed your ED. Breathe and think, “I am enough.” “I am worthy.” “I am loved.”
What do I do? Take the negative emotion that is stirred up by the trigger, and turn it into gratitude. That sounds a little strange, so I’ll say it again. I take whatever fear, anxiety, anger, or breath-catching panic that the trigger stirs up, and I turn it into gratitude. I say to myself, “Thank you for how far I’ve come.” “Thank you for delivering me out of that pit of darkness where I was truly dead. I am grateful that I am now living abundantly and am not imprisoned and shackled by my eating disorder. I am grateful for life. I am grateful to be free.” And in doing that, I remember just how broken I was, how truly alive I am now, and how precious my recovery is, and that it is worth guarding. “I am stronger than this trigger because You give me strength.”
But one of the biggest ways I have protected my recovery, is that I have removed myself from the triggering environment. I have not lived in my hometown since my recovery. I now live in New York City. I have created a new life for myself with new relationships (and old ones too), a new parish, new goals – a new environment conducive to thriving. And honestly, it’s really hard, because my family still lives in my hometown and I miss them terribly. But I have to protect my recovery. I have to be diligent. And recovery has to come first.
I’ve placed myself in an environment where I know I will succeed. Not succeed in the, “perfectionist, gotta-achieve, always-striving-higher” mindset, but succeed in – beating ED, staying in remission, reclaiming my life. I’ve surrounded myself in an environment where I have a dream to chase and healthy goals to go after. I’m surrounded by amazing new friends who are supportive and healthy themselves. I’ve got an active involvement in my neighborhood church, and most importantly, I’m away from the triggers of my hometown. I explain it to my family, that when I’m home, I feel this overwhelming shadow follow me around. I needed to break out of that crumbled, desolate wreckage -the aftermath of the storm of my ED,- and embrace a new place where I had a clean slate. A fresh start. An environment where I could not just survive, but thrive.
At the end of the day, no matter where you go, triggers will be popping up everywhere. And they’ll knock the wind out of ya, if you let them. But I’ve learned to persevere by keeping my focus on Jesus, remembering that His love gives me total healing. He is filled with so much joy when I surrender and place my fears and anxieties at the foot of His cross, and just allow Him to love me. For when I’m showered in His love, the negative rain of triggers can’t hurt me.
16 responses to “Living in a Triggering World”
God bless you and your family in this challenge! Thank you so much for listening to our new blog…I hope you can feel a sense of comfort from the words and music!
thank you so much Steven. God is definitely good and has been instrumental in my and my family’s healing. thanks for stopping by!
And I thank you for the wonderful reply! I’m glad to read of your good progress…God is awesome.
Yes, that’s true. It is a real liberation to know, that you are the beloved of God, this is your True Self, right as you are, not as you should be in the eyes of the world. You are only here to be exactly this unique wonderful being. And the consequence of uniqueness is: you are absolutely incomparable. That’s simply not possible. And you are sexy beyond the ability to describe it, especially your precious loving Soul is sexy. Remember, what real freedom is: freedom from the opinions of others and in particular the opinions about yourself.
Do not pretend to be anything but who you are. This is the greatest blessing and service that you can offer the world. This is your greatest role as actress. You are not just a precious daughter. You are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful beyond measure. And you are not only loved, you are not only worthy and enough. You are all that thousandfold² multiplied into infinity 🙂 your worthiness cannot be imprisoned in a small definition. You are undefinable worthy. Try to see only your belovedness and speak and move with that energy. This is the most important role as actress in your whole life, only you can play it, you are always and already the number one in your own story. If you are living within Christ and within your Soul (in your true home and divine inheritance), then you are not governed by the external world, but led by the Spirit, in his power and joy and aliveness. It flows from the inside out.
Blessings to you,
This is so beautiful. It really struck my heart this morning. Isn’t it amazing that God left us with a Helper:) i so appreciate your kindness Mark. Have a great weekend. Hugs and love xox
Always at your service, my dear ❤👍
A part of your blog reminded me of a song by Casting Crowns – Thrive
Listen to the words! It is a song of victory. Well done on how far you have come. God bless you.
Here are some of the words of the song:
“So living water flowing through
God we thirst for more of You
Fill our hearts and flood our souls
With one desire
Just to know You and
To make You known
We lift Your name on High
Shine like the sun make darkness run and hide
We know we were made for so much more
Than ordinary lives
It’s time for us to more than just survive
We were made to THRIVE!!”
Thank you so much! Oh my gosh I love that song! Thanks for such a kind connection 🙂 Hugs and love xox
Sorry to chime in on an older blog post, but I saw the link from something more recent and was curious so I clicked and read.
Back in the day when dinosaurs ruled the Earth (just kidding, it was the early 1990s), I had a small private practice in Southern California (I have an M.S. in Counseling and was a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist). Wanting to build my practice up some, I attended an event at an inpatient facility in the hopes of gaining a few referrals (it never panned out, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless).
There were a group of us and we were introduced to a woman who was the head of the hospital’s eating disorder clinic.
She was stunning. Her appearance was emasculate. There wasn’t a hair out of place. Her outfit was perfect. She appeared completely calm and composed. Immediately after she was introduced, a woman in the audience said something like, “Obviously you don’t have an eating disorder.” People in the audience laughed, but instantly I knew she did and was in recovery.
Just looking at her, I knew she absolutely needed to have total control of every aspect of her appearance. I almost responded with “That’s not true,” but wasn’t that sure of my ability to diagnose someone across the room having just seen them for a few seconds. Moments later, she spoke up and confirmed that indeed, she did suffer from an eating disorder.
It must have been terrifically difficult for her to sit there and listen to that comment and especially the laughter that followed. I suppose she got a lot of that sort of thing. In retrospect, I don’t know if I should have said something or not. It’s been decades, so the point is moot, but I think it speaks to your message here.
From the outside, I can’t possibly know what struggles someone else is going through or how a casual comment might be incredibly insensitive. Maybe I’m being insensitive now and should have kept my comments to myself, particularly as an older man.
I hope I haven’t crossed the line. The memory of that day so long ago hasn’t faded. I remember almost nothing else about that meeting, but I’ll remember her with compassion for the rest of my life.
Hi James, thank you so much for sharing this. You haven’t crossed a line at all! I appreciate your honesty! Yeah, my heart definitely goes out to this woman, because there really is a lot of silent suffering with eating disorders. And the words of others, especially in the beginning stages of recovery, though perhaps meant well, can be detrimental to a fragile “new” mindset. It is so sad. I’ve actually been working on a post about what not to say to someone in recovery, and perhaps this was just the nudge I needed to do so 🙂 so thank you! 🙂 haha as far as you not speaking up…don’t beat yourself up over it! EDs are always awkward to broach, especially with strangers. But you’re right, it can often one has to walk on egg shells, but I hope that can one day change. thanks for reading!! hugs xox
I literally LOLed at your “idiotic comments by moronic people” Love it!
You know, this is very interesting as I work with several people in recovery (my niche is sex/porn addiction) and if they read this post, they’ll be like “Amen sista!”. Plus, the comments from people (just like with you) don’t help at all. It would be nice to compile a manual or guide for parents, caregivers and more especially when it comes to ED (oh and I’d argue sex/porn addiction) as well. Men and women face it differently but it doesn’t discriminate.
Would be an interesting discussion to compare the two, stats and more.
Thank you. Yeah, you’re so right – it doesn’t discriminate! Hugs and love xox
Oh my god! Not too long ago the same thing happened to me- I saw a morbidly obese man wearing an ‘I beat anorexia’ shirt and internally I completely lost it with anger. All my mum did was start choking with laughter.
People are so insensitive and damn stupid sometimes.
thanks so much for sharing that. you’re right, it’s really sad how insensitive people wan be. Hugs and love xox
Yes, it is. Hugs xx