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.