ating disorders are selfish.
They aren’t welcomed, but they arrive anyway. They aren’t invited, but they long overstay their welcome. They manifest deeply inside of you, absorbing who you once were and, in what seems like one breath, blow any trace of you into dust. Everything you do, you do for your eating disorder. The disorder is loud, and demanding, and needs you. It can’t thrive without you; it needs your body and mind to carry out the actions it so desperately craves. Isn’t that a paradox then? The disorder needs you to succeed, but aren’t you just the disorder?
So when you isolate yourself and stop socializing, you do it for the sake of the disorder. So it feels safe. So it can continue to starve and whittle away without having to face lunches with friends, spontaneity on the weekends, holidays with pie. On the surface, this looks and sounds like a series of missed opportunities for you. YOU’RE the one missing out, right?
Did you ever stop to think that it’s not all about you??
That those friends who invite you to lunch sit with an empty seat where you should have been? That your best friend’s heart drops just a little when you text her back at 11:30 on Friday night and make up a thin-as-ice excuse as to why she can’t come pick you up for a late night movie? That your grandma simply can’t understand why you won’t just have a sliver of her famous pumpkin pie, the same one you two used to make together in her kitchen the night before Thanksgiving, an annual tradition?
How about this; that because of your rigid eating rules, your social anxiety, and your exercise addiction, your family can’t take a vacation? My three young, vibrant, energetic little sisters were deprived of vacations for five years, all the cost of my selfish disorder. We couldn’t possibly go away as a family. My parents knew what would happen. My crippling anxiety would kick in, a result of not having my entire day planned down to the minute. Not knowing when and what I’d be eating. If I’d be able to get my two-hour workout in. My life was structured with immense detail, and a sidestep of even microscopic size would send me off the edge. Missed opportunity for me, yes, but more so for my sisters, my parents, all who worked diligently all year long and deserved a getaway. From work. From life.
This has been a particular regret that never fails to make my heart heavy. I took this away from my family. I stripped them of any chance to bond all together without a care in the world, of laying on a beach by day and dining together at night. Instead, I acted as a blockade, a brick wall on their journey to relaxation. I forced us to always stay home, and for what? So I could lay on my bed and watch the hours pass between my rice cake for breakfast at 6 AM and my chicken breast for dinner twelve hours later? So I could wait for everyone to fall asleep before slipping off to the basement for a midnight run, clocking in at 6 miles and fueled by nothing but four grapes?
This guilt was what triggered my determination to truly challenge myself on our recent trip to Italy. My sister turned 16 in May, and instead of a party, she asked for this trip. I remember when she came to me months before, looking me in the eyes, asking me if it was okay, if I was okay.
Going to Italy has always been a dream of hers. Her laptop’s screensaver has been a series of Google images of the Amalfi Coast for years. My heart broke when she asked me. At this point, I’d long been recovered and stable. But to know that I would always be a potential roadblock…that stung. It was then that I swore to prove to my sister, and all my sisters, and my entire family, that the health and happiness I preach daily are a true manifestation.
I grabbed her by the shoulders. “When do we leave?”
I’m an intuitive eater. I move my body in ways that I enjoy and I’m long past pushing myself beyond my limits. I fuel myself with wholesome, real foods. I now share my time equally between myself and my friends and family. I have strong relationships, and am fully aware of the importance to contributing to them, not just receiving. I live balanced in every aspect of the word.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been as incredibly shocked as I was when we strolled into the airport on Friday evening, about to board our international flight. Why wasn’t I nervous? Why wasn’t I anxious about not exercising for a week, for sitting in the same seat for ten hours, for pizza and pasta and gelato? Why wasn’t I having a panic attack, or jogging in place just to “squeeze in a little more”, whatever that used to mean? I was expecting a great deal of pain, an internal battle in the face of vacation. But there was no enemy anymore. There was no voice to fight. Whatever remains of the disorder have lingered, that night in the airport they were on mute. And for that I am deeply and forever in awe of how far I’ve come. All I remember feeling as I settled into my plane seat was how damn EXCITED I was. How GOOD and FRESH the food I was going to eat would be. How BEAUTIFUL the scenery would undoubtedly be. How SENTIMENTAL it was going to be to walk around Italy with my parents, both 100% Italian. The rush felt surreal. In that moment, I knew one thing was certain; I was truly at peace with myself.
Provided that I went into the trip with nothing but good intentions, I’m almost at a loss for words to capture how wonderful my time spent in Italy truly was. I’ve long moved past rigid food rules, but one thing that I’m used to at home is having a general idea of when and what I’d eat each meal. Not intentionally, but sort of a subconscious quirk at this point. I’ve gotten used to having a certain schedule and the eating that comes with it. So being in a foreign country, with an itinerary filled to the brim with excursions and events that varied every day, I simply had no way of planning any of this out. And this was the best thing that could have happened to me.
I guess that was the very last eating disorder related element hovering in my life. My attachment to knowing. I put up with spontaneity and surprises here and there, but never for an entire day, every day, for over a week. This trip was the final push I needed.
I knew this going in, and I mentally prepared myself. In the time leading up to the trip, I used a lot of positive self talk and rationalizing to reassure myself that I was strong enough to endure this. And the more I engaged in these actions, the more excited I grew to just dive in head first. By the first day I touched ground in Rome, I was asking my parents for the nearest pizzeria; a shock to us all, considering I haven’t had pizza in six years.
What I was most excited about was not the food, though that was very high up the list, but for the challenge. I was so thrilled to push myself, to see how much I could grow. I’m confident that going into a challenging situation feeling so positive and bright contributes greatly to how it will go. I never ate the same two days in a row. Each day was different. Some days we ate lunch at 12, before our trip of the day, and some days lunch wasn’t scheduled until 2:30. I’d always pack snacks with me, just in case, but never really had to use them. That’s because I was forcing myself to just LIVE. One day we had breakfast at 6:45 in order to begin travelling down the coast at 7:15. We made a pit stop at 10:30, and my sisters, without thinking twice, found a small gelato stand and ordered heaping cones to hold them over until lunch. How intuitive, how real, how NORMAL. Instead of reaching for the RX bar in my bag, I ordered myself a cone as well. We sat on the curb in the Italian morning sun, licking quickly to avoid drinking our creamy snacks. Another day I ordered a personal pizza for lunch, only to go out for dinner later and scan the menu and find that all that sounded good to me was, well, another pizza. So I had it again. Our last night, my pasta dinner was so delicious that I ordered A SECOND ONE. You see where I’m going with this?
Growing up Italian, and I mean VERY Italian, I crave the cuisine all of the time. Being in Italy, where the food is not only wholesome, fresh, and REAL, but also outright DELICIOUS, felt surreal. The food was supposed to be my biggest challenge and yet, instead it emerged as my biggest passion. I wiped out pizza after pizza. I never knew how much I loved paninis until my first bite in Capri. I never knew how soft and creamy gelato was until my first lick danced across my tongue and tickled my taste buds, and then my heart.
My food freedom in Italy was the exact opposite of selfish; it was selfless. Because while I was enjoying myself (and trust me, I was thoroughly doing that), my family was benefitting greatly. I’ll never forget the first night in Rome, where my sister and I shared a room (the other two shared a separate room). I was washing up and getting ready for bed, but she was just sitting on the armchair in the corner, waiting. When I finally realized she wanted to say something, I walked over to her. Here’s how my eating looked that day when we arrived after breakfast: a personal pizza and a pasta dish for lunch, a heaping plate of pasta at dinner (along with three pieces of warm complimentary bread, a habit I never engage in), and three scoops of gelato with whipped cream and a waffle cone for dessert. I looked at her, her eyes glistening. What’s wrong, aren’t you happy to be here? It was her birthday present after all. I couldn’t understand why she was tearing.
“I’m so proud of you, Ang. You did so good tonight. Thank you for getting better.”
I could go the rest of my life without another compliment, another accomplishment, and I would be alright, because that moment shattered my entire world.
Italy is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the world. Home to rich history, breathtaking architecture, intricate artwork and sculpture, physically it is aesthetically pleasing. But to me, its beauty runs deeper than what you can see. Italy is the place where my food freedom finally, FINALLY, blossomed to its fullest extent. The place where my family and I bonded deeply over homemade pasta and fresh pizza straight out of brick ovens. Where we jumped off cliffs together into the Mediterranean Sea. Where we hiked the coast and stood in silence, in awe of the view. Where we laughed until we cried, where we were reminded of our love for each other and for our life as one unit. Where all six of us were in a constant state of gratitude for my recovery. Because eating disorders are selfish. And while I knew all this time that recovery was selfless, it was this family vacation that screamed it from the rooftops.
My sister thanked me for getting better.
I could never thank her, and my parents, enough for making this trip a reality. For giving me the final push.
I’m free and alive and thriving.
And full of pizza…but aren’t those synonymous?