In my last post on overcoming orthorexia I shared how I became caught in a cycle of over-exercising and restrictive eating. This post is about when, and how, I faced the realisation my “healthy habits” were not really that healthy, after all. When I started pushing back on orthorexia.
Overcoming orthorexia wasn’t an entirely self-initiated process; there were actions I took, but my healing process was also triggered by changes happening around me.
These changes were not positive things, at first. As I became more controlling, I noticed a major shift in the way my friends treated me. Initially, they made efforts to (delicately) encourage me to relax, to go out more. But the longer I persisted and the more I locked myself into my routine, the more difficult it became. Eventually, my friends just started leaving me out of things like parties or dinners (where the reality was, I’d not fully participate anyway). I’d isolated myself by the choices I had made with my exercise and food commitments.
Work and family life became more difficult as well; I was always so anxious and just exhausted. People at work took me aside to ask about my health; my weight loss had become quite noticeable. I was initially shocked and quite defensive, and then just very embarrassed. What was going on, why did people think there was something wrong with me?! Then to top it all off…my mum got very sick. I won’t go into detail; but suffice to say, it added to a pool of factors that altogether, really shook me up. (p.s. My mum got better and I am so very lucky).
As my world changed so significantly, I started to have second thoughts about the way I was living. The doubts were fragmented, here-and-there at first; it wasn’t like I did a complete 180. For the most part, I still lived in a state of mind where I thought I could overcome anything by becoming more “organised” and “perfect”.
Slowly but surely however, the doubts swelled. How was I making myself “better” when my friends weren’t interested in hanging with me? Who could I share my “perfect” self with when no one wanted to participate in my life, or even hear about it, except me?
I was also single at this time. Which made it really easy to completely involve myself in my restrictive routine, especially as I lived alone. But I wanted to have a relationship. How could I expect someone to be in a relationship with me – really, practically? How was I going to keep up food measuring, 5.45am exercise, if someone was here? What would they think about my frantic over-analysis of menus before a dinner date?
My mum’s illness also had an impact on my healing. She lives a few hours away from me, and I wanted to be near her a lot. I needed energy and I needed to be somewhere that wasn’t my perfectly controlled apartment. In one way, the illness made me want to shut down and be even more routine; but on the other hand it kind of forced me into abandoning it.
Once I let myself become open to the idea more routine might not really be as helpful as I thought…positive, healing change became a possibility. Little by little, I started edging outside my tightly controlled comfort zone.
The first changes I made, I’m sure no one noticed except me. They were more mental than physical. But internally, pushing back on orthorexia started with giving myself little “breaks”. I’d sleep in beyond my 5.30am alarm and go for a (at first, ridiculously long) walk instead of running full pelt. I’d get a bunch of sushi rolls for lunch instead of the carb-devoid salad. I started saying yes to more social invitations.
I’m not going to lie; most of these things didn’t feel pleasant at first. Sometimes they caused me so much stress I’d re-double my food and exercise efforts the next day, and feel really panicked.
But the cool thing about tiny changes like this is that they give momentum to bigger ones. Once I ventured out of my routine a little, I found more things to distract myself with.
- Food I truly liked to eat for pleasure, not for a specific calorie content.
- Forms of movement I actually enjoyed, not for the amount of sweat I could produce.
- I rediscovered (and found new) people I loved. I fell in love with my husband during this time (and actually managed to skip exercise AND go out for breakfast!).
What went through my head during this time? Like I said before, there were many moments of sheer panic, shaking, nerves, wanting to retreat to the safety of routine. But I countered this with as much reason as I could muster up. What was the worst thing that could happen if I had a cheese omelette? Or slept in? Who would notice? I slowly began to gain back the weight I lost too. As it came back, I made efforts to minimise risk of panic while my body changed. Clothes too tight? Straight to the charity bin. Scales? Gone. Spend a little extra buying something nice and new to wear? Why the hell not.
And the thing is guys…no one really reacted to my weight gain, or my sleep ins, or my cheese omelettes, or the fact I started eating avocados. All that happened was I started finding each day a little easier. I had less “things” to tick off in my head, I felt more awake, and I experienced more positive interactions with my friends, family and work buddies.
I also did eventually seek professional help for anxiety, but not until quite a while down the track. There were a few false starts here that put me off; I saw a couple of doctors I didn’t feel a rapport with and then the first psychologist I saw just wasn’t the right fit. Nevertheless, by the time I had counselling I still found it really helpful in dealing with lingering generalised anxiety. I also took medication for a period of time.
In hindsight, yes, I wish I could have just had my recovery kind of forced upon me more quickly. But a defining characteristic of orthorexia is that ability to remain so tightly controlled and to resist change. It took a lot of sad times, some real, painful pangs of loneliness, and just a really heavy, overbearing feeling of exhaustion to make me start to change.
Recovery might not kick off with some clear light bulb moment. It will probably involve a lot of sideways, or even backwards, steps. You might be the only person thinking that getting multiple cubes of feta cheese in your salad, or ordering dessert on a non-exercise day, is a huge major insane deal. But you just take the little wins and bit by bit, you get there.
I found challenging orthorexia to make me feel even more anxious than ever, at first. Losing my routine felt incredibly stressful and it didn’t magically slip away. I don’t think there’s some perfect formula or just one “correct” way of dealing with this disorder. Start healing by opening up to the possibility there are other ways to be, don’t be afraid to seek out help, and just give yourself some little “breaks” here and there.
I hope this blog post has helped you understand, and possibly feel more comfortable, confronting restrictive eating and exercise disorders. In my next and final blog post in this series, I’m going to discuss some of the strategies and actions that I’ve taken and continue to take to help manage negative thought patterns. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and any stories you’d like to share!
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