I used to be terrified of the kitchen. Not of the room itself, of course, but what went on inside it. Back then, I was deeply entrenched in anorexia and was convinced that food was my worst enemy. So the kitchen, with its cabinets packed with snacks and sweets and its appliances that would produce pastas and pizzas and cakes and cookies and more, was my living nightmare.
I still remember all the evenings my thirteen-year-old self would anxiously hover in the doorway, my head peeked around the corner, watching my mom in case she tried to slip an extra pad of butter or tablespoon of oil into whatever that night’s dinner would be. I still remember all the afternoons I spent reading labels on the backs of cans, bags, and boxes until the calories were ingrained in my mind. (Many still are to this day). I still remember all the mornings I’d wake up to the tantalizing aroma of a homemade breakfast or fresh-out-of-the-oven baked goods wafting from the kitchen and instead of allowing myself to get up and enjoy it, I’d lay in bed with my stomach empty and my mind full of prepared excuses.
“I’m not hungry.”
“I’m not in the mood.”
“Thanks but I’ll just have cereal.”
This naysay mentality towards food and cooking dictated my life in the years to come. For too long, I lived in constant fear of what I’d eat—of what my parents would make me eat—and would only ever venture into the kitchen when I absolutely had to. As a child, I loved to help my mom cook and subsequently gobble up her delicious recipes so I know this sudden aversion was especially hard on her. One day, I was sampling sugary dough while she baked chocolate chip cookies; the next, I was adamantly refusing to eat those same cookies because I was convinced they’d make me fat.
Overcoming my fear of food was a process that has taken time, patience, and repeated exposure. The more comfortable I felt eating a slice of pizza or chocolate chip cookie, the more safe and secure I felt being in the kitchen. I no longer worry that my mom is sneaking calories into my food, just like I no longer wake up filled with dread and anxiety about what I have to eat in a given day. I don’t read labels close to as often as I used to, and when I do, it’s only to ensure I’m getting an adequate amount of protein or another essential food group or nutrient.
More recently, I’ve discovered that I enjoy cooking. I attribute my newfound interest in cooking to three primary reasons: my recovery, the online cookbook Nourish I co-created with my mom last year, and my transition to veganism (more on that soon). I love discovering new recipes, transforming old ones, and, most of all, nourishing my body with wholesome homemade food. From banana bread to spicy lentils to sweet and sour tofu to my old frenemy mac & cheese, I feel like I’m reshaping the kitchen into the safe and happy space it used to be one dish at a time—and in a new way that works for the new me.
I’m by no means free from food anxieties. Part of me wonders if I ever will be. I still instinctively gravitate towards lower-fat recipes and am more cautious with oils than I’d like to be. But I also have an appreciation of food and my body that I previously lacked. I’m able to make (most) food choices based on hunger levels and desire, instead of what has the fewest number of calories. I recognize the impact my diet has on a larger global scale, beyond just myself and my taste buds, and try to honor that as best I can. I enjoy food and genuinely look forward to eating after spending most of my teenage years eating because I had to in order to survive.
These newfound freedoms are not ones I take for granted. I constantly remind myself of how far I’ve come, and I also look forward to continuing to expand my variety of foods, teaching myself new recipes, and leading by the example that a balanced diet and kind food choices are not only possible for most people but key to health, happiness, and sustainability.
The kitchen doesn’t scare me anymore; on the contrary, it’s a room I love, appreciate, and spend an ever-growing amount of time in. Speaking of which, I’m off to make myself some lunch now. One buffalo cauliflower sandwich, coming right up!
I used to take my freedom for granted—that is, until eighth grade when I fell into the clutches of anorexia. The thing about an eating disorder is that the stronger and louder it gets, the more it strips away from the sufferer. That year, over the course of a mere couple of months, I lost practically everything: my friends, my hobbies, my education, my ambitions, my hope, my independence, and my freedom. My life completely revolved around food to the point where it was the only thought on my mind and nothing else really mattered. My actions, as well, were dictated by my disorder; then, in treatment, they were closely monitored by my doctors and nurses. In retrospect, I find it a bit ironic that one of the reasons I started restricting was to have more control in my life, but somehow things spiraled so far in the opposite direction that I ended up with none.
Fortunately, recovery does just the opposite of the eating disorder. Slowly but steadily, I’ve reclaimed all that was taken away from me—and then some. From returning to school to making new friends to increasing my variety of foods to learning how to eat intuitively and independently, I’ve built a life for myself that, while far from perfect, is 100x better than the half-life my anorexia had forced me into. One of the greatest gifts this new life has given me is freedom, that same thing I used to take for granted until my eating disorder took it away indefinitely.
This newfound freedom extends to most areas of my life. It’s the freedom to choose what I want to eat based on a wide variety of foods, not just a small list of “safe” foods. It’s the freedom to go on a run and decide to stop after only a mile because my body is tired and deserves to rest. It’s the freedom to see a scale—in the doctor’s office, a friend’s house, etc.—and turn away instead of weighing myself. Very recently, it’s the freedom to commit to veganism (more on that soon), not because it’s an excuse to cut out certain food groups but because I care deeply about animal rights and the environment.
Just yesterday, while my mom and I were unloading vegan products we’d purchased at Trader Joe’s in the kitchen, she hugged me and told me how happy she is that I’m in a place where I can make these choices clearly, thoughtfully, and on my own. When I was very sick, my mom had to take on the role of the Enforcer and lay down the law in our house; what I could do, what I couldn’t do, what I could eat, when I could eat, so on. She took away all my control, not to spite me but to save me. She knew my disorder was calling the shots; that it wasn’t me who was hurling food across the kitchen or pocketing my snacks. She knew but I can only imagine how hard it must have been for her nevertheless. And what a relief it is now, for her sake and mine, that we’re not in that dark place anymore.
Seven years ago, I’d wake up every morning filled with anxiety and dread about what the day would bring and what I’d eat. Today, I woke up energized and ready to go, enjoyed some Cinnamon Puffins for breakfast, worked on an assignment for a course at my college, and did all of it without baseless fears filling my mind or panic and malnutrition hindering my ability to breathe. There’s a lot I regret about my past but there’s only thing I regret about recovery, and it’s that I didn’t commit to it sooner. Because this freedom truly is beautiful, empowering, and enables me to lead a fulfilled and independent life. Sometimes, you don’t realize the significance of something until you think you’ve lost it for good.
Growing up, exercise was a huge part of my childhood. I was the kid who played three sports competitively, five sports leisurely, and always had to be on the go. Both of my parents were college athletes so I have natural athleticism and coordination that enabled me to excel at pretty much every sport I tried. Soccer? Check. Basketball? Yep. Tennis. Game-set-match. Swimming? Well, I wasn’t too fond of getting my hair wet but it was exercise and I was good at it so why the hell not?
When my eating disorder crept into my life at age thirteen, my relation with exercise drastically changed. It was no longer a fun, social activity but rather an unhealthy, inflexible compulsion. It got to the point where I was exercising four-to-five hours a day and doing so not out of enjoyment but strictly to burn calories. If I missed a workout or run, I’d feel horrible about myself and default to restriction to cope. I was eating so little then that I was constantly weak and tired—and still, I couldn’t stop exercising.
It took my treatment team putting their foot down to break the self-destruct cycle I’d slipped in to. I was pulled out of Travel soccer, I was banned from going on runs, and my parents made me keep my door open at all times so I couldn’t get away with obsessive crunches or jumping jacks behind their backs. In fact, the only exercise I was permitted to do was going on walks around my block—and considering it was late-November and I had very little insulation, I wasn’t too keen on that idea.
I went from having a toxic relationship with exercise to no relationship at all—for five years! Sure, I went on leisurely walks and bike rides (when it wasn’t freezing of course), taught myself basic yoga, and played some casual games of basketful or tennis but that was the extent of it. I thought my days of being an athlete were behind me, just another thing my eating disorder had ruined forever. Then, just last year, my family got a membership to a local gym with an indoor track. I was in a much better place in my recovery and trusted that I could moderate my amount of activity, so I took to walking around it on days when it was too cold to be outside. After a short while, I progressed to jogging. I was awful at first—no surprise there, considering how long it had been since the last time I went on a run—but I kept at it nevertheless, determined to improve my cardio no matter how long it took. And that’s exactly what I did.
This past year has taught me that exercise—in moderation—is truly amazing. In addition to getting me out of the house and maintaining good physical health, I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my mental wellbeing since I’ve taken to running regularly. Exercise releases endorphins, which increase feelings of happiness and euphoria while simultaneously decreasing pain and stress. It turns out my eighth grade therapist wasn’t just talking out of her ass when she told me those walks around the block would improve my mood!
Exercise has also bettered my body image. For the years that followed my diagnosis, I struggled with body dysmorphia and genuinely believed I was overweight despite all the facts and figures pointing to the opposite. Partly because I’ve been weight restored for so long and partly because I’m exercising more regularly and as a result building strength and endurance, my relationship with my body has become much kinder and respectful. I won’t be posting lingerie pictures on Instagram anytime soon but I’m okay with the way I look; I’ve accepted it. There was a time in my life, not too long ago, when I never imagined that would be the case again but here we are!
That being said, I have to make a conscious effort to stay on top of my personality traits and triggers that could turn exercise into a compulsion again. This means sticking to a schedule, listening to my body, and not pushing myself to run faster and work harder when I’m not feeling up for it. It means eating more to replenish the calories I’m burning; something that was initially very challenging but is slowly becoming second-nature. It means not feeling bummed or stressed if I miss a workout but instead understanding that that happens when you’re trying to lead a balanced life.
And that’s really what I keep circling back to: balance. The age-old saying that everything (besides hard drugs, cigarettes, etc.) is good in moderation is one I strive to live by from the food I eat to the ratio I strike between work and relaxation to my newfound appreciation and participation in exercise. Of course it’s easier said than done but when you find that balance, I promise you’ll feel so much happier and healthier as a result.
To say this year has been difficult would be a vast understatement. This past week has been especially heartbreaking and once again demonstrated the significant racial inequities and poor leadership in our so-called “great” country. Then, of course, there’s the coronavirus, which has somehow worsened and is showing no signs of improving anytime soon. Add to that the worst president in American history making one horrible decision after another, and times are pretty bleak.
With so much chaos constantly transpiring, maintaining my mental health is challenging. There are days when I feel hopeless or angry or defeated or all of the above simultaneously, and I have to fight just to get through. And I’m not alone. I’ve done a few virtual recovery talks at treatment facilities I was previously admitted to, where it’s clear that everyone is struggling. Mental illness rates are at an all-time high, and it’s no surprise why.
As tempting as it is to vent about how shitty the world is right now, I thought I’d instead use this post to share some ways—tips, if you will—that I’ve been surviving these trying times and keeping my mental health in check. The first way is by not watching the news. I’m a politically-charged person who always wants to be “in the know” but at this point, tuning into one tragedy after another is causing me more harm than good. While watching the democrats win back the Senate was exciting and hopeful, that story was immediately followed by the storming of the White House, then by the rising COVID rates, then by Trump saying or doing something awful. On screen, the negatives far outweigh the positives so I’m taking a break for a bit. I’ve even unfollowed CNN on Twitter temporarily, which has made for a much less depressing timeline.
There’s a lot I don’t have control over right now, which is why something else that’s improved my mental health is focusing my energy and attention on what I do. I’m using the extra time I have from being unemployed to get ahead in my education, as well as work on new and exciting writing projects that, in addition to passing the time, give me motivation and hope for the future.
Eating well and exercising are two seemingly-simple steps that make a huge difference in my overall health and happiness. With my history of disordered eating and compulsive exercise, maintaining balance hasn’t always been easy but I’m in a place where, with a little conscious effort, it’s possible. The weather is pretty nasty in New England at the moment so I’ve found ways to get some movement indoors: yoga, cardio workouts on YouTube, and now running on the treadmill my parents bought us for the holidays (thanks, Mom and Mama).
Participating in hobbies and activities that bring me joy and distract me from all the stress and heartbreak has proved to be quite helpful as well. Reality television like The Great British Bake Off and The Amazing Race and TV dramas like The Queen’s Gambit and Schitt’s Creek keep me entertained for a sustained period of time and provide much-needed breaks from my writing projects and schoolwork. Games like Scrabble and Ticket to Ride challenge me mentally and force me to interact with others, which brings me to the next and final tip . . .
Not going at this on my own. I find it funny that in the early days of the pandemic, introverts like myself joked about how we’d been preparing for this moment and how social distancing would be a piece of cake. Well, this introvert got real sick of social distancing sometime mid-summer and wanted nothing more than to walk outside and hug a random stranger. But since I can’t do that, I’ll appreciate that I have the support of immediate family and continue to keep in touch with my friends over Zoom and Discord. Technology often gets a bad rap but it’s provided a way to stay connected with friends and family until we can see them in person again, and while it’s certainly not the same, right now it’s the next best thing.
Especially in the news, we hear a lot about nasty people doing nasty things. But there are just as many—if not more—kind and empathetic people who want what’s best for humanity. The doctors and scientists who are working twenty-four-seven to put an end to this pandemic. The mental health professionals who are taking on new cases all the time without complaint. The teachers who are trying their best to provide kids with a decent education in a complicated hybrid learning environment. The politicians who aren’t corrupt and genuinely care about their country or state’s wellbeing. The list goes on.
Just like those good people exist, so does hope. It’s cliché but this too shall pass, and when it does, when the pandemic is finally behind us, we’re all going to be a hell of a lot stronger—and hopefully a bit more gracious. But until then, I’ll keep practicing these tips and recommend that anyone else who’s feeling how I am—anxious, frustrated, and doubtful—try to as well. One final suggestion I have—and one I’ve said before on this blog—is to take life one day at a time. The future is so uncertain that there’s no point in stressing over it; instead, let’s focus on the present, be grateful that we’re still here and still in decent health, and be inspired that if we’ve made it this far, we can absolutely see this thing through.
Okay, so the last part of that title isn’t quite true. I’m waiting for the final results of the election before I make any relocation plans. In all seriousness though, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as shocked and repulsed as I did watching the election. If I thought the nauseous feeling in my stomach was bad in 2016, it was nothing compared to last night.
A quick disclaimer that this post is very political/contains strong language and my own opinions and rants. Because what else would you expect from a sleep-deprived, politically-charged twenty-year-old who’s fed up with misinformed and close-minded adults making all the decisions?
Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Anyway, back to me feeling sick last night. Did I expect a blowout? No. Did I expect Biden to have a solid lead? I was cautiously optimistic. But I certainly didn’t expect such a close race. (Seriously, who’s conducting these misleading polls?) As I sat on the couch in my TV room, my two moms sitting next to me, and watched as more districts and states on John King’s magic wall turned red, I couldn’t believe it. It felt like 2016 déjà vu.
It genuinely baffles me how people—and so many at that—can vote for the bigoted, ignorant, disgusting man “running” this country; a man who once bragged about grabbing women by the pussy; a man who continues to spew hatred every time he opens his mouth or tweets; a man who has broken more rules and has had more scandals than any president in American history; a man who has taken an already-divided country and completely ripped it apart. And let’s not forget that this is the man who is responsible for thousands of people dying because he refuses to believe in science and wear a goddamn mask.
At least in 2016 no one knew how much damage this man was capable of causing.
But this is 2020, nearly four years of witnessing Trump wreak havoc in office. How can so many Americans still think he’s a good leader—or simply a leader at all? How can so many Americans still believe his lies and support his open, unabashed prejudice? And let’s not forget we’ve got four more years of McConnell and Graham too (howdidthishappen?).
A lot of people will say I’m overreacting; that I’m being a “poor sport” because my candidate might lose. But this isn’t a fucking basketball game; for many of us, our rights and our freedom are literally threatened by Trump. My rights as a queer female, my same-sex parents’ rights, my gay friends’ rights, my black friends’ rights, my Jewish extended family’s rights are all at stake. And that’s fucking terrifying, knowing that the leader of my country doesn’t just dislike me but wants to take my freedom away. The worst part is; I know I have it much better than many other people on Trump’s shitlist. At least he doesn’t despise the skin color I was born with.
If you’ve never experienced that fear, then you have no right to tell people not to be upset about the results of last night.
Honestly, even if Biden does pull through (and I have to remain hopeful that he will), I won’t be truly happy because that won’t change the fact that, despite all the awful things Trump has done, millions stood by him last night—and will continue to support his close-minded beliefs for years, decades, probably even centuries to come. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow.
2020, simply put, has been a complete clusterfuck. Worst. Year. Ever. It’s caused irreversible damage and brought immense pain to individuals and families across America and the world. Just when I thought there was a chance for some redemption, I was sadly mistaken. Because although Democrats turned out in unprecedented numbers, Republicans did too.
If you’re like me and feel upset, sad, scared, angry, disgusted, or all of the above right now, I advise you not to internalize it. Write about it, confide in someone you trust, do something that will make you smile or laugh or simply distract from this political pandemonium. Above all, look after yourself this week. It’s going to be a long and stressful haul so please prioritize your mental health and don’t get down on yourself. You did your part yesterday by showing up and participating in democracy. What happens next is out of anyone’s control.
The best we can do at this moment is to take care of ourselves and keep hope alive. And if things really do go to hell, at least there’s still Canada.