“The world as we have created it is a product of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking” ~Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, and any other spiritual thought leader will tell you, “Change your thoughts, change your life.” Well, duh! So why is it so hard? Because the monkey mind speaks loudly, quickly, and convincingly. My thoughts were definitely the pre-curser to my eating disorder. They thundered every waking moment, and they weren’t pleasant. Constant self-doubt, self-criticism, self-loathing. I couldn’t take the constant barrage, but I didn’t know how to make it stop without using a substance. I did try to meditate, pray, read various scriptures, poems, and uplifting literature, but peace never persisted. My mind would always revert to, “You’re a screw up and always will be. Look at what you do!” But every extra day I’ve put between my bulimia and the present has hushed that voice just a little bit more. I have a long way to go before my thoughts are 100% self-loving, but I’m heading in the right direction. I want that for you, too and I promise it’s possible.
Let’s visit some practical ways you can set yourself up for success from any disempowering behaviors or habits. They ultimately all start with your thinking, but you will need to alter some of your daily routines, much of your surroundings, and many of your activities as well. You may resist some of these strategies because doing them means recovery is getting real. But please follow these recommendations closely—otherwise your chance for recovery will be slim, and relapsing will be certain.
Are you ready to actively sit with and be present to your thoughts—even the painful ones—so you can truly hear them, challenge them, and ultimately change the negative ones? When an onslaught comes, try to immediately counter it with the truth. I had a constant barrage of negativity, fear, hopelessness, and self-loathing. You’re getting chunky! You’ll NEVER be over bulimia. You won’t amount to anything. You don’t even know how to be with people, so just stay at home with your food!
When your habitual negative thoughts arise, try transforming them into positive, self-affirming ones. If your thoughts are, You are such a failure. You’ll never make the impact you want to make. You have no reason to go on. You are broken. Change them to something like, Your future is bright. You are here for a purpose. You are one with the Universe. You are whole, perfect, and complete.
Though a seemingly simple exercise, this will feel like some majorly heavy lifting until your personal affirmation muscles gain strength. Keep at it though. Write down your new and positive thoughts and post them any and everywhere you will see them regularly. This is not a new strategy, but actually taking the time to do it might be for you. I promise it will be worth your effort.
If you’re anything like I was, your pantry and fridge are bare. My kitchen was like a war zone, and nothing survived. If I planned on having friends over, I would have to shop for groceries. The half-empty mayonnaise, mustard, cocktail onions, and ketchup bottles clanging around in the door of the fridge weren’t enough to offer guests. So detoxing my kitchen was easy. It was already empty. But your home may be different. There might be items lurking around calling to you, You need me to feel better! Come eat. But you know they are not foods that serve you. Ditch them. Give them to a food bank. Make a platter and bring them to your workplace. Whatever you do, get those temptations out of the house. Especially during early recovery.
If you live with others and some of their food triggers you, kindly ask them to bring the suspect items to their office, hide them, or keep them in their car. Seriously. Half measures availed us nothing, remember? My husband and I are at a point where we totally laugh about this. I still can’t have certain foods around. Not that I will ever purge again, but one Pralus Le 100% chocolate square can still lead to the whole bar. There’s no sugar in it anyhow, so it’s okay, right? (Um, that would be Ed Light talking.) And Ken’s dad’s sugar-free, wheat-free, nut cookies? Forget about it. Ken literally keeps them in his trunk. Honestly. I just know those things are binge foods, and even after almost four years of abstinence I still don’t trust myself with them. Ken made a batch of health cookies a few weeks ago, and every time he went to get one, he said I should leave the room. I would and we would laugh. I’d come back to him munching away and me feeling free from the powerful cookie pull. Sure, I could scour the house looking for his hiding spots—he has many—but somehow just them being out-of- sight helps them be out-of-mind. Studies show that we will eventually give in to temptations given enough exposure to the object of desire, so do yourself a favor and detox your kitchen. Willpower is a finite resource.
Changing your habits can be a little harder as these are perhaps decade-long engraved behaviors. But in order to recover, you’ll need to be diligent here. Toxic habits can be as insidious as simply the route you take home from work each day. Does it require you to drive past your favorite binge food outlet? If so, take another route. Does your habit of spending Sunday mornings snuggled in alone send you into a binge/purge episode by midday? Then make sure you plan a hike with a friend in the late morning to get you through that hump. Share with her what’s going on and that her presence is a lifesaver. She will be honored.
A habit might also be skipping lunch, which then sends your dinnertime hunger into grizzly bear status. Better to create a new habit of having a small and healthy bite in the middle of the day. If this is hard for you, as it was for me—lunches for some reason were a major trigger— you will likely need to develop a meditative practice around it. Another habit can be as seemingly benign as flipping through a fashion magazine while waiting in line at the grocery store or airport. But ask yourself, “How does that affect my body image? Is it helpful?” Change this habit by picking up a home décor or business magazine instead. Better yet, connect with the people around you.
There are no quick fixes to changing life-long habits, but when you start to really correlate these seemingly harmless actions, or lack thereof, as being life threatening, they will be easier to alter. If a small lunch will help you overcome a binge in the evening, won’t it be worth it? If a new route home will help your abstinence, will you take it? If avoiding fashion magazines will help with your body image issues, will you refrain? Now is the time to really assess your habits. Keep the ones that work, ditch those that don’t, and create new ones that support your recovery.
When I got back from rehab, it became crystal clear that where I spent time and with whom had to radically change in order to stay abstinent. Is this true for you, too? You have thousands of conscious and subconscious associations with people and places that may ensnare you if you walk into their traps. Maybe it’s the café where you meet your girlfriend every Saturday morning that smells like your mom’s homemade banana bread and serves your favorite chocolate sour-cherry scones. Maybe it’s the restaurant with the famous Buffalo wings, to-die-for spicy yoghourt dip, and happy hour margaritas. Maybe it’s even the organic juice bar you frequent, but the full feeling from a large green smoothie always sets you up for a binge. You will know your triggers. One of mine was going to the movies. I just loved the popcorn. I would even go to the movies alone, just for the popcorn—always a large. If I didn’t refill the bucket halfway through the movie, I would fill it on my way out, “For the kids, you know.”
The other thing you will likely want to change is who you hang out with most of the time. What and who you surrounded yourself with got you to where you are today. So if you’re ready to change, those things will likely have to change, too. Do you have friends who only want to meet at restaurants, cafes, or bars? Who can’t open up about their feelings and be vulnerable? Who don’t really feel safe to you, but you spend time with anyway? There may even be amazing people rocking out their lives, but are constantly amplifying your feelings of being less-than. Anyone who either pulls your body into unhealthy activities or your mind into unhealthy thoughts will have to go, even if just for a short time. Bless them for who they were to you, and either let them know or not (you will know the right thing to do in each case) that you can’t spend time with them in this early stage of recovery. It can feel like rejection, so be gentle. Never judge. Each person is on her own journey and deep healing may be just around the corner for some of these people. You may even be leading the way for them. Be kind and release, with love and respect, any people who trigger you. Maybe forever, but definitely for this season of recovery.
I had to make wholesale changes. In the 1990s, most of my friends were partiers or somewhat wrapped up in body image. Many of my girlfriends had their own level of eating disorders or body dysmorphia. So early on, I chose to make new friends who seemed to be living more in line with how I wanted to live. During my final kick at the recovery can, I had less of a wholesale change to make, as my life as a married 44-year old was a lot less black and white than my life as a 26-year old. So when I finally quit bulimia in 2013, there weren’t many people I really had to avoid. But I did have to add supportive and fun people, places, and activities. The following study will show you how vital this will be for your recovery.
In the 1970s, Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology in Vancouver, B.C., published a groundbreaking study on the nature of addiction, which I find incredibly interesting and applicable to bulimia recovery. He studied caged rats provided with two water bottles—one containing pure water, the other, water laced with heroine or cocaine. The rats almost always drank the laced water and in ever increasing degrees. Close to 100% of the time, they ended up killing themselves by overdosing. That seemed to conclude the study—drug users become addicted to a substance, require increasing amounts of it, and eventually overdose. Case closed.
But is it?
Professor Alexander took the study one step further and created Rat Park. In this experiment, the rats had access to other stimuli—cheese, colored balls, tunnels, running wheels, and crucially, lots of companions. The newly formed community of rats also had access to the same two water bottles. As you may have guessed, in Rat Park, the rats almost exclusively drank only from the pure water bottle. The experiment went from the rats overdosing in almost 100% of cases to never overdosing. The differences? Community, bonding, fun, play, variety, and atmospheric beauty.
You may say, “Yes, but these are rats, not humans.”
Interestingly a similar, yet accidental human experiment occurred: the Vietnam War. While abroad, an estimated 20% of troups were habitually using heroine. The fear was that when they returned to the states, there would be an epidemic of heroine addiction. Country leaders were bracing themselves for the fall out. The government anticipated needing many new programs to deal with this pending problem. But it never happened. While a small portion came home and continued drugging, most veterans returned home and resumed their lives, never to use heroine again.
If the old theory was true—that addiction was purely a physiological phenomenon—those vets should have come home hooked on drugs and should have kept using. But the medical archives show that most didn’t go to rehab, didn’t have physical withdrawal symptoms, and didn’t keep using. They just stopped. Once they re-integrated into their lives in America, their heroine habit just stopped.
This peaked Professor Alexander’s curiosity.
What if addiction isn’t about the chemical hooks? What if it’s about the cage? Further, what if it’s about the ability to bond? Some theorize that bulimia is literally the inability to bond with others due to trauma, isolation, unmet childhood needs, and acute adult anxiety. If this is the case, our innate need to bond will drive us to bond and connect with something that will relieve us from our pain. This is our very nature as humans. Bonding with food is simply trying to meet a legitimate need.
Work you love, people you love, exciting things to look forward to, healthy relationships, beautiful surroundings, interesting hobbies—these are the things you might consider adding to your Rat Park. Can you do something today that will move you in the right direction? Is there something delightfully nurturing you would like to bring into your environment or a healthy habit you’ve been putting off cultivating? Can you do just one thing to create a life more conducive to recovery?
If you do need to make massive changes in your playground or playmates, I highly recommend MeetUp.com. It’s a free, global on-line forum of people looking to connect with others around a common interest. And the options vary widely! If you like to basket weave with only hemp jute, I bet there’s a MeetUp for you. If you like to dress up your Pug in costumes and play at a park with other Pugs, there will be a MeetUp for you. I joke, but interests can be that specific on MeetUp.com. Imagine a group of like-minded people getting together and gushing over their passion? It’s like that sometimes. Other times, it’s more conventional—hiking, biking, travel, or books clubs. Regardless of your interests, choose activities that will support your recovery. Mine were things like hiking groups, conversational French MeetUps, spirituality groups, writing guilds, and entrepreneurial clubs.
Would you be comfortable joining one of these groups and starting to meet people who have similar passions? This can be the springboard to your new life. It may seem odd at first, finding friends on-line essentially, but it’s a wonderful forum. I have met a few of my closest friends through MeetUp.com.
Besides bulimia, do you have any other behaviors or substances you just can’t kick? You could be cross-addicted—most bulimics are. And those addictions could be the gateway to your bulimia. Heal one and the others follow.
I remember speaking to a spiritual counselor when I was fresh out of the treatment center, but had fallen quickly back into my old ways. He asked me, “Is there anything else you are being nudged to remove from your life? Because that very thing could be the gateway to the evil forces infiltrating and keeping you stuck.” Hmmmm, I’m not so sure about evil forces infiltrating me, but at the time, I immediately said, “Yes, smoking.” I thought to myself, if cigarettes are keeping me in bondage to bulimia, I’ll throw them away instantly. Now, this was coming from someone who had smoked a pack-a-day since 15 years old and had never even tried to quit. Why would I have? I loved smoking. But on that day, I left his office, took my last half a pack of du Maurier reds, and dumped them in the toilet.
If you’re anything like me, bulimia was not your first drug of choice. We did many other things to avoid pain or anxiety. But when it came time to really getting well, bulimia was near impossible to shake. I had stopped smoking, drinking, revolving-door-relationships, hell, I had even stopped sex for eight years! Yes, in my late 20s to my mid 30s, I was celibate. I was so desperate to clean up my life, and the church’s teaching I was under at the time was quite adamant about pre-marital sex being “not of God.” Well, okay then. I can stop if that’s keeping me stuck in my eating disorder. I had already quit many other vices, so I guess sex was just another item on my road to squeaky cleanness. At the time, I thought absolute purity, as some define purity, was the path to freedom. But it was really just another form of bondage.
Today, I’m not convinced recovery is that formulaic, but I do believe cleaning up your other addictions will be highly beneficial when it comes time to cleaning up the hardest one. Someone asked me lately, which of your vices was the hardest to quit. Hands down and without skipping a beat, I said, “Bulimia.” Think about it—with the other substances or activities, you can just stop and never do them again. Sure, there will be a period of white knuckling, but you won’t have to win at them every moment of every day. For example, you can live without alcohol, pot, drugs, sex, relationships, shopping, the Internet—whatever your addiction—but you can’t live without food. You have to face it down (at least that’s how it felt early on—like some sort of O.K. Corral standoff) three or more times a day. You are surrounded by it. Food lobbyists make sure you are inundated with advertising tempting you with mouth-watering choices. It’s no wonder you became bulimic. Food advertising, coupled with media’s incessant portrayal of the perfect model’s body—it’s a wonder more people aren’t where you and I ended up. Cut yourself a lot of slack. Then ask yourself if you have any other addictions you might consider releasing.
We can have all the wonderful cognitive thoughts in the world, but if our underlying belief system is faulty, we will never recover. I’ll give you a non-eating disordered related example. Let’s say you have a goal to earn a million dollars this year in real estate commissions. You write it down on your goals list, you put symbols of this goal on your vision board, you work backwards to see how many calls, appointments, and ultimately sales this will take, you schedule for these actions, you advertise, you empower your assistant—you do all the right things to realize this goal. But if you have negative beliefs around that goal, it will never happen. If you think, Money is the root of all evil, then you’ll sabotage your efforts. (I realize the quote is actually “. . . the love of money is the root of all evil. . . .” but I’m misquoting on purpose, as so many people do.) Another example of a competing or faulty philosophy is if you weigh, let’s say 200lbs and your goal is to release 50lbs, but you tell yourself, I come from a long line of obese people, so I will just always be obese, can you see how you will keep yourself there? If you fundamentally disagree with your goal—and this is often entirely subconscious—your very soul will not allow you to achieve it because your soul will be going against itself.
What is your underlying belief system around your own personal recovery? Is it positive and hopeful, or faulty and negative? Mine was wrought with mixed messages. My desires didn’t match my experience.
I remember my grandma always wanting to lose those last five pounds. She wore girdles daily to hide her tummy and mentioned her struggle regularly. She just didn’t seem free in her body. Similarly, my mom used to often only eat a mint chocolate Ayds square for lunch or “half of a half” of an English muffin. It was a phrase we giggled about, but the lack of freedom around food and body image at home was definitely noted. My sister shared that my dad once said, “If you didn’t butter every square of your Eggo waffle, maybe your bum wouldn’t be so big.” As a teenager, that must have really hurt. Even my tall, handsome, slender brother said recently, “I hate it when I have anything extra around my midsection.” (I can totally relate!) And I already mentioned the first nursery rhyme I remember my dad saying. The bottom line was that my family had hugely charged energy around food, weight, body image, and athleticism. So, my faulty belief system was, I came from a long line of weight and image obsessed people who are never satisfied with their bodies and I can’t be either .
Even just reading those words today I can see the power they had over me for decades. Not only do we have to detox our environments, perhaps change our playmates, and take a look at our other addictions, we definitely have to challenge our thoughts around recovery. Is there something that needs to be cleaned up in this regard?
This was perhaps a heavy set of strategies, sweet reader. Please take heart. Go at your own pace implementing them. Reach out, and ask for the help you need to make these ideas a reality in your life. Your recovery will begin to take on a life of its own. Think of it as creating an entirely new body. Each step or idea is building new muscles. One might strengthen your arms, one your legs, one your core. Before you know it, you’ll be a recovery Olympian. Just chip away at it. Aim for progress, not perfection.
Love and light,