Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Recovery Bites

Published on March 26, 2010 by   ·   25 Comments Pin It
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Guest Blogger Ainsley Drew takes on the much discussed connection (or lack thereof) between eating disorders and veganism – from personal experience;

In freshman year our Western Civ teacher with the dishwater hair and lateral lisp took all of the girls into the auditorium and spoke to us about healthy eating. Although it was disguised as “learning about nutrition,” I could hear some of the other girls whispering that it was because they didn’t want us puking up the crappy cafeteria cooking. High school was supposedly a hotbed for eating disorders, but I didn’t see it that way. Anorexia seemed to be reserved for those five senior girls who smoked cigarettes behind the fieldhouse and were really popular with the captain of the cross-country team. I had one friend who threw up regularly after lunch, but she didn’t look skinny, so I just figured it was her thing, kind of like mine was refusing to eat meat. Eating disorders were something I read about in fashion magazines, reserved for girls far prettier than I was, girls who actually bought, like, nice clothes and stuff to make their hair blond. If you listened to L7 and poked a safety pin through any available bit of cartilage, then you were safe. Besides, I ate anything I wanted, almost without thinking. Playing sports and fighting with my parents burned a lot of calories.

The author, Ainsley Drew.

The author, Ainsley Drew.

It was only as an adult, a fully-formed human far removed from the Greek drama of high school, that I had to face the facts. A year ago I weighed 82 pounds and hadn’t had my period in a year. My clothes didn’t fit anymore. Friends who hadn’t seen me in a while would ask me if I was okay instead of how I was doing. My boyfriend couldn’t fool around with me without a look of absolute concern all over his face. (Not a turn on.) Although I was still a punk-rock-loving, vegan, tattooed, bisexual badass who was more Kathleen Hanna than Kate Moss, I was anorexic. I needed to get help.

Fortunately, I took the right steps. While dealing with a family crisis that required strength of both body and mind, I researched how to get over an eating disorder. Recovery isn’t easy, and, if you don’t have health insurance, it isn’t cheap. The recovery for my particular disorder, anorexia, doesn’t come with such great stats on the back of its baseball card either. 5-10% of anorexics die within ten years of the onset of their disease. There is only a fifty percent cure rate, and, without treatment, 20% of anorexics die. Even with treatment, 2-3% of those who are suffering die. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Only one out of every ten people with an eating disorder ever receive treatment for it.

But I got a therapist, called up my physician and explained the situation, and attempted to get the recommended third superhero, a nutritionist. That’s where I ran into a snag. Being one of the lucky few who boasts health insurance, I figured that a nutritionist, when used in tandem with a GP and a therapist, would be covered, especially for a condition with such a frightening number of fatalities like anorexia. Not in the eyes of the insurance companies. Their mentality is, if it isn’t diabetes, it isn’t covered. I look at this as a modern spin on the saying “Let them eat cake.” Consider yourself lucky if you happen to be a diabetic anorexic looking for help, but for the rest of us, tough luck. Unless you have several hundred extra dollars to blow on consulting a nutritionist every few weeks, it’s very difficult to afford a psychologist, physician, and nutritionist, even with health insurance lending a hand when it comes to the first two.

My therapist tried to figure out what had led me to forgo my previous pasta-packed diet for steamed broccoli with a side of air as my sole meal for the day. My mother was anorexic as well, and she remained plagued by the disorder, even as she died of pancreatic cancer, remarking that she “shouldn’t indulge” when I offered her a chocolate following chemo. Statistically, if a relative has an eating disorder, you are eight times more likely to develop one yourself. There’s a belief that genetics can play a role in eating disorders, nearly as much as brain chemistry. But I was the opposite of my mother. Where she was conservative, I was outspoken. While she touted Ralph Lauren and Chanel, I wore ripped jeans and Converse. We couldn’t have been more different. But there I was, depriving myself of that same chocolate, only my irrational mind wasn’t recoiling with a fear of indulgence. It was simply about control.

Probably the most baffling things about my disorder was the fact that it really didn’t have to do with being fat. I was never overweight, having been athletic for most of my childhood. I suffered the freshman fifteen, but they melted away the following year when I shunned white sugar and tried to quit drinking. I didn’t become anorexic because I wanted to fit into skinny jeans, at my height I was already a size 0 before I got sick. It wasn’t as if I stopped eating because the girl I was trying to sleep with ditched me for a skinnier lady, or because some elderly relative made a comment about my hips. Somewhere in the chaos of moving across the country, of getting sober and moving in with my boyfriend, eating became my only haven. There was some quiet, disconnected part of me that felt relief when I didn’t finish the food on my plate, or started reducing the amount of cereal I ate with the help of a measuring cup. Although I was the first person to scoff at the waif of a woman at the gym who wore sweatpants in August and seemed cemented to the elliptical, I was right there next to her. I would make comments about celebrities who looked like lollipops with their enormous heads, and I would mutter, “Eat a donut” when I passed any woman with a visible sternum. On the outside I was exhibiting a more aggressive version of my usual balls-out bravado, but on the inside I was jealous. And very, very hungry.

I became obsessed with food and ashamed of my obsession. At night, while my boyfriend would read a novel, I would pore over cookbooks, looking for meat-free, dairy-free, fat-free recipes that I could maybe one day make. I was chasing tofu-covered windmills. Worst of all, the majority of my brain knew what I was doing was ridiculous and hypocritical, but I couldn’t stop. It didn’t seem like a big deal, though. When I looked in the mirror, I saw my normal self, unchanged. Even when my father, never a man prone to drama or emotional displays, sat me down and tearfully told me that I had no idea how terrible I looked, I didn’t see it. Not until I went to the gynecologist to try to figure out where my period disappeared to did it become clear. 82 pounds was beyond underweight for my height, it was dangerous. Regardless of what the mirror was trying to convince me, I couldn’t argue with numbers.

One of the worst parts about being just another starving statistic, is that many people who knew me blamed it on my veganism. They looked at it as part and parcel of my disorder, when, in my mind, it clearly wasn’t. I had been a vegetarian in high-school, and becoming a vegan in adulthood was a choice born from liking animals and hating cancer. To those individuals who challenged my veganism as just an other example of being fucked up, I could argue that I started starving in Portland, Oregon, mecca for vegans. It wasn’t as if I was sitting down to a meal at Denny’s and saying, “I can’t eat anything here, I’m vegan.” I was refusing mock-meatball subs and biscuits with almond gravy, plates of animal-free greasy goodness that would have kept me full, happy, healthy, and adhering to my ideals. Instead my family begged me to eat hamburgers and mac n’ cheese, speaking to me as though my refusal – though certainly still rooted in a deep fear of food – had nothing to do with my previous, and still upheld, conviction that I didn’t want to eat something that once had a face. If I ate anything at all.

As angry as I was at those around me for failing to separate two seriously different things, I could understand it. The American Dietetic Association has reported that vegetarian teenagers are more likely to adopt patterns of disordered eating than their omnivorous counterparts. It’s easier to blame a food allergy or ethical diet for the omission of a meal, rather than simply saying that you’re afraid of gaining weight, or that you see a phantom belly roll in the mirror. Vegetarian and vegan diets can be convenient Trojan horses for crafty people who think that those around them will be more likely to overlook the underlying mental illness if there is a seemingly well-thought-out cause. But the truth is that a balanced vegan diet is far from dangerous, it’s delicious and beneficial for your health. Anorexia and other eating disorders are just another label for suicide, while veganism is the opposite. I admit that the attention, weight loss, and opportunity to skip out on certain meals that came with veganism appealed to that mentally sick part of me, though. So it’s understandable how those well-minding meat eaters in my inner circle could easily see my refusal to give up an aversion to certain foods as a failure to truly get well. And to this day attempting to convince them of otherwise burns more calories than it’s worth.

Recovery is weird. I liken it to a video game where you never know when you’re either going to level up or have to fight some completely new assailant with three horns that breathes fire. It sucks. It requires more work than owning a puppy and, if you’re the type of person who prides themselves on their intelligence, it makes you feel dumber than a bag of rocks. Which is frustrating. I’m the kind of girl who likes being able to debate current events, who plays word games and watches Jeopardy!. I own a bookshelf, for Chrissakes. Feeding myself shouldn’t be such an insurmountable task. But it is.

Even writing this makes me feel a little bit like an actor recording a “Say No To Drugs” PSA and then doing a speedball in the bathroom of a club. I still struggle with it every day, and it wins more often than I’d like to admit. My shame doesn’t stop me from speaking out, though. And so long as I keep running my mouth and shoving food into it, I think I’m doing okay.

Ainsley Drew  is a native New Yorker and half of the copywriting team known as Ministry of Imagery. She has twice been the guest editor of kottke.org and her work has been featured in the New York Press, Curve magazine, The Rumpus, Perceptions Magazine,  and The Wanderlust Review. She maintains the weekly blog Jerk Ethic and hopes to one day be a notorious literary celebrity with her name in tabloids.

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Readers Comments (25)

  1. Simon Goetz says:

    The path to recovery is a long and bumpy road, often unmarked. I’m proud of you, Ainsley. This level of disclosure takes serious moxie. Next time I buy you dinner, you don’t have to eat it.

  2. Megan Enquist Hansler says:

    my hat is off to her. im sure just talking about her illness and going public is also helpful in her recovery. brave soul.

  3. elaine says:

    Good for you Ainsley! Anorexia and veganism are TOTALLY separate issues, though it *is* curious that sometimes they’re found in the same person. I suspect, at least to some extent, that is because both have to do with control. (I don’t think somebody could argue that choosing to be vegan in a carnivorous, dairy-laden world isn’t about control…it HAS to be, at least to some extent.)

    Perhaps, however, the lure of control that anorexics (and other other eating-disordered individuals) crave can by safely substituted with veganism or vegetarianism.

    Keep up the hard work of staying healthy. Thanks for sharing your story.

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by GirlieGirlArmy: The much discussed “connection” between eating disorders and veganism: http://girliegirlarmy.com/blog/20100326/recovery-bites/

  5. vanillagrrl says:

    What a brave essay, and so well written. Thank you for being honest. I just wrote a new blog post http://travelsinmybackyard.blogspot.com/2010/03/food-obsession-shame-spiral.html in response to this. All my best wishes to you.

  6. Erica says:

    I’ve admired you since before I met you, Ainsley. I know you have every bit of strength and will-power needed to recover no doubt.

  7. [...] ***The GirlieGirl Army*** » Blog Archive » Recovery Bites girliegirlarmy.com/blog/20100326/recovery-bites – view page – cached Guest Blogger Ainsley Drew takes on the much discussed connection (or lack thereof) between eating disorders and veganism – from personal experience; Filter tweets [...]

  8. Mo says:

    Thanks for this article. Not at all PSAish, Ainsley; this article is an accomplishment in representing eating disorders’ complexity.

    My background: I’m a weirdo feminist who goes around trying to explain to the ‘Net that although pro-ana girls are sick, they’re not stupid/vain. I actually think that’s the first step to recovery: realising that you’re not just a stat or a cheerleader, but a struggling person. Sometimes anorexic people constrict their voice as much as they do their diet, but clearly, eating disorders are about so. much. more. than. body. image!

    Why I care: when I’ve been broke-ass poor, I was starving, and came to recognise the seductive power that has… reigning in all my anxieties and stress into this tight pit in my stomach. I didn’t become anorexic, but could have, given a different experience — such as my mom and sister have had. So I am personally invested in seeing the bigger picture.

    Long story short, women have lots of struggles, many of which are about personal power… so thank you for giving voice to that side of your disease.

  9. Jeanie says:

    Thanks for the courageous, thoughtful, and well-written essay about the scary power of eating disorders and the myths that surround them.
    I do wonder what the percentage of eating disorders is amongst vegetarians/vegans WHO stay veg. For some, it’s probably just a temporary thing, an easy way to explain why you aren’t indulging in a lot of high-calorie foods, and once (if) they ever recover from their eating disorder, stop being veg, viewing it as something they did in their past, unhealthy life. But for others, like you, and like me, it doesn’t have such a place in their life. I was a vegetarian at age 8, a vegan by age 12…and also anorexic at age 12. I became a vegan after discovering the atrocities that milk cows and egg-laying hens and all their babies face in factory farms. It was an entirely sensible follow-up to the sentimentalist vegetarian committment I’d made four years prior: I didn’t want my eating habits to be the cause of animal suffering. But, being a preteen who was always a nerdy, awkward, unpopular girl, when I started flirting with a boy who was way cooler than me but sensed that he didn’t want to be more public about our mutual attraction just because of how unpopular I was, I thought that maybe if I lost some weight, people would like me more and he’d be more open to being public about our middle school romance. I know it sounds silly, but hey, I was twelve and had low self-esteem. Thus began my two-year affair with an eating disorder, full of days when I’d feel disgusted by myself if I went over my limit of as low as 20 calories per day, and full of nights when I’d binge on ENTIRE peanut butter jars, only to throw it up in the bathroom minutes later then hide the jar in my room so my parents wouldn’t know. And of course, I never became more popular. But I remained vegan throughout that time, and though it made it easier to conceal the reasons why I wasn’t eating many high-calorie foods. And even after I managed to beat my eating disorder (for the most part…I still sometimes have the nagging thoughts like I did back then; I’m now 22), I remained vegan. So I wonder how many vegetarians remain so after they conquer their eating disorders.

    Best wishes to the author on her recovery. You’re smart and gorgeous, and if a thirteen-year-old girl with no self-esteem can manage to beat an eating disorder, I know you can too.

  10. Dani says:

    As a non vegan, but someone who admires the principles behind it, I think that veganism is as much about EATING things as it is about NOT eating them. You show your commitment to the movement by what you do eat, and showing that it is a viable way of living. Veganism isn’t meant to be a hunger strike. Think of it as an appendage to the old adage, “You are what you eat.” Eating things that are vegan makes you a vegan. Eating nothing just makes you hungry.

    Also, I would keep in mind as you plow forward that ALL principles should come second to your well-being. If you eat certain things you normally wouldn’t by way of getting your health, period, and life back, the animals will understand. You’ll come back with a vegan vengeance later. Stay strong.

  11. [...] The Girlie Girl Army: Recovery Bites Ainsley Drew takes on the much discussed connection (or lack thereof) between eating disorders and veganism from personal experience [...]

  12. Remiel says:

    I believe the “connection” to be this simple: people who think about their diet a lot are more likely than average to be abnormally unhealthy AND/OR healthy, diet-wise.

    Full stop.

  13. Ariela says:

    Ainsley,

    This is an extremely brave post. Thank you for writing it!

    I too have struggled with an eating disorder while being vegetarian and then transitioning to veganism. While becoming a vegetarian or vegan does seem and is a way to easily restrict what your eating, going vegan has HELPED my recovery because I finally started eating things that I felt GREAT about. Things that I knew were healthy, nourishing and NOT killed for my consumption. Although I have a long way to go and a long list of people attributing my vegan diet to a desire to further control my eating, I know that the two are separate entities. Compassion is a part of who I am and anorexia is a disease that I must beat that is definitely not part of what makes me ME.

    Again, thank you for sharing your experience! You WILL beat this and your story will inspire so many more. I know it inspired me.

  14. Shiloe says:

    Ainsley, you are tough and witty. Two of my favorite adjectives for people to own. I was engrossed from start to finish. Thanks for opening for us all to peek in.

  15. Garbo says:

    Thank you for this possibility to try to understand what I hope I will never have to go through. You are amazing.

  16. Bee says:

    This is a wonderful article. I’ve shared the link with various people that I know will benefit! You’re awesome, Ainsley!

  17. Molly says:

    Wow, thank you so much for posting this article GGA and Chloe, and thank you to the author for being brave and strong enough to write it. Talking about your mental illness isn’t an easy thing to do, especially on an online public place, and especially under the umbrella of veganism.

    I, too, am anorexic and vegan. I have been in and out of therapy and psychiatrist care for about 6 years, and am happy to say I am finally seeing a therapist once a week and a psychiatrist once a month. and I’ve uncovered a lot about the root of my eating disorder. So major kudos to you to getting help, as well. It’s important to find doctors and therapists that understand that your ethics do not have to do anything with your mental illness, which is often difficult to do because of insurance and whatnot.

    I was luckily enough that my insurance covered me in a clinic where the head therapist is vegan :)

    THIS struck me though, “I admit that the attention, weight loss, and opportunity to skip out on certain meals that came with veganism appealed to that mentally sick part of me, though”

    I have admitting to myself with the help of my therapist that, yes, sometimes I do use my veganism as a shield against food. Like, intentionally asking my non-vegan husband or friends to go ahead and buy the snack or meal or whatever they wanted that has dairy in it, simply so I have a “cover” reason to not eat.

    It’s a slow, fucking hard process. I don’t believe anyone ever FULLY recovers- but you can learn to live a healthier better way, get help, and keep that ED voice in the back of your mind at bay. So… fight on! It’s a daily battle, but fight on!

  18. MotherLodeBeth says:

    I love learning new things and being informed. So I really appreciate this wonderful piece. Am trying to be more vegan, but admit its a tad hard for me at times.

  19. jenni says:

    thank you for this article. i have a friend who turned vegan to solely loose weight and is becoming ridiculously thin. i suspect that veganism is simply a mask for an eating disorder. happy to see this brought into the light.

  20. Eileen says:

    Hi,
    I just wanted to share that a lot of anorexics and bulimics (men and women) find recovery in Overeaters Anonymous.
    Take care all.

  21. Ainslee — You’re so lovely. This was a brilliant piece. We met at the baby shower and shared a bit that we both have eating-disorder histories. For me, being vegan supports my longtime emotional/spiritual recovery. As a vegan, I can eat enough without restriction and keep my weight healthy without trying, so there’s no triggering of “Should I be thinner?” No. I should just be kinder. And more interested in life. And more grateful for my many gifts, such as reading a touching post like this one.

  22. Tara says:

    Ainsley girl,

    Our bodies make up a tall stack of rough drafts, attempts at brilliance. Writing, revising and repeating the process all over again, every day we have to wake up to learn how to live all over again. I get so tired of making the bed, making breakfast, making mistakes. One more page to the teetering pile. This is the kind of writing that makes me want to take care of myself long enough to keep trying.

  23. [...] been writing a lot recently about my eating disorder, which doesn’t really have much to do with the loosey-goosey focus of this blog (work) but [...]

  24. Lisa says:

    Ainsley,
    Thank You for this very real and candid look inside the eating disorder world. I almost lost my daughter to anorexia and one of the many factors I found so frustrating is the nutritionist issue. Perhaps it is better you omitted that element. Although we are not vegan, we eat very little meat and try to avoid processed food, and try to incorporate raw. We were trying to avoid acidic foods and work with a little food combining (trying to maintain a neutral ph in the body) The traditional view of nutrition is far removed from what many healthy diets consist of. If she omitted dairy or processed grains, she was skeptically eyed as restricting again by the nutritionist. It was better to skip this especially after treatment and my daughter was aware of healthy portions and satiety levels. During treatment, especially when they were trying to refeed her and it was dangerous, we just had her eat whatever they suggested. I wish more naturopaths dealt with ED and nutrirional repair of damage done as a result. And the cost…..Although my daughter had insurance, it was a pre-existing condition….It was more than $60,000. Luckily, we had a retirement plan we could cash and a house to sell…We hope to start a scholarship fund to assist families with this cost. My daughter was so ill, we were told medically we could kill her if we tried to do the refeeding, she had to be admitted. What was a 30-60 day stay, turned into 104 due to medical issues. Again, thank you for writing your story, we were told “Why didn’t you just make her eat? How did you let this happen?” If you have never walked this, you do not know or understand the complex issues that contribute to this…..Bless You and your recovery and your bravery….
    Lisa

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