In the highly structured environment of treatment, I did not find it difficult to give up my most extreme behaviors. I admitted myself to the hospital because I was frightened by the way I was destroying my body, and wanted to stop. As I sat for the admission interview, the case worker asked me “How ready are you to change?” and wanted it expressed as a value on a scale from 1 to 10. I think my answer was a 9. But then I was thinking about my actions, like purging and restricting, not my thoughts. Only later would I realize how much I did not want to give the thoughts up, especially the idea of weight control.
“Weight control” is both a practice and an aspiration. The regimen prescribed for ED recovery usually prevents the patient from practicing weight control—but it does not take the aspiration away. It is that nagging and faux-redemptive hope that in the future, you might be 5, 10 pounds lighter.
When I was a month into programming at the hospital, I felt confident that I could continue, indefinitely, to abstain from purging. Maybe I could call it quits for forever; regurgitation held very little sentimental value for me. But I was already looking forward to my upcoming freedom, in which I could begin “watching my weight” again. Substituting green smoothies for dinner every once in a while, exercising regularly, eating fewer grilled cheese sandwiches (seriously, as the only green-lighted vegetarian on the unit, I ate SO MANY grilled cheeses that I hoped to never inhale one again).
There’s nothing wrong with drinking green smoothies, or not eating something you don’t like, but I now understand that the reason for these actions does make a difference. The aspiration aspect of weight control is everything: wishing desperately to lose weight is just as miserable as doing something about it. And I think this is true for everyone, regardless of whether you have an ED inclination or not.
If I have a thought about changing the way I eat or exercise, I have to ask myself: is the goal, or even a residual goal, to be skinnier? Does the idea of restricting French fries make my giddy with anticipation? Am I holding weight control in my palm like a silver talisman, hidden from others, but always there for my own good luck?
When the answer is yes, I have to shut that thought loop DOWN. Because one green smoothie leads to one less snack a day, which leads to two less snacks, which leads to hunger and food preoccupation, which leads to the debilitating obsession that once made me so hopeless. Even if my weight control wishes did not have the tendency to spiral out of control, what would be the point of nurturing them?
In treatment, we are taught that pursuing a lower weight will have no impact on our health or happiness. Even for people who are deemed overweight by doctor’s charts, a number on the scale is no indication of health, and health goals can be reached by changing habits, not losing pounds (although this may or may not be a side effect). For many athletes, however, a lower weight can offer immediate and practical advantages. A fighter has the dangling carrot of a lower weight class, a rower or cyclist the promise of a more aerodynamic load. A runner can also reap instantaneous speed benefits from the loss of a few pounds. I know this to be true because I lived it. I lost ten pounds from a prolonged case of the flu, didn’t change my training at all, and was suddenly running 5ks at 90 seconds faster. The loss didn’t fix my body dysmorphia at all, but at least I was charting more impressive times. This correlation helped me hold on to the illusion that weight control had a purpose. That it could be a part, albeit small, of a healthy, happy lifestyle.
Here’s the bottom line: a person can manufacture a million reasons why a lower weight is a genuine, live-affirming aspiration. I know I can. But every one of these reasons is bullshit. In a vacuum, there is nothing beneficial or glamorous or healthy about losing weight. I hope that, as a culture, our dialogues about health will eventually omit weight entirely, because even mentioning it as a “residual benefit” creates space in our minds for weight loss. What does the weight loss aspiration replace? More effective and honest avenues to achievement, like trying a new training style to cut seconds off my mile time. Most insidiously, the weight loss goal replaces more meaningful ones, like becoming a better comedian, a better writer, a better friend, or a better teacher.
Letting go of weight control is easier said than done, but I know that it has to be done if I want to stay recovered and be happy.