What happens when health and recovery get in a fight

Since I left the unhealthy, anxious land of body obsession about seven years ago I haven’t weighed myself, dieted or exercised obsessively. I’m really proud to be able to say that. 

Because for around ten years my waking hours, my physical and mental energy were utterly consumed by these things. It was an utterly radical shift in the way I think and act and feel.

Studiously ignoring health fads I’ve remained on a relatively even keel since then, both in terms of my body shape and size, and my mental wellbeing – as it relates to my body image, anyway.

Feeling the squeeze

So when my body started feeling the pinch of my clothes in December, I didn’t really know what to do.

Stepping on the scales, restricting my food, exercising with the intention of changing how I look: these have been verboten for almost a decade now. So, with no expert-approved way forward, I did nothing. And my clothes got tighter and tighter, until I couldn’t even wait until I got home in the evening to unhook my bra. Underneath, my skin was angry red from where it had spent hours fiercely resisting elastic.

In January I was forced into a decision. Not only was my body feeling uncomfortable, my mind was suffering too. I was upset and not feeling my ‘even’ self. Body image was taking up my energy and sapping my spirit, again. 

When is a diet not a diet?

I thought carefully about how I could balance feeling like myself again with protecting myself from falling back into the body obsession abyss.

Instead of changing my diet I decided to stick to my regular types of food; minimal restrictions, maximising sustainability. With a couple of exceptions. Wine and chocolate were the two things I felt I was consuming mindlessly. They had become so habitual I’d all but lost the pleasure of having them. I gave myself the opportunity to have them once or twice a week, but found it easier to resist temptation by cutting them out altogether for a while. 

Without chocolate my go-to snack supply had dried up, but I would still get hungry between meals. I know that, for me, getting too hungry can be my downfall when it comes to eating well. So I stocked up my cupboard at home and my drawer at work with bulk bags of nuts and seeds.

The virtuous cycle of exercise

I knew I also needed to give my body a boost with exercise; calming sessions, cardio sessions, and strength training. I got my diary out and booked in classes every day for the following week. I felt so good that when I got to the end of the week I booked in my classes for the next week, and the next.

No weigh José

Against everything my brain cautioned, I decided to weigh myself as a way of measuring my progress. But as soon as I saw the number I backtracked. It was still too raw, that sensation of being utterly dependant on what figure appeared in front of me. When my mood and what I did and ate for the day was totally dictated by that one number.

Instead, I had to resist the behaviour that has been instilled in me over the years – setting ‘SMART’ goals. Well, on this occasion, I had no specific goal (I just wanted to feel ‘me’ again), and no real way of measuring it (I’d just feel it?). I gave myself eight weeks, which I felt was pretty realistic, to put extra focus on my physical and mental wellbeing through nutrition and exercise.

Feeling myself again

After just two weeks I already feel myself again. My cravings for wine and junk food have plummeted. At the same time my gym classes are becoming one of the highlights of my day – something I look forward to instead of dreading while I’m at work. Tonight I decided to skip a session and spend the night at home, and I feel like I’m missing out. There’s that exercise endorphin high they talk about.

This time has been a powerful reminder that if you exercise and eat well to feel good, your body will probably take care of itself. 

Recovery: hard but worthwhile

I recently started following a girl on Twitter who’s beginning her slow recovery journey from anorexia. She shares her daily struggles to balance successful recovery (involving weight gain) with what feels to her like failure (weight gain). As I tried to balance physical ‘success’ and preventing any relapse of my own eating and body image disorder, I felt like we were simultaneously on the same and opposite paths. 

I feel fortunate to have come a long way in my own recovery, and wish her all the best. It takes a lot to come out the other side, to value yourself and put the needs of your physical and mental health first. But it’s so, so worth it.

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