Have you ever felt lost, alone, unsure, or just afraid of the unknown?
Have you been led to believe that you take up too much space, or that your opinions, thoughts, feelings don’t matter to those around you? Have you felt like you aren’t worthy enough to just be, and instead you perform for those around you in search of acceptance, love, and appreciation?
If you’re human, I’m sure you’ve felt some of these emotions!
*Trigger Warning: If any of my story distresses you or triggers negative feelings, please stop reading. It's always right to protect yourself and your emotions.
However, some of us take these emotions and internalize them, causing internal discontentment otherwise known as an eating disorder. Wait, did you flinch when you heard the word - ‘eating disorder’? Did it make you feel a bit uncomfortable? Maybe you yourself or someone close to you has dealt with disorder eating or destructive eating behaviors and maybe still are today. I’m hoping I can help shed some light on this terrible, awful, no good illness that affects 8 million people in the U.S. alone. Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness. There are many factors into why someone develops an eating disorder - but mostly, it boils down to environmental factors, genetics, and personality traits. For me, I think my personality plays a big part, but I was also environmentally triggered. The way that I perceived society’s pressures on women (men, too!) was something I thought defined me. I remember thinking as a teenager, that if I didn’t look like the girl on the cover of Teen magazine - not knowing photoshop existed - I wasn’t good enough, worthy, or even lovable.
If you’ve been following me for awhile now, or you know me personally, you know that I struggled with an eating disorder right after highschool. My eating disorder was triggered by the fears of the unknown. I was on my way to a big college, a few hours away from home, and none of my high school friends were going with me. I was facing this big, bad world all alone, and I didn’t have my usual ‘comfort zone’ that I had become so accustomed to in high school and growing up in a small town in Kentucky. Sound familiar? We all have to leave the nest at some point, right?
But, if we go back a few years, I remember my eating disorder started as a way to ‘get healthy’ for sports. I started playing soccer at age 5. I was a feisty little thing. I remember thinking there weren’t ANY boys that could beat me! I wanted to be the fastest, the strongest and the all star from a very early age. My parents noticed this drive and competitive nature and encouraged me to participate in any sport that my heart desired. I was fortunate to be able to play soccer, swim year-round, and run track. Despite my hunger and ambition to be the best, I wasn’t naturally the best. I had to really work at it, spending hours after practice and on weekends to condition myself, fine-tune my skills and really work on my ‘winning mindset,’ as my coaches called it. My friends would be out at the skating rink or the mall, and I’d politely decline in order to work on my juggling. I never felt like I was missing out, though. I loved nothing more than to work on myself and improve my skills. It was like a high.
Thankfully, all of the hard work paid off and I was a starter, playing for the entire game on the Varsity soccer team. I went to State in the 400m relay as a freshman and won regionals in the 400m as a junior. I was doing just as well in swimming but I chose soccer over swimming because the thought of getting into an ice cold pool at 4am didn’t sound like too much fun!
I was able to spend more time with friends, once I had ‘perfected’ myself in sports. I remember thinking, if my thighs look a certain way in shorts, then I’m able to go hang with boys, because they wouldn't want to hang with me if I had fat thighs. My confidence was higher than ever. I was flying through school work and ranking top of my class at graduation. I was helping others with their school work, thinking I would be even more accepted if I could show them how smart I was too! Honestly, any opportunity to prove myself, I jumped on without hesitation. The feeling of getting the gold star, pat on the back and put on a pedestal was like food to my soul.
Senior year when things started to get a little less enjoyable. I had signed up for a weightlifting class and ended up winning the weightlifting award (beating all of the guys!) four years in a row. I felt like everyone around me had stopped trying to compete because they knew I’d do anything to win. So logically, I decided to just compete with myself. Plus, I was thinking I had to ‘prepare’ myself for this big State college. I didn’t want to let my family down if I got there and underperformed. Such pressure, right! Sheesh.
I remember our high school graduation party was the day I decided - no more messing around, I’m going to stand out once I get to college. I was convinced that I may have been burnt out from soccer, so I decided to let go of the sports and focus on getting into a sorority. And that was a totally different kind of pressure: ‘Be the prettiest, skinniest girl so you can be accepted into the best sorority.’
It started out as an innocent effort to go to the gym a little more and quickly turned into an obsession. I had nothing else to do - no soccer or track practice, no homework. Instead of going shopping or lounging by the pool, I was at the gym. Four to five hours a day. I began tracking every single calorie burned and before I knew it, my friends and boyfriend at the time were concerned. I was lying about where I was and thinking I was invincible. And I was losing weight - quickly. I had lost thirty pounds in less than three months, and I didn’t have thirty pounds to lose.
The first day of college was pretty tough. I remember feeling overwhelmed with emotion when my parents said good-bye. “Oh shoot, it’s just me, here, all alone.” Within 3 months, my parents were making an emergency trip to pick me up and take me home. Things had gotten way out of control and my eating disorder had taken over.
Thankfully, I was able to withdraw from school and go to an excellent treatment facility two years later. But it was a very slow process of crawling before I could walk. Those two years of being completely consumed by eating disorder behaviors and thoughts were going to take some time to un-do and I had to figure out who I was without my eating disorder. My quest for identity in someone that never existed before - the thought of not having ‘rules’ around food and exercise was hard to comprehend.
Treatment was more about putting on weight than anything else. It has taken me many years (and something I still work on every single day) to fully live in recovery mentally as well as ‘carrying around a little more weight.’ Eating disorders are about much more than weight. You may have heard the terms EDNOS or Orthorexia. EDNOS refers to an eating disorder not otherwise specified, which allows doctors to lump all of the people who have ‘issues’ around food into a general diagnosis in order for them to receive treatment. Orthorexia has just recently come onto the scene with the rise of the wellness movement and social media. Orthorexia is when someone becomes obsessed and compulsive around eating healthy. Yep! Even eating healthy can be taken too far. Social media has been a really big problem over the past few years as it relates to eating disorders. I speak from personal experience!
There’s no doubt in my mind that I dipped my toe into orthorexic territory once my Instagram account became my main focus after a tough breakup. I was getting validation for every ‘vegan’ picture that I posted. It turned into the next ‘high.’ Becoming concerned with the size of legs in pictures and if my face looked swollen. And truly living my life around my next Instagram post. Whew, talk about exhausting and talk about alienating and being out of touch with reality! I'm sure you can probably relate. That too started off with good intentions and turned a negative corner quickly. As you can probably tell, I like to do things ALL the way. Not half-way. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to be sure and take it to the limit! That’s something that I’ve had to really be conscious of and work on in recovery. Thankfully, I have an amazing therapist that is on speed-dial and a supportive group of people around me that helped me work through the healthy eating obsession.
After leaving treatment (too soon due to lack of insurance coverage) in 2007, I turned 21 a few short months later. I won’t go into my cross-addiction (I’ll save that for another post!) but I quickly turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with the world around me. I was so close to death in treatment, that I knew I didn’t want to die. Food was no longer the enemy. I was never a drinker before because sports were such a focus, but once I had my first real ‘drunk’ experience, I was hooked. I could feel numb and not deal with all of the emotions, specifically shame and guilt over my eating disorder.
I will be picking up my 9 year sobriety token on January 20th. Wow - it’s hard to believe it’s already been almost a decade of not taking a drink or a drug. But the truth is recovery to me is not about the number of years under your belt. You can be 30 years sober and still miserable.
Recovery is SO much more than that.
It would be really cool to stand here and say, “Oh, and I’ve not had ANY eating disorder thoughts or behaviors for 9 years either.” But the reality is, there’s no way that would be true. There are definitely days, weeks, and even months where I forget that I even struggled with an eating disorder. I don’t think twice about what I put in my mouth, I don’t have rules around food, and life is GOOD. But there are times when I think, “Gretch, do you not remember anything you learned in treatment or over the past 9 years, what are you doing!?” That’s the funny thing about recovery. It’s a very complex lifestyle but one that I wouldn’t trade for the WORLD.
What Recovery Means to Me:
RECOVERY LOOKS DIFFERENT FOR EVERYONE
Recovery isn’t a one-size-fits all cookie cutter deal. It can be pretty messy, in fact. Recovery isn’t just about stopping the eating disorder behaviors, eating food without anxiety, and exercising for enjoyment. The physical changes are the first step. Changing long-held beliefs that are deeply rooted can take time to fully work through. I remember it wasn’t until 5 years sober that I started to fully understand myself and feel like I was coming into my true, authentic self. Patience is essential and allowing yourself to have set-backs. Relapses are a part of recovery, believe it or not. As much as I believe I would never pick up a drink or restrict my food ever again, it could happen. I’ve struggled with other areas like relationships and finances, that could most definitely qualify as a ‘relapse.’ And yet, without them, I wouldn’t have the insight and wisdom that I have know. Every set back is a set up for a come back. I know recovery isn’t ever going to be perfect, and I’m always learning and growing.
RECOVERY ISN’T LINEAR
Just like life! We have our good days and bad days. There are times when I can go out to eat with friends and eat whatever sounds good on the menu without breaking down the macros in my head. But then there are days when I’m so consumed with what’s going in my body that I don’t even enjoy the food. There are times of year when ole ED will rear his ugly head and say things to me when I look at myself in the mirror or convince me that others are thinking a certain way about my body, usually in the summertime and around the holidays. Then there are times when I I’ve gone days without even thinking about how much space my body is taking up or how much cellulite I have.
RECOVERY ISN’T A DESTINATION
It’s important, for me, to never forget that I’m in recovery and always will be until I die. Whenever I hear people say, “I’m a recovered alcoholic,” or “I’m recovered from anorexia.” I get an uneasy feeling in my gut. I think to myself, oh gosh, I never want to think I’ve out-smarted my illness. It’s not like you finish treatment or work the 12 steps once and then get your ‘Recovery Degree.’ It’s a daily reprieve. I take a personal inventory on myself every day, ensuring that I’m moving in the right direction. My eating disorder (and alcoholism) is a progressive illness. If I were to drink tomorrow or start restricting my food, my illness will be full-blown and pick up right where I left off. I respect that fact, and treat recovery just as I would a family member - with compassion, understanding, love and acceptance. It doesn’t define me, but it most definitely has made me who I am today. I’m proud to say I am in active recovery. I don’t want to think I’ve got it all figured out, because that’s when I get a little too big for my britches!
RECOVERY IS THE MOST COURAGEOUS ACT
Not many 22 year olds are forced to look at themselves and their behavior, admit they aren’t in control and completely change their lives. And then throwing on top of that being addicted to a substance or a way of life. If you know someone who has quit smoking, for example, you know that overcoming an addiction isn’t for the faint of heart! All of the underlying beliefs and reasons why you were doing the destructive behaviors have to be analyzed and understood in order for real long-lasting change to take place. It wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, even 9 years later. It requires an incredibly strong belief in a power greater than yourself. Realizing you are powerless over your addiction and then having to rebuild your confidence and self-esteem in order to act like a normal citizen is a tall order! It was a lot easier to just be the bum at the bar or the helpless anorexic. I had to choose LIFE and then take it one day at a time, sometimes even an hour at a time. I wish recovery and the 12 steps were taught in school. I think this world would be a much more peaceful, happier place to live if we all practiced the recovery principles.
RECOVERY IS A BLESSING
I think about how much I have grown personally over the past 9 years and it astonishes me. I remember early in recovery, I couldn’t relate to any of my peers because I was 23 with the wisdom of a 33 year old. Being in recovery has required me to look into the deepest, darkest parts of myself and honestly face things that are extremely difficult to face. Most people go their entire lives never taking an honest look at themselves and the way they live their lives. Once I dug up all the garbage, I was able to live free from the bondage of myself and truly be happy. I honestly don’t know how people don’t live like those in recovery - it would feel like groundhog day to me. Get up, go to work, do the family thing, do my thing, go to bed. Repeat. And never stopping to smell the roses or wake up early enough to see the sunrise. I take delight now in the smallest things that I would’ve never noticed before. Having an eating disorder keeps you in a ‘belly-gazing’ way of life. Head down, focused on yourself, and nothing else. Recovery allows me to actually feel the chill bumps on my arms when I hear a beautiful song on the radio, laugh at kids being kids, play with pets, feel the magnitude of this incredible planet, delight in the birds singing outside my window and slow down to actually feel the joy in every moment. I am so blessed.
RECOVERY ISN’T SELFISH
Early on in recovery, I was spending a lot of time alone. Reflecting, journaling, seeking the truth within myself. It was a deep dive into self-discovery and soul searching. And it was required! I needed to step out of my life for a bit to understand why I was doing the things that had got me where I was. Some people didn’t understand, and criticized me for always needing to go home early or go to church on Sunday alone. It was a really vulnerable time in my life and required me to put my needs and my recovery first. Once I began to build confidence in myself again and forgave myself for the past, thats when I was able to show up fully myself for others - which is actually the most selfless thing you can do.
RECOVERY IS A FAMILY AFFAIR
In the depth of my addiction, I had no idea that my actions were affecting anyone around me. In reality, my addiction was affecting pretty much everyone I came in contact with, especially my family. I could not have asked for a better family. I grew up knowing right from wrong, my grandparents instilled morals and values like honesty, integrity, work ethic, and respect into me every chance they got, my parents supported everything I ever wanted to do and helped build the belief in me that I can literally do anything I set my mind to. I never felt like we were lacking as kids. So, when things got tough, my family had a really hard time understanding why and of course questioned themselves. “What could we have done differently?” or “We should’ve never let her go off to college.” The truth is, I believe my addiction was going to take shape at some point in my life. I’m just extremely grateful that I was able to be in recovery at such an early age and now I have the rest of my life ahead of me! My parents took time to do their own therapy while I was early in recovery, giving me space to handle things on my own, which was the best decision they could’ve made. I’m beyond grateful for the family I have, and work hard every day to show them how much they mean to me. They are very often my ‘why’ behind staying sober.
RECOVERY REQUIRES COMMUNITY
This is probably the lesson that has taken me the longest to learn. I’ve always been extremely independent. I always figured things out on my own and it seemed to work for me. I enjoyed being the expert and teaching others about sports or studies. I learned really quickly in recovery that I cannot do this alone. Faith is critical. Community of others going through what you’re going through is just as critical. The two things that feed my addiction: too much alone time in my head + not around people who ‘get it’ and are also in recovery. I’m a huge advocate of AA - it helped save my life early in recovery. But if that’s not your thing, there are a lot of other recovery communities you can join. Getting a sponsor, or someone that has been where you are and can help you along your journey is also really important. Even just joining a small group at a church or a book club can help! Getting around other like-minded people is the best medicine for me.
RECOVERY MADE MY HEART GROW 10X
If you were to have met me when I was deep in my addiction, you would’ve thought my heart was as cold as ice. When you’re consumed by addiction, the only thing you’re concerned about it YOURSELF. You will literally do anything to get that next ‘fix’ so to speak. And that means lying, stealing, and hurting those closest to you. I’ve had to made amends to people and continue to do so by always doing the next right thing. Living this life of recovery IS my amends to my family. I was without a place to live for a few days thankfully had friends that were able to help get me into a halfway house. Now, when I pass a homeless person on the street, I always wave, nod, smile and pray “By the Grace of God, there Go I.” Because, truly - I was a breath away from that being my life. The amount of compassion and empathy that I have for those struggling with addiction and difficult times is the size of the state of Tennessee. Just thinking about how grateful and appreciative I am for people that helped me makes my heart SWELL. And that’s also why I spend a lot of my free time serving in the community and giving back. I wouldn’t be where I am today without people doing the same for me. My experience has also allowed me to be able to relate to people from pretty much any background. I can point my pinky finger in the air with the high-rollers and I can laugh and cry with those who have nothing. I’ve been there, done that. I got the t-shirt. The amount of humility that gives me is hard to put into words. I know I can’t help everyone but there are a few places in Nashville that I try to make an effort to volunteer as much as possible. Check them out here.
RECOVERY HAS SAVED MY LIFE
After many consequences and hitting my version of ‘bottom’ - I realize that this recovery way of life has (and continues to) save my life. I know I would not be here today if it weren’t for the people that showed up when I was without a place to live, helping me get back on my feet in every sense of the word! Treatment was absolutely essential to my recovery and something I think everyone should experience if they are able! Being away from the people, places and things that helped keep you sick and taking a pause on your life to heal is truly the best thing you can do for yourself. The things I learned in treatment are what fuel my recovery on a daily basis. (If you have questions about treatment centers, please contact me! There are a few resources you can access here as well.)
If you’ve made it this far, THANK YOU FOR READING! It means more than I can even begin to explain. My hope is that after hearing pieces of my journey, that you feel less alone. That you can maybe go easier on yourself if you relate to it in any way. That you know you are worthy, loved, accepted and valuable exactly as you are and you have nothing to prove or protect. Just by showing up as your unique beautiful self is ENOUGH.
For those that may be curious about recovery and feeling like you’re ready for a little guidance on how to live ‘in moderation’ or a little less strict. I thought I’d share a few recovery practices that I try and incorporate in my daily life to keep myself on track and continuously healing.
What I do to Stay on Track in my Recovery:
- Self care is a priority - Sunday self care is taking over the wellness world. Digital detoxes, time in nature, filling the bath tub with flowers, face masks, massages, red light therapy - ALL of the above. If you're not finding time in this crazy chaotic world to destress and tune out the noise, it will eventually catch up with you. I try to take at least one day a week to realign myself, whether that's through meditation or yoga, or just lunch with a friend. It's important to take time to get away from email, social media and responsibilities. Fill your cup up first!
- Have fun in the kitchen - There are so many amazing delicious recipes online and I think everyone I know who has a website in the wellness world has a 'meal prep how-to guide' (mine is coming soon!) I love thinking of fun new meals to make that keep my tastebuds excited for each meal! I love having fresh produce cut and ready to eat every week. I also really enjoy making my meals colorful and fun so when I'm at work, I have something to look forward to mid-day that brightens my mood. Throw a meal-prep party every Sunday with friends. Bake something yummy each week as a way to treat yourself. Some of my most fond memories are those made in the kitchen.
- No more fad dieting - Paleo, Keto, LFHC, Vegan... you name it, I have tried it! There are certain foods that I enjoy more than others and I choose to be dairy free and wheat free. But above all else - no foods are 'bad foods,' food shouldn't have a label. It's just food. There are some foods that aren't the healthiest option and I try to avoid certain things like canola oil and packaged foods full of sugar and preservatives (i.e. Little Debbies) but if I'm out and about with friends and someone wants to get a donut, it's okay for me to eat a donut! I love having food freedom knowing that my body is an incredibly strong, resilient machine that will always find equilibrium and homeostatis no matter what. And it's important to enjoy life, including food! #balance right?!
- Ask for help - This is one that I usually have a hard time with, mainly because I pride myself of being able to handle things - "I'm tough, I can handle it." That mindset is great 80% of the time, but there are times when it's important to let go of the wheel and allow others to help you. People truly want to help! Humility is a key part of my recovery and something that I have to consciously work on daily. Letting people over in traffic or cut ahead of me in line, holding the door for others, waiting to speak in a meeting - all of these things help me to remember that the world doesn't revolve around me!
- Animal therapy - I swear dogs speak to me! Whenever I'm having a down day I think about the fact that there are people in this world who are allergic to dogs! It can always be worse, right?! Animals have an amazing ability to love unconditionally and
- Always look for the good - No matter what you're going through, there is always something good that can come from it. It's easy to say that if you're not the one going through it! But I know that beleiving this to be true has pulled me through some really tough times. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, you are NOT stuck, you are NOT alone you are going to be so much stronger after the storm has passed. The silver lining sometimes is that you're still here, breathing, alive and able to live another day. If you've got all of your limbs, that's a win right there!
- Let myself off the hook - Whenever things are stressful or I feel like I'm not where I want to be, expectations aren't being met, etc. I naturally want to turn inward and beat myself up. That's when I have to stop myself and remember, we're all doing the best we can with what we have in each moment. If things aren't going as planned, I take a breather, go for a walk, call a friend, whatever I can to change my perspective and try again. Sometimes it's best to just make a cup of tea and start again the next day.
- Remember how far I’ve come - One of the best peieces of advice that I've been given is to take a personal inventory of how much I've overcome. In other words, write out a 'brag sheet' from as far back as you can remember. This list has grown over the years and whenever I'm feeling like I need a pick-me-up, I grab it and read every obstacle that I've successfully overcome. When you put them all out on paper it's amazing to see how much you've gone through and how strong you are because of each obstacle. Take out a pen and paper, this is a must do! You'll be standing a little taller with your head held high!
- Stop comparing myself to others - This is EVERYTHING! So many of my 'problems' would be solved if I stopped comparing my life with others. Thank you Instagram! We don't have to fall victim to the social media comparison game if we set boundaries with our phones. Allow yourself 15 minutes a day (I know that sounds crazy!) to scroll through to see who's gotten engaged, who hates Trump and who got a new puppy or who has a baby on the way! Limits are KEY. And taking time to remind yourself how awesome you're doing. (see #8)
- Find movement that I enjoy - As I continue to age I realize my body doesn't always want to do 30 minutes of HIIT or a super intense cross fit workout. Sometimes the best way for me to feel the endorphins from a workout is to just go for a 45 minute stroll. I've become obsessed with stretching and of course, yoga is magical. Our bodies are meant to move, not be the brunt of our stress and frustration. Treat it kindly, it's the only one we've got!
- Allow for grace - Forgive yourself. Over and over and over again. You are human. You're going to have seasons of trials and sowing and seasons of reaping and joy. That's life. So expect that 'this too shall pass' (both good and bad times) and take delight in the good times because just like the weather, there are always going to be storms. BUT there's always a rainbow after the storm. Never give up on your goals and your vision. Find time every day (or at least every week) to take a personal inventory and right your wrongs. And remember to 'Live and let live.'
- Be still - When life gives lemons, get still. That's the best piece of advice I've got for you! Stillness allows me to go inward. Ask myself the questions that need to be asked - what's creating all of this stress, discomfort, fear, frustration. Most of the time, the answer is really simple. But sometimes it takes a few days in a row of just being STILL. Once I find the truth in a situation, I turn it over to the power greater than myself and let it go. Sometimes, I'll write out my false belief on a napkin and burn it. It's very freeing. Knowing and trusting that God and the Universe have my back, always.
- Get outside comfort zone - This could mean going to a networking event by yourself to meeting new people, volunteering at a place that supports a mission you believe in, trying out a new hobby, going ice skating - that's out of my comfort zone! Even just driving a different way to work can make a big difference on how you feel and the way you perceive your world. Find ways to shake things up and keep things fun, spontaneous and enjoyable. Life isn't lived inside of a bubble. Get out there! Share your goodness with the world, they're dying to meet you!
- Stop hiding - We are here on this planet to build relationships and connections with others. People cannot live without love and connection. It's impossible. One of the easiest things to do when feeling down is to crawl back under the covers, avoid social interactions becuase you're afraid others will see how you're actually feeling on the inside. The truth is, they really have no idea what you're going through. The only way we can connect with others to allow people in, to share your true, authentic, unique and beautiful self. Show up, with intention to be seen. You'll be amazed at who rises to meet you.
- Share my story with others - One of the best ways to heal is to share your story with others. (ahem..trying to take my own advice!) It's important to remember who your audience is, however. And to only share what you feel most comfortable sharing. Some people don't understand and may choose to never understand, and that's okay. Share your testimony and truth with those who want to hear it because they love you. They're the ones who matter. The others, just bless them and move on.
- Present over perfect - There's an incredible book (you can purchase here) called "Present Over Perfect" that talks about how to get yourself out of a being overwhelmed and longing for connection, meaning, depth, but settling for busy. Instead of proving and earning your worth, she shares authentically how you can begin to give yourself the gift of perfect. This is a mantra that I repeat on the daily!
I really truly hope that this post was meaningful to you in some way, shape or form. If you could relate to a peice of my story, I'm so glad to know that I'M not alone. And if you learned a thing or two, that's icing on the cake! :) But at the end of the day, I hope and pray that my story helps others know that their lives matter, they are here for a reason and every single thing you go through is for YOUR GOOD. If you ever want to chat face-to-face or over the phone, I'm an open book and would love to serve you. Please don't hesitate to reach out!
In Good Health - xoxo - Gretchen