What The Quarantine Triggering My Eating Disorder Taught Me About Mental Health
After six years of recovery, the quarantine feels like I could relapse at any moment.
It’s an on-going debate between people in the eating disorder community on whether a person can ever be fully “recovered.” I’m not sure where I stand. But at the very least, I thought I’d come far in my eating disorder recovery. That is until the pandemic happened.
Sooner than I realized, LA went into a lockdown via an order from the mayor. Suddenly, everyone was staying indoors, and you had to sell a kidney just to buy some toilet paper. My boyfriend and I had to decide on where to quarantine; his family’s home was our best option. We quickly packed up some clothes and our laptops and moved to the San Fernando Valley to isolate. Life in my new abode meant giving up my sense of normalcy, including my relationship with food I’d spent years fixing.
I was diagnosed with anorexia in 2014 when I was a senior in college. An unhealthy relationship with an emotionally abusive man led me to a place of unworthiness that I couldn’t escape. The first time I skipped a meal, I felt the hunger pains consume the sadness that resided in me. That one meal became many avoided meals, and soon my life revolved around what I ate, or lack thereof.
I lived in Los Angeles at the time, so it was easy to mask my lifestyle as “clean eating.” Drinking kale in the mornings and avoiding gluten was normal, expected even. I used my diet to feel a semblance of control in a life that felt empty.
By the time I reached my senior year midterms, I thought I’d broken myself; I was ashamed and tormented. One morning, after I blacked out while getting out of bed, I decided I couldn’t live like this anymore. I reached out to my parents, who helped me find an eating disorder therapist. That led to a nutritionist, which led to more therapy, which eventually led to eating disorder rehab.
The first thing you’re taught in eating disorder recovery is to let go of your control over food. In rehab, nutritionists essentially force the idea upon you by deciding what you eat, down to every macronutrient. I was terrified of relinquishing control to these food narcs. But letting go of my old eating restrictions ended up being the biggest step to watching the power food had over me disappear.
Today, it’s important to me that I don’t keep any dietary restrictions. I know what foods I like, and I balance health with pleasure. But any semblance of that balance was robbed by the quarantine. Every time I go to the market, the shelves are wiped clean of the foods I used to buy. Anything from bread to eggs to those delicious vegan chocolate chip cookies they have at Trader Joes is limited to one per customer. People walk around like at any moment you’ll suddenly lunge and cough all over them. Tensions are high. Survival means avoidance, even when you just need some oat milk.
I’d always felt a twinge of food insecurity, and now that food is limited at stores, I feel paranoid about my meals. If we start to run low on food, I panic. I know the odds of me starving are negligible, but I fear hunger. Not because I’m scared I’ll never have food again, but I’m afraid I’ll be reminded of the comfort I once found in hunger.
Social media is no solace either (not that it ever seems to be). People tweet memes saying, “now is the time to get in the best shape of your life,” or “a quarantine is no reason to let yourself go.” Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum: those exclaiming that people should eat whatever they want during this time. “Just eat the damn cake.” Reading both sentiments sucks. It feels like the focus needs to always be on food; a pandemic is no exception.
In rehab, I was taught to see food as a means of nourishment and enjoyment. Reading Instagram posts about eating as a punishment and reward system takes me for a wild trip back to my post-treatment days. Whenever I thought I overate, I’d punish myself by skipping meals the next day. I’d relish in knowing I could go an entire day without eating; my reward was a dwindling number on a scale, or perhaps a couple of almonds if I thought I deserved them.
When I see these memes about how to eat during the quarantine, I get angry, “How can people be so thoughtless?” But then I feel an inner battle start to form:
“Maybe I should stop eating so many carbs, though,” I think to myself.
“No forget it, I’m just going to eat all the chocolate I want!”
And those thoughts continue until I realize I’ve been internally battling with myself for over twenty minutes. It’s’s in those times I feel like I might slip back into the hell hole my eating disorder turned my life into when I was younger. A life of falling asleep to calorie counting and waking up to feeling the fat on my stomach. A life of turning the sink on so no one can hear me purge my food.
And though those thoughts terrify me, all I can do is put my phone down and remind myself how far I’ve come. These people posting about eating during the quarantine aren’t attacking me. Hell, they might even believe the words they’re saying are doing more good than harm. And whatever the answer to that is, it’s none of my concern.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after recovery, it’s that triggers are everywhere. They’re the concerned aunt saying that too much bread makes you fat. They’re the woman standing next to me at a cat adoption, saying that if she was anorexic, she could stick her arms further into the cage to pet the grey kitten in front of us. They’re my boyfriend, continually eating like he’s’s never thought twice about the food he shoves in his mouth.
Life is triggering for anyone going through any struggle. We can’t control what others say. We can’t decide what the media will post. We’ll never be sure we won’t relapse back into our old ways. But what we can control is the well-being of our mental health.
We can decide to get off Instagram when things feel overwhelming. We can distract our worried minds with activities that make us feel fulfilled. We can reach out for help when things feel like too much. We can remember that, though we’re isolated, we’re never alone in our struggles.
At the beginning of this quarantine, I worried my eating disorder would resurface. But if anything, the insecurities brought up from the quarantine have taught me I have more control than I think. Triggers will always come up in life but learning how to deal with them is part of the journey.
After all, the only person responsible for my well-being is me.