When it comes to the calories in vs. calories out issue, I know that there are no easy fixes. We live in a culture that sees “truths” in absolute terms so long as they’re based on recommendations by the government (a political and not scientific organization, if you recall) and retweeted by the Huffington Post and Men’s Health magazine enough times.
In my last post, I wrote about how I’ve been struggling with triggers, and I wanted to talk a little more about that, since I know there are many of you out there who have to deal with these environmental and cultural triggers each and every day.
First of all, what is a trigger?
The definition of a trigger, at its core, is a “small device that releases a spring or catch and so sets off a mechanism” as in firing a gun. In addiction, such as it is like a loaded gun, uses the word trigger as a metaphor to describe any inciting incident that kicks off the addiction, causing it to fire itself back into the world.
With eating disorders and disordered eating, that trigger can be anything: a jar of almond butter sitting in the back of the pantry. The walk past the cardio machines from the weight room. The calories in/out segment on The Today Show. The “tough love” articles in Oxygen Magazine. The conversation with your friend at lunch about why she’s ordering a salad instead of a burger. A trigger can even be positive reinforcement, such as praise for how good you look, did you lose weight, eat something you’re getting too skinny!
The sad fact is that the things that trigger ED are much harder to avoid than, say, the things that trigger an alcohol addiction, at least in the immediate term. You can choose not to go to a bar and you can have a conversation that doesn’t include mention of alcohol, but unless you lock yourself in your house and never see another human being, you can’t avoid food or body talk.
Even in the ancestral health/Paleo/JERF* community, there are triggers galore (and more than a few disordered eaters**). Because, sometimes, even when the intentions are innocent, even innocuous advice can stir up a restless ED.
In other words: one girl’s trash can be another girl’s trigger.
When I first started looking into a Paleo, I began listening to Abel James’ podcast, The Fat Burning Man Show. One of the first episodes I listened to featured Dean Dwyer, who wrote Make Shift Happen. Dean comes to the Paleo world from a weight loss perspective: he was an overweight vegetarian and a runner, who started eating meat and lifting heavy things instead. He also began to cope with his own ED/disordered thinking by using self-quantification (i.e. weighing in, keeping a food journal, taking progress pictures, etc.). For Dean, staying accountable to himself was the only way to get healthy. I went out and read his book.
I then started learning about self-quantification through daily metrics tracking and I went out and bought a FitBit. I began tracking my steps, the number of floors I climbed each day, the number of hours I slept each night, and the number of calories I ate. Mind you, this was moments after my surgery, so it was actually a very positive experience for me at first. I was challenging myself to go up and down the stairs on crutches, pushing myself to up the number of flights I climbed in order to keep me moving forward with my rehab. But after a while, once I had reached a point where I was starting to heal, I began to feel guilty if I didn’t hit the metrics I thought I was supposed to be achieving each day.
And as soon as I had that thought–because I had already started this blog and had begun to catch and silence ED each time he tried to raise his voice–I took the FitBit off and put it in a drawer.
I don’t know if I will use it again, because, for me, being “accountable” by counting myself is a trigger.
I’ve since noticed that many people without eating disorders seem to be developing disordered behaviors because, in our culture of accountability and quantification, we don’t necessarily know how to moderate the message. Where is the line between staying accountable to gain health and staying accountable to punish ourselves?
For example, a friend who had struggled with weight in the past but has been going to the gym and trying to eat more healthily posted something alarming on Facebook the other day. While I won’t quote the post, it basically amounted to a common trope in most of the conversations I hear about food and exercise today: The calorie tracker I use says I ate too much today and I feel guilty, so I’ll have to make up for it by spending more time at the gym tonight. After several people (myself included, with a very unsolicited warning about the use of calorie trackers and disordered eating…) commented on the post, the friend remained unconcerned–because once this person lost the weight, they would celebrate with a box of doughnuts.
I didn’t comment again because there wasn’t a point.
I’m not singling this person out for any reason other than to use a concrete example of something I hear and see every day. I’m sure you’ve all had or heard this conversation yourself at some point, probably within the last week.
I worry, because those calorie trackers and pedometers and fitness apps and gadgets are making even those of us who aren’t in danger of dying from anorexia or bulimia into disordered eaters.
I actually scared a customer out of buying a Nike Fuelband at my old job the other day. The Fuelband, for those who are unfamiliar, is this high- tech-looking gadget that’s worn on the wrist, and it tracks your movement for the day, converting it into Nike “Fuel.” You then upload the information to the Nike website, which rewards you for hitting your goals and makes you accountable to both the Nike+ online community and/or your Facebook friends. It’s one of the featured products in the store, and many of my coworkers have been wearing them and successfully becoming more active. I’m actually quite proud of those coworkers who have been able to use it as motivation instead of punishment. They’re moving more and feeling great, and I think that’s actually quite admirable.
But when the customer asked for an opinion on the device, especially when compared with the FitBit Zip (which was also a featured accessory at the store), I couldn’t help but open my big mouth. I went off on a rant about my own personal experience with the FitBit, and how I believe that it’s a trigger for even non-disordered folks, etc…I realized, however, that I was getting too incensed about a topic that most people who don’t read blogs like this one and are open to hearing about aren’t ready for. I tried to pull it back and point out the employees who were successfully using and interacting with their self-quantification devices, but by that point I had already scared her off.
I felt bad. We don’t make commission, so it’s not like we had to sell her the device…it’s more that I didn’t want her to miss out on an opportunity to try something just because I personally didn’t like the way it worked. Who knows? Maybe she could have a Dean Dwyer experience and lose the five pounds that she was obsessing about in a healthy way. It wasn’t for me to dictate her journey, just as it wasn’t right for me to leave my Facebook friend unsolicited advice if they didn’t ask for it.
Because there is a part of me that wants to keep speaking up, especially to those people who don’t read blogs like mine or who keep cycling through yo-yo diets and who live by the tyrannous reign of caloric restriction and counting. I want people to wake up and realize that there is another way to live. I want to be the voice that silences the voice of ED as it attempts to whisper in others‘ ears. I want to be the first domino that topples the whole damn calories in/calories out disorder-disguised-as-healthy machine.
It’s probably not going to win me any friends, but I’d rather the Pyrrhic victory in the war against ED.
For now, I need to focus keeping my mind off of the trash that ED tries to feed me and avoid falling victim to the same old triggers.
That being said, there are some triggers I’ll not be able to avoid–I love lifting weights, but as long as I go to the gym, I’m going to be faced with the gym culture and the bro-science that messed with my head in the first place. I can’t avoid business lunches or dinner dates, I don’t want to miss out on social events because I’m afraid I’ll have to hear someone comment on how fat she feels for visiting the dessert table, and I never would have been able to be in the musical if I had let seeing my costume measurements set me off again.
So I’m learning how to deal with them by taking one day at a time. I’m learning to forgive myself for wanting to give in, and I’m learning how to celebrate the days when I am able to silence the noise.
It’s not ever going to get better, but it will certainly get easier. In weight lifting, when your muscles tear, they grow back stronger; in life, when you struggle to keep the gun loaded instead of setting it off, you gain inner strength.
For those of you who have had similar experiences, what are some strategies that have helped you live with the triggers? I’m sure your shares in the comments would help others who are still seeking answers!
P.S. My mom is now a blogger! She’s a baby boomer doing Crossfit, and she’s writing about her experience at fitinthebox.com! Check her out! (And tell me she’s not a beast in her blog photo!)
*Just Eat Real Food
**See Stefani Ruper at Paleo for Women for more on overcoming ED with Paleo, as well as these two posts on the Civilized Caveman site: How Intermittent Fasting Saved Me While Slowly Killing Me and Dear Bulimia, You Fought Hard But I Won.