Friday, January 20, 2012

My love affair with Diet Coke

My name is Jessica and I am a diet soda addict. I have been for ten years and counting. I'd like to explore why.

In the beginning, my diet soda addiction was a function of my eating disorder. Sugar-free Jell-O and Diet Coke were my favorite foods and as a 9th grmader, I constantly fantasized about the day four years in the future when I would move in to college and have a fridge stocked with nothing but those "essentials". Although my Diet Coke consumption was pretty high during my high school years, I started college ready to be healthier and normal, and stocked my room with Easy Mac and water. There was a vending machine downstairs in the residence hall. There were two vending machines, actually. One had snacks and one had sodas. I think I used the snack machine maybe three times but by October, I was already out of vending machine points due to my addiction to diet soda. It was a Pepsi school, and I drank 20 ounce bottles of Diet Pepsi like it was my job. In the morning, I'd pick one up on my way to class. I'd get one in the dining hall at lunch, another one to get through my afternoon class, a few at dinner since the all-you-can--eat dining hall provided free refills, and if I got a night snack, I had one then too. It wasn't "eating disordered." My eating disorder was the farthest thing from my mind during those early college years. But my addiction held strong. I never really saw it as a problem, just a quirk. "I drink a lot of Diet Coke," I'd say with a smile when asked for an interesting fact about me.
At the end of college, a few things happened. As a result, I moved off campus and no longer had access to vending machines, no longer had a meal plan. I had to buy soda at the grocery store! My eating disorder also set on fire, and my soda bill at Wegmans was higher than my food bill! Drinking sleeve after sleeve of Diet Coke did shed light on the fact that I was drinking a lot. I could actually see the evidence. I just didn't care.

The summer after graduation, I can recall a specific incident where I was arguing with my mom. Yelling and screaming, and yelling at her for not screaming. Directly before this fight, I had just consumed an entire 12-pack of Diet Dr Pepper. I didn't care.

Soon after that fight, I began day treatment at Renfrew. I told the dietitian how much soda I drank and she suggested I cut back. During breaks, I would sneak to the "illegal soda shop" and buy a Diet Coke (it was a wireless phone store, and they didn't have a permit from the Health Department to sell food or beverages so they covered up their soda fridges with newspaper. Perfect since drinking soda during day program was forbidden anyway). Some people would bring their sodas back up to the treatment rooms and sneak sips in between groups. I, on the other hand, would chug all 20 ounces, because even as an addict, I was a soda snob and wanted it cold and bubbly. I even met a friend, a fellow Diet Coke addict, who preferred her soda warm and flat. Sometimes we would sit in Starbucks after program drinking sodas and I would give her the end of mine. That is true friendship.

Residential treatment was a challenge, but it was one I was ready to take on. And in all seriousness, I was ready to conquer my eating disorder but not my soda addiction. Obviously, the soda addiction was psychological, but the caffeine addiction was real and physical (we were allowed one cup of caffeinated coffee in the morning, which I drank despite not liking coffee, but that didn't cut it since I was up to 20 sodas a day at that point). The first couple of days were painful. On the 3rd day, we went on an outing to CVS. My roommate stole a bottle of Coke (regular, not diet!) for me and another girl to share. We freaked out over whether it was worth it to drink the Coke, and I personally freaked out about whether I could consume something that had been shoplifted. I the end I had a few sips. Soon after, I was allowed out on passes and I would drink as much Diet Coke as possible while I was out. Then someone taught me how to bring soda back into the building without getting caught. I learned how to put up to three sodas in the crotch of my pants and walk past staff back to my room. I also stopped being such a soda snob and drank my soda warm when I had no other option.

Eventually, I was discharged and continued to move forward with my health. I was still drinking 6-10 Diet Cokes a day. One day, on the beach, I had a panic attack after drinking a bottle of Pepsi Max. That incident sparked my first ever voluntary separation from Diet Coke. It was brutal at first, but eventually I realized that it was great to wake up in the morning and not need caffeine.

I wish I could say that was the end of my love affair, but I went back and forth, back and forth for a couple of years.

In 2011, I had a rebirth of sorts. I started running and stopped drinking caffeine. I was the happiest and most relaxed I had ever been. Eventually, I caved and started drinking the occasional Diet Coke, but I would like to think I'm more balanced now. I rarely drink more than 2 a day (and when I do, I feel extremely guilty - the way I used to feel about food, but this makes more sense because I am probably doing my body more harm than good).

I have an addiction. To caffeine, to bubbles, to that specific flavor (although I'll occasionally drink caffeine free Diet Coke or a Sprite Zero). Compared to what it was, it's under control. There is so much research put there that diet soda causes cancer, obesity, and who knows what else. I would like to stop drinking soda, but when I stop, I miss it. Is it like smoking or drinking? Is it so bad for me that I need to stop? Research is inconsistent. When they start IDing me to buy a Diet Coke, maybe then I'll stop completely. But even if I totally quit, it will just be a long-distance love affair. Diet Coke and I really have something.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Recovery in the Calorie Culture

Weight loss. Diets. Calorie-burning. It seems like no matter where we go (aside from eating disorder treatment, where those words aren't allowed), we can't escape this cultural obsession. Even in my yoga classes, I hear about it. Why? Because if it doesn't help you to lose weight, people are not going to want to do it. When I was training for my first half-marathon, my running coach recommended that we all try to do yoga regularly to prevent injuries. A friend from my running group said "No way, that hardly burns any calories." Sometimes I wish I had the courage to say what comes to mind, because my thought was, "It burns more calories than you're going to burn while you're injured on the couch from not stretching enough!"

As someone who is recovered from an eating disorder, I no longer get "triggered" when someone mentions weight loss, diets, or calories. I do, however, still get annoyed when I'm trying to have this great mind-body experience in yoga or spin class and the instructor says, "Think of a goal. What are you trying to achieve by being here today?" and then before I have the time to think of a goal or intention, the instructor tells me that I am probably aiming to work off those "holiday pounds." I don't even know if I gained any "holiday pounds." And I don't care.

So what I am writing about today is something that took me five long years to figure out: how to fully recover despite society's constant weight loss messages.

Challenge #1: SET YOUR OWN GOALS. When I'm in a spin class or yoga class and the instructor says to set an intention or a goal, I think about what's really bringing me there. In general, I don't let myself work out if my deepest motivation is to burn calories and lose weight. So when I'm on the bike or sitting in sukhasana, I try to tap into why I am working out. If I realize that what brought me to the class today is weight-related, I try to think deeper. What is going on with me that I am so focused on weight right now? What void am I trying to fill? Have I been overwhelmed with the holidays? Stressed out? What do I need to take myself out of the superficial weight-centered mindset and go deeper? Often, my goal is a simple "I want to feel good." Sometimes it's "I want to feel strong" and other times it's "I want to feel balanced" or "I want to clear my mind." My running coach once asked us why we run. All of the other women in my group said that they were running to lose weight. I said I was running because it gave me a mental sense of peace that I couldn't find anywhere else. Exercising with a weight goal in mind turns it into a chore, but exercising because of the mental or spiritual benefit, the feeling that you get from a run, a spin class, or a yoga session, makes exercise enjoyable and takes you away from the old ED mindset of exercising for calorie burn.

Challenge #2: EAT WHAT YOU WANT. I still struggle with comparing myself to others from time to time. It's the hardest for me when I go out to lunch or dinner with a friend and they order a salad. Although salads are actually NOT always the healthiest choice on the menu, most of my friends believe that they are "being good" (food choices do NOT make you good or bad!) and sacrificing something by ordering salad, and I feel like if I order something more "fun" than a salad, they will get some feeling of satisfaction knowing that they are "being good" while I am "being bad." Is this possibly all in my head? Yes, very likely so. Which is why I fight against this urge. Recently, a friend wanted to order "just a cobb salad...I've been bad lately, I need to be good" and what I really wanted was a turkey burger with sweet potato fries. I had to remind myself that even if my friend believes that a salad is "good" while a burger is "bad," I KNOW that there are no good foods and bad foods. I also know that if I order a salad when I am really wanting something different, I will not feel satisfied. PUT THAT NUTRITION KNOWLEDGE TO GOOD USE! Many, if not most, people who have been through EDs, especially those of us who have been through treatment, have a much better understanding of nutrition than our counterparts. We have a long history of taking that nutrition knowledge and using it for sick purposes. Why not take that knowledge and use it to allow ourselves to enjoy our food and eat what we want!?

Challenge #3: SPEAK UP! I drive my therapist crazy when I tell her a story and say, "And then I was like, oh my god, you're so ridiculous, that's not the kind of thing you say to a person!" She always says, "Did you really say that?" and I say, "No, I just THOUGHT it." Well, recently, I've started to actually say something. Especially when it comes to friends' and family's (and strangers') misconceptions about food. I was so upset the first time I tried to explain hunger and fullness cues to my family. My parents seriously laughed at me, laughed at the thought of "listening to your body." I didn't let that get me down though. I've mentioned the concept of moderation and intuitive eating to my parents on other occasions (my dad is a member of the "clean plate club," as well as a hot dog addict, and believes that his high blood pressure is just genetic) and they've kind of stopped laughing at me. I've also spoken up to friends who are obsessed with dieting, encouraging them to embrace a health-based instead of restrictive attitude. Most recently, though, I started reading some nutritionists' blogs that I was really disagreeing with. These nutritionists were specialists in weight loss, it seemed, but they were encouraging their clients, when they wanted to maintain weight, to continue with a diet/calorie-obsessed outlook. I left comments about the importance of intuitive eating and moderation in weight maintenance. I have no clue if anyone actually read my comments, but by speaking up, I feel less a "victim" of the calorie culture and more a "renegade" in fighting the calorie and weight obsession!

Challenge #4: DISARM! Triggers are just that - they allow you to shoot a loaded gun. Unfortunately, the "calorie culture" is everywhere - on TV, on the radio, at the gym, in conversation with friends and family, all over the internet. One of the biggest challenge is to unload the ammunition from your gun. Former "triggers" still make me angry and frustrated sometimes, but they no longer cause an eating disordered behavior, or even thought. It's behavioral, really. Fight against the urge from a trigger a few times, and eventually you've unloaded it. It no longer triggers a behavior. I know that this is easier said and done, and I know that a big part of eating disorders exists outside of the societal obsession with weight. However, recovering in this culture really does require disarming our guns.

These are a few things that have been really instrumental for me in my recovery. I know that it's different for everyone, and that recovery is far more complex than a "how to" blog post, but these are little challenges that I find have helped me immensely. If you decide to try any of these challenges, I'd love to hear how it goes for you.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Story of My Recovery

Judy Avrin, founder of Someday Melissa, who lost her daughter Melissa to bulimia, asked that those of us who have recovered or are in recovery can share our stories to give a message of hope to people who are struggling.

I suffered from an eating disorder (ED-NOS, more strongly identified with anorexia than bulimia, but more often identified by outsiders as bulimia due to purging and weight) for a long time, maybe eight years, before I was treated. It was on and off, but the eating disorder was always there somewhat. Since I was overweight before the start of my eating disorder, and my weight never dropped to a dangerous place, I flew under the radar virtually the whole time. As time has gone on, I have learned that maybe my family wasn't completely oblivious of everything, but they were unaware, for the most part, of what I was struggling with. However, although it wasn't outwardly obvious that I was sick, I was mentally getting to worse and worse places.

My journey toward recovery should have begun one day in April 2007, when I sought help at my college's counseling center. However, the counselor I saw said that I didn't look too sick and probably didn't need much help, that it's really no big deal - his wife "was bulimic and still purges sometimes," and that maybe I should look for a workbook. Maybe it was that my weight was fine. Maybe it was that it was just weeks before the end of the school year. Maybe it was that the guy knew nothing about eating disorders, and knew even less about mine. But that appointment only made things worse.

So it was June 2007 when I was driving home from Long Island, up the Cross-Island Parkway - a road where cars are always speeding and cutting you off - and was freaking out about the lunch that I had with a friend and decided that I would try to purge while driving since there was really nowhere to pull over and time was of the essence. After maybe ten seconds, I stopped myself. "What do you think you're doing!? You're going to DIE doing that on this road!" (apparently, it wasn't enough in my mind that purging could kill me, but at least I was cognizant of the fact that purging while driving on a crazy highway could)
About 20 minutes later, I called Renfrew.

The woman I spoke to that day, Jaime, made all the difference. She was sweet and understanding, and even when it turned out that my insurance at the time was out-of-network, she gave me continued encouragement to continue to seek help. I was rejected from an IOP program at a hospital because I was told that I would be uncomfortable since the rest of the patients are all underweight (again, what a horrible way to explain things to someone with an eating disorder!), but they offered me outpatient services. Shortly after that, though, my insurance company changed and I called Jaime back and eventually (though this was actually a 4-6 week long process) I got into the day program at Renfrew.

Renfrew didn't work out so well. I had started to get better but then insurance dropped me from day, and then I had a week off before I stepped down to IOP, and after that break in treatment, I just couldn't get myself back together. I ended up getting kicked out of the IOP program, due to miscommunications, with conditional readmission.

Renfrew had told me that I wasn't at a critical weight so they weren't even going to try inpatient/residential for me. However, I felt like that was what I needed. I searched some other treatment centers and found one, Cambridge Eating Disorder Center that was willing to take me.

I did well at CEDC, but due to insurance issues left prematurely. Less than two months later, I went back to CEDC, in the worst physical condition I had ever been in. However, it was this round of treatment when I really started to get somewhere.

I began to realize that I did not want a life in and out of treatment centers. I did not want to constantly be dehydrated to the point that my head was spinning. I wanted to be successful in graduate school (which I put off first for a semester and then for a second semester), working toward my Master's in Social Work. I couldn't become a therapist if I was sick, that just wasn't right.

My motivators were all external at the time and I think that's how it has to be in the beginning. By the end of that stint of treatment, I said to myself, "I never want to go through this again. I am SO SICK OF TREATMENT." I sped through the Renfrew day and IOP stepdown programs (at a different site than the one that had kicked me out) and my therapist at Renfrew discontinued our outpatient therapy after a few weeks, saying that it seemed that I really did not need therapy.

So I thought that I was done with treatment and therapy and had accomplished a full recovery. But really, my recovery was just beginning and a few months later, I would enter into a relationship with my current therapist, who I have been seeing for more than three and a half years now, since June 2008.

Recovery has been a lot of things for me. It has been trying new foods, learning to eat when I'm hungry and stop when I'm full and know that doing that will not "make me fat," learning that nothing is off-limits. It has been becoming aware of my body through yoga, developing a healthy relationship with exercise, and eventually becoming a runner and completing my first NYC marathon. It has been uncovering memories of traumas that contributed to my eating disorder, and taking some of the power away from those memories. It has been making new friends with eating disorders, separating from those friends whose eating disorders were bringing down my own recovery, reconnecting with some of those same friends after we took care of ourselves and came back stronger, and realizing that I am a complex person and can have fulfilling relationships with those individuals who do not have an eating disorder or other "issues", as well as with those who have struggled with those issues. It has been using my voice in friendships, work, and school, as well as in creative outlets. Recovery has been eating, drinking, laughing, running, jumping, crafting, bonding, crying, screaming, fighting, working, playing, gaining weight, losing weight, becoming whole.

I consider myself fully recovered now. I possess a level of recovery that, five years ago, I did not believe even existed. I am finishing up my last semester of graduate school and will graduate in May with my MSW from NYU. I ran the NYC Marathon. I have great friends. I have dreams of getting married and having a family one day soon. I am not tied down by my eating disorder history. If anything, it propels me forward, reminds me of the strength that I had to have in order to recover and that I still possess.

Recovery is different for everyone. What works is different. But what is the same is that every moment is a new opportunity to recover. You're never too far gone, whether you've struggled for 3 months or 30 years. It's important to believe in yourself though, and to truly believe that you have it in you to get through this and come out stronger. It may not be enough to just want it - you need to believe that you can achieve it. And when you believe that, it is absolutely possible.