I recently had a seemingly benign conversation with a well-intended, good friend:
Friend, “Anna, do you want to run a race together?”
Me, “When are you thinking?”
Friend, “Sometime in the next few months?”
Me, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t be able to do anything until at least next summer. I haven’t started exercising since having Liam.”
Friend, “How come? Liam is 3 months old?”
Me, “Because whenever I exercise, I lose my milk supply.”
Friend, “Oh. Anna, if you need to exercise for your mental health then you should! Babies have been thriving on formula for decades now!”
Really good intent right? My friend, who doesn’t know I have a history of an eating disorder, was trying to give me permission to engage in self-care around something I value: health and wellness. However, if you have a history of an eating disorder, it’s easy to spot how this conversation would be triggering. And triggering it was.
Instead of allowing myself to feel her caring, while continuing to stand in my personal values (wanting to nurse my baby for as long as possible), I felt flooded with familiar anxiety. An old voice entered my head, “You should exercise. You are lazy. Your baby is old enough now. You can’t keep using post-partum as an excuse to sit on your butt all day. You need to get back in pre-pregnancy shape. The longer you wait, the harder it will be.”
This old voice speaks differently to me now than it did long ago when I was in my eating disorder. Back then, the voice was more explicit about my weight and shape and looks. It berated me for behaviors or lack of behaviors in service of wanting to “look good.” It feels like a solid mark of progress that such messages no longer impact me and subsequently the voice doesn’t use those tactics.
Instead that voice became more manipulative: attacking my values and engaging me in self-doubt. Instead of pressuring me to “look good,” it pressures me to “be good.” And part of “being good,” means to be in shape. While there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to be healthy and in shape, what feels familiar and that I can recognize as an eating disorder ghost, is the message to not trust myself. The anxiety I feel is the first sign I recognize from such triggers.
Someone in one of the eating disorder groups I lead, described recovery as a journey, not a destination. I love that conceptualization of recovery. I continue to feel recovered from my eating disorder and have been for over 15 years. But the journey of recovery changes from year to year.
In general, I actually feel more mentally healthy about my body, than the average American woman. I genuinely feel love, gratitude and appreciation for my body. I also feel attractive at different shapes and sizes. I have a wonderful relationship with food. This positive relationship with food and my body has felt pretty stable for several years.
However, the conversation and my reaction at the beginning of this post, highlight how the ghost of an eating disorder can trickle in during vulnerable times. And postpartum is a vulnerable time for me. It’s a time when I still can’t engage in my life the way I’d ideally like to. I have to navigate my needs and wants with the needs and wants of my baby.
For example, I want and need to sleep (so badly!) but several times a night for the last three months I willingly get up for a couple hours to nurse, burp, and change my son. As I mentioned in the conversation above, I also have found I can’t exercise the way I would like to as it directly and rapidly affects my milk supply. With previous babies, that hasn’t been the case. It is hard to adjust to a new expectation for myself and continue to postpone having the activity level I crave.
Recovery is all about balance, trust, and flexibility. It also means pursuing my true values. Exercise and wellness are true values for me, but so is nursing my baby (no judgment for moms out there who don’t nurse their babies!). And if I’m being totally honest, I’m also still too tired to do much exercise at this point.
But I found I unconsciously collided with an expectation; a “should” statement about what I should be doing at three months postpartum. An expectation I’m not even close to meeting. This is when that vulnerability sets in: self-doubt.
Recovery looks different for everyone, but here is my experience: There are lots of times, years even, that recovery is almost effortless. Even though there are always things I do, like not own a scale and make sure I’m always inclusive of food groups, for examples. But it is easy; requiring no conscious thought or action on my part.
Protecting Your Recovery
However, there are other times when recovery needs to be protected and this requires conscious thought and action.
For me, this includes becoming aware of when I’m triggered and quickly anchoring myself in my values, self-trust, and flexibility. It means not watching “health” documentaries on Netflix or going running during vulnerable periods. It means going on nice, easy hikes and trying to get as much sleep as possible. It means not trying to fit in my pre-pregnancy clothes yet and being mindful about who I follow on social media. It means remembering to live in the moment. Living in the moment, for me right now includes soaking up every smell, smile, and cuddle I can from my growing baby.
Vulnerability in recovery may be a time period, like with my current experience. It can also be people, situations, events, or things. With protecting recovery, it’s helpful to be as conscious and pro-active as possible. If you are in recovery, or headed that direction, do you have a working list of triggers? We can’t avoid or anticipate all triggers but we can do our best to identify them before getting blindsided. And foundational to the continuing journey of recovery–whether it’s a vulnerable time or not–is trust, balance, and flexibility. Doing regular self-assessment about how anchored I am in these principles helps me permanently protect my recovery and the life I value!