Eight years after I first recovered from disordered eating and dieting, I am sharing about my relapse... real time. Here's how I got swept back up in diet culture once again.
“Sheila, you need to rest and restore your body right now. I think you should take a break from exercising and cleansing. We need to ADD nourishment, not subtract through detoxing or physical exertion.”
This was my acupuncturist, Emily, giving me the same advice I often give to my clients... to stop trying to force and instead lean back and allow the body to work it's own magic. But for various reasons that I will soon explain, I didn't think this applied to me at the time.
Turns out that things needed to get worse before I was finally ready to STOP and make some changes.
Over the past several months, my body has been giving me ALL the signals that, if it were anyone else, I would clearly see meant she was pushing too hard and wasn't taking care of herself emotionally and physically. For example, my menstruation had been progressively getting heavier and heavier, I caught a terrible cold that lasted weeks, I found out that I had iron deficiency anemia, which was causing headaches and the worst fatigue I have ever felt, to name a few.
So, do you want to know what I did that day instead of listening to Emily's advice to rest? I went to the gym a few hours later to do an intense HIIT session, only to gash my ankle during box jumps on a 2-foot platform.
It gets better (worse). A few days later I decided to do a full-day fasted cleanse. The next day, a friend who was going through a rough time personally came to visit and over the next several days, I held space for her to heal and come to some pretty big life decisions. We also drank wine, did some intense hot yoga (where I spent a lot of the class in child’s pose), and walked all over the city. By the time she left, I honestly felt like death. I rested a bit, but STILL wasn’t ready. Ay!
I flew to Michigan to see my boyfriend (he lives there, I live in LA, we do long-distance) for a couple weeks. The morning I left I got up at 2AM so that I could work out at home before my flight. I continued to work out almost every day I was in Michigan, partially because it was a way for me to get out of the house and move my body (when it’s 10 degrees F outside), but mostly because I couldn’t imagine NOT working out.
I can’t remember exactly how, but during that time away I stumbled upon a YouTube video (YouTube is one of my favorite resources for learning) about dieting and eating disorder recovery, specifically anorexia and orthorexia. I’ve never really thought of myself as someone who has struggled with anorexia because even back in my dieting hey day, I was never underweight. And I thought I couldn’t possibly have orthorexia (fear of eating unhealthy foods) because I have always eaten at least some sugar and carbs on occasion.
Still, I listened to the video and… I was surprised to realize that many of the eating disorder patterns, thoughts, and behaviors sounded a lot like me.
But wait, I’ve healed this stuff! I TEACH this stuff! No way… There’s no way I’ve slipped back into those old patterns.
The truth is, I had. And little by little, I began admitting it to myself. I gave my ego a hug and told it to go sit down, and started getting real about how I’ve been thinking and living lately (even if nobody else really knew, deep down, I knew). I was once again, stuck living in fear.
Maybe I DO have a LOT of resistance to taking a break from working out. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but once I started thinking about it I realized that I actually hadn’t taken a full week off of working out since before I began dating my boyfriend… four and a half years ago!
Maybe I AM a bit too attached to my weekly fasted cleanse days. I tell myself that I do them because it boosts my immune system and assists my body in detoxing the junk, and it’s healthy because many friends do it too… but there is a part of me that DOES also enjoy the overnight dramatic weight loss.
And wait a minute, when did I start weighing myself regularly again?
Maybe some of my food rules ARE kind of extreme. I mean, I pretty much only eat salads for dinner and I barely buy any treats, for fear of having them in the house and being tempted to eat them.
Maybe I HAVEN’T been listening to my body lately... at all. When it comes down to it, even though my intention is to take really good care of my body, over the past few years, I’ve piled on quite a few food and exercise rules that are more fear-based than nourishment-focused.
I have to pause for a moment just to say that sharing all of this with you, is SO embarrassing and scary because I’m not supposed to be someone that ever falls back into these old patterns again. I am supposed to be healed for good. For years I have been telling my clients that it is possible for them to move past this stuff for good, just like I did.
A part of me feels ASHAMED because I have FAILED…
But the truth is, I guess I had more healing to do and that’s really not shameful at all. The part of me that is afraid of being vulnerable doesn’t want me to show what I am going through right now because this shit is raw and messy. AND, the part of me that knows that no one is perfect, KNOWS that the more of this that I can share real-time with you, the greater the chance that I can help others who feel similarly.
The REAL TRUTH, is that the more I share the more I can help create REAL positive change.
Here’s what I know for sure (cue Oprah), I’m not the only one struggling with this stuff, specifically anorexia- and orthorexia-based disordered thoughts and behaviors.
A LOT of women (and men, and CHILDREN) do too. Of course they do! You can’t help but see all of the messages across social media, on magazine covers at the grocery store or the airport, and on TV telling us what we are supposed to look like, what we should and shouldn’t be eating (which changes almost daily), and how “studies show” that we need to be doing XYZ new diet or workout program in order to be healthy.
Side note speaking of children, did you know that if Barbie were an actual woman, she would be 5’9” tall, 110 pounds, have a 39” bust, an 18” waist, 33” hips and a size 3 shoe. She would also have a BMI of 16.24 and fit the weight criteria for anorexia.
The pressure to measure up to the gold standard of perfection in order to be good enough, worthy, beautiful, accepted, or loved has become exhausting and downright stressful!
So, even though my first inclination lately has been to go radio silent and wrap myself up in a tightly-protected, safe cocoon of healing, vanishing from social media and the interwebs until further notice... I KNOW the most courageous thing I can do… (deep breath) is to talk about it. As messy, embarrassing, and crazy as it feels.
To get even more personal (as if I haven’t already), a big part of why I think this awakening is happening for me right now, is because this year I want to get pregnant.
And the more I have been reflecting on my laundry list of ridiculous food and exercise rules, body-dysmorphia, and fear-based thinking, the more I thank God that I have realized this now, so I can heal it. This time for good.
I will not pass this bullshit on to my children.
Right about now you may be thinking, “Oh Sheila, don’t be silly. You are just someone that is healthy and has committed to an uber healthy lifestyle. Don’t be so hard on yourself!”
Being healthy is great, but what I am sharing with you today really has nothing to do with health and everything to do with trying to be perfect according to the standards I subconsciously believe I have to measure up to.
I wanted to lose weight and I was afraid of gaining weight, so I restricted food and exercised a lot in order to do that. I let the eating disorder sneak back in, fooling myself into believing that I was "just being healthy."
Let me give you a glimpse inside the thought process of my eating disorder. Please know, I’ve committed to recovery and have almost completely released acting on these thoughts. It’s going to take a while to recover, however since committing to recovery (as hard as it has been), I’ve pretty much been doing the opposite of what my eating disorder says for me to do (below).
I have to have a big salad every day. If I don’t, I feel unhealthy and guilty.
I don’t eat unhealthy things by myself because I save those splurges for when I go out with my boyfriend.
I rarely eat fried food except when I steal a fry or two from him.
I don’t eat pizza.
I don’t eat pasta.
I don’t eat full-fat desserts unless it’s a special occasion, in which I only eat a couple bites of something shared. I never order a dessert just for myself.
I never eat the full fat version if there is a low fat version available (i.e. milk, yogurt).
I never drink alcohol alone or at home.
I never add regular sugar or syrup to anything.
I never order a fatty or high calorie meal for myself.
I NEVER eat fast food.
I don’t eat high calorie snacks or even have them in the house.
My routine is basically that I eat low-calorie, high veggie all week and then on weekends (when I’m with my boyfriend) I splurge. Doing otherwise makes me feel anxious and afraid of gaining weight (I’ll explain more about this later).
I also work out 6 days a week, plus walking to run errands at least 4 days a week.
Beyond all that, I had some weird OCD habits, which is another trait for many people with eating disorders.
For example, I had slowly whittled down to a very small list of foods that I allowed myself to eat and buy because eating anything else might lead to weight gain. I stopped making recipes for myself because I didn’t want to be tempted to eat too much of them. If you know me that sounds crazy because I used to love to cook and bake.
I would eat pretty much the same thing Sunday-Thursday at home, by myself because it was safe. This feels humiliating to admit, because 1. I’ve been there before, and 2. I sound like a hermit.
When my boyfriend and I are together, if it isn’t a special occasion where we were going “out” I would convince him to make salads at home OR only choose from a short list of restaurants that we had been to before because I knew I could get a specific salad off of the menu that I considered “safe” according to my rules.
I was afraid to be spontaneous. I was afraid to mix things up and go to lunch with friends for fear of eating something that had higher calories that my usual lunch. God-forbid, what if I chose something I didn’t like and then the whole day would be ruined because I wasted those calories on a meal I didn’t even enjoy?!
I cannot believe how rigid I was, even though at the time I was oblivious. It just felt like a healthy lifestyle… like I was doing what I needed to do to be healthy while also going out to dinner and splurging sometimes. I told myself that this is what balance looked like during this phase of my life. WHAT A LIE.
And... there’s more. I always finished everything on my plate. A while back, when I was listening to my body WAY more, I would sometimes leave food on my plate after I was done eating. I stopped doing that, probably because my body was starving and it NEEDED MORE FOOD.
And here’s something else I started to question… As I mentioned, I would eat HUGE salads. Why? Do I really need to? I feel like I was trying to trick my body into feeling satisfied.
And I was taking a TON of supplements. Do I really need THAT many pills? Is being healthy REALLY that complicated?
And fasted cleansing… it started off innocently enough but then it morphed into this attachment to cleanse weekly otherwise I would feel guilty and puffy. It also seemed like the more I cleansed and the "cleaner" I ate, the more out of balance my digestion would become. I thought it was because my body was just getting so clean, but really I think my body had just forgotten HOW to digest most things!
Speaking of puff. I would wake up with lines on my skin (even across my face) from the sheets as if my body was retaining water. That doesn’t seem normal (my body wasn’t releasing water efficiently… why?). And my feet, ankles, hands, and face would get bloated from things like flying or eating out at restaurants regularly. That doesn’t seem normal either.
To top it all off, I also often needed a nap midday even though I drank quite a bit of coffee.
I had so many signs that I wasn’t 100% healthy! As I mentioned, my period was progressively getting heavier and heavier. I was shedding a lot of hair. Not to the point of baldness (although there were times when I would wonder how I had any hair left). And my boyfriend would scream like a girl when I touched him with my hands or feet because they were freezing.
As I look back, I can see so clearly when and how this all started up again.
It sprouted when my boyfriend and I first started dating. By no means am I saying it’s his fault at all, but it started because meeting him fulfilled not only my biggest dreams coming true, but also triggered my greatest fears.
We met at a time when I was at my lowest weight and my body was very much what I considered at the time to be my ideal size. I was maintaining it with ease and I felt super in tune, however I remember writing in my journal one day:
I love my body. I SO appreciate coming into alignment and allowing the body of my dreams to naturally happen. And, I wonder… I am nervous… can I maintain this body while traveling the world, eating whatever I want? I hope so.
I wanted a life of adventure and freedom, but at the time I wasn’t really eating out at restaurants, having cocktails, or experiencing a lot of food other than what I cooked at home.
It was like I wanted this freedom AND I was kind of scared of it.
Fast-forward several months and I met this man that was ALL the adventure, spontaneity, and fun that I had dreamed of. He wanted to go out to all the restaurants I had been wanting to try in LA and travel the world with me.
So, that’s what we did. And soon, I began to gain weight. Not a ton, but a few pounds, then a few more. I started to get scared. I noticed that my first reaction was to tighten up and eat very “clean” and “veggie” during the times when we were apart so that when we were together, I had more wiggle room. But even with that, I was afraid because I was eating pretty low-calorie during the times we weren’t together and I knew that wasn’t sustainable long term. I felt my body craving more food.
So, I did some research online about how to boost your metabolism and found reverse dieting. I ended up reverse dieting my way from 1300 calories a day up to 2600 calories (sometimes more) while lifting heavier weights in the gym in order to build muscle (and burn more calories).
In the process I also gained about 11 pounds (mostly water, food in my system, muscle, and some fat). That was a great experience to show myself that I could eat that much, but at the time I felt puffy and heavy, so… after that 9 month reverse dieting stint, I began cutting and lost about 10 pounds fairly quickly (mostly water and food in my system). However, that was when (hindsight) things began to get worse.
I added in my weekly cleanses at that time, and I think I reduced my calories too much too fast (because I wanted to get the water and excess fat off so I could see my newly built muscles). Like I mentioned, I wasn’t taking any rest periods away from the gym either. As the months progressed, I started doing all sorts of (now I see as extreme) tweaks and tricks to try to get back down to my lowest weight on the scale.
It was always in the back of my mind… Eat clean as much as possible, try not to overdo it when going out (even though no matter what I ate or drank, I would often feel guilty and bloated after), and hopefully over time I would get to my goal. I was mostly tracking macros (and calories) throughout that time, with short stints of not tracking. I also listened to my fellow cleansers who said that 2-day cleanses were where it was at, so I tried that even though it was incredibly hard to barely eat anything for 2 days in a row.
And despite all of my effort, nothing seemed to work, my body kinda just stayed the same. Sometimes I would get close to the range I was trying to get to, but then we’d go on vacation or we’d be together for a longer period and then I’d gain weight and have to start all over. I also had a lot of digestive issues at this time. On a cruise over New Years a couple years ago, I ended up with gastritis and was in bed by 11pm on NYE because my stomach was so messed up. Like I mentioned, I think it was because my system was so out of whack from all the dieting, cleansing and coffee.
I also noticed that even though I never really binged hardcore on food, I would often have a few too many cocktails and the next day feel ashamed of myself and hungover. Why was I doing this? I knew better. Did I have a problem with alcohol? No, I didn’t. I had a problem with restriction.
I wouldn’t let myself have any “fun” eating things for pleasure when I was by myself, so of course when it was time to go out and have a good time I would get overly excited and caught up in the moment and wouldn’t want it to end. So, I’d get another drink… and another. I was not only not eating enough, I was also fun-starved! I would tell myself, “I do all these OTHER things to have fun, I don’t have to eat cookies or pancakes during the week in order to have fun!” The truth is, for me to feel free, eating whatever I wanted whenever I wanted needed to be part of the equation. Anything else felt like prison.
Remember how I mentioned that I watch a lot of YouTube? Well, I had also stumbled upon all kinds of diet trends on YouTube and I even experimented with Veganism for 60 days (high carb, low fat) which was terrible for my hormones and my skin, but good for me mentally because I was eating 2000 calories or sometimes more a day without gaining weight, which opened me up to the idea that maybe I don’t need to go so low-calorie in order to lose or maintain weight.
Over Christmas my boyfriend and I were together for 3 week, part of which we were on vacation. Before I left, it was one of those times where I was really close to my goal weight and… by the time I got home I had gained 7 pounds. I lowered my calories to 1300 calories per day for a week after I got home AND did a full-day cleanse and the scale didn’t budge.
My body was saying NO. Thank God that my body knows how to override my eating disorder.
And this brings us full circle to basically hitting the rock bottom that I needed to hit in order to finally wake up, set my ego aside, and heal.
So here I am today, conscious, aware, and finally, READY.
When I healed my body the first time in 2010, my focus was on healing my hormones and bringing my menstrual cycle back. I was able to do that and also lost weight naturally during that time by focusing LESS on results and more on nourishment, both emotionally and physically. That said, I don’t know that I really healed some of the disordered patterns fully, they just kind of went dormant.
My friend and I joked that this is an existential awakening (not crisis) because it’s caused me to challenge everything…
What I thought “health” is.
My identity… as a coach, a leader.
To be completely transparent, I don’t know if I have it in me to continue coaching.
For my clients reading this, I hope you know that my journey doesn’t affect your journey. Everything that we worked on together is still solid and true. AND, this is me doing my work on me. These things can be completely separate, and I hope that reading this doesn’t cause you to question your own healing based on the work we did together.
I feel exhausted right now and my desires for my life in the near future have shifted. I like talking about this stuff right now and having conversations around it, but I don’t know if I want to teach this forever. It’s heavy! Who knows. All I know is that right now, I want to heal. In the near future, I want to be a really present, loving mom. I want to have the space in my life to focus pretty much completely on my baby and taking care of my family.
I’m also really triggered by the messaging that I see on social media from influencers, and all sorts of coaches, both in the health and fitness world and in business too. There is so much noise and so much fakeness and manipulation cloaked as inspiration when really all it is is another form of marketing, playing to people’s insecurities so that they will buy whatever the person is selling.
I’m tired of it and I don’t want to be a part of it. I think over the past couple years there have been times where I did get swept up in it. Maybe I didn't share the whole truth or maybe I let myself buy into the marketing that I then SOLD my community. I feel ashamed about this even if my intentions were that I genuinely did (and still do) want to help people.
That said, there ARE people doing great things… some that I support and applaud are those that I highlighted in the Free Your Spirt Summit and, related to eating disorders, I’ve found some pretty amazing women that I can share about (if enough people are interested), who have this stuff covered.
So, right now, my primary focus is healing. Not only this area of my life, but also some other old wounds and patterns related to perfectionism and co-dependency with a close family member. It's not a coincidence that this is coming up now too. Everything is always connected.
It’s time to release ALL of the baggage and heal the wounds, so that when I do become pregnant, I am wide open and ready to receive my child without the bondage (as cliche as that sounds) of this stuff holding me back.
In summary, I’m tired, lol. And, I’m ready. I started upon this journey of recovery on Valentine's Day, February 14, fully committing to it. (Yay self-love!)
I have worked my way up to eating a minimum of 2500-3000 calories per day (roughly tracking only to ensure I hit these numbers, which hasn’t been a problem!) to give my body plenty of nutrition to heal.
I have also committed to taking a month off from working out (first I said a day, then a week, then a month, so… maybe longer!). I am not going to begin exercising again until I feel free of my previous attachment to it for weight loss.
Finally, I’m eating foods I have previously not allowed myself to eat and am challenging food rules left and right, to break out of the prison of fearing any food at all. THIS IS SCARY... and quite enjoyable too.
It’s hard work even though I fully recognize these are first world problems for sure. But like I said, I know I am not alone. I have a feeling that more people than you’d think (even many influencers you watch on a regular basis) are dealing with many of the same fears.
From here, I may continue to share my journey. I don’t know yet how often or in how much detail, but if you would like to hear more or if you can relate, please drop me a line here to let me know. It makes my day to hear from you.
Please don’t send notes of sympathy or suggestions on what I should do.
I appreciate your love and support, and I don’t say that to be ungrateful, however I am clear on what I need to do from here. I also don’t feel sad, like a victim, or any other sort of needy emotion.
I feel strong, actually I feel immense courage right now (as silly as that may sound) because I am challenging my fears in ways that I never have before. There is no swaying from here for me.
The scariest part of all is that I know that I have gained weight and am puffy from the extra water (edema during healing), food in my system, and some fat.
I have no way of knowing for sure if it will come off soon or ever, and that has been the most challenging thing for me to accept. I have allowed my physical appearance and weight to become such a part of my identity.
That said, I'm done being a slave to this obsessive attachment and all of these rules. I will keep going until I have reached the healing that I know is on the other side of this discomfort.
No matter what people will think when they see me (my biggest fear) and whether they will say to themselves, “Wow, she’s gained weight.”
No matter if they say something to my face.
No matter if they think I am a failed women’s health coach, or a failed person.
No matter if they think I am no longer beautiful or fat or have cellulite.
Because, something that I realized the other night while swaying, dancing softly, and swiveling my hips to the soundtrack from Fifty Shades Freed… is that it feels like I am awakening a new level of love, possibly the truest form of unconditional love for my Self and my body that I have ever experienced. It feels like honor and respect.
A love that feels like… "I don’t care what anyone else says or thinks about me, because I know how I feel about me." And I feel good.
The freedom in feeling good in my skin, EVEN if I am heavier, makes me feel unbreakable. And from that core, connected place I feel wisdom bubbling up that knows that my body will find it’s balance and homeostasis at a set point weight that really does feel amazing to me. Almost as if part of my purpose is to show myself that my dreams are possible, no matter how impossible (or trivial) they may seem.
I can come back to the gym in time. I can build muscle or have physical goals, in time that nourish my Soul and allow me to be IN my body in new, even more connected ways.
I know that if I am ever to allow my body to find this balance, I have to let go of any attachment to any specific weight or outcome and instead completely trust my body and the steps I'm taking right now to fully recover for good.
Again, please do reach out if you find this interesting or can relate to it. I’d love to hear from you.
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