Thirteen years ago, when I was 22-years-old, if I wasn't sleeping, I was with Ed. I am not talking about a guy, but my eating disorder. In therapy, I was taught to treat anorexia/bulimia like a relationship -- naming it Ed, short for "eating disorder" -- rather than an illness or a condition.
Think of the most time consuming relationship you've ever had. Imagine it was with the most demanding person you'd ever met. That was life with Ed.
A typical day went like this: Ed talked, and I listened. Since I only slept for about three hours a night, I heard his self-destructive voice saying, "You aren't good enough," for at least 21 hours a day. When you hear something that often, you start to believe it, and pretty soon you start to live it.
My eating disorder was as much about limiting my life as limiting my intake. I starved off fun by overworking and people by isolating. Obviously, I limited sleep as well. As for many women with anorexia, a key issue underlying my eating disorder was perfectionism, which caused me to falsely believe, among other things, that sleeping is a waste of time and that I should always be working. If I wasn't at my real job, which varied from being a waitress to a security guard (not the best occupations for someone with anorexia), I manically found something to do to keep myself busy. I reorganized my apartment, mailed birthday cards to every person I'd ever met, and strategized new ways to decline dinner invitations. I did anything to stay out of the present moment -- a scary place to be back then. I worked like this about 20 hours a day, which meant my work week was 140 hours long.
During those few hours at night when I actually rested, I noticed that my heart would beat erratically. I knew that people with eating disorders could die from cardiac arrest, and I distinctly remember thinking that I might not wake up in the morning. The most terrifying thing for me was that I felt like I couldn't do anything about it. I was paralyzed, as if Ed was literally holding me down. It was one of those nights that finally pushed me to seek help.
Recovery, which took time and professional support, actually forced me to be a healthier person with food and weight than I ever would have been without it. I noticed that the less I obsessed about what I ate and how I looked, the more energy I had for pursuing dreams I'd put aside, discovering new passions, and even falling in love (not with a guy named Ed, I hoped). The part of my life that Ed consumed was slowly becoming mine again.
One of my dreams had been to become a professional writer and singer. I actually turned down an acceptance to medical school in Dallas, Texas and moved across the country to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue music. The problem was that Ed drove the U-Haul. I didn't have the strength to sing or play guitar in Music City, and I couldn't think straight enough to write a song. I did go to weekly vocal lessons but couldn't truly connect with the music. When I recovered from my eating disorder, I got my life back and then some. Today, I perform songs as part of my career, and I get to write books and speak professionally, too.
As I travel across the country sharing my recovery journey, I no longer spend my time in airports worrying about the food offered on every corner. When my body was malnourished, I literally could not walk past all of that food without bingeing on it. Not to mention, traveling is stressful, and bingeing relieved that stress. In an unfamiliar city in a hurried airport, no one ever noticed when I rushed from one fast food restaurant to the next eating uncontrollably. If you spot me in the airport today (I am traveling to Utah for a gig... as well as some snowboarding), you won't see me carrying lots of binge food. What you will see is someone who looks grateful that she is toting around a guitar -- an instrument I never believed I could play. Letting go of Ed meant I had the time and energy -- and belief in myself -- to pick up my guitar and actually make music.
In my work, I am surprised over and over again by how many people hear Ed's voice. Not everyone has a clinical eating disorder, but no one is immune to society's message that says, "to eat less and to be thinner is to be better." In my latest book, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me, I named this voice -- Societal Ed.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, a staggering 80 percent of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance. Countless moments are wasted worrying about how small our waists are and making sure that our coffee drink begins with just the right prefix. That will be a nonfat, sugar-free, no whip latte, please.
What would happen if we stopped being so preoccupied with whether or not our thighs touched at the top and obsessed about life instead? We could spend more quality time with our families. Or we could change careers, go speed dating, and even take trapeze lessons. We could experience more joy.
Societal Ed says if we reach the lowest number on the scale and wear the smallest size jeans (if we become less), we will finally be happy. But that's a lie. At my lowest weight, I was unhappier than ever.
By the time I reached my healthy, ideal weight in recovery, I had not only added physical mass to my body but, more importantly, I was well on my way to gaining what I like to call "pounds" of joy and peace in my life. It's important to note that our ideal weight has nothing to do with the bathroom scale, but rather it is the size we are when we can think best, have the most energy, and feel whole. When you put on weight like that, you get things like being able to write a song, ride a motorcycle, and enjoy every savory moment of your favorite food.
The body truly is a vehicle for life rather than something to be controlled. I've heard it said that our bodies are our Earth suits -- simply what we wear on this planet in order to get around. We must nourish this gift in a balanced way.
As part of my continued effort to do that, I recently went zip-lining in Alaska. (I actually do things like zip-lining in Alaska now -- most days Ed wouldn't even let me leave my apartment). When I was flying through that rain forest strapped to a single cable, I wasn't concerned -- for even a single second -- about how my backside looked in the harness. Instead I was a little scared and focused on not falling. But even more than that, I was exhilarated, suspended in the moment. And that's time I wouldn't trade for anything.
Watch Jenni Schaefer on Dr. Phil here.
An Ambassador with the National Eating Disorders Association, Jenni Schaefer is a singer/songwriter, speaker, and author of "Life Without Ed" and "Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: Recover from Your Eating Disorder and Fall in Love with Life" (McGraw-Hill). She is a consultant with Center for Change. For more information, visit www.jennischaefer.com or www.facebook.com/lifewithouted.
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