How are you?
No, I mean it, really. How are you?
Chances are that you might be a bit wobbly on your feet these days. I know I have been. If you ever have struggled with mental health issues like me, these last couple of months might have felt a bit unsettling, to say the least.
According to the World Health Organization, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental health or substance use disorders at one point in their lives. With almost 7.78 billion people currently on the planet, that is 1.94 billion people. It could be your neighbor, your coworker, a sibling, or a friend. That could be you. And that is me.
A couple of days ago, I stepped out of the shower and glanced at myself. Glance is probably not the right word—it was more of a scathing scan of disgust. It was a split-second, unnoticeable to most. Not to my girlfriend of five years.
“Look at it with love!” she called out, a concerned frown on her forehead, “You know that! Look at your body with love.”
Ashamed, like a busted pup going through the compost bin (yes, Hero, I am talking about you), I started studying the pattern on the bathroom tiles. Like most people, I don’t like being called out, especially since I have been so proud of my recovery. However, since lockdown has begun, my body image has been increasingly under attack again—let it be the extra time, the extra snacks, the extra slowness, the extra anxiety, the extra “I can’t pack a million things into my day and run around like a crazy person trying to get them all done.”
In the last few weeks, my arms, my belly, my thighs—in short, all my highly monitored areas—have softened and expanded a tad. Probably not very noticeable to others, but very apparent to me. For some people, a little weight gain during the COVID-19 pandemic might be an annoyance. For me, it still has the potential to wobble me in the deepest of my core.
“I know,” I mumbled, shyly raising my gaze back into the mirror. And I do know.
“You look better than you ever have,” she smiled at my reflection, “I mean, it’s not like you looked bad before.” (She knows how to include the necessary fine print.) “You look rested. You look healthy. You look alive. You look beautiful!”
And there it was. A trace of a smile back at her. And then, at myself. At my arms, clumsy but determined, down my belly, then to my thighs. Because I do want to be healthy. I refuse to give this disease another minute of my life, and I am determined to do what it takes.
I started my journey with anorexia at 13, and today, at 37, I have been considered “in recovery” for about a decade. But what does it mean to live in recovery as an anorexic? When our weight is in an acceptable range? When we meet the required BMI (body mass index) for our height and age? When our therapist says so? When we eat regularly? Eat what?
If I had problems with alcohol or drugs, it would be more obvious: I’m clean when I don’t use. I relapse when I do. But even here, what about the urge to use? The thoughts? The considerations? Do they count?
To me, they do. Because that’s where it starts, that’s where the danger of a potential relapse begins. And as addicts or people with mental health issues, we have to be vigilant toward these thoughts and urges—especially during this trigger-happy time of lockdowns, social distancing, financial fears, economic struggles, isolation, and physical restrictions. Some of our usual tools might be limited, which means we have to be extra committed to our recovery.
The new COVID-19 reality has certainly flared up some of my old and ugly patterns. But instead of giving in, I have decided to become creative, because under no circumstance will I let that toxic disease take over again. I not only promised my mom on her deathbed—I also pledged to my soul that I won’t waste any more of my life obsessing over calories, weight, and body image.
That being said, when I was in the thick of the anorexia in my early teens, I was in professional care, hospitalized in a specialized program, and, for years thereafter, received psychotherapy until I was out of the life-threatening weight level. So, if you are in a dangerous situation at the moment, please, I urge you to get in touch with a mental health professional.
The tools I’m about to share are my personal practices and everyone has to find what works for them. Regardless, I do feel motivated to share them in case they inspire anyone who is dancing with their own demons during this challenging time.
It’s always good to compare notes:
As I mentioned before, the triggers usually start in my head, with an ugly thought, an old pattern, or a fearful memory. Daily meditation has changed my life as it helps me to calm my thoughts and lovingly guide them into a more positive direction.
“Shake it up” is a concept that has served me well when I got stuck in dark thought spirals. Now, some of you know that with a history of body image problems, exercising can be a problem that can easily turn into an unhealthy obsession. Before every workout, I set an intention to double-check that I do not exercise to burn calories or to lose weight, but to feel energy, to wake up my organs, to stimulate flow in my lymph system as well as my energetic body, and to activate a healthy brain chemistry—movement stimulates the production of serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine and is one of the most powerful tools to strengthen the mental health “immune system.”
In order to avoid any unhealthy obsessions while I try to move regularly, I tune in with my body regarding the type of movement that feels appropriate for my energy levels and mood on each particular day: some days I feel like dancing, or lying on the floor stretching. Other days I turn on a guided yoga class or workout session. Some days I might feel like going for a run or walk in nature (though this option might be limited to some of us now). I encourage you to create a list of different movement forms that bring you joy.
I have made it a regular practice to listen to and aspire to people who embody the traits I want to see in myself. Interestingly enough (to the anorexic voice in me), I don’t look up to these individuals for their toned arms or flat stomachs. No, I adore these people for their brilliance, their compassion, and their inspiring messages.
Even after all these years, I still occasionally work with a therapist. Speaking to her on a regular basis helps me remember who I want to be in this world and gives me a space where I can be 100 percent honest and transparent without the fear of worrying or upsetting a loved one.
Just because you still work with a therapist doesn’t mean “there’s something wrong with you.” It rather means that you care enough about yourself to continue to nurture yourself.
Keep good company
You may have heard this before: You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Body image problems are hugely influenced by the mindsets of the people we surround ourselves with. Some of my favorite people in the world make it their highest priorities in life to do good, to celebrate life, to create art, to honor their bodies, to cherish food, and to have fun.
Think of someone who has a healthy relationship with food, who loves themselves and does cool stuff in the world—and call them up.
Sensuality and sexuality are often tricky topics for individuals who don’t like their own bodies. For many years, I struggled with my sexuality, convinced there was something wrong with me. Getting to know my own body and preferences through a self-care and self-pleasure practice revolutionized my understanding of what my body was communicating.
Getting to know my body and coming out was a big part of my healing. I didn’t know at the time that eating disorders are far more likely to occur amongst members of the LGBTQ+ community. Regardless of your sexual orientation, learning to love your body and experience pleasure in it is an important factor in the healing process. And it’s something that we can easily do during lockdown.
Art and writing
There are many ways to experience the flow of life-force. As I was inquiring into the source of my eating disorder, I realized that a big part of its appeal was the ability to control something. Unfortunately, as a result, my life was controlled by it and my connection to life-force or prana was cut off. Thankfully, food is only one form of life-force, and since my relationship with food was challenged, I used the channel of creativity to learn to trust the unpredictable stream of prana to run through me again, slowly rediscovering its beauty.
My personal favorite art forms are to write, draw, and dance. For you, it might be singing or playing an instrument or painting, or playing with your creativity in a childlike way, which can be incredibly healing and uplifting. Unfortunately, when it comes to creating art, many of us were scared at a young age. But what would happen if you ignored the outcome of what your art looked, sounded, or read like, and for a moment, just created for the sake of creating? I dare you.
If you need some inspiration, I highly recommend the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Be gentle with yourself!
There may be moments during this time when you just feel like you can’t keep going, like it’s all too much. If that moment arises, please remind yourself that these are unusual times and that we are all, in one way or another, going through big changes and feel challenged.
Remember, as unlikely as it feels at times, this is temporary. We got this. We are in this together.
Let’s inspire each other to keep going. Only together do we have a chance to work against the fact that the number of people suffering from eating disorders has surpassed 70 million globally and is on the rise across the world. The reasons behind this growing number are the very things that are currently being challenged more than ever: media influence, urbanization, industrialization, and isolation—all factors that we, together and as individuals, have the power to influence through our daily choices of how we live our lives.
This planet needs us to be united, healthy, nourished, and caring—now more than ever!