By Rebecca Berg, MS, RDN (she/her/hers), Guest Contributor
After I graduated college, I moved to New York City and joined a gym for “health.” In my early to mid-twenties, I felt I was in the best physical shape of my life. The leanest I ever was, the lowest weight, the strongest, the most active. I ran and ran and ran. I cut calories, I tracked calories, I tracked my heart rate and I got smaller. Praise, praise, praise, praise. I ate the most fruits and vegetables and the most “healthy fats.” I cut meat, then dairy, then carbs, then oats, then beans…all in the name of “health.” And all this was happening while I was working and studying to become a Registered Dietitian.
It never got “bad enough” to affect my physical health in a deleterious way. Yes, I had restrictive behaviors. I had weird behaviors. I thought these were normal. I actually thought this is “just what it takes” to be a healthy person. To control your weight and to control your food.
The reality is, that if 25-year-old me walked into my office to see 32-year-old me, I would have told her, “You have an eating disorder.”
In late 2020, at age 30, I began unpacking all of this with a new therapist and she asked me to reflect on a key question: What does it mean to me if I acknowledge I had an eating disorder?
The following is a journal entry from that time:
“It means acknowledging the fact that my diet started as a way to get healthy, but became restrictive, obsessive, and unhealthy. It feels like I have to acknowledge I was weak. And too stupid to see what was actually happening to me. So much of me wants to scream “oh no, not me.” I was too smart for that, too strong for that. My therapist is not surprised that I would have been so disconnected that I couldn’t see it. Acknowledging it feels embarrassing. It means acknowledging the fact that I was not as self-aware as I thought. And confronting the truth that I got into this field and into this role as I was deep in my disorder. It means thinking about my story in a new way. It’s not as neat or tidy and I don’t know how to tell it. I don’t want to be perceived as weak or sick. My clients are strong, curious, hopeful, resilient fighters. So why can’t I apply that to myself? I would never call my clients weak EVER. I know their eating disorders are not their fault.”
Next, we began identifying the “stories” I was telling myself and then reframing them to help me see a new, more balanced and healthy perspective. Here’s a few of those stories and how I reframed them.
If I acknowledge I had an eating disorder, people will question my judgment.
I don’t know that for sure. What people? My professional judgment? I am not the only recovered clinician in the field. I am not sick now. I have the best relationship with food that I’ve ever had. I feel so liberated and free. Actually, I can tell the difference between healthy and disordered more now than ever before in my life.
If I acknowledge I had an eating disorder, people will question my worthiness and goodness.
My worth as a human is not derived from how physically and mentally healthy I am. I cannot control how others perceive me. I can only control my behaviors and choices from this day forward. I am worthy because I am human. I am kind. I am loving. I am imperfect. All the humans I know living with anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, OCD, trauma, are not less worthy or good. They are strong and beautiful. I am too. My eating disorder was not my fault.
I was too stupid to see I was engaging in eating disorder behaviors and had an eating disorder.
This is not a story about being stupid. One of the hallmarks of an ED is a lack of awareness of the illness and how sick one is. This is not about smart versus stupid. This is part of the illness. You did not see it because you were young, disconnected, you had your history, your trauma. It was not your fault.
I share these reflections for all the helpers and the healers, the doctors, therapists, dietitians, and coaches. Just because we are professionals treating eating disorders does not mean we are immune to them ourselves. We don’t have to have it all figured out. We are humans first, clinicians second. It’s ok if you are still unpacking and processing your story. It’s ok if it’s still messy and you’re not sure of the words to use. And if you’re still struggling, that’s ok too. We’re all figuring this out, day by day.