Three Essential Steps to My Recovery
Alli Spotts-De Lazzer, M.A., LMFT, LPCC, CEDS-S
When Gurze reached out about “Three Essential Steps to My Recovery,” I had recently completed a story that included the dozen steps it took for me to recover. I started to boil those down to the top three for this article when curiosity stopped me. What began the path towards a life with more freedom and contentment than the eating disorder offered?
This excerpt from MeaningFULL: 23 Life-Changing Stories of Conquering Dieting, Weight, & Body Image Issues
, reveals the evolution of my three essential steps that led to my recovery.
While seated at a dinner table for ten, people passed the last few bites of birthday cake around the table. With intense focus, I watched the plate move like a Ping-Pong ball at play. Some smiled and chatted as they tasted; others made irritating “mmmm” sounds. The pressure built amid the overly polite, drawn-out volley of discussion: “You have the last bite,” “No, you have the last bite,” “No, I simply couldn’t!”
I snapped. My hand flew out across the table to stop the passing of the plate mid-Pong. I wish it had only been my thoughts, but I heard my voice rising over the volume of the noisy restaurant. Slowly and with precise enunciation, I boomed, “F#!king eat it, or don’t eat it. But shut-up about it.”
Heads turned. Abrupt silence fell across the table. All movement froze. Unusually wide eyes stared back at me. Blank faces. Jaws slightly dropped.
I’d just ruined my best friend’s 30th birthday.
While they’d been sharing stories about themselves, exchanging witty comments, and cracking each other up, I’d been growing increasingly agitated. By the time we reached dessert, I’d already endured two hours of my head unrelentingly screeching at me about all the food rules I’d broken.
I’d been feeling frustrated and ashamed of how challenging that dinner had been from its start to this finale. I also felt sad and selfish that I couldn’t seem to pay attention to my friend like she deserved. I knew my window was closing for when I could get rid of what I’d eaten. My public happy mask slid off without my permission. I had lost control.
Since I usually smiled my way through discomfort, people rarely knew how much angst was going on in my head. That night, people saw it: the unease around food that had been visiting me, in varying intensities, since around 11 years old.
I’d already been on various diets before I hit my late tweens, when suddenly and without my consent or knowledge, my common dieting slipped into disorder, anorexia nervosa. Seemingly overnight, my favorite foods became inedible. Swallowing nearly anything other than my safe, steamed broccoli felt like a sandpaper-worm crawling down my throat. Obviously, this made eating a challenge.
Alarmed by my dramatic physical changes, like protruding vertebrae, my parents sought professional help. However, treatment in the 1980s was in its early stages. It was a terrible experience (super blaming on others) and caused me to mention little-to-nothing about food or weight in future therapy experiences.
After I gained enough pounds, I wasn’t considered “anorexic” anymore. People seemed to think I was fixed and fine because I no longer looked sick.
I then spent decades on various regimens. Mostly, I tried to eat a “healthy” and low/no-fat diet and worked out for hours in the gym. I also replaced real foods with engineered food-like products. (As I write this, I can still taste my cinnamon toast made with saccharin and fake butter spray. Nasty.) I did the newest popular diets and followed celebrity diet-tips. One fad program I purchased had these weird pills that creepily filled your stomach once inside you. I mastered counting calories in and exercised off. I tried aids like over-the-counter diet pills that curbed my appetite but messed me up—they made me chase my speeding thoughts but not catch them. I smoked cigarettes to avoid eating. And I purged (got food inside me, out).
For years, I nonchalantly called these health and weight management practices my “maintenance.” I accepted my demanding relationship with food and body as status quo. In public, people often complimented me on what they viewed as my “healthy choices” and “discipline.” In private, the few who knew of the periods of bingeing and purging said little to nothing about it. One best friend used to stand in the bathroom doorway, chatting with me as she watched me make myself throw up. So, no big deal, right? Besides, I wasn’t taking Fen-Phen, which I thought was way too severe and scary. I judgmentally elevated myself above anyone who did that. (Back then, everything diet-related brought out a snotty jackass part of me. I didn’t like or want to feel so petty inside, yet it happened often.)
After my initial, fairly short period of emaciation, I was never that skinny-skinny again. In fact, I gained a lot of pounds (a freaking lot—I couldn’t fit into “average” sizes). Then I lost most of that weight and continued to bounce around between my extremes. My “maintenance” practices spanned from mild to severe methods, frequent to less frequent. Mostly, though, I looked “normal” in our society, and my constant dieting practices were normalized every day by advertisements, articles, and social conversations. I now realize that I would have qualified as having both clinical (meeting the actual diagnosis) and subclinical (problematic but not matching any diagnostic label) eating disorders throughout these decades.
Though I didn’t believe myself to be in danger at any time, physical quirks happened that were likely a result of my “maintenance” practices. In addition to a regularly edgy mood and irregular sleep, I occasionally experienced a puffy face, dizziness, and feeling weirdly “off”inside my body. Usually, we don’t feel or notice our insides or heartbeat; I definitely noticed mine at times. But I disregarded it all—except the puffy face that I frantically tried to de-puff because it looked strange.
Without telling my doctor about my “maintenance” practices, she didn’t know to run the specific tests to check if I was safe inside. I’m randomly lucky that I didn’t develop lasting or fatal health problems. My “off” feeling and my noticeable heartbeat could have been signs of electrolyte abnormalities, weakened heart, dehydration, or other serious issues. Thankfully, the body is forgiving and can often heal when the behaviors are corrected or stopped.
No matter what was going on inside me, I still appeared to be fine. In fact, people referred to me as a “high achiever.” I consistently performed well in school, and from my first “real” job as a teen (a juicer in a juicery) to full careers, I excelled at work, too. However, my dieting, weight obsession, and body image issues ruled my days from my tweens into my thirties. Always present, their intensity and severity ebbed and flowed. Correspondingly, my contentment in life was limited and uneven.
I couldn’t fully witness or participate in most things, because there was usually this humming or banging distraction. During my courting years, I romanced the bread on the table instead of my dinner dates. Celebrations all involved food and were usually more like scared-ebrations for me, like my friend’s 30th birthday. Thankfully, she forgave me.
People tell me that I presented, for the most part, a free-spirited, full-of-life persona to the outside world during those years. But I was far from feeling free or full-of-life.
You may be wondering: when food and body issues are that embedded—a way of existing—why and how does someone heal, change, or recover from them?
As a mental health professional and eating disorders specialist, I can wholeheartedly share that what each person wants to conquer and their journeys to do so are unique. For me, the birthday cake incident humiliated me, but it wasn’t enough to make me challenge or change my “maintenance” practices. Instead, a bunch of other stuff lined up to help me realize that I wanted a different, more contented life—one with less focus on food, body, and weight.
[First Essential Step]
Here’s one of the most influential factors: anger. Though the feeling often takes a bad rap as a negative emotion, I think anger is awesomely informative. It’s a waving red flag that broadcasts, “Hey, something is wrong! Since you’re not acknowledging it, I’m going to get your attention!”
For years I had fastidiously kept photo albums. I finally noticed that when I looked back at decades of what others regarded as “cool” or “exciting” memories, I rarely recalled the event, my connections to the occasion, or the people in the photos. Who did I go to that formal with? Why did I meet that celebrity? How did I get talked into being on that parade float? Instead, I remembered my weight or dress size in each shot. This made me mad. . .
[Second Essential Step]
Then one more significant thing happened to jolt me. Long after that cake episode, that same dear friend confronted me in a loving way. It went something like this: “I know you may get mad at me, and this could ruin our friendship, but I don’t think what you’re doing—your ‘maintenance’—is normal. I don’t think it’s okay or healthy. I feel concerned about you.” Of course I got outraged inside. But something about her bravery touched me. I must have been sufficiently open and the timing must have been right enough to hear it. Plus, I think the guilt I had from messing up her birthday helped me listen to her.
[Third Essential Step]
For years, I’d been working with a really skilled generalist therapist, but I’d mostly kept the eating and weight stuff out of the room. I hadn’t wanted her to know much about it or to meddle with it. After all, I’d accepted my “maintenance” practices as a forever part of my life.
Angry and fed up (no pun intended), at last, I said it: “I need accountability and help. Here’s what I’ve been doing…” I wasn’t scared when I told her. I felt calm, desperate, determined, and also relieved to stop hiding my secrets…
Certainly, there were many attitudinal and behavioral changes that followed. My three essential steps, however, would have been imperceptible to any observer. I realized anger informed me, I allowed myself to take in someone compassionately and bravely calling me out, and I decided to stop hiding my secrets.
Examining my own experience reminded me of something important in my current work as an eating disorders specialist. “Realizing,” “allowing,” “deciding,” and “thinking” are actions that can’t be seen or measured—except maybe by the person experiencing them. I catch myself often gauging a patient’s/client’s recovery by observable actions and goals. I imagine many of us do this. Yet, as I reflect on the past, those seemingly small insights made healing changes (finally) possible for me.
Thank you to Gurze-Salucore for asking me to share my three essential steps to recovery. Today, I’m grateful for the recoveries that so many have experienced (and many more will). I’m also humbled that this piece reminded me of something so very important: our clients/patients may be making life-changing internal shifts right now, but we, providers, can’t see their insights in action—YET.
About the author:
Alli Spotts-De Lazzer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist #49842, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor #844, a Certified Eating Disorders Specialist or “CEDS,” and a CEDS Supervisor. Alli has presented educational workshops at conferences, graduate schools, and hospitals; published articles in academic journals, trade magazines, and online information hubs; and appeared as an eating disorders expert on local news. Her volunteerism includes co-chairing committees for the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals and the Academy for Eating Disorders as well as creating #ShakeIt for Self-Acceptance!®, a series of public events sparking conversations about self-acceptance through fun, motivating messages, and dance. She was named the 2017 iaedp Member of the Year, and Mayor Garcetti declared July 13, 2017 “#ShakeIt for Self-Acceptance! Day” in the City of Los Angeles. Alli feels fortunate (and excited) to share MeaningFULL: 23 Life-Changing Stories of Conquering Dieting, Weight, & Body Image Issues with readers.