Orthorexia and OCD

I’ve recently signed up to work with a health and wellness coach. The program was sold as a way to approach life-long changes to diet and exercise. Figure out what works for you for the long-term. Their approach is intended to help you figure out the things you love doing, a way of eating that works with how you WANT to eat, and personalizing what does and doesn’t work for you. For example, there is an almost limitless list of ways to workout. Not just running and lifting weights. Their program has proven results of helping people find their way to gymnastics, hiking, biking, and very specific strength training programs. All through being flexible and adapting.

Their success stories for food are less thorough. Most people seem to just figure out that they don’t NEED the food they were eating. Maybe they were self-soothing with food, or using it as a distraction or mindlessly eating or eating through depression. And somehow working with a coach and adding in movement helped them eat differently to support their weight loss/body changes.

The problem is, it’s not that simple with eating issues. In theory, to lose weight, you just eat less, right? The problem with obsessive thoughts is there is never enough LESS. Or never a precise enough, perfect enough way. For example, I often think, “OK, I’ve been eating out ten times a week. Next week, I’ll only eat out eight times.” Only problem is every single one of those eight times is suddenly heavy with shame, guilt and hopelessness. The week before when I was eating mindlessly, probably accurately, eating after shutting down EVERY emotion involved (it’s all or nothing, so NOTHING is easy, ALL is impossible, and in between is maddening) was easy. So why is eliminating one or two meals so hard? And why do I get comfort from saying, “Fuck it, I don’t care?” For some reason, the letting go of caring is super freeing. I have to assume it’s similar to going a week without drinking when you’re trying to stop, then saying, “Fuck it” and having a drink.

Only I don’t want to be insensitive comparing it to that. But I have a friend who’s sober who said that’s how it would often go for him. So maybe I can fairly say me saying, “Fuck it” is similar to how he’d feel when he’d say the same about drinking. And he had total freedom those first few days and drinks. For him, it would spiral completely out of control after awhile. Sometimes he’d do OK for a few days or weeks, but eventually he was hiding his drinking, or drinking the entire weekend, from the time he got up until the time he’d finally pass out.

For me, I’d never go into full on binge mode. I’d just feel like I was free-falling from that first bite of that first “Fuck it!” meal until I’d have to buy the next pants size, see a picture of myself, or somehow would be reminded of MY shame.

One really annoying thing pop culture does, that I believe I’ve written at least once about here, is make binge eating “cute” for skinny women. It’s a personality schtick. It’s funny and adorable. But ONLY for thin women. It’s “gross” for heavy women. And I would sometimes be the thin, carefree woman when I started. Maybe. Sometimes I wasn’t, but I still got the same emotional freedom feeling when I’d go from restrictive to not restricting. So  not only was there freedom in not tracking, but there’s also freedom in eating whatever I want, and freedom in not being the stick in the mud who has a diet to follow, and having the extra free time and carefree spirit to eat and drink anything I like. It’s intoxicating. Plus, being free of the OBSESSIVE thoughts involved in a restricting diet is maybe one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

So I can see why I often resort back. It’s my “happy place.” Are the results happy-making? No. But often the “drug” we seek doesn’t make us happy. It just makes us happy for a moment. So when I walk into a restaurant and don’t have to look for calories on the menu or have had to look at their nutrition guide beforehand, or even said no to a dinner invite because I CAN’T do those things. Or maybe I go, have done all of these rituals to make me feel in control, and often times, sadly, superior to my dinner guests, I’m still faced with challenges. Maybe it’s the chips and salsa or bread that comes free with every meal. Or the friends having a margarita. Or eyeballing something smothered in cheese.

It’s often far-easier to avoid those social situations. Then it’s easier to avoid ALL social situations. Then it’s easier to not eat in front of anyone, ever. Then it’s easier to stop talking about it with anyone. Then it’s easier to not answer phone calls, texts, emails or other ways people reach out to you. Because it’s safer and easier to be at home, alone, doing what I NEED to do to make sure I stay healthy.

Just this past week I was reading about orthorexia with a goal of finding an at home, self-guided treatment program. I’m far enough away from orthorexia now, I can identify those obsessive thoughts or actions. Maybe at first I validate them. But eventually I see them happening, and make myself step back. I can feel my tendencies keeping me away from family and friends. Maybe I want to skip a family gathering because I can’t eat their food. Or I don’t go out for drinks with friends because I know I’ll feel pressured to drink and the truth is, I feel pretty shitty after drinking these days. The drinking itself makes me crazy hungry, and the next day, even if I don’t get DRUNK, I feel lethargic, my anxiety ticks up and I often feel symptoms of depression. I don’t even enjoy drinking anymore, but also struggle to talk to friends about not wanting to drink because of this. Friends who do drink feel defensive, and it’s easier to just have two or three drinks. Unfortunately, that can trigger me being more controlling and obsessive the next day.

Anyway, all I want is to take slow, deliberate steps toward a healthier mindset. Once I saw orthorexia and OCD are tied together, I had to be honest with myself about some of my other obsessive tendencies. People tend to think you’re only OCD if you turn a light switch on and off or open and shut a door a bunch of times. But the truth is, I do a lot of more subtle things. I do a lot of “checking.” And have strange anxiety triggers around forgetting things. Even things that aren’t part of my life – I might have a “OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE?!?!” moment from forgetting children I don’t have. Yes, I have no children. Never taken care of children with a boyfriend or anything. But I constantly think I’ve forgotten them. I also do the same thing with work and school stuff. I’ll have these really intense anxiety moments where I have to “check” or do stupid rituals to reassure myself I’m not destroying my life. I also obsessively check my garage door. And my stove. And my curling iron. I also have some obessive routines around things like yard work. Or even sex (I have an irrational fear of STDs, so getting checked annually is never reassuring enough even if I go three years without a partner, I still think the STD test was administered wrong, but I’m aware enough to not bring that up with the doctor).

So, what’s this mean? Well, first, most of my checking and routines have come along or gotten worse since my mid to late twenties. Which I believe is when a mental illness often presents itself. And I’m definitely not in a debilitating state. I’m aware when I’m being a little crazy with “checking” and have even implemented some mindfulness routines to help me be more realistic about it, and also a lot more present. Being present sometimes helps you remind yourself you’ve already done that, so don’t do it again.

I also have obsessive thoughts with perfectionism that I’ve been working on for the past five or so years. I didn’t realize how many of those thoughts could be rooted in OCD, and these thoughts have been more pervasive my entire life. I do many mindful things to help me overcome. First, realizing my perfectionism was related more to others than to me. For example, I wanted to be perfect so someone else wouldn’t judge me, or dislike me, or think I wasn’t trying hard enough. I’m very lucky to have a boss who can help me (I’m aware enough to ask for help!) when I’m too far in the weeds and lost sight of the purpose. Getting unhooked from perfectionism in school and work has been life changing. I still get anchored sometimes, but realize no one expects me to be perfect and won’t abandon me, fire me, fail me, mock me, or even judge me if I’m not perfect all the time. In fact, I think people like imperfect me more than attempted perfect me.

For some reason I’d never tied either of these things to my eating, or approach to eating. So my next step is going to be to attach some mindfulness to food. I’m not sure what it will look like. Probably talking through obsessive or perfectionist thoughts as I notice them. Often I have to get too far in and feel panicked or anxiety before I realize what I’ve been doing. Maybe unwinding some of that can cut it off sooner. Or any sort of ritual I’m doing. I’ve already been working on NOT turning down social events because I can’t control or count the food. I’ve also given up ALL fad or restrictive dieting. Well, short of counting calories and having a goal, though I’m not sure if that’s healthy or not – my “goal” is fairly high – 2,000 calories, so I’m not super-restrictive, and try to NEVER starve myself. If I’m hungry and need to go over 2,000, I do. But I try to make “strategic” choices so I can come in under 2,000 most days. I’m not sure whether this approach is healthy, or if it’s still feeding into my orthorexia. As I often start doing sort of a loose approach, estimating calories, rounding up or down, etc. Then I start measuring more closely, and keeping track more specifically. Then I’ll often start trying to PLAN meals, rather than following my hunger cues. For example, if I really want a sandwich for dinner but I’ve planned to have soup and salad. as I get deeper in, I’ll deny myself the sandwich. Often siting bread in my head as a food to avoid, or feeling ashamed I can’t stick to a plan, or thinking I could shave 50 or 100 calories off the meal, and I’d lose weight faster, or that I’d be getting in more vegetables and therefore be healthier. So it can definitely be from a good place and very quickly shift to not as good.

I also really, really, really want to toy with NOT counting, but also not being flying off the side of a cliff free-falling with food. For example, when I stop counting, I often go on a bender. Eat what I want, especially choices I’ve been limiting. Fried foods, creamy pastas, cheesy anything. I want to get to a place where even if I’m not recording it, I choose a salad because it tastes good. Or choose a vegetable as a side to my steak, rather than fries. Not because  I NEED to to stay in plan, but because I enjoy those foods and don’t need to make the choice to eat the thing I have been telling myself not to. And even after months or years of this behavior, still choosing the fries because, well, I like fries, but also, I should since I’m not tracking and no one will have proof of it. It’s like I’m secret-eating, even if it’s out in the open.

Some things I’ve already been working on:

  1. Being more present and mindful to limit some of my “checking.” I’ll let myself check once, and make myself be truly present in that moment, especially if I’ll be away for a long time. If I’m leaving for fifteen or thirty minutes, I’ll even make myself NOT check because I won’t be gone long and that’s helped with being present for the other checking.
  2. All of the perfectionist stuff. I’ve worked on self-esteem, and truly seeing what happens if something isn’t perfect. Usually nothing. If something goes wrong, I live in that moment. I ask  myself if I was truly careless (usually I wasn’t), and if the outcome resulted in something really dire (often it didn’t). I still see the benefit of caring about the details and wanting to do my best, but I’ve made such progress in this area.
  3. Realizing I don’t want to be black and white with food anymore. I want to be gray. I want to want to eat the foods I enjoy when I’m watching what I eat, when I don’t HAVE to make those choices. Likewise, even if I am watching what I eat, I want to occasionally have pizza, tacos, cheese dip, ice cream, fries, etc. I’m trying to get used to the gray area. Part of being a perfectionist and a little obsessive is thinking there’s only one right way. But a mentor at work encouraged me to figure out how to live in the gray. And now I want to do this with food. Realizing black and white isn’t working, healthy or even productive is a good first step. Now I want to force myself to be gray as much as I can!
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