From Eating Disorders To Recovery & Intuitive Eating

GT: I interviewed a friend, Katie, about her journey from an active eating disorder to intuitive eating. I admire her bravery and unrelenting courage when it comes to her battles with food and body image. She’s a wonderful role model for all who struggle with these same things. 

Tell readers a bit about yourself.

I'm Katie Zeitz. I have a BFA in creative writing from Goddard College in Plainfield, VT where I studied poetry, creative nonfiction, and writing as a way of healing. The manuscript I produced during my undergraduate studies was composed of poems, songs, and creative nonfiction essays about my eating disorder and trauma history, and how I found my way to recovery. 

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I currently work as a dog walker and teach ukulele lessons, but it is my goal to become an expressive arts therapist and help people learn how to love themselves. I’m especially passionate about Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating, and Fat Acceptance. I hope to combine my recovery experience and artistic interests to help people use creative practices to understand and heal their relationships with food and their bodies. I currently attend to my passions through my blog, and posting my music on YouTube and Soundcloud. I also post about eating disorder recovery, body positivity, and music, along with tons and tons of dog pictures on my Instagram: @thisismyhumansuit.

What was it like to be a little girl in your body?

I have this memory, that I think is almost a cliche now, of being in ballet class when I was 5 and becoming very aware of my body in relation to the other bodies in the room. I think it was a combination of being told to notice what my body was doing more so than I had before and the giant mirror wall reflecting my insecurities back at me. 

I remember thinking I was the biggest one. It was around this time that I noticed that the thinnest and blondest girls got the most attention both in and out of ballet class. Throughout my childhood, I was very aware of who was getting attention and was drawn to those people out of a desire to receive the same attention. I would try to mimic their appearance and behavior because I was very anxious and self-conscious and they seemed to know how to function in this world more than I did.  

Two of my earliest close friends ended up being pretty manipulative and I think even abusive.  They would tell me what to do and how to dress and sometimes made negative comments criticisms about my body.  Sometimes a few of these friends would comment on my body together. Kind of like the Mean Girls scene where everyone is pointing out their own flaws, except for it was like a game where we would take turns having someone be in the spotlight to have everyone else point out that person's flaws. The winner had the fewest findable flaws. Looking back on it I don't know how we were all so willing to allow that to happen to ourselves and each other.

I really relate my eating disorder voice to one of those friends and I think my emotional unease and eagerness to fit in, along with this harsh awareness of the ways my body might not be accepted started setting the stage for my eating disorder to develop. Negative self-talk started, I had very few coping skills, and I started relating feeling accepted to punishing myself or being punished by others.

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I also started picking up on a lot of good vs. bad food talk and moralizing around eating and exercise behaviors from members of my family and in the media. My mom dieted throughout my childhood and had pretty distorted body image. I didn’t recognize any of her behaviors as unhealthy until I had done a lot of my own work in recovery.  I was mad at her for a long time for sort of teaching me this way of seeing yourself and getting me involved in diets, but she was just as much a victim of diet culture as I was and many of her insecurities had been passed down from her mom and grandma too. One of my motivations for recovery is breaking this cycle. As I got further in recovery, it was very strange to notice how intertwined my body dysmorphia was with hers; to the point where it took me being able to see my own body more clearly to also see hers in perspective.  

My dad’s side of the family was also pretty disordered around food and my only cousin on that side ended up having an eating disorder also.  My grandfather was extremely indulgent with food. My grandmother was restrictive and pretty fixated on her weight.  She told us that she and her sister had been sent to a summer camp to gain weight in their teens and it sounded like kind of a primitive version of eating disorder treatment.  

I was also warned by both sides of my family that because we were very short (I’m 5’0”) weight would show up on us quickly so we had to be careful about what we were eating.  I now see that statement as being pretty disordered; 1, because making weight gain something to be feared, especially for a child, is inherently disordered, and 2, because weight and appearance are not nearly as related as this statement and diet culture would have people believe. 

I was really under the impression that I was an overweight child. I went through puberty pretty early and some of my not yet developed friends reacted with jealousy. I remember after I showed my friend my first bra she told me that I didn’t really have boobs and I was just fat. A couple years ago I found a bunch of pictures of me ages two through sixteen or so and I was surprised by how much smaller I was than I remember feeling and seeing myself as. It was then that I realized how many people had projected their fear of weight gain, on my body or theirs. 

What else did your relationship with your mom and body image look like?

I look so much like my mom that when we went out to eat people would come up to comment on our resemblance.  When I was very young I recall looking at her and being enamored by her beauty and I felt pride when people called us “twins.” As I got older she started expressing more disdain for her body and eventually convinced me that she wasn’t as beautiful as I had thought. This meant that I wasn’t beautiful either.  

In stores and at the gym my mom would subtly point out women nearby and ask who was bigger.  She told me later that she asked because she really didn’t know, which leads me to believe that she also had body dysmorphia at the time. I picked this behavior of comparison up. It became a big part of my eating disorder and one of the hardest habits to break because it became so instinctual. In recovery, I had to learn to recognize and redirect this. If I am comparing with someone’s body I remind myself that bodies are made to be different and try to refocus on my values. I learned this in treatment. My core values are connection, compassion, creativity, and authenticity. When I’m able to refocus on my values the judgement of bodies, including mine, just feels kind of pointless. 

My mom was, for the most part, my sole caregiver.  She was struggling financially and couldn’t always find someone to babysit so sometimes I attended Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers meetings with her and was to some extent on those diets with her.  The name Jenny Craig still tastes like chemically, but somehow still bland, frozen food to me. Dieting was always referred to as “eating healthfully” and my mom expressed that she wanted me to grow up learning “healthy” behaviors so I wouldn’t have to struggle with my weight like she had. This extended to recommending diet and exercise when I expressed dissatisfaction with my body at a young age.

I remember refusing to wear a bathing suit without shorts the summer that I was 8 and complaining to my mom.  She then showed me several “thigh slimming” exercises. I was told that people had different body sizes and shapes, but it was also very clear that only some bodies were “acceptable” and I was given the impression that controlling and altering my body was not only an option but a requirement of successful women.

When I was around 10 my mom showed me a Dr. Phil episode about teens with eating disorders. She’d frequently show me Oprah or Dr. Phil as a way of broaching a topic and educating me on issues, I was usually annoyed but somewhat interested.  We’d watch, talk, and I’d forget about it. But during this eating disorder episode, I thought “Oh that’s what I want, why wouldn’t everyone want to be anorexic?” I couldn’t see the negative aspects.  I just thought they looked ethereal and I wanted that.

After this, I started dabbling in more body image related restricting, binging, and purging. When I went to middle school I started restricting more.  Most of the adults in my life didn’t seem to notice and people congratulated me anytime I lost weight.  The guidance counselor did start asking about my food intake and would sometimes instruct me to add things to my meal so I think they were somewhat aware.

Ultimately the struggles I witnessed in my mom and that were passed down to me became fuel for my recovery.  I thought of all the agony I had experienced fixating on how my body was “supposed” to be, how much money and time my mom had put into it.  I replayed stories about my mom’s mom never wanting her butt to be bigger than a particular size.  I thought about my dad’s mom at the summer camp when she was a teen. I realized that this body I have, the one that shows up when I am being kind and compassionate with myself, the butt and hips and cellulite, have all been dreaded and feared and hated for generations. And for what? None of them ever seemed to reach a place of lasting peace with their bodies. 

Dieting, restricting, and running in place inside an air-conditioned room with techno pumping out the speakers never made any of us happier. It never brought any of us closer to loving ourselves either.  It’s a lot easier to be kind to my body when I think of it as something I’ve inherited and when I think of loving it as not just something for me but as an act of redemption for the people who passed it down to me.

What about your teen years, what did those look like?

In my teens, I was extremely depressed and anxious. My family life kept getting more complicated; my mom and I were forced to move out of my childhood home, which had also been where my mom had her school, and so she also began working out of the house for the first time in my life.  I had a lot more alone time and my eating disorder flourished and I also began self-harming.

I was in an abusive relationship that contributed to my eating disorder starting at age thirteen and going on until I was eighteen. His dad was a bodybuilder and his whole family was very involved in dieting. He’d be very critical of my body. He told me that I was disgusting when I did gain weight and threatened to leave me if I didn’t “get in shape.” He cheated on me with someone much thinner than me. I often ate dinner with his family since my mom was regularly not around and she and I had started fighting more.  He would hold my hand under the table while we were eating and twist my fingers back if I said something he didn’t like or went to take more food after he had decided I’d had enough.

I wasn’t diagnosed with fibromyalgia and my digestive disorders until my mid-twenties, but the symptoms had started and so I was always seeking cures, including many diets. A friend’s mom who was an alternative medical practitioner suggested the Candida diet, which seemed like a magic cure to me at first, but quickly spun me into orthorexia and anorexia. 

When I’ve described the regiment to dietitians or they’ve looked into they have been troubled by how limiting it is and told me that there is no way it could be sustainable and healthy for anyone long-term and that there is no scientific backing to what the diet claims to do for yeast reduction and health. I was young and couldn’t plan well enough to make well-rounded meals out of what was “allowed”, but I knew what I wasn’t supposed to have on this plan and became obsessed with avoiding those things. It became a really severe restriction and a lot of fear around food. 

I lost a dramatic amount of weight in a short period of time and felt like I finally had the keys to accomplish my misguided goal of becoming anorexic. My behavior and appearance were actually praised in every direction. Everyone was complimenting me, I was getting more attention. I couldn’t maintain that level of restriction though, so I started purging. It was only after I was doing better that people told me that they had been worried about me and thought I looked sick. I understand that it’s considered rude to say that, but it would have been better to not receive as many compliments when my weight loss was really another form of self-injury. Nobody congratulates you for self-harm scars. 

What led to starting recovery? 

I started dating someone whose ex-girlfriend was bulimic and he brought eating disorders up with me. I actually thought there was some level of purging that was normal at this point in my life. I thought what I was doing didn’t qualify as abnormal. I never even considered treatment before this.  His ex-girlfriend and I became friends and I talked to her about some of my behaviors and the feelings around them and she convinced me to go to treatment.

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I was sure that I was too big and they’d turn me away. That was a big factor in avoiding treatment. I also had a friend say “but you don’t have an eating disorder, you’re not even that skinny.” and my mom said, “I didn’t realize you were purging, you’re at the perfect weight though, can’t you just stop and maintain?” It was hard to get in the door. I heard the same stories about feeling too fat and not sick enough from EVERY person in treatment. No matter how many hospitalizations they’d previously had or what their size was. 

I did one round of treatment at age 20 and I think I was partially there to pick up tricks and get kind of like ED “street cred” I guess you could call it. I was definitely still more committed to my disorder than to recovery, but I started listening in groups and wondering if maybe what they were suggesting would feel better. 

Treatment was very triggering at time. I was really stuck in comparison and I felt like it was more damaging to be there at some points, but I still needed the support at the time to be able to get enough nourishment to even think clearly. I felt like the message at the first few treatment centers I went to was not really based in Health at Every Size or Intuitive Eating. I would say I wanted to lose weight and they would say you can learn to be in recovery and then you can control your weight. 

I’ve been in treatment at various levels around 10 times. Every time I’ve relapsed I thought I had been doing fine, but it would sneak up on me, and then I would realize I had been sick for months. My weight never rapidly declined after the first time I went to treatment. My family and friends were now aware to watch out for relapses, but they still were focused on looking for that one symptom and it didn’t really happen—even when I was actually severely restricting again. 

My second relapse was the most intense, but also kind of the wake-up call I needed to see how much I was damaging my body. I had to leave school because I ruptured my esophagus from purging. I was vomiting blood for a month. They told me if I didn’t stop I could die. I started taking my illness more seriously and committing myself to recovering. I noticed that my PTSD and eating disorder were linked and found a therapist who specialized in both. I have to manage their symptoms in tandem to keep either from getting really bad. 

I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to return to treatment so many times. I’ve been blessed with a mixture of good insurance and compassionate people creating scholarships for treatment. I don’t think I would be nearly as far in recovery now if I hadn’t had that. I still rely on my outpatient treatment team to maintain recovery and sometimes fear my insurance changing in a way that would limit my access to these resources.

Tell us more about your experience with intuitive eating. 

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I was introduced to intuitive eating through The Center for Discovery in San Diego. They used the hunger scale before and after meals and there was some introduction to the 10 principles. I didn’t really start practicing Intuitive Eating fully or understanding the concepts and research behind it until last year when I met my current Dietitian, Lauren Dear. She has helped me learn more about Intuitive Eating and it’s applications at my stage of recovery and introduced to so many other resources that have helped me move further along in recovery than I’ve ever been before. Lauren also does hypnosis, which has helped ease stomach pain at times and made me more aware of how much stress and tension can affect the way my body reacts to a food.  

She is also the first person I’ve worked with who understands both eating disorders and gastrointestinal issues, which has been a godsend. She has helped me challenge a lot of previously held beliefs that kind of fell through the cracks in conversation with providers who only specialized in one or the other. For a long time I kept going back and forth between elimination diets prescribed by a doctor that would trigger me into relapsing, and then I’d go into recovery but find myself having more digestive symptoms. I found that for recovery to work I had to stick with “all foods fit” and kind of power through the physical symptoms, but still be compassionate with myself, for a lot of things.  

There were several foods that I thought I had problems with, but really I had just restricted them for so long that my body had to learn how to handle them again through repeated exposure.  Now if something is upsetting my stomach I’m learning how to have balance with it and ask myself if my emotional state might be playing into my symptoms. I don’t have any foods that are totally off limits, but I’m still aware of what feels best for my body at the time. I had to ask myself a lot of questions about the intentions behind my food choices for a long time and sometimes still. I also had a period of time where I ate peanut butter and fluff sandwiches every day. I was also eating other balanced meals, but as I allowed myself to have what I want I found myself returning to things I had made unavailable to myself before. I thought I might only want to eat PB & fluff forever at one point, but then my body felt satisfied and got over the craving being as strong. This kind of “honeymoon period” as Christy Harrison, who hosts the Food Psych Podcast, calls it is very common for people who are new to Intuitive Eating. 

There is really a lot of thought process that goes into Intuitive Eating, it’s not just feeling into what your body wants.  Especially if you are just beginning recovery you have to have more support than just relying on your internal, physical cues. It’s about learning how to trust your body and also checking in with your mind, and perhaps a dietitian. After about 4 months of planned IntuitiveI started learning to anticipate hunger.  If I haven’t started preparing food by the time I realize I’m hungry I will often lose my hunger or be too ravenous to be mindful by the time the food is prepared.

Lauren also introduced me to two amazing podcasts that have helped me find a whole community of anti-diet activists and role models.  The podcasts are Food Psych with Christy Harrison and The BodyLove Project with Jessi Hagerty. From there I read the books Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, and Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon.  These resources opened up this whole other world of body and fat acceptance and helped me start seeing how oppressed people in larger bodies are in our society.  

Thinking about fat acceptance as a social justice issue lit a fire in me that has propelled my recovery and the work I want to do in the world. Not to mention all of the racial and socio-economic factors that intersect with fat politics. Fear of oppression of my body size is largely what kept me in disordered eating and is the thing that makes it seem appealing sometimes still. It’s marketed to us and that’s a sickness in our society. No one should think they need to be smaller, fitter, leaner, or whatever word they’re peddling today, at the expense of their health and/or happiness.

What else does body positivity look like for you?

It’s mostly about feeling compassion for yourself. I’m a big fan of body neutrality. Sometimes that is so much more attainable and just as valuable. I want to be happy and comfortable with my body, but first I need to just make sure it’s okay. I have to release some judgement in order to nourish myself properly and feel what else it is my body needs. These are all internal processes.

I also want to make peace with the way my body looks. Sometimes making art helps this. Sometimes looking at other bodies that have rolls and cellulite and all the things photoshop was invented to erase. I have stretch marks now and I didn’t before. That was probably one of the hardest changes in my body I’ve had to adapt to. Looking at pictures of others that had messages normalizing them, because they are very normal, helped. Understanding the psychology of marketing helped too. They just want us to hate ourselves so we buy things. 

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I started seeing it not just with weight loss ads, but also hair and skin care. It infiltrates so many spaces, masquerading as health and happiness, people think they have to look a certain way to achieve their goals. I started thinking of the world as being fucked up not as my body being fucked up. Because of this, I saw all the ways I’d been manipulated over the years. I don’t know how I could have avoided having an eating disorder with this culture, and my family, and my body, and my trauma.

I love myself now, not in the fairy tale, happy ending kind of way, but in the messy, complicated, sometimes gruelling, but still oh so wonderful way that we learn to love other imperfect humans. If I hadn’t hated myself I feel I wouldn’t have had to learn to love myself so deeply. I may not have had to question so much and figure out what I need. It’s been personally advantageous and also feels like a necessary part of my path in learning how to help others love themselves too.

I have PTSD so I frequently feel very disconnected from my body.  I feel like this has been both advantageous and detrimental to recovery.  It makes it easier to criticize my body in some ways I think, but I also started thinking of it as this thing that had been entrusted to me.  I had always been good at taking care of others and when I used my distance from my body to help me think of it as something other, but something that needed care and love, not fear and hatred thrown at it. 

You had a recent shitty doctor’s experience. Tell us about it. 

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I just went for a physical and she got into my weight, but she’s also done this when I went for a sore throat. I think it’s mostly because of BMI, they’re heavily dependent on it. I ask not to see my weight at the doctor's office. I felt more justified in needing this for my recovery when I was in a smaller body.  I feel more judged when I say I’m going to step on the scale backwards and ask them not to tell me what it is now that I’m in a larger body.

She said, “Your vitals are good, your blood pressure is good, ooh your weight is not good.”
She then started telling me I needed to watch my blood pressure.  And I’m thinking, wait, she just said it was good? Then she went on a rant about supposedly weight-related conditions. The book Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon and other research referenced on the Food Psych podcast with Christy Harrison have taught me that fat stigma and weight cycling (gaining and losing weight repeatedly, usually from dieting/restricting) are just as likely to be the cause of the health problems that fatness is often blamed for.  

What some people, doctors included, don’t understand is that people can have health conditions and be overweight and that doesn’t mean their health condition is related to being overweight. I was talking about my pain and she said it might be related to my weight. She kept coming back to my weight. She didn’t even want to hear about my movement and what I do. I’m extremely active as a dog walker. But she didn’t care/didn’t want to hear it.

It’s still pretty hard not to listen to doctors even though my experiences in treatment and my readings on the topic have taught me they often have unhealthy weight bias. At the doctor’s they even gave me a handout that said “What you should know about being overweight” that said on it “diets don’t work.” I was like okay, so what the hell do they want me to do?  It said, “find movement you enjoy.”  I have and I do. “Eat a varied diet including fresh fruits and veggies and whole grains.” Check. I actually do all the things that this sheet recommended to make someone the magical “healthy weight” as determined by BMI, and yet I am significantly heavier than all their calculations say I “should” be. There were even times I’ve had doctors tell me I needed to lose weight when I was actively in my eating disorder. It’s so hard to put what they’re saying aside, but I know that doctors are people and they can be just as won over by diet culture as anyone else.  Luckily, I have an excellent therapist and dietitian who I am able to fact check with.  I have had more eating disorder savvy primary care physicians in the past and I am hoping to find one again. 

What do your chronic illnesses look like?

I currently have IBS and GERD and my gastrointestinal problems started really young and were frequently triggered by my anxiety.  I also am lactose intolerant and have a few other mild food allergies that weren’t diagnosed until my teens, but I think added to my fear of food and purging behavior.  When I first started purging it was often a means of settling my stomach.  I also started using purging as a way to get sent home from school when my anxiety was acting up.  I didn’t know it was anxiety at the time and didn’t have a way of communicating that so it felt very much like being sick and I was just desperate to run from that feeling.  I was in first grade at that point, so around 6 years old and I think this is when I started associating purging with emotional relief.  Despite my already active body image issues, I didn’t relate the behavior to food or my body until I was older.

I had chronic pain for a long time and I’d been called a hypochondriac because I always had something wrong. I have fibromyalgia. Sleep, stretching, hydration is the most important for taking care of myself. Eating regularly also makes a huge difference.  If I go too long without eating now I feel weak and dizzy and my pain gets worse. It doesn’t really matter what I eat just as long as I’m not missing meals or snacks. Sometimes I want to find a diet that seems like it’ll work but I always find that they’re based in restriction and not ultimately useful. 

I fractured the back of my skull and my first cervical vertebra at girl scout camp during a trust fall, so a lot of my chronic pain started then and my relationship with my body became more complicated.  It was an accident, my friends at camp had thought it would be funny to drop me on the mattress instead of catching me in our cabin.  However, I landed on the metal bed frame and ended up leaving camp with a neck-brace and a concussion. My trust issues are certainly more nuanced and complicated than what resulted from this instance, but it always becomes a joke when I tell the story and it is kind of a good analogy for the rest.

I’ve also had trouble because I have ADHD. Meds help with preparing meals, cooking, etc, but I’ve had trouble with the appetite suppressing parts of the meds. I’ve had to manage my brain and my behavior. Getting medicated led to me relapsing one time, but I struggled with basic executive functioning things when I was off of it. It’s a tough balance and requires being very honest with myself and my treatment team.

What else haven’t we talked about?

I’ve had a lot of negative reactions from family and friends and doctors about gaining so much weight. I’m just trying to let my body do what it’s going to do. It’s really rough with family members though. My mom thinks Health at Every Size and fat acceptance is a cult and is trying to make everyone fat. But, I’m happy with where I’m at. I don’t always feel comfortable or in love with my body, but I always try to be loving towards my body.  I think compassion is the cure for so many of the world’s problems and self-compassion is the antidote to self-hatred. I try to remind myself and others that what happens in a single day is not determinant of the rest of your life. Some days my eating disorder still seems tempting and I have slips, but I ultimately now that the course I want my life to take can only exist if I am in recovery and fully present with my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I hope anyone who is struggling will be able to find the strength to reach out. Know that your negative thoughts are not your true self. They are lying to you. You are important and people will be there to help you if you look in the right place. 
 

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