How Shakespeare Can Teach You About Recovery

Self-help books, blogs, TV shows, and fabulous online magazines (like this one!) have their place, but they can never bring fully healing. An idea may challenge your perspective (Women Food and God by Geneen Roth rocked my world), but if you find yourself obsessively consuming self-help material, it may be because your eating disorder is feeding on it. In recovery, it’s easy to put all the focus on your eating disorder, when recovery is about embracing a big, fat, juicy life – with so many other facets and streaks of rainbow than bulimia/anorexia/compulsive-overeating. You need to shoot cracks in the walls of your eating disorder centered world.

How? Take a hammer. Read Shakespeare. Pick up an interesting novel and voraciously consume it. Put a book of poetry by your bed and read a poem each night before you sleep. Find a blog on something unrelated to your ED: knitting, writing, art, or mothering. Listen to a band unrelated to self-esteem issues.

Disorders are suffocating. What you’re doing is opening a window.

THE LISTS

Pick one from each list and request it from your library. Right now. I dare you. 

Marvelous Poetry

Ogden Nash

Emily Dickenson

Walt Whitman

Shel Silverstein

Maya Angelou

Robert Frost

Lewis Carroll

Imaginative Classics

Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Light Princess by George MacDonald

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Breathtaking Modern Novels

So B. It by Sarah Weeks

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

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Gentle Health

I want to eat healthy without being obsessive. I want my recovery to empower me and I can’t be powerful running on exclusively doughnuts and pizza. But where does self-control and and restriction begin?

Just like in exercise, the balance isn’t an invisible line, it’s an attitude. Introduce health gently. You are strengthening your body, not stripping it down to perfection. Health makes your skin glow, your hair shine, and your energy quadruple. Every choice to add more fruits and veggies, drink more water, or take a multivitamin makes your body perform well in the present and prepares it for the future.

Discover what health means for your body. Maybe you notice that eating a cupcake makes your brain go fuzzy for the next few hours, so you remember not to eat one before a test. Maybe you notice that eating protein with your breakfast makes you feel ready for the day, so you start adding eggs, lean meats, or a protein-infused smoothie.

Never eat something to punish yourself (naked salad is the usual culprit). Never choose not to eat something to punish yourself. Don’t eat guilt or shame when you could be eating delicious food. If you’ve just binged, notice how your body is feeling. Don’t think you can’t possibly eat a freaking meal after what you just did, notice that your stomach is uncomfortably full and you’re feeling lethargic, so you rather drink a cold glass of water. Don’t think oh my gosh you’ve been eating so much sugar stay away from that that cookie, notice how your body is responding to the sugar overload (Do you have a cold? Have you been feeling tired?) and ask yourself, what could I eat right now that would help me feel my best?

But also don’t eat to reward yourself. If you’re succeeded in something fantastic, take yourself out to the movies, go on an adventure, visit a lake or waterfall, call an old friend, or paint a picture.  Reward success with life. Food isn’t life, all it can do is fuel it.

Eat healthy to celebrate your body. Enjoy food and choose an attitude of love and nourishment.

Rebekah Burcham

Peppermint Tea and Chocolate Cake: Loving Food

I loved to cook and bake when I was a kid. I’d invent recipes, thrilled when they were delicious enough to inscribe on my mother’s recipe cards and slip them into her little green cooking box. Most of my creations, like my root-beer strawberry muffins, were flops. But I adored watching my parents and siblings crowd around my gooey chocolate chip cookies with extra vanilla and a smidgen of peanut butter.

People fellowship over food. Just last night I had a marvelous conversation with my best friend as I cooked her fettuccine with mushroom & spinach cheese sauce (yum!). We’ve all been to the requisite potlucks and BBQs and chewed our grandmother’s famous potato salad. People exult over their plates, recipes shuffle. And my dad is one of many men currently attempting to win this year’s rib-off.

When I developed my disorder, I stopped inventing recipes. When I cooked, it was only to create meals that were carefully within my latest diet’s restrictions. Where I used to simmer chicken with spices and wine and olive oil, I now boiled in water, no matter how tough and dry it made my dinner.

Part of my recovery has been to allow myself to enjoy food again. To spontaneously bake a chocolate cake. To sprinkle mint leaves in lemonade. Suddenly it because about the taste, not the calories. Sure, I make healthy substitutions (did you know applesauce can replace oil in muffins? yum!), but I don’t strip my meals to the bone. I can trust my body to tell me when I need to step away from sweets or when I’m not hungry anymore.

Food gives you energy to live a big, fat, juicy life. But it’s not just fuel – it’s also enjoyable. Allow yourself to feel that again. Enjoying food doesn’t mean you’ll gain fifty pounds. It doesn’t mean you’ll never stop eating. It’s just that the space food occupies in your life can be a pleasant one. And once you’re done with your dish, you’ll move onto the next scrumptious adventure: rock climbing, the movies, succeeding at your job, or kissing your baby’s cheeks.

So here’s my challenge to you: don your toque. Make a recipe today. Bake french bread or make chocolate chip cookies. Make muffins or pasta with homemade sauce. Fish. Chicken. Stuffed tomatoes with mushrooms.

Bon appétit! 


Rebekah Burcham

Loving Movement

Exercise can be a flourishing flair of recovery, but it can also suck you back into an ocean of obsession like a riptide.  How do we claim the first and not the last? It’s not “a fine line,” it’s an attitude adjustment.

Exercise should never be punishment. You should never run three miles to erase the damage from a slice of cherry pie. You should never repeat to yourself “please please please make me skinny skinny skinny” as you strength train. Exercise should never occupy a place of guilt.  

Movement is at its most healing, nourishing, and beautifying when it is loving movement. I run because I love to run, because I love to feel strong and successful, and because I love to celebrate the muscles of my legs and my core. I am delighting in my body as it is today, a body capable of deep breaths and running more miles than I ever thought possible. I also delight in what I’m creating my body to be – healthy energetic, active, able to complete a 10k race.

Exercise isn’t always fun, even when done as loving movement, but you can still use exercise to cherish yourself when it’s hard and hot and painful. You know you’ll feel better later, and you know you are building strength that you will enjoy later (remember – hard workouts aren’t exceptions to the wonderful workouts, hard workouts create the wonderful workouts). You aren’t saying, “If you don’t run three miles you are a complete loser, a weakling, a lazy lump.”  You’re saying, “Even though this is hard, I’m doing this for you.” 

But some days you’re sick, you’re exhausted, or your beautiful labrador died. Some days it might be more loving to curl up with a blanket and a cuppa tea. Loving movement is perseverant, but it is also flexible. 

Play! Try out zumba, yoga, rock climbing, running, dancing in your basement to Frank Sinatra. Find something you genuinely enjoy, something that won’t be a black hole in your to-do list.

Move your body, celebrate yourself.

Rebekah Burcham

Rethink

Photo by Manatari

You have control over your thoughts.  What you feed your brain – books, magazines, blogs – has a huge impact on how you think, but there’s another factor at play.  You can work from the outside-in,  transforming your media diet, or from the inside-out, taking captive every thought.  And as someone wise once said, “When you change your thoughts, you change your world.”

When you catch yourself reeling down a river of ED obsession, you have the power to step out. When you catch yourself disconnecting from the people around you, burrowing into your brain and turning over calories, you can choose to stop and re-engage in conversation. When you catch yourself determining the BMIs of every person on the street, you can choose to stop and notice hair color, outfits, or focus on stores and cars instead. You can direct your thoughts, you are not powerless to them.

As you redirect your thoughts, it will feel like you are just distracting yourself from the inevitable. You’ll eye others suspiciously and wonder, “What does everyone else think about?” You’ll feel empty, nervous. You may feel like if you stop thinking about your ED, you’ll lose something, miss something else.  Scribble down any thoughts that stubbornly resurface, then let them go.  All these feelings will pass.

You may not be able to maintain a clear brain forever in the beginning. But you can take small breaks from disorderland. And those breaks will open space in your life for growth and discovery to happen.

We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. -1 Cor. 10:5b

Rebekah Burcham

Real Story: Rebekah

Rebekah Burcham, June 2012. Photo by Samuel Burcham.

I became a Christian at three years old, staring hopefully up at my mother as she spoke of Forgiveness right before a spanking. Seven years later, I was baptized in my neighbor’s hot-tub by my then-pastor father. I was raised on theological discussions in the kitchen over pancakes, on my dad talking luminous wisdom in answer to bedtime questions while I wriggled my toes in his hands, and on mom reading aloud bible and missionary stories while my little brother and I took turns massaging her shoulders. Jesus was just as real in my life as peanut butter and dandelions.

But when I turned twelve, my life became consumed by an eating disorder, a god much less merciful than Yahweh.

We were moving again, puberty was squeezing and plumping my body in terrifying directions, there was more time for fights over vacuuming and washing dishes than for growing my friendship with my parents, and I suddenly cared about brushing my hair and applying lip gloss. Food was a quick fix for a bad day. A handful of chocolate chips here, a bowl of chips there, and a rush of sugar or carbs would spike my mood. And as my depression grew heftier, so did my eating, until I was indulging in full-scale binges when nobody was looking. I isolated myself in my room, grew dark circles under my eyes, and started gaining weight.

One day I decided that if I just lost weight, I’d be happy. Maybe even beautiful. So I started tracking my calories and jogging after lunch. After a few weeks, someone commented, “Hey, have you lost weight? You look great.” The spark of pride was nothing to compare with the high of a binge. Besides, it’s not like I tasted the food I binged on, it was shoveled too fast down my throat. But this pride? Oh, I tasted it.

I restricted my calories to 1,000 a day, then 800, then 300, then 0. I wouldn’t even allow myself vitamins – each capsule is 5 to 10 calories, after all. I snuck out at 5am every morning to run two hours, keeping it secret so I could run again after lunch without anyone picking up on my new obsession. I lost 30 pounds in the first three weeks. I was victorious!

At parties, I always knew where the food was, how much I had eaten, and how I could avoid eating anything else. I dreaded sleepovers, because there were always m&ms and Fritos. I spent hours calculating and recalculating my calories, adding extra because I was sure the packages had the numbers wrong. I went vegetarian and started the South Beach Diet so that I could concoct separate meal plans for myself and eat alone, enabling me to hide food in my room or dump it out when people turned their backs.

But I didn’t think I had an eating disorder. Wasn’t this normal?

Then my willpower cracked. I ate. And ate.  I’d even pretend to be sick so I could stay home and just eat and eat. I felt bulging and sick and miserable.  A few weeks later I forced myself back on the scale. The number horrified me. I did sit-ups until I gagged and forced myself to restrict again.

I’d begun a new cycle of binging and restricting. Every day I was either binging and overeating, or pouring soap in my cereal so I wouldn’t eat it and hiding sandwiches in vases. My weight fluctuated wildly, keeping me in a frantic wrestle between elation and despair. I  even started cutting myself to regain control, but I became addicted to pain and blood as well. My eating disorder had taken over.

It was only then I realized that my behavior was not normal (no kidding), and that I was addicted to this disorder.  I was out of control. I’d eat in bathrooms. I’d chew and spit into my cup at the dinner table. I’d throw food under my little brothers’ chairs and hide it in my sleeve. I’d steal marshmallows from friends’ pantries. I started vomiting, sometimes to purge binges, sometimes just lunch. I’d gain ten pounds, then lose it, all in the same week.

But I came to the realization that I wanted Jesus more than I wanted to be thin. And thin to me was more than buying new jeans and looking trimmer. Thin meant happy, worthwhile, cherished, intelligent, loved. Thin meant becoming beautiful. Thin meant becoming a woman worth fighting for.

But I want Jesus more. He has already fought for me. He has already called me beautiful. And He is offering freedom.

And I’ve taken it! I’m free! I wake up glad to be alive. I walk through my day with my Savior at my side, delighting in His love and His companionship.  I fight with my disorder often, old thoughts rearing their cobwebby heads, but they no longer own me. My heart belongs to Jesus.

To those who struggle with eating disorders, He is the only thing I can offer. I’ve tried yoga, organic food, self-esteem, and counselors. I’ve tried friends, journaling, long walks, and success. Nothing else has the forever-and-ever, purifying to the bone, soul-scrubbing and soul-healing and soul-transforming force of Jesus Christ.

His arms are open to you just as they were to me. Start running, don’t look back. There is nothing behind you but death, and nothing ahead of you but joy.

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. 

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

– Isaiah 35: 1-4 


The Law

Eating disorders create a Law. If we only eat this while exercising like this, we would live a perfect day. We create our own moral code. These foods are “clean.” These foods are “unclean.” Thin is “right,” fat is “wrong.” Anorexia rigidly adheres to the Law. Bulimia purges mistakes against the Law. Compulsive overeating surrenders to never attaining the Law. Each disorder becomes enslaved to it. The Law is partly created from food rules. Don’t eat after 8pm. Don’t eat sweets. Purge after you binge. Then there are the rules that have nothing to do with food. Never get below a B in school. Run a 5 minute mile. Never disappoint my family. Always appear happy.

There’s a perfect law in the Bible, too. Eating disorder law offers a perfect body, God’s law offers a perfect body, mind, and soul. His law also offers purity and perfection – if it is followed flawlessly. Never tell a lie. Circumcise your boys. Don’t ever worship anything above God – including thinness. But like an eating disorder’s law, God’s law is impossible to follow perfectly. “For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it,” reads Romans 3:15.  “The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!”

You will never be perfect. You can’t. You will never have perfect grades, perfect sport performance, perfect eating, perfect exercise, a perfect body, perfect kindness, perfect strength, perfect self-esteem, or even a perfect recovery. As long as you fight to fulfill your Law (or God’s law!), you will always be striving to fix yourself. But sooner or later, you will always fail. Laws are unforgiving. They have no wiggle room. Either you are perfect, or you are an outlaw.

But you don’t have to fight anymore.

Take a deep breath. Imagine what it would feel like to surrender the war. To lay down the voices (fat ugly failure die). To release the Law. Does it feel warm, June sunshine melting the last chill of spring? Does it feel abruptly empty, like the walking downstairs in the dark and thinking there is one more stair than there really is? Don’t say, it’s impossible or I’d get fat. Rest for thirty seconds. Tell yourself the story of freedom.

You can be freed from this law. You can be just as perfect when munching a brownie as when munching a carrot. You can be just as valuable when running for three minutes as when running for three hours. You can be just as pure when vomiting your binge as when diving into another box of Oreos. You don’t have to purify yourself through fasting, vomiting, laxatives, or overexercise. Purity that can’t ever be torn away is already at your lips. This is a perfection that can’t be screwed up by an extra slice of pizza, or even an extra pie of pizza. This is a purity that can’t be improved by fasting for a week or weighing your gloryhallelujah goal weight.

God has a path to perfection that rises above the law.  “God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Paul writes in Romans 5:20.

We’ve experienced death coming from law. The death of our dreams, our identity, our hope, our friendships. We can also experience life through Jesus Christ. When his grace rules over us in place of our eating disorder’s law, we are completely covered by his perfection. Our disasters are scrubbed away by Jesus’ strength and forgiveness – not our desperate measures to erase ourselves. We are enfolded in his love, and his love covers our sins, making us pure, righteous, and beautiful, no matter what sins we commit against the law.

Recovery Notebook Exploration

What rules do you believe in? Watch yourself over the rest of the day to see if you discover more.  You can tell if a rule by your response when you break it. Are you overwhelmed with self-revulsion? Do you scrabble to justify yourself?  How do you respond to others when they get in the way of you fulfilling your Law? (Personally, I’m tempted to hang them up by their toes and carve their heart out with a spoon).

Rebekah Burcham

Pro-Recovery

Photo by Tom Newby

The pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia cyberworld is like a family. Sisters standing beside sisters, whispering “stay strong,” sharing bracelets, trading secrets. Texting buddies, challenges, comments, twisted poetry reaching warm tendrils deep inside our hearts. We belong. If we could just be sick enough, they would be proud of us. But it’s not a family. It’s more like a cult, choking and drowning its members. “Stay strong” sends girls into hospital beds. Twisted poetry sends girls to suicide. We sucked the life from each other in order to keep our own selves sick. We fueled the darkness in each other in order to snuff out our own last stubborn stains of light.

When I was pro-ana & pro-mia, I encouraged a 12 year old girl to keep starving herself. She was 80 pounds. Recovery was in her grasp, her family was supportive, the hospital was fresh in her memory. But I encouraged her. “Stay strong,” I whispered. I stole from her all I could with my words. “Stay strong.” Nothing can express my guilt, my sorrow. Darling sister, if you read this, know you don’t have to be strong anymore. You don’t have to fight this fight. Recovery is so much sweeter. Bones are just another cage. Abundant life is at your fingertips.

Companionship is healing. Strangers standing up for each other, anonymous screen names leaving a precious word of encouragement, fragile friendships blooming. So let’s continue to create a community of pro-recovery. I’m already so encouraged at the wonderful blogs I’ve discovered here. Let’s continue to email, talk, blog, post, journal, speak just as fervently as we did when we were gripped with the fever of our disorder. Let’s flood each other with light. Let’s use language to split open lies. Let’s leave long, heart-open messages on strangers’ blogs. Let’s reach out until our arms are aching with fullness.

We fought with darkness. Now we will burn with light.

I love you all, my sisters in recovery. Thank you for your journeys, your honesty, your lives. You give me hope. And you give hope to everyone around you.

Rebekah Burcham

Intuitive Eating

The Movement

Intuitive eating is returning to your natural eating instincts. When you’re hungry, you eat. When you’re full, you stop.  It’s as simple as that.

Children eat intuitively naturally. But life gets messy. We begin using food to cope with the hurts and fears of life. We use food to break ourselves if we’re afraid of being whole. We use food to make ourselves feel whole if we’re afraid of being broken. Food becomes our drug. We use it to medicate depression, fear, joy, and stress. We use dieting and weight loss in the same way. We punish ourselves with starving or create an impossible goal of Perfect Thinness that we have to reach before we face our lives. Bleary and lost, we become separated from our lives by our weight and eating.

Intuitive eating is a tool to cut through this food abuse and reach our lives. Through intuitive eating, we can feel our feelings instead of eating them. We can nourish our bodies, then release the excess. We’re free to eat chocolate mousse for breakfast or to eat salad for lunch. We can learn to eat just one – or to allow ourselves to eat seconds. It’s flexible, personal, and begins to sound a whole lot like normal eating.

People with eating disorders can’t eat normally. You can’t pick up intuitive eating and expect to slide easily into recognizing your body’s signals. If you embrace intuitive eating, at first you may not distinguish thirst from hunger or tiredness from thirst. You may find that you don’t get hungry. You may find that you get nothing but hungry. Be patient with yourself. If you are diligent in nourishing your body, it will begin to heal, and you will become familiar with its needs.

Trust your body to make up for lapses in eating, whether you eat too much today or too little tomorrow. Your body is an incredible instrument. Cherish it, and you will begin to understand it more. It will take time, but you can eat normally. And intuitive eating can help you get there.

Explore

Text: Intuitive Eating Guidelines by Geneen Roth, Photo: Rebekah Burcham

Visit Intuitive Eating.com, a wonderful resource on this philosophy.

Read Women Food and God by Geneen Roth. I don’t agree with her spirituality, but she has a beautiful perspective and discusses how our relationship to our world can be discovered through our relationship to food.

Watch Josie Lenore‘s youtube vlog. She’s incredible! She explores topics like wantpower over willpower, problem-solving over self-comforting, and – of course –  intuitive eating.