“Let’s go out to eat.” The words immediately used to trigger a thousand thoughts. Which excuse do I use this time? Do I have homework? Am I busy? Maybe I don’t feel well? Or maybe this time I should just go so no one gets suspicious?
Those were only a very few of the thoughts that went through my head when someone would ask me to go out to eat when I was in the darkest place of my eating disorder.
Those thoughts don’t just portray the fear and anxiety that come with living and battling an eating disorder; they portray a different reality: a reality where it’s exhausting to live inside your own head; a reality where your voice and your eating disorder’s voice eventually merge into one and before you know it, you’ve lost all sense of who is who.
I’ve wanted to write this post for a while now about eating out at a restaurant for a few reasons. First, because I think it’s one of the biggest challenges we face every day, whether you’re still active in your eating disorder or you’re in recovery.
I’ve been in recovery from my eating disorder for years and going out to eat is still a challenge for me. Sure, it’s not what it used to be. I don’t restrict all day anymore and I’ve learned to truly enjoy the experience. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still come with some sort of anxiety.
I’m not afraid to admit this is still a struggle area for me. Eating out was one of my biggest and most feared food rules to break. I will never forget the first time I went somewhere new. The fear beforehand and the victorious feeling afterwards are two feelings I will never know how to describe.
I used to mentor a 16-year-old girl who was in the beginning stages of her eating disorder recovery. She wanted to face her fear of eating out at a restaurant. She had tried to do it once before on a whim with her friend, but she was not able to experience it. It wasn’t the right time yet.
She went to the restaurant and was so pumped up to order whatever she wanted and not what her eating disorder wanted her to. But when she got the food, she couldn’t eat it. She felt defeated.
My heart broke for her because how can we feel defeated by a task that we haven’t given ourselves the right amount of time to prepare for? It’s like failing a test that we didn’t study for at all and being upset we didn’t get an A+. It wasn’t fair to her to feel that way.
I wanted her to know and truly believe that just because she was not yet ready to go out to eat like her “normal” friends, it didn’t mean she failed. Just because we are not ready for something doesn’t mean we are failures. So, this is what we did. We took action.
If it wasn’t the time then, we were going to work on making it the right time in the future.
First, she decided to choose a restaurant she wanted to go to. This was a big deal because the first time, she went where her friend wanted to go. This time, she had to take the time to re-discover a place that SHE wanted to go, not a place that was safe for her eating disorder.
It took time, a lot of time, and that’s OK. It took time to figure out what she liked instead of what was safe. Once she chose the restaurant, we celebrated.
Maybe you’re wondering why I would celebrate someone picking a restaurant. They only picked it, they didn’t go to it yet.
I will tell you why: because choosing that restaurant was her first step in making a decision for herself instead of her eating disorder making it for her. She took back her power.
It was a major victory.
Then, she looked at the menu and I was so proud of her for doing so. She was ready to look at those foods, some of them fear foods, and read about them, think about them, and imagine eating them.
When we are locked in an eating disorder, this temptation is oftentimes too scary and we avoid it altogether. So for her to do that was another celebration.
After that, she chose what she wanted to order. Now, before she went to the restaurant to order it, we did a lot of mental visualization of her imagining her ordering it, smelling it, seeing it, and tasting it.
For weeks, that’s all we did. And it was hard work. If this feels like I am getting drawn out in my process, it’s because I am.
This was a process. Recovery is a process. And if we don’t learn how to respect that process, we will never fully feel the freedom we deserve to feel.
We practiced on Skype ordering the food with the waiter. I remember the first time I ordered my first “non-ED-safe” food at a restaurant. I felt as if the waiter knew I was breaking my ED rules and wanted to punish me. I had to re-learn that society was not living in my reality of my eating disordered world. Although ED might be yelling at us about that order, others are not.
Let them be loud. It means we’re recovering.
I told my mentee the fact that she ordered that meal despite those loud voices showed her eating disorder who’s boss. And that night, she was the boss. For her in that moment, that was a huge victory.
What I am trying to say is this: we deserve to give ourselves the time we need to face our ED fears like eating out.
So often we pressure ourselves to do recovery “the right way.”
We want to eat out “the right way.”
We want to order “the right food.”
But what would happen if we took our fears, like eating out, and did them our way, on our time?
What if we took a moment to celebrate the small victories like choosing a restaurant?
What if we took the time to just bloom where we are planted? It doesn’t mean I will stay here forever, because like any plant, I will continue to grow.
But for now, I’m blooming, and until my own sunshine lifts me higher, I am going to be OK with that.
Shira Moskowitz is an eating disorder recovery mentor, activist and blogger who believes everyone has the right to love themselves for who they are. Shira started her blog, Hello Life: A Year Without A Scale to help herself recover from anorexia. You can find her blog, resources for her online support group, and contact information for guidance or mentorship at hellolifeblog.com.