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Ok, before we dive into today’s subject, I need to warn you. I am sharing a part of my story that is really personal, I’ve never openly talked about, and it involves details about my life-long struggle with IBS and how it has affected my physical and mental health, probably contributed to my eating disorder, and what I am doing now to work toward healing. So, if that makes you, well, sick to your stomach to think about, it’s ok to skip this. But, if you have struggled with pain that no one seems to understand, if you have days where you can’t seem to stand being in your own skin or looking at yourself in the mirror, and if you are tired of asking for help and not getting it, then I hope you’ll read this and find encouragement and hope.

Every day, for the past 15+ years, I perform a morning and evening ritual that involves taking prescription medication, over-the-counter pills, and drinking tea all to make going to the bathroom possible. Yes, I know that is really personal, but I warned you. I promise not to go into too much more detail, but suffice it to say, between my childhood allergies, which I have outgrown but left me with some horrible memories of stomach pain and my chronic IBS-C, finding a way to keep my stomach from hurting, from being bed-ridden from painful bloating and distension, has been a decades-long process. And before you dm me about the quick fix drink or supplement. I have been there, done all the things…again. It’s been decades…I’ve tried it all.

So, for years, I have done what “works,” or at least it used to. What I started as a way to help me live pain-free turned into something that not only causes me pain, but it has also turned into something much worse. My focus has slowly switched from being about being pain-free to being in control. Now that I think about it, I am not surprised. One of the things that makes me stay on track with my fitness and personal goals is my ability to stick to a routine, but sometimes the routines can become more like an obsession or a ritual. I had become addicted to the routine, the ritual and had stopped paying attention to how much control I had actually lost. The ritual was controlling me. Of course, I sometimes get fed up with the daily regimen, how I have to plan everything out, be sure to have everything I need, the pain that all of the medication causes, and yes, having to always be close to a bathroom. The problem is that without the medications, I may stop having these problems, but then my other IBS symptoms come back. I have been stuck here for over a decade. Not knowing what to do. Not getting any help from doctors other than more medications.

But I’m tired of doing things just because it’s the way I’ve always done it, especially when whatever that thing is doesn’t actually work. This is true for my physical health, my emotional health, and my relational health. Also, if something is “working” but in the process is breaking other things. That is a no-go too. So, recently, I starting working with a whole team of doctors and medical professionals that are dedicated to helping me break free from habits that no longer work. YEAH!!! Sounds awesome doesn’t it?!

Ok, so here’s where the scary part comes in. My new gastrointerologist listened to my whole story, how I have struggled since childhood with stomach issues and how I created this daily ritual to stop them but, instead, have just created more. She didn’t dismiss my concerns or act like what is currently happening is just part of the deal. And then she told me to change the routine. Not everything, but enough to where I was going to have to give up something I’ve been doing for over a decade. I had to trust her, and trust my body which, as someone who has struggled with this off and on for years, is not a simple thing. It is like jumping off a cliff. I had to ask myself if I was really serious about getting better, about healing, about recovering. I had to ask if I was ready to release total control and try something unknown.

So, I did it. Whether or not I can last, if I can continue to slowly adapt and change to a more healthy way of taking care of my body, that remains to be seen. But I am still here, right now, doing things that I am afraid to do believing that sometimes facing the fear of the unknown is better than the continuing the failure of the known.

When I was seeing a dietician for my eating disorder, we often talked about Intuitive Eating, a concept outlined in the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works by  Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. We read the book together and worked on helping me become more intuitive and less tied to my strict routines and rituals surrounding food. When I was really focused on doing the work of learning to listen to my body, intuitive eating worked for me. But over the years, something began to happen. My intuitive eating became less “intuitive” and more mindless. My default switch went back to the “routine” and “ritual” of eating. I would mindlessly eat, whether I felt hungry or not. I was checking out. I had solved the “not eating” problem but was still not listening to my body. I was just going through the motions. A few years ago, I sought to once again become more mindful with my eating. My IBS was out of control and I was constantly in pain. Still well in the “normal weight range,” whatever that means, many of my doctors did not see the problem, but I knew there was one. I knew I was becoming disassociated from feeling and listening to my body’s needs. Often not eating enough or eating “on a schedule” just because, not because I was hungry.

So, I worked with another “way of eating” that temporarily had me focus on my foods, the choosing of them, the cooking of them, and the eating of them. This was kind of scary for me, but I found much peace in spending time creating meals, trying new recipes, and turning off distractions during meal times to savor every bite. This seemed to do the trick for me and put me back in touch with experiencing food in a way that was healthy for my body and mind. I ate foods that did not cause me to hurt physically and focused on foods that gave my body fuel. I had arrived, I thought.

But lately, I have noticed something. This “mindful eating” has become a ritual and a routine for me. While I do think that having a healthy routine around how and what we eat is important, for someone in recovery, the routine itself can turn into something like an obsession. What at first was a way for me to figure out what foods were causing my body pain has now become something that causes anxiety when faced with the prospect of not having “the right foods.” This concerns me because “the right foods” sounds a lot like “safe foods,” a term I used when in counseling for my eating disorder.

I am working through this right now. How do I, on the one hand, listen to what my body is telling me about what foods are harmful to it and, on the other hand, not get stuck or become anxious when I can’t be in complete control over “the menu”? How do I have a healthy routine without turning it into an obsessive habit?

The further along I get in my recovery and the older my children get I also see the impact of the choices I make on them. What am I teaching my children about food, healthy habits vs obsessive behaviors?

I believe that freedom, whether it be food freedom or freedom from obsessive or ritualistic behaviors, is possible, but that doesn’t mean that we can just stop thinking about our bodies or our food. Part of healing is the journey of learning this balance.