How I’m Managing My Eating Disorder During Coronavirus
Registered dietitian, Alana Kessler, shares how managing her eating disorder, bulimia, adds an extra level of difficulty to coronavirus quarantine.
I have had a relationship with bulimia since I was 16 years old. I’m 39 now, so that is over two decades of navigating a challenging and sometimes very painful relationship to food. I have learned a lot from my illness. In fact, it’s a big part of why I chose to become a registered dietitian, yoga instructor, and meditation teacher, so I could help others overcome their struggles with food. But never has my personal experience and professional knowledge been more needed than right now, as the coronavirus pandemic and quarantine increase the risk of eating disorders and relapses.
For many years, my entire life revolved around obsessive thoughts about food. I would binge to comfort myself and avoid dealing with difficult feelings but then I would feel guilty and ashamed and force myself to vomit multiple times per day. My eating disorder almost killed me more than once before I was finally able to break that destructive cycle with yoga, meditation, and therapy. I won’t ever say I’m “cured”—I’m not sure such a thing exists with eating disorders—but I’ve been in recovery for about ten years.
Covid-19 quarantine and recovery
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and, as a resident of Manhattan, I found myself under strict lockdown, alone, and anxious. I did okay for the first three weeks, posting actively on social media, teaching yoga classes on Zoom, and helping clients over the phone, as I waited for the all-clear so life could go back to normal. After a month, I began to realize that this might be a much longer, more complicated situation than anyone had anticipated. I started to lose that sense of purpose and energy that had kept me focused and began to feel a little burned out helping others.
I didn’t realize what was happening at first. It started out subtly, with a preoccupation with my diet and exercise routines. I started to become more strict with what foods I ate, the order I ate them in, and portion sizes. I began counting calories again. Mentally, my thoughts shifted from positivity and problem solving to feeling anxious and isolated and as they did, old habits felt comforting. If I couldn’t control what was happening outside, at least I could control my body. Then one day I was sitting, feeling overwhelmed by the feelings of fear, uncertainty, and loneliness, and obsessing over my food. I realized I was at a dangerous crossroads. If I continued with this type of thinking I risked bringing back my eating disorder in full force. Or I could take everything I’d learned and put it into practice to take care of myself.
Dealing with a global pandemic
I’m certainly not the only one struggling with a challenging relationship to food during quarantine. Anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, and other eating disorders (like orthorexia) may manifest in different ways, but at their core, they are all coping mechanisms for dealing with painful feelings. These feelings are commonly triggered by life transitions, uncertainty, disruption of a normal schedule, lack of control, and scarcity—all of which are occurring during this global pandemic. And in case you ever forget, the news and social media are always there to remind you of how scary and out of control everything feels right now.
Buying in bulk and bulimia
It’s not just the anxiety that is triggering me, it’s also some of the unique situations brought about by the pandemic. For example, one of my biggest bulimia triggers is having bulk packages of food in my house. When I would binge, I’d buy multi-serving packs and then eat all of it. Yet suddenly in the pandemic, food feels scarce (and there are some actual shortages), so buying in bulk and storing extra food is encouraged. For years, I’ve helped manage my bulimia by only keeping three to four days worth of food in the house at one time and only buying single-serving items. Now that’s much harder for me to do.
Food scarcity, anorexia, and binge-eating
This food scarcity is triggering for other people with eating disorders as well. For my anorexic clients, they see the food scarcity as a reason they should restrict their food more or they fear not being able to buy their safe foods. On the other end of the spectrum, clients with binge-eating disorder see it as a reason to eat everything as they are worried about when they’ll have their favourite foods again and food is a major source of comfort.
A perfect storm for disordered eating
Another factor is how cut off people are from their normal methods of coping with their eating disorder. Sufferers may have reduced or no access to their therapists and doctors. Some are cut off from their support system due to having to quarantine alone. People who find a lot of relief from their symptoms with exercise, like me, no longer have their gyms, yoga studios, and classes. I also lost my connection with my coworkers and clients by not being able to go into my office.
Bottom line: This pandemic is a perfect storm for disordered eating. Recognizing that fact helped me avoid shaming or blaming myself so I could focus on maintaining my recovery.
How I’m managing not to binge or purge
I’m proud to say I have not binged and/or purged. I did not give in to those dark thoughts and once I was able to recognize what was happening, I made a plan to keep myself safe. It starts by paying attention to my feelings—even the painful ones—and being forgiving and gentle with myself. Here’s what I’m doing every day in quarantine:
I keep to a consistent schedule.
Predictability helps reduce anxiety and gives a sense of control back. So each morning I wake up between 6:30 and 7 a.m., do my yoga practice, and meditate. Then breakfast, followed by a productive activity, and a walk. These things make sure that I’m taking care of myself.
I take a walk outside.
The fresh air, the connection to others, the colours, and sounds, the movement—it all works together to lift my mood and reduce obsessive thoughts about food.
I make time to do something creative.
Playing my guitar, singing, free-writing in my journal, or even doing an adult colouring book—anything like that. It needs to be something that moves energy away from my negative thoughts by engaging my body and senses, so TV and reading aren’t good options.
I pay attention to my hunger cues.
It can be hard to feel your hunger in quarantine, so it’s more important than ever to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. I like to practice intuitive eating.
I reduce my triggers.
Forbidding my favourite foods—like ice cream—is not something I do, but I do have accountability measures to ensure it doesn’t become a trigger. I don’t keep pints of ice cream in my house, but my happy compromise is to schedule a trip to a local ice cream parlor (for takeout!) several times a week. It’s become something I really look forward to and provides some joy during the week.
I reach out to others.
A trap many people with eating disorders fall into is feeling like they’re a burden on others or that they need to wait for people to reach out to them. Don’t do this! I schedule FaceTime calls with my family or a Zoom happy hour with my friends so I maintain those connections. (And no, social media doesn’t count! Find a way to actively engage with others.)
I limit my news consumption.
Instead of obsessively watching my news feed, I’ve decided to limit news updates to just a few times a week so I’m not overwhelmed by anxiety and fear.
A safety plan to prevent an eating disorder relapse
While quarantine has been incredibly tough in regards to my bulimia, one of the greatest gifts of this experience has been my ability to truly empathize with my clients with disordered eating. What I wish all of us could understand is that struggling with disordered eating at this time does not mean you’re a failure. You’re doing your best and your body is doing its best to protect you. But this doesn’t mean you have to give in to behaviors that will hurt you.
Remove anything that triggers you. Design your own safety plan. Have other coping mechanisms in place that don’t have to do with food. And, most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out—to a therapist, a friend, a crisis line—and ask for help. You are worthy of care and love and you are allowed to feel joy even when things are scary.
If you or a loved one is struggling with obsessive thoughts around food or your body, contact the National Eating Disorder Information Centre.
—As told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen