Beyond My Body: A Q&A with Ally Rae Pesta on Her Eating Disorder Recovery Memoir
**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.
Ally Rae Pesta is a yoga teacher, run coach, eating disorder recovery coach, speaker, and published author. She’s been in recovery for ten years. Her passion is to empower individuals to find purpose beyond their body and reclaim their relationship with their body, movement, and food. Her memoir, Beyond My Body: Recovering From a Complex Eating Disorder, Reclaiming Movement, and Finding My Worth, launched on World Mental Health Day, October 10th. Visit her website allyrae.co to learn more or buy her book here.
Why did you write Beyond My Body?
I have always loved to write. Since I was five years old, I dreamed of writing a book one day. Fast forward to 17 years old, lying in a hospital bed, where I wrote in my recovery journal that one day I would write a book about this. Although it took me ten years to finally write and publish my book, my truest why still remains—write it for my 17-year-old self who wanted so badly to feel seen, heard, and understood.
Throughout my recovery journey, writing has played such an influential role. It is how I processed my emotions and what was happening all around me, while also calming my anxious thoughts. Writing also helped me explain what was going on in my head to those who may not have understood. Beyond My Body is my processing of all that was, all that is, and all that is to come.
Beyond My Body is a compilation of stories about my early adolescence, being a young woman, the lowest parts of my eating disorder (ED), discovering life again, and everything in between. I write in vignette style to portray the nonlinear healing process of any mental health illness, and especially eating disorders. The stories can be read separately or together as one compilation.
Beyond My Body shows how different experiences and factors impacted my eating disorder, and how it gave me a false sense of control and then stripped me of my life and everything that made me, me. The memoir then begins to transition into the early stages of recovery and the choice I made to finally recover for myself, instead of for my parents or doctors. In parts four and five, the vignettes demonstrate how expansive life became for me as I began to let go of my eating disorder, as well as how scary it can be to figure out who you are without your illness.
Beyond My Body is for anyone affected by an eating disorder, body dysmorphia, compulsive exercise, or feelings of not being enough. I wrote it in the hopes that the words would make each individual feel seen, heard, and understood. It is also for support systems, coaches, mentors, teachers, and caregivers to better understand what may be occurring with someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. I wrote this book to continue to break the stigma around eating disorders and show the complexity of this illness. Most importantly, I wrote this book for my younger self and my family who never gave up on me.
Tell us about the book’s title.
My memoir was not originally titled Beyond My Body. It was originally called The Thinnest Line (a play on the words “the finish line”) based on an essay I wrote in one of my creative writing classes in college. At first, I was adamant about the title being The Thinnest Line; however, my first editor, Babette, challenged me to think about what the book fully encompasses. The more I looked at the full picture, the more I understood that The Thinnest Line did not encompass the essence of the memoir. It is not about the thinness. It is truly about the non-linear healing journey and how I have come to reclaim who I am beyond the confines of my body.
How has writing played a role in your recovery journey?
Writing has been incredibly essential in my recovery journey. It is truly how I understand and process all that is going on inside my mind and body and the things going on around me. When my mind is spinning dizzying fast, it is easy to get stuck inside and continue to spiral down. Due to the fact that I physically cannot write as fast as my mind is thinking, writing helps my thoughts slow down. With the words on the blank page, I can also begin to peel apart what’s me and what’s ED.
I also understand the world through mini little stories seemingly unconnected yet somehow stringed together. Writing helps me to articulate those stories and begin to connect all that has happened and all that is happening, here and now.
If you could go back to the beginning of your recovery, what would you tell yourself?
Let yourself recover at your own pace. You do not need to be “perfect” at recovery. It is more than okay for recovery to be non-linear. It will take a lot longer than you expected, but you are not a failure or any less “worthy” for the length of time it may take. Letting in help and support is not a weakness, it is actually a strength. You can’t see how full your life will become, but I promise it will become fuller than you could ever begin to imagine. Keep holding on. Most importantly, you are so worthy of recovery and a deeply full life.
What do you wish everyone knew about eating disorders?
Eating disorders are the farthest thing from just wanting to “be thin.” Eating disorders are not a choice—in fact, they are very complex mental disorders that can be extremely difficult to recover from. There are many layers to each individual’s eating disorder and they require an individualized approach in order to heal. Eating disorders are often much more about control and perfectionism than about vanity.
One of the biggest reasons that eating disorders are so challenging to recover from is because you have to face what your disorder fears a minimum of three times a day and often more than three times. You have to confront what you are afraid of on an everyday basis. You need food to heal and yet food is also the enemy of your disorder. Movement (also known as exercise) can be a huge part of both the disorder and recovery. Personally, I have loved to move my body from an early age, but my eating disorder took my love for movement and turned it into a compulsion and an addiction. However, in order to reestablish a sustainable relationship with movement, I still have to face the addiction to movement and challenge the addiction so that I can still move my body, yet do so in a way that is life-giving, not life-taking.
In a world obsessed with “health,” “fitness,” and “ideal bodies,” it is extremely challenging to go against the messages you are constantly receiving and to create your own path of healing and definition of wellness. Recovery is possible, but I wish people took the time to understand the complexity of eating disorders in order to develop more empathy for this illness.
For those who are still struggling, what words of comfort or hope would you share? What message would you give them?
Without your eating disorder, the light will return to your eyes, and life will be so much more incredibly expansive. Although it may seem that your eating disorder is your source of control and you can’t cope without it, the smallest steps toward recovery will move you toward an expansive life without ED. Recovery can be very non-linear, but even if it seems like you are taking a step back, you are still further along than where you were before.
Although letting go of ED is extremely hard, you do not have to live under ED’s control anymore and you don’t have to do it alone. Recovery brings hope and a full life that you deserve. People love you because of your soul and what you give to this world, not because of the size or shape of your body. You deserve to take up space. You are worthy and enough.
Could you share a part of Beyond My Body with us here?
Beyond My Body is a five-part vignette-style memoir where each story can be read on its own again and again. When strung together, the vignettes show how non-linear recovery is.
Below are two vignettes from two different parts of the memoir. My hope is that in these stories you find comfort in knowing you are seen and you are not alone. You are worthy and enough. You deserve a purposeful life beyond your body.
My Recovery Math Problems
My recovery math problems are compiled of simple if, then statements. If I complete certain tasks, then I am recovered. If I eat my food and gain weight, then I am recovered. If I eat out at restaurants, then I am recovered. If I go to school and get an A+ on everything, showing that my brain is working, then I am recovered.
And yet, I wake up, and I feel anything but recovered. Instead, I am filled with anxiety and frustration. My hands shake at the mere thought of eating food. The mirror tells me that if I continue to gain weight, then I will be worthless. I journal out the pain inside my mind.
“Screw all of this. I am done. This food is empty calories. It’s not good for me. Ugh I’m DONE!”
A few days later, there is hope. I check a few more accomplishments off my recovery list, including helping to cook my own meals and grocery shopping.
“I feel like I am really progressing. I was able to prepare dinner with my mom and put my own salad dressing on without measuring it. At the store, I put two of my old favorite foods in the cart that I used to restrict.”
The hope only lasts a short while, as the thoughts begin to torment me again.
“I just want to run away forever. F this. F this. F this. I’m DONE!”
I’m convinced that recovery is just like calculating my calorie intake in MyFitnessPal. I try to calculate the exact equation that will accomplish this “recovery state.” Yet, there is no equation to recovery. There is only living in the gray, in the extreme highs and extreme lows, the pain and joy. There are only attempts to continue to carry on and get back up again and again.
July 22, 2021
It’s been awhile. You’ve been in my life for quite some time. I remember meeting you back in high school at Aimee’s gym. You crept in quietly at first and then head on, tumbling slowly at first, then viciously fast. When I felt out of control, worthless, empty—you were there. You helped me get through a lot—thank you. You also took away so damn much. You took away nights with friends, dancing, and eating ice cream; you took away my self-love. You stripped me of my laughter and my smile. You deprived me of my bubbly, full-of-life personality. You pushed me into a deep relationship in which you were the only person allowed—you turned into an obsession.
Slowly, I’ve been creating distance from you. You moved from being a constant thought to only a phone call away to someone I rarely call. I don’t need you in order to be extraordinary. My laugh does that. I don’t need you to be loved. I’m loved no matter what. I’ve wanted to bid you farewell for so long, but part of me really didn’t want to release you.
I’ve felt so much freedom lately, and that’s because I’ve started to really let you go. Damn—eight years in the making, and I think I’m finally ready to say goodbye. I know you may come lurking back from time to time knocking, but I’m not going to answer this time.
I know you told me I’d never be rid of you; I’d never have kids; I’d never have a life without you. Well, guess what—I can and I WILL live without you, AND I can have kids one day if I choose. And yes I am HEALTHY without you.
It’s time to part ways. You’ve held the power for way too long. The future without you is so damn scary—I don’t know what it will look like, but I’m ready to discover it because I know life without you is bound to be incredible. I’ve had small tastes of it so far, and I can’t wait for all that is to come. Bye ED—thanks for teaching me so much—most importantly resilience, empathy, and self-love. I love me without you.