**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.
By Liz Rognes, a former Emily Program client in recovery. She is a teacher, writer, and musician who lives in Spokane, WA.
My one-year-old son loves mealtime. He sits in his high chair, picks up a piece of macaroni or an orange or pieces of fish, brings it to his mouth, and then looks at me with big eyes and says, “Mmm!” He takes another bite and again exclaims, “Mmm!” If his dad is in the room, he’ll say, “Dada?” and my partner will say, “Yeah, buddy?” and he’ll say, “Mmm!” He wants to communicate with us, to share his happiness about this food he’s eating. He marvels at the new and familiar tastes, he looks at me with joyful surprise when he feels a new texture, and he claps his hands when he sees me preparing one of his favorite foods.
He loves to share. If I’m eating a sandwich and he’s eating a sandwich, he wants to take a bite from what’s on my plate. He’ll hold up a piece of his own toast for me, indicating that he wants me to have some, too. He prefers to use plates and bowls that we use, not the plastic kid dishware that we have for him. If I grab a granola bar as we’re going out the door, he looks at me and says, “Mama? Mmm!” to tell me that he wants one, too.
When I was struggling with my eating disorder, I would try to encourage myself to eat because I knew, intellectually, that food was nourishing. Even though I had fear and anxiety about eating, I knew that my body needed it, that part of entering into recovery was learning to take care of my body through feeding it. For a long time, I said mantras to myself. I would think, “This food is nourishing,” or “My body needs this.” Those mantras helped. It was important for me to make the connection between the food I was eating and the nutrition that it supplied for my physical body. Thinking about food as a necessity helped me to establish a rhythm, to eat regularly, and to eat foods that I knew my body needed so that I could begin to heal.
My mantras about the practical necessity of food evolved into statements like, “I want to eat this,” or “I deserve to enjoy this.” I learned to notice that I had different cravings for different flavors or types of foods, and I began to listen to my body. I started cooking, and I learned how to make the foods that my body and my taste buds wanted to eat. In fact, when I started to cook in early recovery, I felt a little bit like my son. I would discover a new recipe or I’d learn how to use a vegetable I’d never thought about before (rutabagas, garlic scapes, parsnips!), and I’d feel delighted when I tasted something new. I’d feel ownership of the meal that I had made or that I helped create, and I would marvel at the new tastes and textures. I began to appreciate the way that cooking and eating with someone can be a way of connecting.
Even in recovery, there have been times when the act of eating has not been enjoyable. During those times, I return to the mantra of necessity. My son spent five days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit when he was born, and I was worried sick about him. My appetite was gone. During those five days, I did not enjoy food, I did not think about flavors and cravings and tastes; instead, I ate because I knew I had to. I knew that I needed to feed my body so that I could be strong enough to take care of my son. We made it through those five days, and my son is now a healthy, happy toddler, and I’m extremely grateful for the health of both of our bodies.
When he’s done eating, my son will (sometimes throw the leftovers to our dog) and then sign “All done.” He’ll wait for me to come and lift him out of his chair so he can resume playing or toddling. Sometimes, when he finishes a meal, he’ll want to give me a snuggle or a kiss. As I’m cleaning him up, he’ll lean in and I’ll feel his sticky fingers on my face and his sweet breath on my cheek, and I’ll hold him close. What gratitude I have for our health! What happiness there is in sharing food with my baby!
My son reminds me that food isn’t only about nutrition. It’s also about enjoyment, connection, and even, as he demonstrates on a daily basis, fun! It is about nourishing a body but it can also be about nourishing a family, a friendship, a heart, a self. It sustains our bodies, but it can also sustain our relationships and strengthen our connections to our own desires and tastes and our sense of being worthy of those desires and tastes. We deserve to enjoy the flavors and textures of the food that we eat, and, even during those times when it’s too hard to feel joy, we deserve to nourish our bodies. I am thankful every day that I have a body and a family and relationships to feed and to care for; those people do the work of nourishing my body and my heart, too.
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