How adopting a puppy helped my disordered eating patterns

How adopting a puppy helped my disordered eating patterns

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The following is a personal essay I wrote in February after just one month Basil being home. It mentions my personal history with an eating disorder, and it is not intended to be nutritional advice in any way.

I used to say I “just wasn’t a lunch person.” I used to say I was tired from my day at work, so I’d just have dinner at home. I used to say I had major digestive issues that I was trying to suss out.

In reality, I had an eating disorder.

It was tricky for other people to spot, because I didn’t even know I had one.

In the spring of 2013, I moved to New York right after graduating college for an internship at BuzzFeed. This would be my first time even visiting NYC, let alone living in a major city. For the rest of that year and the next, I dealt with a failing long-distance relationship of my own, my parents’ divorce, and the trials and tribulations of being a young millennial in a big city.

I was dealing with a lot of change and a lot of things that were no longer under my control. I’ve always had things go exactly according to plan; I’m an expert organizer whose brain somehow focuses in on creating optimized processes. I wasn’t ready to anticipate my own body to rebel against my perfectionism with anxiety.

In reality, I was dealing with a combination of stress-induced IBS and various anxiety issues. What I thought I had was a “digestive problem,” so I began to eliminate certain types of foods to determine what it was that was causing bloating, alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation, and generally making eating difficult. 

I ended up losing about 30 pounds during this time, which is shocking on someone who’s barely five feet tall.

To figure out what was “wrong” with me, I first visited a gastroenterologist. He encouraged me to continue taking the over-the-counter laxative medication I had been using if I “found it helpful.” He also gave me the OK to get an MRI, just in case my pituitary gland was malfunctioning and causing these issues. I also visited an endocrinologist who couldn’t deduce anything amiss in my blood samples and perfectly normal MRI scan, but she did recommend I start seeing a nutritionist to start gaining back the “required” weight.

Never once did any of the trained medical professionals I visited suggest I have an eating disorder. My nutritionist was the one who suggested I start therapy, the correct thing to do. She also made me count my calories every day, not the correct thing to do. I now have the nutritional facts of many common foods memorized, and I extremely wish I didn’t.

The technical term for what I went through, and still feel lasting effects from, is orthorexia nervosa; it’s an as-of-yet unrecognized eating disorder where an individual is focused on the nutritional value of the foods they’re eating to an obsessive and detrimental degree.

Through therapy, I began to see the emotional stress and trauma I had gone through over the last three years and beyond. I began to see that I had accidentally developed a distrust and fear of food in the middle of trying to control something in my life. Funny how our coping mechanisms can come right around to bite us in the well-meaning ass.

Slowly, I started to reintroduce foods that were previously scary back into my diet. I started eating at restaurants and with friends, something I avoided for years. I started to feel like I was regaining some of the control I had handed over to restrictive eating habits.

There was still the matter of lunch, though.

Try as I might, I still wasn’t comfortable with eating anything between breakfast and dinner. Something about the concept scared me. My goals with my nutritionist were to eat a certain amount of calories every day in order to gain weight back (so I would conform to the Body Mass Index category I was “supposed” to be in); since I wasn’t eating a third meal, my brain decided to shove everything into breakfast and dinner.

Breakfast and dinner had become my champions and I had to protect them at all costs because if I ate something between the two, it might offset my perfectly choreographed starvation routine.

Yes, if this system sounds insane and difficult, you’re right! It was! This is an extremely limited way of living, but one that I found safe and understandable. Deep down, I knew this wasn’t healthy. I tried to eat food during the day; even if I was successful, it always made me anxious, wondering if I’d ruined dinner for myself.

However, do you know who doesn’t care how much you’ve eaten that day, or when you bother to eat? New puppies.

In mid-January, my boyfriend and I adopted a puppy. She was the runt of her litter, a rescue from Texas, and we fell in love with her before we even met her in person.

Getting a puppy, as I’m sure you’ve heard before, is a lot like having a baby.

We immediately started seeing less of each other during the day. He’d take the overnight shift, I’d handle the early mornings, and sometimes we’d meet in the middle. A true partnership is taking turns showering so someone can watch the puppy and make sure she didn’t destroy anything.

Our puppy, Basil, had to be house-trained for our Brooklyn apartment, not at all the grand here’s-the-backyard treatment she’d likely received from her lovely foster families back home. Additionally, it was the middle of (a mostly mild) winter, a.k.a. her first winter ever. Plus, the poor thing showed signs of a urinary tract infection within a couple of days of moving in.

You can imagine the powerful glutes we’ve developed after rushing her up and down our building’s stairs, racing against the pee clock less than every hour.

Adopting a dog takes more time and effort than you realize, no matter who you are. I was mentally and physically exhausted every night by 9 p.m. – which, yes, is not much earlier than when I typically peter out, but you get the idea. I was wiped, constantly. Convincing a dog to poop in minus 15-degree weather is not an easy chore.

She needed obedience classes and doggy daycare and puppy playdates and trips to dog parks. She needed an appropriate amount of food at each meal, and enough treats to keep her going between them. She needed near constant vigilance in case she decided to transform into the Tazmanian Devil, I guess, and destroy whatever room she was in. She needed loving attention, and baths, and a lap to chew her gross animal bones on. She needed me, and she needed a lot from me.

This beautiful puppy happened to us only a couple of months after I had started taking the whole mid-day snack thing more seriously. More often than not lately, I was trying to embrace the concept of “snacking” (an idea that holds less worrisome heft in my head than “lunching”). The intuitive eating phenomenon had found its way into my Instagram feed, and I found it to be a balm to the last remnants of my eating disorder. With it, you’re allowed to eat what and when your body tells you to, not when a society dominated by diet culture decides for you.

In order to be a fully present human at work, with my boyfriend, for my friends, and for this dog, I had to seriously get a grip on myself. My previous fears and anxieties were put into check. I had to show up and be responsible for the life of another creature which meant that some of my anxieties had to be politely shown the door.

She helped me see that food is fuel. Food is energy we all need in order to just keep going. And if you’re exerting more than you’re taking in, chances are you’re going to feel depleted even more.

More often than not, I’m eating three times a day. And if I’m not – if I happen to have a lower appetite one day, or get too busy – I’m not beating myself up about it, and that alone is a huge amount of progress for me.

My boyfriend has a saying for if I get caught in mental loops about my progress or individual meals: Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.

What benefits you now is still a benefit for you, no matter what. Even if things don’t go the exact way you planned, you have still made incredible strides.

If this sounds like it was some sort of easy transition, let me assure you it very much was not. It’s still difficult for me to see each day as a new opportunity to eat however I feel like. It’s very scary to all of a sudden listen to your body when you suppressed that feeling for years and barely recognize what it feels like.  

But thanks to the help of our new puppy, and oodles of therapy over the last few years, I was able to remove some of those fears and truly begin to take care of myself.  

Do I think puppies will become prescribed treatments for eating disorders? No. But should they? Also, no. In my case, however, this little nugget was the kick in the pants I needed to move myself in a better direction.

Spirituality -- so what?

Spirituality -- so what?

Ask an RD: Dani Russell

Ask an RD: Dani Russell