I feel like i have found freedom in the last few months. Freedom from food. Freedom from thinking about and obsessing over food. Freedom from dieting. Freedom from expectations and rules. I feel like I have discovered a new layer of trust within myself and my intuition. I feel like i have finally found the “answer” to maintaining a healthy weight and body, that I have been looking for, pretty much my entire life, but more diligently the better part of the past decade. But in order to explain this new found freedom, I have to fully explain what brought me to this point.
This is my fourth attempt at writing this post. All of the others have been scrapped because it felt like I was trying to cover so much and condense it to the length of a post someone might actually read. But in the process it became too too overwhelming. Too much to try to figure out and too much to try to explain. Hindsight is 20/20… it’s easy to look back at our lives and experiences and pinpoint exactly what happened that lead to a certain outcome and explain it in a condensed version. But its harder to pinpoint what is going on as it is happening. This is a process i’m still going through, so explaining it isn’t exactly my strong suit yet. But i know I am onto something and I am excited. For me, that means naturally, I want to share. So here I am trying again. I’m going to break it up into several parts in an attempts to not only help you understand whats going on, but to help me fully understand what’s going on. What I am experiencing is different that anything I have before and is completely opposite of what society suggests when it comes to weight and weight loss. It is so simple yet seems so bizarre, risky, or triggering for so many. I am ditching my food rules- but I am not giving up. How does this work?
Let’s start with the beginning. Not worrying so much about what I am doing now, but how i got to this point. This current leg of my weight loss journey started in the end of 2011. My blood pressure was rising and I decided it was time to do something about my weight. It had been about two years since I had dieted intentionally and by December of 2011 I was weighing in at 284 pounds. I was eating a pescetarian diet at the time (eggs, dairy and fish allowed) but didn’t know a whole lot about healthy eating in general, so I decided I would count calories this time around. My first food rule was born.
To my surprise, I had a lot of luck. I was losing 2-3lbs consistently week after week with nothing but calorie counting and a commitment to workout for at least 15 minutes, 5 days a week. Not quite a food rule, but it was the next rule I adapted into my life. I was eating all of the same foods I normally ate and loved, but I had cut back on portion sizes to fit my calorie allotment and slowly but surely I worked more low calorie foods into my diet because I’d always been a volume eater, and eating calorie dense food and calorie counting does not equate to the portion sizes I liked. I started following an at home workout program and the weight started coming off even faster. I was filled with so much pride and so much energy and enthusiasm. I wanted to share it with EVERYONE. I started my blog and instagram account and sooner or later fell down the rabbit hole of the next leg of my journey- Multi Level Marketing.
In this leg i had the idea that if this workout was working for me and i was recommending it to everyone who asked about my workouts, anyway, maybe I should start selling it and i can make some money. When i reached out to someone I already knew who worked for the company, she set me up with and account to sell the program and to also drink and sell their shakes. The shake was nutrient dense and intended to be drank once a day as a replacement for one meal. I also got more serious about my at home workouts and purchased a couple different options. However, unlike in the beginning I didn’t just do whatever workout i felt like, whenever i felt like it. I followed the suggested workout schedule, requiring me to workout 6 days a week. I added more rules to my arsenal: must drink one shake instead of food, per day. Must workout 6 days a week to keep up with my program and inspire everyone else on it, too. Must also keep up counting calories. Check!
Very shortly after I started with the shake company I decided to take the plunge into full on veganism. I had a corneal ulcer that was deemed incurable and when i found out the medicine to help the symptoms had side effects such as blindness and glaucoma, I decided to search for a natural option. The internet suggested giving up chemicals and all animal protein. This seemed like a great idea because I wanted to be healthier anyways, so cutting out artificial and nonorganic ingredients seemed smart, plus i was already eating mostly plants anyway, so getting rid of the dairy, eggs and fish didnt seem like a big deal. Within 6 months the symptoms of my ulcer had completely disappeared and i’d finally met my weight loss goal of 50%. I was 142lbs. The success lead me down the next leg of my jounrey- full time veganism.
I became obsessed with the idea that food could cure illness and documentaries were my new best friend. I spent hours and hours and hours watching any documentary i came across that promoted not only the health benefits but the ethical and environmental benefits of veganism. I became that much more inspired to stick with it and also, share what I had learned with whoever was interested. I believed in this eating style and became interested in nutrition as a whole, now realizing how powerful food could be. My vegan research became general nutrition research and i tried to work as many superfoods as i could into my meals. I no longer worried only about whether I was in my calorie range and if the food was vegan and free of artificial additives, but now I judged my food based on its nutritional value too. Add a new set of food rules: eat food that is the healthiest you can possibly find. In the name of health, i slowly began to judge myself and beat myself up with a little internal dialogue whenever I ate something that wasn’t entirely clean. “You know better, Ashley. Don’t blame anyone else when you end up sick.”
About two years into my new nutrition obsession all of that judgement and negative self talk finally did catch up and I became sick. I was hospitalized twice for insane stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. Seemingly, nothing was wrong with me and it was brushed off by the gastroenterologist as colitis- a fancy term for inflammation in the digestive tract. I went on with my life and eating rules, but things were never the same. I started experiencing extreme bloating my stool was no longer solid, ever. I would eat 100% clean, vegan, nutritious foods only to blow up and look 6 months pregnant by the end of the day, anyhow. I figured I must have a food allergy so I got tested and came back with 40 food sensitivities. How could i be sensitive to so many foods when i’d never even had any type of allergies besides the occasional seasonal during a new england pollen bloom? I tried to find a way to eat that avoided all of my new sensitivities but the list included basically everything i was accustomed to eating daily- kale, lentils, nuts, pea protein from my shakes, etc. I became frustrated and started to research what could possibly be going on, and found information about Leaky Gut. This is a condition where the gut has increased permeability and food enzymes that wouldnt normally be found in the blood are able to escape into the blood stream. It causes an inflammatory autoimmune response and the body fights the enzymes, causing the body to develop sensitivities and allergies to the foods it’s most commonly fighting against. AKA my every day foods.
I got very angry at wondering how i could develop such a condition eating the way I was eating. I learned that it could be caused by the chemicals we spray on our produce, the chemicals we add to our food for color and stabilizers, sugar and alcohol. It could also be genetic, due to stress, or the result of a bad bacteria the ravaged all healthy guy bacteria (most likely what happened to me when i ended up in the hospital.) I barely drank alcohol and only “cheated” with sugary and artificial foods from time to time, so i saw this as my sign to tighten up the ropes and cut back on treats even more. I cut out all added sugars and added a handful of supplements to my daily intake. I followed the leaky gut diet but ignored the part that suggested taking collagen or adding bone broth to my diet as a healing ailment. Bone broth broke my food rule about veganism and I was in the habit of adding food rules, not breaking them.
After 109 days of following my veganized leaky gut diet I was feeling pretty good. My sugar cravings had been intense the first few weeks but had nearly subsided. I was no longer bloated and getting used to eating such clean food 100% of the time. I had just finished training for and running a half marathon and decided I was going to treat myself with a vegan protein cookie- my first treat in more than 3 months. The cookie was no where near as good as i imagined it was going to be. But that didn’t matter. I had had a taste of sugar and my body wouldnt stop screaming MOREEEEEEEEE!!!!
I went on a week long “bender” if you will. I desired and ate everything in my sight, provided it was vegan. Vegan junk food tends to be just as or even more processed than the original stuff, so i basically shocked my system. I felt like complete crap, but not enough to stop eating. I told myself that every treat was “the last one” and fully indulged in the entire pack of oreos or the entire bag of chips.”tomorrow I am starting right back on track” but then when tomorrow came, I had no desire to start back up. My cravings were worse than ever and I felt like i couldnt say no to them. This went on for an entire week, stuffing my face, beating myself up and feeling guilty for having “no control” and then eating some more to try to suppress those feelings of guilt and shame and lack of control. Eventually I got it together and got back on track, but it was short lived.
Over the next year I found myself in a cycle of gaining and losing the same 10lbs over and over and had fully accepted that this is just what maintenance mode is, after major weight loss. I didn’t know how to hold a steady weight, but i was great at gaining and great at losing so I just alternated between the two. I avoided processed and sugary foods for as long as i possibly could because I knew once i opened the flood gates, i couldnt stop. Eventually I would give in and eat some kind of treat and then continue to stuff my face for the rest of the day, week, or weeks, depending on how long it took me to “snap out of it.” Each time I binged I would make up for it by drinking detox tea to help with the bloating and get it out of my system as fast as possible. Then I would commit to a 1-3 day shake cleanse. If i got through the 3 days I was usually freed of my cravings for at least a few days, during which i would work out extra hard to “undo the damage” I had done in the days prior. No matter how hard i tried to undo the damage though, I would always find myself back in binge mode.
My binging was done in secret, adding more shame to the equation. Sometimes i would talk about them briefly saying i had fallen off track, but i never full disclosed how insane they became because I was so embarrassed about it. I wasn’t too worried about the cycle though because I knew plenty of other people from the internet and real life who ate clean almost all the time and then binged at least one day of the weekend for treat day. It was normalized by the fitness and weight loss community and i thought “this is just what its like to be a fit person” and was completely oblivious to the fact that i was developing a type of disordered eating, and that the industry i credited with motivating me to be healthy was also the industry that was normalizing a full fledged eating disorder.
By 2017 i found myself at 185lbs and although still 100lbs down, constantly beating myself up for having put on weight. I felt a constant need to do SOMETHING so i found myself going over the food rules i would instill and follow “tomorrow” on a regular basis. No meat or dairy or animal products. Nothing with more than 3g added sugar. No gluten. No fried food. Nutrition rich food, only. Eat between noon and 8pm only. Drink half my body weight in water. Workout for an hour, 5-6 days a week. Drink one shake in place of a meal daily. Drink tea in the morning and before bed. Make a meal plan. Eat only whats on the meal plan. Don’t go out to eat unless its your scheduled weekly treat. Eat one portion size only. No alcohol, ever. Although my intentions were good, there were just SO MANY RULES. And with that many rules, some are bound to be broken. When I broke them I was not kind to myself. On the contrary, i would beat myself up. “You managed to lose 140lbs naturally and you’re telling me you cant stay on track for an entire week straight? People are looking up to you, you need to be an example. You know better- DO BETTER. You cannot let yourself gain much more weight Ashley. Why did you skip your workout today? Now two days in a row? WTF you better cut your calories down the next few days to make up for that.” It was a vicious cycle of wonderful, but impossible intentions, and horrible, destructive self talk and actions.
But it didn’t get easier. The more i focused on “Omg i am gaining weight, this is out of control, i need to stop” the more out of control it seemed i became. During that year my emotions were tested big time and i went through some very trying experiences and adjustments. I published my tell all memoir, exposing my truth and experiences of working in the sex industry, to the whole world. The vulnerability was necessary and healing in a sense, but it brought on a lot of stress and fear of judgement. As a result, I had to end a long term toxic friendship with someone i love dearly. But the drama didn’t end with that. Someone i was dating casually, but had real feelings for, got someone else pregnant, ending our time together. I started a long distance relationship with someone else who never made me a priority and after months of empty promises, it had started to effect my self worth. My mother moved in next door, after having living 1400+ miles apart for the better part of the last decade. Adjusting to having her so close and feeling a sense of responsibility to look after her was not easy. I met my biological father after 27 years of no contact. I lived through the traumatizing experience of Hurricane Irma- although it could’ve been worse the week without water or electricity in the south Florida summer heat was emotionally exhausting. The financial burden and depression that lingered for weeks while we got things back to normal, was more than I could handle at the time too. I began to feel so out of wack i missed a period and requested my doctor check my hormones. I found out I had nodules on my thyroid and a thickened endometrium. My stomach sank at the idea there’s even a possibility that i may struggle to have children and that being so set on waiting until i was ready for them may have worked against me, after all. Add all of these triggering experiences to the fact that the only part of my physical body that i focused on was the fact that I was gaining weight, and it was a perfect storm to gain more weight.
Through the last year i just COULDNT STOP EATING. I knew part of it was trying to soothe some of the emotional turmoil i was going through, but there was something bigger going on, too. I understood the health benefits of eating well and the dangers of eating poorly, yet i couldnt bring myself to just do it anymore. I had also foregone veganism for the sake of binging. I managed to binge as a vegetarian but the guilt of not only breaking my food rules but also dishonoring my ethics and not living up to my internet given label of “vegan” brought me immense guilt and shame. My binges had become so extreme they could last for days or weeks on end. In a single day I could eat an entire family sized bag of chips, two large fast food french fries with an ice cream cone and a sundae, a large pineapple and jalepeno pizza, half a pack of oreos and 12 fun size candy bars. My stomach would feel so stuffed i would experience actual pain and sometimes even pass out on the couch from a dreaded food coma. It seemed like all i could think about was food. Every time i got in the car I wanted to stop at a convenience store or a drive through. On the days I worked from home my work was broken up at least hourly by snack breaks. Even if I only had healthy food in the house, i would stuff my face with it. I would count down until I finished my tasks for the day so i could run out and grab something to eat. Whenever I met with friends for a get together or party I’d eat on my way to and from the gathering to satisfy my desires but without showing my shame-filled habits to anyone. Food was the forefront of all my thoughts and plans.
I began to feel completely powerless. I tried so hard to fight what was happening. For every time i “messed up” i planned the next week extra clean and on point and always had a plan or a set of rules ready to “Undo the damage.” but no matter how many times i undid the damage, the weight just kept creeping on. Sooner or later i found myself at the point where i could follow all my rules all week and STILL the scale didn’t move. Everything i knew about calorie counting and healthy eating and weight loss was being challenged big time. I thought it was supposed to become easier with time and if i checked myself fast enough and got back to following my rules, I was supposed to start losing weight again. This was no longer the case. I had slowly put on the pounds since 2014, but between May 2017- May 2018, the same time period of all the emotional turmoil previously mentioned, I had put on 40lbs. I was back up to 220 and blaming myself, my “food addiction” and my “lack of will power” for it 100%.
I didn’t want to give up, but i knew i had to do something different. What had always worked for me was no longer working. I hadn’t yet realized that the exact cycle and habits that i thought were helping me were the exact habits and cycles that were causing these issues, though. I did know, that there was no way in hell maintaining a healthy weight had to be this hard, though. I became so sick of the struggle and vowed I would find an easier way to do this. I thought about my ancestors and considered they had never counted a single calories or considered nutrition. They just ate what they wanted according to what was available when they were hungry. I dreamed of being able to do that. I dreamed of being able to “eat like a normal person” but i had sworn this idea off so long ago, accepting that i had no idea how to eat properly if i wasn’t counting something or following some set of food rules. I didn’t trust myself to make good food choices and felt like i needed some set of rules to follow outside of myself in order to be healthy and ultimately, get back to a comfortable weight. I felt like an imposter in my life and career for not being able to uphold the practices i had been preaching for the past 6 years. I felt like a failure and stopped wanting to be social out of sheer embarrassment of how much weight I gained.
And then I went on a shamanic journey… seriously.
Update: Here’s Part 2!