How overcoming disordered eating helped me fall in love with cooking

The longest relationship I’ve had in my life has been with disordered thoughts about food. After years of intrusive thoughts that prompted all sorts of terrible behaviors, I sought treatment at 20 years old. It worked in the way eating disorder therapy success is quantified — I gained weight, and am now within a healthy range.

In the five years post-therapy, my actions are mostly that of a “cured” individual. Upon observation, I appear healthy: There’s plenty of good food going into my body, I binge rarely, and it’s been quite awhile since purging has seemed like a reasonable option. Externally, I’m doing well, but internally, the thoughts remain. However, they’re significantly quieter now, because I know where to direct their energy when they rear their nasty little heads.

The therapy I did was pretty well-rounded — I went to group therapy and also saw both a psychiatrist and a nutritionist by myself. A lot of what was happening at that time is fuzzy; the memories are faded or tucked away. There is however, a crisply detailed memory of a particularly formative event. My nutritionist would encourage me to try a new food every couple of weeks, and this particular week, it was butter. We didn’t eat butter growing up, just margarine, so the flavor was quite unfamiliar to me. I decided to fry eggs in this conquerable ingredient. Maybe this memory is so vivid because all of my senses were so utilized. When I dropped the pat of butter in the pan, it sizzled loudly, and the heavenly aroma that is melting butter filled the kitchen. I cooked the eggs in this new fat and ate them with toast, slathered in butter. My mouth is watering right now remembering it. That was the meal that awoke my palate and sense of taste from the years long hibernation my eating disorders had sentenced them to.

After therapy, my interest in food exploded — here was this brand new realm I’d never partaken in. The way my passion for food exploded feels like the equal and opposite of the way I avoided food for so long. The same energy that I spent on keeping food away from me soon turned into my body basically saying, “BRING ME ALL THE FOOD.” I started voraciously consuming food blogs, and trying so many recipes out. The first few years included lots of mishaps and unappetizing meals that I chewed through, because I am both stubborn and cheap. Despite the struggle in the beginning, I kept at it, because cooking is a thoroughly fulfilling pursuit. It is most obviously because the end result literally fills you, but more importantly, the process is utilizes so many parts of your brain.

There’s tactility required, because your body is forced to move in specific and focused ways — the cutting and cleaning of ingredients, the tending to the stove, the cleaning of the dishes. There’s the creative aspect — how can I combine these raw, individual components into a whole dish, more valuable than the sum of its parts? My favorite part, however, is the social aspect. I’ve learned that feeding people I love with a creation of my own is wildly enjoyable.

I’ve been cooking constantly for 5 years and I’m now, I can confidently say that I’m really good at it. It’s thrilling to consider what I was making even just a year ago, and taste the improvement in my current dishes. It’s validating to only have to glance at a recipe when making something new – my knowledge and experience is well rounded enough that I understand the structure of most dishes.

Not only am I now an active home cook, I’ve ended up becoming a professional nutrition educator. I am paid to help kids ages 5 to 17 years old make good eating choices. The irony is not lost on me — I am trusted to help guide these children through choices that I messed up consistently for a long time. But I think that’s why I do my job so well — because I’ve seen the other side of bad food choices, I know why these good ones work. I’m honest with the teens in my program about what I’ve experienced, and I think it gives me an air of credibility and honesty that they love to see in an adult.  

The thing is, the disordered thoughts are still there, and they always will be — but I’ve structured my life and food options in ways that outsmart them. I cook food ahead of time, so there are meals at the ready when I’m hungry. I keep a list in my phone of what I have available to eat that week, so I don’t “forget” to eat for a day. When I feel stress and the indicators of a looming binge episode, the fairly healthy (and safely boring) food options in my house make it hard to act on that.

One of the ways that I was disordered in the past was a fear of processed foods, and that’s been a challenge that has been particularly difficult to unlearn. Having food in my house that is convenient, while not wholly perfect, is a lot better than a bunch of raw ingredients when I’m find that I need food NOW. In the past, when I didn’t have convenient food on hand, I’d end up buying fast food or convenience store food, which usually makes me feel guilty. It would put me in the mindset of, “I’m already being bad, might as well be EXTRA bad,” and would lead to a binge. I’d rather eat a single frozen burrito in my own home than several sloppy burritos guiltily in the parking lot of a fast food chain.

These days, I feel optimistic about my food future. Many of my relationships involve food — cooking nights with friends, regular trips to a greasy and well loved diner, gardening at my work with kids I care deeply about. Those social aspects of food are the biggest promise I make to myself that it’s going to turn out okay. Eating disorders are intensely private and isolating, and my food experiences now are the exact opposite of that — I am constantly receiving and sharing food with the excellent people in my life. While my brain hasn’t necessarily gotten better, I have learned to outsmart it. And I’m not afraid of how I’ll manage my disordered eating anymore.

Stephanie Onderchanin is a Michigan based writer, comedian, illustrator and nutrition educator. She is a co-founder of Comedy Coven, a women-run occult themed comedy group, with whom she writes and performs sketches and produces monthly shows. Her stand up comedy, writing and illustration work covers food, the internet, working out and dating. Professionally, she coordinates and facilitates gardening and nutrition based youth programs. Her free time is spent cooking, scheming and participating in dance based fitness. Read more about her on her website and follow her on Twitter.