Part 1: Introducing the all-inclusive resort analogy
In October/November I spent 15 nights in Playa del Carmen to circumvent the US travel ban and get into the US to see my partner for the first (non-Zoom/WhatsApp) time in 13 months. I decided to splash out, and spent far more on this holiday than I ever have on any trip in my life—especially one on my own.
It struck me right from the moment of typing in my credit card details that this was a nicely anti-anorexic thing to be doing: 1) Spend a lot of money, just on myself, and not because I “had” to, i.e. buying myself something more than I “had” to. What I didn’t realize at that point was how much broader the implications of the all-inclusive vacation model could be for thinking about how to do eating disorder recovery successfully—and maybe even about broader questions around how to do healthy eating and exercise successfully.
Here’s the thesis in brief. All-inclusive is the epitome of incentivizing “more than necessary”: You’re paying to encourage yourself to have as much as possible. You’re paying to put the limits (on eating, drinking, and whatever else your package includes) so high as to be practically irrelevant (I guess you could camp out at the resort bar or restaurant and eventually get told you can’t have any more? but probably not until after you passed out / threw up). The idea is that this is beneficial (e.g. relaxing) because then you get to self-regulate without some major standard constraints (e.g. cost) getting in the way.
In this miniseries I’ll argue that the all-inclusive framework is, structurally speaking, the same framework that’s needed to recover from a restrictive eating disorder (or from chronic dieting): the limit is raised high enough to be irrelevant. (The same applies for a compulsive exercise problem, but switched around: Here the limit is made low enough to be irrelevant.) Only then can you start self-regulating, i.e. start using feedback (e.g. on how you feel, what other outcomes you’re getting), rather than blindly applying rules (e.g. how many calories or minutes or kilometres regardless of everything else).
Of course, the all-inclusive benefits may not, in the vacation or the recovery context, be immediate. Self-regulation may take time to be learnt—maybe a lot of time. I guess some people do all-inclusive and binge-eat/drink in a way that makes them miserable, and some others do it in as miserly a way as if they were paying for every drink and meal, and some people do it just fine but don’t enjoy themselves because too many other things are wrong. Equally, learning how to self-regulate in recovery, and then getting the payoffs for the rest of life, obviously isn’t instant—although in some cases, the instincts for how to do it may snap back into place a lot more quickly than expected.
Letting internal regulation take over.
Following step 1 (spend a lot of money on something where everything is included, i.e. the incentive is now to consume more not less) allows for the magic of step 2: Let the self-regulation happen. For me this autumn, the eating-specific effects weren’t particularly salient, because I’m already self-regulating happily in that realm, but the way eating and drinking adjusted effortlessly to the absence of ordinary constraints was a pleasant part of a broader ease in adapting to having pretty near zero limitations or responsibilities. The most strikingly beautiful part of this holiday—even more so than the blue-green Caribbean water, the palm trees, and the ocean sunrises from my balcony—was how everything simply took care of itself, effortlessly, in the absence of almost all readymade guidelines.
I don’t recall any time in my adult life when there were so few requirements on me—self-imposed or otherwise. I had a few coaching calls in the calendar, but I deliberately cleared other work commitments for this fortnight, so otherwise it was empty. And this being all-inclusive, there was nothing practical (shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.) to think about. There were no pre-decided boundaries in my day. Being on my own, there weren’t even anyone else’s preferences to accommodate. There were, basically, no “should”s.
So, what happens when you take the ought out of your life?
In many senses, of course, two weeks lounging around in a swanky hotel has little to do with the rest of life. But it can provide some important illumination for the rest—clarifying it ex negativo, through the absence of what’s ordinarily present. What it does is remove almost all the accreted habits that normally prevent us from answering that question from scratch. There’s never a blank slate, but the slate is a lot freer of old scrawls when everyday busyness is prevented from fooling us into believing we have no options.
“Ditching the ought” has to become a reflex in recovery from anorexia. For a while, a new version of “ought” (eat more, move less) has to replace the old; later, the whole idea of “ought” has to change its nature, become more malleable by context. This progression obviously applies to the diet and exercise specifics, but it’s also about much broader questions concerning how we choose to live and why—which are what the great excitement of fully recovering really amounts to. Now that I get to choose how to live, rather than an illness always already having dictated 90% of the answer, how do I in fact choose to?
If this still feels a million miles away from you, trudging across the endless grey tundra of recovery, this series may serve two purposes: 1) illustrate the basics of how to make recovery work, via the all-inclusive vacation analogy; 2) encourage you to try out such a vacation for real, as a pleasurably literal way to accelerate the process. At the end I’ll also offer some observations relevant to eating well (in the fullest sense of that term) in the absence of an eating disorder but the presence of all the screechy sociocultural signals that can make it feel so hard to find and maintain personal equilibrium.
Part 2: The anorexic vacation
Unless you’re far more profoundly motivated by the desire not to waste money than most people are, there’s not much point in doing the literal all-inclusive vacation with full-blown anorexia if you’ve done none of the analogous practice of lifting constraints and shifting incentives beforehand. I can imagine with tedious ease exactly what this Mexican fortnight would have been if anorexia had still been running the show. The “oughts” would have kept doing what they always did.
First of all, I would have had to be brought kicking and screaming (well, the pallid, flaccid anorexic version of that) here in the first place. There’s not much point in someone with anorexia actively choosing a place that costs a lot and is remotely worth the cost only if you enjoy eating and drinking plenty, at civilized times of day. I would have been horrified by everything from the price tag to the idea of eating every meal in a restaurant (though I guess I’d have approved of the fridge and coffee machine in the room, the former topped up by a man with a trolley full of cold cans and snacks every day, the latter adaptable to make tolerable cups of tea). So, I would have needed a really compelling reason to do this at all. Let’s say a parent generously gave this to me, hoping it would do me good.
So I’m here. I arrive on a Sunday evening; the bellboy shows me to my room. Despite the long trip and jetlag I force myself to stay up long enough to have several hot drinks as a prelude to my nighttime meal. I’ve obviously brought lots of special foods with me, probably including cereal bars, cereal, maybe some soy milk to tide me over before I find a shop, maybe bread and/or margarine and lettuce, and of course lots of chocolate and other extremely sweet things. And I’ve gathered up all the plane food to eat tonight—not the main course, which I worried about getting through customs or spilling in my bag, but the bread rolls and the brownie dessert and the mini butters and everything. And I have my electronic kitchen scale (and I’ve probably emailed the hotel in advance to ask whether they have body scales) and I work out how to incorporate these into the immovable framework for my single meal of the day. And that meal is an urgent ecstasy, as always. And I sleep deeply until lunchtime at the earliest.
When I wake up, I consult Maps to find an acceptable walk to take me to a supermarket to buy more “essentials” and keep me walking for long enough to be comparable to the daily bike ride at home. And when that’s all done and there are maybe a few daylight hours left, I might lie out in the sun on the beach or balcony, self-conscious about my thinness if in public, probably chilled by the slightest warmest breeze. And I feel guilty or at least on edge the whole time about not being productive, and I have some work-related book to read that I’m making faint pencil marks in the margins of (since it’s a library book), and I’m bored by all of them and maybe grant myself a half hour for something I wanted to read, like fiction, but only once it’s night again.
And because I’m obsessed with not wasting money (I don’t care very much about other people’s money, but still a little bit), I go to the “barefoot bar” and order a wrap or a panini and factor it into my late-night meal, and I go to the café every day to get free coffees and eye up all the cakes and pastries and get several of them every day to have at the nightly high point of my life: eating fat and sugar.
And the days pass, and I stay in my haze, and my skin gets a tiny bit of colour but I miss half the daylight hours, and I bless the brief respite from serious cold but keep my body unable to insulate itself, and I turn a short daily sea swim into a non-negotiable ordeal, and I don’t speak more than a few words to anyone but make a whole lot of people feel vaguely sad or uncomfortable, and so my time in sunnier climes comes to an end. And I go home the same sad person who spends 21 hours of her day wishing time onwards just so she can eat.
I shudder to imagine this. I drafted this section over wine in between courses and banter with the waiters at the breezy outdoor restaurant. It was hard to write because I wasted so many holidays this way. And I defended the waste, for fuck’s sake. That’s what’s really so infuriating and incomprehensible about this illness: how it makes its hosts think their life is better without it, not so much worse it barely counts as living.
Part 3: The recovered vacation
So take instead the reality. Not the version where every new possibility is already precluded by a “no”, every old habit already insisted on by an “it couldn’t be any other way”. The version where the decisions make themselves—as they always in reality do, but in all the beauty of their self-determining nakedness. The version where days start at 6 or 7 or 8 or whenever I happen to wake up, and where I maybe start reading a bit of one of my holiday paperbacks (Anne Tyler, Yan Hang, Muriel Spark) in bed, or more likely get straight up, take a quick peek out from behind the net curtain to check the state of the sky, pull on a minimal negligee (I’d always rather be clothes-free), put a teabag and water in the coffee machine, go to the loo, clean my teeth and face, and go onto the balcony to sit watching the sunrise sea while I write my diary and drink my tea. And then most mornings I go to 8am yoga, and usually to some other class later (it was fun to try all kinds of things I never would otherwise: HIIT boxing, TRX, a crazy fitness challenge thing on the main lawn in full view of all the pool-goers), and after yoga I have some variants on eggs, cheese, and meat in the outdoor restaurant, and then the rest of the day is a lazy, soft-edged mixture, drifting between balcony, pool, and beach; between reading, writing, email, work/pleasure Zooms, dozing, eating, drinking, swimming, wandering into town for something. There are few set times for anything, only pretty capacious meal deadlines (breakfast by 10:30, lunch by 4, sometimes a dinner booking); and instead there have been instincts that have come and gone: to drift into a fictional world for a while, to crystallize a new bit of a course idea in writing; to get coffee and a cake (going into the café and not handing over money in return for a latte just doesn’t get old!); maybe to go and lift something a bit heavy in the gym; to have an evening swim in the uplit pool or to sit on the balcony with a beer and salty snacks instead. The extreme luxury of 14 whole days of this feels almost surreal. I don’t talk to a great many people beyond the waiters, but I get lots of cheery hair compliments and have a few interesting chats with waiters and other guests.
And imagining it being gently poisoned from the start is easy—just as easy as imagining it being utterly annihilated by severe anorexia. Take pseudo-recovery, the place so many people stop. What version do you get here?
Part 4: The pseudo-recovered version
If you’ve stopped halfway in recovery, you get the version where you do a lot of comparing of how much you’re eating and exercising with how much you would do at home. Where you need to get your daily exercise in before you can relax. Where you think about calories when choosing from menus. Where if you had just the couscous and chicken salad for lunch one day you go without the panini or the wrap every day after that because the lower precedent has now been set (and the same with adding flour tortillas to breakfast, or cake to coffee, or dessert at dinner). Where you have to have a certain number of swims per day, of a certain length, aimed at calorie burning or muscle maintenance (which is all really aimed at how slim or toned you look). Where you limit yourself to alcohol x days a week rather than deciding whether or not you feel like it. Where once you’ve found out about the fitness class schedule, you have to go to all of them, or some subset non-negotiably. Where you spend a lot of time looking at your swimsuited self in mirrors and comparing your body with other people’s.
(Or, at a slightly more advanced stage of pseudo or partial recovery, where you manage to resist some or all of these instincts but you still feel a lot of guilt and doubt and preoccupation as you do so.)
And this version is a bit less hard to get frustrated or angry about, because it’s easier to see how you kid yourself it’s decent. But it makes me just as sad to think about, maybe more so, because it has even more of an inbuilt self-perpetuation mechanism than the acute-AN version. This is the “stopping halfway” that I’ve written about before, and that many readers said they felt powerful recognition of. (PT removed all comments from all blog posts last year, but I have a copy of the hundreds that were posted in response to the “stopping halfway” piece, and all the others.)
This is the state that tries to pass itself off as the best of both worlds—still relatively thin and relatively free—rather than the worst: not particularly thin, still deluded that thinness matters, and not remotely free.
I guess it looks a lot—at least if you squint and look away pretty quick—like the best you can reasonably expect to get, because pseudo-recovery and normality are getting harder and harder to tell apart. But if you’re in the former camp, you have one great advantage over those in the latter. You know that this is part of a process that you’ve begun and that you can decide to resume and complete. You’ve already got from 0% to 80% or 90% recovered; you can certainly manage the last 10% or 20%.
If it helps, start planning a vacation like this (or not at all like this, but dreamily different from the everyday and opening up the space for self-regulation in whatever way works for you) and remember how elusive but how entirely unfakeable the difference is between the experience you get if you complete this process versus if you don’t.
It’s not quite like being a child again, the good version, but it also kind of is: It’s doing what you want, when you want, and not even any parents to tell you not to, because now you know enough to sense when you want and need your own bedtime to be.
Stay tuned for the last four parts of the series!