Introduction: When I wrote the piece below back in 1998, I was far from clear with regards to what I was writing. Eating disorders starve and scare the body and brain. I was confused, depressed, anxious and afraid. Although there was a part of me that would not give up and tried to reassure me that everything would be okay, I had some serious doubts that I would even survive. Eating disorders drain away our life force and often our very will to live. But today, I honestly would not trade or change a thing. As Helen Keller said, "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved." (Helen Keller, p21, The Week, June 23, 06.) Here is a brief overview of my experience, updated in 2007.
I was born in 1955 in San Francisco, California, and grew up in a family that most people would consider "normal" in most respects. But to me, it was a quite painful family situation. My parents and all of my four brothers and sisters were compulsive- addictive types, and each of us has battled attachments to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, foods, and / or others.
There was little expressed love or emotional honesty in our home. Feelings and emotions were basically hidden or denied. I became very sensitive to these dynamics and distortions. I was especially angry over the mainstream medical model, and the hospital we frequented for all of our frequent ailments. I sensed something very wrong and contradictory to healing in the way we were often treated with indifference, disrespect, needles, medicines, and vaccines, and I also sensed something alarming about our frequent need for dental care. All I can say is that I often felt confused, frustrated, and even angry with our western medicine.
Our family's all-American diet didn't seem to work for me, and I struggled with constant diarrhea and intestinal pain. I'm sure this must have contributed greatly to my moodiness and frustration. My father, weakened from years of unhealthy, refined and processed foods (bacon, hamburgers, and other fatty foods), cigarettes, beer, prescription drugs, city life, and emotional struggles, and whatever else I am not aware of, developed angina and assorted lung and heart problems, and died a painful death at age 55. I was confused and angry, but somewhere inside me a seed of intent was planted: I would not succumb to the unhealthy lifestyle that led my dad to an early death.
But I had an addictive personality. I was about 18 when Dad died, and my main addictions were enervating foods (garlic sausage and hot dogs were my favorites) and a struggle to be "perfect" in order to win whatever love was available from Mom (through good grades, good behavior, etc.). But I soon discovered alcohol, drugs, sex, sports, travel, and other ways to loosen up, rebel, and perhaps feel life but also numb it at the same time. It seems I wanted to feel alive and simultaneously numb the pain. Thus, up until age 30 or so, I jumped in and out of jobs, and traveled extensively around the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and other countries. I got in and out of relationships, did plenty of "partying," played lots of sports, and basically lived life to the fullest in one sense, while avoiding myself and the pain I was experiencing in another sense.
Gradually, however, I began to grow, to let some light within. I cut out all drugs (both prescription and recreational) and most alcohol by age 30. My world travels enabled me to compare the diets and behavior of different cultures and peoples, and I slowly improved my eating habits. I began cutting back on refined and processed foods, and sugars and salts, and cut out all red meat by age 30 or so. Within a couple years I was a vegetarian, and feeling much better. I began college, studying sociology and psychology, and graduated with honors at age 35. I became very involved with community volunteer work, and then international human rights work. I joined fact- finding delegations to Panama, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, became even more concerned with the effects of U.S. policies around the world, and stayed two and a half years in Guatemala doing extensive education work aimed at effecting change in our policies toward Guatemala and other countries.
I was on my path, totally enjoying my work and my life. But something was missing. Much of my work was excessively ego-driven. Many people would praise my work, and I was addicted to approval from others-- perhaps the love I wished I had gotten as a child. But I still didn't quite love myself, and I grew increasingly perplexed by my continuing anger, unrest, and moodiness. I was playing the martyr, out to save the world. But something was out of whack. Where was the fun, the joy, the sense of peace and calm?
Then I met a couple from California traveling in Guatemala. They were the first raw- fooders I'd ever met, and one of them also knew iridology. They had learned much of this from alternative health practitioners who emphasized raw food and fasting as the keys to vibrant health. The three of us spent countless hours discussing life, diet, fasting, raw foods, and numerous other health topics. They (and subsequent books I read regarding raw foods) convinced me that raw foods maintain the nutrients and life force in the foods, rather than destroy the vitamins by heating the food. My new acquaintances examined my eyes, and pointed out the weaknesses he believed he saw in my colon, legs, heart, etc., based on iridology. Finally, I thought I had my answer! I hoped that this was the key to my continuing frustrations with my moods and confusion. I could fast, eat raw food, and be happy ever after.
Within a couple months I was eating a 90% raw food diet, and tried a short juice cleanse. I felt great. Then I set aside time for a two-week distilled-water fast at a beautiful location on Lake Atitlan [Guatemala], supervised by the friends mentioned above. Most of this was a pleasant experience. I had been so enmeshed in college and my subsequent human-rights work that I had not taken any time to just relax, and the fast provided me an opportunity to rest, lie in the sun, take invigorating cold showers, listen to my body, and take care of myself. I was convinced it was the thing to do.
But I ignored some warnings, and wasn't really listening to my body. I never truly lost my appetite like the "experts" say will happen after the first few days of fasting. After about a week, my body was shouting "enough!" But I still couldn't trust my body, after years of ignoring it. I was so convinced the fast was the right thing to do.
Then, after the fast, the problems began. I developed amoebic dysentery and Giardia. I panicked and tried medication--which didn't work, and I had continuous diarrhea for two months straight. My weight--which was always low at about 125 pounds [56 kg] at a height of 5'8" [173 cm]--dropped all the way down to 99 pounds [45 kg]. People were looking at me like I was crazy, telling me to eat more cooked foods and take medicine, but I continued to eat light, raw foods. The only thing that finally eliminated the amoebas and Giardia was another week-long fast (two days of juice and five on distilled water). Did I starve them out? Did I prove everyone wrong by sticking to my raw foods and fasting regimen? Were these critters just helping me clean up the debris and toxins I had stirred up with the two-week fast? Should I have taken the meds and stopped being so rigid? I still wonder about these things.
That was back in 1995, and my life was hellish for several years afterwards. I developed a full-on eating disorder, complete with food fixation, intense cravings, constant food shopping, meal planning, and cycles of bingeing/fasting. I thought I was going crazy. After a couple years of this, I finally admitted that my life was out of control, and began attending eating-disorder groups. It helped so much to "come out of the closet" of shame, know that I wasn't alone, and open up about my struggles. But my depression, lack of motivation and strength, inability to experience joy, and poor memory and focus, all continued. I was completely self-absorbed; it seemed like my entire life was focused was on food. There was no room for God, friends, an intimate relationship, or anyone else.
Meanwhile, I was still fairly convinced that raw food and cleansing were key. For several years, I continued to eat about 2/3 raw food diet since I began in 1994. I also did a couple of water fasts and several juice, herb, and other cleanses over those years--which were often followed by bingeing periods. Furthermore, I was living in cool, wet Seattle, and my body type is a "vata" in ayurvedic terms. (In the ancient East Indian system of ayurveda, this term refers to people with a physical/emotional constitution that is generally thin, with poor circulation, cold hands and feet, and who often have trouble on raw-food diets.) I also developed some degree of hypoglycemia (basically tired, stressed organs in my view) a condition that benefits from more grounding, warm meals, not a diet of about 50% fruit as I was eating. I'm sure my worrying and extreme food focus didn't help either.
I finally realized that perhaps my biggest "mistake" ("lessons" when I'm feeling optimistic) was my addiction to fruit and sugary foods. I had read and heard so many fruitarian theories about fruit being the "ideal, natural food for man," and it tasted so good, it played in well with my genetic and family background of addictions. I became extremely yin, spacey, ungrounded, cold, unfocused, anxious, and depressed. I just couldn't see clear enough to trust my body's cravings for more grounding foods. I believed that maybe it was just a cleansing period I must suffer through. I wanted to break the cooked food addiction, as I understood it.
Inevitably, however, my cravings would explode into binges on breads, burritos, ice cream, and other comfort foods. At times I would eat two or three meals in a row-- often cooked foods that I had deprived myself of. I would feel so ashamed, and often "punish" myself with one-day fasts, or do enemas to purify myself. I continued to see myself as not quite clean, purified, or good enough, so I continued doing herbal and juice cleanses.
I saw myself as weak, unable to break my addictions. Why couldn't I stick to raw foods, the supposedly ideal diet? Was I going crazy? What would happen if I trusted my cravings and continued to feed my addictions (cooked food)? I had learned that cooking foods destroys all or most of the vitamins, nutrients and minerals, and makes the body acidic and toxic. Although I weighed only 115 lbs.[52 kg] during most of this time, I felt my belly was still protruding from eating a bit too much. If I only had a bit more discipline and control. Little did I know that I probably needed to do just the opposite: stop controlling and trust both Spirit and body. My body was craving proteins and fats; it was simply hungry.
Meanwhile, I was putting all of my energy into food: shopping, sprouting, soaking, dehydrating, blending, or just thinking about it. I lost all ability to experience joy. My sex drive had completely disappeared, my lower back pain had increased considerably, and I no longer played any sports. I was constantly in fear, and felt there was never enough time, money, food, or love. I had lost all spontaneity, and my memory and concentration were weak. I would start dozens of projects and finish nothing, and I had to discontinue my human rights work. It was all about me.
But I never gave up, and I even began to fight back. First, I got involved in spiritual and emotional healing groups. But this was a double-edged sword: on one side it was a revelation, but partially due to my control-oriented and even abusive Catholic background, I found it hard to trust and surrender to life, Spirit, or anything else. Thus, in some ways this contributed to my depression and kept me focusing on the food regime--a familiar way to keep me numb.
But, I struggled on. Somehow, despite my spacey state, I managed to begin and complete a two-year, energy healing program. I felt ungrounded and "not good enough" the entire two years, but I was determined to heal myself and hopefully help others someday. Then, I took a one-year spiritual healing course where I was taught how to release patterns, beliefs, and other limiting and self-defeating factors. For me it was a powerful healing program--I started to clearly see how far off my path I had fallen in my food focus, perfectionism and need for outside love and approval, and I really began to let go and heal. I realized that, first, I had been an angry man fighting for peace in Central America, and second, I was trying to eat my way to God, to find bliss and happiness through "perfect" food, cleansing, yoga, and lifestyle, but I was ignoring God (or whatever word one chooses to use), fun, old wounds, and my body in the process.
Another crucial step was attending the eating-disorder groups. It was such a relief to know that I wasn't alone, that I wasn't crazy. I learned that I have much in common with anorexic/bulimic behavior: controlling parents who were incapable of unconditional love, and who expected perfection and "specialness" from me. I wasn't purging food by vomiting like many bulimics, but I was still doing fasts, enemas, spitting out "bad" foods after chewing them, and using diuretics and laxatives to flush out my system and "purify". I wasn't as afraid of gaining weight as anorexics are (I was actually hoping to eventually gain weight), but I was afraid of toxins, and body focused, so I would focus on supposedly pure, cleansing foods.
I enjoyed all the meetings and people I encountered, but I did see an unfortunate limitation--perhaps more so with the 12-step programs--where many people became identified with their disease and story, often tied to the label as eating disordered, perhaps even a victim orientation, and became addicted to the group process. I found another group that focused on healing past and present relationships and understanding ourselves better, and it was very helpful. All the groups eventually helped to break the tragedy of isolation, shame, dishonesty, and confusion.
I also started to find out that many other people who attempt the raw-food path also have some eating problems. Many (not all) raw-fooders I've met are somewhat overly- serious, troubled, and rigid. I came across an article where someone coined the term "orthorexic" for rigid food purist/perfectionist types, and I immediately recognized myself. (See the article Health Food Junkie on this site for details.) Ironically, although my life had become miserable and unmanageable, I still felt superior over those uneducated, ignorant Joe and Mary six-packs of the world. My judgment of others kept me from seeing how much I truly hated myself and the direction my life was going.
Slowly, like a child starting to walk, I came back into balance. I am starting to get past the victim mentality, no longer blaming anyone who taught me anything about raw foods or fasting. I created this whole scenario, I believe, to really get my attention, to finally dig down to the roots of a lifetime of dysfunctional behavior, a lifetime (perhaps many lifetimes?) of personal issues and low self-esteem. Despite frequent moments of hopelessness, confusion, and pain--even thoughts of suicide--I knew that if I could get through this, I would not only experience my health and life-force at a higher level, but that I would be in a position where I could use my experiences to assist others on their healing paths.
For several years after, life was still a struggle, and I would often slip up: fixate on food, overeat, a small binge perhaps, overdo it on sweet fruit, devote too much energy to food, or "stuff" emotions (interestingly, either when I'm feeling bad, or feeling "too good"). But I slowly got better at accepting the imperfection in my life. There are amusing memories. I remember one night, I had already eaten a raw-food dinner and a carrot juice, when actually my body was screaming for something more substantial and warm or cooked. Something inside me snapped: Before I knew it, I ate a huge ice cream, a burrito, fish and chips, and I was working my way through some Mexican food with a beer (all this between 5:00 and 9:00 p.m.). Although I was feeling stuffed and guilty during this, the fourth meal of the night, I suddenly felt exhilarated, and this huge weight lifted from my shoulders. Something had shifted; I was finally beginning to trust and allow my body what it was shouting for. After all the fasting, the pendulum was starting to swing too far toward excess, but it began the move toward coming into better balance.
I really have more empathy now for people with eating disorders. The root causes may be mostly emotional and spiritual at first, but biological causes and effects greatly and increasingly contribute, especially in the later stages. It's often a very serious, downward cycle, and I feel fortunate to have climbed out. The starvation or malnutrition state is not pretty or pleasant.
Some very basic things have helped tremendously. Although these may seem obvious, everything gets distorted within the mind of someone suffering from an eating disorder, making it very difficult to see things clearly. For example, I simply wasn't getting enough sleep--perhaps an average of six hours a night over several years. I simply felt that with a raw-food diet I needed less sleep, but I may have depleted my serotonin levels, and who knows what else, helping to create the anxious, irritable, fearful state I struggled with those past few years.
Furthermore, I became so lethargic and lazy, my lower back pain became very limiting (my back needed movement, but it hurt too much to exercise much), and my body was simply quite weak and emaciated after all the fasts, so that I all but cut out all the exercise and sports I was accustomed to. The cool, wet, short winter days of Seattle did nothing to spark me outdoors either. Depression took root. However, I did my brief daily yoga routine, and as I gained strength I was able to return to hiking, backpacking, biking, softball and other activities.
Also, I added some supplements which apparently may be important for people with depression, eating disorders, and addictions: zinc, calcium, magnesium, and some antioxidants and other supplements to assist in mercury removal (assuming that might be a possible contributing problem).
My diet has changed considerably, and I basically threw out all the rules. I eat healthy, whole, mostly organic foods, generally cooked. I eat plenty of brown rice, beans, corn tortillas, tofu, chicken, eggs, nuts, avocados, fruit, whole grains, salads, tahini butter, etc. To bring balance to my blood-sugar blues, I ate less and less fruit. I do enjoy papaya, apples, kiwis, lemons, mangos, and bananas in moderation. I eat fresh raw or cooked vegetables (lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, shredded carrots and beets, etc.). I consider sea veggies (dulse, kelp, nori) a super food, rich in minerals.
Aside from the letting go of the raw food and fasting fixation, the biggest change in my diet is the addition of animal products. After being a vegetarian for about 10 years, I decided to try anything to get through these cravings, and bring my life back to sanity. This was not an overnight decision--I had a lot of moral investment in being a vegetarian. So I thanked the animals of the world for their support, asked their forgiveness, and began adding some animal products: first, raw goat's milk, and my body really seemed to like this. Second, eggs from free-range chickens. Third, my body always loved chicken, and I eat it regularly now. I also eat cooked or raw fish or oysters once a week.
Increasing the healthy fats, proteins, and cooked foods have reduced much of the cravings, calmed me down, and improved my strength. I feel much more grounded and less spacey, with improved motivation and desire to enjoy life and pursue my passions.
But the biggest and most important change is the spiritual and emotional work. Raw food and fasting seemed to help bring up raw feelings, and I'd never been very good at expressing or even acknowledging my feelings. Furthermore, raw foods became a focus in my life at the same time I was going through a 40-year-old, mid-life crisis of sorts. I returned to the U.S. after 2-1/2 years of intense human rights work in Guatemala, changed careers, had what could be called a spiritual awakening, and other stressful changes. In essence, I think much of the cravings were messages telling me to pay attention, and to allow the healing to occur at a deeper, personal level. Often I was not hungry for food as much as I was craving fun, love, and my true path.
Eventually, I was able to remove myself from the emotional roller coaster, and I lost most of the shame around who I am--I know I am not rotten at the core. I am allowing myself to shine a bit more these days, to enjoy life, to laugh again, to open my heart, to trust and let go. Also, I see the importance of working on all levels: spiritual, emotional, and physical. While many raw-fooders seem to focus on the latter, and avoid the messy, challenging and emotional inner work, I see many spiritually centered people ignore their bodies, or treat it as something unimportant. I think we need to love and heal ourselves on all levels.
My raw food focus is over, and I trust my body to let me know what it wants and needs. My main focus is on being happy, trusting where the energy takes me, and following my inner guidance. I don't care if I eat 100% raw or 100% cooked, as long as it brings happiness and good health into my life.
I sincerely appreciate what raw foods and fasting have taught me: It felt so good to take a break from all the heavy, often cooked foods I was accustomed to. I also began to open up my senses to nature, to colors and smells. I felt very alive, at least at first. I developed quite an appreciation for beautiful, natural foods, taking time to breathe before and during each meal, and thank the Earth. But food is only one of this Earth's bounty and treasures; it is a big mistake to fixate on food and fasting.
Presently, I have a small business called Holman Health Connections, Holman Health Connections, and I lead yoga, meditation and healing classes and workshops in the North Seattle area. I also lead groups on retreat to Mexico, Guatemala, locally, and other destinations. With my increased stability, I have been able to buy my first home, and have attracted a wonderful woman into my life. I feel blessed and grateful for having endured and grown from an amazing journey through food and fasting fixations, depression, confusion, and emotional turmoil.
If I can offer a couple words of advice, what would I say? Feel your feels fully - they only hurt us when we deny them. Face your fears and pain - they will dissipate with your own nonjudgmental awareness and presence. Never give up. You are here on purpose, for a purpose. Breathe deeply, and enjoy your human experience, but don't get attached to it. Your humanity is beautiful, but you are so much more. I wish you all many blessings and the best of success on your own path, and thank you for this opportunity to share my story.
--Roy Holman, Summer 1998 (updated 2007)
Roy Holman is author of Healing Self, Healing Earth: Awakening Presence, Power, and Passion. Roy teaches yoga and leads retreats to Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala, Sedona, and in his home state of Washington (U.S.). Website: Holman Health Connections.
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