To live in a country that boasts itself to be “The land of the free,” I find that I have felt overwhelmed and suffocated by the amount of marketing stimuli and product pushing that is thrown in my face on a daily basis. And even on my good days – I’m not always feeling that brave.

If it’s not stick thin models gracing the pages of magazines and billboards or a celebrity endorsing a product that boasts dramatic weight loss within the first three days; it’s the blatant misdirection of words such as “fat-free, sodium free, low fat, 100 calorie-pack” and so on.

There are so many words, foods and images in our society that are used so casually and regularly we hardly even think to bat an eye anymore. Most people hardly take notice or feel affected by their everyday use and can keep going and likely never give it a second thought. For them, it’s just what our society and culture have come to and the only thing they have to do is to just ignore it.

However, for those of us who struggle with our eating disorders, we are not so lucky to escape unscathed, and we feel as if our feathers have been ruffled and our balance tested. We work tirelessly to combat the years of negative self-talk, body shaming and unresolved, buried emotions that kept us trapped inside ourselves; with only ourselves for “comfort.”  

While an alcoholic or drug addict completely cuts the substance out of their lives and finds ways to adjust to social settings and potential triggers, those with an eating disorder do not have the same option. Food is not only necessary for survival but is all around us each and every day of our lives whether it’s seen through print media or in real life. We have to find a way to forever deal with potential triggers and face our fears with each sniff and bite we take.

Each day we are faced with new challenges and tests that remind us to constantly check in with ourselves to ensure our needs are met and our emotions don’t snowball us into a lapse. No matter how strong we think we are, there is always something new to be gained and self-growth to be achieved because triggers can come in the most unlikely of places.

A few months prior I had attended my first national eating disorder conference and was feeling optimistic and excited to connect with my fellow ED community and gain more tools to help me keep myself moving forward. As I was walking the vendor booths, I noticed that almost each table had a small bowl of assorted candies and chocolates at them. In the moment I didn’t think much of it but as I rounded toward my last set of tables one particular bowl stirred a nerve deep within my old ED self.

Inside this bowl were countless bags of almonds with the words 100-CALORIE PACK splayed across them in massive font. Now, to anyone else, this is just a bowl of free snacks for all to enjoy, but for me; those words were the mental torture and endless calorie counting that dominated all of my teenage years and into early adulthood. I lived my life by the number of calories I took in or burned throughout each day. The number on the scale mattered more to me than living.

My mind never rested because I was already figuring how much I’d have to restrict and what I’d allow myself to eat for the week in order to be able to drink and eat “freely” for the parties on the weekend. I was obsessed. I was lost. And I had no real understanding of nutrition and the difference between a 100-calorie snack pack and a 100-calorie piece of fruit.

Suddenly I became aware of all the other triggers that were surrounding me and I wondered if anyone else felt as overwhelmed as I did in that moment? Things like the chocolates and candies in the bowls that I used to binge on and stuff the wrappers in between couch cushions to hide my crimes. The carb heavy meals being served at lunch that I would use to comfort me when I was swept up in emotions and feelings I had no idea how to manage, so instead, I would gorge myself until I couldn’t breathe; knowing I would punish myself tomorrow at the gym.

I stood there feeling vulnerable, angry and overwhelmed by the stimuli around me in what was supposed to be a safe and uplifting space. In that moment it occurred to me that no matter how progressed or “recovered” we believe we are, there will always be situations that will arise and test our recovery foundation.

I started to walk away because I knew I needed to organize my thoughts and self-talk myself off a potential trigger ledge. In the past, whenever triggering situations came up my response had always been to tuck them away and ultimately let them fester inside of me until they exploded out at a completely inappropriate and unrelated time. But after years spent working on finding my voice and inner warrior, I have found one valuable lesson that has changed everything for me, and that is to question EVERYTHING, including myself.  I’m all about finding the WHY, followed by the HOW can I/we fix this and potentially help educate one another?  In order to understand the unique ways we are wired, we have to ask questions since we can’t always be trusted with our own thoughts and feelings because they lead us to tell lies about ourselves.

Even though I could have easily gone and talked with my mom about my experience, I knew it wouldn’t change my feelings of betrayal toward the vendor. I needed to know WHY, so I turned right back around and I confronted them. I wasn’t aggressive, rude or defensive because the only person those emotions would hurt is me and I was already feeling enough in that moment. Instead, I calmly questioned their motives while honoring and expressing my triggered feelings toward their “prop.” I chose to honor how I was feeling in that moment and made a decision that I felt was exactly what I needed in that moment. Answers.

You wouldn’t put liquor bottles and a bag of weed out at a substance abuse conference so why are you treating us as if ED isn’t as addicting of a disease? What sort of treatment center does that to people? Sure, we have to live with triggers forever and find ways to cope, but don’t tempt us like a pack of starving animals.

By the end of the conversation, I walked away feeling heard and relieved that I was able to express my emotions and release the mental demons that were trying to bury their way back into my mind. What they choose to do with my input doesn’t matter, what does matter is that I had gotten my WHY answered and the power of the trigger was diminished. I made peace with an old “friend” and accepted its existence and released its control over me because I know my value is worth more than a number on a package of snacks.  

We can’t hide from life, and we certainly can’t hide from situations that will bring us face to face with our old demons and triggers because the isolation alone would drive us mad. Everything around us is a potential trigger, but we are the ones who choose how we react to those triggers. We are the ones who have the power to decide whether to pull or not. And we are the ones who get to take back the control of our lives and our minds. When you find your WHY, you find you.