From OCD Parenting to OCD Practitioner: My Recovery From Orthorexia by Proxy
by Natalia Aiza
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
It started innocently enough. I was an overwhelmed but steady new mom, meticulously changing my baby’s diaper, when I noticed the tiniest streak of blood.
At this point, three months in, I was becoming accustomed to the constant intrusive thoughts that I would somehow kill my baby. But every day that he ate and pooped and thrived, I gained a little more confidence. Now that I am a therapist, I describe these good days as a “corrective emotional experience.” At the time, I simply saw each successful day as another tiny piece of evidence that I wasn’t a reckless monster.
However, that little speck of blood (checked five times; and saved, of course) spiraled into a new era of my parenting worry: obsession with my children’s diet.
My son’s pediatrician advised me that my son was probably allergic to dairy and soy, which I was consuming and passing on to him through breast-feeding. No matter how much I restricted dairy and soy, he told me, I would never be able to fully eliminate it from my milk and, therefore, should immediately stop nursing. Perhaps that doctor assumed I wouldn’t do a good job at eliminating allergens, because I was weepy, panicked, and only twenty-three years old. Or perhaps he genuinely believed that formula was better for my baby. Regardless, what this doctor probably didn’t realize was that I had severe harm OCD, and I believed that my non-meticulous diet had irreparably hurt my child. I had spent my entire pregnancy compulsively reading about the “right” way to raise a child and the importance of breastfeeding, and in my anxiety-addled brain, I felt I had already failed motherhood.
That single doctor’s visit was probably the initial catalyst of 14 years of compulsively feeding my children a “clean” diet.
Now that I run an OCD clinic, I see how the origin story of a major obsession can be a cathartic tale to tell. Even small moments can spark a sea change in our lives. Some of us can conceptualize a before and an after of our compulsive hijack. However, I also know that the origin story is random: my health OCD was primed to ignite.
The idea that my breast milk was contaminated with allergens started an obsession with the ingredients in food. By the time my baby started solids, grocery trips were bogged down with the need to read every label. At first I was paying attention to soy, and slowly, I began to examine sugar, fats, dyes, and gluten. Even though I had no reason to suspect that gluten was an allergen for my child, I started buying gluten-free products “just in case.”
Over the years, and as my son’s siblings were born, I began to continually raise the bar on what qualified as healthy, clean food. By the time I had my fourth child, we were eating mostly local organic produce, all home cooked meals (from scratch), and had an almost fully additive-free diet. At the time, I was congratulating myself on being so diligent and felt like I had finally done enough.
The burden of these compulsions in money, time, and effort is almost inconceivable to me now.
The idea of going back to work was fully untenable with the extreme routine I had developed around health-conscious parenting. I worried when I was away from the kids that they would eat “junk” and became less trusting of grandparents, babysitters, and even the school system. When they received a birthday party invite, I felt days of dread at the certainty that they would be given pizza and cake. I actually went so far as to invent a lie about one of my children, that she was pre-diabetic, in order to justify sending alternative sweets with her to every event.
I was most unfair to my children’s father, as I saw his mainstream eating values as pathological. Sadly, health OCD had a ferocious grip over my moral compass. I became judgmental and quick-triggered. I elevated my ability to control my children’s eating over their connections, even with their own father.
This extreme parenting around food began to affect my children’s mental health as well. They started to fear “bad” food and worry about their health.
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Twice during this stage of my life, my family was relocated to China. My obsession with a healthy diet for the kids became a dogmatic effort to avoid the pesticides and soil pollutants of Chinese agriculture. I developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the expat grocery stores because someone had suggested buying from different sources to diversify potential contaminants. The fake formula crisis happened shortly before I moved to Beijing, and I justified my escalating paranoia as protective parenting. I allowed myself to believe that I was helping my children, and I fixated on how diligently I was taking care of their health despite the mounting parts of their childhoods that I could not control. I was proud of my efforts and refused to consider a less extreme approach to food or wellness.
Looking back I feel deeply embarrassed by my ethnocentric smugness. I feel grief over the toll that over-control took on my relationships. I long for a second chance to enjoy the pure joy of watching a young child devour something objectively delicious.
My OCD somehow morphed from making me terrified that I would hurt my children to overly confident that I could control their well-being. While believing that I was morally right, I monitored, limited, micro-managed, and hyper-fixated on the diets of four humans wholly separate from myself.
My ex-husband used to refer to me as “controlling.” I remember being indignant at this adjective.
Controlling people is mean. My self-concept revolved so fundamentally around being kind. I didn’t raise my voice; I was always cuddling, supporting, and caretaking. And yet, in this fundamental way, my OCD had warped my personality and I was willing to push my agenda at all costs.
I would like to say that I saw the error of my ways and worked diligently to undo the harm. However, in truth, my recovery was largely forced by the demands of being back in the workplace, having shared custody, and my children entering a stage of life where they are often eating outside of the home. My domain of control was diminished and my resolve buckled. I suddenly began to feel the enormity of the burden that I carried and felt deeply tired at the idea of continuing to uphold my own standards. In the end, despite 10+ years of talk therapy, the treatment that actually worked for me was being forced to end my compulsions at least some of the time (which I now see as ERP).
The letting go of the compulsions was fairly quick and largely against my will, but the obsession lingered for longer. I spent upwards of a year feeling a painful guilt for my children not eating as healthily as before. My time and energy were released, but emotionally, some part of me still longed for my days of OCD parenting. I felt far more confident that I was doing right by them.
Now, I must live with a daily doubt voice that tells me I am not trying hard enough.
The most healing factor in my obsession recovery has been the process of founding and running an OCD center myself. I had multiple counselors throughout the years, all of whom misdiagnosed me as having generalized anxiety disorder. In fact, no one diagnosed me with OCD until I started working as a therapist in this specialty and saw my pain reflected in my clients. Now I am wholeheartedly dedicated to spreading understanding of OCD among mental health practitioners, because the treatment needed for our condition runs counter to traditional psychotherapy. The counselors I saw over the years were unwittingly enabling my disorder when they used our sessions primarily to soothe me about my childhood trauma and uplift me when I expressed doubts that I was raising my children well.
Luckily, my children, now teenagers, have a tremendously good attitude about their own journey with food. They now eat well, but not perfectly. Thankfully, to date, no one has developed disordered eating from my over-control. They tease me about my “OCD days” as they call it and retell some cringy stories, such as when I made all four of them share one ice-cream cone while their cousins looked on in confusion.
I still have moments of relapse, where I feel an overwhelming desire to manage their diets or feel that familiar shame of imperfection. In fact, writing this story is resurfacing many of the intrusive thoughts that plagued me for years. However, I wish to share this aspect of my OCD, because I believe that it affects many parents who come to my center and live in my health-zealous community of Boulder, CO. I spent so many years believing I was in the right, that I would have been wholly resistant to treatment.
I feel confident enough to share my story because I had a pretty meaningful shame breakthrough this summer at the Children’s ER. As my son received treatment for a very painful compacted bowel, several doctors and nurses gave me the standard lecture about making sure he has enough vegetables and water. This happened once before, while I was still in the throes of my OCD, and I had responded by immediately implementing an even more controlling regimen and ruminating for months about my failure. This time, I turned to my son, who had the look of a child that had been scared straight, and said “Ok?” and he responded emphatically “Ok!” My OCD turned away from this trigger event and refused to latch on.
In the end, that is all I hope for in my OCD recovery—that I don’t have another “origin” moment of compulsion. That the trials of normal life are not as sticky and that obsessive thoughts come and go without permanence.