In the Addiction and Rewiring My Brain

Written by Ally Rae Pesta

At just seventeen years old, Ally Rae Pesta was diagnosed with a complex eating disorder. In her memoir, Beyond My Body: Recovering from a Complex Eating Disorder, Reclaiming Movement, and Finding My Worth, Ally takes readers on a very personal journey through addiction and the recovery process.

“Smallness,” the first excerpted vignette below, shows what it sounds like inside the mind of a young woman who is addicted to exercise and “healthy” eating (orthorexia). “Rewiring My Brain,” the second excerpted vignette, shows Ally in the recovery process beginning to rewire her mind to enjoy food again and move her body in healthier ways.

Content Warning: If you or a loved one are suffering from an easting disorder, disordered eating, or a mental health condition, please consult with a medical professional. There is hope and support for recovery. Visit Project Heal or any local recovery center in your area.

Smallness (from Part 2)

A tiny crevice between my car and the car next to mine in the rec center parking lot makes me wonder how close I can get to the next car and still fit between the two vehicles. How much can my body shrink? How little space can I take up?

Each day I perform tests to determine my smallness.

The tests begin with a body scan in the mirror. I stand straight up and notice my legs. I have to see a fist-size gap between my thighs, or I’m not small enough. I then wrap my hands around each of my thighs. If my fingers don’t touch, I’m not small enough. Next, I move up to my waist and cup my hand around my waist. If my hand doesn’t form a small C, I’m not small enough. Now I bend over in the mirror. If there are any rolls at all, I’m not small enough. I then analyze my entire stomach. If I can’t see every line, if my muscles aren’t visible to me, I’m not small enough.

I move up to my wrists and wrap my hand around my opposite wrist. My fingers can’t touch, and there needs to be space between them. If there isn’t, I’m not small enough. I slowly wrap my fingers continuously up my arm. The farther my fingers move up, the more worthy I become. Next, it’s time to analyze my chest. If my chest is not completely flat, and if I can’t see my ribs, I’m not small enough. I analyze my collarbones. If they don’t distinctly protrude, I’m not small enough. I stare at my face, beginning with my cheekbones. If I can’t see noticeable hollows, I’m not small enough.

I perform additional tests beyond the mirror to determine my smallness. I try on clothes. If they are larger than a size 0, I’m not small enough. I analyze June’s body—my short, fit, and naturally small five-foot, four-inch friend. If I’m not smaller than her (disregarding height), I’m not small enough. I look around any room I walk into. If I’m not the smallest person in that room, I’m not small enough.

How deeply and firmly I believe the ultimate goal in life is to minimize my presence. If I can disappear into space, then I am worthy. If I can become a shell of myself, then my life will be complete. The emptier I become, the less my mind races, and the less I am Allyson—the girl who is too much, too loud, a slut, big-boned, not special.

The smaller I become, the more the world will accept me.

Rewiring My Brain (from Part 4)

Imagine the first time you learned how to ride a bike. You sit down on the seat, and your feet awkwardly dangle near the pedals. You struggle to keep balance while your dad holds your shoulder attempting to keep you steady. You fall as you lose your balance, and then you get up again. The next day, your dad lets go for a longer period of time, and you’re able to balance, your legs pedaling as your core attempts to keep you stable. The next day you fall again. You get back up and try again.

Day by day you hardwire these movements into your body and mind. What starts as something difficult slowly turns into muscle memory, a pathway that associates movement patterns and connections between your body and mind. Soon you can ride a bike without even thinking about it.

Rewiring my brain is like trying to unlearn how to ride a bike. I sit upon this bike, and everything I thought I knew about how to ride has completely changed. I have to learn how to pedal differently. Instead of holding onto the handlebars in front of me, I have to hold onto handlebars above my head. Every hard-coded pattern needs to be stripped away and replaced by new behaviors.

My mind is habituated to neural pathways that tell me to move no matter what:

  • It’s nice outside—I need to go for a run.
  • I’m anxious—I need to go for a run.
  • I feel full—I need to go for a run.
  • I’m hungry—I need go for a run.
  • I feel fat—I need to go for a run.
  • Someone else is running—I need to go for a run.
  • I get in a fight with my mom—I need to go for a run.
  • I’m happy—I need to go for a run.
  • I’m bored—I need to go for a run.

Through my therapy, I realize a wide range of stimuli triggered one reaction: I felt I had to run. This response was strong and automatic. I didn’t have to think about what I needed to do. I felt I knew the answer in my bones.

In my recovery, I learn about a technique called “opposite action to emotion reaction.”

This is how it works: I start with a sunlit paved trail, and I feel every ounce of my body craving to go for a run. But instead of running down the path, I walk to the park and read in the sun. Despite my discomfort, I lean into the opposite reaction and sit. I take a deep breath. My head is full of thoughts. As I continue to sit, my head begins to clear, and I start to feel more comfortable with each breath I take.

The anxiousness and fullness pathways are harder to rewire. The desire to run when I feel anxious and full is much stronger than a trigger of sunshine. I am so used to running to calm my mind that sitting in the stillness with anxiousness and fullness feels like pins and needles that only get increasingly painful. But I know that if I don’t try the opposite action to these emotional reactions, I will never rewire my brain. So, even amid the discomfort, I breathe and sit.

Some days I know it’s okay to move. But I need to keep working, rewiring, and rebuilding my new bike.

Over and over again, I remind myself this is not forever, and movement is still critical to who I am. Eventually I learn to embody authentic movement balanced with stillness. I move side to side and front to back. I sit quietly, in happiness, sorrow, and everything in between. I move with joy and anger. My body can respond to it all.

Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Ally Rae Pesta now lives in Denver, Colorado, where she works as an Eating Disorder Recovery Coach, a 200-HR Certified Yoga Teacher, and a Certified Run Coach. Ally is also a sexual assault survivor who empowers others to reclaim freedom and power over their body in a loving, worthy, and healing way. Now, instead of compulsively exercising, Ally celebrates what her body can do, teaching others to embrace the freedom to move, enjoy food, and live a large, fulfilling, and meaningful life of purpose beyond their body. Get a copy of Ally’s memoir here.

Written by Ally Rae Pesta