In her own words, at twenty-four years old, Erica Rivera, "Appeared to have it all: a B.A., two daughters, a successful husband, a house in the suburbs—and a great body."
But under the surface, Erica was struggling with an addiction. What began with a diet to lose the baby weight after her second daughter’s birth soon became a self-destructive obsession with dieting, bingeing, purging, exercising, and, ultimately, anorexia. While many of us can relate to feelings of lost identity and a shifted sense of self post-children, Erica captured her story poignantly, honestly, and ultimately, upliftingly, in her memoir, Insatiable. We were delighted to speak to Erica about her experience with motherhood, her journey through recovery, and how she embraces self-care for both herself and her daughters in this unbelievably high-pressure world. Read more about Erica Rivera | Header Image: Leslie Plesser/Shuttersmack | Image with Children: Jenn Barnett
Tell us a little bit about your journey into motherhood.
It’s been a rocky road, that’s for sure! I married young and I wanted to be a mother as soon as possible. I got pregnant for the first time at age 19 but suffered a devastating miscarriage at eight weeks gestation. A year later, my then-husband and I tried again, got pregnant, and the pregnancy progressed normally. My first daughter was born just shy of New Year’s Eve when I was 21 years old. I wanted her to have a sibling close in age, so we started trying for another child right away. I had another miscarriage, this time at six weeks gestation, but got pregnant again shortly thereafter. Early on, I experienced some bleeding and feared I was having yet another miscarriage. When I went in for an ultrasound, however, the tech saw a normally developing baby…and an empty sac. This is called “vanishing twin syndrome.” The good news is the rest of the pregnancy was normal and I gave birth to my second daughter when I was 22. My girls, who are teenagers now, are 15 months apart and are best friends.
What did life look like for you at age 24? What image were you painting from an outsider’s perspective?
Twenty-four was the age when my carefully constructed life fell apart. Up until that point, my life looked like the cliché American dream: I had a husband with a successful business, two daughters I was able to stay home with full-time, a cocker spaniel, and a custom-built home in the suburbs. Then I got divorced, developed anorexia, and everything spiralled downward from there.
What was going on for you on the inside?
Prior to the divorce, I felt plagued by a sense of unease. I think it was due to a combination of being overwhelmed by motherhood, keeping up a home, and being a good wife, yet also being understimulated intellectually. It was all too much and yet not enough simultaneously.
If you can attribute it to anything, what do you think your eating disorder stemmed from?
On the surface, it started as an attempt to lose the baby weight after my second daughter. It goes much deeper than that, though. I think my eating disorder initially arose as a solution (albeit a misguided one) for a couple of things. First, it helped me feel in control. At the time it really took hold, I was beginning divorce proceedings and that was extremely stressful. My entire life was in upheaval and everything – where I would live and work, how much custody I would have of my daughters, the status of a new romantic relationship – was uncertain. My food intake and exercise were things that (I thought) I could control. The eating disorder also initially helped me cope with depression, an issue I’ve struggled with as far back as adolescence. Exercise in particular has been one of the most effective treatments for my depression, but as the eating disorder developed, I was exercising so much (and eating so little) that it probably exacerbated my depression. It became a vicious cycle: I restricted and exercised to feel better, but I did both things to such extremes that I began to feel worse. Rather than stop, I just pushed harder.
How were you coping at that time - with motherhood, work, and such a debilitating disease?
I wasn’t really coping. I was in crisis mode. Anorexia is a mental and physical illness that infected my whole life. It was running the show, not me. The majority of what I thought, felt, and did was related to food and exercise. Losing weight was my primary goal. Both my parenting and my professional life were subpar because of it. And forget about a personal life; there was no room for anyone else, not even friends. I was really isolated with my eating disorder. At my worst, I wanted to die because I was in so much pain and I couldn’t see a way out of it.
When did you realise that your actions might be having an impact on your daughters?
I started noticing little things, like how my older daughter chewed and spat her food out once. (A behaviour gleaned, perhaps, from the popular anorexic habit of chewing and spitting food?) There are other incidents in Insatiable that don’t immediately come to mind now (and that I would rather not relive). I was so deeply unhappy at the time and that my daughters sensed that. They would say things that indicated my behaviour affected them negatively. I was sometimes short-tempered with them because I was quite literally starving. I wasn’t giving them the attention they deserved. While I may have been physically present, I really wasn’t psychologically or emotionally present for them like they needed me to be. It’s one of my biggest regrets. I actually asked them about this question and both of them said they don’t remember anything from that time (they were preschool and toddler-aged), so hopefully whatever psychological hurt I inflicted on them during that period of our lives has been healed.
How did you begin the process of recovery?
In fits and starts. I initially had an eating disorder evaluation at a hospital, but they insisted on in-patient treatment and that just wasn’t going to work for me as a single mom with two kids in diapers. I contacted another eating disorders clinic with an outpatient program and spoke to several professionals there about different levels of treatment. I ended up choosing to create my own treatment plan that consisted of regular, outpatient appointments with a medical doctor, a dietician, and a therapist, all specialists in eating disorders treatment. As I improved, I eventually just saw the therapist weekly and medical professionals as needed. When I started this whole process, my therapist told me that recovery from an eating disorder takes, on average, seven years. I didn’t believe her (which is good, because if I had, I might not have bothered starting treatment) but it’s true. It took a long time to return to a healthy weight and mindset.
What is your relationship like today with food, yourself, and your body?
It’s much better. I don’t count calories or restrict food for weight-loss purposes anymore. I do stick to a gluten-free and dairy-free eating plan because it helps my body feel better. I also found that keeping my sugar intake low has reduced the severity of my depression. I do still exercise everyday (because it’s the most effective way for me to manage my depression) but I don’t exercise like a maniac anymore. I try to focus on how I feel when I exercise rather than the amount of time I exercise or how many calories the machine says I burn. Running outside is still one of my greatest joys, though I don’t run as far or as fast I used to. I’m 37 now and I am starting to see how the body, metabolism, and attitude change with age. I try to appreciate my body for what it can do rather than what it looks like. I tried to attain perfection for so long and did so much damage to myself and my life in the process. In the book, I talk about how the catch-22 of anorexia is that you think if you just lose 10 more pounds, you’ll be satisfied and will be able to stop starving. The thing is, you never lose those last 10 pounds, no matter how thin you get. There’s also a saying that the perfect anorexic is dead, and I’m afraid that’s true. My weight has stabilized at a healthy number and I’m no more unhappy than I was when I was at my thinnest. The difference is that I have energy to live my life and the desire to live it now. My health overall is good, though one lingering side effect I have from my eating disorder is osteopenia (pre-osteoporosis, or low bone density). Basically, I have the bones of an old woman, and that is a direct result of the eating disorder. Given how severe my eating disorder was, I feel lucky to be alive and healthy. It could have been a lot worse.
What is your view on social media and the images that are painted in mainstream culture?
I think social media is toxic and I spend as little time as possible on it. I am so glad that it didn’t exist when I was younger because I think my eating disorder and the behaviours associated with it would have been exacerbated. The airbrushed lives on social media and the constant comparison that they incite are so unhealthy. It seems like some women use their bodies, of any size, as currency on social media; they exchange images of themselves in various states of undress for affirmation from strangers. That’s cheap, worthless attention. If someone is going to “like” me, I want it to be because of who I am, not because of what my body looks like or because I’m willing to flaunt it on the internet. I know there are people out there using social media for positive purposes, too, but I really don’t believe that social media is a healthy place for building real, meaningful connections.
What’s your view on the pressure mothers are under?
That’s a good question! Motherhood is such a blessing – I’ve come to realize that more now as my daughters are nearing adulthood – and I suppose pressure is part of the deal. We should feel a certain amount of pressure because raising children is the most important job there is and it is a huge responsibility. That said, I think we underestimate ourselves as mothers. So much of parenting is instinctual, and I think if we slowed down enough to breathe and be present, we’d realize we already know how to mother well. We don’t need to read every book, learn every parenting technique, and consult a dozen experts to raise our children. Comparing ourselves to other moms (especially those incessantly photo-shoot-worthy moms on Instagram) isn’t helpful; it sets the bar unattainably high and adds undue pressure. I try to be the best parent I can be every day under the circumstances. Some days are better than others. I’m human. I make mistakes and get irritable sometimes. And when I do, I own those mistakes and apologize. We have to forgive ourselves and other mothers. Most of us are doing the best we can. And if you can only do a “good enough” job of parenting today, that’s better than nothing.
How do you practice self-care?
I exercise, walk my dog, practice yoga, and meditate daily. My wonderful husband gives me massages every night. (I don’t know if that counts as “self care,” but it definitely feels luxurious!) I also aim for eight hours of sleep every night and I take naps with my pets when I can. Being in nature or in silence, enjoying a cup of hot tea in my bathrobe, or journaling are all forms of self-care for me, too.
“ I just want to encourage anyone who is reading this and struggling with an eating disorder to know that life is so much better in recovery. Thanks to treatment, I’ve been able to reclaim my life. If I hadn’t escaped anorexia, I might not be alive today. Because I got help, I’ve become a more loving mother, remarried, published books, and established a career. I could not have done any of those things when I was in the grip of anorexia. Help is available and it is effective. I’m living proof of that. There’s a whole, luscious world outside the confines of an eating disorder waiting for you. ”
Do you still have challenging days/moments following your recovery? How do you deal with these?
Yes, I have challenging days, though they’re less due to eating disorder issues and more due to just general “life stuff.” There’s a saying that “fat isn’t a feeling,” and I try to remind myself of that if my brain starts to smack-talk my body. “Feeling fat” is usually a sign that something else in my life needs attention – my work isn’t engaging me or I need to have a conversation about something that’s bothering me or I need to be more diligent about my self-care. I am really fortunate that my husband is my best friend and I can share anything with him, so he’s my primary support person when any issues come up. My daughters and I also have an open-door policy and we’re always sharing what’s going on in our lives with one another, so I don’t have to hide when I’m struggling. I no longer go to therapy, but if my eating disorder did reemerge, I wouldn’t hesitate to get back into therapy. Therapy is a life-saver and I encourage everyone to try it! My Catholic faith has also become increasingly important to me. I started attending church again, I read the Bible and other Christian literature daily, and I pray throughout the day. I find a lot of strength in my relationship with God. Emotions change, challenges dissipate, and situations resolve. Sometimes the only thing to do is wait for the challenging moment or day to pass.
How do you encourage positive relationships to bodies, food and selves with your daughters?
We focus on balance and on health, not shape or size or appearance. We don’t make comments about one another’s bodies or our own bodies. I make sure that my daughters’ meals include all the food groups. I don’t limit snack foods or dessert but I don’t keep a lot of that stuff in stock, either, since we try to focus on whole foods. We implemented family dinners a couple of years ago and that has really improved our eating habits and our relationships with one another. I used to be much more casual about meals and we’d eat dinner in shifts – kids earlier, adults later – but family dinners are such a great bonding tool and facilitate deep conversations, too. We try to have active family time on the weekends, whether that’s a hike or playing badminton in the backyard or going to the gym, but sometimes the schedule just gets too busy and that doesn’t happen. Neither of my daughters is hyper-feminine or into ballet or fashion magazines like I was at their ages, so I don’t feel like they experience as much pressure to be thin as I did. They aren’t involved in activities or crowds that are appearance-focused and they aren’t interested in fashion trends or makeup, so I think that helps, too. I can’t take too much credit for their healthy self-images, though; they’re just well-adjusted, confident young women and I am so blessed to have them!