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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

When I arrive home late from work, my dog saves her dinner – which has been put out by her dog walker earlier in the evening – until I sit down for mine.

As someone who considers herself recovered from an eating disorder, the significance of my dog’s endearing habits caught me off guard. All the years of therapy, supportive family and friends and self-help books helped but nothing quite touched and healed my soul like the presence of Poppins – my brown and white Standard Poodle. She bounces through this world with her heart on her chest – a giant, red, heart-shaped dog tag hanging from her collar that is so big for her fine build it rests on her breastbone.

My eating disorder started when I was in university. A few comments about weight proved enough for me to begin questioning my looks. I realize now that I was so easily convinced as a twentysomething that I needed improvement when the truth is that I was wonderful as I was. I had always been sporty and drawn to the outdoors. But with this effort to exert control over my body I stopped eating enough and began exercising so compulsively that I lost sight of why I loved to move. All that mattered was that I ticked off the boxes getting in the run, the swim, the bike, the walk, the weights, all the cascading to-dos I hoped would lead to perfection.

When Poppins came to live with me during the pandemic, my life took a 180-degree turn. My mornings which had previously been filled with monotonous runs and weight sessions became blissfully chaotic. I’d still wake early but instead of workout gear I’d shuffle into sweats, hoist the puppy into my arms and rush down the hall and elevator of my condo to head out for the First Pee. We were relatively successful. Morning runs were replaced with walks around the local laneways where Poppins would learn which backyard gates belonged to her friends and wiggle her whole body in excitement if one of them happened to be sniffable. The weight-lifting sessions would still happen some days but now involved moving around Poppins as she claimed my workout mat to be her own and often fell asleep on the only set of dumbbells I owned. My workouts became comical and, despite knowing they weren’t going to chisel me into an iron body, I was the happiest I’d been in a long time.

Hoping to keep my cycling up, I got a bike trailer for Poppins. She hated it. So I put the bike away. Bike and run routes that I’d previously sped through transformed into slow and meandering walks where I’d begin to notice the slowness that can exist in a big city like Toronto. I saw a heavily antlered deer in the Don Valley, salmon spawning up the Humber River, toads, turtles, rabbits, a beaver we escorted back to its neighbourhood (still unsure if they were appreciative of the company of a long-legged, whining poodle) and even a rollerblading nun – we’ve seen and sniffed it all. We’ve enjoyed subways, streetcars, buses and ferries. All the while, I’ve slowly been led by this spotted dog to the life I’ve envisioned for myself – one still filled with exploration and adventure but not constrained by a compulsion to move.

I don’t know that one ever becomes “recovered” from an eating disorder in the sense that you don’t ever have to work at it any more. To me, recovery feels like being able to calm the unhelpful thoughts when they pop up. That I don’t feel engulfed and overwhelmed by my illness. That I generally feel content, happy and able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. That’s where I am at. There is always room for improvement, but I think that is the norm in life – the mind and its thoughts are a work in progress always aiming for kinder, calmer and happier moments. The ability to recognize the thoughts that don’t serve is what I aim for.

For the longest time what I thought I wanted was stillness. I wanted to be free from the shackles of movement. And I figured that meant idleness. So I tried that. But it didn’t bring ease into my life. What I didn’t understand was that the problem was with my motive for movement and not the movement itself. When my eating disorder was my reason to move I felt jailed and my life suffered. But with recovery, I have discovered that my reasons for activity are curiosity and flow. I’m always eager to turn the next corner, to try a new trail, to take the high road and to stop and take it all in. I seek slowness and intention more and speed and competition less. None of this has come easily. I’ve ebbed and flowed through many years figuring out how to live an active life that doesn’t feel like my world revolves around my heart rate and weight.

My needle-nosed poodle feels like the missing key. Poppins sleeps on her back with no eagerness to meet the early summer sunrises. She prefers abandoned toys found on the sidewalk to anything store-bought. She makes a huffing sound when she is eating a delicious treat. She enjoys dunking her head in rivers searching for a treasured stick or river rock. She loves wrestling. She has mastered coming back to me after a rabbit chase but still insists on jumping on the people she loves and licking them for as long as she pleases. She knows all the stores in our neighbourhood that dole out treats and shoves her nose into their doors hoping to let herself in. Thanks to the free Milkbones, I have made a record number of significantly unnecessary purchases from the hardware store than I ever had before Poppins.

I’m not sure if any of my lingering eating disorder moments will go away forever. But I know that the life I used to only dream about – one of early mornings with a coffee thermos and slow valley walks – is my reality now. All thanks to a dog known as Poppins Poodle. … Oh and shhh, don’t tell her she’s a dog.

Glenna Fraumeni lives in Toronto.

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