I am so sorry that you are at war with yourself. I know how awful it is to have an eating disorder: to hate every inch of your body and to view food and exercise as your only means of control in this often chaotic world. I know what it’s like to value your self-worth as a weight on the scale and to feel out of control if that number changes by an ounce. I know because I’ve been there.
For six years, I suffered from Anorexia Nervosa and overexercising. I took out my insecurities — plainly that I was unintelligent, lacking personality, and unworthy of love - on my body, restricting my intake and viewing food as a weapon.
I always thought I would be the statistic. You know the one, the death rates. One of my doctors told me that he thought I would continue to get sick and probably never recover.
I’m telling you this because I never believed that someone as sick as I was would ever get better. I was convinced that my best case scenario was living as a functional anorexic—technically alive, but weighing little more than necessary to stay out of the hospital and unable to focus on more than the potential calories in my Diet Coke or toothpaste.
All the stories I heard in “Hope and Inspiration” and other such recovery speeches were from individuals who, after struggling for a few months, had a smooth and speedy recovery and learned to love life, food, and singing kumbaya. This “perfect” recovery seemed so far from grasp that I almost lost hope for my own.
Surely enough, I got really sick. I left college on a medical leave after 3 weeks and was quickly admitted into inpatient care at the Eating Recovery Center. I expected this treatment stay to be much like my previous ones - short, painful, and ending in an Against Medical Advice sign out form.
Thankfully, that was not my experience. Through sheer force, my treatment team (bless their souls) carried me through the worst of my refeeding and kept me alive long enough for me to realize that I was killing myself. This mere fact didn’t save my life, and I wasn’t suddenly hyped for recovery.
It was a slow process. I think that it is very easy to measure your recovery in pounds, but it is far more than that. In the more gray regions, I often fail to recognize the progress I have made until I look back, but it’s there. When I think about at this past year, my first full year in recovery and out of the hospital, I can see clearly that recovery is possible.
Before my eating disorder, I loved food. My mom is a chef, and our home was constantly filled with smells of delicious baked goods, granola, and fish creations. My eating disorder didn’t like that at all, however, and my love affair with nutrients ended. As I entered recovery, I slowly redeveloped an interest in food. It was incredibly terrifying at first, and I feared that I was turning gluttonous. I eventually realized that these fears were merely a continuation of my eating disorder, and I allowed myself to fully immerse in the food community via Instagram and Spoon University.
For years, I felt directionless in life, uninterested in my studies apart from the resulting grades and unwilling to take risks. After leaving treatment, I started interning for my Congressman, and I developed an interest in working in politics. I completed casework, assisting people on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security issues, and I recognized that my time in treatment provided me with the unique skill of empathy. While working on legislative policy, I realized that I could focus on mental health parity advocacy so that the insurance issues that I and many of my fellow patients faced would not be the norm in the future. In short, I found my passion.
My eating disorder was completely isolating, for I was unable to maintain friendships as my eating disorder reared its ugly head. Entering recovery (or at least a state of physical health) allowed me to be more mentally present with my relationships. Over time, I started to rely on other people rather than my eating disorder, and I found freedom in these new and redeveloped connections.
With this, I must add that recovery is not easy. There are still times that I want to quit, that I would rather go back than deal with the present. I failed to receive a bid from a sorority this semester, and I spent hours questioning my value and weighing the value of my life versus’ a relapse. In that moment, there was nothing that I wanted more than to be sick (or, plainly, to be a weak victim rather than an embarrassing failure).
I feared that my progress was erased and that the past 10 months of work were for nothing, but they weren’t. The things that helped me get better helped me persist. I reached out for support and admitted my feelings to friends rather than hiding like my eating disorder loved.
I followed the advice of Marina Keegan, who wrote this brilliant article about getting rejected from social organizations in college, and redirected my energy to my work and passions. Most importantly, I was honest with both myself and others. I think that we have all heard that “secrets keep us sick,” but it is real honesty, in the end, that maintains recovery.
I cannot provide a panacea. There is no sure-fire cure for an eating disorder. For me, it was a combination of timing, hard work, an unrelenting treatment team, and some luck. However, after leaving treatment, I think that there are more concrete ways to find recovery and yourself apart from the illness.
When I smile, it is no longer that fake, posed grin, with my tongue perched on the roof of my mouth (which I once read reduced the size of your double chin). When I speak, there is a confidence in my voice as I shed my quiet murmurs for unbridled exclamations. When I stand, I no longer shrink into myself, for I can hold up all 5 feet and 11 inches of my body without pain and I do not feel the need to hide.
I write to you as someone who is recovering. I write to you as someone who has been there and sometimes idealizes going back. I am not perfect; I am not unafraid; I still have struggles and insecurities. Please fight. Fight for your family, fight for your friends, fight for your interests, and, most importantly, fight for yourself. I am now more afraid of existing in a partial state than of living a full life surrounded by love and passion with a higher number on the scale, and I hope that you will be too.