“I had no idea.”
These four words—the theme of this year’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week—are the most common words out of the mouths of so many people when a seemingly confident individual comes out with an eating disorder. Often the people who need help look a lot like the people who don’t need help.
I know from experience what it can be like to hold this kind of secret, and how quickly things can change as soon as it comes out in the open. Most people began to be more conscious of what they would say around me—they would comment less on how other girls looked, complain less about their own bodies, be there if I needed help and no longer critique my food choices. But this period of sensitivity lasts only so long. As soon as I was recovering, it was as if nothing had ever happened.
“Recovery” is an imaginary land that you enter after you have sought help, therapy, treatment, counseling or (most likely) all of the above for your eating disorder. “Recovery” is a place where people in the world around you expect you to be cured and imagine you have rid yourself of your illness forever. But this is not the reality.
“Recovery” is a choice that only you, the person who is struggling, can make for yourself. It is not something that can be forced upon you. It is a time when every single day you are fighting to not fall back into old habits while going about your daily routine and interacting with friends who think that everything is once again okay. From the outside, you have gained weight and appear to be “all better” but that is just step one.
Believe me, recovery is a hundred times better than what came before, but since there is no medicine or definitive cure for an eating disorder, there is no sudden revelation or clear explanation for why and when it all ends. It may take years, or even a lifetime. It is a roller coaster of a process and the progression comes in bits and pieces.
Sometimes you have a bad day and fall backwards, and other times you can push through, think positively and move forward. The truth is that recovery is all about bouncing back from the inevitable bad days. Remaining optimistic and convincing yourself every single minute that life is better without the eating disorder is the key. You have to constantly tell yourself that tomorrow will be better—until one day, it actually is.
Hearing comments from people like, “You’re all better, right?” or, “Can you eat this now?” makes it seem like I was once an entirely different person with an incapacitating virus that was then completely flushed out of my system when I sought help. Mental illness does not disappear that easily.
So yes, I am doing significantly better now than I have in the past. In fact, I’m probably in the best place that I have been in a while. However, the issues and bad thoughts that I dealt with years ago came from the same brain I have today. The ease of giving into these disordered thoughts is tempting sometimes, but the quality of the life I live now is incomparable.
Despite what you may think, I still have bad body image days where I feel disgusting and don’t want to go outside. I look back at old pictures of myself and see how much thinner I was and sometimes wish that I could once again be in that shape. Sometimes I want to revert back to having control over every aspect of my day and relish in the happy feeling I would get when I saw a lower number on the scale.
There are times when I wake up and decide that I’m not going to eat today because I look big in the mirror and feel bloated, but by lunchtime, I get hungry. This hunger reminds me to take a step back, snap myself out of this mindset and remind myself why, more than anything, I don’t want to slip back into the dark hole.
Over the past few months, I have repaired so many relationships damaged by compulsive exercise, irrational food rules and extreme lack of self-confidence. I have created so much more time for myself by choosing to no longer count the calories of every single ounce of food that goes into my mouth. I have lifted so much weight off my shoulders by realizing that being vulnerable and talking to people about my problems isn’t the end of the world after all.
I have learned that opening up to some of my friends about my mental health has actually brought us closer, instead of scaring them away. I have noticed the beauty in spontaneously sharing a meal with someone without analyzing its nutritional value. I have experienced what it is like to choose whatever item on the menu I actually want to eat, not just whatever has the lowest calories.
I measure myself in strength, not in the number that appears on the scale. I have felt what it is like to live for myself and not for my disorder. And I don’t want to go back.
So for the rest of the week—and every week—I’m asking you to be conscious of not only those who are going through this but also those recovering from such a debilitating illness. Be aware that just because someone “looks healthy” again doesn’t mean you can go back to body shaming comments, complaining about how fat you are today and talking about wanting to skip meals.
I am stronger now both mentally and physically, but I have also become so much more aware of the ignorance around me, and these comments still hit home for myself and many others every single time. I urge you to be conscious of your words around others, for everyone is fighting a battle you may know nothing about.
If you or anyone you know might be struggling with disordered eating, please contact the number on the National Eating Disorders website.
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