Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.” – Mary Anne Radmacher
I have had a hard time defining what “recovery” or “being in recovery” actually means. At what point are you actually recovered? How long does recovery take? What do you have to do to recover? And what happens if you relapse?
I am in the process of recovering from my eating disorder. This isn’t something I usually open up about or broadcast to the world, and I know that it’s not something that I’ve told even my closest friends about. So why write a blog post? This blog is a way for me to get out feelings and thoughts that I don’t know how to express otherwise. My eating disorder is an incredibly personal thing that has been a source of internal shame for a long time, and keeping a shroud of silence around it is going to do nothing to help push away those feelings of shame and disappointment. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to talk about, and always wanted to tell people about, but I haven’t figured out a way to do it before. I’m the type of person who is worried about what other people think about me, and coming out as having an eating disorder puts me out there for a good deal of judgement. Just by looking at me, you could never tell that I’ve been dealing with an eating disorder since freshman year of high school. Too many other girls and women are feeling the same shame, frustration, and confusion that I have felt for the past 6 years, and talking about it is the only way that I know how to help others.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has declared February 23 – March 1 to be National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, so I figured that this would be as good a time as any to write a post about recovering.
Warning: triggering content about eating disorders
I can’t put a finger to the exact moment that my eating disorder “began”, but I do know that I’ve been worried about the way that I look since I was a child. I remember taking those soccer team photos, where the shortest girls kneeled in the front and the tallest stood in the back. I wished so badly that I was taller so I wouldn’t have to kneel in front, since sitting like that made my thighs look so wide compared to the other girls. Around third grade, I noticed that in pictures and in the mirror, I could see my belly protruding and that some of my shirts didn’t feel comfortable anymore. I compared myself to the other stick-thin girls, even though I knew their bodies were just built differently. I don’t remember ever trying to control my weight or looks by exercising or by limiting what I ate at this age. That came later.
My self-conscious habits led to low self-esteem through elementary and middle school which, when combined with terrible acne and no idea what clothes looked best on my body, led to a fair amount of self-hatred as I headed into high school. I don’t have memories of any of this low self-esteem being brought on by anything that anyone else said, and if people said things about me, they had the decency to do it behind my back. My eating disorder stemmed from a place inside my mind, I think.
What triggered the actual disordered eating for me feels so stupid when I look back on it. For my freshman year health class, we had to find an article in the news each week about something health related and write a summary on it. I was searching the NY Times website and found an article on “thinspiration”. If you’re not tuned into the ED community, that means pictures of insanely skinny girls that those of us with eating disorders look at to trigger ourselves over and over again, and to provide some sort of “inspiration” or a goal for weight loss and restricting. I was so interested in this phenomenon that I began to search for more pictures, and ended up finding tons of sites that had so much more than thinspo. These sites had tips and tricks for starving yourself, creating heavily calorie-restricted meal plans, and discreet workouts you could do in your bedroom at night so your parents wouldn’t hear. I was introduced to the online world of eating disorders through someone they called “Ana” – a pet name for anorexia. I don’t know what it was that drew me to all of this. It was simultaneously so disgusting and so exciting. Something clicked in my mind, and I realized that maybe I could be one of those girls who doesn’t need to eat as much as everyone else, that I could control what I put into my body to control my weight.
As I write and read this, I can’t help but feel like people will think that my eating disorder is fake. Like I wanted it, and like I brought it on myself to be “cool” or get popular or something. I really think that my eating disorder was there inside me the whole time, but that it took something to trigger me to bring it out.
Those first few months of my eating disorder are a haze in my memory. I don’t remember how I starved myself or how much I ate, I don’t remember how I exercised, and I don’t remember what I was thinking. All I know is that it led me to shrink down to 103.5 pounds, which I still didn’t think was good enough. I remember being cold, and I remember my clothes fitting me much better. I remember wearing size zero jeans and being so proud of that. I remember being able to put my hands completely around my thigh and being obsessed with how dainty my wrists felt. I loved it, but I was scaring myself.
I shared my eating disorder with the people in my youth group who cared about me later in the fall, and I think that’s when I first began to experience recovery. For me, recovery started out as something I didn’t mean to do. Slowly, I was eating more. Again, the memories are vague, but I remember feeling like I wanted out of my eating disorder. I stopped looking at thinspo, stopped thinking of how I would get out of my next meal, and I started gaining weight again.
I don’t know how many times I have relapsed, but I do know that it’s too many to count on one hand. Just when I think that I’ve gotten rid of that inner voice that tells me how disgusting I am, it seems to sneak back in. Every time I stop restricting, I seem to start eating too much. I think about how good it is that I’m eating, that I’m not counting calories, how I should be rewarding myself for being so recovered, and the next thing I know, I’ve eaten that entire sleeve of Girl Scout cookies. I really don’t think I know how to eat normally, and that is something I’ll be working on for a while. I don’t know how to think about weight loss without returning to my disordered ways.
What I do know is that talking about it helps. Whether it’s a therapist, a friend, or someone in your family, as long as you trust them and they want to listen to your feelings, breaking the silence can be a beautiful thing. It will be painful, and will be exhausting. Don’t expect your recovery to be “done” in a week, a month, or even a year. Take every bump in the road in stride, and remember that you are strong enough to hang on when the ride gets rough.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that recovery is a long path, but that acknowledging your struggles is an important thing. I’m sure that I will relapse again, but knowing that I have a support system of family, friends, and a boyfriend who value me for who I am and not what I look like will help me through those dark times and come out happier.
Thanks for reading! Margaret