My personal struggle with an eating disorder is certainly not an aspect of my life that I am proud of, but I remain consistent and open about it because it holds me to a level of accountability, but more importantly, I know ED is a silent yet dangerous struggle that hides behind shame and fear for so many people. The conversation needs to persist on in order to challenge and change that notion.
However, I've battled with myself about writing this one for a while now. For two reasons: (1) my motive behind this is more of a catharsis and accountability, and less of the 'public service announcement' for eating disorder awareness that I usually aim to do in my writing (even though I do still try to create an understanding and educate in this). And, (2) I am admitting to my biggest fear; that I, the girl who once preached self-acceptance and conquering demons, fell back into hopelessness and old habits of self-destruction.
For a while, I felt like a fraud - pretending it wasn't there, like it never happened, even though it clearly was there and it clearly did happen. Even after picking up the pieces, building myself up again and getting back on the path of recovery, I still struggled to reclaim my passion for mental wellness and self-love. The last thing I want to do is a be hypocritical or address and educate on something I can't be genuine and fully honest about. So, I figured I should just keep quite. But by doing that and thinking like that, ED still had one last hold on me.
However, I came across this quote in a book I read that helped inspired me to finish my story;
"Shame hates when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it - it can't survive being shared. When we bury our story, shame metastasizes. Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light." - Brené Brown
I was just about a year into eating disorder recovery and I felt a sense of normalcy, I tasted freedom (literally & figuratively) and I considered myself, for the most part, recovered. I talked about my ED in past tense and If somehow the conversation came up or someone asked, I confidently said I was recovered. While I was aware that I still had some lingering fears, restrictions and rituals surrounding food and my body, I was ready to let those things go and felt I had the upper hand on ED. Recovery had proven to be a challenge, there were ups and down, but I saw how far I had come and the progress I made.
I saw myself move past the addictive and destructive behaviors of bulimia and anorexia. I saw myself nourish and take care of my body and mind. I saw myself become more compassionate with my 'imperfections' and 'mistakes'. But, things suddenly took a turn and I stopped seeing that progress. I definitely started to feel overwhelmed with life and its inevitable stressors. So naturally, I took it out on myself. I started to feel a constant sense of hopelessness, and worthlessness and like I was not enough again. My 'recovered' body started to become more intolerable and I began to give in to the urges of ED's intrusive thoughts which were once so easy to ignore.
I had relapsed, or more like 'slipped', once in the beginning of recovery. But, it was not too difficult to get back on track. When those behaviors and thoughts surrounding my disordered eating started to get out of hand, I simply addressed it, made the necessary changes and moved forward. It almost seems too easy in hindsight, but I managed to get past it relatively quickly.
This time, however, it was.. different, for lack of a better word - not just a bump in the road, but a big old ditch that stopped me in my tracks.The only way out was backwards, at least that's what I thought. My depressive symptoms never fully went away even as I recovered, but I felt equipped to tolerate them. Yet still, all these extremely negative emotions didn't make sense to me at the time because I was doing so well for a while there - I started to feel more comfortable, smile more, talk more and value life more. All the sudden I must have hit my threshold because my depression honed in and everything had reverted back to those terrifying and painful feelings.
It started with normal fears and negative thoughts about weight gain and my body. I say 'normal' because it's expected in recovery to have these uncomfortable emotions as your body and mind heal. But the problem wasn't the singular thought, it was the repetition of self-loathing I began to experience. The turn away from an 'in the moment' struggle with body-image or depression, to a continuous, uncomfortable struggle.
For the longest time I refused to act on these feelings. 'you don't hate your body, you hate the uncomfortable feelings. Come on Alex, snap out of it, you know you are not the problem', I would tell myself. And for a while, I felt strong enough to hold my ground. But, like I said, they weren't just momentary feelings; they lingered, haunted and wore at me.
It is like when you put a shoe on and you walk in them for a while and slowly your sock gets shimmied down your foot and the shoe starts to rub the skin on your heel. At first you barely notice it and it's tolerable, but as you continue to walk it starts to rub and hurt more and more. Before you know it, your heel is rubbed raw and it really hurts - you can't tolerate the pain anymore. At first you might try to rid of or avoid the pain by walking differently or adjusting your sock. But it's to late, the damage has been done and the heel is already raw and sensitive. Eventually you give in and stop walking in hopes the pain will subside.
Well for me, walking was my recovery, the shoe rubbing was my ED and depression, and I was the raw heel. I couldn't take the painful and confusing thoughts I had anymore - regardless of how hard I tried to rationalize or avoid them. The only way I felt I could ease this internal tension was stopping the fight against those urges and to turn my attention away from the thoughts. That's where ED came in.
That voice saying 'don't eat, you're fat, don't eat, you're fat, don't eat, you're fat...' was stronger than ever and I felt a need to validate that internal suffering. I was feeling so much and had no words to describe it or way to prove or show for it (not to mention I wouldn't even try to talk to anyone about it). I remember thinking, 'If I can just get skinny again, I can at least have something to show for my struggle'. Not necessarily for anyone else (trust me, attention was the last thing I wanted), but just so the thoughts in my head matched something tangible, something I could physically feel, something I could see.
It sounds like such and irrational logic, and it is, but being so trapped by thoughts I felt I couldn't and/or wasn't willing to try to explain was legitimate torture. I would have done anything to get away - so, I did the one thing I knew could represent my pain, while also taking the edge off and distracting me. I think that's a pretty big piece of ED for most people - the 'proof' that, yes, I am hurting that badly.
And so, my ED behaviors began to reemerge. It began with 'harmless' dieting - although diet culture is definitely not harmless, I digress, that's not my point here. But in doing those restrictive-type behaviors, I perceived control and that affirmed their capabilities to take away from the discomfort and (falsely) restore a sense of balance in my mind - that was my biggest mistake. Then began straight up starving myself, than binging, and/or purging - one, two, three times a day. The weight came off; 5 pounds, then 10, then 15... then, before I new it, I was almost at my lowest weight again. It happened so fast that within a month I had fully given in to my ED.
I remember looking down at my single egg-white omelet with spinach and thinking; 'this omelet used to be multiple whole eggs, not just a white. It used to have flavor and sustenance like onion, tomatoes, cheese and avocado. It used to be one of three meals, now it's my only meal that I wont throw up - what the hell am I doing..?'
I felt so incredibly ashamed and guilty. Many people new about my past struggles with ED and I was so embarrassed and terrified of people finding out that I started to struggle again. My efforts to 'hide it' were stronger than ever. I would hide behind layers of clothes. I would pretend to be sick to avoid doing anything including work, school and any social event, simply because I didn't have the motivation or energy for anything else except my eating disorder. I dreaded going home because ED was, yet again, the elephant in the room. I didn't want to talk to or be seen by anyone - I completely isolated myself. If people would ask how I was (with suspicion that something was up), I was quick to divert and put on that 'all is well' attitude. I hated that I was being so deceptive, but even more, I hated that I was consumed by ED again.
It was all happening, right in front of me. My biggest fear (relapse) was happening to me, right then and there. And to make it worse, I was painfully aware of it - I knew exactly what I was doing. When my eating disorder first emerged I was ignorant much of the time and justified it so much that I didn't believe it was wrong or 'bad', so the shame and guilt weren't as prevalent (although they were definitely still there). But after educating myself in recovery, I knew what was going on. I knew I was taking the stress of school, work, the future, my depression symptoms (all the things I could not 100% control/tolerate) and putting them into my eating and my body. In other words, I was overwhelmed and depressed and I felt 'out of control' so, ED popped in and said 'I know one thing that will provide some control and also numb the pain'. And I was so desperate for relief that I listened.
I originally (as in the first time) had taken on ED recovery on my own. I refused to get help outside of my own devices (mostly due to pride, fear of judgement, and generally being a reserved person). But, in doing that, I never fully addressed many uncomfortable (yet important) feelings and mental conditions that were out of my wheelhouse (control). I was doing (for the most part) the right things eating wise, and trying to be compassionate and forgiving with myself, but I never handled the depression properly or got down to the nitty-gritty problems and issues I had with myself (which is necessary in order to 'fully' recover).
Looking back, I see all the flaws in my first 'recovery'. I was terrified of eating so-called 'unhealthy' foods and I thought I had to eat 'perfectly' or 'clean' 100% of the time in order to want to and be able to stay in recovery (also known as Orthorexia). I still counted calories in my head all the time, just so I wouldn't eat 'too much' - I never actually listened to my body and its needs, I only trusted the numbers. I still had this toxic relationship with gym and the urge to burn and earn calories. I was still food and body obsessed. While I was being healthy and not partaking in ED behaviors, personally I don't consider the mindset I was in as fully recovered. In a way it's almost like I had this false consensus of thinking I was recovered by acting like everything was recovered (if that makes any sense), even though ED still clearly had a handle on my mindset and there were problems that I couldn't necessarily just think away.
But, relapse is not all as bad as it seems. It was a sign that things were not right in my life, that I wasn't taking care of something and that there were still things that weren't 'recovered'. Yes, there were the obvious stressors like senior year and making a career choice (general stressors that can often bring on symptoms of ED), but for me, much of it was more so the internal conditions that had been ignored.
Things like anxiety and depression. They aren't something that just go away by eating right or compassionate thinking. Granted, they aid in the remedy of those issues, but mental illness is multifaceted and there is more to healing than just physical behaviors. For me, I still really struggled some days to 'outsmart' or 'beat' the symptoms of my depression and anxiety. Even in my best 'place' in recovery I still had these lingering feelings that I could not shake. It doesn't mean those times of triumph and progress weren't valid or real, in terms of my health and wellness, It just means I needed to do more to take care of myself.
But, to be completely honest, my motivation was at an all time low. When ED took full reign again, I kind of just put up my white flag and gave in. ED had taken so much of my mental and physical health, yet it still had so much control over me that I was so unwilling to give it up - the 'organized chaos' of ED was almost comforting, simply because it was something that was predicable, something I could count on.
But when it came back, I felt so defeated. I wanted so badly for it to go away, but at the same time, I had kind of accepted this absolute that I was always going to resort to self-destruction, that ED was ingrained in me and that was that. And you know, that's partly true - yeah, I said it, and I mean it. I will always have an eating disorder 'ingrained' in me, that I can't control. However, its strength and power diminish each and every day that I choose recovery. I can control whether or not it controls me. Just because I have these thoughts and urges, does not mean I have to act on them. This is a reality I've had to come to realize and accept - ED and depression are just some of the cards I've been dealt, but you see, I can choose how to play the game.
(anyway, back to my story)
So finally, I let go of my pride and my fear of vulnerability and sought help for my ED and the co-occurring problems. It sucked, and I was probably a big pain in the ass for those trying to help in the beginning. But regardless of being stubborn and a bit unwilling, deep down I knew it was necessary. And to be frank, it was really damn hard to do all of this - I'm not going to sugarcoat that. Firstly, because it took up a lot of time and energy. Second, I was very unmotivated. But also, I was terrified of things like medication and therapy, and was caught up in the stigma of using them. But, despite my fears, those things turned out to be good for me.
So now I am here, I've hit the ground running and I've been back on the road to recovery for a while now. I am not going to say that I am in this 'perfect, ED-free, mindful state of bliss', but I know I can (and will) be fully recovered one day. Once I got my head out of that self-deprecating mindset, gained motivation and got some traction, it was easy to see the 'light at the end of the tunnel' again and act accordingly. I have surrendered the shame I associate(d) with my ED and have allow myself of the tools for success - I'm covering all the bases to ensure the foundation I am creating provides the most stability for an ED free life.
Going back to the shoe example I gave earlier; I learned that if I fix my sock right as it starts to move out of place, I can avoid getting a blister and likewise, stop the progress of it getting worse. Same goes for my eating disorder, if I address (talk about) the problematic feelings, thoughts or behaviors right away, I can avoid things getting out of hand and relapsing - ED does not have to be my 'go-to' in times of stress. I may be able to 'tolerate' discomfort for a while, but eventually is will tear me apart. I don't have to hide my feelings simply because I am scared. I can't let shame, pride or fear stop me from taking care of these things, regardless of how small and insignificant I think it is at the time.
Relapse may seem like the worst thing that can happen to someone in recovery, and it definitely feels that way, but it's almost guaranteed to happen and It's nothing to be ashamed of. Eating disorders can seem completely gone from your life, and somehow find a way back in. It is not a sign of weakness, it is just a big red flag saying; 'hey bud, something's not right'. You do not have to let it take control, you have the ability to take control before it even has time to settle in.