Was I ever really even sick? This is a question that pops up in my mind a whole lot, especially when I have been doing so very well. I recently went to the grocery store, and picked out all the things I wanted to have this week. Lemon cookies, spaghetti, rice krispies cereal. I remembered back to the very different looking grocery cart I had just two years ago filled with organic, whole grain foods that I thought I loved. I remember wanting to be a nutritionist in high school because of how good I was at eating healthy and losing weight. It began in middle school, when I first noticed that my body was different from other people’s. I wanted a quick fix, but couldn’t find one. Pretty soon just wanting to change my body was not enough, I had to do something about it. At the local gym, my parents and I entered into a 90 day challenge. There were prizes and incentives to lose weight and exercise. Little by little, I eliminated more and more of the “bad” foods. I couldn’t bake for friends because I thought I would be hurting them with the ingredients. I felt immense guilt over eating carbohydrates, even after long hours in the pool swimming and at the gym. I couldn’t even eat the dinner and birthday cake my best friend’s twentieth birthday party, but at least I was good, oh how I longed to be good and clean. The craziest thing about it is no matter how much weight I loss, my body and my weight were never quite enough for me. I always felt too large, my tummy too round, and was never okay with any amount of weight loss.
I thought all of these things were normal before I went to college. Early on during my freshman year, I eliminated all the foods that I had heard were bad, and even began to eliminate some superfoods for fear that they weren’t clean anymore. That’s how eating disorders work; you keep finding more and more foods that are bad, and eliminating and restricting until you aren’t eating at all. I became so very rigid with my thoughts and eating patterns, adopting food rules about how much and carefully regimented what I ate. There were no late night runs to cookout with friends, no morning bagels and coffee, and no pancake parties for me. There were only the good and clean foods I had to pick out for myself that kept me in isolation in many ways.
I remember that day in nutrition class fairly well. It was a lecture hall of two hundred people, and a woman named Reba came to speak. Another lady named Emily shared her story along with her, and it resonated. I am not sure I remember reaching out to them too well, and looking back at my emails to the two of them feels surreal. It is as if the little girl hurting deeply inside of me took the reigns and cried out for help, because I know I was too sick to even realize my sickness. Around the same time, I began work with a new therapist. On November 15th, she told me she suspected I had an eating disorder. I didn’t believe her; I couldn’t be sick enough. I told her about the little amounts I had been eating, but it sounded like so much to me. Oh how I wish I had believed her. Over the next couple of days before my first appointment with my new dietitian, I purged for the first time. I wanted to somehow prove that I was sick enough and worthy of a diagnosis because I didn’t think she would find me worthy or hurting enough.
Those first few weeks of treatment were oh so difficult. I was forcing myself to purge so that at least my dietitian might find me sick and worthy enough. Little did I know that my behaviors and my mental rigidity around food were quite enough; we are all sick enough and worthy of recovery. I knew of a peer who had shared about her eating disorder, and reached out to her. Though my mind was too foggy and sick to remember the details of our early meetings, she would go on to become one of my dearest friends. She introduced and brought me to a support group. I never liked that title at first, and always associated support groups with cheesy therapists and people that I wasn’t like. Support group and a Bible study centered around eating disorders introduced me to some of the deepest, kindest people that helped me recover fully. Having people who understood me and validated me, who were with me and would help me through my meal plan and remind me that I was indeed sick enough were one of the most important parts of my recovery. Maybe it was just this group, but everyone in my support group and Bible study seemed to have a blog, and so I started one, too. I have since closed it down, but that space for external processing was invaluable to my recovery journey and process.
At times, I wanted so badly to be in a higher level of care. I wanted so badly to go to residential like my friends had as I heard stories of others meeting their best friends and having fun times with the staff. I wanted to try more behaviors and get sicker to convince myself and my family that I was worthy of a diagnosis and indeed sick enough. I wanted to be thinner so that I would have to restore weight because of how significantly low my weight would become. I was never thin enough to meet diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, didn’t binge to meet criteria for bulimia nervosa, and I hated my label of OSFED and orthorexia because to so many people, these things are considered “subclinical” or don’t even exist, but they are so real and so painful. It felt like my eating disorder was never good enough. Even so, those around me kept validating the idea that I was sick enough.
What changed to make me seek out recovery? Honestly, my why was financial for so long. I continued to remind myself that going to a higher level of care would cost a lot of money, and I couldn’t afford to take that toll on my parents. Sometimes our recovery “why’s” are very simple and practical. Little by little, the thoughts around disordered eating behaviors decreased as I learned more and more about the ineffectiveness of dieting, my set point weight that my body fights to maintain, and researched more and more about intuitive eating and Health at Every Size. A big turning point for me was watching other people moving on from their eating disorder, and learning that to a lot of people, eating disorders really aren’t that cool. I built a lot of my identity on trying to be sicker and thinner, and that was really hard, but people kept showing up for me until I no longer wanted to be sick. It was when I found that it was too exhausting to keep logging every single piece of food I ate, to keep paying for appointments, and to keep fighting my body that just kept bringing me back towards my set point that I had to raise my white flag of surrender and just say, okay.
What lingers, though, even after the meal plan becomes stable is the underlying work and trauma hidden by the eating disorder: wrestling with what makes me good and clean, if not the food I eat, learning how to tolerate distressing emotions without restricting or using food, working through negative body image in our society that values and worships thinness, and my anxiety disorders that remain. Food and body image are just parts of my story now that I value and treasure because of how much they taught me, but there is so much more healing work that lies underneath, and as I read the intuitive eating book and work through underlying narratives, I feel joy at how far I have come. November 15th will always be a special day to me, and I want to celebrate it annually, because my eating disorder is no longer a huge part of my identity, and I believe this can be true for you, too!
Living a beautiful life does not include restriction. It includes recipes and warm rolls fresh out of the oven. It has creativity and painted fingers. It is artistic and filled with wildflowers and mountains and patches of green that stretch out into the skies. The life I want is so much less about my body and so much more about my soul.