This is not about weight.
I could tell you all about the ways I lost 30 pounds, gained 20, lost 10, gained 40, lost 60, and on and on. I could tell you, but what would it matter? It was never about weight or about how I fit in my pants. If it were, there would have been a number that would have satisfied me. I would have known how to stop.
I was 9 the first time I made myself throw up. It wasn’t traumatic or painful. I did it because I was curious. I wanted to see what my body could do. It felt so normal that I didn’t even connect it to my eating disorder until years later. I started to starve myself at 13.
I lost weight, I lost feeling, I built walls so high between me and the rest of the world that I could no longer see the sun. Months would go by like this and then my behavior would transition into bulimia. Meals in, meals out, followed by a hypnotic, unstoppable urge to immediately do it again.
But unlike when I was 9, it was traumatic now. It was painful and it was violent. This was my life for a decade. Ten full years trapped in a cycle between deprivation and over-indulgence. It was a living hell. I’d cry naked on the bathroom floor, my body screaming out to me, begging for mercy. I’d lay in the dark at night and listen to my heart trudging along, beating wildly, overcompensating for what I forced it to lack. I waited for it to give up on me. I knew that, at some point, it had to.
Eating disorders are not a diet. They are a death sentence. They have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses.
Did you get that or should I repeat it? They have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. The 10% chance of death jumps to 20% when, like me, you pass a decade of struggling. And that number is at least slightly skewed because the way you die from an eating disorder is by complications like organ failure or by suicide, both of which may be determined the “cause of death” while the real killer still lurks in the shadows.
These disorders aren’t created because of an overdeveloped sense of vanity. In fact, they’re the antithesis of vanity. They are dirty toilet water splashing up into your face, your open eyes, your hair. They’re bending down on the floor of a disgusting public restroom. They’re disintegrating teeth. They’re hair falling out in clumps.
They’re not having the energy to get out of bed in the morning but being too hungry to sleep at night. They’re closing yourself off completely to any form of love, trust or happiness that exists in the world. They’re being drunk on a rooftop, looking over the edge and imagining how effortless it would be to fall.
I get defensive when people talk about how eating disorders are all the media’s fault. I can’t deny it has an impact. Even the most progressive magazines plaster weight loss tips, which are really disordered eating behaviors, as headlines and pretend they’ll lead you to a fuller, happier life. If thin wasn’t “in”, I might have leaned toward a different method of self destruction.
But the point is, eating disorders are a coping mechanism to manage emotions the way that any addiction is. Like every other addiction, they only soothe the pain temporarily before creating even more. It’s too simple and insulting to say that eating disorders are about our thin obsessed culture. They’re about so much more; family, environment, power, control, rebellion, sexuality, pain, strength, sadness, genetics.
I’m not a ballerina, or a model, or an actress or a gymnast. I never went on “pro-ana” blogs. I didn’t catch my disorder from looking at too many fashion magazines. I’ve never seen my narrative represented in any Lifetime movie or Entertainment Tonight news special.
Stranger still, I’ve never been underweight. Eating disorders are more often characterized by fluctuating weight than they are by shocking thinness. They are not as obvious as you might have been led to believe. They’re insidious, shrouded in secrets and denial. I became so good at lying, at deflecting, at shutting people out, that my loving friends and family had no idea what I was doing to myself.
My disorder kept me detached from the rest of the world. You can’t really ever get close to anyone when you’re focused on hiding such a large part of your life.
At almost every year of my life, you could find an image of me at a noticeably different weight. But the pictures are exactly the same in my eyes. All I see is a girl who is dying.
And then one day, I woke up. Nothing extraordinary happened. I was carrying on as usual, battling through the hatred and the self-violence that felt so second-nature.
As I knelt on the floor of my bathroom, a thought popped into my head, so clear and crystallized: “I’m going to die. I’m going to die and no one will know why.” It didn’t stop there. “I’m going to die having lied to every single person who ever tried to love me.”
I started to sob and it was like a dam broke. I saw how I’d hurt myself, how I’d degraded every personal relationship I’d had, how I’d made all of my choices based on fear, how I was the only thing keeping myself broken.
I’d moved 3,000 miles away from where I was when my eating disorder started, and yet, I was in exactly the same place. A 23 year old woman on the outside, a 13 year old, terrified, lost, little girl on the inside. I’d stunted my personal growth and forced myself to make the same mistakes time and time again. I realized that I’d been clinging so tightly to the thing that was killing me, because it was all I’d ever known, and I was afraid of life without it. And I knew then that it was time to let go.
A large part of my disorder, though there are many contributing factors, was need. I’ve never wanted to need anything from anyone. I valued independence above all else and I took it too far.
My reaction to stress is to pull away from the things that I need the most. It’s like playing a “trust fall” game. Instead of letting someone catch me, I get too scared that they won’t. So I force them away and knowingly make myself fall flat on the floor. I do this so that the choice to hit the ground is on me, and not a result of being let down by someone else. I don’t like asking for help. I don’t like being vulnerable.
The thing about life, though, is that all those things are necessary. Sometimes, I do need help. I do need other people. I do need food, and comfort, and to let someone catch me every once and awhile. Admitting those things doesn’t make me weak, like I used to think. It makes me strong. People who embrace their vulnerabilities are the only ones who can learn from them.
Recovery has so no end point. It’s not a destination. It’s a journey that I’ll be on for the rest of my life. Over 10 years of a habit requires a lot of deprogramming. I actively have to unlearn how I came to process all of my emotions, even the good ones. There are still times when I feel like I can’t breathe. The door slams and the air is sucked out. I get overwhelmed. I get scared. I’m not perfect and I never will be.
But I am something better; I’m alive. And when I get lost in the moments that seem like they’re going to end me, I take a deep breath and I listen. In the silence, I can hear my heart beating. I focus on that and I remember everything that it’s gone through to keep beating. Despite how hard I tried to stomp it out, it kept pumping blood through my veins.
In that, I find my strength again. I stand up straight and I resist the urge to make my needs, my voice, my presence, smaller. I refuse to allow myself to be a shrinking violet who believes she has no right to take up space in the world. My body has held me up through a long, hard war and I only allow into my life the people who revere that.
I hope that if you’re reading this, and you’ve found yourself lost in the darkness, that you recognize you aren’t alone. The light is all around you. It’ll shine in through your cracks the moment you decide to allow it. I hope that you know your body is strong, resilient, and remarkable. The heart that continues to beat inside your chest is a miracle.
I hope you let go. It’s difficult and it’s scary, but it’s time. When you do, you’ll find that life can get more beautiful than you were ever capable of imagining.
In one of my many attempts to find peace, I took up a yoga class. At the beginning of each session, we offered prayers to the universe. We were told to see them as something that had already been received and put into effect. If I were to pray for health and healing, which I do every day, I would say “I am whole and healthy in this moment”.
I am, in fact, whole and healthy in this moment. And so are you.