Anorexia: The Long Walk Back

This past week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I wasn’t afraid to share my story. But there was a time when I was afraid to admit that I had an eating disorder. There was a time when I denied vehemently that there was anything wrong. There was a time when I’d rather suffer in silence, waste away quietly than admit to battling a demon with so much stigma attached. There was a time when the greatest compliment I could receive was, “You look so skinny!” There was a time when I ate nothing but a few crackers a day for weeks on end. There was a time when my roaring stomach threatened to eat me alive.

There was a time when I gave up. There was a time that my whole life came crashing down—like, if my life were a chain of dominoes, I could have labeled each one: Sexual Assault, Depression, Self-harm, Anorexia. One domino fell, causing a chain reaction that caused each subsequent domino to fall, completing the circuit, illuminating the sign: ANOREXIA.

But then something changed, subtle at first. There wasn’t some lightbulb “AHA” moment. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Today’s the day I get my life back together.” It was gradual, so slow and quiet that I can’t even definitively tell you when I began the journey toward recovery.

But I can tell you the day I ate three full meals again: September 24, 2013.

Since that day, it’s been a long, slow walk back to healthy, maybe even a crawl.

It’s been all about finding Happy Mediums, and learning how to deal with the lasting effects (the stretch marks, the cold hands, the extra dietary supplements, the heart that sometimes beats too fast).

When I first started eating again, it didn’t take long for me to gain the weight back I had lost. It also didn’t take me long to gain the “and then some” people like to warn you about.

During my battle with Anorexia, I cared too much about how I looked that didn’t care how I lost the weight. During my first stages of recovery, I didn’t care enough so I gained more weight than I should have. Now, I’m left figuring out where the middle is: how much caring is too much and how much is not enough? How do I lose the weight I need to lose in order to be my best self without letting it—my appearance—consume my life?

I don’t really have the answer, but I think I may have a solution that might work best for me.

I have found that I prefer to recover the same way I enter a pool: easing in.

Some people like jumping right into a freezing cold pool and sending their body into shock. I don’t. I prefer sticking my toes in, then my foot, then my leg, then slowly climbing down the ladder until I’m up to my shoulders, and then finally, an hour later, putting my head under the water, maybe.

If I’m going to reach my goals of being happy and healthy, I have to ease in. Starting with my worst relationship to date: food.

I have to ease into a healthy diet, starting to eat better a little bit at a time, until it becomes second nature. Then after I maintain that, then I can add in the exercise a little bit at a time until that becomes second nature.

And I know this doesn’t work for everybody, and it’s not supposed to–recovery is different for every person.

But I know me. I know that the analogy of dominoes may have worked once upon a time, and it may work sometimes if I want to make my story simple.

Unfortunately, life isn’t simple. There’s nothing simple about Eating disorders and Mental Illness. Because eating disorders are as just as much mental as they are physical. So in reality, there are no cascading dominoes. Instead, it’s a tangled web of events, interweaving in and out of each other until each string is indistinguishable from the next.

My identity is somewhere in that web.

Recovery is untangling that web, trying to find who I really am and who I want to be.

It’s about learning to listen to the voices around you from those who love you, instead of the ones inside you trying to beat you down.

It’s knowing that you’ll fail sometimes and choosing to get up anyway.

The road from Anorexia to Recovery is long and hard. I have fallen down many times, and I know I will probably fall down a few more along the way.

And that’s ok.

Because the journey is a slow walk, and I haven’t walked as far as I would have liked to 2 ½ years into it.

And sometimes I get impatient because I know that at the end of this journey, beauty is waiting.

But where I am now, that’s beautiful, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Didn’t Know I Had an Eating Disorder

This picture popped up on my Facebook timeline a few days ago, with a note from Facebook that read: This memory happened four years ago. Share it with your friends!

I thought to myself, “Oh, I’ll share it with my friends all right, but not like this.” So I’m sharing it now, in this form, because there is so much to say about this picture, and I don’t really know where to begin.

I don’t know where to begin, and what I didn’t know then was that I had an eating disorder.

And now I bet you’re wondering how I didn’t know I had an eating disorder.

It’s easy not to know you have something when you know nothing about it, let alone talked about it.

Eating disorders weren’t really disorders as much as they were taboos, the elephant in the room no one talked about. Maybe if we ignore it, it will go away.

Problems don’t usually go away by ignoring them (no matter how long college students ignore their pile of assignments to be done).

Not talking about eating disorders at home is one thing, but not talking about them at school is another and potentially dangerous thing.

Yes, I had the mandatory “unit” on them, but I’m using that term lightly because we spent about five minutes discussing the differences between Anorexia and Bulimia: starving and barfing.

I didn’t think I had an eating disorder because at the time I didn’t describe what I was doing as starving. I was limiting, counting, stressing about the number of calories and the number of pounds. I didn’t think there was anything wrong (which is a classic sign of Anorexia, but they don’t teach you that in school).

I didn’t think anything was wrong until I was in the Emergency room, waiting to be admitted for my appendectomy, and I overheard a conversation my doctor was having on the phone:

I have a 17-year-old anorexic female presenting with appendicitis.

I didn’t think anything was wrong until I heard that one word that hit me like a ton of bricks in the chest, and I wasn’t sure what hurt worse: the weight of that word or the inflamed appendix.

Anorexia.

The shame of being labelled as an Anorexic was enough to keep from talking about it for another year. I didn’t want to be labelled as the “Girl with Anorexia.” People can’t identify you as something if you keep yourself hidden.

School teaches you a lot of useful information: basic math, how to be literate, the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.

It also doesn’t teach you things that could be useful: how to balance a checkbook, how to write a resume and cover letter, how to tell if you have an Eating Disorder

Society talks a lot about the problems occurring today: racial tensions, the Middle East, Drought.

It’s only recently that society has begun to talk about the way media affects adolescents.

I didn’t know I had an eating disorder because I was never taught about how complex they are.

What I was doing didn’t fit the definition given to me, and so I wasn’t anorexic, even though I was.

School didn’t teach me how to deal with my eating disorder, and because I refused to tell anybody for fear of being labelled, I had to deal with it on my own.

School didn’t teach me how complex eating disorders are. Instead, it provided me with simple, one-word definitions that I didn’t even fit.  I didn’t know I had an eating disorder because I didn’t fit the simple definition.

School didn’t teach me about the mental components of eating disorders, just the physical. I didn’t know I had an eating disorder because, for me, it was just as much mental as it was physical.

School didn’t teach me about how hard the recovery process was going to be. It didn’t teach me about how much eating was going to hurt, physically and mentally. It didn’t teach me about how much my self-esteem would be lowered with each bite I took.

School didn’t teach me about how to deal with the effects of this 5-year battle. I can’t skip a meal because habits are hard to break, and the chances of relapsing are higher than I’d like to admit. My hands are cold more often than not. I have permanent dark circles under my eyes, and my eyes seem to be sunk in a little too far in my face. There are stretch marks all over my body from the weight gain during recovery.

These are things I’m coming to terms with. Some days I’m ok; some days, I’m not.

I didn’t know I had an eating disorder because society wasn’t talking about them in the right way.

We’re getting better because now we’re acknowledging the complexities of eating disorders: they overlap, there are many than two kinds, they can affect anybody and everybody: girls, boys, chubby, skinny.

I didn’t know I had an eating disorder. I didn’t know how to talk about my eating disorder. I didn’t know how common they are, how many people I know who had, or still have, one.

But now I do.

And I’m making the most of everything I now know.

For more information on eating disorders, and for help for you or someone you know, visit: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/

Goodbye, Ana

December 23, 2011:

“Hello, yes. It’s Dr. — from the Pediatric ER. I have a 17 year old female with mild anorexia. She also has appendicitis.”

Wait, what? How did he know? I thought I hid it so well. I mean, he is a doctor. I hope he’s not judging me.

Anorexia.

For me, it started when I became so depressed I wanted to die. It started in 9th grade, and it didn’t end until college. It started when the cutting wasn’t enough to make my pain go away. And even when I decided to live, when I put down the razor for the last time, I didn’t start eating again.

It got worse.

August 2012:

I walked into the Dining Hall on the first day of my College Experience. I saw so many beautiful faces. I wasn’t one of them, so I walked out.

….

When I tell people I was anorexic, they find it hard to believe. Sometimes I find it hard to believe. I find it hard to believe that a year ago I was skipping meals like an atheist skips church. I didn’t need God. My God was my rumbling stomach, and I found comfort in the rumbly in my tummy (as Pooh Bear would say).

I stopped eating because I didn’t think I was beautiful enough. I would get up everyday, and I would look in the mirror, hate what I saw, and would compensate by being someone I’m not. And it was physically and mentally exhausting. Between the not eating and the not being, I was having a really hard time.

I was fighting a Battle of Comparisons, and I couldn’t win. I was always not good enough, not pretty enough, not ‘insert adjective here’ enough.

And people don’t understand when I explain to them I wasn’t trying to die. I was trying to live. But I didn’t know how to live in a body I hated so much. I felt like my life was spiraling out of control, and there was nothing I could do about it. So, I controlled the one thing I knew how: the amount of food I ate.

And everyday it was a battle. Everyday is a battle for people who struggle with anorexia. Your stomach is telling you to eat, but your mind is telling you, “Nah, bro. No good.” And how can you argue with that? You know what they say: Mind over matter. Or in this case: Mind over stomach growling. It’s finding the perfect balance between how much you want to eat and how much you’re willing to let yourself eat. It’s about taking one bite at a time until you hate yourself so much you can’t take another bite. And then it’s about repeating this action over and over.

It gets to the point where you have two options: either you die, or you get help.

I got help. I told my friends. They started holding me accountable, eating lunch with me, checking to make sure I ate, making sure I didn’t skip a meal.

And I don’t know when things began to change. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to start eating. And I don’t know why I had the sudden change of mind. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide I was worth enough to eat. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide I was beautiful. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide my life was back in control, because it’s not. I don’t have my life controlled. At all.

But I went to Guatemala, and suddenly my life began to change. I found God again, and for once in my life I knew what my purpose was and is.

I was so focused on trying to be beautiful, I missed what was right in front of me. I am beautiful because of who I am. I am beautiful because of who I was. I am beautiful because God made me in his image.

It’s March 24, 2014. I haven’t skipped a meal in 6 months.

I’m a recovering Anorexic.

And I am beautiful.

 

 

 

What It’s Like to Be An Anorexic In a Thanksgiving World (as told by a Recovering Anorexic)

I’m Italian. I’m Genetically-bred to love food.

My mind, however, once believed food to be my enemy.

You see, throughout High School and into my first year of College, I had an Eating Disorder. (For those keeping track at home, that’s 5 Thanksgivings.)

Thanksgiving is literally the worst time to have an Eating Disorder. It’s a day about giving thanks. It’s a day dedicated to eating food, and for people like me who tend to avoid eating food at all costs, it’s a day dedicated to our worst nightmare. It’s like diving into shark infested waters when you’re terrified of sharks. It’s a special kind of hell.

You’re surrounded by food all the time. You feel guilty for not eating the food. You feel guilty for eating food. It’s the everlasting battle between being told to eat and telling yourself you don’t deserve to eat. You want to eat the turkey, but you don’t want to be compared to the turkey. 

Your stomach is telling you to eat, but your mind is telling you, “Nah, bro. No good.” And how can you argue with that? You know what they say: Mind over matter. Or in this case: Mind over stomach growling. It’s finding the perfect balance between how much you want to eat and how much you’re willing to let yourself eat. It’s about taking one bite at a time until you hate yourself so much you can’t take another bite. And then it’s about repeating this action over and over.

And every year I thought to myself, “How am I supposed to be thankful when I want to change everything about who I am? I don’t match society’s idea of beauty and therefore, have nothing to be thankful for. How am I supposed to make it through this grand feast when I can barely eat a bird’s amount of breakfast?”

They’re valid thoughts. How is anybody supposed to be thankful when they are so depressed they can’t get out of bed in the morning? How is anybody supposed to be thankful when they find so little value in themselves they don’t eat? Because really, the only thing I’m capable of feeling is nothing.

For some people it’s hard to hide Anorexia. For me it was easy. I’ve never eaten a lot, so when I took smaller portions, it was easy for me to take a few bites and leave the rest, because my plate would have the same amount of food left as it normally did. I would eat just enough to stop my stomach from growling, enough to quench the hunger, but not enough to feel stuffed.

I don’t know how many people in my family knew.

And when people ask me why? I respond: I felt like my whole life was out of control. So, I tried to control the one thing I could: how much I ate.

And I don’t know when things began to change. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to start eating. And I don’t know why I had the sudden change of mind. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide I was worth enough to eat. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide I was beautiful. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide my life was back in control, because it’s not. I don’t have my life controlled. At all.

All I know is somewhere between then and now I started eating again.

So, this year when Thanksgiving rolled around, I decided to make a list of things I am Thankful for (which can be read here).

This year I was actually excited to eat lots of food.

So, I did.

This year I had two Thanksgivings. This year I ate a lot of food at both. This year I didn’t feel guilty. This year I took too much food instead of not enough. And if that’s not something to be thankful for, I don’t know what is.

Because, yes, I still felt like a turkey when I was done eating. But I didn’t hate it. Because I realized that despite what society tells me: I am beautiful. And that’s enough reason to eat.