"You have no clue who you are," my therapist told me.
"Yes I do!" I fired back.
"No, you don't," she said again.
"Well who am I, then?" I asked.
"I can't answer that for you. You have to go figure it out for yourself."
I HATE not knowing the answer to things.
This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. In honor of it, I've written a piece of my story.
4 years ago, I chose to begin treatment for an eating disorder that I had lived with for 9-ish years before that. The little exchange written above was a moment that happened during my treatment, and it became a source of contention, frustration, and an over-arching theme for the rest of my recovery.
I was 23 when I started seeing a therapist and nutritionist again. I say 'again' because I had been once before as a teenager, but we'll get to that part later. I mainly went as a 23-year-old because I started developing panic attacks, I was feeling depressed, and I was feeling very panicky about my weight. I thought it was because of work problems (ha).
I didn't really think I had an eating disorder. I knew I had had one as a teen, but I thought that was a phase of my life that was over. I was underweight back then, and it was easy to see that I had a stereotypical eating disorder. By my 20s, though, I was physically "healthy-looking." In other words, people didn't look at me and think, "ooo, she needs a hamburger." And because of that, I thought I didn't have an eating disorder.
Sure, I panicked every time I put my clothes on in the morning. Sure, I puked a little. Sure, I felt worthless. Sure, I ate weird foods and in weird ways so I could feel in control of my life. Sure, I exercised and cried at the same time. Sure, I looked to others to define me because I was so hollow inside. But I didn't have an eating disorder.
I wasn't skinny enough to have one of those.
Now, let me back up a little more....
I pretty much came out of the womb criticizing my body. I had a keen awareness when my body didn't look like other people's. And I didn't like that. I am a curvy body type, through and through, even from a young age. Instead of loving the fact that I was a hottie patottie just as I was, I wanted to be a stick.
When I was 14, I had seen my share of fashion magazines and tv shows, and I didn't look like those ladies. I had muscular thighs. I had beautiful, thick, dark brown hair that I didn't know how to style. I had bad acne. And kids are mean. And the girls who were celebrated were so, so thin, and I felt like they were telling me that I had to be thin, too.
So, I decided to get skinny. I was going to go on a diet and that was that. Easy peasy.
It was horrible. I kept "failing" at it. I remember it was Christmas, and I wanted a piece of chocolate so badly. But I wanted to lose weight. And people on diets don't eat a piece of chocolate.
So I ate 10 and cried my eyes out.
The more I "failed" at dieting, the more obsessed with it I became. I treated my body like a dirty rug, trying to beat it into submission. I beat and beat and beat on myself. I only thought about food and exercise. I only cared about those two things. I HAD to control them, or I was a failure. And I was a failure a LOT.
I wanted to be approved of so badly. So, so badly. I wanted impress people with a magazine-worthy outward appearance. I wanted to prove how "strong" I was. I wanted to prove my worth to people, because inside I felt completely worthless.
Eventually, I obsessed enough about it, and by my 10th grade year of high school, I was visibly very thin.
...And I was a basket case.
It didn't make me happier like I thought it would. It made me miserable. I just wanted some dang food, but I wanted to be approved of more. Food became a horrible burden. It took on a life and power over me that governed where I would go, who I would speak to, and how I would feel. I would sneak out of my classrooms for a "bathroom break," and scrutinize my body in the mirror. I would lift my shirt and grab at my stomach and cry and plan my next meal.
And forget caring about anyone else. I had no space in my brain for anyone but me, myself, and I.
I was starrrrrrrrving. My body rebelled against me. Cranky would be an understatement about my personality at that point in time. Once, I FBI-style interrogated a guy for "stealing my gum," when I had simply forgotten I had placed it in my purse. I still apologize to him for that one. (Sorry again, Andrew!) My hair was falling out. I was freezing all the time. I grew hairs on my arms called "lanugo." Look it up. (ew.) I had no period. I developed hypothyroidism and now have to take a little pill the rest of my life.
I was DYING, and I had no concept of that.
After a series of events, including a family beach trip where family members realized my unhealthy habits and moods, my parents began taking me to therapy and a nutritionist. Very expensive therapy. Two hours away (because my dad wanted the best for me. I'll always thank him for that) in the big city. I was 16, I was hungry, and I was completely lost.
During that time, I regained a lot of my physical health, which made me feel better. But shortly after that, my treatment with them ended. It was just too far and too expensive. My parents began seeking a cheaper option for therapy in my hometown.
Boy, that was fun.
There was no one. No one who specialized in eating disorders, no one who knew anything about my struggles.
We visited one therapist who, when he found out that I had an eating disorder, said to me, "I do not take eating disorder clients due to their low success rate."
Seriously. He said that.
We eventually found a therapist that was good enough. A strange bird, but good enough.
But then, the problem was me. Since I had started eating more again, I had developed a little bingeing habit. And by little, I mean big-ish. I was so ashamed of it, and so confused as to why I would want to eat lots of food like that, that I just kept it to myself. I'd go into therapy and tell the lady how good I was feeling, all the while I was hiding cereal boxes and bread bags under my bed and eating when no one was watching.
By my senior year of high school, I had given up on therapy, and instead told everyone I was "healed from an eating disorder!"
I was a hot mess. And not the endearing, cute kind. I was the mangy, alley cat kind.
We went off to college, me and my eating disorder. It's all a bit of a blur. I felt so lost. I felt ashamed and guilty all of the time. I just kind of swayed with the wind and let things happen to me, if that makes sense. I wasn't very present. I let people come in and out of my life, not caring if they were good people or bad people. I was a grown-up-sized child, with a big, ugly gash that never healed up quite right.
By the time I graduated college, I looked pretty "normal." I had some friends, a job, and music career ambitions. But I still exercised unhealthily, hated my appearance, and if the smallest amount of stress entered my life, forget it - I was done. Toast. Anxiety out the wah-zoo.
After some music career disappointments and an engagement on the fritz, I got in a really deep funk. I started exercising even more, tried to control my food intake more, and I could see myself slipping back to what I was in high school. And I knew I didn't want to relapse again. It's so funny how I thought I was so "recovered" from this stuff. N00b alert.
Anyways... that was my bottom.
I finally sought out a counselor. On my own. Like an adult.
Which brings us back to 4 years ago.
That is when EVERYTHING changed. And when I say everything, I. Mean. Everything.
Healing from my wounds was torture for me. Not because I couldn't follow the rules, but because there no longer WERE any rules.
There was no method or step-by-step format to get me better. It was something I had to feel, experience, and just be with. I hated that at first. I was obsessed with rules and black and white and wrong and right. But this was gray. Very, very gray.
I then started seeing a nutritionist. Surely, a DIETICIAN would give me some rules that I can fail at, I thought. Then I'd go in there, and she would just tell me to find joy in food again, and to allow my physical body to tell me what it needs. Those were the "rules." She commanded me to eat and to like it.
I started unpacking a lot of my proverbial baggage in counseling. I started crying a lot. I broke up with my fiancé. I would randomly well up with so much emotion, I'd have to punch pillows to calm back down.
Eventually, I started feeling relief. I started embracing this new way of being. I started tasting foods for taste value and seeing what I liked and disliked. My feelings of bingeing completely subsided. I started craving vegetables, fruits, well-made foods, and chocolate! Beautiful, sweet, chocolate. I stopped the madness that is calorie-counting. I started voicing my thoughts more. I started taking ownership of my recovery. And the more I owned my recovery, the more I owned my own life. I got out more, tried new things, figured out my likes, my dislikes, my passions, my beliefs. I saw people in a much different light, too. I became far less black and white, and much more forgiving. I am continuing to become more and more comfortable living in the gray.
When I faced my demons, it was then and only then that I was able to grow. It was then and only then that was able to love on myself.
So what does all this look like today? I am thankfully considered "in recovery" now.
HOOORRRAAAAYYYY!!!!!! Oh, how sweet it is.
I'll never claim that I'm "recovered," though. I'll always have to watch my surroundings, be careful of "triggers," and practice self-love through prayer, meditation, and a positive environment. And I don't always do this. I'll skip it sometimes and get all pissy and weird and have to jump back on the bandwagon again. And it's awesome that I do that, because I'm only human, and there is no rule book. Gosh, it feels good to say that.
I hope that my messy, imperfect story can speak to you in some way. I hope that it shows that eating disorders affect many different types of people, in many different ways, and that they should be taken seriously. And recovery may have a "low success rate," but it is extremely doable. Especially when you tap in to your stubbornness that got you into the mess in the first place. ;)
If I could write a one-sentence take-away from this part of my life, it would be:
Feel the pain, love yourself through the pain, ignore society ideals, and never, EVER give up.
Thank you, NEDAwareness Week, for inspiring me to write my story.