As I was on my run on Monday, I was reflecting on everything I went through in the height of my eating disorder. What have I learned now that the dust has settled? What do I wish someone had told me? Despite the scattered nature of my thoughts (and the lack of a way to write everything down mid-run), here’s my best attempt to cull together my wisdom on the subject, limited though it may be.
For those of you out there who are currently struggling with an eating disorder, if we could sit down and share a cup of coffee (non-fat milk and Splenda optional), here’s what I’d tell you:
1. It gets better, though the scars will always be there. Not to take away any power from the “It Gets Better Project,” but this pithy statement says it perfectly (and much more succinctly than I could). It does get better. You will get better. There will come a day when you realize you didn’t freak out about the 80 calories in an apple you just ate or you can truly enjoy birthday cake with a good friend because you’re celebrating her, not stressing about the cake’s fat content. As cliché as it is, time heals all wounds.
But healing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re back to the way you were before the eating disorder. Just as a transplant patient lives with the physical scars of the operation, so we, too, bear reminders of our emotional vivisection. Even still, I bristle at the prospect of unplanned calories and struggle against my eating disorder idiosyncrasies (“No butter on my bread, thanks.” “Oh, I don’t drink soda.”). Some days these scars lead to brief relapses, but overall, the healing process is on track.
You will encounter sore spots and setbacks on the road to recovery, but if you really want to get better and persevere through the obstacles, it will happen. Step by step, you’ll make it back.
2. Be honest. Really, truly honest. If you’re anything like me, your eating disorder has turned you into a damn good liar. I mean, we could get Oscars for the way we act normal and pretend everything is ok. But we need to stop. I say “we” because yes, I do still sometimes (oftentimes) lie about what I eat, how I’m doing, etc, etc. Unfortunately, you can’t build your recovery on a foundation of lies and half-truths.
It’s tough. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not fun. But it’s necessary. I truly believe that if I had just been 100% honest with the people trying to help me—my parents, my doctor, my therapist, my nutritionist, my mentor, my friends—I wouldn’t have floundered so long in recovery limbo. I thought I could do it myself, but just like you can’t pull yourself out of a 100-foot-deep hole without a ladder, I couldn’t shake the grip of my eating disorder with opening up to my support system.
Stop lying about how much you ate to your nutritionist. Stop water-loading before your weigh-ins at the doctor’s office. Stop telling your mom you ate lunch when you threw it away. Stop pretending you’re allergic to carbs when you’re out to dinner with your friends. Believe me, it’s a lot less complicated and much easier to come up for air when you’re not tangled up in lies.
3. You’re not special, but your story is unique (and you’re not alone). I know the first part of this sounds harsh—just consider it tough love. That’s what I needed. Part of what kept me from getting help was thinking that I was the only person in the world who was going through something this severe and no one else could possibly understand. I’m calling your BS. You’re not special. 20 million women and 10 million men are experiencing the same hell as you. Maybe not the exact same hell with all its nuances and variations, but similar enough to relate.
But there’s a flip side. Your story is unique. Even though your thoughts and circumstances aren’t new, the way your story is unfolding is. And it’s beautiful. In the same way a broken mirror can be pieced back together to create a mosaic, your life can be put back together to create something people will admire.
And another thing: You’re not alone! You have people who can help and sympathize and walk with you through this. If you’d pull yourself out of your own head for a second, you’ll see the world is full of people willing to extend a hand to pull you out of this mess. Which leads me to…
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Would you expect someone that was drowning to throw themselves a life preserver? No. So don’t expect that you can save yourself from your eating disorder. Hopefully, you have people around you that love and care about you and that are willing to be your support system. Rely on them. They’ll offer you a perspective you couldn’t possibly imagine, as you’ve been trapped inside your own headspace.
If you don’t have that kind of people in your life, find them. Find someone who will listen without judgment, support without question, love without condition, and offer advice without condescension. That could be a therapist; it could be a pastor or rabbi or other religious leader; it could be a friend of a friend; it could be someone you barely know that’s been through what you’re going through.
It can be scary to ask for help. But you know what’s scarier? Not asking for help and ending up doing more damage to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. I didn’t want to find help, but help found me in the form of a wonderfully understanding teacher and mentor who’d also had an eating disorder in high school. She was (and still is) my confidant, friend, and reality check (“Rachel, that handful of Goldfish crackers is not going to cause a five-pound weight gain overnight.”)
So there it is. We’ve finished our imaginary cup of coffee, and you’ve heard my two cents. I’ve been to the underworld and back and lived to tell the tale. Now it’s your turn. I know the internet can be the best/worst place for recovering anorexics (pro-ana sites abound but there are people, like me, willing to listen and help), yet I want to extend a hand, should you want to reach out and take it. Feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I don’t have all the answers, but I can offer my perspective and point you in the right direction.
Much love in your recovery,
PS: You can read more about my personal struggle in my previous NEDAwareness post.