20 Insights From Someone in Anorexia Recovery

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Disclaimer: This article is based on my story and research that resonates with my personal experiences during my illness and recovery process. It is in no way intended to apply to everyone who has anorexia or another eating disorder. Although numbers aren’t really mentioned, I would like to also warn against triggers to anyone currently suffering or recovering from an eating disorder.

1. Skinny doesn’t taste as good as life feels.

A couple of my peers at college had made anorexia and mental health related “jokes” in the past. Some lived by the mantra “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” When skinniness is achieved through involuntary self-starvation, I have to wholeheartedly disagree.

Starvation affects your body and mind. Badly. The brain shrinks as its tissue is used up as fuel. Hormones like estrogen are affected, which is why I, like many (although not all) who develop anorexia lose their menstrual periods. Bodily processing slows down to survive. My heart rate and blood pressure dropped to scarily low digits, prompting a nurse to ask me if I was alive. Starvation also affects mood and thought patterns. My parents realized something was clearly wrong because of the drastic change in my attitude. Their sweet, positive, smiling daughter was replaced by one that scowled, snapped and was uncharacteristically disrespectful and rude to them and other loved ones. In turn, I hated myself even more, and further punished myself for my behavior. I withdrew further, giving in to the illness, preferring to isolate to avoid hurting people’s feelings. Continued starvation leads to rigid thinking, lack of emotion and problems with concentration and memory. I was unable to see the larger picture and instead got stuck in minuscule details. Every decision held massive importance, so even the smallest choice took me forever. I would go to the grocery store for two hours and leave with one item. I wrote and rewrote an essay 23 times, for a freshman-level class that really should not have been a problem for a senior with a 3.98 GPA.

2. It was not about vanity.

It sometimes takes an instance of weight change (gain or loss), to trigger an eating disorder. This was the case for me, following my “Freshman 15.” What started out eating healthier and exercising to have a “better-looking” body, quickly spiraled into something completely different. In less than three weeks, repeated manipulation of a behavior became an addiction.

For me, there was a huge moral component to anorexia. I come from a privileged background, and I always felt overwhelmingly guilty for how much I had, and how little I felt I was doing with all that I had been given. I wasn’t enough. I felt ungrateful, and to punish myself, I gave myself less so I’d suffer more. I was achieving self-respect through my self-denial. I was paying the price of success. In our culture, self-denial, especially with regard to eating, is often a “good” thing. Along with starvation, anorexia comes with over-exercise and taxing the body past its physical limits.

Personally, I was pretty satisfied with my appearance earlier on in my disorder, but I had to keep going so the effects would not reverse. I took comments about my low weight and small size as compliments, regardless of their intent. However, towards the end, my heart sank at the weight displayed on my scale, both because it was a scarily low number, but also because I knew that the only thing that would freak me out more was if that number were to increase. I was so stuck. Looking back now, I realize I looked sickly, horrifyingly thin — not ideal whatsoever.

3. It was not a diet.

With the denial that comes from starving yourself comes a powerful feeling of control, success and power that becomes an addiction. I became addicted to the sensation of hunger, because of the discipline and strength it implied I possessed. An addiction is a psychological coping skill when one feels incredibly trapped and restrained, or under immense pressure to succeed. This leads to feelings of helplessness and one looks to find a way to alleviate the inhibition. Now, I am no longer willing to put up with the pain of prolonged hunger, and don’t need to any more. It doesn’t serve my purposes. Now, skipping a meal is not an option. If I did, I would not feel good about it. I’d satiate my hunger, and recognize that food is fuel that keeps me going, and enables my body to be strong and do all the things it couldn’t do before. This kind of relationship with hunger and food, I think, is a key element of what it means to eat “healthily.”

4. Control. It was all about control.

Weight loss is a “primary gain” of anorexia — not the real cause of the illness. A “secondary gain” is the actual benefit that disorder offers, and explains why a person might continue with their eating disorder without wanting to seek treatment for it. The illness might (subconsciously) provide a sense of purposefulness, power, a distraction from the volatility or pressures of life or a feeling of self-worth, to name just a few. A sense of control tends to be the most common secondary gain for a person with anorexia. I felt powerless in the world, and in order to exercise control, I battled myself internally, rather than with the world. It was the way I could regulate and govern my life. However, it is the paradox of control that truly defines anorexia. Below the perfectly controlled surface are petrifying, debilitating feelings of lack of control. And these fears about a total loss of control manifest with regard to food.

5. Anorexia used my body as a mode of communication.

Anorexia was a subconscious way for me to face the things I was scared of directly confronting, and say the things I was too scared or ashamed to say. My body was the canvas on which I displayed my hurt, rage, shame and sadness, because I couldn’t vocally express the emotions I was feeling inside — I had never been able to. Instead, those got numbed out as I ate less. In a way, it was a call for help. I wasn’t OK, and I had to show it somehow. I wanted people to know I wasn’t OK, and to care. No one said anything. I wanted them to. But when they did, it was too much, uninvited and annoying. It was a frustrating paradox: if people didn’t intervene, then my I assumed I was fine. I took that as implicit acceptance, or even approval of my behaviors. At the same time, I was terrified of someone saying I looked too thin, and if they did, I would get defensive and reassure them that I was perfectly alright.

6. I didn’t just “get” it, and I couldn’t just get better.

I am not writing this with the purpose of saying, “Anorexia really sucks. Don’t ever let yourself have it.” Telling someone not to have this is like telling someone not to have another illness. The idea that someone can just get it, and just as easily get rid of it makes it seem like it is a choice.

It is not a choice.

It is not a “diet gone wrong,” or taken too far. It is not “going anorexic” for the month because you have eaten “too much” and feel you need to lose weight. No. What makes anorexia so distinctly uncomfortable is the cognitive dissonance: knowing and understanding two conflicting things. I knew I was harming myself and making myself miserable, but I didn’t feel it was remotely possible to do anything to change it. I was frustrated and terrified, which only fueled my addiction to control as I spun further out of control.

After I was out of the “denial” phase, I knew I was making my life miserable. But at the same time, my eating disorder voice reminded me I was strong, and gave me a pat on the back for my hard work. “No pain, no gain,” is what it said to me. “You are doing the right thing. Life is not supposed to be easy, you have to work for success.”

Secondly, I could not just get better. I could not just “eat a cheeseburger” and be done with it. At the time, even if I could have suddenly changed, I would have been at risk of heart failure, just from eating a “regular” amount of food again. When your body’s processing slows down to such a low rate, it is dangerous to just eat like it is no big deal. Known as “Refeeding Syndrome,” cardiac and metabolic complications can arise when a malnourished person is reintroduced to food.

The media is often criticized for promoting the thin ideal and featuring models with unrealistic bodies. Whilst this definitely can serve as thinspiration for those with eating disorders, as justifications or visions for their behaviors and thought patterns, it is not to say that everyone who looks at these images can just develop an eating disorder as a result: genetics are one of the many contributing puzzle pieces that create an eating disorder.

7. It boosted my self-worth.

Another common secondary gain at the crux of eating disorders like anorexia is a (false) sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Unfortunately, our culture propagates the idea that women need to conform to a stereotype of thinness and that changing ourselves physically will make life better. Our culture’s standards regarding body size and shape determine what a “perfect” body looks like and the closer the person gets to that unattainable ideal, the higher their self-esteem gets. I had put my self-esteem in a few external buckets: my body and my achievements. I received tangible evidence for my hard work and effort in the form high grades on my papers and exams, and low numbers on the electronic scale. My control and self-discipline made me feel worthy and valuable.

8. I lived by my strange set of narrowly-defined rules and rituals.

Because my body in starvation-mode didn’t think it was going to get food again, when I did eat, I needed the perfect conditions, and the perfect combinations of food. This showed up in my food rituals: making my tiny, low-calorie meals last forever by cutting up food into small pieces, eating slow, small bites, constantly reheating my food, and staying home to eat the food that I (well, my eating disorder) wanted, in the “right” quantities. I would purposely postpone or push my meals further and further back, subconsciously train myself to view food as disgusting, dangerous and intoxicating to combat temptation, and enjoy my food vicariously through other people.

9. It is a social disorder. Relationship with food > relationships with people.

An eating disorder fills in for the interpersonal relationships a person lacks, but seriously needs, in their life. I couldn’t control my environment and the people in it. I started to isolate from them and shut myself off, in a non-verbal attempt to define my boundaries and say, “I’m tired of giving to you, being the caretaker, the giver, the doormat. Being taken advantage of and used. I’m closed for business. Leave me alone.” People were unreliable and didn’t understand me, and worst of all, had the power to hurt me. I developed a relationship and fascination with food, as I further withdrew from real people. I followed food Instagram accounts. I spent hours collecting recipes that I would never make from food bloggers online. Food was stable. It would always be there for me, to reward me and make me feel better (or worse). Those suffering from anorexia are usually often secretive and fixed to their rigid routines. It brought me an immense amount of stress and anxiety to even think about breaking my daily pattern. I would tell friends I would meet them at a party, only to cancel sometimes five minutes before, even though in my mind my decision to not go had been made long before. I was attached to my standard meals at my desk, where I would feel most productive. I would not be able to eat without Netflix open, playing Gilmore Girls in the background, giving the illusion of familiar friends in the room with me. Then I’d take a bite, and type my essay. It was an exasperating cycle of “I don’t want to be here. But I need to be here. I’m getting stuff done. I want to be here,” and “Why do I want people? When I’m with people I don’t want to be with them. When I’m alone, I want to be around people.” I just could not win. I could not make myself happy. I wasn’t allowed to be happy.

Now, I have learned to reach out for real human support, and foster real relationships and connections with people. To do this I have to accept a degree of powerlessness and vulnerability. Furthermore, self-acceptance and developing a relationship with myself is the key. Wanting the best for myself, and knowing I deserve food and enjoyment in life, just as I feel about anyone else I love.

10. It was a new manifestation of many years of stress and anxiety.

I was an anxious, perfectionistic child. I felt I’d be loved and boost my self-esteem by doing things really well and being a “perfect” daughter, friend and student. I had straight A’s, and avoided all conflict and drama. I was a people pleaser. I had very little self-confidence and self-compassion. I forced myself to do things well, to win, to be productive, to achieve. I didn’t want anything for myself. I applied to an Ivy League institution early decision, got accepted, and was pretty emotionless about it. I recently found an old diary entry saying I was mostly stressed about not getting in because of what other people might say or think about me. I had a fear of rejection, judgment and criticism, and I wanted to avoid getting hurt by others. To manage my anxiety I threw myself into my studies, something I could control and receive physical results and evidence for — sound familiar? I used to get sick from my anxiety and pull my eyebrows out. Stress in small doses might be positive for some, but too much is fatal. Stress manifests itself in different illnesses, physical and mental, and it is deathly.

11. I was possessed.

I was numb. I would float around feeling like a zombie. I didn’t care about anything. I lost emotion. I became so negative. I longed for my younger self, who was optimistic and spiritual and thankful for life. Before going into treatment, I described myself as a monster, a disgusting human being so preoccupied with thoughts of food. I later discovered that I had an “Eating Disorder Voice” and a “Healthy Voice.” There were situations when my real self would come out. Then all of a sudden, I was gone, and someone else had hijacked my body. It was a surreal experience. Towards the end, the unhealthy voice had completely taken over. In treatment, we were taught to construct dialogues between the two voices, so we could bring back our rational selves.

12. I was “healthy,” not healthy.

Our society is so centered on the thin-ideal, accompanied by the “healthy, clean-eating” phenomenon. Juice bars. Salads. Soul Cycle. Sugar-free, Fat-free, Guilt-free, “healthy substitutes.” Low carb. Low fat. Low sodium. Gluten-free…Happiness-free. The eating disorder voice in my head made me genuinely believe that I was being healthy and kind to my body by giving it clean, green foods free of toxins and fat (and nutrients!).

Orthorexia, an extreme obsession with eating food that is considered healthy, comes in part due to our culture marked by the desire to be thinner, which is equated with feeling happier. It is assumed a calorie-restricted diet is totally fine because it is the norm. For me, I have found conversations about weight, size, diet, calories and appearance inescapable: “I can’t have that brownie, are you kidding? I need to fit in to my dress.” These common topics of discussion make you “fit in” to this society. To just eat whatever you wish is seen as being gluttonous, undisciplined and immoral. People who are a “larger” size seem to automatically be smothered in negative, condescending assumptions about laziness, eating unhealthy, overeating, not exercising enough — when it might not be the case at all, and most importantly, does not matter. I tormented myself physically for months, years, but spiritually was so satisfied with myself. If I did “give in” to my temptations I was so filled with disgust and remorse, and had to rectify myself through self-punishment.

I have learned there is such a thing as a balanced diet, and that there are no “good” or “bad” foods. Labeling things attaches that idea if we eat something “bad” we are doing something morally wrong. My hunger cues recently returned, and it was a very interesting experience to first encounter them again. My eating disorder voice got upset and angry with my healthy self for being hungry — it was a sign of weakness and giving up. But I reassured myself that this was good for me, and that feeling hungry was not only a sign of recovery, but also one of being a healthy human being.

13. It made me feel good.

I have already outlined many of the reasons self-starvation felt good. The strength and willpower it required made me feel accomplished and the weight loss was a reward for my hard work. I felt more worthy, valuable, powerful and confident. Feeling hungry, but not acting on it, can lead to a temporary high. I felt a sense of stability. My entire life was structured around a rigid pattern of exercise, work and low-calorie meals at a certain time. I felt safe in my routine, and really unsafe if it was under threat of being broken. Starvation made me thinner, which I viewed as a good thing — because in our culture, it is. Unfortunately, because slimming down is the socially accepted, even expected, behavioral “norm,” it prevented people from realizing something was really wrong. In my eating disorder, I felt confident, unbeatable and superhuman. I believed I was different from other people, who needed to eat or couldn’t resist the temptation of food. I could do without it and therefore I was special and strong. I was happy to deprive myself of this need, as I felt that I didn’t have needs. But all humans have basic needs, and food is one of them.

14. Until I felt like I was going to die.

It was torture. Self-destruction. The pain from running in the blazing heat, because you have to — even if you might faint. If I collapsed, or died, then I’d be out of my misery. There were so many times I wished I could just escape my reality. I felt dizzy and weak, but it became so commonplace I only realize the difference now. The pain from laxatives, even when I’d barely eaten anything according to a “normal” person’s standards, would be unbearable to most — but it was a necessity for me. I needed to feel empty or I wouldn’t be able to continue on with life. Eventually, the illusion of stability created through a rigidly controlled lifestyle can give way to suicidal urges. For me, my rock-bottom point was when I really wanted to escape my life and place in the world. I could not bring myself to do anything impulsive, but I had slowly been killing myself and felt that if there were a button to make me disappear, I would have pressed it. Psychologically, I was done. I didn’t even realize that physically, my body had given up as well.

15. Unicorn Syndrome: I was the exception.

Most people who have an eating disorder clearly understand other people need to eat to survive, but think otherwise of themselves. I felt I had to do more than “normal” people to earn my food.  My thought process would go, “People struggle to control their weight, but I don’t, I have this completely under control, and that makes me special. I’m lucky to be this self-disciplined” and “I don’t need that much food to survive. If I’m going to have that to eat, I need to deserve it. I need to work hard now so that one day I can enjoy it.” This mental distortion is accompanied by body dysmorphia, meaning that the way I saw my body was not what it looked like in reality. A stereotypical depiction of anorexia is a skeletal woman looking into a mirror and seeing herself much, much larger. That actually was not the case for me. It was not that I saw myself as much larger, but I had no idea that I was getting drastically smaller — in my mind, I looked exactly the same.

16. I am blessed with support and love.

I have gained so much from my illness. Although it was an atrocious period of time that almost led to my death, and I would not wish it upon anyone else, ultimately, I am so grateful for it. This process definitely taught me who my true friends are. Seven weeks into my treatment, I wrote a letter about my situation for the first time to a handful of family members and friends. I was petrified of exposing my secret because I was so ashamed of myself (although I now know I had no reason to be). I was met with such positive responses, and many people thanked me for being open and for educating them on what this very misconceived, very serious illness is really about. I found that I had (wrongly) assumed people would have preconceived notions or judgments, like it wasn’t a big deal or “just a way to lose weight.” This is exactly why I am opening up about it now. It is the only way I can help people really understand and change the stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds this illness. It is the least I can do for myself and all the people I have met along the way who have suffered from this.

Humans need support — we are social creatures. And we need empathy before we can take advice. We need people to just say, “I’m here with you,” even if they don’t understand exactly what you’re going through. If you haven’t been exactly where that person is standing, and proved to them you have been there, you have not earned the right to tell them what they should do. “You need to go through empathy camp, several times, before you reach the point of giving advice” — this is the mantra taught to us in family therapy that has forever changed my relationship with my parents for the better.

17. There are so many people out there like me.

What was amazing to discover was that people who develop anorexia are very similar — not in background, race or appearance — but share a cluster of temperaments and personality traits, such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, shame and conflict-avoidance. Also, my peers in treatment were all extraordinarily intelligent, insightful, caring and creative. It would not be fair to judge, or assume one unintelligent for having this disorder — especially when it really is the complete opposite.

18. I have to be patient and trust the process. Trust life.

When I first got into treatment I wanted the recovery process to go faster. I just wanted the end result: a disorder-less, normal me. I kept getting told I was doing the hard work by being there, talking about how I was feeling and eating the food. But I thought it sounded too easy. I didn’t believe the time spent there, just going through the motions, was enough to make me better. I didn’t realize throughout this whole process, I would be learning so much about myself, other people and the true meaning of life. I have come a long way since I started treatment. I am still in recovery, and I still face obstacles. But I learn something new every single day.

19. I will channel my soul self.

My soul self is my true essence, my true being. How I came into the world before the perfectionist, critical voices took over. Self-acceptance means embracing who I am at my core, and believing I was born with everything, all the values that I’ll ever need. I don’t need to be or have more: I am enough. Self-love is the cure to an eating disorder. Being recovered does not mean I will love everything about myself all the time. But I will continue to be thankful for my life, my experience, for what I have learned and for my fully functional mind and body, that work so hard to keep me alive, moving, energetic and capable of feeling love and emotion.

“The soul usually knows what to do to heal itself. The challenge is to silence the mind.” Trust your soul and listen to your feelings. What are they saying about you and your beliefs about yourself? We tend to project our insecurities on to other people, and criticize them for the things we are ashamed of finding in ourselves. By becoming more in tune with ourselves we can learn a lot, and become happier and more satisfied with both ourselves, and the people around us.

20. I am not a number and refuse to be remembered that way.

Lastly, a morbid but powerful question that helped me was, “What would you want it to say on your tombstone?” Would you want to be remembered for being a certain weight, high GPA, annual salary or number of wins, awards or positions? If so, please think about what these numbers say about you and your value. If not, what would you rather be remembered for? What kind of person do you want to be? If you want it, you’ll make it happen. Start today.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

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When My Eating Disorder Feels Like a Bad Horror Movie

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I’m sitting on my couch and watching a girl on the run. She’s being followed by something – a predator that doesn’t jump out at her from the dark, but instead walks slowly, which is somehow creepier. I already know what’s going to happen. I know what she needs to do to save herself, and yet an impenetrable screen separates me from her world. All I can do is watch her fall right into the trap, like I’ve seen so many times before.

I want to just turn it off, but I can’t. I am that girl, and my killer’s weapon is starvation.

There’s a distinct separation taking place in my head when I’m caught up in disordered eating habits. It feels like a part of me – the broken, hurting part of me – splits off, taking control in the only way it knows how. And the rational side of me watches, a spectator, unable to change a thing.

Every new diet, every compulsion to exercise is another snare in the trap, a twist in the maze, a lock on the door that keeps me inside. When I’m restricting, I’m doing exactly what my killer wants me to do. But no matter how hard I pound on the screen, I can’t get myself to stop.

The horror-movie moments caused by my eating disorder are much less frequent than they used to be. Two years ago, my life was a nonstop reel of undereating, overexercising, and punishing my body for what it was. These days I might go for days at a time without so much as a guilty thought. But every now and then, I jump back into the same tired, overused scene. I resume my role as the victim of my own poisonous thoughts. And my frustration and dread compounds.

When I’m in those moments, I know how to prevent them. I just don’t know how to tell myself to do it. At least, not yet. The only way to win is to rewrite the story.

Recovery is a new script I’m still trying to memorize. It’s a script that contains acceptance, forgiveness, and self-love. For me, that’s like reading in a completely different language – but with practice, I’ll be able to recite it by heart. So the next time the villain comes creeping down the hallway, I’ll be ready.

Image via Thinkstock.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

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To the Eating Disorder That Followed Me Through High School

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To the feet that clenched the scale in glory with every pound that melted away.

To the reflection in the mirror that silently screamed “worthless,” compelling me to believe beauty was a mere 6 stone on the scale.

To the warped voice inside my head once so powerful, drowning out all family cries to “just eat.”

I have all but 11 words for you: this is not my obituary we’re writing today; it’s yours.

I’ll admit, I’m not proud I surrendered three years of my life as a frail puppet under your mastered hand. I’m even more embarrassed that at 67 pounds, my own mother spoon fed me mashed potatoes at a public restaurant, having refused to eat them myself. But as sick and manipulative as your ways were, I still would like to thank you.

Thank you, you may ask? For what? Bradycardia plaguing my heart? How about gaining 50 pounds in recovery? I’m sure she loved that, you thought. I’m not going to lie, every fork I’ve picked up, every calorie I’ve consumed and every ounce of every pound I’ve gained has been terrifying and sometimes still is. But each day I choose recovery, I find more strength from within and manage to further loosen the strings you use to toy with my life.

To be honest, I don’t understand you, but I know myself enough that I meant it the first time I quivered to my father, “I want to get better.” I vividly remember his fearful suspicion of my weight loss, forcing me to hover on the scale for what he didn’t realize was the fifth time that day. I thought after rigorous therapy, family support and copious amounts of food, you would disappear entirely.

Yet here I am on my 18th birthday (weight stable for practically a year), still slightly anxious to eat a slice of carrot cake with my family. I know you don’t like carrot cake, but I do and I ate every bite, so ha! That’s the thing I learned about triumph.

There is no such thing as “recovered,” just like there is no such thing as perfect. I recognize recovery will be a lifelong process I must endure and with every bite, I’m attempting to take back control of my own body and inner thoughts.

But you of all people know that is easier said than done. Because the second I even consider tossing my fully packed lunch in the school garbage can, your voice comes raging in with full force, tempting me to do it. You got a tight grip on my strings again in my graduating year and managed to knot them with anxiety and depression.

Sitting in my vice principal’s office for the first time in four years, you made me feel terrified to even go to class. “Karley, your teachers are concerned.” I know. “If you don’t hand in your assignments, you can’t graduate with your peers.” I know. “Please talk to me so I can help you. This isn’t like you.” In that moment, I realized my VP was right.

We are not the same person. I can’t meet your expectations to be sickly thin, and I don’t want to. I want you to know I completed five assignments within one week and walked across that stage to receive my high school diploma. Maybe my marks weren’t as high as I had planned, but for once I was truly proud of myself.

And so, I think it’s best we say goodbye. I’m not your puppet anymore. I’m taking what I learned from you and starting a new chapter of my life at university next year. I don’t know what challenges will arise on my plate, but I have faith in me to pull through, and sometimes that is enough.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: If you could write a letter to the disability or disease you (or a loved one) face, what would you say to it? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

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Why I Needed to Give Up to Recover From Anorexia

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My disorder was apparent by the time I was 9 years old.

For almost 30 years I lived, functioned and kind of met my responsibilities in a weakened physical and mental state; I was, in application, a slave to anorexia. I raised three children, worked and went to school; all things I should have been able to feel good about and enjoy. My reality however, was that I felt and believed I was worthless, a burden of epic proportion — physically and figuratively. It is common with eating disorders to have a very skewed perception of one’s body. I literally saw a much larger person in the mirror. That was and sometimes is, reality to me. Starvation damages and dulls brain function. All of my perceptions were skewed, my perception of my body was the most skewed, which is perfectly logical with an eating disorder. Anorexia is not a disease of “wanting to be thin,” it is an addiction to control and a wild goose chase after perfection, the perfection of complete and disciplined control; maximum order.

I never thought “if I were thin enough then I would be beautiful.” Anorexia is about perfectionism, a lack of internalized sovereignty or autonomy and exercising control over one’s body through deprivation. I fed myself what I believed I was worthy of, which was almost nothing. I wanted to feel good enough, not thin enough. I survived some experiences in early childhood that caused me to believe that I was broken, ruined, if you will. I was filled with shame I couldn’t process at my young age. I also had a huge need to feel like I could refuse imposition. I wanted to disappear and be invisible. If you don’t see me you won’t hurt me, right? I thought if I didn’t eat then I would “grow in reverse…”

That’s how it all started. 

I went to treatment seeking help for my eating disorder at 37 years old. I checked in to the center full of trepidation, guilt over the financial burden of extended inpatient treatment and saturated with shame. On that day I was the culmination of my eating disorder, every mistake I had ever made, the disappointment I believed my family felt and all of the self -loathing my shame and guilt could conjure. I had failed at life. I viewed treatment as giving up, quitting, admitting I was incapable of living life. I was just 37, how had I failed so successfully by my age?

The truth is, giving up was exactly what I needed to do. Except I was not quitting — I was surrendering.

I was incapable of living while using my my own judgement and instincts. I was literally killing myself. I am going to avoid any measurements, as that can be very triggering. Let’s just say that I was severely underweight and controlled by my eating disorder.

I believe my resignation was actually a good place to start. The self-loathing and shame were unnecessary and a bit dramatic, yet the willingness to do what my treatment team asked of me (actually, it was desperation mixed with apathy) was precisely what I needed. I needed to learn I could not trust my own thinking. My brain was malfunctioning and I would have to learn to trust others to guide me into recovery, or die. I am one of the fortunates, I am anorexic and I am in recovery. I had family that cared enough to push me toward treatment. There are plenty of, in fact too many people, women and men, girls and boys who die from eating disorders. The internal battle is often too great to fight inside an emaciated body, with a brain driven toward slow suicide. All eating disorders share the emotional impetus of self-loathing and worthlessness. I know at least one person with every type of eating disorder classified to date and each of us had these feelings to some degree. There are plenty of other emotions mixed with these, we all shared shame and guilt, though

During my months in treatment, sharing, struggling and crying with people who all have different disorders, I learned an important lesson. We all felt the same feelings of shame, guilt and self-loathing. Eating disorders may present in a variety of behaviors which become classified as different disorders, and yet the reality is that the psychological abyss is similar regardless of the presented, disordered, behavior. No one I know with an eating disorder intended the physical effects, none of us calculated for the consequences and chose to proceed toward our devastation. Each of us, in fact, used a distorted relationship with food to comfort ourselves and to grapple with our emotions.

I was released from treatment in December of 2011 and have been in recovery since then. I would like to be able to say I’m well, perfect and haven’t had any problems with anorexia. The truth is I struggle not every day, but often. Recovery is a lifelong process that requires mindfulness and determination. Sometimes it sucks,  sometimes I don’t want to be anorexic and sometimes I don’t meet my meal plan for the day. Those days are fewer and farther between now. I have a desire to improve my life and to enjoy it — and I believe my life will continue to get better with continued effort. Treatment saved my life. Now that my eating disorder isn’t running the show I get to create meaning and love in the spaces that used to be filled self-loathing and apathy. I have support from my treatment sisters and they are irreplaceable in my life! Having support from others with eating disorders helps me to get through the toughest times and helps me remember to be grateful for today; it’s so much better than five years ago.

My life isn’t perfect, I’m not perfect — and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

The Mighty is asking the following: What was the moment that made you realize it was time to face your mental illness? What was your next step? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

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When Your Child Has to Travel Thousands of Miles for Eating Disorder Treatment

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I hit a brick wall today, not literally, but figuratively. It was a mental brick wall some may liken to a mental meltdown. Today, marked the 70th day my 15-year-old son has been thousands of miles away from home in a residential treatment facility in Denver for a relapse from his eating disorder. Unfortunately, for adolescent males the options for residential treatment programs are slim. My husband and I sent him back to the center which he had stayed in two years prior. I would like to say it was a tough choice, but when faced with seeing your child stare life or death in the face, there really isn’t a choice to be made at all.

It seems strange to me today of all days I had my breakdown. Overall, I had been coping relatively well with his absence. I had settled into the uncomfortable quiet a house minus one teenage boy starts to possess. The reality of the impact an eating disorder has on a family hit me in the face like a gale force wind.

The day kicked off with us being told by my son’s doctor our insurance company has decided to no longer pay for his residential treatment. They feel based on their medical criteria, he is ready for the next step. As I hear these words I am infuriated, mad and worried. It is so frustrating to think they know what’s in the best interest of my son. The insurance company has decided it is time for him to transition or step down into a 12-hour day, partial, outpatient, treatment program. While this step will be necessary for his ultimate success, taking him out of residential programming now, when he is so close to the finish line, could be catastrophic.

This is the world we live when insurance is paying the bill. This phenomenon is not limited to eating disorders. It can be seen with any major illness. When it is your child it becomes scary. Unconscionable decisions such as this get made every day. To think they would come this far and pay close to $100,000 dollars and then not be willing to pay for the last 12 days of treatment is inconceivable. They would rather take the risk and cut off the funding, betting against the medical professional’s advice. Yet, if your child is released too soon, the revolving door syndrome begins when another costly relapse can occur. Ultimately, they could pay double for a patient’s treatment. Unfortunately, that is not how the actuaries calculate their costs and how the insurance companies make their decisions. They have boxes they check and criteria they use that can defy logic.

For a family, having a child away in residential treatment is stressful, isolating and scary. You do it however, because it literally can be a matter of life or death for an patient with anorexia. In our case, our son collapsed on his bedroom floor starving, dehydrated with low blood pressure. He was dying of his disease right before our eyes. We had been doing everything we could to prevent this very episode but, an eating disorder is sneaky and it hides in ways you cannot imagine. In our case our son hid his illness in plain sight. We rushed him to a children’s hospital for nutritional refeeding and stabilization. That is when the insurance clock began ticking. It’s maddening to think a family would endure all that time with a child away from their home and when the hour glass runs out, the system cuts them off. The insurance company paying the tab tells a family with the patient is done. What is most alarming is the toll it takes on the patient. To not allow them to continue their programing seems inhumane.

As I comprehend all of this, my mind shifts and I begin to face the stark reality the world has gone on without my son in it. His friends are living carefree and moving ahead in their lives as he is fighting for his. I got a message today that it was time to pre-register for his 2016/2017 classes for his sophomore year in high school. The school has been amazing and he is being tutored daily in the facility where he resides. Suddenly, I fear he will be so far behind only to never catch up. It is a common concern you hear from other parents. The mind of a healing, weight restoring, child with anorexia is not as clear and logical to focus on studies compared to when they are in a healthy state. The thought of holding him back and repeating ninth grade is sobering.

Finally, as if all of that is not enough for my brain to comprehend, I layer on the worry of the toll this eating disorder is taking on my family. We have two sons. My oldest is a senior in high school. This past Christmas was one that he will always remember as a sad time when his brother was away and his parents left him to go see his brother in Denver. We wanted him to join us to see his brother, but it was too sad for him and he felt staying back with family was a safer choice. It was just too difficult to see his brother in treatment at Christmas. For choices such as this, there are no right or wrong answers. We simply respected his decision and tried to make his Christmas special, regardless of the pervasive sadness looming in our home.

As a parent, your job is to be the peacemaker and try and find the happiness when there is that void. Days are spent pretending, ensuring life goes on as usual for the other family members while quietly and secretly you weep and pray your life as you know it will eventually return. The mundane, day-to-day living in a home during this time is lonely and arduous. The family must exist. Life must go on as you mark time and count days until your loved one is to return again.

By the end of day 70, I have regained composure and I come back to reality. What has sustained me this far on our journey comes back to the forefront of my mind. I get back to reminding myself about the gratitude I have. I know that may sound strange to some, but is sustains me during this tough period. I am grateful in spite of our challenges. Even after 70 hard days, the gift at the end is that my precious son will be weight restored and healthy again.

Yes, I hit the brick wall today, but I came out on the other side still fighting. My next milestone is to count out the next 56 days. That is how many days are left until I get my child home in good health and in the recovery process again. I cannot to hug him and tell him how proud of him I am and how much I love him. Until that time…

The Mighty is asking the following: Parents of children with mental illnesses – tell us a story about working within the mental health system. What barriers of treatment have you experienced? What’s a change in the system that could help your child? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To the One Who Made Me Feel Like I Was Worth More Than My Anorexia

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You have heard me say these very words countless times — but thank you. Thank you for being the lifeline I didn’t know I needed, and for reminding me of my worth when I was certain I had nothing to show for it.

The day I sat across from you sharing my unfortunate news, I couldn’t help but think I was getting myself into something I shouldn’t. By this point, I only knew I had an eating disorder for about four days, and you were someone I knew was a strong adult figure I could confide in.

I wasn’t diagnosed, but I knew from one moment the week before I had been starving my body and mind for the last two and a half months. Stress, body image and friend problems — I told you they all landed me in this place. “So, what does this mean for you,” you asked me, and I knew right away the answer was anorexia.

Having daily conversations about my intake and my plans moving forward with you was all I thought I needed to get the job done. However, I learned during Thanksgiving break I couldn’t just make myself eat and be OK with it. It was the sickest cycle I had gotten into yet.

You gave me little choice but to let others know what was going on. I silently hated you for this from time to time, but as the months went on, I knew you only made me tell them to aid in my own recovery. I regretted opening up about my disorder at least once a week, hated myself more often than that and struggled to idealize recovery every single day.

Early on, you could see the fear in my eyes when I talked about my eating disorder. You told me it was OK to be scared, but to just keep breathing and somehow, we would deal with the aftermath. You promised me I was strong enough to recover, reminding me you loved me and needed me to get better. You told me you couldn’t go to my funeral if something happened to me as a result of my disorder, because you had been to too many funerals for kids. I didn’t want to be the thin girl in a coffin, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted recovery for most of the days that passed by.

One day in June you sat across from me, listening to me tell you I couldn’t believe in my own worth, and figured I would succumb to my anorexia eventually. I was convinced I couldn’t do it — couldn’t eat, couldn’t handle myself and couldn’t just recover. This is the day you reminded me of my worth.

I looked you in the eyes, listening to the words pour out telling me I was “pretty f**king amazing,” “pretty OK,” and “f**king phenomenal.” These were words I never associated with myself. I was so used to telling you how much I hated myself, reminding you I wasn’t worth your time and you could walk away at any time.

Like I said, I have thanked you a lot. You’ve been that lifeline, that person to call or text when things just weren’t right anymore. You’ve been the one to engrain in my mind I will not be alone, and the strength I have inside of me is enough to manage the pain. You’ve taught me important lessons, like taking one step (or bite) at a time, forgiving myself and keeping my chin as high as I could.

I used to ask so frequently why you would help me, but as time went on, I realized it wasn’t important. You wanted me to get better, most days more than I wanted it myself. I was often unsure if I truly wanted recovery, and if I did want it, how would I do it? You were the one who told me I needed to do it, whether I wanted it or not. And most recently, telling me to pretend recovery was a Nike commercial, to “just do it.”

I often wondered how to thank you in a way that was more than a simple “thank you” or “I love you” for the magnitude of love, care and help you provided me. You weren’t just a person who told me to “get better.” You weren’t just the one who watched from the sidelines, you stepped in immediately — telling me you would do anything you could to help me. You weren’t just the one who pushed me to get treatment, but the one who sat with me during visitor’s hours, listening to me cry about how hard it was to be an inpatient.

Out of everyone, you were the one who made me feel like I was worth more than my anorexia.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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