20 Insights From Someone in Anorexia Recovery
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.