Editor’s note: This piece contains descriptions of disordered eating that might be triggering for some. 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.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had issues with my body image and the overall picture of myself in my mind. As young as 8 years old, I was referred to as “the ugly kid” and “the anorexic girl” – when we were all too young to really understand what anorexia really was. Being naturally tall and thin placed me as an ideal candidate for the judgmental comments and stares as others always wondered if I did truly did starve myself to be a model or accepted by the peers who never seemed to be interested in legitimate friendships.
Fast forward 10 years later, and I am struggling to recover from my eating disorder for the second time. The disorder I was accused of having as a child entered my life full-fledged two years ago and hasn’t given me a chance to breathe since.
Imagine setting up a fire pit. You start with the burning site, your body. Over the years, you are collecting sticks and firewood – each piece coming from your stressors, judgments, unmet expectations, mistakes, and core beliefs. After a period of time, you strike a match and light the fire. But it’s not enough. With anorexia, it is never enough. The fire starts to dwindle, and one day you find yourself in the grips of the disease – which leads you to the gasoline. You pour the gasoline on the fire, and it goes up in flames – burning, messy flames. That is what it is like to start the fire of anorexia.
Once your fire is left burning for a time, you can feel yourself getting cold, so you move closer. You move closer, and closer, and closer, until you feel the heat too closely and burn yourself. You jump away in pain and angst, but your coolness remains, and you return to the heat of the flames. This is what it feels like to look in the mirror or step on the scale time after time after time. You throw yourself into the fire even though you know how badly it hurts and burns your body.
Being self-conscious of my recovering body feels like it should be normal, but I have tried to disconnect myself from my body so I do not have these feelings. Most days, I am content with making weight and feeling healthier and happier, but nights like tonight I struggle to see through to the positives. It isn’t until I see people in the place I used to be, physically and mentally, that I long for the days I was deep in the fire with a sick sense of jealousy.
I find myself looking around my unit at the hell other women and men have wreaked upon their bodies. I long for the thin, for the depressed, for the scars that line the arms of the other patients. I ask myself, “Why do you want that?” and the only response seems to come back is that there is something about my disease that makes me special, or unique, or that there is a strength associated with the discipline of the behaviors. This is where my cognitive distortions find their burning ground.
The other night, I looked in the mirror and traced the shape of my body with my index finger. The curves of a woman were there, the hips that will help me to carry a child in the future are there. The curves of my legs, indicative of the strength that exists within them to help me move and navigate the world on a daily basis, are there. My two-minute experience with the mirror was gratifying, yet scary, because I didn’t know it was possible to see my reflection and not hate what I was looking at.
I am struggling to accept with a sense of peace my body in the beginning stages of a second shot at recovery. I have not stepped back into the fire by any means, and it is my goal to refrain from returning to the intimacy of the flames. However, some days I find myself comparing my body to others’ bodies, both those with and without an eating disorder. I guess what I am trying to say is if this is where you are, I feel your pain, too. I feel the chill of the disorder, and the heat of the flames begging me to return so I can have the body my disordered thoughts believe I should have.
Even though I am feeling the temptation of the flames, I have felt the warmth of the sun on the other side of this battle, and would rather walk by the sun than the fire any day.