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What This Photo Didn't Show About My Mental Health

This is a picture of me with my brother. I was a bridesmaid at one of my closest friend’s wedding, smiling and enjoying the beautiful, precious day. It is a day I will treasure forever.

However, there is a cruel truth behind the smile.

If I think about my eating disorder as a continuum, this photo was taken well after anorexia had been overtaken by bulimia. I was in my second year at school and I was in intense therapy. This photo shows on the outside, I am recovering. At this stage I have finally acknowledged I have an eating disorder. Some of my friends and family are aware I am unwell, but are reassured I am on track to wellness again. Getting back to me. No one talks about the elephant in the room because I am “weight restored.” I look like Sarah again.

But people didn’t know I was miles away from being “Sarah.”

I was restricting and counting my calories again. The nature of my exercising was obligatory. I was cutting myself. I had started to disregard my therapy. I didn’t want to recover.

I was relapsing.

Approximately 20 minutes after this photo was taken I remember running to the bathroom, removing my bridesmaids dress and inspecting myself at every possible angle to see if I had changed since I last checked that morning. I hadn’t been able to do any exercise. I couldn’t estimate the calories in the meal at the wedding. I was panicking. In the bathroom, I cried and tried to compensate for the lack of “control” I had exercised that day.

The following day I met up with one of my best friends and told her I didn’t want to be alive any more, I just couldn’t do it. All she could do was sit in silence with me, allowing the words to just linger.

I don’t want to be morbid, but I do want to be truthful. Next week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week (EDAW). Eating disorders are never trendy or shameful, but they can be a lot of other things.

Devastating. Dangerous. Destructive. All-consuming.

One thing mine was at this stage was hidden.

Almost two years from this moment, I am not going to give a rosy monologue of how empowering it is to recover from an eating disorder. How I have it all together. Even though I may seem like I do, I don’t!

Yes, I am in such a better place than I was at the time of this photo. I am not remotely embarrassed about my struggle and I will continue to spam my social media feed with talk of eating disorders in an attempt to counter online messages saturated with photoshopped “body goals.”

But I am not immune. I still worry about my physical imposition, my space and I still feel like I am worthless because of the way I look.

The difference is, I now know how warped this thinking is. I now know I could eat the healthiest foods the world has to offer, but if I still obsess over one slice of cake, I still have a problem. Food is not the enemy. It never was. The enemy is my mind.

So that is what I work on. Day in and day out. I try to treat myself with kindness. I am shocked and amazed despite the judgment and trauma I place upon my body, it continues to show up each day and do its job. This thought made me realize we don’t actually need to change our bodies – we just need to change the world! If only it were that easy, huh?

It is!

We are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society we grew up in. We can change these skewed societal messages by ignoring and rejecting them, instead of ourselves.

I struggle. Every day. I have an eating disorder every day. But I practice self-care every day too. And despite what Pinterest tells us, “self-care” doesn’t just have to be aesthetic journaling or painting our nails. Self-care can be ugly. It can be sitting on the bathroom floor crying and hugging, telling yourself it’s going to be OK. Don’t be ashamed, just do whatever you need to do for you.

Owning my story and allowing myself to be a square peg in a round role is the bravest thing I have ever done in my life so far. If I can do it, absolutely anyone can.

Let’s give ourselves a break.

You’re perfect. You can be anything, but you don’t have to be everything. You were made to do hard things so believe in yourself.

Happy EDAW.

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.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Photo via contributor.