My junior year of high school, I earned a nickname on the cross-country team: Little ray of sunshine. “You’re so optimistic all the time!” my teammates would say. “How is it so easy for you to be happy?”
Descriptions like this weren’t novel for me. According to my parents, from the moment I learned to speak, “joy” was my default mode. I’d toddle around noticing the world, naming things with indiscriminate delight. “Squirrel!” I’d cry. “Dirt! Bagel! Sidewalk!”
“That’s Emily,” people would say. “Radiant. Curious. Bubbling with joy.”
I think about this most Tuesdays while I sit in the waiting room of Yale Student Health. I wonder how many of these adjectives still apply. There are plenty of things to notice here: the hum of the water machine, the typos on the “Safe Sex” poster, the smell of disinfectant so strong it makes you forget Earth has things like grass and dirt and squirrels. I stopped noticing months ago. Now, I nod to the receptionist, who knows me by name. I sit. I wait. I’m here to relearn one of life’s basics: how to eat.
I’m in recovery from anorexia. A year and a half into treatment, I’m still getting used to saying this phrase. I’m ashamed of how small and selfish it makes me seem. Malnutrition causes half of worldwide deaths in children under five. Yet many mornings, I look in the mirror and can’t stand my body. I need a team of therapists and doctors and nutritionists to help make myself eat.
Anyone who has faced an eating disorder has heard a version of this phrase: “to recover from anorexia, I must learn to accept myself.” But here’s the problem. Anorexia threatens everything I’ve always claimed as my identity. I’m strong: I’ve climbed mountains, survived salmonella in rural East Africa and experienced the daily trials of my brother’s disability alongside him. I have dreams: to fight climate change, to write, to love, to have children. I am selfless and caring and kind. This Emily does not belong in a nutritionist’s waiting room. This self is so much larger than an eating disorder. Yet here I sit. Who am I?
“I just want you to be happy and healthy,” my parents have said. “Like you used to be.”
This comment comes from good intentions. They’ve watched this illness ravage their daughter for years, stripping away body and spirit. They want to remind me there was life before anorexia—I once was joyful and this capacity still lives inside me. But this comment makes me feel trapped. It assumes a dichotomy. The “real” Emily is happy. Anorexia is a false self, a gross distortion, an enemy to be eradicated. The truth is, I’m no longer two-years-old. I’m a 1,000 times more complex. Sometimes, I’m happy. Other times, I’m sad or anxious or angry or depressed. Isn’t there room inside “Emily” for all of these things?
Recently, I decided to try an experiment. I began to be honest— to let others hear about my struggles and see me as human. Often, honesty brings huge relief. Saying “anorexia” out loud diminishes the feeling of guilt and secrecy and isolation. But other times, honesty makes me feel ashamed. The word “anorexia” hangs like an icicle in conversation, fragile and cold and untouchable, making me into a person who is weak or selfish or sick. Many times, honesty is a gateway to someone else’s vulnerability.
“I’ve struggled with body image my whole life, but I’ve never felt comfortable talking about it!” my friend confessed. A few rare times, honesty brings exactly what I need to hear. “This is not your fault. This illness does not define you. You are still Emily.”
To recover from anorexia, I must learn to accept the whole of me. Not just the parts I like. Not just the parts that are happy. Recovery does mean only reconnecting with the Emily who noticed and loved the world. This Emily is still alive and real. My parent’s comment is an invitation to remember her. But letting go of anorexia doesn’t mean agreeing life will always match the untainted joy of childhood. Sometimes, I’m sad. Sometimes, I’m angry. All the time, I’m complex. This Emily is equally real. This Emily is human. No part of our self is more right or wrong or true than any other.
When I remember this, I feel less trapped. I feel like there’s a way forward in which health and complexity can go hand in hand. Then, the real work can begin: discovering how all of these parts of me fit into a whole.
Sometimes, a person hears about my struggles in recovery—weekly weight checks and meal plans and heart problems and anxiety about my body. “I never would have guessed. You’re still so happy all the time!” they say. I don’t know how to reply. My point was to convince you I’m not a little ray of sunshine. Instead, you seem to think I shine brighter because of my struggles. Do I?
Happiness isn’t a given. It’s a choice I make daily, a choice I face at every meal. Many times, I win. Other times, I don’t. Everyone faces his or her own version of this choice. Is my happiness more profound because of its contrast with my struggle? Maybe. Does this make my illness justified somehow, a lesson in strength and perseverance? No. It’s not that simple. But questions like these help me think—about strength, about resilience, about what it means to hold pain and joy simultaneously and embrace them as two sides of one whole. They help the illness take its place—a small part in this person I am proud to be.
Recently, my mom texted me: “Your road has been hard. You have permission to be present to the pain and to tell this story. Someday, you’ll tell the story not only of how hard it has been, but also how you got through. So take notice. Notice each choice. Notice each joy. Notice what made the difference. There’s room for it all.”
I’m still trying to figure out how to embrace the pieces of me and make a whole. I do this work every day. When I walk out of Yale Student Health, I go to class. I read poems. I sing in symphonies. I identify new coral species under a microscope. I run. I crunch my boots on fall leaves, notice squirrels and laugh with delight. This looks a lot like being happy. This is a different kind of “happy” than the little ray of sunshine or the two-year-old who named and noticed the world. This joy is new and honest and multilayered and real, like I am. This joy is worth it.
Next Tuesday, I’ll be back in the waiting room.
We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.
Thinkstock photo via Archv.