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When Loved Ones Hope Recovery Will Make You 'Like You Used to Be'

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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.

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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People Question My Diagnosis Because I Don't Look How a Person With Anorexia 'Should'

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

Last month, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where I was diagnosed with anorexia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Now PTSD was no surprise, as I’ve struggled with it for several years. Anorexia however, caught me off guard.

How could it be a surprise? I never considered myself “sick enough” for an actual diagnosis. I’ve had problems with body image, self esteem, restricting, bingeing, purging and occasional compulsive over-exercising, sure. But it never seemed that serious to me. That is, until I was sat down and told, “they’ve diagnosed you with anorexia.”

Afterwards, I shared with one of the other patients about my diagnosis. Her response was “no you’re not. I’ve seen you eat before.” She meant to comfort me by telling me they were wrong and show me proof of why I couldn’t be anorexic. I know she meant no harm. Anorexia is terrifying. She was trying to help ease my anxiety.

Others though, respond in confusion by saying, “but I’ve seen you eat” or by looking at my body with disbelief.

But what they don’t see is how hard it is for me to eat breakfast in the morning because eating feels like giving up. They don’t see the anxious, terrified thoughts screaming at me to stop eating because I fear anything I eat will make me fatter. They don’t see me bingeing after not eating and then hating myself for it. They don’t see me purging in the bathroom at work, at home or in restaurants. They can’t see that being pale, shaking and about to pass out is easier for me than eating at times. They don’t see me standing in front of the mirror pinching, squeezing and scratching as I try to claw the excess fat from my sides. They didn’t see me when I would weigh myself to decide if I got to eat that day or not.

You may have seen me eat. You can see I am overweight. But what you don’t see is the battle between my disorder and my recovery. Please try to understand. I may not look “dangerously thin,” — I may not even look sick to you — but I am struggling.

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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4 Ways I Deal With Food Sensitivities as Someone in Eating Disorder Recovery

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

I’ve been in recovery from an eating disorder for five years now and from my experience, the first months and years are the hardest. It is difficult to learn to live again without the disordered voice in your head and become comfortable in your own skin. Recovery is a process with highs and lows. Easier days and harder days. I’ve had my share of both. My recovery has been put to the test.

My first true test came when my recovery was still young and fragile and was something that still needed to be protected. Around the time of my first anniversary of being discharged from inpatient hospitalization for anorexia, I was diagnosed with severe lactose intolerance. It was to the point that no Lactaid pills allowed me to still savor a slice of pizza or ice cream on a hot summer’s day.

Having to remove a food group from my diet could have been disastrous for my recovery. I worked hard to ensure this wasn’t the case. Little did I know in the coming years there would only be more to follow.

A diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) led to the removal of beans, fried foods and high FODMAP fruits and vegetables. Two years later, blood work showed I had celiac disease and with this, gluten went out the window. Fast forward two more years and an mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) diagnosis forced me to say goodbye to high histamine foods which run the gamut from bananas to spinach to chocolate.

I now eat a vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, low histamine diet. If it sounds highly restricted, that’s because it is. Not by choice, but by bodily limitations. And like it or not, I’ve had to learn to live with it. I’ve learned how to take care of my physical health, but also not forget about my mental health in the process. Because to ignore the echoes and the memories of the disorder from all those years ago would be to leave a gaping hole for ED to fill. And I have no doubt he wouldn’t ignore the opportunity to return to power.

For me, the disorder was in many ways, an addiction. And like any other addiction, I must be wary of temptation. It’s too easy to become a habit. Only through near constant vigilance have I remained the victor of the battle and I can’t let my guard down now.

So how have I adjusted to my body’s new “normal” without providing a new target for the disorder’s enjoyment?

Here are four ways I deal with limiting food sensitivities as someone with a history of anorexia:

1. Keep to My Schedule

One of my disordered behaviors was skipping meals. Now, even years into my recovery, I always eat every meal. No matter what. Even if I sleep late, I don’t skip meals. Engaging in this behavior just brings back bodily memories of the disorder and it is too easy to fall back into the pattern and not view it as an issue. Part of the possibility of reawakening the disorder has nothing to do with what I am able to eat, but rather when I am eating.

2. One Food Out, One Food In

Continuously removing food groups from my diet without adding anything new would eventually leave me with almost nothing. And being forced to eat the same foods day after day is not only boring, but it would fool my mind and body into becoming comfortable in a box.

This is why I make a concerted effort to continue to expand my horizons within my dietary restrictions. For each food I must remove, I find a new one to add. I browse the aisles of health food stores and am introduced to a whole host of new items like quinoa, seitan and kale. Much of my diet is made up of foods labeled “hipster,” but I enjoy them for their superfood power, not fad status.

It’s also important to note in the past decade, the food industry has come a long way in finding options for making favorite foods allergen free. My local supermarket has an entire aisle dedicated to gluten free and dairy free options. Thankfully, I haven’t had to give up french toast, pizza or even mac and cheese, all of which have a modification to accommodate those with food sensitivities. Often, I don’t have to eliminate foods, just replace them.

3. Changing My Perspective

“You can’t eat that!” This was a constant refrain during the years I fought the disorder and a phrase ED would often whisper in my ear. A reminder I wasn’t good enough or skinny enough to eat any number of things. There were entire food groups “off limits” to me.

In reality, it wasn’t a matter of being unable, but rather, unwilling. It wasn’t that I couldn’t eat a certain food, I simply wouldn’t.

During my recovery, it was important to change my mind’s perception when it came to food. This is even more true when it comes to the food I now exclude from my diet. It’s crucial I don’t return to the habit of categorizing foods by what I “can” and “can’t” eat. It’s important I remind myself I am not being pressured into eliminating foods. I choose not to eat a food because of my body’s physical ability to digest it and not as a result of disordered thinking.

No longer do I think, “I can’t eat that.” Instead, I remind myself since my body cannot tolerate it, “I don’t eat that.”

4. Indulge

A category of food that caused me particular trouble and induced true fear was dessert. The disorder had caused me to become so obsessive about eating healthy and I compulsively avoided any foods that could be considered a “sweet” or “junk.” At my graduation party, I passed up a slice of cake. When we commemorated back to school, I refused the celebratory ice cream sundaes. For years, I refused to treat myself.

Through recovery, I have learned the importance of pampering myself. And so I do. Although “typical” cakes, cookies and the like contain dairy and gluten, I find the allergen-free versions just as satisfying.

Indulging and not berating myself for it later is like giving a continuous middle finger to my eating disorder. It is a reminder being healthy doesn’t mean depriving yourself and multiple food sensitivities won’t trick me into falling back into this trap.

I fought long and hard to be deeply rooted in recovery. It is not a position I would abdicate lightly. When my fight with ED and the emotional war with food were followed by my body’s physical revolt against the very substances that sustain me, I wasn’t going to give in.
Learning to live with multiple food sensitivities was a steep learning curve, but despite my history with an eating disorder, I am not fated to repeat history.

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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Learning to Love My 'Recovery Body' in Anorexia Recovery

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

I recently passed my year mark of getting admitted to treatment for the last time and accepting my new body is probably the hardest part about recovery. Because I had been in my eating disorder for a long time, I got stretch marks that seemed to appear overnight, cellulite I previously thought was something only older people got and fat in places that honestly made me cry. I struggled with with these new additions for quite a while and still do.

I still have good and bad days and when I need a pick me up, I listen to Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” and Fergie’s “Fergalicious.” These songs inspire confidence and borrowing theirs even just for three minutes helps me remember why I chose recovery.

Although I would love to get rid of my cellulite, if it means relapsing into my eating disorder and risking my life, I would take my cellulite any day. I can walk and use the bathroom without someone watching or holding me. I didn’t just gain weight, I gained freedom and life. I am not ashamed that my body is beautiful and healthy now. My stretch marks are more beautiful than my sick body. Because of my round cheeks, my smile isn’t fake anymore and it’s a lot brighter too. My body’s natural fat is padding to my body so I can sit and lay down comfortably instead of being in pain while trying to relax. With every ounce I gained, I gained another day and another piece of me. I can now lift up my arms long enough to be called on by a teacher and because of this I am able to ask questions and speak my mind. When I hear the negative thoughts in my head and I start comparing myself to others, I remember others are doing the same to me. We live in a world where perfection is strived for yet it doesn’t exist. I have laughed, loved and lived more in this body than I ever had in my other one and I would never trade that to be “perfect.”

Some days I won’t accept my body and I will hide, but it doesn’t mean I will give up because I know I am beautiful even with all my “flaws.” My new body is a flag full of memories of me and I wouldn’t do anything to change that. I love my new body.

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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A Day in the Life From Inpatient Treatment for Anorexia

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

When I was first told I would be an inpatient, I was tangled in a web of anxieties. I am a woman who likes a sense of certainty. So naturally I looked to the internet and found very little. So here it is, the vulnerable, exhausting reality of life as an inpatient.

I wake up, it’s 6 a.m. and I’m already guilty of being lazy and unproductive. The world is spinning and there are men in their 50s jogging outside. I’m 20 and I need to go, go, go. I start a list of everything I need to do today and my heart is pumping, pumping, pumping. I need caffeine. It’s already 10 past 6:00 and I’ve achieved nothing. I shower. I wash off all the fat, the food and the lethargy. I make the water cold so I can feel something. I exfoliate my skin, scrubbing and scrubbing until it burns. I brush my teeth twice and use mouthwash three times and take a mental note it has run out again. My tongue burns and I avoid the mirror because I’m naked.

My body is clay and everyone is dragging it in different directions. My head is screaming at me I’m not doing enough. I don’t bother with makeup because that means looking. Shaving is nonexistent. I have to request my razor and they’re always suspicious of me. I tie my hair up really high and tight so I can feel it. I shove on a sleeveless green shirt and it feels too tight on my back. Suddenly I’m the hulk and I need to be put down. My forehead is burning and I rip apart my wardrobe searching for something that won’t make me want to die. I find that good old baggy turquoise shirt I can drown myself in and slip on a pair of navy tracksuit bottoms. I wonder if I’ll bother with shoes because I’m not allowed go walking yet. It’s 6:30 and breakfast is at 8:30. There’s no way I’m going down early because that means sitting and waiting and wanting to die. I clean my room back up, I write a letter to my friend and I draw posters for other patients, nurses and my little cousin. I push down and suppress every thought and draw furiously.

My forehead burns. I just want to run, run into the mountains, into the fresh air and the water. I want to throw myself into an icy river. The nurse comes up to do her rounds, to check if everyone’s hearts are still beating. Mine still is, it has never been so fast. It’s nearly breakfast. What am I going to have? How many calories are in one rice crispy? Why does the other girl keep taking my milk? When am I going to get my walks back? And why do I need daily blood tests? My hands begin to shake. I walk downstairs. I smile at everyone and inquire how they slept. There’s anger and anxiety burning like incense. We sit, we eat, it’s silent and it’s sunny. My friends are waking up at festivals with one shoe on and henna tattoos painted on their bodies. Nobody talks. The nurse tries to spark conversations but she’s met with grunts, nods and sighs.

The radio is put on full volume. I stare out the window and watch airplanes trail by, off to Liverpool and Amsterdam, Spain and New Zealand. Breakfast is over and I’m worried about snack time. It’s at 11:30 and that’s in two and a half hours. How am I going to get through that? I have a blood test and it’s my favorite thing to do. I get to go outside for five minutes and pretend I’m someone else. I read a magazine about gardens because I forget what forests smell like. The nurse asks me how I’m getting on and I smile at her. She checks to see which of my veins have not collapsed yet and sighs at the purple on my arms.

I snail my way back to the center with figurative knives in my gut. We have a group on body image. I get angry, I blame social media and I rant and rant and rant. People thank me, tell me I’m brave, I’m intelligent, I’m inspiring. But I am none of these things. I did not ask to be sick, I do not want to be here. I miss my family. I miss my friends. I am lonely and my heart is racing. My fingers are quivering and I’m counting the days down. We have snack and I can’t speak, I can barely move. My body is an alarm, ringing and screeching. I am shaking and crying.

Why is this happening? Why can’t I be normal?

They make small chat at the table and I can’t speak so I look outside and watch the airplanes again. We go back for the second half of group. My stomach is a balloon and I squeeze it and squeeze it but it doesn’t pop. I stare at the floor because all I can think is how many calories were in the snack I just ate and the fat is growing and swallowing me up. I’ve forgotten what group is about. I draw swirls in my diary and nod and smile every so often. Group ends and there is half an hour to lunch. It is the most painful time. The kitchen smells of butternut squash soup. This means protein is on the side. There will be beans, salad, a bowl of soup and bread. In my mind that is a wedding feast. I can’t be in the kitchen. I go outside, I sing to the trees, tear out fistfuls of grass and cry. The nurse calls me and nervously laughs at how I’m always hiding away.

Lunch takes me an hour and a half to finish. I am the last to leave the table. I curl up on the couch with a water bottle and watch the smokers outside, eavesdropping on their conversations. One patient’s ex-boyfriend left her a bunch of dahlias and a card in the garden and ran away, too scared to knock on the door. I think about men for a second and feel even more nauseous. The hairs on my arms go static and Liam is here for art therapy. I sit with my legs crossed on a beach chair in the white room, fiddling with my fluffy socks. We sit in a circle. Liam checks in with each of us individually. All he has to do is say, “And how does that make you feel?” and the first girl is howling at the ceiling. The girl beside her holds her hand and I stare at the floor. He knocks us down like dominoes. Each of us unravels our cloak of problems.

On my turn I break down over my recent test results. I was two percent from getting an A. I scream, I cry. I am 2 years old again. I talk about the voice in my head. Which is what they all want you to do. Separate yourself from your disorder. For me, it’s a she. She is whispering in my ear: not good enough, waste of money, waste of air, waste of life, kill yourself. He just nods, accepts. People in the room congratulate me, tell me I did so well for a girl with anorexia. It’s not good enough. Not for my insatiably high standards. I draw a self-portrait of myself. I’m tearing my hair out at my desk at 5 a.m. while my housemates are asleep. My room is a mess of anxieties and ripped up paper. None of it seems worth it anymore. Art therapy is over but I’m still angry.

The nurse fills up balloons for me and I hurl them at the wall. I want to bang my head against it, to shut the voices up. It’s dinner time. I turn it into a mud cake, mashing, chopping and slicing. My mouth burns as I eat it. My tongue bleeds, my forehead hurts and I am exhausted. Dinner takes two hours and then the bathrooms are locked. We can’t go upstairs until 7:00. We sit around in distaste and wallow in self-hatred. When they’re finally open, I run up and change into my PJs, the ones with the self-loving mantras I don’t believe. I grab my kindle. I’m reading Portia De Rossi’s autobiography because I need something, some promise, some glimmer of hope people actually do get out of this alive. My head hurts when 8 p.m. crawls along because 8:30 is snack time. The cornflakes are gone. I am freaking out. What am I going to have for snack?

When there’s too much choice, there is no safety. Everything is an atomic bomb. The nurse calls me, locks my room and I mouse my way down the stairs, terrified, anxious and deaf to anyone else and their problems. I eat my snack. I race it down my throat, dying for it to end. I just want to sleep. Sleep it all away. None of it is happening, not to me. Not Molly Twomey, the university student with the witty friends and supportive family. I read myself to sleep and wish it didn’t have to happen all over again tomorrow.

Today, I am at home. I have deferred my studies and I am training to be a yoga instructor. I am also writing a poetry collection. Life is exhausting as an inpatient. I was forced to feel difficult emotions, come face to face with my disorder and recognize my real vulnerable self. I will forever be grateful to Lois Bridges. I am still in recovery and every day is a struggle. I needed Lois Bridges to kick start my journey because I could not do it alone. It is OK to need help and it takes immense courage to ask for it.

This piece originally appeared on Spunout.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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What Getting a Cold Meant to Me in Eating Disorder Recovery

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I’m experiencing this weird phenomenon now. I’m not sure many other people can relate. It all started after I recently got “sick” with a cold for the first time in years. I was recently discharged from a lengthy residential stay for the treatment of anorexia nervosa, a relentless demon I have been fighting for the majority of my time on this earth. Prior to my intake, I had been in the throes of a harrowing, two-year relapse.

Flash forward to now. I’m anxious, irritable, weight-restored and here comes this: the common cold. The fevers, the aches and endless stream of mucus flowing from my face all made me feel more alive than I have felt in a long, long while. This very normal experience brought me to a sobering realization. For the first time in over two years, I was no longer inhabiting a dying body.

Instead of living in a constant state of physical stagnation, my hair is now growing, my skin is supple and my immune system is responding to foreign invaders in an appropriate manner. This is bringing about feelings of confusion. Of bizarre grief over the loss of the dying body and of sadness thinking I existed in the state, unaware of the severity of my illness, for so long. A new self-consciousness has emerged. Others around me doubtlessly witnessed this overt deadness, while I flitted about in complete disbelief of it. At the time, I was in no mental state to comprehend this.

I am coming back to life in a way I have never experienced before.

The feeling is surreal.

Follow this journey on SkinnyLies.

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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