When I was little, I decided I needed to protect myself from the world. It was too big and loud, and I didn’t know how to exist in it.
At age 17, I found my protection. Anorexia invited me to fix what I hated about myself and the world in one fell swoop. I had always felt emotions longer and harder than my friends, and starvation numbed them. It created a barrier between me and the world. While my body’s physical deterioration was painful, it was nothing compared to real life. From the start, the world had threatened to swallow me up. And after a lifetime of running, anorexia was my surrender. I needed the world to know — I can’t do this anymore.
But my disease was not a long-term solution. Because my health made me a liability, my university threatened to kick me out of housing. And while they didn’t say so, I knew my friends were growing weary of my constant crises.
And so I started recovery.
At the beginning, recovery was horrific. My first day in treatment, I broke down in sobs over a small bowl of penne pasta. Each time I sat down to eat, it felt like someone was asking me to jump off the Empire State Building. My heart pounded; my mouth went dry. I would stare down at the ant-like people as the nurses said, “You have to jump! If you don’t jump, you’re going to die!”
To this day, jumping is the scariest thing I’ve ever done.
But then something else happened. In treatment, I learned I could turn down life’s volume another way.
At first, this was a good thing. I needed the structure and round-the-clock care. But treatment and recovery catered to the part of my personality that had fled to anorexia in the first place. The part that craved order and structure and to avoid harm at all costs.
My life was a swirl of meal planning worksheets and weigh-ins. I spent most of my time talking about my eating disorder or my life in relation to my eating disorder. Anorexia loved this. It loved planning carefully portioned snacks and meals. It loved obsessing over food and weight.
Each time I got close to a full recovery, I felt the pressure of the real world. There were criticisms and deadlines. There were relationships that fluctuated up and down and sideways. There were terrifying expectations. Spending therapy sessions talking about my fear of cheese was far easier than talking about the friend who was angry with me. Recovery was hard, yes. But for me, life was harder.
So I relapsed. I fell back into the protection of my illness, and the comfort of treatment and recovery always followed. This became a well-worn path for me. “In recovery from an eating disorder” became my identity. How could it not? I spent my life in treatment. Nobody on the outside understood my jokes about the caloric content of Ensure vs. Boost. And when my non-eating disordered friends talked about boys and parties, I had nothing to contribute. I’d spent the night processing my feelings about a quesadilla.
Recovery was necessary, without a doubt. But it wasn’t until I explored life outside of it that I was able to end the cycle of relapse and recovery. It required sitting down and asking myself simple questions.
What do I love?
What do I care about?
Who am I outside of my disease?
When I first started my list of things I loved, I wrote, “1. School.” Horrified, I realized I couldn’t go any further. I liked losing weight. I liked my illness. But was there anything else? Weeks later I wrote down, “2. Puppies. 3. Taylor Swift.” And to begin, that was enough. I loved school, puppies and Taylor Swift. It was the beginning of my new identity. (Years later, I got a puppy. And I still go to every Taylor concert I can.)
Today, my list is full. I love road trips, mountains, candles and tea. I love the way my best friend makes me laugh, and how my puppy stands up like a person when she’s excited. I love research, memoirs and the way little kids talk too fast. The world and I are still on shaky terms. Life still hurts. It still feels too loud and fast. But I’ve decided to live in it anyway.
I want more for my life than illness. I want a life that is brimming with connection, joy and purpose.
I don’t know if the world will ever stop feeling so loud and terrifying. But every day I remind myself that this is my one life. There won’t be a do-over where I get back the joy I lost trying to protect myself. This is it. If I spend it in surrender, or in fear, or in self-hatred, there will nothing left to do but wish it could have been different.
And I want more than that.
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