Why Living With My Eating Disorder Is Like Having a Garden That Must Be Tended

It’s been an up and down journey wrapped in cotton candy and cottage pie, friends and foe, long letters to what’s been lost, gifts, hospital beds and a gasping body that took her life back from death’s bed. I’ve taken many breaths since that day they came to tell me my heart could in fact, just stop at any second.

It was 2003, and I was 15 years old when I was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital here in Cape Town, to be re-fed. Tears squished through the corners of my anxious eyes with the mushy mess of food pounding against my screaming eating disorder. Sounds all too familiar and too tiring to be fended from my fainting heart.

Anorexia nervosa.

I don’t think anyone has ever been able to fully explain what it is like to live with this “friend.” She’s as cunning as she is convincing. Her nails sharp and painted with the most beautiful of colors. Colors to attract and to allure, to entertain and with which she’ll leave you every night to dream and obsess over. Her promises are impossible and hold no legitimacy and her propagating images can only find breath through insanity. No, if you don’t have her, you won’t truly know what it is to have this anorexia sucking from your bosom.

But today I can share with you knowing what it is to be alive.

It’s been almost 14 years now since that day and I’ve eaten. And that, is miracle enough! This morning, the sweetness from our earth’s beautiful fruit could pass my lips as nuts and in between each crunch their release of ancient oils and much wholesome goodness. This, all to be soothed and comforted with my daily cup of green, a ritual I need to both mentally and spiritually prepare this soul before stepping it back out into this world. No, not all days are easy. My anorexia is but a set of symptoms, the effect of cumulative events combined with my psychological and physiological make up that manifests itself in the shape of an eating disorder.

What is it that got me this far? Love, hope and a little warrior inside refusing to give up and too curious to ever lie down. Together we make or order lunch and gingerly inspect the fresh colors inviting our bite. Yes, anxiety is always present, keeping a close eye on its target and always reminding me of the post-meal option I need to avoid called “Purge.”

It’s been years of hard work and practice, along with loads and loads (gazillions) of hours in therapy, even still. But for me, there is no other way. Even the slightest space I allow it, my demon takes its inevitable and winged flight. But, because of the risks I take in therapy, life and with feeding, I now have relationships. I have a mother within, I am healthy enough to tend to my daily adult responsibilities and I can feel the love once completely desolate and starved.

I would not be alive or able or to put these words to paper in this gift of a moment, if it weren’t for all the hearts found over these years. It was not I who came with the desire to eat again. I was too sick to know I could allow food into this very scared body. Nor was it my insight or wisdom that led me to the “where and how to again start” feeding myself. These hearts found. Women’s hearts, lifted me into the kitchen with warm and soft hands to hold my back, fingertips brushing the sheets from my broken eyes and arms greater than the vastest of oceans to hold my shaking frame as many and many fearful tears needed to fall. I call these women my Angel Mothers.

They will always be a part of me for I have planted bits of them under my feet to everyday feel their extraordinary and omnipotent love. They keep warm my desire to live with their endless dancing within, reminding me one day I too want to be as great a mother as they are still, for me, today.

When I have a daughter one day, which I will, I pray she may never feel or have to survive all I have lived with. For I might not always and every day be able to wholehearted love myself, but I do know my heart extends greatly beyond this body. And I can see the love I give to truly touch and carry a mighty ability to hold others. I will hold my daughter, dearly and always listening. I will never leave her, her heart will be my greatest treasure. Immense hope lies in my ability to love, in my compassion and understanding. Gifts I would not have found did I not choose to journey in trust with professionals who know and who’ll never shame me for having this disorder.

The very painful truth is I will never be free from my eating disorder and with that, the struggle and an extremely tiring battle with food, body and weight. Sadness and fear still bring many tears, but those same tears remind me of the love and life I have been gifted. I am free to play on The Mountain and these arms and legs are able to carry body, mind, and soul to any ocean when everything else around me simply feels too overwhelming.

Anorexia nervosa is a very real and life-threatening disease. It holds the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. But I am determined to survive. Into and with this world I will breathe. Not one soul out there walks completely free from burden. To be human is to have a poisoned and very vulnerable tree in some corner of our lives. And we, as gardeners, can but only tend to and trim the branches according to what resources and universal truths we are able to ask for, accept and own. Then, it is but a decision that remains. To allow and appreciate our tree’s wondrous and fruitful life offerings, scary and unpredictable as they may be or, to continue down a path of ignorance as we run further and further from our very scared hearts and their haunting demons.

I choose my tree, be it a Cherry Blossom, an ageless Oak or Pear. I choose life, regardless of the painful poison I am fed from my eating disorder.

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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Thinkstock photo via Oksana Gribakina.

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