a woman meditates on the mountain

Anorexia and Self-Acceptance: You're Whole as You Are

38
38

“You must learn to accept yourself just as you are.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard, read or thought a version of this statement in my recovery from anorexia nervosa. I believe it. I believe that accepting the whole of me — my strengths, my vulnerabilities, everything messy and human inside me — is key to finding peace with my body.

But here’s the problem: anorexia threatens many of the central aspects of my identity. I’m strong: I’ve run half marathons, summited mountains and helped my family face a number of challenges. Yet some days, I can’t face a number on a scale. I have dreams: to be a scientist, to write, to teach, to have children. Yet because of my illness, I’ve turned down jobs and relationships and study abroad. I’m generous and caring and kind. Yet I often walk around full of shame and isolation, convinced that my illness makes me selfish and shallow and small.

Yes, I must accept the whole of me. But who am I? And what does it mean to be whole?

Sometimes I talk about my whole self like a puzzle. How can I take the pieces of me — the self before anorexia and the self that’s here now — and string them together in a coherent identity? Other times, I talk about the whole of me as a journey. I need to go out and find myself, working until I arrive at the person I want to be.

There’s a reason we talk about finding a self or putting one together. This language implies that the whole of us exists “out there” somewhere, perfect and complete, if we can only find it. Wholeness becomes something of the future. When I’ve sorted myself out, then I will be whole.

Recently, I had a radical thought: What if wholeness isn’t something I need to work for or find? What if I’m whole right now, just as I am?

The thought is unnerving. Right now, there are parts of me I don’t particularly like. There are puzzle pieces I wouldn’t put in a finished product. But I think this reframing of “wholeness” is crucial. Acknowledging that you’re whole right now requires a new level of radical self-acceptance. It allows us to accept a version of our selves that reflects the depth and complexity of a mature identity.

Here are three techniques that have helped me explore and accept this new idea of wholeness.

1. In your whole self, everything belongs.

As a biology student, I see natural ecosystems as metaphors for wholeness. Ecosystems have balance and beauty. But ecosystems also have waste and cost: leaves fall and die to form new soil, this winter’s rain nourishes the ground for spring. We can’t talk about the wholeness of an ecosystem without acknowledging all aspects of this cycle, the growth and the loss.

What would it mean to think of ourselves like an ecosystem? In nature, waste and death and sacrifice are necessary counterparts to growth and life. The same is true of the parts of ourselves we see as flaws or weaknesses. My pain and illness are no less a part of me than my strength and light.

Accepting my whole self doesn’t mean denying or eradicating the parts of me I’d rather not include. It means facing these struggles with integrity and courage. It means realizing that my illness is intertwined with my gifts in a continuous cycle, each one informing the other in a process of growth.

 2. There’s no such thing as “outside” the self. There’s only transformation and acceptance. 

I often talk about battling my eating disorder: getting rid of an external intruder to reclaim the “true” me. Sometimes, valuable anger and motivation comes from this stance. But it isn’t always so simple. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell where anorexia stops and the real me begins. It’s hard to banish the eating disorder thoughts — “you’re fat,” “you’re shameful” — without first engaging and talking back.

Again, it reminds me of an ecosystem. Environmentalist Annie Leonard says, “There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When you throw something away, it must go somewhere.” We can talk about exorcisms, of getting rid of parts of our selves to make way for a new whole. But in reality, there’s no place outside of the self. Nowhere to dump the bad, the toxic, the harmful. There’s only transformation and acceptance.

How can we transform our illness? It helps me to focus on the growth and gifts I’ve experienced in spite of — or often, because of — my recovery. I’ve learned self-care, assertion of my needs, understanding of health and nutrition, perseverance, spiritual growth, resilience and what it means to hold pain and joy simultaneously. These lessons don’t make the anorexia “worth it.” They don’t destroy or eradicate the disease. But they do help the illness take its place: a small place, really, enfolded in the whole of me.

3. Wholeness doesn’t imply only “good.” Your whole self has room for complexity.

Finally, a whole self has space for all the complexity of life — the good, the bad, the struggle, the joy. For years, the eating disorder was the only way I expressed pain — about depression, family struggles, self-doubt and negativity. Now I’m learning: there are ways to express negative emotions that have nothing to do with an eating disorder. Recovery does not mean agreeing that life will always be good. It means finding healthier ways to feel heard and understood.

Recovery does mean reconnecting with the inner joy and flexibility that came before anorexia. This self is real and worthy of being reclaimed. But sometimes, we’re sad. Sometimes, we’re angry. All the time, we’re complex. This self is equally real. This self is human.

No part of your self is more right or wrong or true than any other. Your whole self has room for every part of you.

You are whole right now, just as you are.

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.

Thinkstock image via Hvoenok

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

38
38

RELATED VIDEOS

TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

When My Mom Blames Herself for My Eating Disorder

339
339

“I wish I could have prevented this,” my mom sighs. “I wish I had noticed the signs, or that your doctors had picked up on this sooner, or that you had confided in me.”

We’ve had this conversation so many times. She berates the therapist who, despite my being a minor, never informed her about the danger my eating disorder put me in. She laments about the pediatrician who never contacted her after I had lost a dangerous amount of weight within just a few months, even though this doctor knew I had a history with anorexia. She curses the teachers and school nurses and friends and family who all claimed they “saw this coming” but never warned her.

She questions the inactions of others, but I hear underneath that she blames herself. She looks at the photos from the eight years of anorexia and wonders how she never noticed my sunken eyes, pointy cheekbones, and spindly legs. Of course she noticed these things but denial convinced her they were just a part of who I am or that I have a quick metabolism. Now, she berates herself for allowing denial to blind her. When she speaks about it, she starts to cry. “I could’ve prevented so much of your pain… I could’ve sent you to treatment sooner… The mental and physical effects of starvation could’ve been minimized… I am sorry I failed you.”

It breaks my heart to hear my mother say this. As I’ve told her, my mom did not fail me. For some people, being placed in treatment unwillingly can interrupt the illness long enough for them to eventually choose recovery. My family had tried to force treatment upon me at the beginning of my illness, around age 12, but I’d resisted and manipulated my way out, allowing the illness to grow stronger and stronger for years. Since childhood I’ve been stubborn as hell and unswayable in my convictions. To recover, I had to choose recovery for myself. Not only did I have to choose it once, but I had to choose it day after day after day — nearly two years later, I still have to choose recovery every time I sit down to eat.

But here’s the thing — I chose recovery, and my support system helped me keep choosing it despite the miserable meals, years of treatment, and physical ailments. And when my mother says, “I failed you,” I want to cry. Mom, you did not cause this. My eating disorder is an illness caused by the perfect storm of so many triggers. I blame absolutely nothing on you.

In fact, Mom, I credit you with my recovery. I maintain that I chose and fought for recovery, but you raised me. You taught me to be a fighter. You raised me to make up my mind and stick to it. And that strength and determination is what lifted me out of the disorder. Mom, you didn’t fail me or save me, but you gave me the strength to save myself.

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.

Thinkstock photo by Kikovic

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

339
339
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

How Redefining 'Pretty' Helped Me Recover From Anorexia

71
71

The concept of “pretty” has puzzled me for some time. They say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and yet it seemed that somehow everyone had agreed on what it meant to be pretty.

I was led to believe that if one was pretty they would be successful, liked and most importantly, valued. I had been inundated all my life with these messages. I found myself comparing my physique to others despite being told all my life that having a mind of my own was more important. I subscribed to the idea of “pretty” that had been told to me so many times by so many people.

My self-worth was tied up in being the prettiest girl in the room. For me, that meant competing with every girl to be the thinnest. Every day was a battle to look better — to be better — than every girl in every room. I wanted my bones to wear my skin like a shirt a few sizes too small.

My search for beauty, or value rather, became tied up in numbers. As the number on the scale went down, my desire to be seen as pretty only grew. The mental calculator was always running. Counting calories. Measuring inches. Subtracting pounds. Calculating my self-worth. I was chasing after an unattainable goal, looking for my self-worth in the approval of others. However, my methods were working. Family, friends, and others would tell me I looked great — they liked the changes I was making to my appearance. Their compliments encouraged me and told me my ranking among others was improving.

Pretty meant loose shirts, thigh gaps, skipped meal, and a body breaking itself down. Pretty meant a brain that couldn’t focus on anything but the numbers that haunted me. Pretty meant a heart that couldn’t beat enough to keep me standing. The cost of “pretty” was an eating disorder and a mind plagued by the perceived judgments others were making about me. Pretty was thin and thin was value and value was worth. My self-worth could be measured in teaspoons.

What I thought was “pretty” was really an illness in disguise, a sickness dressed up in pretty clothes laced with compliments. While it may have provided me with the approval from others I thought I needed to feel worthy of life, anorexia left me a shell of the person I had once been. I was facing hard statistics, like how anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. I realized my conception of what pretty was had to change.

Now I believe I am beautiful. My beauty comes not from a number on a scale or a ranking made by others or myself, but from my confidence in who I am and the strength I know I have inside of me.

The definition of pretty I held to be true is common, and it needs to change. In our weight-conscious culture, we must strive to expand and diversify what it means to be “pretty.” Through my process of recovery I have come to accept myself and now believe that all bodies are beautiful. That is not to say that I do not have days where my old ideas come to mind. On those days I must remind myself where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, but also that recovery is not a straight line. Healthy is the goal and that comes in many forms and looks different for everyone. Weight and size and calories are all just numbers that do not define us.

We, all of us, are pretty.

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.

Thinkstock photo via artant

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

71
71
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Dear Anorexia, I'm Not Going to Let You Hold Me Back Again

41
41

Dear Anorexia,

It’s been a year and a half, but somehow I still find myself thinking of you. Because even though you’ve left me, you are affecting so many other people. People who don’t deserve to have you in their lives. You treat them horribly. You make them question if they like themselves and make them feel worthless. You take up years of their lives – even when they think they are free of you, you show up as an afterthought whenever they have a large meal or catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror.

When I first met you, I was in sixth grade, and I hated how I looked. I wanted to look like the actresses on television and the models in the magazines. It started with my hair – too short, too frizzy, too unflattering. Then it moved to my nose, my shape, my stomach, my upper arms, and my thighs. And I accepted you into my life without fully understanding the implications of doing so. When I found myself obsessing over food and overexercising, weighing myself and taking constant measurements, researching and looking for signs to confirm that I wasn’t alone, I knew that I was in for it. You weren’t just a “teenage phase.” And although my therapy helped in the short term (postponing your prominent return for five years), you were always that voice making me feel guilty when I ate too much junk food or thought I looked OK. Eventually, I couldn’t distinguish your voice from my own.

When you returned, I became scared. You weren’t in full force yet, and I ran to my parents and doctors and nutritionists before you had the chance. But after a few months passed and I had “recovered,” I realized that I had stayed relatively the same weight. After looking through old pictures and considering my circumstances, I set out to prove to you that I could do better. And I guess you would call it a “success.” But that success came with caveats – my parents were terrified, I lost my family’s trust, I felt distant from my closest friends, I felt that I had no one to talk to except for you, I was cold all of the time, I was dizzy and exhausted from exercising without food, and most of all I was unhappy.

Why did I let you do this to me? When I was encouraged to recover from friends and family (and eventually from myself), it took months to get back to where I was. And it took even longer to get to a healthy mindset. There are many things that trigger your voice even now – talk about calories or weight, seeing a bad picture, listening to an old song or learning about you in my classes. And you think that you still have a right to stick to all of these men and women who hate you. Don’t you have anything better to do?

I know that I can’t just forget about you, and my experiences are valuable to share with others who are struggling. And so I keep fighting. Others still cringe when I bring you up in person because you’re such a taboo. You kill so many. I was one of the lucky ones.

I am not going to allow you to pull me backward. I know that there are more tough times ahead, but I have the knowledge to face them without harming myself. I am my own best friend, and you have no place here anymore. So feel free to stick around, but you won’t receive anything from me except for a long and persistent fight.

You tried to latch on and become part of me. Then you tried to take away who I was. That time is over. I don’t know how many moments I have left, and so I’m living each day to the best of my ability. So that I can get closer to knowing with full certainty who I am. And to know that you are an illness that holds no power over me.

Sincerely,

Rachel

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.

Thinkstock photo via pecaphoto77

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

41
41
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

When I Saw My Anorexia Diagnosis in Writing for the First Time

26
26

“Promise me,” my mom asked six years ago. “Promise me you’ll never do this again.”

I nodded. “Of course. It was nothing, no big deal,” I said.

Six years later…

“You broke your promise,” my mom said.

I looked at her. “What promise?”

“You know which one. When you said you would never do this again.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say because she was right. I had broken my promise. I had gone back to restriction.

Sophomore year of college, I became obsessed with losing weight. I severely restricted my calorie intake and exercised compulsively. My parents found my food diary and dragged me to therapy. Two therapists later, I was “cured.” We never discussed my eating issues. I glossed over the whole thing, convincing myself it was nothing.

It was almost as if it never happened.

Flash forward six years. I’m checking my patient portal for an upcoming nutritionist appointment and I click on my own medical status. And there I saw it.

Diagnosis – Anorexia.

There it was, in black and white. Anorexia. I was shocked seeing it there on the screen.

And that’s when I started to realize there was no going back. I can’t pretend this isn’t happening, that this isn’t serious. Anorexia. It’s right there on my medical record. It’s a part of my life now and it’s terrifying.

Why? Because as I have been increasing my intake in treatment and taking a break from exercise, there is a part of me waiting for it all to be over. Then I can go back. A new diet. A new cardio regiment. Fewer calories. Weigh-ins. No snacks. Hungry. Empty. Numb.

Not this time. I have to want more, strive for more. Anorexia has reduced me to just a number, but I have to believe I am worth more than this.

I have to move forward.

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.

Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

26
26
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

When I Learned to Stop Minimizing the Mental Health Struggles of Others

132
132

In my experience, it seems like having a mental illness can do one of two things. You might become a more gentle and supportive person who uses their experiences to be more understanding or you might become harsher and resentful that others have not felt your pain or lived through your trauma. You can either grow or you can pull away.

I refuse to let depression, anxiety and anorexia turn me into a person I don’t want to be. For a long time, I let it shape how I treated others. I was spiteful. I was angry. I was harsh. My friends had never been through the things I had been through. They all had things so easy. Their families were together, they didn’t struggle the same ways I did. They had no concept of mental illness aside from what they saw me go through. I was lost. What did I do to deserve these things? Why did I pull the short straw? When I heard about the struggles of others, I minimized them because they weren’t as bad as mine, as though I was somehow the judge of that.

One day I woke up tired of being that person. I realized it was not my experiences, my illnesses or my past that made me act this way. It was me.

I realized I don’t want to take part in the “sadness Olympics,” where jaded people gather to measure people’s struggle and pain as though they are the authority on it. Just because you have survived terrible things doesn’t make other people’s pain less valid. It’s impossible to compare. Yes, I have an anxiety disorder, but it doesn’t mean my friend isn’t incredibly nervous for her exam. Yes, I’ve been through anorexia, but it doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t struggle with his body image. Yes, I have depression but it doesn’t mean someone else isn’t allowed to be sad or empty or upset. We all have different tolerance levels for pain, including emotional pain.

Comparing your struggles is like comparing sleep. You slept three hours last night and your friend slept five. She got more sleep than you, yet you’re both tired. You can’t determine who’s more tired based off the hours of sleep you both got, because it depends on the person. Bottom line is both of you are tired. You just can’t compare. The same thing goes for sadness, stress, anger.

It can be so frustrating to listen to people complain about problems you deem silly or small. You wish your problems were as minor as that. Yet, problems are problems. In their lives, these things might be major. Something small to you could be the worst thing someone else has ever gone through. We all deserve support.

The idea that not all problems are deserving of attention stops people from seeking treatment. I’ve had countless people talk to me saying things like, “I don’t have an eating disorder and it’s not as bad as things were for you but…” and go on to express something valid and deserving of help. We don’t need to qualify our struggles by saying they aren’t as bad as the struggles of others. Struggles are struggles. It doesn’t matter if someone has had it “worse.”

Do not let illness rob you of your sweetness. Do not let the world take away your soft heart and leave you hardened. Do no let yourself become jaded and cynical and hateful.

Use your pain. Use it to grow. Use it to change. Use it to adapt. Use it to make art. Use it to help people. Use it to heal people. Use it. Use it. Use it.

If you don’t let your pain push you forward, it will hold you back.
You can’t avoid pain. You can’t avoid the terrible pieces of your illness. You can’t control the fact you have a mental illness. But you can control how it shapes you. You can control how you treat others in turn.

My battles with mental Illness have made me a better person. I’m kinder now. I’m more supportive. I’m more helpful, more understanding, a better friend. I’m a better version of myself. Hard times change you, but I decided to make it be for the better.

When it comes to mental illness, you don’t choose it — it chooses you. You do get to choose what you do with it. Choose to grow, rather than to pull away. Choose to be gentle and supportive rather than harsh.

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.

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

Thinkstock photo via Archv.

132
132
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Real People. Real Stories.

7,000
CONTRIBUTORS
150 Million
READERS

We face disability, disease and mental illness together.