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What You Can't See About the Smiling Girl in the Picture

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Look at that girl in the picture. contributor photo  She is participating in a Fourth of July talent show at summer camp with her bunkmates. Her slinky textured hair is combed back into a tight bun on the top of her head, hidden by a multicolored hat.

Oh, and her bunk will win. And she will jump up and down feigning excitement because really she doesn’t care about stupid drama competitions and would rather be kicking around a soccer ball. She’s kind of a secret rebel like that. She is young and seems happy based on that wide smile cementing the lower half of her face. But her teeth are a giveaway, impressionable like braces, like her soul. She is molding into the person she thinks she should be — but who exactly is that? No one would know she is hurting, but she is. This young third grader is struggling with anorexia. This young girl is the surprising embodiment of mental illness.

This girl was a younger version of me.

It began on the first day of sleepaway camp. I was beyond consoling and wanted only to be back home. I missed my parents and wasn’t sure who I was at camp without them. But I didn’t know how to tell anyone, to express my emotions. How would I find comfort without my mommy and daddy? At dinner, I scanned the food stations and opted for something small. It just all turned me off, which was odd, because I had never felt that way about food before. After the first day, I panicked in the face of all of the food choices and became known as a “picky eater.” So every day in the summer I consumed less than I usually did. It would impact me by the end of the summer.

One day, I woke up to a crowd of kids and counselors surrounding me, my eyes blinking a few times before coming to. I wasn’t in the comfort of my bed at home. No. I was flat on my back on the hard floor of the camp basketball court, staring into a blinding sun in a big blue sky. Oh shit! After a short trip to the infirmary, it was decided I needed to go to the hospital to get an IV. I was mortified my parents would have to take a three hour car ride to make sure I was OK. I wanted to tell them they didn’t have to — that I was fine — but I had no say in the matter. What if they figured out what caused me to end up in this state?

With only three days left of my first summer away at camp, I had fainted. That little girl in the picture wasn’t just “very active” like the doctor’s said. She was starving. Truth was, she was always hungry, but needed her patterns and rituals much more than she believed she needed food and her body couldn’t keep up. That girl in the picture didn’t have curves or really think she was fat—yet. She just couldn’t eat, because that’s how she dealt with her anxiety. But no one could see her pain.

They could only see the smiling girl in the picture and that was enough to mask her eating disorder for many years.

So warning, the next time you look at a picture of someone on social media, know it is just a snapshot of a moment in time. Maybe they look happy in that instant, but there could be more going on. There is always more than a picture can capture. Don’t be unaware of the glossy game of make-believe that is social media. Peel away the glitz, before you look in from the outside thinking that perfect exists on the screen you are browsing. A picture is just that — a picture. Mental illness is easily masked with a smile like the smiling girl in the picture. So no, I don’t believe the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s harder to fake words. Our generation needs to dig deeper. So let’s start digging and using more words.

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.

Lead photo via diego_cervo.

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

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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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Surviving the Grocery Store While Recovering From Anorexia

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Lip quivering, tears slowly running down my cheek, hands shaking —  yep, a panic attack. 

Most people can go to the grocery store, list in hand, and effortlessly shop. But recovering from an eating disorder (ED)… specifically, recovering from anorexia? The grocery store is a minefield. And trust me, I knew this going in. That’s why I was putting it off for hours. But finally, I mustered up the courage to walk to Harris Teeter and buy myself some dinner. Eating alone is still something I’m working on — probably my most challenging goal right now. Accountability is an important part of my recovery, and it has been helping me stay on track. But when I’m by myself and can lie to my friends about what I’ve eaten… that’s a slippery slope.

So, I do the “right” thing — I pretend I’m brave, and I walk to Harris Teeter.

I walk through the doors, and suddenly it’s 100 degrees — my cheeks are hot and flushed and I can feel the anxiety building. I’ve got a short list (apples, bananas, bread, and sushi). Shouldn’t be too hard, right? People do this all the time without even thinking twice. But recovering from anorexia… this is hard. Maybe the hardest thing I’ve done all day — maybe even harder than sitting down for breakfast, lunch, and soon dinner.

The tears are coming faster now… The slow gentle tears are now a full-blown sob. The nice man at Harris Teeter asks if I’m OK. Struggling, I say, “Yeah, I’m fine.” (For those of you who have friends struggling from an ED, that is clue number one that she/he’s not fine.) I do a couple of deep breaths (they really work, trust me on this one) and manage to calm myself down. But wait, I haven’t even accomplished anything yet. 

Now I’ve got to gather all the items on my list. I start in the fruit aisle. The tears are slowly coming again. Feeling overwhelmed. Too many options, too many choices. How can anyone go to the grocery store without a meltdown? The idea seems foreign to me now. I used to be able to shop (with my boyfriend) with some anxiety, but since my latest relapse, it seems absolutely impossible. And being alone… that makes it so much more challenging.

I grab a few apples and walk over to the bananas. So much to think about. Too much to think about.

Let me tell you, the struggle is real. The idea of having to do this every week is terrifying. So, I start crying even more. People must think I’m ridiculous. Now I’m shopping for bread while simultaneously sobbing. People stare awkwardly, but I can’t really blame them. I mean, I am crying in the middle of the grocery store…

Last on my list: sushi. This is tonight’s dinner. There are only a handful of meals I’ve mastered in my recovery from my latest relapse, and sushi is one of them. So, sushi it is. I scan all the options and don’t see anything I like. Oh, great, another panic attack. For those of us in recovery, I know you know how hard it is to be flexible. This is something I work on every day. And this is the 468th time today I need to practice flexibility. I ask the man at the counter if they had any sushi behind the counter… maybe an eel and cucumber roll? He looks around and finds an eel and avocado roll. Not perfect, but better than my other options. #flexibilityforthewin

I smile (I’m sure with mascara-streaked makeup running down my face) and thank him; he’s helped me more than he knows. Off to check out. 

Hard part number one is over! Now I just have to pretend to be brave again and actually eat it…

This is the third time I’ve gone to the grocery store by myself, and each time, it gets a little easier (read — a little). It’s a slow process.

I know I have so much more to conquer. Like trying new foods, trying new places and, of course, learning how not to cry in the grocery store. But if you don’t know me, I’m a crier. If you do know me, I’m sorry because inevitably you’ve seen me cry… a lot. But I’m embracing this part of my recovery because I know it’s part of how I cope. It’s better than restricting and self-harming, right?

So, the next time you walk into the grocery store and have a panic attack, know I understand, and I empathize. Recovering from anorexia is no small feat. We have to learn to be around food, think about food, purchase food, and more importantly, eat food, even though it’s usually what causes us the most anxiety. 

We have to learn how to eat all over again as if we are kids. And it’s hard. Harder than you might think. But guess, what? That’s right… I’m doing it. 

And you can too. I promise you, it’s hard now, but the more we make the hard decisions, the easier it can get. 

So, go to the grocery store, cry if you have to, but know one day, it can be OK. One day we may go to the grocery store and effortlessly shop like millions of other people who don’t have eating disorders. It’s possible. Never give up, and always keep fighting, even on days when you have a breakdown in the grocery store.

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.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Thinkstock photo by xcarrot_007

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6 Things I Wish I Had Known During Eating Disorder Recovery

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I wrote this list as someone recovering from anorexia. For two years I fought to recover, and I had no idea what I was in for. I wish I’d had someone further along in recovery to tell me about it in an honest way. It doesn’t mean much when doctors tell you it gets better. It’s easy to brush them off because they haven’t been through it themselves. It doesn’t help to hear that “It gets better,” “It’ll pass,” ” You’ll be OK” over and over. I needed to hear that recovery would be grueling and would hurt more than living with my eating disorder but would be worth it. Recovery is a lot of ups and downs, and it takes a lot of work to get to a point where you’re happy again. I needed to know someone else felt the way I felt, that they had been there and made it through. This is what I would have wanted someone to tell me. 

1. You’re not weak for “giving up” your disorder.

Really, you’re strong for fighting it. You know that pull in your chest you get each time you defy that voice in your head? The way the voice starts screaming belligerently when you challenge it? The way you panic at the slightest change to your eating disordered habits? Those are signs you are fighting. I get the feeling of wanting to give in. It’s hard to go left when someone is screaming in your ear to turn right. I know. But I also know it’s so worth every bit of fight. When you start to pull away, the eating disorder will tell you you’re weak, you’re worthless, you’re nothing without it. Fighting it means ignoring the feeling of weakness. In the end, you will see how strong you are for choosing to fight for yourself.

2. Food doesn’t have to be scary.

I know it feels that way. I know you look at the people around you and wonder how food doesn’t scare them the way it scares you. Opening the fridge seems like a hobby to your friends, yet you can’t even bear to be seen looking at food for fear of someone judging you. The truth is no one is looking, and if they are, they aren’t judging you. No one will think less of you for eating. No one will think less of you for choosing a cookie over a carrot. Food is not a bad thing. Some day, ridiculous as it sounds, you may be excited by cake again. You may look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas and family dinners and take-out and McDonald’s hangover cures. Some day you can be OK with food. You can control it, not the other way around. You can learn to cope.

3. You’re enough.

You don’t need to starve/binge/purge/suffer to be worthy. You do not need to listen to that nasty voice in your head forcing you to do things. You do not need to listen to it when it tells you you’re fat and ugly and a bad friend. You’re not a bad person. You’re not a useless person. You’re not worthless. You are so much more than enough. It’s so hard to see the love that surrounds you when all you can hear is your eating disorder. It’s so much louder than your friends and family are. You’re so consumed by it that you may push everyone away. That voice is just so loud. That voice can go away. It may get louder, way louder, throughout recovery. But it can go away. I promise. When I run now, I don’t hear a loop of obscenities being shouted inside my head, calling me useless garbage. I hear my feet on the ground and music in my ears and my breathing. I don’t hear a voice telling me I’m terrible for eating. I don’t have anorexia yelling at me all day long. I know I’m enough, I know I’m worth the space I take up. I know I’m worthy of love, regardless of my jeans or the scale. The voice in your head can go away too. You can be free of it.

4. Recovery will be one of the hardest things you ever go through.

If you thought living through your eating disorder was hard, buckle up. Recovery is the bumpiest ride to get on. I won’t lie to you. It’s one thing to listen to a voice telling you you’re worthless 24/7. It’s another to turn around and challenge that voice. It’s a whole other thing to fight back and do what it’s telling you you can’t. The voice is lying. You can.

The hardest point for me was about halfway. I was starting to fight back, but the eating disorder was so convincing, and all I wanted to do was run right to it. The best analogy I can think of is walking on fire. You’ve already walked halfway, so why turn back? You’ll have to go back, then start all over again. Relapse happens. There are setbacks. There are obstacles. Do not give up. You can beat this. Recovery is so painful.

You’ll learn that living with an eating disorder is not a life at all. Right now, it probably sounds like it would be easier to not recover at all. I told my mom to let me die. I begged my treatment team to just walk away and let me go. I didn’t think I was strong enough, and the eating disorder convinced me I would be nothing without it. I was wrong. It took every ounce of fight in me. Every single day I got up ready for battle. It was worth every tear, every struggle, every war in my head. It was so worth it. All of those moments of anguish will be worth it when you live a full, happy and healthy life. You deserve to. Recovery is terrible — until one day, it isn’t.

5. It gets better. Really. 

I told my psychologist to go to hell when she said that. I told the therapist before her, the psychologist before her, my doctor, my dietitian, my family. I told everyone I would rather die than recover. I said recovery wasn’t for me. The thing is, anorexia isn’t for me. Your eating disorder isn’t for you, either. Your eating disorder will tell you you’re the exception to recovery, that you don’t need it, that you’re better living like this. These are all lies. Eating disorders are the absolute best liars, and they make you a damn good one too. They can be so persuasive. They’re still lying. There is no such thing as an exception to recovery. We all have that fight in us, no matter how beaten down you feel. No matter how tied to your eating disorder you are, you can make it out.

The first day I remember feeling really good was when I went for brunch with my parents. I didn’t pre-plan and look at the menu online for days in advance. I didn’t cut out meals to prepare. I didn’t do an intense workout before or after. I didn’t even consider which option had the lowest calories. I chose the option that sounded the best, which happened to be caramel banana waffles. I didn’t feel panicked in the slightest. I felt good. I felt full. I felt happy. I couldn’t remember how it felt to have food feel good until that day. That’s when I realized they were all telling the truth; it does get better. You can live without your eating disorder. In fact, you can thrive.

6. You can be happy again.

Imagining how I felt during my sickest day and during recovery makes my heart ache for all of the people out there who are struggling. You deserve to feel true happiness. You’ll never get that with your eating disorder. It will always find a way to poison good moments because it’s toxic. You don’t need that. You deserve to enjoy life. You can be happy again. You’re probably thinking that recovery isn’t making you happy either, so why try to fight? You’re right. Recovery is, in short, a b****. It’s not fun. But there are victories. There are moments where you win — times where you put that eating disorder in its place. You could feel that way almost all the time. There will be times where you feel low; it’s inevitable. But most days can eventually be good days. Fight for that. For those moments. Hold on to them. That is what life is about. Your eating disorder doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. It doesn’t build you up. All it does is tear you down and break you from the inside out. It makes you a prisoner in your own mind. It poisons you slowly. It controls every second of your life. Fight back. Take over your own head. Call the shots. You deserve to go to the beach and feel the sun on your skin and feel good, not scared or insecure. You deserve to eat food and feel content, not stressed. You deserve to wake up feeling free. You’ll get there if you choose recovery.

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 Hibrida13

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To the Friends Who Stayed Through My Eating Disorder

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To the people I am lucky enough to call friends:

You watched my obsession with perfection in school get worse, causing me to obsess over little details.

You watched as my obsessing moved into what I ate and what I did.

You watched me start to count calories and macronutrients, steps and active minutes.

You watched me buy the scale and listened to me complain about how fat I was.

You watched me refuse food because “I just ate” or “My stomach is a little upset right now.”

You watched me become more withdrawn and begin to skip classes and obligations.

You watched me drag myself to the trail to walk for hours and hours in the middle of the night to lose the “extra weight.”

You watched me ignore your pleas to get help and to talk to you.

You watched me shrink mentally and physically.

You watched me ignore your help, go down a path that could have led to my death. I pushed you away to keep my addiction to restriction. I screamed and yelled at you to leave me alone. I made anorexia more important than you.

And yet, you stayed.

You didn’t run away, scared, like so many did when they found out the real reasons I left school.

You stayed.

You hugged me, told me it was OK, and stayed by my side.

You checked in on me, making sure I was going to my psychiatry and nutrition appointments.

You made sure I was sticking to my treatment plan and following my meal plan.

You made sure I was taking my medications.

You held my hand as I cried into plates of food I didn’t want to eat and reminded me how strong I was.

You helped me be strong enough to throw away the scale.

You helped me begin to live again.

So, dear friend, thank you. I know I haven’t been the best friend. Anorexia made me selfish and angry and mean. I’m sorry I was not a good person to you. I know our friendship hasn’t been easy. I know it was hell watching me disappear into a monster you couldn’t even recognize. I know you probably wanted to turn the other way and leave. But you didn’t. You stayed. And for that, you are the most incredible human being alive, and I am the luckiest person in the world for having you in my life.

I love you.

Thank you.

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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Eating Disorder Recovery Isn't Black and White

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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.

Choosing to recover is never black and white. It is never quite as straight forward as it should be, in an ideal world. I sometimes find it difficult to fully commit to recovery. I’m constantly grappling inside myself and sometimes I don’t know what way I should be going.

It’s so hard to view the eating disorder as a bad thing sometimes. It’s what has always been there for me. Starving the pain away, exercising the hate out of me, counting calories and kilograms and stones and pounds so that my brain is so full of numbers I can’t hear any of the hateful thoughts or suicidal chanting in my mind.

My eating disorder protected me from having to deal with things I didn’t want to cope with. It gave me something to concentrate on, something to control in the swirling haze of life spiraling away from me. It became all I wanted, all I needed, all that mattered. It was my best friend.

I couldn’t see anything else.

I was so fixated on numbers that I didn’t notice my friends hurting. I completely ignored my family and how they were feeling desperate. I saw people trying to help and instantly pushed them away. It made me hate those around me who were trying to “interfere.” It caused me to self-harm as punishment for not meeting my own impossible demands. My eating disorder pushed me to attempt suicide when I felt like I had lost all control.

And it never — not once — made me happy.

It was only when I started to hate it when I realized I was stuck. I tried to escape, I struggled and everything went dark so I turned to what I knew as a way to cope and I lost more weight. Around and around this circle went and I was caught in a mess of gaining weight then losing it again. It felt like it was always one step forward, two steps back.

Even now I struggle to think of anorexia as my enemy. I struggle with the constant longing to rush back into her outstretched arms and cry and ask her to make it all better again and fix me, fix everything. But I can’t. Not this time.

I can’t keep falling down over and over and over. I need to fight this. Not for me, but for those who have been fighting for me all this time. I can be better without anorexia. I’ll prove it to her.

And hopefully, on the way, I’ll prove it to myself as well.

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 Slavaleks.

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