How the Voice of My Eating Disorder Controls Me Like a Dictator
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.
Eating disorders are among the top four leading causes of burden of disease in terms of years of life lost through death or disability among women ages 15-24. Deadly, misconceived by many and often hard to detect, they often hide in darkness. Those who have not experienced the darkness of an eating disorder sometimes have a hard time grasping what dealing with an eating disorder is like. Here is a glimpse into what living with an eating disorder feels like for me.
Personally, it feels like you’ve been taken hostage by an evil dictator who now controls your every move, every thought, choice, action. You didn’t see it coming; it started slowly.
Maybe it started when you were a kid and standing in front of the mirror in the dance studio you saw legs doing the same moves next to you, but they were smaller, thinner. They were the legs that got noticed, they got approval — you didn’t. They danced better than you; maybe you thought if you were smaller you would dance better too.
Maybe it started in middle school when your friends started their first diet. Their moms were doing it so they started too. Seeing their lunches on the table next to your “bad foods,” you tossed your lunch in the trash and went in search of something more “acceptable.”
Maybe it started Sophomore year when you got bullied for gaining the “freshman fifteen.” Maybe it started after a chronic pain diagnosis. Maybe it started after a traumatic life event. Maybe you don’t remember when it started. Maybe you can’t remember not living like this.
However it started, it soon becomes your life. The dictator’s voice in your head, you slave tirelessly to abide by his rules. Your brain has become fixated on food. Your brain has become fixated on your body, your movement; your life revolves around these things now.
Each morning you wake up in a frenzy; sleeping is lying down and you’re wasting time. You need to be doing something, anything. You can’t stop for a second because you’re trying to outrun the voice in your head trying to convince you you’re worthless, undeserving, shameful. You feel guilty for everything; the dictator deems it self-indulgent, gluttonous to do anything for yourself that doesn’t serve the dictator.
The dictator rules now. Every waking moment of your day, he’s there shouting commands. “Don’t eat that, it has X amount of calories and has X in it; you’re not allowed to eat that. You’ll get fat. People won’t love you anymore. Everyone will leave you. You’ll be more of a failure than you already are.”
“Why are you walking so slowly? Walk faster. You’re getting lazy. You need to exercise. Lazy. Slow. Go to the gym, go for a run, c’mon.”
You forget what’s it’s like to be “normal.” You stop going out with friends because food or calories are always involved. You can’t predict the situation and the dictator doesn’t like that. Will you have to eat? What food? Who will be there? They can’t see you eat, you think — they’ll see how addicted you are to food and they’ll judge you. You have a strict routine to follow. Going out gets in the way of the dictator’s plans. Your friends may stop calling, stop texting. Not all at once, but slowly. You fade away from the people in your life because your dictator becomes the only voice you seem to hear.
You can’t focus. You sit at work, staring at a blank new email trying to form a sentence. You can’t. The dictator’s voice is too loud in your head, calling you fat and lazy for sitting down so long. Maybe you’re still in school. Lectures become a hazy fog of trying to take notes on the origins and crises of the Cold War, but you look down at your notes to see you’ve written down your exercise plan for the night instead. Your margins are filled with calories and doodles and anything but what you’re supposed to be learning.
You lose interest in everything you used to love. The only interests that are allowed are the ones your dictator deems valuable. These interests are shallow; they serve the disorder. Everything else? Gone. That art of yours? Not good enough, you’re terrible at it. Stop painting.
You’re exhausted all the time. You don’t seem to sleep anymore. You lay in bed at night with the dictator shouting at you to do something more productive. “Why are you laying down? Go exercise. Do X, don’t just lay there!” Your brain is running through what you ate today, what you’re allowed to eat tomorrow. You can’t turn his voice down and go to sleep. You can’t silence him.
If you break a rule or disobey him, even if it’s on accident, there are punishments. The punishment depends on the rule broken, the severity of the punishment must match the offense. “I can’t believe you just ate that. Fat ass. Go run X miles and now you can’t eat for X hours.”
Even though the dictator takes your focus, your time, your friends, you still must be perfect at everything. The dictator still demands perfection in every aspect of your life. “Less than an A? Pathetic. You didn’t get on the Dean’s list this quarter? You’re stupid. Waste of money sending you to college.” The dictator’s voice is relentless. You’re never good enough, you never are enough. He convinces you no one cares about you, convinces you everyone despises you; friends, family, strangers, it doesn’t matter he tells you what they think.
He convinces you everything you eat now must be “earned.” Every moment of pleasure or happiness must be earned. You must deserve it — if you don’t then you can’t have it. Can’t eat. Can’t go to that concert. Can’t sleep in on Saturday.
He tells you you’re alone, no one else has ever been in your situation, no one will understand, no one will care. They won’t get it, don’t bother. They will just judge you, hate you even more. Don’t let them in. He keeps you quiet when all you want is someone to tell you you’re not “crazy,” you’re not alone and eventually, everything is going to be OK.
He hijacks your emotions. Numbs you out. You don’t seem to feel very deeply about much anymore. You can’t remember the last time you smiled for real; the smile plastered on your face is just to fake everyone around you into thinking you’re fine. In reality, you’re drowning in broad daylight.
You don’t question the dictator. The dictator may be harsh, but he helped you at first at least. The voice gave you something else to focus on, something to fix, a way to control your life again. He helped you at first, so you can’t question him now. You’ve been following his rules for too long. You’re trapped. You can’t trust anyone else, that’s what he always tells you. How can you trust anyone else when the voice in your head is refuting every word they say? They’re lying, they want you to get fat.
Nothing is ever good enough for the dictator. You reach his goals; you reach the goal weight and you don’t feel happy. He tells you it’s not enough. “Lose X more pounds, maybe then you’ll be happy. Maybe x pounds lighter you’ll be successful.” You tell yourself when you get there his voice will quiet down and your life will go back to normal. You just keep listening. You get to the next goal and it still isn’t enough.
Maybe at some point, you and your dictator merge. It seems impossible to separate you from him; your voice from his voice. Suddenly the only thing left of you is the dictator.
Here’s the truth: nothing will ever be enough for the dictator. He’ll never be satisfied, you’ll never be enough or do enough to quiet his voice. You won’t be happy and successful by following his rules. He was never telling you the truth, he was the one lying. His goal was to use you — use you for his evil of killing as many people as possible. Destroy you. Burn you to the ground until nothing is left but ashes and tears and grief of everyone you knew. Turn the tables and work to destroy the dictator, destroy your eating disorder before it steals any more of your life than it already has.
Dethroning a dictator isn’t easy; resistance is hard. Resistance isn’t futile. Resist with every bit of strength you have, for one day when you take your life back, you’ll find the happiness you were searching for all along.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can do a confidential online screening here.
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Thinkstock photo via SvetaZi.