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On the Other Side of an Eating Disorder

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My eating disorder began at a young age. It wasn’t about me trying to look like the models on television. It wasn’t a means of getting attention. I had always been an overachiever, wanting to have the best grades or be the best daughter. To put it in perspective, I was already Googling what the requirements for Harvard were before going into junior high school. There was so much I wanted to do. There was so much I wanted to become and so much of that felt out of my immediate control.

I don’t think I’ll ever know exactly why or how my preadolescent mind came to the conclusion that starving myself would be my ultimate channel of controlling at least one aspect my life, but it did. To me, my eating was the only thing completely in my power. There were no variables. There were no external forces that could alter what I put into my body, how much I decided to exercise or how much weight I could lose. Queue not even three months later, I was hospitalized for having a heart attack. My body could no longer take the physical toll I had been forcing on it.

Thankfully, in a darkly humorous way (if you don’t laugh, then you cry after all), I was in the right place at the right time for my heart to give out. My parents had admitted me to the hospital earlier that day after finally having enough of seeing their firstborn child starve herself within an inch of her life.

I would like to say this was the reality check I needed to stop harming my body. Yet, I was too far down the rabbit hole. My eating disorder had wrapped its suffocating vines around every inch of my mind. There is a happy ending though. I promise.

A year and a half later, I finally got the help I needed. It took a lot of work and involved me having to be admitted to an eating disorder recovery facility for nine months. My days revolved around every type of therapy under the sun: horse therapy, art therapy, music, meditation, group, family and one-on-one. I knew so much about therapy that I was basically the Freud of 13-year-olds. I’m now 21 and happy at what I’ve accomplished and who I’ve become. I have a job I love, a body I can rely on and friends and family who mean the world to me.

I don’t regret what I went through. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to the person I am today if not having gone through what I did. Instead of having to learn through struggling through your own eating disorder, I want to share the lessons I learned that help guide me. If you are struggling or know someone that is, hopefully these can help you with your courageous battle.

1. Play nice, and put yourself in one another’s shoes.

This one is simple, elegant and can save you a lot of time and frustration when dealing with people in your daily life. Your mom probably told you growing up to play nice, and I think far too often we forget to do this with people who we may not take the time to understand. The people I met, who were struggling with the same disease I was, were and are some of the most remarkable, inspirational women I have ever had the honor of meeting. Their eating disorders, however, could be pretty ugly. What I mean by this is the person who is seemingly a jerk in front of you may just be someone going through a difficult time. Why make someone’s day harder than it needs to be?

The truth is, a lot of times, unless you are that person, you’ll never fully understand what it is they’re going through. So listen to your mother’s words and do your best to put yourself in their shoes and play nice. You’ll save yourself the energy that goes into being frustrated, and maybe help someone open up about their issues.

2. I can do anything and everything.

This one’s a biggie, and when it sounds overtly confident, it’s meant to. I can and I will do anything and everything I decide to put my mind to. No challenge will compare to having to battle the demons that go along with overcoming a mental disorder. I don’t just have a toolbox of gadgets in how to overcome obstacles, I have a Home Depot of Freudian supplies at my disposal.

I’m not saying things don’t get overwhelming or are hard at times. I get upset and stressed with finals. I get into arguments with my sister and mess up at work. What I’m saying applies to everyone. You’re stronger than you think. Whatever issue you have, no matter how big it seems, is not bigger than you. If you allow yourself to ask for help, then you can and will beat whatever issue is in front of you.

3. Your looks don’t matter and neither do anyone else’s.

Society tells us at an early age that your value is based on your appearance. This applies to both men and women. Whether it be the guy needing a Rolex and six-pack to be happy or the girl who feels she needs a thigh gap paired with a set of Ds to be be pretty. I don’t think most people with an eating disorder have one because they just wanted to be thin. For me, it was wanting control in my life. For others, it’s a form of escape. Eating disorders are not typically contrived from a person’s desire to be the next Victoria’s Secret model. As an eating disorder progresses there does, however, become a fixation on appearance as being a measurement for your worth.

4. Not being OK is OK.

Who said struggling is a sign of weakness? Or that it’s not OK to not be OK? I’d like to think it takes a lot more bravery to swallow your pride or fear of judgment and ask for the help than to pretend everything is fine. I am fairly open about discussing what I’ve gone through. I do this because I want mental illness, or any struggle for the matter, to stop being a taboo topic of conversation. In telling my story, I have gotten to hear others’ inspiring accounts of their own battles or those of a loved one. I’ve gotten to have people come up to me and say how reassuring it is for them to have someone attest to the fact there is a light at the end of the tunnel and there are others out there who understand. No one is perfect. No one goes through life seamlessly, and by opening yourself up and being OK with that level of vulnerability you can receive waves of support from people who want to help.

5. A strong body is the best type of body.

An analogy my good friend says is to treat your body the way you would treat your puppy. Would you starve your dog? Would you run your dog until it almost collapses or treat it like it’s worthless? I sure hope not. Treat yourself to the occasional dessert because you’ve earned it. Look in the mirror and see your body as perfectly imperfect. Work hard to love your body and yourself for all of its amazing capabilities, loyalty and effort in keeping yourself alive and well.

I don’t always feel confident about my body. There are times when I think it’s too fat, too pale or whatever nit-picky thought that won’t leave my head. However, it’s my body, and it’s the only one I’ve got to last me a lifetime. It’s a body that by treating right, has allowed me to climb mountains, go to the other side of the country for school and travel to other continents. It’s a body that will allow me to do whatever else I decide to do in a life that never would’ve possible if I weren’t healthy and if I hadn’t learned what I had 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.

Originally published: August 18, 2016
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