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What This Pre-Treatment Photo Says About My Anorexia

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741 or by texting “START” to 741741.

I took this picture eight months ago when, starving and on the brink of collapse, I had to sit down on the floor of this dressing room.

I was shopping for sweatpants with a drawstring; all of the pants I owned were sliding off my increasingly skeletal frame. Apart from being on campus for class, I could seldom be found beyond the walls of my bedroom anymore. What did it matter if the only clothes I wore were sweats?

A still, small voice inside of me whispered, “you need to remember this moment.” Aware my cognition was deteriorating at a steady rate, I snapped this photo in an attempt to not forget it.

Sunken eyes. An empty smile. An unhealthy body. I imagine those who know me can identify those inner qualities in this image. I see them too. Admittedly, I see them through a distorted lens which still tells me this girl is not thin enough. That’s the honest truth.

Even after a decade of fighting this disease, I cannot look at this picture without seeing a body I hate. In fact, I cannot look at any of the dozens of “body check” images of my skeletal frame which I compulsively took in the thick of my illness without seeing a body I hate. I have deliberately chosen not to share any of these images because:

1. Doing so would merely be feeding into my disorder by seeking external validation of being “sick enough.”

2. It would perpetuate the stereotype that eating disorders come in one shape and size; that you must be emaciated to struggle with this illness, which you most certainly do not.

3. Regardless of intention, the impact of sharing such images is not in service of the recovery community.

photo of woman with anorexia sitting on floor of dressing room taking selfie in mirror

What I see when I look at this picture goes far beyond the physical features it captures. I see a girl who is so excruciatingly lost and lonely; I see a cloud of shame, guilt and fear relentlessly hovering over her; I see deceit, dishonesty and an utter disconnect from her values; I see narratives of worthlessness that are so deeply etched into her being that she cannot see even a sliver of light or hope in her increasingly darkening existence; I see so much wasted potential; I see a well of love and compassion for others that is virtually unreachable because it has been buried by a mountain of suffering.

When I look at this picture, I remember tears cried over a bowl of dry Cheerios and hours of compulsive pacing back and forth in my room; I remember being tortured by numbers that would not leave my head — calories, weight, ounces of allotted water consumption and steps taken; I remember intense isolation, sleepless nights, canceled plans, ignored texts/phone calls and volatile interactions with my terrified parents; I remember obsessive measuring and weighing of my food and my body; I remember unbearable weakness and a coldness that would not let me go no matter how many layers of clothing I piled on; I remember my heart pounding erratically in my chest as I lay in bed at night; I remember considering I might have a heart attack; I remember hoping I would.

These words are not easy to write and I imagine they are not easy to read. They are, however, the brutal, honest truth. So often the truth is ugly; I cling tight to the conviction that it is important to hear nonetheless.

A few weeks after taking this picture, I was lying in a hospital bed on an electrolyte drip. The people in my life were no longer begging me to go back to treatment, they were demanding it. But I was an honors student with a 4.0 GPA; I was working at the interpersonal violence resource center on campus; I was still showing up for the people and commitments in my life with drive and dedication. Therefore — my starving and irrational brain reasoned — I could not be that sick. Underneath my slanted logic was a further complicating narrative that was at the crux of keeping me sick: I did not deserve to get help; I did not deserve to be well; I did not deserve to be happy.

Ultimately, my love for the people in my life and the pull to do right by them triumphed over this twisted narrative of worthlessness and I admitted to treatment a few days later. I was just a couple weeks shy of finishing the spring semester of my junior year when I chose life and I walked through those hospital doors; I surrendered myself to the place and people who saved my life.

Last week, after many months, I finally discharged from treatment.

There actually is no real way to explain what I have been through. Everyone’s journey is their own and while I hope these words shed light on a dark reality shared by far too many, I honor and acknowledge that my experience is impossible to convey in all its complexity and profundity. I think there is something intensely beautiful about this and it does not deter me from continuing to share my story anyway.

I wish I could tell you, after so many months of intensive treatment, that I am cured — that the girl is this picture is entirely unrecognizable because her existence feels so far away. Unfortunately, the nature of recovery is far from linear. I can say that — thanks to an army of amazing people and the blessing of health care access — I am in a profoundly better place than I was when this image was captured. This doesn’t mean the fight is over or the battle won; quite the contrary is true.

Recovery is a hard, painful, long, beautiful, winding road on which there is no final destination. Recovery is about showing up every single day, even and especially on the days when I am not sure I even want it. Recovery means I have days when I can eat sushi and chocolate cake with my boyfriend while feeling full of love, joy, gratitude and hardly a hint of guilt or hesitation. It also means I still have days when l cry over a bowl of dry Cheerios. Recovery is messy and that’s OK.

I am so ineffably grateful to the people who have stuck by me through this journey and all of the beautiful souls I’ve met along the way. Words fail. Thank you for loving me unconditionally and holding hope for me when I have been unable to hold it for myself.

As I reintegrate into my life and begin yet another chapter of my story, I want to remind everyone (including myself) of this important truth: You are worthy. You don’t have to earn worth; you are inherently deserving of love, health and happiness simply by existing exactly as you are. When you are lost, you need look no further than within yourself; you have everything you could every possibly need already inside of you. You are perfectly imperfect.

No one escapes this life unscathed; suffering is part of the human condition. These words share a piece of my story. Whatever your story, I hope you will remember that no matter what you have been through, are going though or will go through, the one thing that can never be taken from you is your choice to live with love.

I don’t know what the future holds but I will choose love and I will continue to fight for freedom anyway.

Image via contributor.

Originally published: September 29, 2019
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