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The Hardest Thing I've Had to Accept in Eating Disorder Recovery

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“You need to get your needs met, Riya.”

This line has been repeated to me, over and over again. Over and over again, I have given the therapist a look of complete perplexity. For the number of times I have heard it, you would think it is the be-all, end-all “cure” for an eating disorder, and maybe it is.

For the longest time, my standard response was, “But what are my needs? I don’t have any needs! Seriously, I have more than enough of everything I could possibly need.”

My response was one of complete conviction and confusion. I genuinely felt, as I was so privileged, I had nothing that qualified me to be stressed or concerned about my life. I had no reason to not embody and achieve perfection. I felt compelled to give myself to others because, well, how could I not? Everyone had so much going on in their lives.

And OK, I had always been thankful for all that I had. I would beat myself up if I realized I was taking things for granted. In this way, my gratitude was distorted. I wasn’t just expressing appreciation for what I had, but I was making myself feel bad about it and using this heavy guilt as a way to punish myself for not doing more, being better and being more.

I thought I was different, not in an “I’m so special, I’m better than everyone else way.” No, not at all. It was more like, “Seriously, it is not fair that I got so lucky. I don’t deserve this. What have I done to substantiate this? If I am to have all of this, I need to really earn and deserve it. Things that are ‘extra’ are absolutely unnecessary, and out of the question.”

Over the years, this aspect of my personality manifested in different ways. I didn’t ask my parents for anything. I didn’t make a wish-list for Santa. I didn’t want presents. I thought they were unnecessary, and I would have rather received something I needed or would have spent money on anyway.

I didn’t ask for things that most of my peers asked for. I felt guilty, and I felt that it wasn’t my place to ask because I could do without. My parents never ever made me feel bad about asking. In fact, they wanted to buy me things, but I turned them away.

If you think about this, then my eventual development of anorexia makes a lot of sense. I did not think I needed “that much” food. I could do without it. I had to make myself really work to earn it. I did know for certain that everyone else needed to eat. It would worry me and also make that dictator voice angrily jealous, if I heard someone saying, “I haven’t eaten at all today.” I just felt I was not doing anything important or worthwhile enough to justify this extra intake. Starving myself was about taking, needing and “simply enjoying” as little as possible.

If you’re wondering where the weight stuff comes in. Well, anorexia is, and yet, is not about the weight. Basically, weight is not just weight. Weight is a way of assessing your success in your efforts to do X, Y or Z, depending on what you’re trying to actually achieve. Control? Punishment? Power? The scale was the judge; the number was the verdict.

I most definitely did not think one day I would be advocating for self-care. It is a term that confused me the first few times I heard it a few years ago, and honestly, I did not see any point to just being nice to yourself, painting your nails, taking a bubble bath or eating a cheeseburger simply because you were “worth it.” It’s safe to say I didn’t really have healthy standards toward how to treat my mind or my body. I was strict and firm with myself, and the tangible results made it worth it in the end. The productivity and hard work, displayed in the form of numbers, was my worth.

My greatest frustration and source of anxiety in inpatient treatment was not the mandatory six meals a day, nor the countless hours of therapy groups and sharing of my inner feelings. It was not the fact that I had to ask someone for permission to go to the bathroom and have that person standing and listening outside the partially cracked door.

It was that I was not doing a good enough job at recovery.

I didn’t know how to achieve recovery, how I was “supposed” to get better. I felt there was something I must be able to do to speed up the exorcism of the anorexia demon in possession of my body and mind. I should always be productive, working at something recovery-related. I should not waste my time when I am here specifically to get better. I should know the right things to say. I was “should-ing” all over myself, and it turns out that it did not help.

Opposite action is when you do the opposite to what your mind is telling you to do. Yup, it’s a real peachy concept. Since my “need to always be productive” was apparently a hindrance to my recovery, I was advised, on multiple accounts, to have a “nothing” day. To do absolutely nothing productive. No assignments, no work, no journaling, no eating-disorder related reading or writing, only things for pleasure, fun, relaxation and enjoyment. I hated it. I remember trying so hard. I straightened my hair, painted my nails, napped and then called it a day.

Basically, if I wasn’t contributing someway, somehow, using the resources I was so fortunate to have and achieving tangible results, I was useless, worthless and ungrateful, and I had not earned the right to eat. However, in treatment, I had to, and it felt very, very shitty. In order to get better, I needed to not be productive, nor judge myself based on numbers. This only fueled my condition to desperately attain validation from sources external to myself.

For most of my life I sought permission and approval from other people, and then, for a good amount of time, solely from the authoritative voice of anorexia in my head. Unless I was given permission, I wouldn’t eat, and I couldn’t get off the treadmill. These rules were based on numbers: a set amount of miles to run, set times to run at and set amounts to eat. I might have felt in control, but I ultimately lived in utmost fear. I was tangled in an abusive relationship with this powerful demon living within me.

Due to these notions of requiring permission or validation to do something nice for yourself, morality and worthiness are contingent on what you achieve. “I’ll allow myself a bite of that cupcake I really want because I’ve been good; I went to the gym earlier,” or “I have spent 12 hours studying. So now I deserve a break.” Sound familiar? Probably.

I think (or would hope) that the goal is not to live life in a relentless trap of a cycle of struggling, denying yourself things you need and rationally, can or should have. I don’t need to endure pain in order to eventually deserve to eat or sleep. If I want to eat a muffin, then I don’t need to finish my essay or run X miles before I can have it.

The hardest, but most important thing I have had to learn and accept is worthiness does not have a pre-requisite. I don’t actually need permission, justification or validation from anyone other than myself, to do anything. Most of all, the love and acceptance I need, must come from within me.

I have always heard that saying, “How can you expect anyone to love you if you don’t love yourself?” and thought it was stupid. One of those typical lines people say when you don’t have a significant other and they want to make you feel like you have some control over the situation and the way to achieve that is to just be yourself.

I would then wonder, “What does loving yourself even mean?” I thought self-love would be equated with narcissism, egotism and self-indulgent behavior. It seems like to counter this, we are being conditioned to hate ourselves more, not liking yourself is the “normal” thing to do. To not like your thighs, wish for different hair, feel like you should be doing more with your life.

Yet, at what point does this seemingly harmless, commonplace, self-hatred become ingratitude. At what point does gratitude become self-hatred for having “too much?” Is it not just more sensible to acknowledge your place and be grateful for it, and thus find a happy medium in this precariously balanced seesaw?

It’s kind of like the oxygen mask on the plane analogy. You have to put the mask on yourself before helping anyone else with theirs. How are you supposed to help take care or give to others if you are not taking care of yourself?

Taking care of yourself and getting your needs met, can appear in very different ways. I think the two I needed to incorporate into my life the most, being the guilty doormat that I was, were:

1. Asking for help.

Learning to say, “I’m having a hard time.” Accept the hug when it is offered, and don’t be too proud or stubborn.

2. Speaking out.

Learning to say no instead of getting roped into situations that make me feel uncomfortable, upset or unheard, which definitely helps boost and remind me of my worthiness. I am as deserving of getting my needs met as the next person.

You are responsible for giving yourself what you need, or otherwise, for reaching out and asking for it. People unfortunately cannot read minds. This is not to be confused with the idea that when you are struggling, you should not reach out to avoid burdening others. That is pretty much the opposite of the point I am making. It is more like, you have to recognize when you feel the need to reach out to someone (the right person, keep in mind), and more importantly, not worry that you are over-burdening this person. Ultimately, it’s about having the notion of, “I am worthy enough to deserve what I need, including the help, x amount of time and attention from someone else.”

Oh. There’s that faint voice whispering from a dark corner in my head. It’s the voice that is scared to ask, scared to speak, scared to utter my needs. It is quietly saying, “I’m hungry.” Just as the negative, and to a certain extent, irrational, thoughts of needing permission or validation swirled around in my head like milk pouring into a latte, Selena Gomez’s acceptance speech at the recent AMAs popped up on my newsfeed on Facebook. Her speech was a solid reminder of how we need to take care of ourselves.

In fact, everyone I know, whether or not they are struggling with or recovering from a mental illness, needs that reminder. Sleep. Drink hot chocolate. Go for a walk. Call a friend. Clean out your handbag. Do what you need to do. Do you.

Take care of yourself. Ultimately, you are the only one you are spending your whole life with. You’re worthy of your version of a good life.

 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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Image via Thinkstock.




Originally published: January 2, 2017
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