Being Human

Trigger warning: this article discusses eating disorders and related thoughts and conditions.

 

How do you turn away from something that has entirely permeated your identity? That has influenced every choice you make? That wears a superficial mask which you have rehearsed every day for years, to the world and to yourself? How do you turn away from all that without feeling lost, or like a fraud?

The worst things to overcome are the ones that go unseen, festering in the dark. When you hear them, all you hear is yourself, and so you become them, or so it seems. And even in those rare moments when you can separate yourself from the voices in your head, they don’t seem bad enough to warrant their removal.

When you can’t remember the silence, you forget about the noise.

I had a great time pretending that I was fine, that the baggage of my eating disorder was behind me. I talked about healthy eating, about body positivity, about how my problem had only been mild anyway, and how I had learned how to properly love myself. I was wrong. Or I was lying, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself.

This is not a story about the gritty details. This is not about before and after pictures, or about the sunshine-and-rainbows life we pretend to have after recovery.  In fact, this story has no “after” at all. It’s a moment in the narrative whose position in time has yet to be defined.

This is a story about re-learning how to be human.

 

Last fall, a year and a half ago, I wrote an article series about my past struggles — what I thought were past struggles — with an eating disorder, and how I was learning how to take ownership of myself. Six months later, I relapsed. Worse than ever.

When it happened, I could tell that it had only been a matter of time. I could only stand it for so long —  pretending not to hate myself, pretending that I didn’t live every day wondering how I could best restrict my food, feeling a sense of accomplishment every time I didn’t eat. Thinking that the need to eat was something that made me weak, something that I needed to overcome. Thinking I didn’t deserve it. Being afraid to see myself in photos, knowing that it would only bring me pain. Needing to numb all of the unpleasant things that I didn’t want to feel anymore.

At the same time, I felt like a hypocrite. How dare I preach about the benefits of recovery and loving yourself when I couldn’t act on it? Why bare my soul, only to fall into the same trap, but ten times deeper?

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t a choice. It took over my life. And waiting to be “sick enough” wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

So I did the even scarier thing: At 2:00 in the morning, curled up on a kitchen chair and shivering after not having moved for over an hour, I reached out for help.

Fast-forward, and I was standing at a table, in front of my dinner, in a room full of strangers, on my first night of an intensive outpatient treatment program for eating disorders. They would later become my friends, but in that moment all I felt was unsettled, watched. We took four deep breaths, and we ate.

As you would expect, it wasn’t easy. With an hour-long drive each way, suddenly 20 hours of my week were consumed by treatment.  Not including the time spent planning, prepping, and trying to casually rewire my entire brain. Simple, right? I had to re-learn how to cook, how to shop, how to schedule my time, how to cope with my thoughts and sensations, and how to practice self-care. All on top of a full load of classes and extracurriculars. I couldn’t be as invested in everything as I wanted to be, and I couldn’t explain to everyone why I was suddenly so unavailable. I hated being watched every time I measured out and ate my meals, not being allowed to go to the bathroom alone afterward, feeling like I wasn’t to be trusted. I knew that I was miserable before, and that getting treatment was the best thing I could do for myself, but I still felt like it was ruining my life.

I was angry at the weight gain. It felt wrong. It felt like I was failing, or like my disorder had all been a lie. I was afraid to tell anyone what I was going through because I didn’t think they would believe me. I didn’t look “sick enough,” or at least my brain didn’t think I did.  (Eating disorders don’t have a “look.” Physical appearances are only a symptom.) People saw me eating. Weirdly enough, the act of eating was sometimes the easiest part. Especially when the extreme hunger hit, food and rest was all my body wanted. It was the accompanying thoughts that gave me the most trouble.

But amidst all this was a wonderful thing. I was not alone. My family and close friends were very supportive, and because it was a group therapy program, I had the support of others fighting the same fight I was, encountering the same struggles, and sharing advice on how to get through them. I had a group chat to turn to if I ever needed support, where I knew I wouldn’t be judged or invalidated. They inspired me as I watched their progress, and I found that in encouraging others in their recovery, I could better encourage myself.

After all, if I want this so badly for them, why shouldn’t I want it for me, too?

Little by little, I built up my toolbox. I learned how to understand my thoughts and emotions, and I learned how to rationalize them. I learned a lot about how bodies actually work, and the amazing things food can do for you. I set goals, and I met them. It became easier and easier to focus, and to know what I needed in a given moment. I learned how to be with myself, and to cope with what I was feeling, rather than try to block it out.

Most of all, I learned that life can be so much more.

A common struggle for people recovering from eating disorders is the sense of losing part of the self. I certainly felt that way. So much of my life had been structured around my disordered thoughts and behaviors that it had seeped into my identity. What would happen to me when that was gone?

I had built up this sort of persona. Because I also have fibromyalgia, I started following an anti-inflammatory diet for pain management. I didn’t realize until treatment that my eating disorder had taken that information to the extreme. I loved making fancy “health food,” and there were certain things that I absolutely would not eat for fear they would hurt me.

It sounds silly, but when I had to start reincorporating some of those things back into my diet, I was afraid of betraying the person I had become. Moreover, I was afraid that others would reject the new “me” because of it. That didn’t happen, of course. And each time I faced the fear, it got a little easier.  

I began to celebrate those moments — I excitedly texted my roommates about how I “ate goat cheese and LIVED,” and they celebrated along with me. I ordered a cup of hot cocoa in Prague, and, with quivering hands, took one euphoric sip, then drank the whole thing. And the world kept spinning. The simplest thing, yet maybe my greatest milestone.  It was a freedom that I had not felt in years.

Lapses happen. Relapses happen. Healing is not linear. But I’m not giving up. I’m still fighting. Recovery is hard work — harder than we often allow ourselves credit for. Because trying to talk myself out of recovery, telling myself that it’s not worth it, that it’s impossible, that I don’t need it, is just going to keep me trapped in this shell forever.

For the first time, I’m learning what it is to experience life. To not order the lowest-calorie thing on the menu, to get through a holiday without cursing myself for how much I ate, to not back out on plans because I was too afraid of the food involved. To grab a bite between plans rather than plan when I can take my next bite. To get something other than plain espresso or tea at a coffee shop, to bake according to the original recipe rather than my “healthier” version, to go on a date with a stranger and actually believe that someone might find me attractive, to dance with my friends and not care about who else is watching me.

Like I said, this story doesn’t have an “after.” I am a work in progress. Sometimes I’m okay, and sometimes (a lot of the time, actually) I’m a total mess. And that doesn’t make me wrong, nor does it mean that I am undeserving of love or care or affection. We’re all like that. That’s what being human is.

If you are struggling with disordered thoughts or behaviors, please reach out for help or contact NEDA.

Image Credit: 1, 2, Emily Wirt, 4