Fighting My Eating Disorder Like a Warrior; Brave and Also Very Scared
I really hated her.
If I’m honest, I hated everything and everyone when the eating disorder had ownership of my life. But that doctor of mine? I really hated her. I hated her because she forced me to choose: my life or my eating disorder? Freedom or captivity? I hated her because she boldly told me I couldn’t have both: the fantasy that I could “do recovery” and hold fast to my eating disorder at the same time.
In retrospect, my eating disorder started when I was really young. I always felt insecure about my weight and my appearance. In middle school, I became involved in musical theater, dance, and the arts—all spaces that value appearances. I was always aware that my body looked different than the tiny ballerinas with whom I danced; my thighs were thicker, my face rounder. But I kept my insecurities to myself. I was taught to never show weakness or negative emotions, so my only option was to pretend that I was fine, that I was strong and confident, that I believed in and accepted myself. I felt so much shame because, deep down, I wasn’t the confident, talented girl that everyone thought me to be. I was a fraud. I had mastered the art of pretending, at pushing aside and locking away the insecurities I felt.
When I went to college, I packed many masks in my duffel bags. Perfectionism, high-achievement, and people-pleasing kept me from facing the reality of my pain, all the emotions that I’d suppressed. In the first two years of college, I gained about thirty pounds. I pretended I wasn’t concerned with my image or my health; I middle-fingered exercise and green vegetables in the name of straight A’s and campus leadership positions that were held in high-esteem. My clothes stopped fitting, so I shopped for new ones, pretending like this situation was just a great excuse to go shopping. In reality, there was no pretending. I cared deeply. I felt ashamed. Fat. Unlovable. Up to this point, I had lived my life in extremes, an all-or-nothing mentality. I knew the only way I was going to lose the weight was if I severely restricted and over-exercised. This is how my eating disorder began.
The eating disorder convinced me that the people who loved me—my family and friends—were all crazy. It told me that the doctor who cared about me was a fraud. Was everyone around me really delusional enough to believe that I was willing to give up the skinny body that I worked so hard to attain? Did they actually think that I was going to let my eating disorder ignorantly raise a white flag in surrender? Did they seriously believe I’d be willing to stare perfectionism and control right in the face and say, “you lose?”
Well, they did. And in some ways, I believe their resilience and their boldness saved my life.
Recovering from anorexia felt like an epic, all-consuming tug-of-war between deceit and truth, eating disorder and freedom; oscillating between moments of wanting recovery and spiraling deeper into the grip of the eating disorder. My outpatient treatment team was comprised of mental health rock-stars, though I can confidently say that when I was in the depths of my disorder, I thought they were the most atrocious, incompetent humans on the planet. They were, like mirrors, showing me that recovery was far less about weight restoration, though it was that, but more about coming out of hiding, acknowledging the shame and perfectionism and fear that had been keeping the eating disorder alive.
Anorexia had made me a stranger to myself; a bystander in my own story.
Choosing recovery felt so risky, terrifying even. But even on the darkest days, when the eating disorder voices were all-consuming and hunger pains and leg cramps kept me up at night, I often wondered what life might feel like, free from the heaviness of the shackles that bound me. So, I took the risk—with a forceful push from my fierce mother who once said, “I refuse to lose my daughter to this disease.”
My battle with anorexia completely shook my family. I vividly remember coming home one Thanksgiving, when I was deep in my disorder and not yet in treatment. My parents looked me straight in the face and told me that if I lost any more weight between now and Christmas break that they were pulling me out of school and forcing me into treatment. The thought of leaving my university, of failing at something, terrified me. I am as stubborn as they come, and at this point, I didn’t think that I had a problem. I was so angry, convinced that I was fine. I just wanted everyone off my back.
I did lose more weight between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but my eating disorder had equipped me with many deceptive tricks of the trade. I chugged a ton of water before my mom forced me on the scale, so it only registered as a 1-pound weight loss. I rationalized, justified, and pleaded with my parents, trying to convince them that I was “fine.” I thought they’d believe me. Only I was wrong. Two months later, my mom called to tell me that she’d made an appointment with my pediatrician in Atlanta. She said that if I didn’t show up to the appointment, she was taking me out of school—and this time I knew she meant it. So I went.
I distinctly remember the moment that I committed to recovery. It was a brilliant, sun-dappled day. I was lying on a blanket at the Botanical Gardens in Athens, Georgia. I was alone and everything around me was budding with life and beauty. Hunger pains were clenching my stomach, begging for my attention. I began to sob, releasing puddles of grief over the ways that this eating disorder had robbed me of my life, my light, and my joy. “No more,” I said. I decided that I wanted my life back. And in that moment, I thought for the first time that maybe my doctor wasn’t against me after all. Maybe she was right. Maybe she really did care about me. Determined, I folded up my blanket, wet with tears, and felt a little bit like a warrior might feel going into battle.
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Brave; and also very scared.
I believe in healing, and I believe that it’s worth the fight. Recovering from an eating disorder was wearisome. It meant more weight loss and more weight gain, buying new clothes and throwing away old clothes, over-exercising and being pissed when my treatment team forbade me to do it anymore. In recovery, I wrestled with names I’d been called that made me believe that my worth rested on how well I lived up to the expectations to stay beautiful, to appear perfect. Shame sang its familiar song—strong, independent women shouldn’t struggle with insecurity. I struggled with body dysmorphia, rooted in so much confusion and an inability to trust myself and my perception of reality. I flushed protein shakes down my toilet and celebrated with my family when I ate pasta again without panic or compulsions to self-punish.
I believe that true healing happens when the soil becomes cracked and the roots become exposed to the rain of grace coming to nourish our hungry and thirsty hearts. It is here, and only here, when we are cracked open and honest, that healing begins. The irony is that we resist the exposure of our stories and struggles. Our culture deeply fears vulnerability, though we simultaneously crave to be seen. Our shame is so buried that we ourselves are oblivious to its power and hold on our lives. I believe that, if this disease remains veiled, the statistics on eating disorders will only continue to rise. Shame will win. Belonging and healing will remain buried beneath the hard soil of resistance and denial. And the rain of grace and truth will not quench its thirst. This is one reality.
But I do not believe that this is the reality we must choose, nor do I believe it will prevail.
I’ve become empowered to own my story and share it. The voices that whisper familiar lies, fighting to steal my dignity and make me relapse—they are fewer: much fewer. I believe that, every day, I am given a choice: a choice to believe that I am more than a number on a scale, worthy of affection no matter the size of my thighs. To believe that, despite a thirty-pound weight gain and feminine curves that I often struggle to embrace, I am still beautiful. I am worthy of receiving love and acceptance. With unwavering conviction, I believe, healing comes with a choice—a choice to grip the shield of faith with steadfast strength and to never let it go, a choice to face our pain, instead of deny it, minimize it, or pretend it away.
The doctor I once hated I now regard with overflowing gratitude. Eight years ago, I told her I hated her. Three years ago, I sent her a thank you note. I told her that I loved her because she told me that I couldn’t have both, freedom and captivity to the eating disorder.
I had an amazing support system and outpatient treatment team. Once a week, I drove to Atlanta for a check-in with my pediatrician, which at first, I loathed. Those appointments were hard, sometimes tear-stained and always anger-filled. She celebrated the weeks I gained weight; I got mad. I silently celebrated the weeks I’d lost weight again. She railed on me, like a mother disciplines a small child. I saw a wonderful therapist and dietician in Athens, where I was in school. During those sessions, I began to unpack years of denying and pretending. I did some serious digging, all the way to the bottom, towards the roots of the eating disorder. Eating disorders are and are not about the weight. They’re about so much more. They are a coping mechanism for something deeper.
I am married now to an amazing man who has learned a lot about eating disorders. I still go to therapy because for me, counseling is a part of how I honor and take care of myself. It’s a way that I continue to prioritize my needs and process through the inevitable highs and lows of life. It gives me the space to be real and honest. It has contributed to so much of my own personal growth. The temptations to control my emotional world through food or self-harm through restriction haven’t completely vanished. I get triggered and some days are hard. And even still, I am experiencing more freedom than I ever dared to imagine. I am strong in my recovery: imperfect, but resilient. I cling to my truth, above all else, that I deserve to nourish and love my whole self. I enjoy food, all foods, and resist judging foods as “good or bad.” Sharing meals with family and friends brings me immense joy, and I keep a dark chocolate bar in my backpack at all times because life’s just too short to care too much.
Recovery is about surrender, about giving yourself permission to be who you are, unashamed and free. It’s about moving through pain, and believing that you are still a warrior, even when it hurts. It’s about giving yourself permission to feel all of your feelings. I recently left my career in teaching to go back to graduate school to become a professional counselor in order to help others move through similar pain, to offer hope to hurting people.
Teaching elementary school taught me a lot about the devastating effects of childhood trauma, as most all of my kids were touched by poverty, violence, and neglect. I became tired of people writing these kids off as “behavior problems” because I knew that there was more to that story. And I was right. I learned that what appeared to be a behavior problem was, at its root, unresolved trauma, deep pain, and consequently, dysregulation in the body and the brain. I knew that I wanted to start working with kids in a different way, as a counselor and a play therapist. What we know now is that most eating disorders begin at a young age and as a means of coping with trauma. My passion is prevention work as much as it is intervention work post-trauma. As I move forward into a new career, my passion is to help children and teens work through their trauma narratives, guide them in emotional and physical regulation, and ultimately, empower them within their healing process.
In some ways my eating disorder led me here, to a new career, and for that I am immensely grateful. It’s evidence—evidence that unexpected, abundant joy can rise up from the deepest grief.