First of all, I don't know how on earth it’s 2023, let alone how it has been seven years since I entered into eating disorder recovery. I am so free now in a way that astounds me, as I never thought this would be possible when I was in the depths of anorexia.
I developed anorexia in high school, in the summer between my junior and senior year. I remember how it started (innocently) and how quickly I found myself lost to what would become a devastating illness. People in my life noticed I had an illness far before I did -- it took me until my freshman year of college to come to the realization that I had an eating disorder. Admitting that to myself was a process all in itself that I’ll write about sometime later, but actually feeling any sort of freedom from my disorder would be a much longer, much more arduous process.
The Oxford dictionary offers several definitions for the word “recovery,” such as “the process of becoming well again after an illness or injury” or “the process of becoming successful or normal again after problems.” My personal favorite is this one: “the process of getting something back.”
Truely, the definition of recovery can be different for everyone. For me, it was the process of getting my freedom back, of dealing with my pain, and developing a new commitment with myself: to live this life, even with its pain and peculiarities, and to not starve myself to death. For me, recovery was the process of getting life back after I nearly lost it.
I began therapy for my eating disorder almost immediately after I began college, as I quickly began to realize that my eating disorder was negatively affecting my quality of life. Never before had I been able to tell that it impacted my life, especially that it impacted it severely.
Admitting to myself that I was a) sick and b) needed help was one thing in itself, but the idea that I would have to c) stop not eating seemed impossible to me. It was my freshman year of college where I felt the full desperation of what had happened to me: I had an eating disorder and I was not in control of it -- in fact, it was the opposite: it controlled every aspect of my life.
I struggled to make friends because my eating disorder was overwhelming. I couldn’t go to the socials for the sorority I rushed due to debilitating anxiety attacks around food, as well as light-headedness from the effects of starvation. Taking showers in my dorm bathroom became dangerous, as I worried I would pass out in the water. I completed my work in my courses, but the languages I was learning went in one ear and out the other: I could barely remember words in English, let alone another new language.
Dating? Not even a chance. I couldn’t let people get close to me. I was afraid and ill. I was so ill. I lost hours every day to my disorder, and I was plagued by obsessive thoughts, trembling hands, and a need to exercise constantly.
I began therapy with a wonderful counselor who faithfully waited until I slowly let her into my world. She diagnosed me with PTSD, OCD, and anorexia nervosa. I fearfully started the work on my OCD, as I was not ready at all for the other two to be approached. I was skittish and fearful, and I couldn’t understand how I was supposed to eat again, let alone eat what my therapist was recommending to me. It seemed impossible.
Throughout my freshman year, I began learning how to treat myself with kindness and gentleness. I learned how to challenge my rituals and routines. Without my knowledge, these skills were also treating my eating disorder, as believing I was deserving of love, kindness, and compassion was essential for me believing that I deserved to eat and be full.
Right at the end of my freshman year of college, I began seeing a second therapist for my trauma and I began a group for those struggling with eating disorders. The summer was really hard -- I traveled back home and had no therapy for three months. My parents were worried. Those three months passed by like I was a ghost, barely even living. I have few memories of those months other than exercising so much I injured myself in ways that my body still has yet to completely recover from.
And then it was my sophomore year, and I began to realize that I finally wanted to start eating again. It was no longer doing what had led me to it; now it was only taking and taking and taking. My health deteriorated quickly, and every week I had to be weighed by the campus nurse. I remember laying on my therapist’s floor in tears as she spoke with treatment centers to see if I could be transferred there from school.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go: it was that I could not get myself to eat, no matter how desperately I wanted to. I could not stop. I became afraid that my disorder would kill me.
I also started to fall in love. I made friends that loved me and were there for me. I gained a community of support. I had so many people that believed in me -- they were gentle and kind to my suffering. That first semester felt like I was in a constant battle with myself, a tug of war between the idea that maybe I could eat and it’s impossible.
It was that January that some invisible wall within me finally cracked under the pressure of near constant love and support. It took two therapists, a weekly group, my boyfriend, countless friends, and my family to get me to a place where I could finally put food in my body.
It was terrifying, and the hardest thing I have ever had to do. And I’ve done a lot of really hard things.
But slowly, surely, I did it. I hit my weight restoration goal and then some. I felt strong for the first time in years. My heart palpitations stopped. My hair grew back, redder than I had seen it since high school. I grew an inch taller. I began to enjoy my wonderful life more and more, and I started to enjoy the taste of food.
I loved peanut butter, Thai food, and goldfish crackers. I hated running; I preferred going on walks with my fiance and best friend. I stopped feeling dizzy and numb all the time. I still needed all of the things I had previously -- biweekly counseling, group, the support, but I clawed myself back from the abyss I had almost fallen down. Even as I ate enough to support my healing body, my eating disorder was cruel in my thought process. That took years to go away, even when I was faithfully taking care of myself. That was the hardest part to heal myself from: that voice that was screaming at me what are you doing?! We worked so hard! You’re ruining us.
Sometimes I still hear that panicked voice, but only in moments. When I do, I respond in kindness, protecting the boundaries I set for myself in recovery. Usually it always pops up in the Target changing room. I keep trying on clothes and tell lovely thoughts to myself. If it gets too loud, I leave and come back another day. It whispers to me when I try to drink orange juice, and I tell it that I love it and I hear it needs help and that starving won’t fix our pain while I drink my juice. My husband still celebrates, to this very day, whenever I drink a non-diet soda. I help other people heal from their eating disorders and I really like food. I love my body most of the time, but when it’s a hard day, I just accept it for what it is: a body, not a summation of my being or value. Definitely not my identity.
I am excited for my body to grow -- perhaps with a pregnancy, as I bring life into this world we live in. I am excited for it to change as I grow old, because that means I did it; I have a chance to grow old. I will live for days or years and I don’t have to worry any more than anyone else that my heart’s going to fail because I’m starving.
That’s what recovery is 7 years in: moments that are hard sometimes, memories of what I’ve come through, and a daily dedication to commit myself to life and living. It requires so much compassion and grace, but most of all: kindness. It can be a heavy job sometimes -- holidays, bad body image days, days where the voice of my disorder is loud.
But goodness gracious, does it feel so much lighter than I ever did in my eating disorder.