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It’s really difficult to understand an eating disorder unless you have had one. Unless you have experienced it, the mindset and the fact that you can’t “just stop” can be difficult for others to fathom. Or what exactly goes through your mind, and why it’s such a hard thing to beat.
An eating disorder is not a choice. No one says “I want to be anorexic when I grow up.” No one decides to become bulimic. No one thinks “Oh, it’ll be fun to be a compulsive over-eater.” No one wants to live with that lack of self-control. The disorder could begin with a simple choice, maybe a choice to skip a meal because you feel extra pudgy that day, or a choice to start restricting your calorie intake in order to lose weight…but it’s so much more complicated than that. The life that follows is not something anyone wants. It can start out innocently enough, but it takes control and things start spiraling downward.
When I was young, I had problems with self-control around food. As a kid, I would eat whatever I wanted. But it manifested as I got older, and in middle-school and high-school I began to compulsively over-eat and binge-eat. It was something I did without thinking. I didn’t have many friends, and food was my comfort. I would go home after school and binge-eat anything in the pantry I could find without raising too much suspicion. It was something I felt I couldn’t control. And it caused me to gain a lot of weight.
The years of anorexia and bulimia began very innocently. I simply wanted to lose weight and get my eating habits under control. So I decided to start cutting my calorie intake down and start exercising, and I started a food journal.
And I felt like I was doing something good. After years of compulsive over-eating and binge-eating, I felt like I was finally starting to get my life under control. I felt accomplished when my journal was filled with protein and complex carbs, and no candy bars or sugary cereals or large tubs of popcorn. I thought I was doing something great for my health. But my daily calorie allowance started to become lower and lower. I had to stay lower. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t make any progress.
But exercising and cutting calories made hungry. And one day I slipped. The hunger was driving me crazy, and I ended up bingeing on junk-food.
And I felt like a failure. I thought–I had been doing so well, and then I just had to go and ruin all of that hard work. I had to do something about it. I had to get rid of it. I had to take control of my eating habits. I had to take control of my life.
But I had no control.
That first feeling of being a failure set the tone of my eating disorders. I became obsessed. I felt so accomplished when I went through the day eating less, and when the number on the scale went down. I lived for that feeling. I wanted to feel that all of the time. It felt great to hear others tell me that I looked thinner, and tell me that whatever I was doing was working. I lived for those little “accomplishments.” I was getting attention that I had never received before. Guys were actually looking at me. It made me feel good.
But it was still hard to control my appetite and my self-control around food, and I would end up bingeing. And when I slipped and binged, I felt like I was a failure, and that I had just ruined all of the hard work that I had put in, and that if I kept that food in my body, I would surely just gain all of that weight back.
At the same time, I couldn’t see what everyone else saw. When I looked in the mirror, I just saw that same chubby girl. It made sense that I should be losing weight, people were noticing and my clothes fit a little differently. The scale reflected it–but the mirror didn’t. I just couldn’t see it. When I was younger, I would hate it when I would hear thin girls commenting on how “fat” they were.
And then I was that thin girl.
The disorder takes a hold of everything, even your perception of yourself. Where everyone else saw skin and bones, I saw love handles and muffin tops. Nothing was ever good enough. It started out as a healthy goal to lose 10 pounds. But when I had lost those 10 pounds, I still saw problem areas. Obviously (to me), I had to lose 10 more pounds. And when I had lost those 10 pounds, I still saw extra fat where there shouldn’t be. It seemed to me that the only logical thing to do was to lose another. Then another.
But no weight was ever low enough. I became obsessed with trying to achieve an unattainable goal. What started out innocently enough had taken control of my thoughts, my actions, my life. I was on a downward spiral that I felt I had no control over. Sure, I wanted to get better, but the fear inside of me was bigger than my want for recovery. My eating disorder had become my safety net. The fence that protected me from the outside world. My distraction. My way of coping. I was afraid of what might happen if I stopped. It was my identity. I didn’t know who I was without it, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t like the person that I was stripped of my eating disorder. I couldn’t accept myself for who I was. I wanted to be happy, but I felt that if I gained weight, then I would hate myself too much. And I was afraid of what I might do with that hate.
Had I known that this was what my life was going to be like, I never would have skipped that first meal. Or purged for the first time. This wasn’t the life that I chose. All I wanted was to lose weight and be happy.
Yes, if I had made different, healthier choices then I might have had a different life. But it is a mental disorder, an addiction, and it changes everything–the way you think, the way you act, the way you live.
People didn’t understand that I couldn’t just give it up. It’s not that simple. Recovery may be a choice, but it is not an easy one. You can’t “just start eating more,” or “just stop throwing up.” People scream “just eat something!” but don’t understand how much deeper it goes than food. It’s more than just eating habits. And anything could be a trigger. Holidays and family functions are painful, because while everyone else is enjoying themselves, you are so consumed with how you are going to get through it. Someone telling you that you “look healthy” could be a trigger. Does that mean that I gained weight?? It’s not about food. It’s completely psychological. You have to change your thought process–how you feel about food, how you feel about yourself.
This is no easy task. It’s a difficult process, and it takes time.
I came to a point when I knew that I needed to change, but it wasn’t until I fully wanted it and truly cared about my health that things began to change. I decided to face the fear of giving my disorder up and learn to accept myself, even if I gained weight. When I actually started to care about my health and what I was putting my body through, things started to turn around. I started to care less about the number on the scale and more about my overall health. I learned that it was okay to feel, and how to deal with issues and emotions in a healthy way instead of using my eating disorder.
It was difficult, and there were bumps. The hardest part of recovery is learning to accept and love yourself, regardless of what size you are, and getting rid of that “all or nothing” thinking. Learning to find the grey area. Learning not to hate yourself or think you are a failure because you slipped. Saying that I would accept myself at whatever weight I was is easier said than done, but I gradually learned that it wasn’t the end of the world if I gained weight along the way. I knew eventually that if I stayed healthy, that my metabolism would level out and I would be a weight that was healthy for me.
And it took time, but I got there. And it was worth it. I would never want go back to that life, and I now have the knowledge and the tools to avoid it. It’s true that it doesn’t ever completely leave you, the thoughts are still there in the back of your mind, but it becomes easier to ignore them and not act upon them. Holiday parties don’t make me anxious anymore, because I found the grey area. A day of indulging is not going to make me gain five pounds, and just because I indulged doesn’t mean I have to go do a thousand sit-ups to work it off. There are days when I will feel pudgy or see problem areas, but I don’t hate myself for them and my health comes first. I can work towards my goals in a healthy and safe way. I can honestly say that I am completely happy and I love my life, and if ever I find that I am not happy, I will step back and evaluate my life and figure out what needs to change. I care too much about my health and well-being to resort to unhealthy habits.
Recovery was not an easy road, but it was worth it, and I feel stronger for it.