There are some things in this world that you may never truly understand until you experience them.
Until you experience true loss, you will never comprehend it. Until you experience true joy, you will never fully know it. Until you fall in love, you will never be able to put it into words. There are some things that simply cannot be conveyed through a poem or a book or a song without some understanding on your part of what it means to be in those shoes and walk that path.
But there are a few things in this world that you may never truly understand, even if you do experience them.
There are things that may consume your entire life, may swallow you whole and spit you out, and leave you feeling more confused than ever before. There are some things that sneak into your mind and leave you dizzy, questioning what is up and what is down, questioning who you are and who you used to be. There are some things that thrive on bringing disarray and distrust into your life, as though you’re a snow globe just waiting to get shaken up over and over again.
An eating disorder is one of those things.
You see, eating disorders are sneaky beasts. They creep into your life, one thought, one habit, one action at a time. And they are all so tiny in their individuality that until you step back and view the whole picture for the first time, you never think anything is wrong. They’re almost impossible to identify until some damage has been done that is so startling you’re forced to zoom out and see yourself through a wider lens, and at that point, the battle you’re facing seems far too large to ever be won.
That’s how it was for me, what feels like a lifetime ago when my eating disorder first manifested itself. At first they were little things: skipping breakfast, “forgetting” your lunch, lying about snacking before dinner and not having an appetite. I was at school most of the day and home alone while my parents worked for most of the evening. It wasn’t hard to convince myself that because no one was noticing, nothing was wrong.
You see, that’s what no one tells you about having an eating disorder: until someone forces you to pull your ugliest parts to the surface, you’ll never believe that anything is wrong.
In fact, you’ll rationalize it in the strangest ways. You’ll find yourself scrutinizing what other people eat, how other people look. You’ll find your hands drifting to the fullness of your cheeks or the roundness of your thighs, as though to remind yourself that if something was really wrong, those wouldn’t be there. You’ll read stories of people who really have eating disorders: the paper-thin ballerinas who look and act far differently than you do. You’ll tell yourself that you’re not sick enough to ask for help, that people will take one look at you and laugh, “You think you have an eating disorder?”
Even as I sat on the table in my doctor’s office and watched them scribble their concerns down on a notepad, knitting their eyebrows together and pursing their lips, I couldn’t believe that something was truly wrong. Even as I watched my mother cry while they made arrangements for my immediate hospital stay, I couldn’t see the frailness- both physically and mentally- that they saw. Even as I lay in a hospital bed and sobbed over the piles of food they placed in front of me, I could not see the sick person they saw.
I saw someone who deserved the pain I felt inside.
Because here’s what else they don’t tell you about having an eating disorder: it’s not about the food. It’s not about the missed meals, the pictures of thin models in magazines, the ribs poking through skin. It’s not about starving your body, it’s about starving the voice inside of you that reminds you, day in and day out, that you’re not enough. It’s trying to drown out the thoughts that have plagued you your entire life, the thoughts that make you doubt you worthiness of happiness and love. It’s trying to numb out the shame that’s existed in your bones as long as you can remember.
There’s a difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is tied to actions. It’s feeling guilty because you ate those cookies after dinner. It’s feeling guilty because you missed a workout. It’s feeling guilty because you didn’t look as nice as you wanted to in those pictures.
Shame, however, is about who you are. It’s feeling shame because you weren’t strong-willed enough to resist temptation. It’s feeling shame because you weren’t disciplined enough to go to the gym. It’s feeling shame because you’re clearly lazy and unmotivated and at fault because you don’t look a certain way.
An eating disorder is not about guilt. It’s about shame.
And the shame isn’t just tied to what we commonly associate with eating disorders, like body image and food and exercise. It’s tied to something that can, painfully ironically, never be solved with any actions an eating disorder forces on us. The shame is tied to a lifelong belief that we are not enough. We are not smart enough. We are not successful enough. We are not good enough. And because we are so tired of not being enough, we do things that make us feel numb and in control and finally, finally a little bit less noticeable to the world for the faults we see painted on our skin.
Another thing they don’t tell you about eating disorders: they only make things worse.
Sure, at first you feel a little soothed by the sense of control skipping a meal or counting calories or “repenting” for a binge offers you. For a short while, it’s a high- it’s feeling like now you have the answers, now you know how to be as motivated and accomplished as the people you see looking so happy around you. You think to yourself that maybe, just maybe, you’ve now found the secret everyone has been hiding from you your entire life, the thing you were missing that made you feel so out of control and unworthy.
But terrifyingly quickly, it slips back out of your control. Suddenly it’s not a decision you’re making it’s a compulsion that itches under your skin. Suddenly there is no high- you’re crashing back down, back into those feelings you sought to escape and scrambling to bring back that momentary euphoria. Your entire life is consumed by this pursuit of control, this pursuit of feeling like you could finally chase away the shame lingering inside of you.
And eventually you are forced to realize another thing they don’t tell you about eating disorders: you were never in control.
It was never you. You never gained any semblance of autonomy by lying to your mom about what you ate that day. You never gained independence by forcing yourself to run until the measly amount of food you’d put into your body was negated. You never felt true freedom as you enslaved yourself to the scale, or to calorie counts on nutrition labels, or to the size of your jeans. Those were compulsions. Those were tricks of the mind meant to distract you from the thing that lingered under it all: shame.
If you’ve never had an eating disorder, it’s easy to come in from the outside and think that everything is within their control. It’s easy to wonder why they do such horrible things to themselves, why they deprive their bodies of nourishment and their minds of compassion. It’s so very easy to judge and wonder why they don’t just stop.
And if you have had an eating disorder, it’s easy to believe that you are in control. That the voice in your head telling you to do these things is your voice. That you’re not depriving your body, you’re finally giving it what it deserves. Perhaps it’s punishment, perhaps it’s something else. But there’s an abstract reasoning behind it that you cannot articulate, but you certainly feel as you lie awake at night wondering why you still feel hollow inside even when you’re trying to do everything right.
When people from the outside think you can just stop, and you feel like you can’t, it’s easy to begin to believe that you’re at fault. People you care about, people you love, are around you begging you to stop, begging you to get help and to help yourself, but it feels so far out of reach and it either forces you to hurt with them, or it forces you to go numb so that you can continue believing the only thing keeping you alive: the idea that you are finally in control of it all. But this context is so toxic that you begin to internalize it. Everything you do or could do feels wrong and counterintuitive, and it makes you believe that something must be inherently wrong with you. You’re the weak link, the common denominator. You’re the problem child, the bad patient, the shitty friend.
Here’s the biggest thing they don’t tell you about having an eating disorder: it’s not your fault.
You, the real you, the one buried under years of shame and fear and distrust of yourself and others, is not to blame. There is nothing wrong with you. You are a good person capable of good things. Powerful things. You are a being of endless potential and light waiting to be unleashed onto the world. You are so much more than you have been lead to believe, so much more than you’ve convinced yourself of.
And we could spend a million years pointing fingers at whose fault it is. We could blame the modeling industry or social media or pop music or ballet. We could blame that one kid in second grade who called us fat and we never forgot it. We could blame our mom or our dad or our aunt for not giving us enough attention or not telling us we were pretty growing up. We could write a laundry list of people to take our shame away from us, and yet, it would never be enough.
Because it’s in your hands to decide where you want your future to lead you. There’s a lifetime of factors and predispositions that may lead to an eating disorder, but dwelling upon who is to blame will never help you heal. It will only breed more contempt, more fear, more anger. And it will make you feel more out of control than ever before.
To truly heal, from the inside out, you have to stop seeking something or someone to blame- including, and most importantly, yourself.