Yes, you. The one who will always see themselves first and foremost as “the one with the eating disorder.” The one who blames themselves for the expensive therapy she dutifully goes to every week. The one who hides themselves away from others for fear of hurting them with lies, deceit, and ambiguity. The one who had stared at themselves in the mirror for so long and on so many occasions that the body reflected back at them no longer appears real, like when you stare at a word for a few minutes and begin to question its existence. Whether it’s spelled right or not.
I know you.
I’ve been you.
I’m still you, no matter how secure and ambitious I may appear at times. No matter how matter how many words I’ve spilled on paper to solidify my journey, or how many talks and interviews I’ve given on recovery, or how many smiling pictures exist of me on the internet that seem to portray someone who has never felt doubt before in her life.
I know how you feel. I know you sometimes get angry with yourself, wondering why you had to be this way, why you had to be born sick. Worse, not even the right kind of sick- the kind of sick that you take some ibuprofen for and nap into nonexistence. The kind of sick doctors write PE notes for and professors let you skip class for, all without ever wondering if you’re pretending to be something you’re not.
No, instead you curse the fact that you linger in an illness that is expensive and painful and long and without a pin-pointable end. You curse the fact that you’ve caused arguments in your house and among your friends, that you’ve acted and spoken in ways you never thought you were capable of. You curse the fact that you clearly weren’t “too smart” to do all of these things, even when everyone says you were, and now you’re left wondering who you are if you’re really not.
I’ve slept in your bed. I’ve laid between your sheets and wondered, just like you, if it’s worth making it to the next morning. Wondered if it would be easier to slip into the night with your dreams and stay there- in purgatory or hell or wherever else sick people go besides heaven- and let everyone grieve and move on.
I’ve sat at your dinner table. I’ve listened to the cheery-fake conversation meant to keep you calm. I’ve cut your food into tiny pieces and felt seduced by the comfort of behaviors that make you reassured you’re “really sick” and not “doing this all for attention.” I’ve watched your family dissolve into bitterness as you struggle to finish your meal, now long-cold, another reminder to them that you’re not better yet. I’ve felt your hot face and your burning tears as you retreat- back into your room, back into your mind- once again into the arms of a disorder you just can’t shake.
I’ve stood in your bathroom mirror. I’ve memorized the traces of your body, carefully mapped every freckle and dimple like a skilled cartographer. I’ve swam in the vast ocean of feeling that hits you every time you stand here, before you shower or dress. I’ve waded in the shallow tide pools of sick pleasure when you notice something you like, but know you shouldn’t. I’ve fought against the whirlpool of fear that what you thought was there isn’t appearing today. I’ve drowned in the depths of guilt and shame when you know you look this way because you did-or-didn’t-do-that-one-thing.
I’ve walked in your shoes, I’ve written your diary, I’ve told your story as though it’s my own…because it is. I’ve had an eating disorder. I’ve been hospitalized for it. I’ve fought it for years. I’ve written about it, joked about it, cried about it. But here’s what I want you to hear:
I. Am. Not. It.
I am not my eating disorder, and you are not yours, either. I am not the destruction thinly veiled by control, I am not the hours of life lost to fear, I am not the list of symptoms on the checklist you’ve now memorized by heart. I am many things- stubborn, studious, sarcastic- but I am not, and never have been or will be, the disease that challenged my ability to be everything I could be.
And you are not either.
Recovery is complex and difficult for a multitude of reasons, but I’ve come to realize the biggest obstacle for the sufferer to overcome is the confusion of self. Where is the line drawn? Where does the eating disorder end and I begin? The complexity of the eating disorder lies in its insidiousness; it doesn’t appear one day like a broken bone or a sore throat. It slowly creeps in, slowly working its way into your fibers, until one day you sit down and realize you don’t know who’s you and who’s the disease.
Of course, I don’t have to explain to you how disorienting that is. But if you’re looking for words to offer to someone who has not been us, here’s the best I can offer: Imagine you have a rash. A horrible rash. A rash that bubbles and boils and keeps you from doing the things you want to do. Now, usually, a rash is easy to discern from healthy skin. It’s usually red and ugly and flaky.
But imagine this rash is completely invisible. No one can see it, not even you. But you know it’s there, and it causes you to scratch incessantly and hide away from the world because normal things like laying in the sun with your friends or going to the beach hurts too much. And your friends and family can tell something is wrong, because you’re always scratching and looking uncomfortable and turning away from things you used to love, but they can’t understand why.
“Nothing is wrong with you!” They say, holding their beach balls or sun tan lotion on your doorstep, “Look at your skin, it’s perfectly fine. Stop picking at it and just get over it.”
“But you don’t get it,” You say back, “I can’t go. It hurts too much.”
And although you know that the best way to let skin heal is to stop picking at it, picking at it offers you the only comfort you can find. Picking at it, at least, lets you feel in control. Like you’re doing something.
But the worst part isn’t the isolation, or the way others misunderstand you, or your primal desire to scratch the itch that plagues you. No- it’s the fact that you can’t tell if it’s a rash that’s bothering you, or if your skin is just this way now. Maybe your skin is just bad by nature, a ticking time bomb of discomfort and itchiness. Maybe the reason no one else can see anything different is because you’ve always been this way, unworthy and boring. Maybe this rash isn’t a foreign attack on your body. Maybe you’re the foreign attack on the world.
Maybe you’re the blemish.
And if someone handed you a marker and asked you to outline the rash, to clearly define what the the enemy and what was you, you know in your heart you wouldn’t be able to do it. Because now it’s been so long all you know is the itch. It’s become you. You’ve become it.
That’s what it feels like to have an eating disorder.
But of course, you and I know that. But here’s the message that will counter that feeling, perhaps the first idea throughout this entire letter so far that won’t feel entirely familiar: you are a distinct, important, worthy human being that is entirely separate from any illness that plagues you.
I know, this may take a moment to adjust to. It’s taken me years and I’m still working on it. But just let that steep for a moment, the idea that perhaps none of this is your fault. The arguments, the losses, the mistakes and missteps. You weren’t behind the control panel like some cartoonishly evil villain, intent on upsetting your life and the lives of those around you. It was your eating disorder who did that.
And your eating disorder (if I haven’t said it enough) is not you.
No, your eating disorder is your shitty friend who crashes on your couch without paying rent and tries to convince you to steal from K-Mart. They’re the person you kind of feel sorry for, because clearly they’ve got nothing going for them in life except for the brief pleasure they get from tearing other people down with them. They’re the kind of person who chain-smokes on your couch and offers you a cig so incessantly that you finally snap and just take one, to make them shut up. They’re the kind of person who steals from your fridge and eats your mom’s birthday cake, leaving you to apologize because clearly it’s your fault, because they’re your friend.
They’re the kind of person that you get so fed up with, you finally try to kick them out. You might even fight about it, yell and scream, dramatically kick them out into the rain and slam the door on their shocked face. You’ll tell everyone you know how you’re sick of them and their shitty attitude and K-Mart thievery and cigarette smoke.
And then they’ll all- even you- be confused when you let them crash on your couch next week as though nothing ever happened.
Because despite how downright shitty they are, they’re your friend. You love them, perhaps because they’re all you’ve ever known. Maybe they’ve been with you since elementary school, and leaving them now would be far scarier than the evils you’ve at least become familiar with. Kicking them out means being alone, and you don’t know who you are when you’re alone anymore.
But I’m telling you this now (figuratively, of course, unless you happen to really have a shitty chain smoking friend on your couch right now, in which case I’m telling you this literally):
Kick your fucking friend to the curb.
They don’t love you. They never loved you. They never want to see you happy because they exist, wallow in, and thrive on misery. You don’t need their nicotine and their lies. You deserve so much better, so much more, than you could ever achieve chained to your friend on the couch.
I know you have become intertwined with them. I know it’s hard to discern just how different you are from them. I know you blame yourself for being the enabler. But you have to let them go. They are not you.
I want you to pull out a piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle. On one side, write “Eating Disorder.” Maybe even give them a name fitting of such a horrible person. Personify the hell out of your disorder until it’s clear enough to you that they are a separate and evil entity from the bountiful presence that you are. And on the other side, write your name. Big and bold.
Perhaps this is a good place to pause, to soak in the definitiveness of that solid, inky line on your paper. Perhaps this is the first time you’ve viewed things this way, so clear-cut and even. Perhaps this is the first time you’ve considered the fact that the pain you’ve felt isn’t some inherent trait inside of you, but rather the result of keeping something so miserable around for so long.
Once that’s soaked in, I want you to write down all of the things your eating disorder wants. The bad things, the things you know aren’t healthy physically, mentally, or spiritually. The things you hide from your doctors or your loved ones. The things you feel compelled to do so magnetically you find yourself doing them no matter the risk. Write them all down under the “Eating Disorder” side.
Now look at the other side. Write down what you really want. Not the things that lie on the surface to distract you, like looking a certain way or weighing a certain amount. The things that they’re covering up: You want to be thin because you think that will make you worthy in the eyes of others. Or you like seeing a certain number on the scale because it makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something, even if nothing else is going right for you in your life. Write down what your heart and soul truly desire. Acceptance. Accomplishment.
And now here’s the step where the magic happens. Maybe it’s the step that finally convinces you I’m not crazy with this whole “your eating disorder is something separate from you” thing. Rip your paper in half. Right down the middle.
That is your eating disorder. And that is you.
Two separate beings.
One dark. One light.
One of lies. One of truth.
One of seduction. One of abundance.
And now that the line is clearly drawn, the power is in your hands. You decide now who you are. And, more importantly, you decide who you want to be. You don’t need this friend and their dreams anymore, because you have your own. You have your own goals and aspirations that are no longer chained to a couch clouded in cigarette smoke and sadness. You have your identity back, and it’s no longer tainted by the words and hurtful whisperings of someone you used to see as your friend.
But here’s the best secret of them all: that paper means nothing. It was always inside of you, all along. You were never lost to your disorder. Your disorder never took you over. The love and the light that is in you has always been there.
It’s just easier to see without all the smoke in the way.