There’s a few things you need to get clear on when it comes to eating disorder recovery:
- You’re gonna have to go to therapy. Talking with someone who can offer you a strong voice of clarity and advice untainted by personal involvement is invaluable. In fact, I would argue that everyone should be going to therapy, at least sometimes, just to talk things out and understand yourself a little bit better. Don’t stress about people thinking you’re “broken” or “weird” or “crazy” or whatever else you may be worrying about. It’s a tool and a resource for living your best life achievable.
- At some point, you’re gonna fuck up. Fucking up- no matter the implied negative connotation- isn’t the end of the world. And in fact, it’s a part of the process. A slip-up, or even a complete failure, is a necessary step. It’s not the end of the line. We mess up so that we can see holes that need to be patched up or learn something new about what causes us to make mistakes. We mess up so we can learn how to further our progress.
- Eventually, you’re gonna have to tell your therapist some shit you didn’t ever want to tell anyone, and you’re just gonna have to get over that. I haven’t met a single human on this planet who doesn’t want to give the world the impression that they’re at least kind of perfect. We all want everyone to think we have our act together and everything all figured out, but therapy isn’t the place to do that. Therapy is the place to get it all out on the table, the place to show someone a big heap of your mistakes and confusions and worries and say, “Can you help me sort this out?”
Let me tell you how I recently had to re-learn these lessons. (And in the process, exercise my dedication to talking about the shit I don’t want to talk about.)
I’ve been going to therapy for probably close to five years now. I started going way back in the beginning of my battle with my eating disorder, when I was a freshman in high school. Here’s the part I really don’t want to talk about: I got sent to therapy in a very ugly and dramatic way. For awhile my parents had known something was up. I was self-harming, I was skipping dinner or throwing away my lunch, little things that, while worrying, were small enough to let slide and avoid worrying about too much. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when my mother discovered that I’d been purging.
Now for some reason, purging is a part of my eating disorder that I don’t share publicly often, if at all. It’s ugly and messy and, I’d argue, more heavily stigmatized than other eating disordered behaviors. It’s the one part of my eating disorder that I kept pretty well under wraps for a long time, but there’s no point in hiding what is a very common part of eating disorder experiences. I wasn’t bulimic, and therefore I didn’t do it very often or on a regular basis, but there were times where I felt so overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious that my brain sought out coping mechanisms wherever I could and no matter how dangerous or unhealthy they were.
And the whole time, I knew it was dangerous. I was constantly seeking out information on eating disorders; reading every article and personal memoir I could get my hands on. Everyone seemed to agree that purging was dangerous and awful for your heart and your skin and your organs. I remember reading news articles about girls who’d died, wrapped around the toilet, their heart too weak to carry on. I remember reading about girls who’d destroyed their teeth and torn up their throats. There was nothing glamorous or appealing about it, and yet, to an eating disordered person, relieving yourself of the immense internal pressure of shame and anxiety is worth any risk.
There’s another thing you need to understand about eating disorders: they are not just about food and body image.
Purging isn’t just used as a way to get rid of food, it’s used as a way to get rid of emotions. I remember times where I felt like I was literally swelling under my skin, so engorged with anxiety and fear that I felt as though I was going to burst. I remember times where I felt like I was filled with such a deep sense of depression and loneliness I felt like I had to get it out of my body the way you get poison out of you. I remember feeling shameful and scared, but so relieved.
But above all, I wanted to keep it a secret. And when my mother, sitting in the parking lot of a random gas station in Berkeley as we filled up the car, told me she’d found it out, I felt like I wanted to melt into the center of the earth and never return. I didn’t want to be associated with something so ugly and short-sighted. I was smarter than that. I was better than that. Worse yet was the news that came next: I was going to be sent off to therapy, like a problem child who needed to be fixed and returned once I was ready to be a functioning human being.
Of course, that wasn’t her intention. Her intention was to get me help so that I could find better, healthier coping strategies and learn to communicate my emotions more effectively. But to a 14-year-old depressed, anxious, anorexic, none of that seemed within the realm of possibility. I was scared, and I was ashamed, and I was more willing to swallow broken glass or throw myself into a volcano than I was to go to therapy.
Therapy. It seemed synonymous with “bad,” a space where crazy people went to be assured that yes, they were crazy , congratulations. My biggest fear was having my secrets drawn to light, because eating disorders feed on secrecy. They love it. They’re a parasite that shirks away from the light of day, knowing that once they’re drawn to the surface, the host will be forced to see just how ugly they are. I clung to my eating disorder like a security blanket, and I knew the only way I’d be allowed to keep it was by offering it refuge in the dark.
But you know what they say: sunlight is the greatest disinfectant.
I wish I could tell you I went to therapy, and learned it was an amazing resource right off the bat, nipped my problems in the bud, and went off on my merry way as a freshman in high school, now reassured with my mental health. Happily-ever-after-the-end. But that’s not what happened. What happened was I went, said hello, and then sat in almost total silence for 45 minutes once a week for 3 years.
It was the most expensive silence in the world.
Now, I did let a little bit of information seep through the cracks. I told my therapist that I was a swimmer (and I hated it), that I was a high schooler (and I hated it), that I painted (and I wasn’t good at it), and that I had a handful of friends (but I was pretty sure they hated me). I carefully circled around any questions directly targeting my eating disorder, shoving them away with, “Oh yes, how bad it is that my parents discovered that. I suppose I shouldn’t be doing that.”
I didn’t want to understand my eating disorder, I just wanted to keep it. I wanted it to be mine, and mine alone. I viewed my therapist as someone who wanted to steal it from me, wanted to take away the only coping mechanism I knew. She tried a million different ways to get me to feel my emotions instead of hiding from them. We made collages, we played games with cards that had questions on them, we decorated boxes with pictures and words that were supposed to symbolize what I was “keeping inside.” I half-heartedly participated, not really caring to look deeper into who I was. I knew who I was: I was broken. No one wants to look at that.
And yet, she never gave up.
A series of things happened that led me to understand therapy. They were all painful in different ways.
The first was being hospitalized. This was the most painful stage of my awakening. I was forced to face the reality of what I was doing to my body, and to face the fact that it was either me or the eating disorder that could be kept alive: not both. And I hated the hospital. I was constantly watched, constantly viewed as an untrustworthy sick person who could not shower or use the bathroom or eat without being monitored. I felt completely incompetent, and I was forced to pull every secret I’d been choking on out into the light of day for every person in my life to see.
But perhaps the greatest thing my hospitalization offered me was the understanding that eating disorders had the capacity to be understood. They weren’t natural. They weren’t inherent parts of some people that doomed them to be in pain for all of eternity. They weren’t, as I’d somehow come to believe, the way some people were destined to live. They were diseases- things that had causes and, more importantly, ways to be treated. The only problem was that it wasn’t like the flu or a broken bone, where the cause is always fairly clear and the treatment is pretty much always the same. If I didn’t want to become one of the girls I watched return to the dreadful hospital over and over again, I’d need to understand my friend-turned-enemy and find a way to stifle it.
The second was a program that came to my high school when I was a sophomore called Challenge Day. Challenge Day is a non-profit organization that runs emotion-based workshops in high schools around the US (and now around the world). They do activities that start off simple and a bit cheesy, like partner games and dance parties. Throughout the day-long program, however, the tone begins to shift at the skillful hands of the workshop facilitators. They share personal, intimate stories of abuse, loss, addiction, and mental health struggles with the students, and then ask them to do the same with their peers.
By all accounts, it shouldn’t work: kids don’t like telling their secrets to a room full of petty high schoolers. And yet, I’ve seen the magic work time and time again. I’ve seen kids crying into one another’s shoulders, I’ve seen kids stand up and come out as gay for the very first time in front of their entire class, I’ve seen bullies have moments of realization and tearfully offer their deep condolences to those they’ve hurt. The work Challenge Day did completely enchanted me, and for the first time, I found myself sharing my story with people who I’d never wanted to come clean with. I learned how it felt to put everything out in the open, and, my goodness, it felt good.
I became really involved with the organization after my first experience with it. I attended a weekend-long workshop, I started a club at my high school meant to be a safe space to continue the conversations we’d started, I got my parents to volunteer their time facilitating workshops at different high schools. It was around this time that it really clicked for me that talking about our problems, face-to-face with another human being was a necessary step in the healing process.
The third thing was finding yoga. Yoga is a practice that demands you to become in touch with your feelings. You can’t hide away from anything in a practice: you face frustration, you face humility, you face fears. You are asked to be vulnerable on your mat, to allow yourself to feel and breathe instead of rushing through our days holding our breath and avoiding our emotions. Yoga showed me, for the first time, the beauty and strength in vulnerability. Emotional connection became a graceful dance that I was excited about, and I no longer dreaded self-exploration.
Teacher training only furthered this advancement of connection for me. We were asked to peel away the layers we’d accumulated throughout the years to protect ourselves, the layers that inadvertently blocked out friends, dreams, and hope. In doing so we exposed our true selves to one another in our program, and revealed to ourselves what we were capable of and what we really wanted. It was my first experience in chasing my dreams, and it lit a fire under me that I’ve been chasing ever since.
The final thing was telling my story through CNN. In September 2015, CNN published an article about me and my journey with yoga and eating disorders titled, “Teen Overcomes Anorexia Though Yoga,” and it felt remarkably life-changing. There was no sense of secrecy anymore, there was no darkness to engulf my eating disorder anymore. Sunlight was hitting it front all angles now, and there was nowhere for me to hide. But for the first time, being exposed in this way felt….good. It felt foreign, and yet, I craved more of this vulnerability. It was liberating, empowering. With everything out on the table, perhaps it was possible to explore who I could be not despite of my disease, nor in hiding from it, but because of what it’d force me to become.
It was also around this time that people were reading about me all over the country that I thought, “Shit, I better start telling some of this to my therapist.”
Because I was still trying to put up a front with her. I had been trained by the hospital to believe that I needed to get everyone in my life to believe that everything was absolutely perfect. To get out of the hospital, you needed to pass psych evaluations and have stable vital signs. To stay out of the hospital, you needed to meet certain physical health markers (like gaining a certain amount of weight) as well as proving to everyone that you weren’t going to relapse and land yourself back in that sterile ward of hell. I became obsessed with the idea of pretending I was perfect, of not giving anyone any cause for concern, in hopes that it would keep me out of the hospital I hated so much.
And so I, slowly, started talking. I started trying to figure out the complexities of my eating disorder, I started talking about struggles and fears I was facing as I prepared to leave high school and enter college, I started talking about issues I was having within my family and relationships. I realized I could talk about anything, that my eating disorder wasn’t just about weight and food and body image. There were an incredible amount of factors that went into my eating disorder that I had been ignoring, and thus, allowing to fester under the surface.
Therapy wasn’t just something I went to in order to check a box off a list, like I was a car going in for a routine tune-up. It was a learning process, and something I had to put effort into.
Here is where I’ll pull us into the present: eating disorder recovery is filled with regressions as much as it is filled with progress. Although it’s pleasant to imagine a world where one day we swallow a pill and suddenly we are cured from this mental ailment, as of now, it doesn’t exist. Largely, this is due to the fact that eating disorders are, as mentioned before, coping mechanisms. They are things we turn to in times of stress, depression, or anxiety, because they promise things they cannot offer. The purging was a coping mechanism (relief from building tension), the starving was a coping mechanism (shrinking to avoid being noticed), the self-harm was a coping mechanism (pain to escape swallowing numbness). They are destructive, but they promise to offer relief, and so we turn to them the same way an alcoholic turns to the bottle when they’re feeling down, even if the substance is a depressive and likely to cause more harm than good.
As I write this, we’re three weeks into a presidency that has been filled with plenty of reasons to be stressed. There’s been marches and protests and cries for change none stop for weeks now, and while there is a certain amount of empowerment involved in these activities, it is still emotionally draining. And on top of the mounting activism, it feels as though I wake up every morning to check the news, wondering what’s going wrong this time, and there’s no escape from it. I find myself drowning in information: reading the news, watching the news, listening to podcasts about the news. I scroll through my Facebook feed and find article after article about how the world is ending this time. I go to class and listen to debates about which political fuck-up is the worst. Everywhere I turn I’m faced with a sense of dread and helplessness at the current state of affairs in my country- on top of the knowing that I come from a family of immigrants being labeled as unfit for the nation I call my own.
One night, cracking under the pressure of politics and information inundation, I found myself seriously considering purging. It is something I haven’t done in a long, long time. It’s something I never want to do again, something I’ve relegated to the past, something I don’t consider to be a part of my life anymore. And yet, I was engaging in the idea of doing something I knew I’d regret. I felt horrible for even entertaining the notion. I felt like a failure, and I found myself doubting my position in recovery. Does a recovered person think these thoughts? Does a recovered person feel this way? Worse yet, I had a terrifying voice in the back of my mind ask, “Are you going to relapse? Are you going to end back up in the hospital? Are these thoughts just the beginning?”
Now, I had an option here. I could quietly linger in this terrifying brush with my deepest fears and tell no one, or, I could tell everyone. I remembered the greatest lesson I’ve learned over my journey with anorexia: Eating disorders thrive in secrecy, and more than that, they demand it. If I refuse to face this in secret, the eating disorder loses its power over me and my actions.
And so I did a few terrifying things: I called my boyfriend, I texted my mom, and I emailed my therapist. These are things I never would have done years ago, as a freshman first brushing against this beast. My biggest fear in the world was being found out, and now here I was, telling everyone I knew, “HEY, I’m kinda fucking up here and I need to tell you so that I don’t get too messed up, okay?”
No matter how much I dreaded doing this, I knew it was the only way. I found solace in the fact that I was strong enough to notice when things were slipping, and that I was securely recovered enough to not want to use secrecy as a way to feed my disordered thoughts. I still felt guilt and shame over having them, but refusing to give them power felt like standing up to a boss I hated or a bully I’d used to let walk all over me. I felt strong, despite how weak I had begun to feel.
I’ve written before that being in recovery doesn’t mean never messing up or slipping up, and that imagining a perfect “someday” where you never have a single disordered thought ever again is entertaining pure fantasy that places undue pressure on yourself. But even knowing this, it’s still hard to admit when you’ve slipped, or begun to slip. It feels like, well, failure. And as I told my therapist that I really wasn’t struggling to move past the eating disordered thoughts so much as I was struggling to move past the shame I was feeling over having them, she seemed completely unsurprised.
“You’ve always been incredibly hard on yourself.” She said, “You have really high standards for yourself. For lack of a better way to put it: you want to be perfect.”
I knew she was right as soon as she said it. I have always want to be perfect. When I was anorexic, I wanted to be the perfect anorexic, and now that I was in recovery I wanted to be the perfect recovered anorexic. Despite how illogical I knew it was rationally, I wanted to be the image of a perfectly recovered person, who never had a negative thought or health problem ever again. I wanted to be glowing with perfection, I wanted to give people only good news, I wanted to never have to admit my flaws. I wanted to have no flaws.
Something I now have to face, and work on, is not seeing natural and normal parts of recovery as failures. Recovery is not linear, no matter how much I think it “should” be. There is no progress where perfection already lies, and without being faced with challenges I’ll never know where to continue focusing my energy on improving. These are lessons I’m still learning and will continue to learn, I have to assume, for the rest of my life. I will never be perfect, but I can be liberated from my own oppressive perfectionism.
But what my therapist said next was an incredible revelation for me.
“Instead of dwelling on the idea that you messed up, why don’t you ask yourself, ‘What do I need right now?'”
The idea hit me like a ton of bricks. It made so much sense, it seemed so obvious in hindsight, and yet I have completely missed it. If eating disordered behaviors are coping mechanisms, it means you’re coping with something. It means you need something. And every time, what you really need is something completely different from what your eating disorder wants you to do.
So what was happening here? I was feeling overwhelmed. I was feeling filled to the brim with information and bad news. I was feeling as though I was over consuming media and all of the stress that it brought. So what did my ED tell me to do? Purge. Get rid of what was filling me. Get out what was stretching me to my limits and beyond my capacity.
What I really needed was a different way to relieve myself from this feeling of overconsumption. I needed to be judicious in the amount of information I was taking in. There’s a difference between being well-informed and being overwhelmed, and I had far surpassed this limit. I needed to find different ways to escape this feeling of being “stuffed” with news- meditating, practicing, writing. Dwelling in and drowning myself in the information that was stressing me beyond my limits allowed my body and mind to go into full “panic” mode and turn to the greatest extreme it knew: eating disordered behaviors.
Understanding this has changed the way I understand eating disorders, even though I’d gotten so far into my journey with them I thought I was an expert. Self-care is the biggest key to keeping this beast at bay, and when we allow it to fall to the wayside, we give room for the beast to creep back in. Instead of feeling shame over coming against eating disordered thoughts, I need to see them as a sign that something is missing, and seek that out instead.
I need to begin to ask myself, “What do I need?” instead of “Why am I being bad?”
And perhaps you do, too.