Many teenagers and young adults measure time with hugs, laughs, and kisses; with tears, heartbreak, and belting out Taylor Swift songs; with midnight donut runs and staying up all night talking.
I measured my life in calories, compulsive exercise, and setting my alarm to 3 AM, because that was a “safe” time in my mind to binge. I spent my moments daydreaming of endless buffets– plate after plate of spaghetti, followed by cookie dough ice cream caves. I would “go to the bathroom” at least 5 times during class for an excuse to walk.
I fantasized about food similar to how teenagers fantasize about a first crush or first kiss. Anorexia was my comfort… my everything. In the little world I made for myself, I felt safe. At least I knew this.
Most of my memories for a good 10 years centered around food. I remember only one thing about my high school graduation: the internal debate about whether I was going to eat lunch that day.
Every birthday party, including my own, I would be “too full” for birthday cake. Sometimes I would swear to anyone who probed, “I just hate sweets.” Lies.
Sometimes people would respond with jealousy, “I wish I could be like that,” or, “I wish I could look like you.” No, no you don’t.
It is hard to describe what the living hell of an eating disorder is like to someone who has not personally heard the eating disorder siren call. I can’t count the amount of times others have said to me, “Can’t you just eat?” In my mind, that comment was akin to, Can martians become elected officials? Can Michigan be warm during the winter? Can I please teleport? Can there be peace in the Middle East? Anorexia had a neurobiological, psychological, emotional, and spiritual stronghold over my life. It was this gravitational vortex pull mixed with a sensation similar to being held down by the Boogey man.
Being asked to give up my eating disorder felt like asking to give up me.
At some point, I had to realize, No, this is not sustainable. I cannot maintain even a facade of normalcy. Despite the denial, I admitted that what I was doing was killing me. If I was compliant to the incessant demands of anorexia, I would either die or have everything be taken from me. I decided to give the having-a-life thing a shot.
Eating disorder recovery felt like being asked to move to a distant land, a strange, odd place where people would eat cake voluntarily. It was absolutely mind-blowing. Why would someone eat dessert? Willingly no less??? I ate celery voluntarily. I compulsively exercised voluntarily. Voluntary dessert was belching the alphabet at tea with the Queen of England, or showing up to a job interview with mustard all over my face. It made no sense. I had to trust people who told me, This is normal. This will get easier. This is okay. You are okay.
Stabilizing my weight and food intake did not address the root issues, but it needed to come first.
After time in treatment, I finally admitted that fat free cheese was disgusting. I mean, really disgusting. It should barely count as cheese. Or not count at all. How could I have “preferred it” for years? I could say similar things about sugar free Jello (one word: gross), Molly McButter (I mean, what IS that really? is it edible? should it be?), and Splenda (confession: still trying to fully wean off that one).
Consequently, I found that cake is actually delicious. In fact, now it is one of my favorite foods. Dessert is really underrated when you have an eating disorder. I had this false dilemma in my mind: I could eat a slice or pie OR I could die. It seemed that dire of a situation. But it doesn’t have to be. At treatment for the first time, I started eating cake as often as I could. After years of severe nutritional deprivation, it just tasted so good!
Recovering in terms of weight restoration and achieving medical and nutritional stability were important… but the hardest work came later.
In addition to the important eating component of ED recovery, I also had to learn how to live. Surprisingly, that has been a motherfucker of an obstacle that is ongoing.
So these things are works in progress:
I learned that there is more to life than the prison of anorexia. I learned not only to enjoy food but to enjoy people; to fall in love and fall hard; to open up to others; to experience happiness but also sadness; to feel and to feel it all, the spectrum of human experience, both the good and the bad.
Subsisting indefinitely in an eating disorder netherworld hardened me. The thawing work of recovery and subsequent therapy has hurt like hell, there’s no other way to describe it.
But I am learning how to live.
I didn’t do that for a really long time.
In the process of obsessive exercise videos and “being too tired” to go out for ice cream with friends, I missed so many moments… so much time. I missed the taste of gelato in Italy, and wine and cheese in France. I missed taking deep breaths and soaking up the sunlight. I missed years; in fact, over a decade of my life. I hurt others and myself.
the bodily damage…
the lost opportunities…
I will never get any of that back.
I am still in the process of figuring out the labyrinth that is the sum of my life experiences and feelings. I have to tear off the (emotional) bandaids that I kept on for safety and address the pain that such a process produces. Not to mention the fact that the body does not do well with over a decade of abuse. I take steps forward and steps back. I like to think the overall trajectory is forward, though.
Sometimes I’m growing, and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I feel motivated, sometimes not. Sometimes I feel like I am exploding with feelings, and I want to gauge my eyes out. Sometimes I laugh until it hurts, and sometimes I am limping in agony. Sometimes my pace of recovery is that of a turtle.
I am learning to believe that is all okay. Sometimes.