Graduating from an Eating Disorder
This month’s post comes from Nicole, who talks about the life education she received from her recovery. Her story is a reminder that while things may not take the path we expect, there is still something important to be learned from the journey.
Most of my life, I have been told I am too sensitive, that I think too much, and often times, I should learn to care less. At a very young age I realized the challenges that went along with navigating life as a highly-sensitive introvert, and a child of recent divorce. My sensitivity, empathy, and near-constant analysis of everything around me led to two things, not unlike and yet so very different: (1) a very creative and spontaneous life, and (2) an eating disorder.
Even as a child, I had a heightened awareness of what I was putting in my body. At times, this was harmless, mindful even. Having been raised in a home that encouraged growing our own food, I often enjoyed the experience of eating a tomato plucked straight from the plant while sitting in the dirt of the side yard. Other times, this hyperconsciousness demanded walking laps around the playground to burn off a recently ingested pudding cup, and began, over time, to inextricably link food with shame. I developed far earlier than the other girls my age. I remember wearing two sports bras at a time to flatten my chest, and was intrigued by the (false) idea that I could run laps to shed my hips, which had begun to bow out, and set me apart from all the other girls. I was disgusted with myself.
College started. I was sixteen. I was overly ambitious, and fiercely limited by the malnourishment was drastically increasing weekly. I had very strict and bizarre rules for my food- often did not keep it down- and an exercise obsession. The tug of war persisted between my more-often-than-not absent brain, stark lack of energy, unpredictable rage, and my desire to get things done, go places, build a life, get straight A’s, get into Stanford, go to work, achieve, overachieve, never fall short, be my own worst critic…there was this idea that if I hurt myself and beat every other critic to the punch, that I could not be hurt by anyone else… My brain no longer worked the way I wanted or needed it to. Pounds fell off. I would forget how to drive home; I had no shame engaging with purging or self-harm in the bathroom at school; I would consistently turn in papers with a date that was months or even years off. The difference now was that people who had once noticed and simply observed, began to say things. I refused to believe there was a problem, although a tiny, hidden piece of my brain knew something was wrong if I was throwing up all my food. Despite all of this, I transferred to USF two years later, and the heaviest bag I packed with me was the one that contained my eating disorder. I suddenly was aware that I was in over my head when I stood up to leave transfer orientation in the gymnasium, blacked out, and fell down the bleachers. I lasted two weeks in school before I was hospitalized for the culmination of everything that had finally snapped. The doctors were unsure how much longer I’d live.
After several months at Cielo House, I began to make progress on my recovery. Three years post-treatment, I genuinely feel like a different person. Writing this post felt a bit bizarre, because it is hard to believe it was me. I did not get into Stanford. The world did not end. Instead, I had a rewarding educational experience at Santa Clara University, where I majored in Sociology and used my past with eating disorders to write papers for the anthropology department about this misunderstood addiction, and healing in solidarity. Writing music replaced my self-harm and desire to purge, and oddly, the same things that once fueled my eating disorder to unsustainable lengths now give me reasons to create other things, productively, and without consequences. I have a really powerful and healing relationship with food now. I appreciate what it does for me, and I eat knowing that I am feeding my brain and ability to appreciate life. I do not own a scale, nor do I count calories. Do I still look at my body and see things I don’t like? Yes. But those thoughts are quickly replaced by a reality check: I am alive and my body can do what I want it to. My journey through recovery helped me dig out an intuition I could trust, which was not easy because for many years I confused my intuition for the voice of my eating disorder. Yes, I’m still an introvert, and will always be one, but I have learned that being too sensitive, thinking too often, and caring ‘too much’is not a character flaw. For those of us who often receive that feedback, I guess the silver lining of those comment cards is that those same things allow us to experience things and connect with others in special ways. Five years ago, I remember thinking all I’m passionate about is this damn eating disorder. I wonder what would happen if I channeled all the energy of self-hate into something more….productive? Now I know what happens. It’s not a “what if,”and all that time spent stumbling around, wondering if recovery was even doing anything or how I’d live without an eating disorder, has provided some answers. Those answers are pretty rad.