You can replace the word “anxiety” with “addiction” and understand yet another mental illness.
I gulped back tears reading my mother’s response to my anxiety story. After years of trying to help me understand my little brothers drug addiction, I realized I resist because I too battle with an addiction (or many) of my own, all stemming from my anxiety.
I’ve never given the full story of my struggles to anyone in my life. Because vulnerability and admitting you have a problem is a scary thing. Today, I am opening myself up to a world of judgement, scrutiny, and concern. Here goes nothing…Today begins National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. There exists a stigma around eating disorders, as many fail to accept them as mental illnesses, not a lifestyle choice. Restricting food and weight can be a way of controlling areas of life that feel out of control; of numbing emotions that feel too complex or frightening to conquer alone.
I grew up with an unhealthy relationship with food. My obsession began innocently in 8th grade after joining the track team in attempts to get fit. As the pounds seemed to melt off at an alarming rate, the compliments began rolling in. Friends and family told me how great I looked and I finally began catching the attention of boys, all encouragement to continue on. It wasn’t until my weight reached scary low levels that it became a concern. Within a few months, I dropped from 135 pounds into the double digits (tiny on my 5’8 frame). My pants became baggy, my knees knobby, my face gaunt-like. I would get headaches, was always cold, bruised easily, stopped having periods, my nails became brittle, my preciously lush hair thinned out.
Doctors were scared, my parents were scared, I wasn’t scared.
For me, I felt powerful. I felt on top of the world when I was hungry, every time I skipped a meal or refused a cupcake at an event. I felt proud of my willpower to resist, that when everything else in my life was changing beyond my control, I could control what food I put into my body. It was a way to block out those things that I was incapable of dealing with at the time, to cope with how uncontrollable my life had become. Look how strong I am, I would think. Ironically, I was the weakest I’ve ever been.I adapted a rigid approach to eating, anxiety about certain foods, inflexible meal times, an obsession with every morsel I put into my body. I would weigh myself obsessively and harp over every last ounce gained. My brain’s energy was engrossed in thoughts of weight loss, calories, BMI and the ideal body. Whereas drug addicts indulge, I would restrict.
I became addicted to being perfect in every aspect of life. No matter what I did I was never good enough, beautiful enough, strong enough, or successful enough. I didn’t want to be “normal” anymore, I needed to be extraordinary. I was destroying myself in the pursuit of beauty.Secretly, I didn’t want to be healthy. I was friends with Ed, Ed was always there for me. I was trapped in another world of disconnect from other people. The only sense of solace and comfort I could find was in the arms my eating disorder.
My mom was already dealing with my brother’s addiction and the last thing I wanted to add to her plate was worrying about me. She didn’t deserve two fucked up kids. She would try everything in the world to get her little girl back, but I would lie and refuse help, not wanting to admit defeat and uncover how fragile I had become. I denied her the connection I so badly needed for recovery and taking back my life.
I began freshman year of high school looking like a 12 yeas old. I was paranoid that people would watch me eat at lunch, whispering to each other and making snide remarks: “Do you have a disease?” “What happened to you over the summer?” “Do you think that looks good?” “Do you make yourself puke?” I would eat to appease people and avoid public scrutiny, but hated myself for giving in.
I went to a slew of doctors throughout my adolescent years: Endocrine, thyroid, Eating disorder clinics, therapists, nutritionists, you name it. They made my parents monitor every meal I ate and stay with me for the next 30 minutes to ensure I didn’t go purge it out (I never did). I was forced to drink calorie-loaded milkshakes two times a day on top of my meals, which often I would pour down the drain. I was hospitalized with a fatally low heart rate. Nothing phased me.
I trained my body not to be hungry at breakfast and instead chug cups of black coffee until lunch. I’d snack throughout the day but never eat a substantial meal to save up for dinner time with my family, to fool them into thinking my third servings was me actually eating. I would pretend I was sick to avoid meals, hide food in napkins, and spaz out if dinner wasn’t ready “on time,” any time things didn’t go according to my perfectly curated plan for the day. My tennis coaches were impressed that I continued to maintain my strength, endurance, and gusto. Typically, malnourished people will lose this ability. I broke down when the doctors wanted me to quit playing tennis, because they were afraid of the exercise and my weight dropping any lower. My parents went against the doctors orders, as they knew tennis kept me sane amidst the chaos.
I let my obsession tear apart my relationships, closing myself off and refusing social events for fear of having to eat in front of people. A long term boyfriend ended things from a mix of embarrassment, no longer finding me attractive, and because I was afraid to get intimate any more. It hurt losing my first “love”, but ironically, only pushed me further into the depths of my disease.When I went away to college, believing I had my disorder under “control,” Ed reared his ugly head again. The stress of studies for my Type-A perfectionist self turned my anorexia into binge eating at the buffet-style dining halls. I felt like shit (physically and mentally) and tell myself I’d do better the next day. Then I began restricting my calories again so I wouldn’t feel guilty drinking beer at parties.
When things weren’t going well in my life, relationships, school, or otherwise, I reverted back to my old ways. I’d gotten so comfortable being under 100 pounds that anything in the 3-digits was disgusting, fat, and unworthy. I look back at photos from my past now and am disgusted. But even scouring my past Facebook albums for proof, I ask myself if I was “skinny enough” to look anorexic.
After ten years of struggling, I like to consider myself “recovered” at a restored, healthy weight. But even today, I have maintained many of my disordered eating tendencies: refusing to drink “empty liquid calories,” always opting for the diet version and sticking with water, black coffee and vodka. I’ll binge eat late at night, walk around grocery stores for an hour, not allowing myself to make a decision. On dates when my anxiety flares up, I tear apart napkins and play with my food moving it around before eating it.
The thought of being pregnant one day and my weight spiraling out of control scares me to death. But doctors have told me I may have made myself unfertile by depriving my body for so long. I am scared for my future daughter, that I will pass down this disease to her innocent self. I wouldn’t wish my struggles on my worst enemy.
Slowly but surely, I realized how miserable my life had become. I had to make a change or risk losing my life to this disease. I would rather be ‘average’ looking over a starving, ghostly, anxiety-ridden skinny girl any day. It’s just not what my body nor genetics has in store for me. Would you believe me if I told you I once was deathly afraid to travel? The thought of leaving my comfort zone away from foods deemed “safe,” living on island time with unstructured eating times and guzzling calorie laden cocktails, is an ED’s worst nightmare. Not to mention I was afraid of wearing a bikini, self-conscious of my protruding collar bones and lack of boobs and butt.
Traveling (and moving across the globe!) proves to Ed that he no longer has control over my life, that I no longer need his comfort. It tells him that I gladly embrace risk, change ,and struggles, because otherwise, I am not truly living. I vow to face my fears and adventure into the unknown, to embrace change, to explore and to dream. I deserve to soak up every ounce of this crazy, beautiful life.The key to recovery is striving for a balanced lifestyle. My automatic mode of thinking is black or white; all or nothing. That middle ground is ambiguous and scary. That’s the paradox of control. You can be in control of your life only when you stop trying to be in control of every single aspect all the time. It’s okay to be perfectly imperfect.
I can’t imagine ever returning to the scary, dark place I was for so many years. I am present in my relationships, no longer sleepwalking through the days, weeks and months. I am so much more alive in every aspect of life now, and people take notice! My eyes shine brighter, my skin glows radiantly, and my words carry far more weight. I am happy in my own reality.
At this point in my life, I am convinced I have my eating disorder under control. But just as any addiction, I know this will be a lifelong battle. But a battle I am willing to fight until the end.
By far the hardest post I’ve ever hit publish on.