submitted by Laura
They say it's like an ice berg, this eating disorder (ED) I've struggled to understand and overcome for 13 years. Yet, as gloomy as that number sounds, I can say with absolute certainty that my understanding has reached the glacier's deepest waters. There really aren't words that describe what it's like to free yourself from an eating disorder, but I am evidence that it is possible and absolutely probable. The most important thing that came out of the process of recovery was ME, in my most honest and true form. From guilt and self-loathing, treatment taught me to accept and embrace both body and soul.
In the midst of my senior year of high school, enrolled in four advanced courses, captain of the swim team, and president of the student body, I wanted so badly to see myself in the same light as those around me, a bright, confident and successful girl. The girl I saw in the mirror each morning might as well have had the phrase miserable, ugly, failure tattooed on her forehead. But each word of encouragement from others just fueled self doubt and criticism. Nothing anyone said, activity participated in, or award won could abate my negative energy or cease the rumination in my head. I don't remember exactly when I began being "eating disordered" in order to quiet my mind. Sometimes I thought that if I pinpointed the first time I engaged then maybe I could have prevented it. However, there was never one moment, but a slow progression of choices that resulted in having no choice at all, other than the one to self destruct.
What I do remember from those early days is how helpful the ED was in my day to day. I could run from every awkward situation in school by funneling the nervous feelings towards food. Why think about that hurtful comment from my friend, the uncomfortable looks from older girls, or the ongoing communication struggle with my father when I could engage in alternative behaviors; it was a great means for escape, and it worked so well! It was as if I fell away from the world, and the eating disorder caught my fall.
By constantly fixating on what I wore, what size I was, or how I could sit in a chair so that my thighs looked smaller, I could burry the insecurities; never to face up to anyone or anything.
Now I am a smart girl, and was back then. I knew what it was to be "bulimic" or "anorexic." I had taken health education and watched the Lifetime movies, but those characters never represent YOU, maybe the girl sitting next to you, but never the one in the mirror. For an entire year I convinced myself of many things surrounding my new behaviors: I'm just closely monitoring my weight or, only a few more pounds and I will be satisfied - compliments from others on my shrinking figure only working to fan the flames of disordered thinking. Like any addiction, it did not take long to loose myself completely, to lie like a pro. There were moments when I realized what I was doing wasn't right. After a particularly bad ED episode, one that left me feeling physically exhausted, I remember sitting at the edge of my mother's bed pleading inside to tell her I had lost control. Yet somehow I could not articulate what I had been doing and I couldn't let it go either. A large part of me liked what I had become and needed it to keep me going. Slowly, ED was taking over the sensible side of my conscience; reminding me daily, every time I had doubts, that he was my salvation.
In talking with my mother years later, I learned that she sensed I was sick, but she was caught in the middle of something she didn't understand. Not knowing how to help me, or even how to name what was going on, she upheld the silence between us. It was a terrible silence we both wanted to shatter with our screams and cries for help, but ED is a powerful perpetuator of silence between a teenage girl and her mother. She and my Father both were pivotal at that time in my life, where most, if not all their control was unspoken. One disapproving look or disappointing word from them shattered me like a glass house. To this day I am discovering how disempowered I was as a child, uncovering more and more moments when I should've spoken up for myself. But I wanted to please them all…..not just my parents, but teachers and friends as well. In the constant battle to win over hearts, Laura got lost. ED was how I expressed myself. I could release everything inside through behaviors, all that I covered up in fear of disapproval. It is so clear now…emotional release is what I lacked. How many fun and carefree moments I missed during those early days trapped in that rigid prison, I guess I'll never know.
It wasn't until my freshman year of college, facing a major tragedy and confronted by family and friends that I made the first attempts to heal myself and take the power away from ED. To say that college was a difficult adjustment is to put it mildly. I had selected an engineering school three hours from home in western NY that had only 3,500 students in a town with one stoplight. I was homesick, and had the kind of roommate that threw up on your bed after a weeknight of drunken fun. To compensate, I spent hours a week at the gym and obsessed over my choices at the dining hall.
Weeks into that lonely first semester, three of my close high school friends were killed in a drunken driving accident. For someone masking her emotions it was an event that took the ultimate toll. General insecurities are difficult to deal with, but more so is the gaping hollowness death creates inside you. Survivors remain. They go to wakes and celebrate the ones that are gone, but then they continue living, left clinging to threads that keep those lost loved ones close. ED was a powerful solace in these worst moments, when it hurt to be the living. My behaviors were all consuming at that time; I grew careless at concealing them or coming up with excuses for my odd behavior. I was so blinded, so dependant on my eating disorder that I couldn't hide it from others anymore.
After Rachel, Emily and Kate died, I went through the motions of recovery at the encouragement of my parents and friends, because I couldn't get away with not trying anymore. I struggled to regulate my diet and made a pitiful attempt to journal about my feelings, I even saw a therapist for a full year, but these first attempts were superficial. My therapist didn't specialize and we only met once a week, where I had no other healthcare providers to meet with regularly. I would tell her I used a behavior and she would over-sympathize; saying it was alright, we'd get to the bottom of it, investigate my family ties and discuss body image. How futile those first attempts were; I had no idea how massive the glacier really was because the stuff everyone could identify as disordered was easy to put a band aid over. The bulk of an eating disorder isn't the behaviors or the lies you use to cover them up, it's the emotions and coping skills that are learned over time and deeply imbedded into your psyche.
Sadly, I didn't have the skills and insight during school to rip off the band aid and get to the heart of my disease. I saw shades of ED during this time, but for the most part I had adjusted. I LOVED college. The relationships I built there (friends and romance) were stronger than any I'd had in high school. I became grounded and my independence and self esteem grew so much that I rarely looked to ED for comfort. The grip my parents and elders had on me was loosened by this newfound adulthood and freedom. Most of the time, there were enough distractions on campus that I didn't need coping mechanisms, not to mention, there were so many people around that it made slipping away or spending hours at the gym much more difficult. Few people even knew about my eating disorder, and those who did were convinced I'd "kicked the habit." Even I felt free from that prison, but the truth was my bond to ED was always there……. waiting, lying dormant until I needed him again.
It didn't take long for that need to arise either, as a few months after graduation I fell into a deep depression. Based on a fear I think most new graduates face, I took the first job that fit my requirements and paid well, paying little attention to the location or who I'd be working with. I found myself in a rural Pennsylvania town with very few friends, and I missed college with a passion. Loneliness and boredom are two major triggers for my behaviors (I learned that later). Pretty soon I was using ED to comfort, distract and entertain me on a regular basis. After nine months of this isolation I jumped ship, moving to Boston after taking the first position I could find that offered insurance and coworkers my own age. The largest contingency of my college friends now lived in that vicinity, and it was a city, full of life and hustle. I'd lived my whole life in towns with less than 10,000 people, where all those corn fields and empty space left me, ironically, feeling suffocated. Driving across NY with my entire life packed away in a U-haul, I was ready for a new beginning; I thought I was leaving ED behind for good, but if people could relocate to escape all the trouble in their life then no one would take up a permanent residence. By the time I had lived in Boston for one year, I was into my third job and realized that my moving strategy had not done the trick. I was still depressed, still miserable at work, and even though I was surrounded by friends both new and old, my eating disorder was consuming more of me than ever. After years of experience I became the master at hiding my symptoms. I was able to make up elaborate excuses and slip away after meals, or explain away the puffy, blood shot eyes. It is amazing how manipulative I could be, telling the most ridiculous lies to explain odd behavior, when deep down my conscience would say, "Who are you Laura?" "When will this hell ever end; can I ever really stop doing this?!?" The screaming voice wanted out again, but these behaviors were the only way I knew how to get by, to feel "full" either physically or emotionally. My life lacked the substance I wanted so I covered up the holes with routines around meals, body fixation and elaborate exercise. There was no time to feel the difficult emotions; I was simply too busy being obsessed.
Two years into my life in Boston, I was blessed with two roommates out of necessity, complete strangers who quickly became my best friends. Tina and Megan were like my family, sisters I'd never had. And like my Mother years before, they sensed something was amiss with me, but unlike that long ago night on Mom's bed when I was painfully silent, somewhere inside I gathered enough voice to tell Megan and Tina that I was struggling. I can't explain why or what prompted me to come forward and admit I had a problem. Maybe my body was too tired from the pain I had inflicted on it or my head had run out of lies. Either way, I gave up the grueling maintenance of my eating disorder.
Tina, my most amazing champion insisted that ongoing therapy was just not enough support. So she found a treatment hospital via an internet search and signed me up for a consultation. Admitting to others there might be something wrong is one thing, but seeking medical treatment for a confirmed diagnosis is a step beyond. One I could not have made without such tremendous help from Tina and Megan, who called my parents and told them my eating disorder still existed and that I was seeking treatment. It is my firm belief that you need supports like these in your life to be built up. Without either of them, I couldn't have gained the courage I needed to walk into a hospital and allow the first trained professionals to help me. Aside from that, I didn't think I needed treatment like this. I was not "sick" or deserving enough of this much attention from friends, family and treatment providers. There were others out there who had it worse, who needed these people's time more than I did. However, I quickly learned that "sick" has no definition when it comes to an eating disorder, and though facing different symptoms, my peers in treatment and I would all be battling the same demon.
One week after my initial consult, I consented to a day treatment program, ironically located only 1 block from my apartment. The decision to participate in daily treatment was a reluctant one. I remember the feelings of shame and embarrassment felt that first morning as I walked into the treatment house. There was also a surrendering of control, something an ED victim maintains above all else. These negatives started to fall away almost immediately though, as I was greeted by the smiling face of my counselor Emily. She firstly took me through the routines for meals; an important treatment piece was the meal plan. Put together by a trained Nutritionist, each patient was given a schedule that suited her individual health needs. It's daunting at first, being "forced" to eat under the watchful eye of the staff and retraining your body to follow a regular meal schedule, but eventually I gave thanks for that meal plan. It was surprisingly freeing to surrender my care and needs to the outside, like switching the engine to autopilot. Unlike with alcoholism or drug abuse the ED victim will always be confronted by their vice- you can't quit food cold turkey. The meal plan was like an anchor. I didn't have to fight the ED voice in my head for the first time in so long. Instead, I could focus all my energy on the why's, get to the heart of my disorder and stop it where it lived. Eating in a healthy way was actually becoming comfortable again, and it was helping break down the stigmas I'd created of "bad food" vs. "good food." It also taught me proper portioning and how to read my hunger cues; I regained the ability to distinguish between biological and emotional hunger.
I met my fellow group members in treatment quickly, as we spent all our time together sharing meals and the day to day discomfort of eating them. I had never, EVER imagined how similar my struggle could have been to the others in group, but slowly their accomplishments became mine, and mine theirs. I didn't feel alone anymore. Our thought processes were so eerily similar, it's like they'd gotten into my head. Thoughts I'd had about food and the strange routines around eating, they understood; at the core our hang ups were the same. So together we attacked our icebergs from all sides and every angle. Treatment brought daily discoveries about myself, where instead of shame I walked into that house with the feeling of someone wrapping their supportive arms around me. I saw what lay under the water-those buried layers, and began to recognize the largest triggers of ED behavior. Once I became determined to get well and consciously push ED out my life started to become mine again. There aren't words to describe how amazing the process of recovery was. With the help of counselors, I learned an entire set of healthy behaviors for every negative one. When I was bored or anxious I could practice distraction tactics, or just breathe deeply and let the moment pass through me. I participated openly and completely in the activities and therapy sessions. During the most mundane conversations I could learn all sorts of hidden truths about who I was. There were certain coping skills I acquired that left me feeling ridiculous; like dancing to a hyper song alone in my living room to relive stress, but as I look back, those silly skills have helped me through the toughest times. The more you learn about who you are, the more you can predict a behavior several steps before it starts. It becomes more about healing and countering the negative emotions, than about stopping a binge. Instead of planning a trip to the bathroom I was making memories.
There was so much space in my life without ED, space to reconnect with my friends, space to laugh and actually pay attention when someone told a story. During my weeks of treatment I considered many basic tenants to living, like personal faith, love, life and career goals. These were elements which had been buried until I put an end to the secrets and lies, stripping away the excuses to expose the truth: my life lacked substance enough to keep me satisfied. From this revelation, I began taking steps to find what was missing. I bought a book on world religion and considered how I wanted to express my spirituality, visiting different faith houses to experience their services. For so long I had struggled to accept my family's church in accordance with how I was raised. That included suffering through 12 years of Sunday school, forsaking my beliefs for the maintenance of family tradition. With new inner strength not only did I take spirituality into my own hands, I was able to sit down and tell my father I wasn't Catholic anymore; that was certainly a difficult conversation, but one of the most empowering moments in my life. Choosing a religion or even having one at all was MY choice, and by making that decision, ED retreated just that much more from my psyche.
Through this period of healing, I even fell in love. Having met Adam a month before I was admitted, I behaved in typical fashion, almost breaking it off with him for being "too nice" and not aloof enough. Yet within a matter of weeks I saw him in new light, Adam was understanding and kind, and because I was learning to treat myself with kindness, I knew that I deserved those things from another. To this day Adam and I are together and happy. We are set to celebrate our third anniversary in July 2010, a date that also marks the month I successfully completed treatment.
When this period of treatment came to an end, it was as if a weight had been lifted, a light turned on, or any other cliché you can think of to represent great enlightenment. As I walked out of the treatment house for the last time, there was a tinge of bitter sweetness. A chapter of life was closing as I said goodbye to the staff who'd supported me, but at the same time, I was ready to face daily life with an arsenal of skills and new insights. With support from my counselors and fellow group members, I stepped into a partial treatment program. We learned additional skills and still ate meals together; there was an added level of self responsibility though, as the meals were brought from home. This was great practice of the portioning skills I had only just learned. During this transitional period, I made steps to find a job I actually enjoyed. However this time when I left a job, it was for the right reasons; I wasn't running from my problems.
There is no doubt that the self doubting, damaged and unsatisfied girl who walked into treatment one morning, walked out weeks later, a self exploring, whole, and satisfied woman. Though I am forever changed by that experience, I am still living through the process of recovery. My eating disorder did not vanish overnight, and it has taken vigilance and steady self care to drive ED further and further away. The inner discoveries never cease and I am astonished every day at how much more fulfilling and gratifying my life is without an eating disorder. For those who are now as I once was, stuck in ED's horrible, lonely prison, I wish for you the strength to break the silence. Let the healthcare providers, counselors and ones who love you provide support and most importantly, let treatment in with your whole heart. It may seem impossible to lead a life without disordered behavior, but I promise, the gifts that come from recovery are nothing short of divine.