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By Eileen Goddard
I remember the acute misery that was my life at 19. That was the year that I moved to Nantucket for the summer with my first serious boyfriend in June.
By the time I was back at college that fall, I had lost more than 50 pounds and was completely miserable, with no idea what had happened to me or what to do.
I should have known better. After all, I had already seen my little sister go through the same thing in her early teens. During those years, I had played the frustrating role of the older sister who couldn’t understand what she was going through. I remember the hot wash of anger I used to feel every time she refused to eat -- how it seemed like the stupidest thing a person could do. What, I used to ask myself, was she trying to prove?
But I couldn’t fix my little sister then, and three years later, she couldn’t fix me. My obsession had started so simply during that sad summer in Nantucket, when my days became a rote blur of working two horrible jobs and going home to a boyfriend I was slowly growing to hate.
I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was wrong; I only knew that I was deeply unhappy. In Nantucket. With my boyfriend. In my own skin. One day that summer, I started to count the calories in my meals. Before long, a single cereal bar had become breakfast and lunch. Two months later, I was back home in my Chapel Hill apartment, measuring rice out by the grain.
The worst part about anorexia is the way that it puts you at war with yourself. By the time you are anorexic, you have learned to stop thinking of your body as home. Over time, your body has become a thing that you find yourself trapped in, a thing that you hate. And so you keep trying, day after day, to sculpt, reshape, and torture your body into a kind of submission.
Your world has gotten so small that there is nothing else left: your body and your obsessive thoughts are all that you have. In the end, I knew how scary I looked. I knew, because I felt so scary inside. But I was still afraid to give up that world -- I knew that without it, I would be left alone with the same unhappiness, anxiety, and fears that I had tried so hard to escape.
Learning how to love myself was what saved me, and it was a traumatic and painful romance at first.
I started doing gentle yoga twice a week, and I remember sobbing most nights during the final meditation, as the teacher would ask us to connect with our breath, with ourselves, and to thank our bodies for their strength. Lying there on the dark floor, I finally believed that it was safe again for me to exist. I knew then that I deserved better, and that my body didn’t have to be at war with me anymore.
The first night that I allowed myself to eat again was when I knew I was officially in recovery.
I went out that night with a friend, and I drank two glasses of wine. I hadn’t allowed myself to drink wine in months because of all the calories, but I remember thinking “Fuck it” when my friend Mike offered me a glass, and I felt defiant and proud when I put the cup to my lips.
Afterward, when we ate burritos, I wanted to cry.
I finally did cry when I got home later that night, pulled down my boyfriend’s box of Oreos from the top shelf, and helped myself. It was the first time that I had eaten a cookie in almost a year. Even today, it’s hard for me to articulate the amazing sense of freedom that I first felt that night.
After being in the dark for so long, the light switch had finally flipped. For the first time, I knew that I was going to get better.
I really started eating again the next day. Those first few weeks were emotional and painful, but I never looked back, and I never stopped eating again. I remember how I ate almost constantly that month, and in the months that followed. Eating again was confusing at first -- after not listening to my body for so long, I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between when I was hungry and when I was full.
My body was confused, and I worried that eating would never make sense to me again. Other days, I worried that I had turned into a bottomless pit, and that I would just keep eating and gaining more weight forever. But the nutritionist and doctor that I was working with both assured me that wouldn’t happen, and it didn’t.
I learned, over time, to trust my body again. I learned that my body, much like me, is more resilient than I ever realized.
Recovery from anorexia can take a long time, if it happens at all. The physical part of healing can happen relatively quickly -- in my case, it only took a couple of months for me to gain all of the weight back, until I looked “normal” again. The mental part is what took me years to work through.
I still feel sadness and sometimes guilt when I think back to that horrible year. Guilt for what I put my family through, but mostly guilt for the way that I hurt and betrayed myself. For years afterwards, the only exercise I allowed myself to do was yoga. I refused to step foot in a gym, and I refused to be too selective when it came to choosing foods.
I was still afraid. Afraid that I might be capable of losing myself so completely one more time, that anorexia might one day try to sneak up on me again.
But today, I know that it won’t happen to me again, because I am a different woman today. At almost 30 years old, I have finally learned how to love myself completely, just the way I am. My body still isn’t perfect; it never was, and it never could have been, because perfection does not exist.
My body is unique, and it is mine, and it is the perfect body for me. Criticizing and disliking parts of myself just isn’t worth the cost anymore.
I remember one day during the first year of my recovery, when I thought that maybe I had gained too much weight and should try to lose five pounds. But I marched myself to the mirror that day, and I told myself no. I told myself that I would never look back on times in my life, dreaming of how perfect everything could have been if I had only lost five pounds.
What I have found, these past 10 years, in looking back at my life, is that loving and celebrating myself is the best gift that I can give myself, every day.