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You know that one frenemy who says things like, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” or “Are you really gonna eat that, sweetie?” Imagine hearing those negative comments every single time you try to take a bite of food, and even crueler criticism if you dare to look in the mirror.
Combine intense self-hatred with perpetual hangriness, and that’s a glimpse of what it’s like to be a person with an eating disorder.
The first time I threw up on purpose, I was 14 years old. I’d been on a dangerously low carb, low-calorie diet for months and had lost enough weight to get compliments but not enough to raise my parents’ suspicion.
After two days of fasting, I nibbled on one sad, stringy slice of mango for dinner. The fruit must’ve been too harsh for my empty stomach; I vomited immediately. That wasn’t so bad, I thought, so I ate a few handfuls of leftover Halloween candy then puked into the bathroom sink.
The endless cycle of binging and purging that followed is the only thing I can remember about that holiday season; I was too self-conscious and foggy-brained for Christmas cheer.
For a long time, I didn’t even realize I had a diagnosable condition; I just thought I was a hopeless failure at coping with everyday life.
One day, I snuck the shared family laptop into my bedroom to watch forbidden Gossip Girl reruns (my parents were convinced the show would lead to promiscuity and other horrors, hence the sneaking). I came across an episode that dealt with my favorite character’s bulimia, aptly titled “Blair Waldorf Must Pie.”
Basically, Blair fights with her controlling mother and copes by binging on an entire apple pie. That scene struck me as disturbingly relatable; I was constantly butting heads with my own mother, and I used eating disorder behaviors to assert control over my turbulent teenage emotions.
There’s a particularly poignant moment where Blair stares back at her own reflection with a hollow, hopeless look that I found all too familiar. Say what you will about Gossip Girl (especially the finale – don’t even get me started about the Dan-related plot holes!) but that episode was a wake-up call for me.
It took me a few weeks to muster up the courage, but I finally confessed to my parents what was going on and asked them to take me to a doctor. I believe it’s a sort of miracle that I was able to ask for help, and I’m thankful that I was able to get medical and psychiatric treatment.
During the recovery process, however, I was actually more miserable than I had been while I was secretly starving myself. My parents opted for a family-based treatment route (a.k.a. the Maudsley approach), which essentially means that I continued to live at home and attend school instead of staying at a rehabilitation center.
The conflict between my parents and I increased tenfold as they began to closely monitor my every move. I now realize how heartbroken and scared my parents were, but at the time the attention and loss of control felt like a personal attack. I felt less lethargic and more detached from my body than ever. I channeled my growing energy and pent-up frustration into daily screaming matches with my mom.
“An eating disorder is like alcoholism or a drug addiction; you can be sober for years, but the threat of relapse is always there,” is what a pediatric psychologist told me when I asked if there was a cure for anorexia.
I told her that’s a stupid comparison, because while you can quit drinking or abusing drugs, you can’t just stop eating. (She responded that of all her patients, I was “the most resistant to treatment that I’ve ever encountered,” which I think was shrink-speak for “Why, you little bitch.”)
As much as I hate to admit it, she was right. Even four years after being pronounced “in remission” from my eating disorder, I still deal with a roller coaster of body image issues and an emotionally wrought relationship with food.
I wish I could write that I kicked anorexia’s ass, and now I can cheerfully eat buckets of ice cream in my underwear while singing “Flawless.” Unfortunately, like an annoying ex from a toxic relationship, my history of weight obsession and food addiction just won’t leave me alone.
It rears its ugly head in the form of eating disorder-y thoughts when I reach for a slice of cake, when I see pictures of myself next to my thinner best friend, and on the rare occasions I dare to wear a swimsuit to the beach.
When I gained weight, I lost what had been my identity as the skinniest girl in the room. Now, at 19, I'm 30 pounds heavier than before I recovered. I often remind myself that I’ve gained so much more than just stretch marks and squishiness; I’m drastically happier and healthier than I ever could’ve been in a starving body.
Nearly five years after asking for help with my eating disorder, I find my identity in my faith, my own abilities, and a supportive community of friends and family. Recovering from my eating disorder was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Some days my battle for positive self-image often seems like an uphill one, but I grow a little more confident every day.
Whether I’m doing yoga, having sex, or being a total couch potato, I try to remember to appreciate my body for what it can do rather than how it looks. In a way, I actually draw strength from my struggle with an eating disorder. Because I’ve already overcome so much, I can handle whatever comes next.