If you had asked me three years ago whether I believed I would ever be able to share my story of recovery, my response most likely would have been a hopeless "no." For me, the idea of living without an eating disorder, especially "my eating disorder," was incomprehensible. For nearly eleven years my eating disorder was my friend, my safety net, my armor and my identity. By starving, purging, and exercising away the self-hatred, worries, and struggles that lay within my heart and mind, I thought I was opening myself up to loving others more fully. I truly believed that with an eating disorder, I could do anything and everything. Reflecting back upon those years, I now realize that the "honeymoon period" with my eating disorder ended soon after my struggle began. Over time, I have come to understand that I was engaging in a deceitful and unforgiving relationship with myself. I was a prisoner in my own skin. This is my story…
When I was in 6th grade, my life changed forever with one comment from my dance teacher, whom I truly adored and admired. Yes, I probably had the genetic predisposition to developing an eating disorder, but the environment in which I found my passion was not the most conducive to preventing its onset. It all began when I was not accepted at a summer dance camp. I was accepted at four others but could not understand why I had been denied admission to that one in particular. When I discussed my summer camp options with my dance teacher, she stated that I was going to have a tough time in the years to come because I would continuously battle with my body weight, size, and shape. According to her, since my father was overweight I was destined to be overweight as well and would never be as successful as other dancers who had the "ideal dancer's body."
I wanted my dance teacher to see me in a different light. I wanted her see me as the perfect dancer I desired to be. So, for nearly five years, 7th through 12th grade, I followed the same daily routine as I dressed for ballet class: use the restroom (to purge if necessary), tape blisters, carefully put on seamed pink tights and a black leotard, pull my hair tightly and perfectly into a bun, sit and slip on pointe shoes, swallow two extra-strength painkillers, and snap on a tummy belt. Plié, tendu, balancé, échappé, fouetté, grand jeté, pas de chat, penché, pirouette, rond de jambe en l'air, and saut de basque were just a few of the many French words and phrases that became my second language. The dance studio became my second home. Every part of my being loved dancing because it was my way of expressing myself and releasing any emotion that occupied my mind. Others recognized my talent and my passion, and I embraced the identity of a dancer and a person with an eating disorder. For me the two were inseparable.
As part of this identity, I was not allowed to make a mistake, experience physical pain, or expose my self-hatred. I was supposed to be "perfect." Fighting against hunger and denying myself food were expressions of my effort to become perfect. I was striving to live up to the expectations I had of myself—to be the perfect dancer, the perfect student, the perfect daughter, the perfect sister, and the perfect friend.
Even though I had many friends and a family who clearly thought I was lovable, I believed that being thin would make me more perfect and, therefore, more lovable. The thinner I was, the more love I could and would receive—or so I believed.
My eating disorder voice told me that being thin was the key to being loved, but in my journey to recovery I came to realize that this was not true. In reality, it was a lie my eating disorder loved to tell me.
When I entered college I began to get frustrated with my struggle. Unfortunately, my belief that if I quit dancing my eating disorder would go away also turned out to be untrue. Rather, when I stopped dancing I became involved in NCAA Division I rowing. I signed up for 20+ hours of training and my eating disorder fully supported that commitment. Before I knew it, I was exercising up to four hours per day, counting every calorie that entered my mouth, and isolating myself from my closest friends in an effort to hide what I knew was not normal behavior. Once again I was striving for perfection. I wanted to be the fastest, strongest, and leanest person on my team. We practiced indoors using rowing machines, and for me, each practice was a fight for my seat in the top boat—until I collapsed after a practice race and needed medical attention.
"Dehydration" was the diagnosis, but fluids were not the only thing I received from this event. My coach and the Athletic Department forced me to enter therapy and see a physician every week. I would have to be cleared by a psychologist and physician before I could return to regular practices with the team. While I was not yet ready to begin recovery, I had to face my eating disorder and began to entertain the idea of seeking help.
Over the years, my eating disorder placed me in a wrist cast from falling while running, in a walking cast from a stress fracture due to over-exercise, on crutches from a sprained ankle, and finally in therapy to address my eating disorder, in a doctor's office for medical clearance, check ups, and blood work, and in the hospital to replace fluids that I'd lost through restricting and purging. Most important to me, however, was the emotional pain that my family and closest friends had endured as a result of my eating disorder. At that point, I did not want to find out where or what the next stop on the path of self-destruction might be.
My journey to recovery has not been easy or smooth, but it has been memorable. It took many hours of therapy, nutrition counseling, journaling, attending support groups, and a strong willingness to choose recovery with each new day. There were many times when I wanted to throw in the towel and give up because the fight seemed like too much for me to handle. But fortunately, my support system and treatment team were there to help me at every wrong turn and obstacle I encountered.
I now live my life free from the grips of an eating disorder. I wake up and go through my day without having to weigh myself or my worth. I eat without having to know how many calories are in the food. I shop for clothing and walk out with full shopping bags! Admittedly, there are still days when I find myself being critical of my body weight, size and/or shape, but I no longer allow those negative thoughts to determine my mood or how I will interact with others. Rather, I let them pass and do not allow them to ruin my day.
Each day I make the choice to continue walking the path towards being "recovered." I have learned that this path is as much about discovery as it is about recovery. Each new day I am blessed to experience is another day I choose to put my best foot forward and work to maintain my recovery. Never would I have thought I would be saying this, but I offer you these words: recovery is possible and worth it!
My wish for those of you who are currently struggling is that you find the courage to face the demon that is your eating disorder. My wish for those of you who are on the journey to recovery is that you continue to find the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We are all blessed with one life, and what I now know is that life is so much better free from the grips of an eating disorder.