Some pathologies stump your growth – literal and/or metaphoric. Eating disorders are in that category. Eating disorders quickly become your everything. Other affections, beliefs, or values become subordinate to the demands it makes.
I was a vegetarian on principle – I hate factory farms – except when I binged. I believed in feminism, except when it got in the way of my need to be thin at all costs. I longed for friendship and connection except when it interfered with exercise, which was almost always. I believed in standing up to bullying and abuse except when I was the victim. Especially if I was abusing myself.
My hypocrisy hurt my heart; it became another stick to beat myself with. How could I possibly expect to be thin and beautiful, the only thing that would make me valuable to the world at large, if I couldn’t be true to myself?
That the eating disorder wouldn’t let me was irrelevant. Logic isn’t a part of neuroses very often, and it’s almost completely absent from the eating disorder’s thinking.
Misery is happiness. Abuse is self-care. The eating disorder voice is quite Orwellian.
And then came boundaries.
Boundaries have been integral to my recovery journey. Not just with other people, though that’s been important. My eating disorder convinced me that I was less than others, so boundaries with other people weren’t allowed until I reached thin.
I’ll let you know when thin enough shows up. I’m an adult human with five feet and seven-and-a-half inches to my credit and I didn’t manage to achieve thin enough even when my weight dropped into double-digits. More proof that eating disorders are big, fat liars.
And though I despaired of my doormat ways – I recognized that they caused me grief – I didn’t realize that the lack was also harming my relationship with my own heart, mind, and soul. I’ve spent a lifetime talking to myself in ways I’d never speak to another human, except for perhaps on Twitter. [i]
I used to know who I was and what I wanted. That knowledge disappeared long ago, and I’ve struggled to recapture a sense of self ever since.
I’ve had values once upon a time. I acquired them from here and there. How my parents lived played a large role. Most of those rules and values were acquired via observation. We don’t talk openly about much in my family, historically.
For instance, we’re not overtly racist. There’s some in there – everyone’s a little bit racist – but most of what was there was a function of ignorance, and when they knew better, they did better. My mom finds racism and bigotry very difficult to understand. She’s very much in the “people are people and why can’t we just live and let live” camp. It didn’t occur to her that others might be differently-minded or that speaking out was necessary to prevent harm and abuse.
I spoke out, often at great cost, at least until my eating disorder became everything. There was no space left for an ethical life. There was no space left to figure out what was important or how I wanted to live my life. My life was on hold. This is another something I appreciate about my recovery journey. I’m getting my voice back. I’m still as nervous when it comes to speaking up, but I’m back to doing it regardless and I can report, with gratitude, that I’ve vanquished my tendency to blush.
Who am I? For one thing, I’m liberal. I’m probably a little to the left of liberalism on the political and economic spectrum, but words that live beyond the centre have been weaponized. Comprehension is also not required. “Equality” has become a hot-button word, a pejorative wielded mostly by straight, older white men who fear the loss of their influence and relevance. It’s hard to appreciate equality when you’re used to being king.
All hail the conservative warriors of the anti-woke, who uses as a slur a term they initially embraced as evidence that they’d taken the red pill.
Did anyone tell them the red pill is Tylenol? Now “woke” is used to attack people who are advocating for tolerance and acceptance. I accept that sometimes people go a little too far with their language, but isn’t trying too hard to be good a strange behaviour to mock?
I’m also a feminist. Who doesn’t want equality? It’s not so long ago that we didn’t have it, and sexism and misogyny are costly. Sexism, the patriarchy, and all that comes with those (including sexual abuse) are a part of eating disorders, and we don’t talk about that enough. We don’t talk about important things enough in our world. It’s not always our fault -we’re not nearly as independent as we like to think. We’re more controlled than we understand.
This can be a rough awakening for some. I’ve had a lifetime of not being in control of my life so for me, it’s old hat. It’s not good, but that bit of reality isn’t a surprise.
Eating disorders steal our identity. We all have one, but according to the ED, it’s insufficient. If it wasn’t, would we be so fat and gross?
I had an identity once, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. I was many things when I was a child. I was principled – I was aware that I had to speak up even when it made me uncomfortable. What’s right isn’t always comfortable, but it is necessary. [ii]
I was a friend, a sister, a daughter. I was a victim of abuse, too many times, and a collector of ACES (adverse childhood experiences). But I was still in the game, fighting for my life. And then things changed. I became someone with an eating disorder, and I moved to the bench, and there I sat for decades. When you have an ED, your focus narrows and your world gets small. We think our pathology will save us. We think the ED will turn us into our best selves.
It won’t. We also come to know that it won’t, long before we can admit that to anyone else or quit the hellscape. We don’t know it all the time, but often enough that the cognitive dissonance starts to damage.
We want nothing more than to be free. Free and thin, and free without doing the work required. We want to be better. Getting there isn’t as interesting, and offers of help always felt like an attack. Nothing got my back up faster than concern. They weren’t supposed to see.
I’d accept help only when I was close to death, and I’d pull away again once the crisis had passed. You forget the despair of the pit when you climb high enough to glimpse the light. The eating disorder promises to let you live there all the time, as soon as you’re perfect.
But look at me, out of the pit with imperfections in tow. Here I stand with three years of mostly sober eating under my belt. It’s nice that my brain is coming back online. [iii]
And with its return comes a desire to live a larger life than the one my bulimia condemned me to. Eating disorders narrow the world, and recovery opens the door. I’m starting to remember who I used to be and who I wanted to be. Even better, I’m starting to live that way.
Living according to one’s values feels good. It feels real. I like not doing things that hurt my heart. [iv] I like once again speaking truth to power. I like bringing the new me into my interactions and exchanges, even if other people push back.
It’s why I didn’t cave when my daughter tried gaslighting her abuse.
It’s why I now have conversations about feelings with my parents.
It’s why I can stand my ground, no matter the circumstance.
It’s why I’m able to care about my appearance again. Nice clothes, nice makeup, and a put-together presentation (I wasn’t even “allowed” to wear jewellery) were for later when I got thin. I’m enjoying rubbing my eating disorder’s nose in the dirt. Because later never comes with an eating disorder and while you’re waiting to start your life, the clock keeps ticking.
I’m in my fifties now. I spent the decades prior absent from much of my life. I worked. I had relationships. I had children. They were ghosts too often. The eating disorder was my reality. My eating disorder was the most important thing in my life. That truth hurts my heart sometimes.
I wish things had been different. I’m not wallowing in the land of regret, but I sometimes wish I’d reached for one of those outstretched hands sooner.
Values are vague and hard to define most of the time, mostly because we don’t spend much time in contemplation. It’s important to be able to articulate them, however. If we can’t speak it, we don’t own it and I very much want to own myself. I found a great list of questions in Emily Silva’s “Find your glow, feed your soul.” They help focus the thinking.
“Noticing and removing what keeps you from being who you want to be is the first step in seeking alignment with your values…In order to discover [them], here are a few questions to ask yourself:”
- what do I stand for;
- what am I doing when I’m at my best;
- what qualities do I admire in others;
- what do I believe in; and
- what attributes do I want to display in my life?
In the early days of my recovery, I felt empty. I didn’t know who or what I was. It was an affection for Jennifer Lopez that helped me at first. If I couldn’t be myself because I didn’t know who that was, at least I could copy someone I admired. More than once I asked myself, “what would jlo do?”
Over time, as my recovery solidified and my thinking became less broken, me became more me.
It’s nice, evolving. It’s nice, learning to like who you are.
Self-hatred is a heavy load.
[i] Honestly, I give up. Stephen King is a better writer. I just can’t quit qualifiers. We are who we are, and I tend to expansive and hyperbolic language. That would be difficult if I removed adverbs from my vocabulary.
[ii] I’m paraphrasing Spock’s father. Much wisdom to be found in science fiction, there is.
[iii] The eating is sober. The thoughts are not always my own. They’re smaller, however, and now I have space. I argue with myself a lot. The good part about that is, no matter the outcome, I win. I do have a favourite side.
[iv] Eating disorders hurt your heart literally as well. When you starve yourself, the body gets food and energy from wherever it can. It will eat your organs without a pause or a message sent.