How does a 14-year-old girl find her life consumed by anorexia and bulimia? I was a gymnast, well aware of eating disorders, but even I still can’t provide a satisfying answer. I vividly remember the night I made my decision. I was sitting in an airplane seat, and I remember the blackness outside the windows and the yellow glow of my personal light illuminating whatever I was reading. How or why I got the idea to start on this path eludes me now.
I realize now that my eating disorder developed, in a perverse way, as an attempt to save myself from spiraling out of control. I couldn’t stop the thoughts and urges to hurt myself, and that scared me. I didn’t want to hurt myself. I vividly remember thinking that if I could control something so fundamental to my existence as my appetite and eating, then maybe I could learn to control my impulses. At that time, all I knew was that I needed what seemed like a safer escape before things got even more dangerous.
Everything spiraled quickly. I wanted to stop, but I was too consumed with my obsession. I was so full of rage and self-hatred. I deserved this. To be punished. To be empty. If I had control over my weight then maybe I could morph into a better person, one who was worthy of love and praise. Rejection would be less painful if I had the body I needed. The pattern made me feel powerful. I could be better than those that hurt me because I had self-control. I thought I was achieving perfection.
Looking back I can see that I was desperate to be listened to, to be believed. The depression seemed lost in a recess of my mind, invisible to the outside world. Through my changing shape, I could signal to those around me that I truly needed help. Maybe someone would intervene.
Finally, my despair was visible. The whispers and concern only fueled my obsession. How dare they think they can help me now when I needed their help so long ago? Why is my pain finally good enough when I have an eating disorder? Why was it only a mockery when I self-injured? The anger flared. Ironically, the thing I thought would bring me control only served to spiral me further into chaos.
What is so often forgotten is that eating disorders are more a disease of the mind than the body. No matter how far I get from the throes of the disorder, the distorted thoughts don’t go away. Maybe I can learn to ignore them, to tuck them into a dark recess of my brain where I only occasionally have to acknowledge their presence, but this disease never disappears. It follows me everywhere I go; I just get to choose how much power to give it. I get to choose how much I want to fight back.
I didn’t want to die because of this disease. I wanted to live, and I wanted to live a life that wasn’t dominated by the eating disorder in my head. I desperately wanted to be healthy. I wanted to be able to tell my little girl that she is beautiful no matter what. I wanted her to know her worth isn’t going to be found in her size. I wanted her to know that she never needs to step on a scale for validation.
Over the years, I got help. There were many years of counseling. There were the outpatient treatments and body image workshops. Throughout it all, I had to learn impulse control and how to figure out the root of my anger and self-hatred. I had to find forgiveness for the ways I had hurt myself.
It has been 13 years since I sat on that plane, but hardly a moment goes by that I don’t have to fight with my mind. I have to let the thoughts just bounce back to the darkness from which they came. I have to reaffirm the things I know to be true. I am strong. I am powerful. I take care of my body. I nourish it to the best of my abilities.
My value is in who I am as a person. It has nothing to do with my size. My value is in my intellect, my work ethic, and my generosity. I will continue to fight this battle every day for the rest of my life. But every morning I will wake up and know that I am alive. I will know that I have persevered, that I have won. And I will never let my eating disorder take me down again.