How I See Me: Anorexia Recovery

Lily circa 2009

Lily circa 2009

Almost ten years ago I opened up for the first time about my battle with anorexia. It has now been more than twenty years (more than 2/3 of my life) that I have struggled with this particular daemon. This is one battle I will always have to face.

As a child I did not have consistency or proper emotional support. As a human with a lot of very big emotions, learning to cope was mandatory. Restricting gave me something to control, but also something to equate my worth to. If nobody noticed that I was starving myself, did I really exist? Was I really worth loving? Was I worth anything? Of course I was, but I lived in a world populated with people who were selfish, inexperienced, and suffering. Nobody noticed me because they were too focused on their own lives–their own survival–and not because I wasn’t worth their love and effort. I know that now. . .

It started as a test. Do you see me? I would prepare what little food we had and would wait until everyone else had been served before I would fill my plate. I wanted to see if they noticed that I hadn’t eaten yet. I needed to know if they understood that taking the last of every dish meant that I wouldn’t have any. The problem with this test was that it was an experiment on children who were starving. Of course they ate what was available to them–they were trying to survive! My false logic, the understanding of my worth through this experiment, became systemic.

In a very large way, beyond just my exploration for validation and worth, restricting made the circumstances of my childhood something I could control. We never had enough food, but if I chose not to eat then that didn’t matter. What little food we did get, I convinced myself it was unnecessary.

I don’t need what you have, I can survive without your help.

This is a mentality that strayed far beyond an eating disorder. It was one of the biggest reasons I survived my childhood, but it has also been one of the biggest stumbling blocks in my recovery. It wasn’t pride–it was all I had. I had to do it on my own or I couldn’t do it at all. Nobody else was going to take care of anything, so I had to take care of everything.

What restricting did to my body was a side-effect, not a cause. It wasn’t even a goal. Prior to recovery I weighted 78lb. Because it was always about emotional control, I did not expect the upheaval that would occur with physical change. The state of my body is still a trigger for depression. At 160lb I am double the size I once was. Diet and exercise paralyze me because I’m terrified of relapse, but I can’t convince myself to be happy with the body I have now. I would rather be 78lb, but I’d also rather be emotionally healthy. Which one wins?

With this battle in constant motion in my head, sometimes relapses happen. Most of the time I am not strong enough to resist. I go days–or sometimes weeks–knowing that I am in relapse and working to hide it from everyone. What will people think, how will they judge me if they know I haven’t eaten in three days? How does dealing with their disappointment help me recover? Moreover, if nobody notices that I’m weak and tired. . . am I still strong?

In a blog entry I wrote almost a decade ago I equated anorexia to cancer. It sounds extreme, but it’s a realistic parallel. There is something inside of me that I cannot control. It grows or heals depending upon how it is treated. It could kill me if left untreated, but there isn’t a magic cure to make it go away. There are circuits wired to work against me because that is how they have been wired to protect me. Like cancer, vigilance and proper care are mandatory. Check-ins with properly trained medical professionals are mandatory. Relapse is a very real concern even if I’ve been healthy for several years.

The worst part of recovery is the looks. When I tell someone I’m in recovery from an eating disorder there is always a look. Are they trying to figure out which eating disorder? Do they not believe that it was anorexia because I’m huge now? Is there a part of them that thinks I’d be more attractive if I let myself relapse just a little? The looks that tell me that someone is thinking something about me that they won’t share. In truth, maybe that’s all in my mind as well.

Lilith GearhartComment