There was a day when I didn’t think I’d make it to 22. There were a lot of days when I didn’t think I would make it to 22. I was first hospitalized for anorexia when I was 17. After a year of slowly starving to further and yet further emaciation, my heart had given up. I went to an inpatient clinic once I was stable enough to leave the children’s hospital, and then cheated at my final weigh-in so that I could graduate from program only to start losing all the weight I’d had to gain. I came back to high school halfway through my senior year and eventually, I considered myself in recovery. That lasted about 5 minutes. I relapsed; I relapsed hard. I hit a lower bottom than the first and nearly died, again.
Today I can get through meals without anxiety attacks. I can eat over 100 calories in a sitting without feeling like I’ve committed some vile act to be ashamed of. For those who have been fortunate not to suffer with an eating disorder, feeling disgusted with yourself for eating a single blueberry probably seems very strange. Absurd, mind-boggling, insane even. It is insane. It is insane that a person’s biology would betray them. It is absurd that my mind would warp my survival mechanisms and drive me to avoid the very thing needed to sustain my existence. It’s so strange that before recovery I never thought I could ever have the strength to challenge it. Your mind working against you is an excruciatingly powerful experience to overcome. It’s so consuming and so terrifying that I didn’t think I could ever get out alive. I spent too many years being afraid of a fate that I didn’t choose – and one that I didn’t believe I had any control over.
Your mind working against you is an excruciatingly powerful experience to overcome.
This August marks one year that I have been in recovery from anorexia. This December will also mark my 23rd birthday. After several hospitalizations and 5 brutal years, I am happier and healthier than I ever thought possible. I am truly in love with life – in love with adventure, in love with new experiences and in love with the possibility that each day holds.
It has taken an immense amount of hard work to get to where I am today. It has been a trying, taxing, enlightening, humbling and ultimately life-changing road. Along with the one-year milestone comes a lot of reflection on what recovery means to me – how I define it and what I need to stay in it.
Here are 7 lessons that I have learned in recovery:
1. Victory does not mean a cure.
Someone once told me that I haven’t actually beaten my eating disorder until the unhealthy thoughts are completely gone. Of course, he said it in much meaner words and with palpable condescension. For years it shaped my view of recovery and victory over my eating disorder. I’m proud to say that I no longer let anyone else define recovery for me. Victory over anorexia does not mean that I will never have unhealthy thoughts – that food will never scare me or that I will never have a bad day. Victory over my eating disorder is looking it straight in the face and saying, “No, bitch. Not today.” Victory is not silence, it is hearing that unhealthy voice and choosing to fight it. I didn’t wake up one day and choose to develop anorexia, so I have no expectation of waking up one day and being able to turn it completely off. To tell me that I haven’t succeeded unless I do is ridiculous. It’s far stronger to defy unhealthiness than to live a healthy life with no challenge to the contrary.
2. Some days will be harder than others.
That sounds obvious. It’s a cliché, but it persists for a reason – because it’s true. Some days are like a series of tidal waves crashing over me, threatening to pull me back into the depths of anorexia and drown me there. Some days, weight restoration makes me feel like the walls of my throat are closing in and that I will suffocate to death. Those days still come. Recovery doesn’t mean that I am totally out of the woods. It is a fight to stay in recovery, but the more I fight, the less and less I experience those dark days. Most days are challenging but not overwhelming. Most days, I can smile and laugh and joke and celebrate life despite eating three meals. Most days, I am happy and joyful and unashamed. Recovery means more good days. More great days.
3. Anxiety won’t actually kill me.
Even on the worst of days, with the worst of panic attacks or emotional breakdowns, anxiety over food or my body won’t kill me. It might feel like it. It might feel like I will lose all the air in my lungs or that my heart will explode in my chest, but it won’t. Even if the panic lasts for hours, it won’t actually kill me. I can take deep breaths, distract myself and let it pass. I’ll go to bed and wake up the next morning restored. It passes. It always passes.
4. Failure is not absolute.
I might have a day where I don’t eat enough; a day when I let anorexia control me. Those days when I’m not as strong as I should be do not make me or my recovery a failure. Sure, I failed on that day or during that meal, but I am not a failure. And those losses do not undo all the work I have done in my recovery. This is an important lesson for me because, like many of us who suffer with anorexia, I have a serious failure complex. I’m a type-A perfectionist and failing is just about the worst thing I could do. Because being a failure is one of my biggest fears, the ability to separate a loss from me becoming a lost-cause is essential.
5. There is joy in suffering.
When I was sick and people would tell me that I should rejoice in my suffering, I truly wanted to punch them in the face. When I was in the thick of it, the concept of finding joy in my pain was too convoluted to comprehend. Now, however, I understand. Now, I am incredibly grateful for the beauty that has come out of my eating disorder. My family was brought back together; I found my voice; I learned to take back my power; I realized how precious each day is; I’ve discovered just how strong I am. A hell of a lot of wisdom was borne out of me being sick. I also feel like I’ve discovered my purpose. That line is almost too corny to write, but it’s true. Even before I was truly healthy, my struggle helped people around me. Now that I am in recovery and can spread awareness on a larger scale, I’m inspired to spread a message of hope to those suffering and their loved ones. We don’t have meaningful enough conversations about eating disorders, and instead of just lamenting that fact, now I have the ability to make an impact. I find a hell of a lot of joy in that.
6. Humor is important.
I have a dark sense of humor. I’ve been through dark things and come out the other side, so darkness doesn’t scare me. Joking about the experiences I’ve been through and the absurdity that my eating disorder fills my mind with is healing. It lightens me. Poking fun at myself with my family and friends is healthy for me. You kind of have to develop a thick skin if you choose to be open about suffering with an eating disorder, so flipping the script is me taking back my power. There is a lot of strength to be found in laughter.
7. There is power in speaking.
I came out of my mom’s womb with opinions. My entire life I have been strong-willed, independent and not shy to stand up for what I believe in. Getting sick, though, that broke me. I became a shell of my old self – timid and withdrawn. I was quiet to the point of near silence. I didn’t know how to function while constantly experiencing a war in my brain. I didn’t know how to just be. Through recovery, I have gotten myself back; rather, I have gained an even better self. I have learned how to speak about my eating disorder and my experiences with dignity. I am not ashamed of what I’ve been through, nor am I shy about it. Being open and honest about the path I’ve walked is empowering.
Those are the lessons I’ve learned throughout my first year of recovery. I suppose there is one more though, and possibly the greatest of all: I am strong enough. I am strong enough to challenge unhealthy thoughts. I am strong enough to tell Anna to fuck off. I am strong enough to live a happy and healthy life. No – it’s not easy. To say it’s easy would dishonor my struggle and the struggle of all those fighting to stay in recovery. But, it is possible. It is absolutely possible! Hard and at times exhausting, yes. But possible.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
Kaylee is a writer and student based in Los Angeles. Follow her on on Just Kaylee.
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