Months ago, I remember hearing this statistic in a podcast*: 1/3 of people with an eating disorder (ED) never recover (and many die), 1/3 of people recover, and 1/3 of people stay in a gray area.
This gray area is what I want to explore.
The gray area goes largely unmentioned (and possibly unnoticed) by professionals in the field, though a few forward-thinking therapist and psychiatrist have recently looked into the matter more. Just as bad for those “in recovery”, this issue also goes largely ignored and misunderstood by family, friends, and mainstream society.
I put “in recovery” in quotes for a reason because that is nearly impossibly to define.
This is where the gray comes in.
This question encapsulated my mind. I had recently been exploring it on my own in regards to my own journey after dealing with and getting over the symptoms of Anorexia from 6th grade to my freshman year of high school. (At the time, I was also exploring my body in a different way, having gone from ultra-runner to lucky-to-run.)
The symptoms, of course, involved being significantly underweight, severely limiting my intake of food, and needing to exercise everyday.
After threats of “we’ll stuff a tube down your throat”, “you’ll heart will stop” and “you’ll never play basketball again” I played the game. I fooled my therapist (despite giving her the silent treatment for the majority of my sessions), my doctor, and my parents. I gained the weight. They got off my back.
But my mind remained in shatters. My thoughts were still occupied non-stop by food and how my body looked. When I became a tinge overweight during my senior year of high school, stuffing down my emotions after another bad basketball performance with peanut butter and jelly bagels with an extra side of peanut butter, I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Once I even tried to cut myself out of my skin, but I lost the nerve and admitted not being brave enough to actually do it. (Now, I realize this was a positive sign that somewhere in me, I still had enough self-love to keep me from damaging my body.)
So what remained after the outward symptoms of the eating disorder disappeared?
The actual causes.
The OCD, the anxiety, the perfectionism, the depression.
Under that remained the underlying root: I believed I wasn’t enough. And I felt guilty for who I was.
No one ever addressed these issues with me. No one understood that Anorexia-Nervosa isn’t a disorder of low body weight, but of low self-esteem. A lack of self-love. It’s about the games the mind plays, the things it suggest you do to “make you worthy”, that you can never really live up to. This is what drives a person crazy.**
The majority of my causes remained until my early twenties. The healing process only began when I realized I had no other choice. It was either figure out a plan to get better or go back down the dark path I had been keeping a toe down for years.
There were several things that occurred when I chose*** to get better, I wrote in my journal, I repeated mantras, read self-help books, spent time in nature, and I started volunteering. But the main thing is, I chose to get better. I wanted more for myself.
Clearly, at least in my mind (contrary to the opinion of many traditional doctors), I was in the gray area the nearly 10 years between gaining an acceptable weight and deciding on my own to get better.
So where am I now? Sometimes the answer to that changes by the day. Normally I think of it as sunny skies (recovered) with passing gray clouds. And honestly, sadly, I don’t think I’m that far off from how most women think of their bodies.
Most of the time, I’m pretty accepting of my body. I appreciate what it does for me. I thank it for the runs it gives me and even praise my legs for getting me up mountains. I try to treat it well, feeding it plant-based foods. I still push it hard sometimes, but I try to balance it out with Yoga, foam rolling, and rest.
My best times are when I’m in the woods, no mirror, when I can only judge my body by what it can do (taking me to some of the most beautiful places on Earth) and for how it feels out there in the wild: strong, powerful, beautiful.
But then I get back to civilization, to full-length mirrors, to pictures of sleek runners with rock hard abs on my Facebook feed. I upload the pictures of Supergirl and myself from our adventure and force myself to post the ones where I think my legs look to large.**** I eat too much, following my dinner an hour later with a large snack and extra chocolate. I try not to cringe when the man I’m dating touches my bare thighs, where my stretch marks are highlighted by my Colorado sun tanned legs.
I’ve even dropped so low, last year during my brief relapse with depression, as to wish I was Anorexic again, or at least had the same will power to stay away from food. But that’s what mental health challenges do to a person. One can lose all rational, lose sight of the light that lies within.
Recently, my sister recommended to me a new movie out on Netflix, To the Bone, which portrays the story of a female with Anorexia and some of her struggles. She wanted to know if I thought anything was triggering*****, both of us knowing that many well-intentioned movies, articles, and speakers can set off many negative habits, like talking about weight and “tricks” used (when hearing of another’s low weight, a person with an ED may make their goal to reach that weight or one lower.) While there were several triggers (though I believe necessary to portray at least a partial true picture), Sandi may not have guessed the one that I found personally reminiscent, though not triggering (obviously, Sandi knows I am healthy and happy in who I am, now being on the path to obtain my master’s in counseling so I can help others who face the same challenges I once did): the lead character Ellen/Eli often measured her arm by wrapping her thumb and pointer finger around her bicep. I used to do the same thing, taking pride when my finger and thumb met. It’s a habit I still catch myself doing from time to time. I still have to remind myself that it is muscle that inhibits my hand from completing the full circle. (All in all, I found the film to be a hopeful vision to a path of recovery and a much better start to telling the story that some documentaries I have watched.)
Despite my idiosyncrasies, I still allow myself the label of “recovered-with some clouds”. After reading of my nuances above, some might think this is a bit of a stretch (while, on the other end of the spectrum, others may feel this whole blog is a stretch as my eating and body weight are relatively “normal”). However, I have not mentioned the key factor, the factor that will keep me from every going back to an eating disorder:
I love myself.
And because, after years of searching, I have found that unconditional love****** for myself, I only want health and happiness for myself. I may be disgruntled when I feel like I am on my heavier side, but because my heart is rooted in love, I can handle it. I also know that my life has a greater purpose. I’m still here so I can help others spread their wings, to realize their own strength and beauty, and to reach their highest peak. I know I am more than my body, that I only shine bright when my soul is on fire with passion and purpose.
I had one profound experience this past spring, nearing the end of my first semester at Naropa. I was in session with my practice student therapist, who I had spent several sessions with talking about physical challenges (athletic injuries) and past history. As usual, she asked me how I was feeling about my body. Before I even processed my response, the words “I love my body” came spilling from my lips. I was surprised. Not because this was the first time I had ever said this (I had repeated this line to myself in front of my mirror many times) but because I actually meant it.
I still think of myself as flawed. I may have done irreversible damage to my body. I have big feet. My mind spins and I get lost inside of it. But my flaws are part what make me, ME. My flaws have helped me grow. They enhance my light. In spite of them I shine.
And if some clouds comes in, I can deal with that too.
But that is because I chose this path for myself. I worked for it. I have a sister and a dog who showered me with love. Not all people with EDs have that.
Still, there is hope. There’s YOU. You can shower others, not just those with EDs, with your love and light. Letting then know the are ENOUGH, just by being who they are, no strings attached.
One last note: Not all women/men who are pressured with ideals of a specific body image get EDS, nor does all people who try a drug or drink alcohol become addicted. Contrary to the sad but popular opinion that this is because those people are weak, I would suggest that it is because that these people are especially sensitive, suffering, and have a huge capacity to feel in all depths. These people are actually like barometesr to what is going on in their lives and in society at large. If, at the beginning, we start honoring these people and their gift, they can help show the rest of the world when things are off-balance. *******
Love & Light,
*I have to say more about this podcast as I believe it is one of the best out there on eating disorders. This discussion was held by Running on Om and features Lauren Fleshman and Melody Moore. While it is directed towards female runners, it holds lessons on how we treat ourselves and talk to all people in regards to body image. The quote begins at 1:02:45.
**Some people who put a lot of weight into semantics would be indignant with my use of the word crazy. Thanks to my therapist who, when I apologized for using the word”, told me I can say what I want, I really don’t care. In my personal dictionary, I consider crazy to be defined as a feeling of losing control, not necessarily or always related to mental illness.
***This is important for any family member dealing with someone with an ED/addiction. Recovery has to be a choice. Until a person makes that choice for themselves, all you can do is offer them your unconditional love for them (though I realize that for some, needing to step away from the person with addiction may be necessary for ones’ own self-care. It’s not selfish, because when the person does decide they want to get better, you’ll be able to offer your full self and support.) If you are able to love her/him despite the ED/addiction, they might be able to find love for themselves too.
****It’s true, I often still wear short-shorts that really only (but fully) cover my booty. But I am still often uncomfortable in these shorts, especially when I see myself wearing them in pictures. “Then why wear them?” you may wonder. Because they give me some sense of being attractive enough, fit enough, to wear them. So next time you see a girl walking down the street wearing shorts that you think are way too short for her, realize that she probably has a more meaningful reason to be wearing them that most would care to acknowledge.
*****The truth is, everything is triggering for someone with an eating disorder. Food is everywhere. Images of perfect bodies is everywhere. And, most likely, reminders of “not being enough” are everywhere. No film that discusses the subject could ever not be triggering nor would I recommend watching this film with someone currently with an eating disorder, at least not without supervision and leaving time to talk about emotional scenes. While the film was limited to the struggles and journeys of someone with and ED, I believe it gave an accurate portrayal and kept in touch with the film makers and actress’s personal stories. No film on this difficult subject matter will ever be perfect, but lets applaud those willing to take the risk and keep the conversation going.
******Special thanks to Supergirl for her lessons on unconditional love.
*******Check out Gabor Mate’s work for more.