The first step in any recovery story is admitting that you have an actual story. One of challenges, successes, fears, and ultimately, a positive end to the time anorexia was part of your life. I used to want to hide my own story of recovery, feeling like if I did share it I was perceived as an attention-seeker, not truly recovered, weak because of my experience, vain and image-focused, and stigmatized. As I write this today on honeyhearted, I am so far from ashamed or embarrassed. I’m proud and willing to talk about it because recovery was the best damn thing that could have ever happened to me.
Sometimes I look back on what started it all: what started anorexia and the eating disorder that consumed me and consumed my life for 6 years. In all honesty, I can’t even come up with an accurate answer. I was never over weight, no where close to being over weight. I was always petite, always ate a bag of doritos after class every day as soon as I got home. But, then again: anorexia is ultimately never really about the food. I wanted to regain a sense of identity; I somehow lost it during my freshman year of high school. I was full of life when I had started school, then quickly placed myself in a category that I believed others wanted for me. Within that category, I lost myself. So by losing weight, I truly believed I could gain some attention back while simultaneously gaining a grasp of who I once was again.
The foods I once loved were the ones I began to avoid the most. At first, the 3 pound weight loss only concerned my mom, considering on my small frame it showed immediately. Working out (something I once enjoyed through sports and to remain healthy) became a primary means to my goal. I can recall a specific day when I had one more tablespoon of dressing than I had wanted, and I needed to go on the treadmill just to burn off those extra calories. It became obsessive. Sometimes I am hesitant to write this much detail; but, I think at the same time, it’s important not to ignore any of the truth behind what I went through. As soon as I lost another 5 pounds (and another, and another, and so on), my mom took away my exercise privileges. That would be the last time I worked out for the next 5-6 years.
The reasons I “began” my eating disorder became foreign to me at this point. Now it turned into a constant battle between two sides of my head. There was the rational side, but the irrational side always was more powerful. I don’t need to get into details regarding numbers and my final weight loss. What I can say is that I reached a point where my therapist at the time admitted me to an outpatient program for treatment, 8 am – 2 pm every weekday. I was the typical outpatient client: I was stubborn, I refused I had any problems, I thought I was healthy.
I made friends quickly: with all the girls who were equally as stubborn, and who taught me the “tricks” to hiding butter underneath napkins and who would (unknowingly) teach me new habits that I quickly adopted for myself. Nonetheless, we created friendships. Strong friendships. There were 4 of us girls in particular who remained close, who we supported through every snack or meal that we cried during and couldn’t finish. Every meal we couldn’t finish, we would have to drink an Ensure Plus. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the taste of Ensure, it tastes like chalk. It also added to the discomfort you already felt after having just eaten a meal of foods your eating disorder considered forbidden, and after a meal you would have otherwise not have chosen to eat.
I don’t want to say treatment isn’t helpful. It did help me gain the weight back. But, my mental state was not stable; it was still not recovered. After I left the program, I would go home and restrict. I would try to hide food from my parents, tell my mom I drank the juice I needed to have with one of my snacks but really just pour it into an empty water bottle that I would empty out into the sink at night while she was sleeping.
I was there for a month and a half. It was ironic that over the course of treatment, I actually built myself a home there. The day of discharge was actually bittersweet. I didn’t really want to go. I wasn’t ready. The world outside of the hospital felt unsafe. As much as I would cry and complain when the dietician increased my meal plan at that hospital, the part of me that was withering away slowly was actually thrilled. It was excited to be told to eat, to be forced. So part of me was scared not to have that anymore. I was scared to constantly be at my house, where I had to do this on my own. I didn’t think I had the strength to do it. But I couldn’t tell the treatment team the truth. The anorexic side of me was telling me that this was my chance to revert back to old habits. It was this false sense of safety that was somehow so enticing.
I remained “recovered” (by that, I mean I kept on the weight, but was still struggling mentally) until I got to college. During my freshman year, I found it too easy to revert back to old habits. If I skipped a snack one day (for whatever reason, maybe I was busy with class, or I just hadn’t packed something), then I automatically HAD to skip it the next day. It was a cycle. a vicious cycle that never seemed to end. I was stuck in my mind. Food consumed my every thought. Restricting was second nature. It was so damn easy to restrict. Over the course of the next 2 years, I lost the most weight I ever thought I could. It never felt like enough though. I was a distortion and I couldn’t seem to catch a glimpse of the reality of it all. I remember the day the dean of the school called me into her office, told me to get in the campus safety car, and we were going to the hospital. I had my blood pressure and heart beat taken, and apparently I was at risk for a heart attack. I refused to believe it. I was 21 years old. That was impossible. I sat there for 8 hours as more tests were done. It was a repeat of my high school years of going for weekly blood tests, weekly EKG’s.
All of my blood work came back “fine,” which, to this day still shocks me. I look back at this time in my life and wonder how the hell I got so lucky and lived even though I was barely functioning. Everything was planned out strategically so that I wouldn’t fail my eating disorder, so that I wouldn’t get hungry. But I was hungry. All the damn time. I had several binging episodes during my lowest weight, which I actually did not like to talk about with anyone (my body was just so malnourished, that it needed anything. And when it got a taste of something fulfilling, something with more than 50 calories a serving, it couldn’t stop). No one really knew besides my two roommates at the time. She would bake cookies, weekly. And when she would get home from class, at least 6 of them would be eaten. I was so damn scared after I had eaten those cookies. and it was just food. But food was everything.
The second and final recovery
I remember lying awake every night for hours believing that “tomorrow I will finally recover.” I had this constant internal battle. I was always losing. The real Nicole always seemed to lose. Until one day, she didn’t anymore. I don’t really know what pushed me to recover. It just got to the point that I was so damn tired. I was wasting my life. I have always had this thought that there really isn’t much time here on earth at all, and that always scared the hell out of me. There is so much I want to do, so much life in me that I wasn’t willing to let go of. Not to anorexia. So on February 15, 2012, I started to recover.
It took me a while to gain the weight back. The first 5 was hard. Hell, the first pound was actually hard. But gradually, I did it on my own. Recovery wasn’t made up of multiple binges. It was made up of adding back in food week by week, healthy, wholesome foods. Food I was comfortable with, while still making sure I was challenging myself. Recovery meant wrestling with multiple voices in my head because the mental state that accompanied the weight lost was not going to be ignored this time around.
I had to redefine myself. For so long, I was known as the anorexic. Bones. Walking skeleton. I almost seemed to adopt that title for myself, I wanted to adhere to it, to uphold it as much as i possibly could. I had a whole lot of working on myself to do. I had to separate myself from the disorder and ask myself: who am I really? Who do I want to become without anorexia? I am now 45 pounds heavier, and maintaining my weight. I am able to work out, daily, and I get a joy out of gaining strength at the gym. I understand now that the gym is meant to feel good mentally and physically, to improve yourself, to feel strong, not to burn calories. Not to obsess over what machine will be the most effective. I fuel my body with the food it needs. I eat, a lot, and I need it. And I’m more than okay with that now.
Where I am today
Do I still struggle? Every. Damn. Day. I think that’s important to remember: it’s possible to gain weight back and “recover,” but I think an eating disorder is a continual recovery process. Sometimes that upsets me. Sometimes it scares the shit out of me that I’m never really done with this. But I then look at how far I HAVE come, how much I am able to do with my life now, how genuinely happy I am. And then it hardly matters anymore. I’ve gotten to a point where I am able to go out to eat and enjoy myself. I am able to have a weekend away from home and feel completely free. It’s hard to explain this to others: that feeling of freedom. Because it’s something that most think is automatically felt. But it’s such a strong feeling to me. To feel like I can eat a meal without feeling immediate guilt afterwards. To eat a meal and not be thinking about each ounce of food I ate, for the next 24 hours (or 3 days) after I ate it.
I hold onto that sense of freedom, and remember where I came from every day that I get frustrated when I still have “eating disordered thoughts.” When I turn down dessert, I have to question myself: did I not eat that because of anorexia, or do I really just not want dessert? These are questions no one else has to ask themselves, but I do every single day. I constantly monitor myself. I have become so self-aware of my own habits, of triggers that could cause relapse, but I will never allow them to.
I need the strength I have now. I have so much life left to live and I need the strength in order to live it fully. There are days where I am depressed about spending 6 years of my life “anorexic.” There are days where I look back on those college years, and I can’t seem to pick out a memory that didn’t involve the eating disorder. But then I think to myself: damn, I am so lucky to even be able to feel emotions. For so long I just numbed out every emotion, whether positive or negative. I was on auto pilot. I lost contact with my family, my friends, myself. So today, even sad emotions… I am so grateful for. Just grateful to be able to feel anything at all.
Do I regret it? I regret the time that I missed out on. The experiences that I avoided because I was anxious of the food that would be there, or because I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed for more than an hour. But at the same time, anorexia gave me the motivation to want to help other girls recover. I strongly believe that no one will recover until they truly want to for themselves. That being said, I would love to be a part of that journey with them. It’s about viewing a person for more than their “disorder.” It’s about viewing them as a whole person, which is exactly what they are. Anorexia just happens to have invited itself into their lives, for a temporary time. It does not have to be permanent. I want to be there to help them find themselves again, apart from anorexia. Yes, it was the hardest experience I’ve had to face. BUT, I am exactly where I want to be now: I know exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life. Will eating disorders be a part of it? Yes, just not a part of the way I live anymore.
So there it is. An actually not-so-brief story of the struggle of a girl who had anorexia. Who is “recovered,” but still working every day. I think this experience is important to remember. To remember what I did go through, but also to be able to sit here today and say that I no longer identify myself with an eating disorder. It is a part of my life, but it is not who I am.