Healing my relationship with food, an essential step to eating disorder recovery, required healing my relationship with myself. This is because the way I treated food was a reflection of how little value I placed upon my health and happiness. My fork may have been the weapon of choice, but it was getting its orders from my mind. There was enough fear, anxiety, and doubt spinning around up there to keep the cycle of disordered eating going for many years. Turning to therapy for my eating disorder was a step I avoided until the issue became too big to hide. I have learned that seeking help is not shameful. In fact, if I have any regret, it’s only that I did not begin therapy sooner.
One of the most common misconceptions about eating disorders is that they’re all about the pressure to be thin. That’s not only an oversimplification, it’s a glaring misunderstanding about an issue that is still upsettingly taboo. Yes, the societal pressure to be thin plays a role in the psychology behind the disorder. The perspective of never being quite good enough, smart enough, thin enough, successful enough, or popular enough casts a shadow over your entire mindset. Being thin is only one element. This perception of perpetual lack leads some down the road to depression. When you are perfectionistic, it leads to crippling anxiety. If you constantly have unrealistic and often contradicting expectations of yourself, as I did for most of my life, the external facing shell you’ve carefully fabricated will eventually crack… and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put your broken Humpty Dumpty a$s together again.
My shell first cracked when I was 18. The perfectionistic pressure within became more than I could stand and I resorted to extreme measures.
My issue pre-dated Facebook so as much as social media can lead to the disease of constant comparison, I couldn’t point any fingers outward to what pushed me over the edge. That pointed finger only belonged in a mirror.
I was struggling to determine who I was, as many 18 year olds do. I felt helpless as I turned everywhere but inward to seek approval and acceptance. Every word or gesture began to be perceived as a threat. If a group of girlfriends sat together in the cafeteria and there were no seats left, it was clearly because they hated me and I was a loser. It couldn’t possibly be because they got there early, were likely hungover, and it just didn’t cross their minds to save me a spot. It had to be personal. If what they did wasn’t personal, I had no recourse. Back then, I would rather spend sleepless nights determining what I could have done or said better to gain their acceptance than think, for even a second, that the issue was outside of my control.
Which brings me to the primary trigger behind my eating disorder… a perceived lack of CONTROL.
I felt out of control in many situations as a child and an adolescent. My teenage years were an emotional struggle, especially after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Putting forth an image of normalcy was all I could do to feel like I measured up to my peers so I almost never talked about my illness. I felt like an outsider desperately trying to belong. Meanwhile, I was wearing a mask that destroyed any ability to be authentic. You can’t connect with people if you’re never being yourself so of course I felt alone.
At that age, I cared about little more than getting good grades and being invited to the right parties, and sadly the latter often landed at the top of my priority list. I recall my parents refusing to let me go to a party because I had 3 painful ulcers on my fingers from Raynaud's Phenomenon (a circulatory condition I experience as part of limited Scleroderma). I had been taking strong medication to alleviate the pain and reduce the inflammation so my mom insisted that I stay home to rest. I was ashamed. I felt defective. And I resented my parents for trying to protect me by exercising control over my social life.
After years of feeling alienated and resentful, I began to cocoon. I learned to push my feelings deep down so that I could give the impression of the cool, collected girl who went with the flow. Did anyone else feel an eerie connection to Amy Dunne when reading Gone Girl… you know, before you find out she’s a full blown sociopath capable of murder? When the character described her period of “playing the cool girl,” I got chills. It hit way too close to home.
As an adult, when I technically had power over my own decisions, I was so accustomed to twisting myself into a pretzel to accommodate and gain the acceptance of others, that I honestly had less control than I did as an adolescent. I relied on external validation and, as a result, I rendered myself powerless. This is when the eating disorder crept in as a means to grasp onto some fleeting sense of control. Unfortunately, it stuck around for over a decade as I continued to check boxes in the hopes of suddenly feeling like I was enough. I fully believed that one day I’d just magically wake up happy and fulfilled.
Getting married, going to graduate school, climbing the corporate ladder, filling my closet with high end clothes, buying a home… NOTHING worked. I was still making myself throw up despite my sparkling resume, picturesque relationship, and designer filled closet.
I had built this big, beautiful house around me, but the foundation had the stability of quick sand. I stood there sinking, wondering what was happening.
When I Finally Got Help…
I first walked into a therapist’s office one week after my 30th birthday. The frequency of my binge/purge episodes had begun to increase, I was having issues in my relationship, and I felt like the walls were closing in on me. I had run out of avoidance measures and I didn’t know where to turn.
I walked into the room and lasted about 20 minutes before tears starting to stream down my face. I was embarrassed and I began to apologize for crying. My therapist, after listening to me and looking over my patient forms, told me that I could continue to rack up accolades for the next 50 years, but I’d be right back in a therapist’s chair with tears spilling down my face, claiming I didn’t know why I was crying. I needed to turn inward, work through my issues, let go of the negative energy, and figure out what I truly wanted.
To say I was scared would be a drastic understatement, but it was exactly what I needed. Being asked the difficult questions and being held accountable stopped me from sinking. I had lived in denial for so long that I was almost believing my own bullsh*t. Of course I am happy, I have a handsome husband and a great job. I never cry myself to sleep trying not to make too much noise. Only crazy people would do that. I finally found someone who saw right through the act.
I worked with that therapist for a year before moving back to my hometown of Houston following my divorce. After moving, I tried a few therapists before I found one who I connected with but who also pushed me to step outside my comfort zone. Therapy is an investment of both your time and money. If you are struggling with disordered eating or are considering it for other reasons, I strongly recommend you find a therapist who will provide a safe space but still push you to face your issues. If you simply sit and talk about your problems for months, or even years, you’re essentially paying someone to be your friend. I needed results so I sought out someone who saw through my perfect life mirage and gave me a supportive shove at times.
A few months into therapy, this new therapist asked if I had heard of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). I was very surprised I had not heard of it given my love of Googling topics to death. EMDR is a method used to change a patient’s false negative beliefs about themselves into functional, encouraging ones. It was a game changer for me, and I recommend it to anyone who is having trouble letting go of the past and who feels stuck in their negative belief systems. Personally, I had to uproot and let go of the notion of “I am not enough” before I could move forward from my disorder. This therapy got me further in 4 sessions than I ever thought imaginable.
A combination of learning positive coping mechanisms, EMDR, making time for self-care (both resting and active), cleaning up my diet and lifestyle, and getting enough sleep is what allowed me to begin to heal my relationship with myself.
I have certainly not reached some self-love nirvana. I am still very much a work in progress, but these efforts have allowed me to recover from my compulsion to binge and purge. My autoimmune conditions have improved as a result of the physical and emotional healing taking place, and I’ve been able to love and appreciate my body in a way I never thought possible.
Therapy is nothing to be ashamed of. I cannot recommend it enough, and I truly hope that by sharing my story someone may open their hesitant mind to asking for professional help if it’s needed.