Hello Sunshine

Trigger warning: This post contains sensitive topics such as eating disorders.

It felt shameful, but also normal. I convinced myself I was controlling my body, and I felt like I’d found the secret to instant happiness: food. Over the years, inflicting violence on my psyche and esophagus became a habit. When I ate, I binged, and when I binged, I purged. It was automatic and tedious and inescapable. My life revolved around my bulimia — lots of people use the “abusive boyfriend” analogy when talking about their eating disorder, while at the same time admitting the relationship is so much MORE than that… it’s like having a boyfriend, best friend, needy baby, disapproving parent and God all wrapped up in one shadowy entity that never leaves you alone. Over the years I spent hundreds of dollars on food and hundreds of hours all by myself, eating my haul and getting rid of it. My salivary glands swelled — I’d wake up post-purge with a face like Quasimodo’s. Even after years of practice, forcibly regurgitating my secret feasts was never “easy,” and I lived in fear of being unable to complete the binge-purge cycle.

I knew my life sucked, but I told myself I was keeping it together. I had graduated college with honors but in the “real world,” without the structure of school, I was barely able to function. The disease ran my life. I worked part-time as a hostess in a pizza restaurant. I barely bothered to contact friends, preferring to spend every free minute engaging in behaviors. Part of me wanted to change, but the misery of my routine was comfortable. I convinced myself that I wasn’t the fun, interesting person I had thought I was in my brief periods of “recovery,” and that any talent I possessed had been a lie. I knew I couldn’t have both my disease and real, honest relationships, so I chose the “easier” path, isolating and staying sick.

Every few weeks, I’d hit a “bottom,” then try to break out of my rut. I made promises to my parents, to my therapist, to myself — I set goals to start my life as a writer, an actor, a functioning adult, but they always collapsed by the end of the day, the remnants of my ambitions buried in a pile of shame, guilt and candy wrappers. I’d claim to be “trying,” but I didn’t really want to do the uncomfortable work of denying my urges. I flushed away my plans and self-worth, along with any hope of finding connection, friendship or fulfillment.

It’s not like I didn’t have tools to combat my disease — I just never bothered to use them. I honestly wasn’t ready to live a life without my eating disorder, and was never willing to sit through an urge to binge or purge and just “let it pass.” In a way, my behaviors protected me from experiencing pain, disappointment, boredom, rejection, vulnerability and responsibility. I had been to residential treatment twice already, once in high school and once in college, each stay buying me a brief reprieve from the destructive habits but not total sanity. I attended weekly individual therapy, OA meetings and an expensive intensive outpatient program, where I spent all day spouting recovery-isms about self-love in group and then proceeded to buy binge food at Walgreens on the way home. Progress, not perfection, right? Except I wasn’t progressing. I was just getting progressively worse.

Finally, in April of last year, I abruptly quit my job and returned to residential treatment. I decided to quit settling for a life of loneliness and half-assed attempts at control. (Plus, I was turning 26 and would soon be off my parents’ health insurance.) Unlike previous attempts, where I had struggled through in order to get to back to school, I let myself surrender to the treatment program. I really had nothing to lose — no job, no school, no friends, not even an apartment waiting for me on the “outside.” While it wasn’t easy, it was kind of a relief to enter this cocoon of recovery and give up on my eating disorder’s demands. I liked the highly structured schedule of therapy and planned meals, and, even more, I liked being around other women who were open about their struggles. I saw other women fighting to recover, and I was reminded that my disease was probably the least interesting part about me.

One of the most intense groups in treatment was “Resilience Building”, which usually involved sitting in a circle of cushions on the floor and just BEING with ourselves, returning to each moment no matter what emotions arose, constantly re-focusing on the present. I spent the first 10 minutes sitting on the floor in shorts, uncomfortable, self-conscious, angry, hating my body and myself so much that I began to cry. I felt every sensation of fear and shame and hopelessness and despair, angry at my body for “betraying” me and angry at myself for “letting myself go.” I started talking about it and then… stopped crying. I kept returning to my “grounding” object of focus — a blue post-it note on a corner cabinet. “The post-it is blue,” I’d repeat. I was still miserable and self-hating, but I had to admit there was relief in focusing on something really small and outside my own pain. And, gradually, the weight of my negative thoughts lifted. I quit judging my body and myself and allowed the moment to be. I let go of the need to label my body as “fat” and just… was. I actually started laughing because of the ridiculousness of the whole situation. I was safe, I was breathing, it was a nice summer afternoon, I was on the floor in a basement, I was alive. Yes, I had horrible body image and felt “disgusting,” but those were just projections of my disease. My life was filled with possibility. I let myself just sit for a few minutes, just sit and do nothing. I let myself accept my right to exist, let my body be. I didn’t need to comment further on my failures, or run out of the room, or throw something. After group, we all went and ate dinner.

Recovery is kind of like that… tiny triumphs, little moments where you recognize that some of your old ways of thinking aren’t as powerful as they once were. I no longer have to invent reasons to slip away after dinner. I don’t have to worry about someone finding traces of purge on the toilet. I can smile, something I was too ashamed to do when my head was swollen like a pumpkin. I’m spending less, living more. I am proud of my near-year of abstinence, but nobody gives me the kind of attention and accolades my ego desires. It’s a quiet kind of victory, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like I’m winning anything. My life hasn’t gotten miraculously better in the ways I had hoped. I’m still far from achieving the dreams I had for myself. Instead of writing or dating or applying to graduate school, I spent a lot of time on Netflix this winter. It’s kind of scary, because now when I fail, I don’t have the old “excuse” of being actively “sick.” I’m still insecure about my body, and I can’t always laugh it off. But now when I’m triggered, I’ll let myself cry and wallow in self-pity and then, eventually, get bored and move on instead of stuffing my emotions with food. Sometimes it takes a few minutes or hours or days for my depression or anxiety to lift, but as each day passes I continue to gain some sense of trust in the universe, a sense that I am strong and my life will work out if I let it. I know this only because I gave myself the chance to change. Feelings pass, and while eating a bunch of food and throwing it up might make me feel a momentary adrenaline rush followed by a sense of relief, it isn’t worth losing the self-respect I’ve gained from choosing recovery and honesty.

Living with integrity doesn’t give me the same rush that a sugar-binge used to, but I no longer feel as weighed down with the shame, guilt and fear that accompanied my old habits. Sometimes recovery is a slog, but at least I’m not shackled by my eating disorder — I’m free to keep trudging on my own two feet. I don’t announce it in public, but I’m proud to be among the silent tribe of women who are choosing to fight their eating disorders each day. The disease is still there, like a shadow: darker and longer on some days, some days less noticeable. These days, although the shadow hovers close by, I’m spending more time in the sunshine of my own authentic spirit. I’m giving myself a shot at a real life.

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