Honest conversations are hard to come by these days.
It’s so easy to stick to topics like vacations, our new haircut, or the newest show on Netflix. I haven’t always been the most open person about the hardest parts of my life either…
December 10 of this year will mark the 10 year anniversary of what, at the time, was a very dark day: the day I was officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. If I was honest with myself (which was rare at the time) it had been six years coming. It had been a gradual downhill spiral of restricting, obsessive exercise, anxiety, and isolation.
On that day in 2008, I was about 6 months out from graduating from my master’s degree program. and had finally realized it was time to face my eating disorder. But I still didn’t want to talk to anyone close to me about it.
I had wanted to get better and knew I needed to gain weight. But I was still terrified of it.
I thought I would lose control. Although really, I had lost control of a lot of things a long time ago.
On my own
I did everything I could to avoid inpatient. I worked with a psychologist and doctor on an outpatient basis, while simultaneously doing my internship, classes and finishing my thesis.
After graduation, I didn’t have insurance. So I coped with recovery on my own, which I certainly wouldn’t recommend to others. Although I kept my struggles and my recovery to myself, I was able to keep taking steps towards being healthy.
A few months later, I adopted a puppy. And a few months after that I moved a thousand miles to Ohio to start a career. Four years later, I moved again to Oregon for a job I love. There, I made new friends and found new passions and healthy obsessions.
I truly found who I was without an eating disorder.
A few weeks ago, on a visit back home, I met up with a friend from grad school who (unlike me) has been very open about the relapse of her eating disorder. She once told me she knew the moment she met me that I had an eating disorder. Perhaps partly because she had struggled in the past with one as well.
To this day, I somehow still believed I had hid it so much better than I had been able to. She is someone I greatly admire for her wisdom, kindness, humor, and resiliency.
So, I have this friend…
Anyway, like I said, she talks openly about her eating disorder with friends and family without shame or embarrassment. Unlike me, she sought out therapy. She even asked for more inpatient treatment, knowing that it would be the best thing she could do for herself, her husband and her children.
In our hour conversation, we didn’t talk about the weather or our careers or summer vacations. We talked about the real stuff right way – the stuff I never talk about with anyone.
In that hour, I think I had one of the most honest, therapeutic, and real conversations I’ve had in a really, really long time.
My friend wanted to know how long it took for me to start feeling okay after I started treatment and how long it took to have the eating disorder voices quiet.
I had to pause to think about it. I couldn’t remember a specific moment or time, but more of a gradual decline in their power.
“Maybe 2 years?” I said. “The thing is, they are still present at times. But it’s more like 10-15% of the time instead of the 85-90% they were in 2008.”
I talked of moments when I still struggle, how hard it is for me to be open about my past with anorexia to friends and family or in relationships, even after all these years.
Recovery is a long exhausting summit, and it is peaks and valleys. It’s hard. It is two steps back and one step forward sometimes.
Honesty – the best policy
I’ve worked a lot in ten years to try to re-frame the negative talk and practice patience and self-love towards myself. I’ve had to work to appreciate that my body is a vessel that deserves to be fed and treated kindly. Because in return, this body has allowed me to climb mountains, rocks, and go to beautiful places that fill my soul.
Some of that healing was time passing, and some of it was finding a new identity as a professional.
I’ll probably always have an obsessive personality, so I’ve tried to funnel that into healthier things, like the challenge of a mountain summit (where you have to eat a lot of calories, healthy or not, in order to just survive) or a rock climbing, where the strength is mostly mental. I’ve tried to appreciate my legs as they bike on the way to work or take me up a trail. And I’ve tried to accept my athletic build.
Having my dog, job, friends and beautiful spaces helped keep the eating disorder voices at bay. Even so, they still creep in at times and tell me I shouldn’t have eaten so much or should have worked out harder. But they’re so much quieter. I have the ability to recognize that voice and tell it to stop and tell it I am worth more.
I told all this to my friend that night, in hopes any of it could help her.
What if we all, especially women who are constantly judged by our bodies, had one honest conversation with our friends, partners, mothers, or daughters? What if instead of talking about the number of calories in the cookie or hamburger we are craving, we relished it in moderation and moved on to the real stuff of life?
And what if we talked about our fears, anxieties, aspirations and dreams instead of talking about how tight our pants are? What if we stopped comparing our bodies and instead shared what we love about each other?
Eating disorders hide in the shadows of secrets and shame.
Our weaknesses and vulnerability are what makes us human. These are not bad things. And talking about these things are what makes us brave.
Recovery is a step towards braveness every single day. And choosing to be brave is always worth it, even when you fail a million times. Life is worth getting back up.
I wasted a lot of moments in the past worrying about weight and calories and exercise. But looking back, I don’t regret any of it. Because here’s the thing: all that wasted time has made me ready to make the most of what lies beyond and ahead.
I had never seen my eating disorder as anything but a weakness. But it has indeed made me stronger, wiser and far more appreciative to be living the life I’m living.
And it’s a beautiful life worth living. Connections and community make us better versions of ourselves.
So let’s start talking – about all of it. All it takes is one honest conversation.