I like to think of my eating disorder recovery story as a story about the complexity between bodies, what happens to bodies, and how we cope.
We all know that eating disorders are multifaceted. No one person or experience causes an eating disorder, and my story is no exception. I believe that my eating disorder is in part the result of extreme internal conflict and self-rejection because of the dissonance I felt between what I was and what I wanted to be in terms of gender identity and expression. I believe my eating disorder is the result of growing up in a family and environment that idolized thinness. I believe my eating disorder is the result of our cultures’ constant reinforcement of heterosexism. And, I believe my eating disorder is also the result of my body and mind’s response to trauma. As I said, it’s complex.
It took me a while to figure out at what point on the timeline I wanted to begin my story. I’m going to start my story back in 2015 when I finished grad school and was working at a hospital as a speech language pathologist. The pressures of graduate school allowed me to conceal and hide from myself what was really going on internally for me and what had been building up for years. Inside I was really struggling with an immense amount of shame, inadequacy, and unhappiness. My eating disorder and depression spiraled out of control pretty quickly and I received intensive treatment for my eating disorder for the first time. It was also the first time I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation. I was terrified and didn’t think I needed or deserved treatment. I had been living with my eating disorder on and off for almost 15 years by that time – was this something I actually needed treatment for? But I also knew that for the first time I felt relieved and hopeful that maybe I actually didn’t have to live life the way I had been living it.
If you were to ask me then, where I’d be today, it never would have been this. I spent 7 years in and out of treatment, various treatment centers and levels of care. While some professionals and parts of treatment saved my life, it’s undoubtedly true that traditional eating disorder treatment comes with its own set of problems, especially for those in marginalized communities. Recovery has felt gruesome at times with the numerous slips and relapses. I’ve struggled with periods of hopelessness and suffered from not believing I had the confidence and ability to actually be someone who recovers. But now I know that the brief glimpses of recovery I experienced throughout that time can become a long term reality, and although I don’t think I’ll ever call myself rigidly recovered, the process of recovery has been and will continue to be one of self-discovery, acceptance, and courage to do hard things.
Let’s dive in a little deeper:
I can’t really talk about my story without talking about my identity. I identify as queer and non-binary. When I first started healing, I didn’t even know what these terms meant. I was completely clueless and lacked the language to use to explain my experience. What I knew though was that I have always felt profoundly different from others and uncomfortable in my body both physically and in relation to my gender identity.
My earliest memory of hating my body was when I was 8 years old. I was at an overnight camp and had been crying for multiple days that I was homesick. I was so upset that I didn’t have an appetite and didn’t eat. The attention I received for not eating was coupled with positive reinforcement and attention. From a young age, I became aware of the power of restriction.
After that, from what I remember about my childhood, growing up, certain conversations around food were so commonplace that I had no idea they epitomized a toxic diet culture. Constant talk of assigning morality to food, we had a bread box in our kitchen that remained an empty accessory. I always thought it was ironic. Aesthetics were always important with my family. Within my family, both men and women were on what seemed like a life-long diet. Talk of “cheating” was never in relation to academic tests, but in reference to eating dessert. I grew to associate “cheating” with fatness which was falsely considered immoral. The word “fat” was a little word yet it carried enormous meaning in my family. Because of how differently I inherently felt from my family already because of my queerness, I remember thinking that I could not become fat because it was the only way I could control and ensure that I fit in. If I was thin, I could guarantee I would be accepted in my family.
This acceptance came with a price though, and that price was secrets. I never expressed my experience of being different, in part because I didn’t know how to, but also in part because I was ashamed and fearful of what it would mean for other people to know about my history and about my gender identity and sexuality. In middle school I started going through phases of hyper-feminizing my appearance despite it not feeling right. I wanted so badly to fit in and so I attempted to conform to a beauty standard that I felt ostracized from. In high school I can remember my eating disorder and overexercising behaviors really beginning with intention under the guise of wanting to be “healthy” which was a messy recipe with my perfectionistic tendencies. Orthorexia took a hold of me for the first time and I started the horrible see-saw, as I like to call it, between restriction and self-harm. It was an exhausting battle and led to more secrets – which became a heavy weight to carry.
For a while, because of the way eating disorders and self-injury operate, the behaviors worked. I felt more like I belonged, and more like I had a right to belong. The behaviors worked as the ultimate distraction from what I needed to explore, that being my sexuality and my identity. My eating disorder gave me the sense of power and control I needed over my body. While I was merely controlling the food I ate, I had convinced myself I was controlling experiences in my life. As a 3-sport scholar athlete, in high school, overexercising was disguised as getting in shape for the next sport season and sadly, not eating lunch was often the norm for so many of us.
In reality though, distractions only last for so long and my freshman year of college was spent in my eating disorder. Being away from home enabled my eating disorder to take over with a vengeance. I isolated from the few friends I had made, and lost touch with family and friends from high school. I had difficulty making new friends because I was always coming up with excuses for avoiding the dining hall because I was too busy calculating miles run at the gym and training for lacrosse season, which I only later had to quit because I was too sick to play. I remember passing out in my dorm room and thinking how lucky I was that none of my roommates were there because I didn’t want anyone to thwart my eating disorder’s efforts. I was not living but merely existing and in hindsight, it felt horrible.
For the rest of my college years, my eating disorder would come in waves, never lasting long enough to cause too much alarm. For a few months I would be okay and then there’d be a few months where I wasn’t. Things came crashing down again though my senior year and into my first year out of college. It began with being sexually assaulted on my college campus. This event made me lose the false sense of safety I had procured with my eating disorder guise and completely threw me. I no longer felt safe in a body I was already uncomfortable in, and I started to fear femininity even more. It was easy to blame my gender on trauma. Instead of just something that didn’t feel “right”, femininity became a threat, a source of danger. Food, which I already had a complicated relationship with, no longer filled me with nourishment, but with danger, anxiety, and uncertainty, because that’s what trauma can do.
In response, I did the only thing I knew how to do, I gripped tighter onto silence and kept the secrets of my identity I was already holding for longer. I felt so ashamed of my body and of who I was. I felt like my body was inherently wrong. I felt like since I was hurt as a child and then as an adult, surely, I must have been the problem. I had been thinking about coming out as gay my senior year of college, right around the time I was assaulted. To come out after this event though felt like it would have been self-sabotage. I knew my truth, but no one else did, and the last thing I wanted was for anyone to confuse my trauma with my liberation. The potential for anyone to associate my identity with my trauma felt more painful than holding onto the well-kept secret of my sexuality.
I ended up coming out when I was 23 years old, two years after I graduated college. It took me years longer to even talk about my trauma in therapy and even more years to confront my gender identity. It’s hard for me to describe the shift in strength I felt. While I used to find strength in restriction, I now know that strength can be found in the courage it takes to stop living the illusion of an authentic self. In fact, starving yourself is one of the most alienating experiences.
Today I’ve embraced living more authentically through self-expression like clothing, hair, and tattoos. These superficial means of self-expression enable me to feel like I’m taking command of my body via a corrective experience. My choices of haircuts over the years have served to alleviate gender dysphoria and foster radical self love.
Today I’m still working on figuring out my identity and working on ways to satisfy my gender expression and identity without my eating disorder. But I think that speaks to the fluidity of identity. I used to think that I had to have a certain body to be nonbinary, but now I know that any BODY can be nonbinary. For so many years I struggled with wanting to disappear, wanting to not be seen, but now I know that there was always a small part of me that wanted to be seen and understood for who I unapologetically am. I constantly work to allow myself to be authentic in the face of others, and that takes extraordinary vulnerability at times.
From this I’ve started to experience what it feels like to have deep connections with others, something that the eating disorder took away from me. I’ve met my partner of now almost 12 years and we have an 11 month old daughter, Harper. She has truly helped save my life and has served as my primary motivator for me in my maintaining recovery.
In my recovery I’ve learned that many of the thoughts I’ve shared with you today are stuck points, falsely held beliefs that make sense given the context and circumstance, but are really just the result of trauma. I’ve also learned that I can actually trust my intuition and not just when it comes to food. After living with an eating disorder for 20 years, I felt like I had no idea who I was and didn’t think I could trust myself, especially when it came to food. It took time, but I’m finally experiencing what it feels like to know that my body is trustworthy. While this may all sound like I’m wrapping recovery up in a nice box, I still struggle a lot with body grief – the immense sadness over recovering into a body that feels different, uncomfortable, and unknown in many ways. At times, I miss what accompanies smallness – the security, albeit false, although there is truth in the societal security one experiences as the direct result of fatphobia and weight stigma when they’re in a smaller body.
I’d like to end my story perhaps in a fitting, non-linear way, because we all know recovery isn’t linear. But I’d like to say that while the past has unfolded itself, this is really the point where my story begins.