Happy Thursday morning, lovely readers! I’m linking up with Amanda today to share some of my thoughts on our stories, and how and why we share them.
Stories have more power than we often acknowledge. Both in what is shared and what is omitted, strong messages can be conveyed through a story. When I was out of town last week, I was doing a fair amount of reflecting on my own story, specifically what has transpired over the last two years, and I was feeling the weighty grief of time lost to my eating disorder. Frustrated in my recovery, I prayed and thought about what I needed to do next to propel me further along in the recovery process. As I opened my mind up to some answers, I was struck by an overwhelming feeling that I would not progress any further until I shared my story, my whole story, with a broader audience.
Throughout the recovery process, I have been selective about which stories I choose to acknowledge. In recovery communities, I openly embrace my story of the path of anorexia to health. But, in the vast community of people who knew me pre-weight loss, I have continued to be silent about the reality of my eating disorder. I have chosen to let people believe what they will about my weight loss, letting very few into the world of disordered eating that nearly swallowed me whole. Deep within me, I have known that this is because a small part of me still wanted to be seen as a successful weight loss story. I wanted to believe that I could be the woman in Fitness magazine’s ‘I Did It!’ before-and-after section, which I read monthly for inspiration as I slid further into disordered eating and exercise two years ago. By choosing to keep the painful realities of anorexia out of the public eye, I was allowing others, and at least a tiny piece of myself, to believe that I had dieted myself to happiness just as I had set out to do. I did not refrain from telling people the truth as a way of purposefully deceiving anybody, but as a way of protecting myself. I shielded others from the truth because it was still too painful for me to admit that my weight loss did not make me happy in the way that I had so badly hoped it would.
It was as I sat in a coffee shop in my college town last week, confronted with the tragic reality that losing weight had led not to a life of happiness but one of isolation and despair, that I felt this need to share my whole story with a wider audience. I knew what I had to do to wholeheartedly pursue recovery, and I began writing.
A day or two later, after some more deliberation, I decided to share what I had written with my Facebook friends. I am not one to post on Facebook often, but it seemed to be the best way to reach the largest audience. I realized that I did not want anybody in my life to believe that my weight loss was an achievement, or something to be proud of. I did not want anybody to think that a smaller frame was worth the pain I endured. With a barely-audible “fuck it” in the crowded coffee shop, I pushed the “Post” button and published the following update:
Friends, Family, and Anyone In Between:
I have been thinking for some time about writing a sort of “coming out” post about the last two years of my life, which have been the hardest and most tumultuous thus far. As many of you know, I spent much of my adolescence and early adulthood at a very high body weight. In the fall of my senior year of college, I embarked on a diet and exercise regimen that began fairly innocently through calorie-counting and consciously increasing my activity levels. Before long, and without me entirely realizing it, however, I found myself restricting food further and further, and increasing exercise to unreasonable levels. I also eventually developed some characteristics that I now know are symptoms of starvation, including increased obsessiveness and intolerable anxiety. As my brain suffered from the effects of starvation, I became more and more lost in the world of disordered eating and further removed from reality. Even more, I began experiencing physical signs that my body was beginning to shut down entirely. It simply could not sustain itself any longer under the conditions of anorexia, what would eventually become my official diagnosis. Those months were the darkest, most painful time in my life and I did not know if I would ever live a normal life again, or if I wanted to live at all.
By the grace of God and through a great deal of hard work, I am still alive and I am working toward a recovered life. This process has been harder than I ever imagined it would be, and it is challenging for me to believe that it has even happened. In some ways, I am grateful for the process because I know that it has made me stronger and it has given me a sense of what my mission in this life is: to empower young women and men so that they do not buy into our dangerous, dieting culture, and to help those in the throes of eating disorders who feel as terribly alone and frightened as I once felt. For those things, I am grateful, but I would not wish the hell of an eating disorder on anybody, including my past or present self.
I am not entirely sure why I felt the need to write this, except perhaps as a warning, or as a way to be honest with myself. As I lost weight, many people cheered me on, even going so far to say that I looked healthy when I was quite literally dying. I can’t blame anybody for this, as we are all victims of our sick, diet-obsessed culture. For far too long, I felt proud of myself for my weight loss, as well. I tried to convince myself that my eating disorder had made me happy when the reality was that I was completely miserable, alone, and utterly petrified. I write this to say, simply and honestly, that choosing to diet was the worst mistake of my life. I may have struggled to accept my appearance as an overweight person, but I wanted to die when I was an underweight person. It has taken me years to accept that my quest to lose weight truly was all for nothing. Rather than enriching my life, my weight loss made me into a person that I hated, a person who lost sight of everything wonderful in life along with each pound.
Fortunately, I am gaining a life of health and happiness back through recovery, but I cannot overemphasize how badly I wish I had never ventured down this path. We have no way of knowing who will develop anorexia, but we do know that it does not develop without an initial quest to lose weight. If you find yourself trying to lose weight, I encourage you to ditch the sick diet mentality that our society loves to tout. Practice self-care, practice listening to your body, but do not give yourself arbitrary rules. And, please, if you see warning signs of disordered eating and exercise, do not be afraid to speak up. There is far too much at stake to turn a blind eye.
As soon as I shared those words, I felt a sense of freedom wash over me. I didn’t have to hide anymore. I didn’t have to pretend to be somebody I was not. I could finally openly reject the diet culture and, rather than feeling like a failure for not achieving happiness through weight loss, I could authentically become an advocate for full recovery.
Once I knit my story together and shared it publicly, a wonderful thing happened. Several people sent me messages sharing their stories of disordered eating, thanking me for acknowledging the pain that so often goes unseen. A girl who I knew in college added me to a support group on Facebook that she had been a part of during inpatient treatment for her own eating disorder. People who I saw in the coming days asked me questions and opened up to me about their struggles, sharing parts of their stories that had previously been untold. It became clear to me that living my truth was helping others to do the same, and I felt as if I was finally pursuing the life that I want.
Our stories are our own, and we should only share them on our terms. However, I cannot overemphasize how gratifying it was to break through the shame of my eating disorder enough to share my journey. As we find the courage to share our stories, we enable others to free themselves from the heavy bonds of shame that may be holding them down. As I read the comments and messages that came in over the following days and had meaningful conversations with friends and acquaintances, I was left thinking of a favorite quote by Desmond Tutu: “My humanity is bound up with yours, for we can only be human together.” Our humanity unites us, and it is through our stories that we are reminded of this precious fabric that weaves us together.