I was lucky, I recovered
Anonymous Notre Dame student
I was lucky. Many people suffer from an eating disorder for years before they begin to actually embrace recovery. My anorexia lasted for only several months before I received help, and my total recovery was about a year and a half. Although it was a brief period, it was a journey that has changed my life forever.
I was a classic case. My perfectionist tendencies and self-enforcing personality were the perfect seeds to breed an eating disorder because of the need for control I felt compelled to have. Like most students at Notre Dame, I was used to being at the top of my class in high school and at the center of many activities. That is where I found my control and the satisfaction I sought, through pleasing others. I never really stopped to consider if I was happy. That wasn't important because pleasing my family and friends translated into self-worth. Ironically, my parents never pressured me about grades or sporting events. My drive was completely self–induced, and I strove to be perfect.
During my freshman year of college, I had a very hard time adjusting to being away from home. I was many miles from my family and friends, and many miles from my comfort zone of being at the top, I felt like a lost soul wandering aimlessly, struggling to find "my place." By October, I had finally adjusted to being far from home, but somewhere along the way I had misplaced that feeling of being in control. I still felt like a failure because I was no longer one of the smartest or most athletic. I was just me … and me just wasn't good enough.
Food was not an issue right away. In fact, I never gave it much thought. I was always able to eat whatever, whenever, while remaining slender — until my first semester at school. I learned that I was also susceptible to the "freshman 15," and by December break I had gained about 10 pounds.
Although it wasn't very noticeable, it was just another feeling of failure. I therefore made my New Year's resolution to exercise everyday and lose weight.
Because of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I faithfully ran every day. Each day a little longer, pushing myself to the limit. It became a form of personal achievement and satisfaction that I hadn't felt in so long. I began to think if I could force myself to run everyday, I could eat less too.
Only then did food become an issue. It was like a game of self-worth. I won if I was able to skip lunch or have just a salad for dinner. I feverishly counted each calorie that entered my mouth. My motivation became to prove to my family and friends I could actually do this — that I could once again make them proud. I said I would lose weight and now I was achieving it. At least I was good at something again. Maybe a little too good. By spring break, I had lost about 20 pounds and my 5-foot-3 frame was down to 99 pounds. Naturally, my parents and friends were shocked when they saw me, yet I refused I had a problem.
But they knew me too well to accept the lies and cover-ups because it was evident I had changed. I was frail both physically and emotionally, and was quiet and depressed. But the reflection I saw in the mirror was still a girl who had a few more pounds to lose before she would achieve a magical weight that would cure all her problems and make everyone proud. My perception was so bad that I did not realize I was emaciated, and an apple and a salad in one sitting seemed like a feast, an indulgence that I was not yet worthy to enjoy. That is probably the biggest misconception with this disease.
I always hear people say, "What's wrong with her? Doesn't she realize she is sickly looking? Why can't she just eat!" Well, not only does she not realize how thin she is, it is NOT about food. It is about underlying issues that manifest them in that form. My problems surfaced through compulsive exercising and restricting my caloric intake. I felt my sense of achievement by not eating. I always kept my feelings bottled up inside and instead of talking them out with people; I took them out on food.
Eating disorders are personal battles that relate to everything but actually wanting to eat. It is all about control. Through restriction I found my false sense of control. It is a cruel illusion that leads you to believe you actually have a grasp on things. In reality, my life was totally out of control. In just a few months my anorexia had completely taken over my personality and transcended the person I once was. It directed my every thought and action. Before it manifested itself physically — before it had hollowed my cheeks and jarred out my ribs — the emotional abrasions had formed. I unknowingly changed. I became withdrawn, and instead of thinking about what I wanted to do that weekend, I spent my time thinking about food.
The worst part of my disorder was that it began to come between my personal relationships, which was also the most ironic part. All I really wanted to do was please people, and yet I was pushing everyone away. Some days, tired and weak, I didn't even feel like getting out of bed. But I had to in order to work out, or I might gain weight, and gaining weight meant loosing control. So I pushed people away, afraid of getting hurt and loosing that control. What I really lost was a sense of emotion.
I wound up breaking up with the person I was dating at the time because I held myself back, afraid of any invasions into my own private world that I had created for myself, which became my life. But the more I closed people off, the more depressed I became and the more food-restricting seemed like the viable solution. It was my way to let out my "bottled up" feelings.
After many long, emotional talks with friends and family, I finally admitted I needed help. I no longer wanted to remain encapsulated. Although they wanted to help so desperately, in the end I was the only one who could cure myself. Friends and family can offer emotional support, but the victim must be 100 percent willing to lose the false sensation of control. Through therapy I began to find the control I was searching for in other areas of my life. I needed to speak up for myself and not allow others to walk all over me and I realized I don't always have to please others to be liked. My recovery has definitely made me a stronger person. I have a new light on myself, a new confidence, a new perception of control and a new energy.
I actually enjoy social situations again, and my relationships with both guys and girls have greatly improved. I feel so much freer because my main goal isn't just to please others, but take care of my own needs as well. When I am sad or confused, I reflect on various parts of my life to solve the issue and not just take it out on food. Recovery is a slippery slope, however, and each day was a struggle. But with every setback I learned more about the person I wanted to become, and I realized how to use my need for control in a positive way to embrace my problems head on. Above all, the love and support of my family and friends was crucial. They made me realize they would always love and respect me unconditionally, not only because of who I was and what I felt, but finally for just being me.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily of The Observer.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, February 17, 2000