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Memories of the good times you had before everything go downhill are a mix of incredibly annoying and addicting to hold onto. It’s fascinating how vivid those movie-like flashbacks are, and how distracting they can be when you are trying to move on with your life. Even when things are going well, there is always that lingering uncertainty and pain from a part of your life that used to bring you joy.
Pain and hurt have no mathematical, logistical measure of time before we know we are okay; thus we must treat these feelings with fluidity while encouraging ourselves to move forward. And moving forward often requires facing scary, unfamiliar situations that pull us out of our comfort zone–and to trust that we will learn along the way. This allows us to see what we’ve learned from the bad circumstances of our life, and to see that perhaps these difficult times brought us to a better place than where we would have been without the pain. I know that without having dealt with my eating disorder and the difficulties in running, I might not be out of my perfectionist mindset that I had carried with me throughout childhood and high school. Yes, it took years of struggle through recovery for me to let go of the pain, but through this, and having the courage to make small changes over time, I have learned that there were better things beyond the comfort of the eating disorder. It was the difficult times that finally allowed me to see my errors in perfectionism, worry, and fear.
Painful circumstances hurt, but I’m thankful for them because they are the things that bring us back to life–or perhaps even just to a life that we never knew before, and wouldn’t have had without the pain of change.
Reflecting on this past year (as today is my 24th birthday), I realize 23 has been very good to me.
This is not to say everything was perfect, but it was the fastest I have developed as a person and the best I’ve felt in my own body and mind because I continually stepped out of my comfort zone.
I have felt more satisfied because my happiness does not depend on a number on the scale or the time I have when I cross the finish line of a race. Self acceptance and relationships with family and friends are my main sources of happiness now–and it stems from introspection, challenging myself, and breaking away from the perfectionist mindset. I realized Rachael needs sass and opinions and mistakes and to stop saying “I’m sorry” for everything; and that because of it, Rachael is doing–as my college coach (Woj) was happy to say–“a lot more living (not just being alive).”
Kurt Vonnegut is quoted as saying, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy”–and how powerful these words are when we see that we can predict future happiness by noticing when we are happy from day to day. Happiness is more sustainable if it comes from being happy with who we are.
Yes, I still have bad days. Yes, I’m sure there will be hardship in the months or years ahead. But in this moment—when I know and trust myself—I am simply happy with being, with feeling like I am learning and discovering myself and my relationship with others.
Accept challenges and discomforts in your life, because it’s the only way you’re going to change and grow. It will move you toward the path of self love and acceptance—and that is the greatest achievement anyone can have because it touches all parts of your life.
That, my friends, is genuine happiness—and I want you to feel it with me because it’s a wonderful spot to be and the eating disorder has no place in it.
Eating disorders thrive in secrecy. Friends and family members will rarely (if ever) see the dozen empty candy bar wrappers stashed in your trash (perhaps wrapped/hidden in crumpled toilet paper) or find measuring cups lying on the counter. It may take months or years for them to find the scale hidden beneath your bed.
They may never know your struggle until you tell them.
Having to explain your eating disorder to a loved one is probably one of the most difficult tasks to take in the journey to recovery. The biggest lesson I had to learn is that friends and family members simply may not understand–but the goal in itself isn’t to make them walk in your shoes. It’s to feel they will always support you and that even in their confusion, they will understand that having the disorder is just that–a disorder. It’s not a way of living we decide to take on.
When I first told my mom about the eating disorder she seemed to continually ask the wrong questions and make the wrong suggestions (“Well let’s step on the scale to see where you’re at!” and, “But did you throw up all your food?”). It’s tough to get off to a good start when someone hasn’t experienced an eating disorder. My dad probably had one of the most difficult times trying to break it apart.
“How can you physically keep stuffing in more and more food?” he asked one night when we had agreed to sit down to talk. “I mean, I get to the point where enough is enough in one meal.”
I sat there trying to figure out how to help my dad understand this. It seemed so obvious to me, but I knew we had different bodies and different lifestyles. I had to help him see how different my mind and body processed food—especially since I had such a warped view of it after all the restriction in my past.
Thus the hour-long conversation went a little like this:
Me: “When you hold back on food for so long–like my two-year restriction–then your body is going to try to make up for it. It’s going to go for the simplest sugars. That’s why many people crave junk food at the end of the day if they don’t eat enough. Your body wants to find the most calorie-dense, simplest form of food so that it can break it down fast and get into the body’s cells. And with an eating disorder–with your body in that desperation mode–you often stuff yourself until you are uncomfortably full, even if it hurts.”
Dad: “But how is that physically possible? When you’re full of food, how can you take any more in? That would feel so uncomfortable.”
Me: “The body will do anything in its power to get the calories, even if it means shutting off your brain to it or overcoming ‘willpower.’ Believe me, your body can do the seemingly impossible to get what it needs–especially when you have forcibly deprived it.”
Dad: *confused silence*
Me: “Do you understand that?”
Dad: “No, not really. Aren’t you full after a meal?”
Me: “I am, most of the time. But some days I feel hungrier than others. That’s when I go back to get another small meal or a snack, according to the meal plan I was given by my dietician. But I try to wait for a while first.”
Dad: “But where does ‘discipline’ and ‘disorder’ get mixed up? I mean does me eating a whole tub of ice cream qualify as a ‘disorder’? Or is it my lack of discipline?”
I could see his point with this last question, but it made me uncomfortable. I suddenly realized he did not see my case as a disorder at all, but perhaps just something to cover up a lack of discipline. He had not seen the battles raging in my mind, had not felt the emotional guilt during and after every meal.
Me: “I wouldn’t see that as a disorder unless you did it almost every night and felt guilty or out of control about it. If you are living in constant fear of food and fear eating all of that and feel like you can do nothing to stop yourself . . . if it holds you back from living a normal life, I feel like that would qualify as a ‘disorder.’”
Confusion and Building Trust
My dad and I continued to talk in circles late into the night. I hadn’t ever thought it would feel this difficult to explain the eating disorder to him. I had imagined that he would come away enlightened, fully understanding everything I had gone through.
It wasn’t until weeks later that I began to realize the best support I could have from my parents is that they were willing to listen, made an effort to understand through books and speaking to specialists in the area of eating disorders, and accepted that this was a disorder–that like anorexia on the opposite end of the spectrum where you cannot force someone to “just eat,” you could not force someone with binge eating disorder or bulimia to stop eating “too much.”
Despite the difficulties in understanding, I feel I have grown with one of the greatest support systems I could have ever asked for. I have spent countless hours venting, crying, and explaining my eating disorder to my mom. I repeated myself more times than I can remember, but the repetition–with someone there to listen–was essential in my recovery. I needed to speak, needed to repeat thoughts and feelings for me to come to my own realizations and make changes. If I chose to change, if I made the connections, I was much more willing to make better decisions for my body.
My loved ones listened. They allowed me to speak, encouraged me to get the confusion, loneliness, fear, and isolation out of my frantic mind.
I am my best form of myself now because of my parents and my friends.
In the midst of a fall and winter of bingeing, it seemed as if all hope had disappeared from my life. All I could see ahead of me was losing myself more and more to the eating disorder. I was far from wanting to commit suicide, but looking at the dark wall ahead of me made me wonder if there was anything worth living for anymore. I knew I was blessed with so much in my life, but the black pit of grief and confusion kept me trapped in a mind and body I hated.
At a loss as to what to do for me, my friends suggested I learn to sit with myself–to find strength in solitude. Unfortunately this sounded like the worst solution, because at that point in my eating disorder being alone was the darkest part of my day.
Destruction in the form of bingeing, counting calories, obsessing, and occasional purging dominated any time I had to myself. My eating disorder thrived off of this chance for just the two of us to fight–a battle which I often lost. I was trapped in a mind with circulating thoughts, fear, and wondering when my next downfall would come.
My friends’ suggestion was not wrong by any means, but at this point in my life I didn’t want to be in my own mind. I had to learn how to battle the eating disorder with tools like the meal plan and understanding when and how the eating disorder rooted itself instead of putting a band-aid (“just love yourself!”) over the problem. Once I had a strategy to tackle the basic eating errors, loving and accepting myself eventually trickled in on its own.
Gradually I began to understand myself and the eating disorder enough to see solitude as a place of peace. I was no longer tiptoeing fearfully into isolation, but instead jumping into solitude to see what Rachael was thinking and exploring now. The screams of calories, weight, and defeat were no longer as strong, and I thought that perhaps I could actually live within myself again. The idea of being “stuck” with myself for the rest of my life finally didn’t seem too bad.
The black wall of lost hope began to disappear.
I sat with myself. I heard the real Rachael speak out between the written notes of calories and food rules. And as I stared into the darkness of the night, my mind exploding with exploratory internal dialogue, I enjoyed the new, kinder thoughts and revelations.
Healing and Growing
Now I needed time to remember who Rachael was without the obsessive thoughts. Now I had to remember what Rachael liked from the beginning–maybe even as far back as childhood when I participated in gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, and swimming along with running; the Rachael who enjoyed dessert pizza as well as fresh vegetables; the Rachael who created art, who led make-believe adventures on the playground with her friends, and who read dozens of novels (not all these eating disorder and diet books that litter my bookshelves).
To find Rachael again, I had to go back to that exploration of the self through activities and adventures.
The result? I began to have experiences where I felt the highs and lows of “normal” circumstances people deal with on a daily basis: Job problems. Stress in school. A broken heart. But also the excitement in meeting new people, having adventures outside of a fourteen-mile long run, and having more time to pursue my dreams since my days were no longer solely devoted to researching nutrition and worrying about calories.
In these adventures I began to test my boundaries and limits. There were moments when my explorations went from finding freedom and excitement to just plain unhealthy actions, but those mistakes allowed me to see where my limits were and what was best for Rachael.
The bingeing and restricting of life experiences went from extremes to gradually finding a happy, healthy medium–just as I had done with food. But having that connection to myself–being able to speak with and listen to Rachael in solitude–allowed me to understand my choices and helped me to continually communicate with myself and grow.
Taking this journey into self-discovery gets tricky since eating disorders often thrive in loneliness. The key is to find solitude–that “holy” place where talking freely to yourself is therapeutic and helps you to progress rather than fall back. Getting to solitude instead of loneliness requires utilizing the recovery tools (like eating enough throughout the day, talking through the difficulties with someone, etc–whatever aids in your recovery). From there the journey to self-discovery, with occasional or even many slip-ups, will help us to find that happy balance and the road to recovery–
A natural path to self-love and acceptance.
“To try to be brave is to be brave.” –George MacDonald
Life outside of the eating disorder feels both scary and exhilarating. I’ve had to learn to adjust to and enter the “real world” outside of my own safe nutrition-obsessed cage–which means taking on adventures that initially sound too risky for the uptight Rachael. How would I get anything done? What if this means consuming more calories than if I were to stay at home with my healthier, controlled food? And what if the whole thing goes terribly wrong, leading to boredom, discomfort–or worse, embarrassment?
Taking on adventures that don’t involve 30 bananas a day means encouraging myself to go out and actually do things rather than stay holed up with a nutrition book or on the internet trying to find the “key to happiness” through a diet. Now that I’ve recovered from the eating disorder, I have to like, you know, live. I know that the Rachael deep down wants adventure and fun without guilt–but it takes that leap of bravery to get there.
So of course, it’s not been easy. Taking chances to stray away from my own schedule for an adventure that could go absolutely perfect or terribly wrong is a big risk–especially for the organized, scheduling, people-pleaser Rachael. The thing is, I know that by taking chances and getting “out there” will usually make me happy in the end for at least trying it.
The tough part is taking that first step.
On a recent trip, I found myself saying “Be brave, Rachael. Be brave.” And in following those wise words of wisdom the real Rachael had permission to come out at last and enjoy what life has to offer. The eating disorder voice was drowned out by laughter and bursts of joy–that, and by fun food and drinks of course. Even the awkward or embarrassing moments that did come up ultimately made for great stories to laugh about later. I found how much of myself I could be–how fun it is to balance the hard-working, organized, productive woman with the side of me who cracks jokes, is eager to take on spontaneous adventures, and can let her passion spill over to others.
Eating disorder recovery is scary because you have to be brave, you have to be daring, and you have to get out of your comfort zone in order to find adventure for the possibility of something wonderful–or yes, even disastrous. Like I mentioned in my last post, feeling great emotion (whether it’s terrible sadness or euphoric joy) is what comes with living a great life. By just staying home to be “productive” and “in control” with food all the time there would not be much to enjoy, no memories to share, no chance for a step in a new direction. I’ve found through wonderful experimentation that the more you try out this bravery thing, the better you get–and the more fulfilling life can be.
So be brave, readers.
“I am thawing.”
These are the final words in Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Wintergirls. Mind you, it’s a triggering eating disorder novel for those with eating disorders, but that’s probably because it’s one of the most accurate, artistic portrayals of what it’s like to deal with an eating disorder. And those final words in the book come closer to me than any other words I have read–words that very much describe what bingeing and recovering from the eating disorder did for me.
When I was at my thinnest I sat through high school like a zombie. I barely interacted with friends, nor did I care to try. I knew I felt sad, but it was a distant feeling, too. I simply got through each day attending school, running for the track team, practicing piano, spending hours on homework, and cross training with any extra time I might have had. I lived mostly on working and trying to please the adults in my life. Meanwhile, of course, my friends had almost all but disappeared. The only thing that seemed to keep me “happy” (or rather, in my own form of control) was the very thing keeping me trapped: restricting.
You would think that thawing would feel good–but that’s when the pain actually hit. That’s when my hunger roared like a beast unleashed, when my mind and body awoke to what I had done to it with all the restricting. Because with every binge, with every push back for life, my mind screamed with resistance and fear. My body was ready to fight back to get the Rachael that was meant to not merely exist, but to live.
I thought that researching nutrition further would save me, that a new diet might save me, that treating everything with numbers and logic would bring me back to where I needed to be. I fought myself for years doing this until my friends, family, and even a bit of myself helped me to let go.
The emotions that came with gaining the weight back and with developing into a normal “human” who interacted with society instead of staying home to research the 30 Bananas a Day diet online and smashing in salads until my jaw hurt, found me suddenly full of intense euphoria, intense anger, or intense sadness. Just as I was either restricting or bingeing, my emotions were seemingly following the same up-and-down path. It was not until I was completely removed from competition, applying more of my ED recovery tools, and using the support of my friends and family that I felt the comfort of a good thaw. I was allowing my body to do it’s thing. I was allowing my mind to rest from the numbers and fear. Instead of feeling the icicles slowly, painfully melt from my fingers, I felt the warm rush of life flood me.
Warm at Last
I think that no matter the destructive coping mechanism we deal with, we trap ourselves in a world of our own. It is not selfish, only a sign that we are struggling–and that we can’t get out alone. What life has to offer feels both horrifying and magnificent. We can eventually find balance if we take the chance to allow ourselves to thaw.
I have often been told that a breakup with someone is one of the most difficult things I will have to go through, but I think many of us fail to realize we often go through “breakups” just as difficult through other experiences in life–“breaking up” with a passion, addiction, etc. So as bizarre as an eating disorder may seem to those who don’t have one, it is not that foreign when we think about the recovery from an eating disorder as coping with loss–a breakup from something that we feel has become a part of ourselves. No matter how painful it is to live with, the greatest fear is learning to live without it.
Since the eating disorder was my first major “breakdown,” getting through it has taught me what it takes to work in recovery and come out the other side–a kind of preparation for the next series of losses I will and have had to work through. It hasn’t made those next losses any easier or less painful, but I knew I would find happiness and balance again in similar ways that I did with the eating disorder–by writing out my thoughts, talking to safe people about my feelings, venting through exercise, staying busy with new activities, and allowing my mind to deal with the thoughts when they came instead of trying to constantly push them away.
It’s important to analyze our struggles so that we can know how to survive our grief and give back to the world. If we don’t take time for ourselves to understand the hurt, the emotions may build inside and cause us to lash out at others or harm ourselves. The mind is smart. It will not allow you to hold in what it needs to get out. My eating disorder is a prime example of that–something that came out of my inability to address my loss of identity and yearning to be “perfect” to please others.
Sometimes the most comforting feeling is having others somewhat understand our pain–and in recognizing that breakups from a part of ourselves can be just as painful and quite similar to breaking up with someone else, we can be there for each other with more empathy and understanding.
I will tell you a story about a girl.
I will tell you a story about a girl who entered college anticipating a chance to start over—a chance to bring out the person she always felt had been trapped inside. I will tell you about a girl who left high school as a depressed, eating-disordered, running-consumed, people-pleaser perfectionist who found out, upon entering college, that she still couldn’t let it all go.
She didn’t know how to let it all go.
I will tell you that this girl reached her ultimate dream of running prestige with All-American finishes as a college freshman, only to realize that this was not as fulfilling as she had hoped it would be; that as everyone praised her for her efforts, fear of the dissatisfaction she felt and a yearning to go to extremes haunted her in the loneliness of the disorder and perfectionist mindset.
I will tell you about the leap this girl took to start a raw food diet. While there was skepticism from her peers, raw food was the first major change, a DARE, a switch where she realized she was in control of her life, that she could do big things, too. While it did not end up as the healthiest means to an end, it was a path to the voice she had buried down for so long.
I will tell you about a girl who faced reality after that dream-come-true year of running—a girl who turned from a judgmental, glory-driven athlete to a humbled, scared, bingeing addict stripped of her running “superpowers.” I will tell you about the fears she faced in a life without her control of food or success in running, and the reality that hit her: she could be more than just running and food.
She had to be more than just running and food.
I will tell you how this girl’s written words began to give her a voice at last despite anxiety and shame in sharing it. I will tell you about the way her eyes opened beyond her own fears to see how many others dealt with what she went through, and worse—that it was never about discipline and desire, but about disorder and chaos and a missing identity.
I will tell you about a girl who realized she could be more than the food she ate, the amount she weighed on the scale, the schedule she dictated herself by, and the times she ran in races. I will tell you about a girl who began to open her mouth not just to eat, but also to speak with confidence and enthusiasm because she realized how painful and frustrating it had felt to run in silence.
I will tell you about a girl who became me.
I will tell you that I am graduating college with a four-inch surgical scar tracing down my right knee that tells a story not of physical pain but emotional rebirth; that a comeback was never about racing after breaking my kneecap, losing weight again, or achieving All American, but about learning to be the best Rachael I could be under the strain of every fear that became my reality. I graduate now with extra meat on my bones, a body that has carried me through it all, and a mind that never gave up.
I will tell you that I began to see the joy in life with great friends and family—that I took the chance to break a few rules when I slept on the college soccer field for my twenty-first birthday, when I decided to not complete a school assignment for the first time in my life, when I got my first-ever C on an test, and when I decided that enough was enough with running to quit competing because the sport was taking away more than it was giving back.
That it was my turn to give back.