I have quietly observed the controversy/debate littering social media over Caitlyn Jenner receiving the Arthur Ash Award at the ESPYs—especially from people who have felt that other candidates have exemplified “greater” acts of courage and thus are supposedly more deserving of the award.
What saddens me is when people believe Caitlyn is not worthy of such an award in comparison to others, that coming out and striving to be herself in the face of public criticism, controversy, and hate does not qualify as something “profound” or significant enough for us to feel comfortable with her receiving an award of courage.
Courage does not have to come as a momentous roar. Sometimes courage is simply standing up for who we are to overcome emotional battles that are not as visible as physical ailments or scars.
Jenner’s Story is Our Story
My own running journey is, on a small scale, somewhat relatable to Jenner’s experience. As a national runner in the NAIA who had an eating disorder, I have realized that the physical struggle in a race–achieving All-American and breaking school records–was nothing compared to the long, emotional struggle with the eating disorder. But that trial forced me to face who I was beyond the need to meet the standards of what society asked of me (a thinner body, having my life completely “together” and “in control”).
Rather than achieving a tangible award like a first-place medal to show my “comeback” from the eating disorder, I achieved an internal award–that of peace and love for myself at last without seeking validation from others. And I began to realize that the biggest achievement was never out on the cross country course or track, but in my daily life in finding who I am. But it took speaking up about my secrets and struggles–and learning to be okay with the real Rachael inside–to finally get to that point. I agree with Jenner when she states that “life is much more difficult than running a decathlon” (or any race for that matter).
Even though Jenner represents the transgender community, she also shows how having the courage to speak up about our struggles and being exactly who we are–despite enormous criticism–is the best gift to give not only to ourselves, but also to society. Jenner is a model for us–a hero that, yes, differs from the usual award recipients that may have overcome physical ailments or raised an extraordinary amount of money for great causes–but someone who, beyond the transgender topic, is very relatable. If we can be all of ourselves and accept differences in others, our individual strengths and self love will carry over to a powerful community and society.
Lack of Understanding
We don’t have to completely understand one another’s struggles, just as we don’t have to understand Jenner’s reasons for wanting to be a woman. When I told my dad about my eating disorder and tried to explain it to him in a way that would help him to understand it, he simply could not grasp it. But I began to realize that it wasn’t necessary to make him understand completely. The best my dad could do was read information about eating disorders to learn about what I was going through, accept that it was a disorder, and support me no matter what.
We may all have varying identity issues–wanting to act and be one way but feeling we cannot bring that person out because of the criticism we may face. It took Jenner 65 years to have the courage to break out of the mold. In suppressing who we are, we not only hurt ourselves but also others–something Jenner speaks about when she discusses her poor relationship with her family as she struggled with her suppressed identity. Jenner says that “Bruce always had to tell a lie. Caitlyn doesn’t have any secrets.”
Lies and Skepticism
I myself finally came to a point where I realized hiding behind the eating disorder kept me drowning in lies. By exposing my struggles–telling my friends and family, and finally facing the public through this blog–I knew I might meet people who were skeptical or didn’t understand the eating disorder. They could tell me to “just eat less and exercise more” to lose the weight from bingeing. They could tell me that it was a “petty” issue or just a “phase” I would go through as woman. They could tell me to just eat whatever I wanted and that I’d be okay.
Luckily, I have not encountered those situations too often but I know that many others with eating disorders have peers who greatly trivialize mental illness. There is stigma against anything that not all of us can understand.
In receiving the award of courage, Jenner is not only encouraging us to open our minds and raise awareness for the transgender community, but on an individual level, she is touching each of us. In my own struggle with the eating disorder, Jenner helps me to find the best part of myself–because just as Jenner has “high hopes that Caitlyn is a better person than Bruce,” I can say that I have high hopes that Rachael is a better person than the eating-disordered, raw-food obsessed “Rawchael.”
I didn’t realize until recently how unhealthy and DISORDERED my mindset was these past five years–in all stages of an ever-changing eating disorder. After presenting about my experiences to my college a few times I’ve realized that when I talk about my past eating disorder practices, the person I speak of seems so different from the Rachael I know now. I didn’t realize how much I’ve changed because it’s been so gradual, but when I write it all out as I’ve done here, it becomes clearer than ever.
7 a.m.: Wakeup and the first thing you think is BREAKFAST. But you weigh yourself first, of course.
You run to the cafeteria in the darkness of dawn, feeling the ache of an empty stomach and a crazed anticipation to eat at last. You arrive exactly the time it is suppose to open but rage within when you realize the cafeteria has not opened yet. You are starving starving starving.
It opens five minutes later and you eat the exact amounts you have measured and promised yourself. You eat it all slowly, controlled with a tiny sample spoon you saved from an ice cream shop a few months ago. You are still hungry when you leave but you know that will be your biggest meal of the day because MIND RULES.
You anticipate lunch all morning. You are the first person at the cafeteria when it opens because you are starving starving starving. You eat with your teammates and try to participate in conversations but all you are thinking is how many calories how many portions how many bites how many vegetables how much do they think I am eating how much are they eating will they notice what a glutton I am what if I can’t avoid desserts.
But you escape without desserts and run through the hunger in the afternoon and anticipate/dread dinner since that has to be the SMALLEST meal of the day because MIND RULES.
You chew through a whole pack of gum an hour after dinner to avoid eating, and hit the pillow with stomach rumbling.
You wake up feeling guilty. You wonder why you feel guilty.
And then you remember.
You remember the three sandwiches, the four granola bars, mounds and mounds of peanut butter, trying to stuff down vegetables so you can keep the binge as low-calorie as possible. You remember going to bed with your stomach aching, fit to burst, hating yourself, wishing you could have had more self control.
But it’s a new day, so you’re starting over—right?
With each meal the dread of a binge is there—but you don’t know when it will come. You don’t control when it comes. You DO feel the urge build, though.
You try to make strange concoctions of food to keep it as low-calorie as possible so that you can try to lose the weight again. Week after week you feel like you’ve found “it”—the best way to eat. This morning it’s chopped bell peppers, cucumbers, and steamed sweet potato.
And in class you might be eating some oranges, but you are so self-conscious that people will smell it, that they will stare at you, that they think you are a gluttonous pig.
Track practice feels uncomfortable because you ate too close to practice, and you knew this as you were eating, but the urge to eat is so strong, so animalistic, that you can’t resist any and all food even though you know there are consequences. You can’t resist and now your body is suffering through the run because you are not used to handling so much food, so many heavy fats from avocados or granola bars and chocolate and peanut butter.
You have a night class and you bring in your oatmeal-tuna-coconut oil-vegetable “stew” to try to go as low-calorie as possible. You are aware that this is a strange combination but it’s your “safe” food, and you feel like people are staring and thinking about what you’re eating and you hate eating in front of people because of this but you are so, so hungry. Food is not about pleasure—it was never about pleasure since you started counting calories. And even when you finish your meal you think about what other foods you can get.
During the break, after much contemplation as you try to focus on the lesson, you cave into the vending machine food and buy two granola bars, sink your teeth into them, and transport yourself into heaven. And then they are all you are thinking about for the rest of class—how guilty you feel about eating the “forbidden” and how badly you still want more.
You come back to your apartment late at night after class only to shovel in all the food possible, hating yourself, your body, how out of control you feel, how you wonder when this will all end, when the weight will stop piling on, when the obsession with food will diminish. It is still ALL you think about.
You’re sad. Frustrated. You want to fight back. You don’t want to feel the ache and pain and guilt from bingeing, so bulimia gives you power. When you’re angry with someone, you can just flush it away. When you’re frustrated with yourself, you can just flush it away. When you feel guilt from the food, you can just flush it away.
It is violent. It is purging food AND emotion from these past few years. It is releasing all the pent up anger and frustration with your body for all these years of pain and heartache and frustration and stigma. But no one will have to see your anger and frustration because you can hide it while still letting it all out. And now you have a form of control again like restriction. But since you can’t restrict anymore, this is your new control.
HA. You laugh at your body, at it’s ignorance, because aren’t YOU in control again now?
You eat and purge all day. You eat, and purge, and then you feel hungry again twenty minutes later because purging, you realize, doesn’t really do anything except waste the food you were buying. And to escape the hunger again immediately after a purge you escape and bike to the Y, because if you work out, you will take away the pain. But the moment you get there your stomach screams and you cannot even walk into the building. The intensity of how badly you want food gets you back on that bike and you’re flying back to your home, even contemplating stopping at Jimmy John’s on the ten-minute bike ride because your body is that desperate for food NOW.
Bulimia is not a fix.
I still wake up in the morning shocked with my appearance. I am still getting used to looking at “now” pictures because I am not used to a body like this. But I no longer wake up with guilt. My weight has been stable. I still have downfalls once in a great while, but nowhere near to the extent I had before. I pack a healthy lunch and peanut butter sandwiches for school. I eat the sandwich calmly in class, no longer worried about what other people think about my food. I engage in conversations and I’m able to pay attention. I laugh and smile and feel like I am MYSELF at last–without food and the obsession with running better to dominate my thoughts. I’m not constantly thinking about when my next meal will be because I eat until I am full and I go about my day. I’ve been cooking new foods and enjoying going out to eat with friends and family. I don’t have set times or schedules. I listen to my body and enjoy the peace of mind.
I do not weigh myself. I do not count calories.
As of right now, I have recovered from the eating disorder.
Granted, I still have some quirks and I still remember all the calories of most foods. I still try to eat healthy, but this time it’s with a healthy mindset. I may purge once in a while but it’s very rare now. There will always be a lingering fear from something that I dealt with for five years.
There is no quick fix or absolute answer. All I can say is that it has come with patience, learning my triggers, avoiding the competitive running life for a while, and learning how to be happy with MYSELF.
In two weeks, I graduate college. I’d say this is a nice way to enter the next phase of my life.