Over the past semester I took the opportunity afforded by assignments for my Abnormal Psychology class to reflect on my recovery from Anorexia Nervosa. Here I is a response essay I wrote at the beginning of the semester:
My Journey with Anorexia Nervosa
(for Dr. Dimos’ Abnormal Psychology Class, Fall 2015)
I can recall the exact moment when my relationship with mirrors changed. I was in the steamy tiled bathroom of a twelfth-floor apartment in Sevilla, Spain near the end of my three and a half week trip to the beautiful Spanish city full of rapid Spanish, panaderias, cobbled streets, and walking everywhere. With the sweat from my run along the Guadalquivir river in the noon-day heat (over 100 F) rinsed from my body, I stood in a towel in front of the sink…and my oval reflection above it. Before that moment when I gazed or glanced in a mirror I focused on my smile or my eyes, maybe I would look at my hair or my clothes. However, on this day I had not even chosen to look in the mirror. My gaze had been arrested as I moved past my reflection. Something was different. I froze. Oh! I could see the ribs of my chest. I was momentarily shocked. Had my skin always stretched over the bones that way? Had I just not noticed or was this a change? Then I was pleased as I realized my chest looked like that of the beautiful woman who had played the sultry Carmen in the play I had seen that week. I twisted my body to watch, fascinated by the movement of my ribs. Letting the towel drop to the floor, I raised my arms and turned to see my full rib cage in the mirror. So many bones I had not seen before! When I dressed I allowed the glass to reflect the protuberances of my hipbones as my now-too-large skirt slipped down. It was then, in that pristine bathroom, that I lost some of my innocence; I learned to use mirrors to assess rather than appreciate.
The change in my relationship to mirrors was only the beginning of a series of deviations from my normal functioning that occurred during my senior year. From there, my relationship with mirrors continued to deteriorate as I not only assessed the newly discovered bones of my ribs and hips but also checked the gap between my thighs, the shape of my cheeks, and the flatness of my stomach regularly. Other relationships in my life changed as well. My relationship with weight became a controlled obsession of slipping into my parents’ bathroom every Thursday morning to step on the white square scale that would assess my happiness for the week. My relationship with food consisted of calorie calculations, label reading, and determining what was most “healthy.” My relationship with exercise was similarly focused on numbers as I increased miles of running, hours of dancing, and sets of sit-ups. My relationship with my family became defensive as I convinced the ones I love, and myself, that I was fine. My relationship to school was controlling as I planned every moment of my time for optimal distraction. My relationship with myself was detached; I put on a false face of happiness as I pushed harder than ever, avoided time alone to think, kept doing the things I “loved,” and, ultimately, felt frozenly empty inside. Although the deviance from my normal behavior was obvious and the distress built behind a solid wall of denial, I held dysfunction at bay.
“I think you should see a therapist.” The first time she said it I cringed. I responded “no!” without thinking. I did not need help. I was fine. If I did have a problem—and I was starting to admit that maybe I did, just a little, nothing big, not something to be worried about—then I would figure it out on my own. I was determined to avoid therapy at all costs; I didn’t need help from a shrink. Instead I got books from the library and opened Google on my laptop, determined to learn and resolve quickly. My heart sunk as I mentally checked the boxes next to the list of criteria for Anorexia Nervosa in the book on eating disorders. I looked up how many calories someone of my height and weight actually needed…and was thrown into an obsessed frenzy of BMI calculating and nutrition chart rechecking. I tried to focus on the things I loved. Nonetheless piano practicing dragged, I was not motivated to study, and I did not want to see my friends or hang out with my family.
“I think you should see a therapist.” The second time my mother said it I smiled. This time, after a pause, I replied “ok.” Only two weeks had passed since the first question but now I wanted to go to therapy. Not because I was excited by the prospect of recovery but rather because I was scared. I had changed my mind that morning when I woke up and realized I did not care about anything anymore. I did not care about piano (my previous passion) or school (practically my life) or running or friends or practicing Spanish or traveling or my family or any of it. I did not even care about calculating my next meal or Thursday morning weight checks. I was exhausted and my life was empty. I needed help. Figuring it out on my own just was not working. I was now definitely dysfunctional. “Ok,” I said again, “I think that would be a good idea.” Now it was my mother’s turn to smile, “Good, because I’ve already made an appointment.”
I embraced recovery but it was not easy. Once the heavy veil of denial had lifted and I accepted the need for help I committed myself to the process. Growing up in a family of doctors had taught me to trust health care professionals and, although it may not have been a conscious realization at the time, I knew that if I did not get better I was going to kill myself. I was excited by the “project” of getting better and looked forward to my weekly therapy and nutrition appointments. I filled out every page of my “Anorexia Workbook.” However, recovery was not a piece of cake (although my 10 year old sister seemed to believe “just eating” a good few pieces of cake would solve everything). Deep self-hatred surfaced on a Nicaraguan beach as I fully realized what I had been doing to my family and myself for the past year. I struggled to let go of control and expectations every single day. And I only became more exhausted as I constantly fought with the eating disorder voice (Ed) in my head; at first simply trying to distinguish him from me and then to systematically rip his presence from my being. Yet, I persisted. I stuck to the meal plan, I limited my exercise, and I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone of constant control, anxious planning, and avoidance of all emotions. While at times I saw recovery as a punishment I deserved unconsciously falling into an eating disorder, I later came to understand my motivation as the deep self-knowledge that I deserved to live.
Sometimes I just want to be normal. I want to erase the remnants of the eating disorder from my life like washing off a slimy coat of oil from my hands. I want to be rid of all residues. I want to stand in the dressing room and recognize how hot I look in the bright blue Prana pants…instead of trying on two different sizes at least ten times each while weighing the pros and cons in my head as the monster mirrors glare at me. The tighter pair make my butt look good but I never feel comfortable with how the waist cuts into my stomach when I sit down, making me feel fat even though I am fit. The looser pair would be a much better purchase given my history. But…gosh darn it!…I want to defy those thoughts. I want to be normal. I don’t want to have an eating disorder history lurking in calorie labeled menus, magazine covers, and dressing room mirrors. Don’t normal girls wear tight jeans all the time? Do they just not care about the squeezing? Or do they not care about making themselves uncomfortable? I stare at the mirror willing my reflection to provide answers. She gives me nothing but increased confusion as the pants come on and off, on and off, on and off. My thoughts are whirring. When the self loathing start to come on with comments of “you can’t even go shopping” You’re so stupid to come here when you know you’re tired and hungry” and “You think you’re recovered? Ha,” I know I need to stop.
I have considered myself recovered from anorexia nervosa for years. My therapists agree. However, there are still bad days when Ed rears his ugly head and I slip for a moment. When I first started recovery someone told me “full recovery” was not truly possible. As the years have put distance between the disorder and myself and, although they are less frequent, these moments of deviance, distress, and dysfunction occur, I had come to accept that “recovery” came with an asterisk disclaimer of “recovery in this instance does not mean full recovery.” I figured that I would continue to improve but that these instances would always tie me back to the eating disorder, there would be moments of failure, and I would never be the person I was before the disorder and thus, I would never be “fully recovered.” Nonetheless, that changed when I decided to redefine recovery.
I now consider myself fully recovered. For me, recovery no longer means going back to the girl I was before I looked in that steamy mirror in Sevilla, Spain. I do not want to be her again, just as I do not want to be the girl-and-then-young-woman with anorexia. I have learned so much through my relationship and break-up with Ed. I learned self-awareness, self-forgiveness, and self-compassion. I learned that I deserved to live, that I deserved to thrive, and that I deserved to love. To be fully recovered means incorporating the lessons I have learned from the eating disorder into my life. There may still be lessons to learn and weave into my being. I appreciate each opportunity for growth. Each dressing-room-mirror moment teaches reminds me that I am still growing. Recovery is not a terminal process; I live fully recovered every day and I am still recovering. Ultimately, it makes me who I am and for that I am forever grateful.