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Recovering From An Eating Disorder Isn’t As Simple As Eating

A deeply personal look at one runner's struggle with anorexia and bulimia and how the struggle was never really about food at all.

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Sarah just after turning 18; she had been in treatment for about a month.

A lot of people think that the solution to recovering from an eating disorder, like anorexia, is as simple as eating. They are wrong. I struggled for nine years with both anorexia and bulimia and there were times, slumped next to the toilet on a bathroom floor, when I begged, pleaded and prayed that the path to recovery was as simple as regaining a sense of normalcy around food.

I once confided in a friend about how I binged in situations where there was a lot of food: buffets, holidays and parties rendered me helpless. I felt this compulsion to eat that I couldn’t control. In my mind food stood in the way of acceptance. I felt so strongly that I would be rejected if I gained weight and so I ate food because this object that was absolutely off limits—and that made me want it all the more. She recommended I eat beforehand or take my own snacks along with me as a way to hopefully prevent the binge and the purging that would inevitably follow. She meant well, but her simplistic solution didn’t help. All she saw was the behavior and thought that if I could stop the behavior somehow I could remedy the disorder.

On the outside, it looked like my problem was with food, but really my problem was with shame.

I was 10 or 11 years old when I first became aware of my weight. I remember vividly when our pediatrician called my mom in to discuss the fact that I was overweight for my age and height. Not long after that I remember being called a “hippopotamus,” while jumping on a friend’s trampoline. It was clear that something was “wrong” with me. I didn’t look like my friends: I wore a women’s sizes when most of my friends were still in children’s clothing. At my ballet classes I felt more and more out of place, it was clear I’d never be Clara in the Nutcracker. Instead I earned the role of a Mouse, a costume that would safely fit over my “big boned” body. When I traded in my ballet shoes for a basketball my size became an asset, I could box-out and bang around the basket for rebounds better than any other girl. But the damage had been done and a narrative of shame had been written.

Sarah at age 19 a few months before entering an eating disorder treatment program.

In high school shame and fear became the driving force behind my behavior and choices. I was ashamed of the way I looked and afraid of being rejected. I kept to myself, too afraid to engage with others, I skipped lunch in favor of the library and directed my perfectionistic tendencies towards controlling the one thing that I felt had caused the shame: my weight.

I started skipped meals, became a vegetarian and applied any diet tips I found in the magazines towards losing weight. And when I started to lose weight people noticed. I was complimented and accepted into groups I’d felt rejected by before. I was faster, too; as a basketball player I got more playing time and more praise from my coach. It seemed that my weight loss was making everything better. The narrative I’d started to weave in my own mind solidified with this positive reinforcement, and I began to believe the lie that if I was thin I would be happy.

It was fear that deepened my insecurities and perpetuated my disordered eating, patterns that would eventually lead to a full blown eating disorder. My sense of self-worth was still inextricably tied to my size. If I wasn’t thin, who was I? I starved, restricted, exercised and purged myself into a mold that I thought would win me acceptance. I clung so tightly to this idea that if I gained weight I wouldn’t be “good enough”—that I would be a “failure.”

I reached a critical point the winter of my freshman year of college; my hair began to fall out, I was constantly cold, my complexion was grayish and I’d grown a layer of fine hair all over my body. Plagued by insomnia, I had little desire to live. My symptoms matched perfectly with the those listed in my textbooks. At the time I was a Nutritional Science major, instead of finding help in the information, I was using it to orchestrate my weight loss. When I was finally diagnosed and entered treatment I felt both relieved and self-conscious, this new label brought even more shame. And the longer the treatment and my recovery progressed, the more shame I felt. Not only did I loath myself for my size and shape, but I loathed the fact that I was “disordered,” and that my perfectionistic personality was predisposed to this struggle. Everything was wrong with me and I most certainly wasn’t enough—or at least that is what I told myself. The narrative of shame that began as a pre-teen had become a suffocating burden, my insecurities, disordered thinking and eating had consumed my life.

There was a pivotal moment in my mid-twenties, after struggling with anorexia and bulimia for six years (and actively trying to recover all six of those years), where I realized that even though my behavior was disordered that I wasn’t a failure. I sat in a garden in a monastery in Phoenix, Arizona and an image of a potter’s wheel came to mind. The potter’s first attempt at creating a perfectly formed vase failed, but despite the mistake the potter kept molding and working the clay, starting fresh and successfully teasing the soft material back into the shape of a vase. I clung to that image, believing that despite my “failures,” despite all the shame I felt that I could still be a work of art.

Sarah now, as a healthy adult.

As I began to accept myself and unwind the shame narrative that had beget my disordered struggle, I started to heal the hurt from my childhood. Weekly sessions with a therapist began the process of healing and I continued it by journaling and opening up to friends and family. Slowly, I began to rewrite the script. The shame I had felt as a child was real, but it didn’t have to define who I was now. I was enough. Through years of work, food began to lose it’s compulsive power over me and I stopped seeing it as the enemy of my misguided aim, but a source of nourishment, energy and enjoyment.

For those struggling with an eating disorder food may seem like the problem, but the real issues lie deep beneath the surface: the unspoken hurts that breed a narrative of shame—that is the heart of an eating disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with and eating disorder or even distorted body image the professional help of a therapist can be instrumental in helping you change your own internal narrative. You can re-write your own script by journaling and posting affirmations in places where you’ll see them on a daily basis-for a very long time I had a note posted to my mirror that said “I am a work of art.” That phrase spoke kind words over me when I didn’t have a kind word for myself. And when the internal negative voice is so loud that you can’t seem to quiet it, trust the voices of people who love you and want to support you. If the behavior is going to change then the story has to change first, and you have the power to change it.