Updated: Jan 31
“What if the change in needs and desires has nothing to do with age per se? Suppose it merely has to do with perspective—your personal sense of how finite your time in this world is.” — Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
This post is about my unexpected leave of absence from college, my ongoing battle with an eating disorder, and all the ways I feel like I’ve changed after clinging to the clichés that got me through.
“Almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important that you’ve tried to engineer.” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Disclaimer: I’m not an expert in eating disorders (EDs), just an expert in how I feel about my own. If you’re looking for a more medical framework, National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is a great place to start.
Diagnosis: Eating Disorder. Anorexia Nervosa. Orthorexia (obsession with “healthy” eating and over-exercising)-turned-anorexia-nervosa.
Treatment: Weight recovery + self-recovery.
The first part took a little over two months and the latter is an ongoing process.
Treatment in a cliché: mental baggage is heavier.
“Hang In There . . . Keep Coming . . . One Day at a Time . . . The thing is that clichéd directives are a lot more deep and hard to actually do. To try and live by instead of just say.” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
“When they first become aware of their disordered eating, they feel foolish at best, humiliated at worst, that they are unable to stop a behavior that is interfering with their desire to get where they want to go in life.” — Anita Johnson, Ph.D., Eating in the Light of the Moon
I started the draft of this last December. I wrote and re-wrote sections as I wrote and re-wrote my feelings. I wanted to open up about my…process? (transformation? realization? self-denial-turned-acceptance-but-still-working-on-love-period?) but didn’t feel at peace with finishing it until this past week.
“Eating disorder sufferers are extremely vulnerable to negative thought, whether it is their own, others or even how they perceive others to feel about them.” — Judy Scheel, Ph.D., “Eating Disorders and Social Anxiety”
I care a lot about what other people think of me. It’s a big part of what got me here in the first place. But after months of (quite literally) eating, sleeping, and breathing the cliché “you are your own worst critic,” I finally admit that it’s tiring to care that much. And not really helpful. As David Foster Wallace advises in Infinite Jest: “learn to care and not to care.”
Besides, it’s pretty arrogant for me to assume that others think about me as often as I do.
We’re all too busy worrying about ourselves.
So this semester has been about cultivating my own peace of mind.
This period has been a reflection on what it means to be at peace with being me. (There’s a big difference, I think, between “being,” e.g. existing, seeing, feeling vs. “doing” things, e.g. for recognition, fame, power, money, love, sex…)
This post doesn’t have to be read by anyone or do anything.
My process speaks for itself.
My only request would be that if someone does read this and has something to say, please say it. Or if someone suspects disordered eating in themselves or a loved one and feels like they want to do something (perhaps equally as importantly, what not to do), great. Message me and let’s talk.
My Disordered Eating Begins
High school senior year. Calorie counting and over-sized salads, dressing on the side. Mirror anxiety and body dysmorphia. Hours of running, dancing, and lifting weights alone every day to check off another to-do list item: “healthy lifestyle change.”
Bye bye “fat kid” memories.
I’m a low-carb, grilled-chicken, unsweetened-almond-milk kind of girl now.
I judge my happiness twice a day on a scale from 100-120–the lower the better.
Woah, a thigh gap? I’ll wear a two-piece bathing suit for the first time in my life this spring break because I deserve it.
“Bodies sculpted by plastic surgery to look like those of prepubescent boys with breasts have become the standard for the ideal female body.” — Anita Johnson, Ph.D., Eating in the Light of the Moon
This is fine. This mindset is healthy. Most people would kill for this progress, and dieting is the new normal anyway. It’s (dare I joke) force-fed to people (mostly women–studies show that 95 percent of those diagnosed with EDs are female—go figure) via an ever-rampant social media massacre in a you’re-eating-chocolate-cake-and-not-shitting-on-yourself? kind of way, a jokingly-self-deprecating but secretly-horrifyingly-real-and-anxiety-provoking kind of way.
So I let my hunger for a false reality starve me.
I am playing a game, a competition of sorts in which I am the only competitor. There are checkpoints but no finish line. The rules get infinitely more complex as I go, but the boundaries only seem to stretch farther and farther. But I am not discouraged. The more I play, the easier it seems to get. Repetition helps.
Then it happens.
One day close to graduation, my best friend tells me
she’s “worried” I might be too thin.
And in that moment, my eating disorder blossoms. It tells me I’ve never been so in control of my life–mentally, physically, socially. It tells me I’ve not only remade my image, I might have even overachieved it. Deep down, I know I’m craving something insatiable, but my ED buries those thoughts deeper.
Fast forward two and a half years.
I’m a college sophomore studying abroad in Europe. I’m 102 lbs and haven’t had a regular period in years and regurgitate food after every meal and am so cold all the time people shake my hands for the novelty of it. I should know something’s wrong.
But I’ve spent so long convincing myself and everyone around me that I’m fine– better than ever, actually–that I genuinely believe I am.
Besides, I can’t give up now. I want friends to see me as someone who is limitless. I want strangers to see my drive. I want myself to feel like I deserve to feel beautiful.
I want to play this impossible game and win.
It isn’t until I go home that I find out Elaine has booked me a dietitian appointment. She has a suspicion about why I’ve been throwing up lately, why I don’t get my period anymore, why I talk about food but never seem to be eating it, and she wants a second opinion.
I go to the first session, expecting the dietitian to prescribe me tasteless pills as a quick remedy. But all she does is listen to me talk and refer me to someone else. Two weeks and three visits later, when I find myself sitting across from a physician specializing in eating disorders, I begin to realize treatment will not be about ingesting pills. It will be about ingesting the self-prescribed reality of those who’ve starved themselves to the point of hospitalization.
The Physical Stuff
My blood work, physical exam, and ED questionnaire reveal a textbook description of anorexia. But the joke’s on me because I’m so deep in denial I’m genuinely shocked and actually royally pissed to hear someone tell me I’m anorexic because
almost no one with anorexia really thinks they are “anorexic enough” to be diagnosed with anorexia; that’s why they’re anorexic.*
*This phenomenon perhaps explains why anorexia remains the most fatal of all mental disorders (~10% mortality rate).
My own ED is nicely illuminated by the handout “The Effects of Starvation”:
“Attitudes and Behavior Toward Food”
Obsession and preoccupation with food. @littleapple_eats.
Collection of recipes, cookbooks, and menus. An Excel spreadsheet with every restaurant I’ve been to in the past year with the names of every dish I’ve tried.
Unusual eating habits. Lying about eating, baking only for other people, watching other people eat but flipping out when people watch me eat.
Increased consumption of coffee, tea, and spices. Because they keep me full.
And then the lab work and exams with physical proof.
Cardiovascular problems. My resting pulse rate is a 39. An average pulse is around 60. My physician tells me it’s a miracle I haven’t suffered a heart attack yet.
Gastroparesis. My stomach is paralyzed from malnutrition, hence the vomiting and regurgitation.
Hypothermia (I am never not cold) and muscle wastage.
Hormonal abnormality. My physician uses the phrase “pre-pubescent boy” to describe my estrogen levels.
To “fix” these problems, my dietitian puts me on a strict meal plan that leaves me hating the thing I thought I loved. I’m no longer in control of my body. It physically hurts to eat. What once was my obsession is now opening the doors to depression.
From December to January, I feel my body swelling, particularly around my stomach and thighs. I am told to throw away my scale and cover up my mirrors. I am given weekly reminders on portion sizes and proper nutrition via 3D food molds and color-coded plates. I am prescribed weekly “food challenges” that encourage me to eat the foods I fear most.
On too many days, I wake up and fall asleep feeling ashamed, incompetent, and ridiculous. Why the hell am I “re-learning” how to eat? Why is eating a chocolate chip cookie at night the hardest thing I’ve had to do in years, and why is “getting fat (again)” my biggest nightmare when there are so many bigger problems in the world?
Why am I taking time off to recover from something I don’t even believe in?
The Mental Stuff
“If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery facility, you will acquire many exotic new facts. . . That certain persons simply will not like you no matter what you do. Then that most nonaddicted adult civilians have already absorbed and accepted this fact, often rather early on. . . That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack. . . That concentrating intently on anything is very hard work. . . That most addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking . . .
That it takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak. That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable. . . That it is permissible to want. . .
That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.”
— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
My family, who every week faced my hurricane of emotions while waiting calmly in the eyes of my storm, catching the rare bursts of sun that gradually became easier to see.
My therapist and physician, who didn’t even try to pretend recovery would be easy and told me to go ahead and hate them, not my own feelings, and to go ahead and hate the fucking process, too, without ever letting me once give up on it.
The four women in my therapy group–all in their mid-20s and early 30s–whose stories freed me to shape mine, whose unfiltered feelings refracted my own, whose convictions helped me embrace recovery’s clichés, again and again and again and again until they finally felt real.
“Recovery’s a bitch at first. Here’s the secret: hate the process, but don’t fight it. I started coming to group two, three years, and since then, I feel 10,000 pounds lighter, in my head. You’re looking at me like I’m crazy. That’s cool. I thought the same thing. But I promise you one day you’ll wake up and know exactly I’m talking about, the feeling of being mentally free, because you’ll stop feeling a lot of other kinds of ways.” — from my first group therapy session
After 150-some-odd days, I’m finally starting to feel that freedom.
From what I can tell, the greatest paradox about eating disorders is that they can simultaneously be the worst and best thing to happen to someone, I think.
The cliché for that: “What doesn’t kill you make you stronger.” . . .
Until I was diagnosed with a mental illness, I never thought I was someone who would be diagnosed with a mental illness. Up until this semester, the term had had a kind of plastic, saran-wrapped quality to it: it was something I could talk about and see and maybe even feel the texture of underneath its thin, translucent film–but it was always someone else’s thin, translucent film.
But now, after spending 150-some-odd days microscopically dissecting the feelings that fed my disordered eating and recognizing that those feelings were both its cause and effect, I believe a mental illness is exactly what any type of ED is. On some of those days, I had a literal hell of a time accepting that truth.
“As a woman journeys out of the labyrinth toward recovery from disordered eating, she may find herself walking a path that resembles a backward spiral” — Anita Johnson, Ph.D., Eating in the Light of the Moon
My therapist spent our first few sessions convincing me that my eating disorder was not about the food itself, just like drug/alcohol addiction is never about the substance itself. You can’t just “eat more” or “go cold turkey”–it’s simply not that simple.
But if acknowledging my problem was a hard-fought battle, solving it became an all-out war.
The first time I met her, my physician told me that this would be the hardest thing I ever did “because you’ll feel like you’re fighting yourself.” She was right. I’m all for problem-solving, but it’s fucking hard to solve a problem when the problem is you. (Or some part of you, anyway.) For weeks, recovery felt like giving up parts of what made me me. I was giving up the body, the beliefs, the life that I (/my ED) had so delicately constructed over two years. And I had to give it up willingly and totally.
“The bitch of the thing is you have to want to. If you don’t want to do as you’re told–I mean as it’s suggested you do–it means that your own personal will is still in control, and your personal will is the web your Disease sits and spins in, still.” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
I slipped up a lot. People will respect me more if I’m skinny–skipping a meal won’t hurt–I’m a hard worker–I’ll work out in secret–I need to feel productive–I need to be in control–-I’m more beautiful when–I…
My ED pulled out all the cards. Here are my psychological benefits, it told me.
identity. accomplishment. acknowledgement. admiration. pride. acceptance. choice. ownership. power. predictability. relief. respect. superiority. control.
I didn’t want to lose it all. I’d hate it if I lost it all. And yet, somehow, the words “hate the process but don’t fight it” kept coming back to me, hanging over me.
Somehow, because of my angels and because of therapy, I was “Hanging In” there (Infinite Jest).
Somehow, because of my angels and because of therapy and because of hour-long phone calls and because of family-cooked meals and because of forgiveness and because of binge-watching Parks and Rec and Master of None and because of realizing all diets except no diet are bullshit and because crying really helps and because singing helps too and because of sitting on the sidewalk with mom saying nothing and because of Chinese dramas with dad and because some days the sky was such a soft forever blue I felt like I was floating up and away and because of trust and because of fear and because my therapist once told me my motto for the week was “fuck it” and because she also said “be scared and do it anyway” and because my high school creative writing teacher once told me “everything will be okay” and because I want to be okay and because I want to love myself and because of writing letters and because of receiving some back and because of afternoons spent playing mahjong with grandparents and because my sister told me I could and because I told myself I would and because Texas sunsets are an explosion of plums and the insides of ripe peaches and because dessert is never not sweet and because unconditional love is sweeter and because I realized anxiety only works if I ignore it and because social media is sometimes better left ignored and because Being Mortal by Atul Gawande gave me perspective and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri gave me family and Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger gave me innocence and Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnson, Ph.D. gave me confidence and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen gave me clarity and because dark humorists like Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace always surprise you with those hidden one-liners full of hope like “That’s a hell of a good word—co-operation” (Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle) and because
being present is a present and because
today is the youngest day of the rest of my life, so I should do what I love now and because
life isn’t about failure it’s about how you react to it and because
every body is beautiful and because
this too shall pass and because
life is beautiful (often in unexpected ways) and because
of way too many more clichés to count,
I Hung In there.
And yes I admit these clichés are overused but they’re overused for a reason. And yes in fact I love these clichés now because they nourish me more than my ED ever did. And yes for the first time in a long time, I really am waking up in the mornings and feeling lighter and happier and mentally free, just like an angel from group therapy promised I would.
So this is my story. I am fighting the game. I am winning. And I am proud, because I finally feel a little more confident in the things I used to kill myself to hide.
Not that this means I suddenly think I’m a hot-shot jaw-dropping gor-ge-ous specimen of a human being that decided to take a detour from heaven. (Who’d take a detour from heaven, anyway.) It just means that I respect myself more, that I’m incredibly aware that my body is forever changing, and that no extreme diet or anti-aging wrinkle cream or marketing fad will ever stop me from being mortal. They’d probably just stop me from living a little.
And if people aren’t comfortable with me, then or now–with the way I think, the way I look, the way I act or talk–I’m finally, really starting to believe that it’s no big deal. Not everyone has to agree with me, or even like me, even if I try very hard to convince them otherwise.
I think that, if I instead just spent my time naturally gravitating towards the people I do like and vice versa, I’ll be a very happy person.
And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
This is our game.
Of life, of love. Of the pursuit of happiness.
“I got better enough to realize how close I had come to losing my life, and I saw very differently what mattered to me. What mattered were other people in my life. I was twenty-one. Every thought I’d had before that was: What was I going to do next in life? And how would I become successful or not successful? Would I find the perfect soul mate? Lots of questions like that, which I think are typical of twenty-one-year-olds. All of a sudden, it was like I was stopped dead in the tracks. When I looked at what seemed important to me, very different things mattered.” — Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen
Some Final Thoughts
I said many things during my disordered eating that I believe may have hurt people other than myself. For that, I am sorry, and I will do my best to be more conscious about related issues from here on out.
I think the rise of social media and the explosion of mental illnesses (including anxiety, depression, and EDs) is very much correlated.
“Intuitive eating” seems like a redundant term, but it’s a less and less common thing to eat truly healthily now that the diet mentality has cannibalized self-intuition.
Talking about EDs is weird, almost taboo I think, because we’ve all been conditioned to worship the aforementioned diet mentality. I did it. My friends did it (do it). This trend is dangerous. It’s also incredibly hard to stall because people with EDs very rarely ask for help themselves unless it’s a life-and-death situation. And even then, it’s sometimes too late.
I’m very lucky to have had friends who suspected something was wrong before I did and a family who took action before I even knew action was possible.
It’s actually okay to take a break. It’s okay to take a gap semester, especially if you need one. Albeit completely unexpected, this time off from college was infinitely more valuable to me than I could ever capture in words. Another cliché that I’ll live to tell, and to prove (to myself).
“When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do not worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you ‘the world is your oyster,’ ‘the sky is the limit,’ and so on. And you are willing to delay gratification—to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future . . . But as your horizons contract—when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now. . . . The simpler way to say it is that perspective matters.” — Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
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