In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week Feb. 21-27, 2010 Paradigm Shift is seeking blog, graphic art, and video submissions related to eating disorder recovery. Please let us know how you would like to be credited (by name or anonymous)- deadline, Friday March 5th.
Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
by Gabrielle Pope from Vancouver, Canada
Eating Disorder Awareness Week. I always feel a pull to submit, to voice, to contribute. But the hushed silence I held strong to while suffering, while recovering, while seeking identity separate from the disorder, still makes me hesitate to give my story a voice.
But then, silence due to shame was the most dangerous setback in fighting my illness. I was deep into anorexia and ready for hospitalization by the time those close to me became fully aware of my diagnosis. Fear of judgments, appearing superficial, lacking intelligence, immaturity, and (mostly) selfishness saw me fiercely secretive. When purging forced its way into my disordered habits, I was even more guarded. I saw what I was doing as obtusely pathetic and disgusting.
Well, I’m alive and healthy.
At 21, Anorexia at last completely took over my life, after several years claiming my happiness while my intellect fought for logic. As in many stories you’ve heard, I lost a lot of weight, enough to threaten my life and weaken my heart. Doctors gave my parents a bleak prognosis. My parents and I sought out a cure, and found something resembling one, or at least thought we did, in a not entirely legal private operation that could offer much more than any government-funded program. Even at my sickest, I was certain. I wanted to heal completely, not “cope”. As hard as it may be to understand, I wasn’t consciously concerned with looking right, being thin. I was so incredibly absorbed in self-loathing that I wanted to be as small and unrecognizable as possible.
As they say and as I hesitate to admit, I got worse, far worse, before I got better. A part of me resisted treatment so vehemently that I took pills, rode in ambulances, swore off life, made foolish financial decisions and hopped from hospital to hospital. I wanted to stop causing so much pain and suffering, financial hardship. I wanted to disappear. I hated, still hate, the overly dramatic sentiment I felt daily: I wished I’d never been born. Why couldn’t I undo that?
It’s so much deeper than physical insecurity it’s painful to try to explain, because it’s never made much sense, even to me. Sure, it may start with insecurities. Certainly, I stared at myself in the mirror in ballet and saw my body grow in what looked like a grotesque way. Certainly, despite my rational mind screaming otherwise, I’d compare myself to those around me, and despite my weight—normal or severely underweight—I’d feel that something was fundamentally wrong with my person, that I could never survive this world. And because of those seemingly superficial thoughts, I didn’t feel like I deserved the gift of living.
I remember just before Christmas one year at my sickest, shivering in my parents garage with jutting bones and sunken cheeks, sucking on a cigarette and cursing the fact that I’d been let out of the psych ward, a safe haven, days before in order to be with my family for the holidays. My family were, and are, nothing but tremendously loving and giving people, the best parents and siblings one could ask for, furthering the assumption of some health-care providers and counselors that privileged eating disorder patients are frivolous brats. I wanted to suck the cigarette’s cancer into my lungs, let it kill me right away. It couldn’t take long. I was already starving to death.
If you’re cringing with skepticism, so am I. It’s so surreal now that it took nearly dying to finally rebuild my psyche to the point where I could do something for myself; go for a walk, draw a picture, read a book, eat a muffin—without feeling nearly suicidal and unbearably not worthy. I learned valuable lessons from yoga, and experienced utter compassion from one or two key unconditionally committed counselors (unfortunately, something rarely available to eating disorder sufferers), as well as the occasionally infuriating and eventually life-changing support of my family.
I was lucky. I am lucky. I am so very fortunate, however I have to tell you that recovering from an eating disorder was the hardest thing I could possibly imagine. Despite my desire to be incredibly positive about future prognoses for sufferers, the fact remains; few sufferers fully recover. Many die. Many ‘cope’. Everyone is frustrated. Medical professionals, sufferers, family members, treatment-providers, the general public, those who protest the objectification and impossible standards expected of women and men in the public eye.
But I did get better. And I was one of those cases—I was as sick as I could have been. Today I am grateful for life. Today, with effort, I seek to ignore all the body-negative images women are faced with. I try to focus on my studies, intellect and spirituality, but I’m not immune to wanting to feel beautiful. Beautiful was defined and reinforced for so many years by such a negative mindset that I have to work hard to check myself in the face of everyday experience. But it is worth it, and I am more fortunate than I can explain.
I’d venture to say that nowadays, everyone will know someone suffering with an eating disorder. Likely that person will feel there is little chance they will fully recover, or they will act as though they don’t want to, don’t deserve to. But it is possible, and it is up to all of us to save lives by believing that a disease can be reversed, a mindset can be changed, an extreme sensitivity can be directed elsewhere, to a more positive place. Sufferers of eating disorders will likely all share a lifelong ultra-sensitivity, but that can be transformed in a sick, suicidal shell of a person to a strong, empathetic and responsive individual looking to help anyone who needs it.
My goal is not to explain where eating disorders come from, nor suggest a surefire treatment. Unfortunately, neither has been thoroughly defined. But I do know that change is possible, and that if you or someone you know is suffering, the most immediate way to fight is belief: for sufferers, your life can change. You don’t always have to feel this way. For friends/family, your loved one is dealing with a deep psychological issue, but it’s not one that can’t be addressed and reversed. Be compassionate, be firm, be there.
The shame needs to be the first to go. There is so much hope, so much mercy.