Erasing My Eating Disorder

In high school, I gripped the fat on my stomach and stretched it thin until I could feel the hard, protruding bones of my ribcage. I sat in the basement of my house and flipped from the pages of my Algebra textbook to the threads of pro-anorexia blogs. I still remember the anxiety that struck me every time I walked on a scale, how a single number could reduce my diet that day from two meals to none, from a salad for dinner to a few grapes and no lunch.

Flash forward to this past semester of college. I attended a graduate school information session – the only sophomore in a sea of juniors and seniors – and sat in a small pool of people interested in degrees in Psychology. I ate a slice of pepperoni pizza and drank from my bottle of juice, keen on observing what my professors had to say. When they started to talk about what to include in personal statements, one professor commented, “I do not ever want to hear that someone has had an eating disorder. How would I know about their current health or dieting habits?”

Ever since then, I thought a lot about the role of disclosure, of past struggle, of mental health. I doubt that anyone would tell a cancer survivor not to apply to medical school, or someone who has broken their leg not to pursue a career in physical therapy. While I understand that mental health has its differences from physical health, as it should, I keep wondering: why do the rules play against survivors? Why does society think of us as weak?

I recovered from my battle with food and family with the help of many therapists. Not any professional therapists, but my close friends, the books I read, this blog – resources that guided me as I fought for myself and discovered my purpose. I worked hard to get into a good university, and I conducted a research project on analyzing eating disorders portrayed in memoir. I read books about how to best help people, nonfiction that centered on listening skills, therapeutic techniques, feminism and mental health. In a sea of talented young adults, I carved a space for myself in the realms of Psychology and English; I fought to form my intrinsic passions after a long climb from the bottom of my life.

People learn to live with and to conquer their demons. In his book Love’s Executioner, renowned psychotherapist Irvin Yalom states that “the first step to all therapeutic change is responsibility assumption. If one feels in no way responsible for one’s predicament, then how can one change it?” As Yalom says, people with mental illness have taken matters into their own hands time and time again. Kay Redfield Jamison wrote a memoir about battling with bipolar disorder as she rose as a researcher in the field of mental illness, and she now serves as a Professor of Psychiatry at John Hopkins and an esteemed Clinical Psychologist. Andrew Solomon, a writer and lecturer with depression, has won the National Book Award and many other honors with his work. These inspirational figures show that a diagnosis does not determine someone’s likelihood to succeed, nor does it preclude any possibility of achievement.

I have dealt with an eating disorder, and I have survived abuse. My struggles with these unseen issues do not define me; I define myself. Perhaps I will not disclose all of my past in an interview or a personal statement, but even if someone finds out about my history – even if someone stumbles upon this blog – I know myself and my capabilities. I assess my intelligence, my accomplishments, my personality and my compassion. I can articulate with my eyes closed why I do what I do, not because of cockiness or outright confidence, but because I have learned that my motivations and my actions matter more than my disordered eating in high school, or the relationship I have with my family.

As I write this, I plan to visit my grandmother with Parkinson’s and say goodbye to her before I leave the country on Tuesday. Later today, I will send out emails to members of a peer health education group on campus, in which I lead the mental health branch. Tonight I will run to “Break Free” by Ariana Grande on the treadmill in my basement, not because I want to get thin, but because I love that song and I love my body.

I do not need to erase my eating disorder, because no matter what, my past will remain. But I draw the lines of my future, and I write the words of my present. I use my voice, strong and clear, and no one will ever take it away from me.

Workout selfie because I need a picture in this post. Look at that sweat.

Workout selfie because I need a picture in this post. Look at that sweat.

What do you guys think about mental health/illness and recovery? Any dissuading opinions or ideas? What have your experiences been with mental health/illness, if you feel comfortable sharing? I planned on writing a post about rape culture and Downton Abbey today, but because I leave for a ten-day cruise on Tuesday and will not have internet access, I wanted to publish a more personal post as a send-off. Anyway, I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and I hope you all have had a great 2015 so far!


Filed under Personal, Society

20 responses to “Erasing My Eating Disorder

  1. I keep wondering: why do the rules play against survivors? Why does society think of us as weak?

    Underneath insecurity lies self-pity or at least for me it was, I guess. People somehow sense it or they too know this, is my theory. And it’s like being sorry for yourself is such a totally bad that when you try to remove what makes you unhappy, including fecked up societal standards that drives it, with a shortcut you are weak. When we do pick ourselves up it’s like “ugh finally she dragged herself up and quit puking.”

    The part of society that thinks us weak are the parts that don’t take the time to understand us so they can’t appreciate that strength. Are they even trying to? They don’t know the muffled desperation that pokes us in the blubber sticking out of our shirts with ever eye that we think are staring.

    I got fat when I began high school, starved myself every other day so my mom won’t notice much. I lost the weight in second year and then it was a slow slide down again. By the time I graduated I was where I started (I average) and I got fed up. Then I questioned why the hell I should worry other than my health. Today I exercise when I can, I try not to skip meals and when I do it’s because I forgot and my stomach reminds me.

    Right this moment another mental wraith stalks me: depression. I remember that TedTalk with Solomon from a couple of months ago. Thomas, it shook me to my bones esp when he said:

    “You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a gray veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness, and that now you’re seeing truly.”

    I literally broke down at work and I was terrified because it’s true. And it’s gotten worse since I started my courses. I believe that I am alone at first for X reasons and I am sad. Then I talk to myself and therein lies the problem. I find that I can convince myself of the thing I tell myself and they become truths. I’m so lazy and useless; I’m no good at business, they secretly despise me but they can’t show it, and it goes on. My family is okay with my interests, really, but there’s a constricting a fear of disappointing them even in the endeavor of my chosen path. If I’m not good at what I seem to be what on earth an I doing here at all?

    Solomon knocks me over with the lines “And one of the things that often gets lost in discussions of depression is that you know it’s ridiculous. You know it’s ridiculous while you’re experiencing it.”

    That’s the kicker. I know this but still I believe what I hear in my head, I believe despite. It’s like being trapped inside yourself, another voice gagged and left for dead. And a troubling fact? I get comfortable with it. I eventually grow to like beating me head bloody against the wall that separates me from the help I need. I’ve become a masochist.

    I can’t tell them. My dad heard me crying the other night, called me out. By the time I emerge (one minute or two) My eyes are dry, my face isn’t red or puffy and there’s a convincing smile on my lips. I am horrified how easily I did it. That image I projected would have gone to hell any second so I scampered away. I lie to myself and I lie to everyone else well. Because I don’t deserve the help. I am tired.

    Thomas, you did ask. I wrote in my last post that I approach 2015 with trepidation, with cautious optimism if there is such a thing. Anything is possible and wishing is statistically (*wink* *wink*) 50% of what we can do in hopes of making it better that last year.

    I hope with 110% of my heart that you’ll have a great year.

    • P.S: Looking hot over there!

      • Devina, your consistent comments and your ability to write about yourself and your struggles has always inspired me. I apologize for all of the challenges you have been put through and that you feel that your family cannot always understand your pain; your resilience to wish for a better 2015 and your continued self-improvement inspire me. Solomon really does give voice to the issues put forth by people with mental illness in society; what he says goes further than just mental illness, but any unseen struggle.

        Going over to your blog now. Hope your year has started in a fulfilling place.

  2. Sigh, they asked on applications for camps/summer programs I applied to in high school if I’d ever experienced depression/other mental health issues. And I lied and said no, because I didn’t think it was at all relevant to the time. If I’m recovered, why should it matter?
    Obviously, people worry about triggers. And they should, I think it’s fair to make sure that people can separate work from themselves. But that doesn’t mean that we should have to erase our pasts–for so many of us, it’s why we are where we are.

    • I feel you, Sabina. If only the application had room for you to elaborate on whether you check yes or no to the question about mental illness. It might be fair for them to inquire, but I appreciate how you chose to put what you wanted to put because you respected your own privacy. Cheers to the last seven words of your comment too, that we are where we are because of what we have overcome.

  3. It’s a difficult one, because of the stigma that still exists. I know plenty of people who will be open about their depression, for example, personally and privately, reaching out to someone who has issues, but wouldn’t put it out there in a statement or on a Facebook status or something. As one tenet of being a psychotherapist is that you have regular therapy yourself, at which point issues are going to come out, it seems odd to ban mentions of ED etc on graduate school applications. I would maybe suggest not putting it on there, demonstrating one’s recovery and then disclosing about the earlier stuff when that’s been accepted as the course leader’s view of you. It’s hard to change a first impression, so being “The healthy, well, alert and bright one” and then “Oh, right, they’re a survivor” is probably a better plan than being “The Survivor” and then, “Oh, they actually seem to be OK. But are they really?” Which is horrible, but I think probably practical. Hope that helps. We all know you have a great insight and empathy which would make you a great psychologist if you decide to go down that route.

    And to make you giggle, maybe – my husband was working out hard next to me at the gym yesterday … listening to Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Makes me wonder what all the other guys were listening to! Their faces say Rawk! Hip Hop! But maybe their ears are hearing pop ladies, too!

    • Liz, you make an astute point about first impressions. In any type of job setting that involves applications, first impressions mean a world of difference, and even in interviews we want to put our best foot forward. While the stigma itself does not aid anyone in any way, perhaps incorporating post-traumatic growth later on or talking about it in a therapeutic setting might yield greater results.

      Also, I so appreciate you sharing that anecdote about your husband listening to Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. No judgment on anyone for whatever type of music they listen to, as long as it sounds good and hurts no one.

  4. I have always had an interesting relationship with mental illness/recovery. I have suffered from Postpartum Depression and on/off regular Depression but unlike most people, I tend to get angry/frustrated instead of sad (though I do tend to cry a lot more easily). There is such a stigma against even admitting you have a problem publicly, much less seeking help for it. I do believe that is not something you should be ashamed of. My best friend and several friends in college were bi-polar, and my maternal aunt had schizophrenia. Plus I know other family members are dealing with depression for various reasons. I never thought less of them but have tried to help as best I could, and encouraged outside help if they would accept it (even though I realize that it is not an easy thing to admit you have a problem and that you might need help). I’m glad that you were able to overcome your difficulties with the help of friends, blogging, and reading (and a lot of perseverance). I think writing your thoughts down, whether in journal form or on a blog, can be very therapeutic.

    • Thank you for sharing your relationship with mental illness/recovery on here Rachel, it means a lot to me. Your comment on the stigma surrounding mental health rings true, and I feel that those who have family members or friends who have faced mental illness act in more compassionate ways and possess an additional awareness about the issue. So good to know that you offered help to those would take it, and I feel confident that even those who might not admit their struggles or those who do not accept help right away still appreciate your efforts. Thank you for reading and commenting on this post, our solidarity always stands out to me.

  5. Wow Thomas, I always admire the bravery with which you speak about such important and personal issues, and I’m sure the fact that you do that helps so many other people as well. You’ve done so well to conquer your own demons and you should really be proud of that!

    You know what’s weird? People always say how common mental health issues are in real life but you still never really hear about them because people try to keep their issues behind closed doors as if it is a weakness. But through blogging I really have realised how common it is. So many people that I follow over the years have made admissions for various mental health problems and it really makes it hit home that there’s more of us out there struggling than we think. (Maybe it’s some kind of correlation between mental health increasing your chances of blogging to express yourself as well I don’t know) but if we all stopped hiding it and just talked about can you imagine how much better off the world would be? It’s ridiculous. People are scared to show any weakness and we’ve made society that way over the years. Granted the hippyish let’s all sit and talk idea it probably quite unrealistic, but it really does baffle me sometimes. Just think, those people judging graduate admissions must know at least one person with mental health issues statistically at least reasonably well, yet it’s still regarded as a weakness! Grr.

    • I agree, Becky, that the common nature of mental illness hides itself behind people’s reluctance to admit their own problems. Of course no one should feel obligated to share anything they do not want to, but as many people have said, the stigma that surrounds the issue makes it difficult. In the end though, people do need to express themselves, and I suppose many find that the best way to do this revolves around writing and blogging, where one’s voice may reach others in similar situations. The internet has done good by allowing people in different places with similar situations (or people in different situations who want to learn more and empathize) to reach out to one another.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment and your support, as always!

  6. Love this. I’ve personally struggled with depression for my whole life, and I hate how so many people think that mental illness is not a real thing, or that it’s some sort of choice. My dad once asked me, “Why don’t you just CHOOSE to be happy?” And I responded that it’s not always a choice, it’s a process. I’m glad you are doing so well in your recovery!

    • Yes, the whole idea of “choosing” a mental illness just cements how little people know about the subject – not that we should blame and insult those people, but as a whole society needs more education about mental health and all of its facets. Thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment, and I hope you have had a productive Wednesday thus far.

  7. Clinton

    I stumbled upon your blog based on a review you posted on Goodreads two years ago. It was of the book “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”. Your thorough review detailed this book perfectly!! I picked up this book a couple days ago and haven’t been able to put it down. I just finished it, and just, wow. Sáenz’s writing and the story was truly beautiful. The way he crafted it, the characterization, and the interactions between Ari & Dante truly took my breath away; it described the emotional journey that the boys (fictionally) went through so intricately.

    I have struggled with some self-diagnosed anxiety and SAD, but I am happy to say it’s something that has recently been less intense; in life, we have to hike through the deepest valleys and climb the steepest, most rigid mountains to get to the ridge to witness and appreciate the beauty of it all.

    Nice blog, by the way! 🙂

    • Hi Clinton, thank you so much for your comment and for expressing your love for Ari and Dante the way you do! I agree that Saenz makes his writing seem so effortless even when we must have spent years and years honing his craft; the book just takes us away from everyday life and into Ari’s heart, his feelings for Dante, and all of his inner turmoil.

      Your eloquence in regard to living through struggle (“we have to hike through the deepest valleys…”) inspires me. I saw on Twitter that you attend a high school in Virginia – my home state and current state too, woo – and to have the amount of self-awareness you do at such a young age will benefit you a lot.

      Hope to hear from you again soon, and I hope senior year has you feeling flawless.

  8. Love this post ! I know what you have been through ! I’m happy that you got help and doing fine now ! these days I try not to eat a lot , my mum noticed she is so angry ! I keep asking ( Will this get me fat ?) every sec ! but after I read your post , I think I’m going to try and stop ! Tx Thomas
    Pinky xx

    P.S : I found your blog by goodreads ! I have one here 2 as you can see😁😁😝 !

    • Glad that you have noticed an unhealthy behavior and will try to correct it now! Also know that your compassion, health, intelligence, and personality mean so much more than being fat, skinny, or anywhere in between. Thank you for stopping by, and you gotta love when the Goodreads/WordPress combination works out so well. (:

  9. Wow I wish more bloggers talked about eating disorders/mental illness so openly. I have dealt with depression and am still struggling with an eating disorder but I strive to get better everyday! Great post!

  10. Kelli

    You are an old soul, Thomas. Your ability to look at yourself, truly examine and work on yourself, and then write about it in a way that is so honest and accessible…you have a tremendous gift. There is no doubt that you will continue to use that gift to help others…I suspect someday I will be rushing out to buy your new book! Stay strong & soldier on. You are inspiring so many.

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