Everyone thought I had it all.
My “dream job” at an auction house, an Upper East Side apartment, a great roommate who I had known through college and complete independence. Looking at my lifestyle my family and friends thought I loved my life. A 21 year old woman with every opportunity open to her.
In reality I was miserable.
My job wasn’t fulfilling me. I hated my roommate and spent hours in the gym each day to avoid going home. I had no money and was eating oatmeal and canned beans. I was in a deep depression not sure how to ask for help or tell anyone. Add to all that I had to get braces for the third time because I needed to have jaw surgery.
My life spiraled out of control.
As the braces went on, the pain of TMJ began. Chronic excruciating pain that meant I never slept, couldn’t eat hard foods that required chewing, and felt horrible about my appearance. I fled to the gym, my only escape, for hours each day and went to work 7 days a week.
Always moving…always on the go….afraid to allow myself to be still and let reality hit me.
My mom – thank God – finally intervened and pulled me out of my job and apartment, forcing me back home and to see a doctor. Although I assumed I was fit, I had virtually no body fat and my periods had stopped.
To make a very complicated and long story shorter, I had jaw surgery in January 2011. They inserted 32 screws and bolts into my jaw and I was unable to chew food for months. I struggled not to lose more weight during recovery through Ensure drinks, milkshakes, mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs. It was months until I could chew normally again and a full year until I could bite into an apple or chew a bagel without pain and soreness.
But it was 9 months later, September 2011, when my recovery truly began.
I finally realized how unhappy I was; how unhealthy my relationship with food was and how much work was ahead of me.
My heart still pounds when I think of that September morning. At 5am I stood in front of the bathroom mirror in just my underwear feeling horror and terror like I have never experienced before.
Whose body is that? Had I been through a war, concentration camp, kidnapped and tortured?
My body looked like I had.
It was the same body I looked at for the prior 18 months, and probably looked worse before that morning, but I had never truly seen before.
It was my body.
I pitied this skeleton of a body. I didn’t know how I was walking, let alone going to yoga classes and hiking. I was scared to take another step, worried that I would literally drop dead walking back to my bedroom to change. For the first time I was awake to my reality and knew what I had to do. You see food is medicine. A few fatty and “indulgent” meals won’t fix this, but I have an insanely long road ahead of me and so much work to do.
Can I do this? How? Can I eat, heaven forbid actually enjoy, food without making faces, feeling watched or guilty?
My eyes were finally open, but they were horrified and saddened at what they saw.
I had spent the week before that at a yoga retreat, reconnecting with my body and mind. It was during that time that I realized how separated the two had become.
When you are on a diet, as I was a few years before while trying to lose the college beer-belly, you start ignoring your body. You use logic to make the “smart” decisions.
Over time those choices form a habit: to choose the fat free frozen yogurt over the ice cream, order your sandwich without cheese or dressing on the side and skip the company cake during co-worker birthday parties. You ignore your aching legs and push yourself to work out day after day. You try to ignore the growling stomach telling yourself that nothing tastes as good as being skinny will feel.
Do this enough and you lose all connection with your body.
It was during that weekend that I finally understand that I had two forces opposing one another: my body NEEDING food to survive and the demon in my mind, like an outside force that possessed me, imposing its rules and restrictions.
That is the moment when I declared war.
I could sit, wallow and blame my unhappiness with living in New York City, my exercise addiction, or the horrible TMJ I suffered for two years. I was clearly still punishing myself. Beating myself up mentally and physically for my previous mistakes and regrets – unable to release the past and move on.
There was inner work I needed to do in the areas of self-acceptance, patience, body image and confidence.
But first I had to start eating.
And that I think is where the TRUE work begins. Not making the decision to eat and treat myself well, but the actual battle to gain the weight. The mental tug of war that occurs between what your mind and habits want you to do and what your body needs you to do.
I tried for 2 months to do it alone with just the help of my mom and brother Justin. Although no one really knew what to do or how to help. I tried to just eat more, eat as often as possible although still the same foods I always ate. I would torture myself, never allowing myself to sleep and forcing myself to get up every few hours to eat, try to make good choices like adding cheese if I “had to” or eat more.
I hated every second of it. I felt parented, watched and tortured.
And no one who isn’t going through this struggle understands. To others it’s a “dream come true” to be able to eat anything I wanted and not need to think about calories, fat or nutrition.
They had no idea that my mind, my Demon, was ripping me apart, screaming at me and making me feel guilty.
Fighting an eating disorder is unbelievably hard work and the constant negative reinforcement is overwhelming. Thank God I had my family. Without my mother and brother Justin I would have given up and never completed this process. But after two months of trying by myself, of hating every moment and of feeling like I had no allies and that my family were now enemies themselves, I finally asked for their help.
The second I asked my mom found me the best treatment she could and I met with a therapist at the Mt. Sinai Eating Disorders Program at Mt. Sinai who specializes in the Maudsley approach. Based on the research my mom had done we were sure that in this situation food is medicine. While there is work to be done mentally and emotionally, it cannot begin until re-feeding occurs. Without a huge support network and constant reassurance, there is slim hope for success.
I began commuting into New York City one day a week to meet with Terri, my therapist. As someone who loves planning and breaking down projects into to-do lists I enjoyed the tasks Terri gave me on a weekly basis. My “homework” of slowly tackling scary foods, monitoring my hunger levels and trying to learn how to listen to my body and cravings and eat mindfully.
I hated the eating part.
Every day I felt inadequate and even if I ate until I was stuffed all day every day it was never enough. I didn’t enjoy the process one bit. I wished I could go out and order the mac and cheese or eat the dessert that sounded good, but even though in theory I could, I still wouldn’t let myself. The upside is I found constant motivation and reassurance through my family.
I told myself that ACTION could overcome thought. To me this meant while my mind was working against me the way to overcome my negative thoughts was to eat and ignore my mind chatter. I made a promise to myself to nourish my body and to get stronger and wiser every day.
My Life Today
It has almost been one year since I stood and looked in fear at my concentration camp body in the mirror. My moment of awakening to the reality and hell I was living in. Oh what a year it’s been!
I am now a healthy weight and have maintained it for a few months. Although I am still trying to figure out how much food my body needs, how to eat intuitively and listen for my true hunger, and slowly re-engage with exercise but in a healthy and fun way, not as punishment or guilt.
While I had few moments of “fun” while gaining weight I now continue my love of chocolate and ice cream, reminding myself that I can always enjoy these foods even while not trying to gain weight. And I am closer with my family than ever.
The warriors and teammates I could not have survived without. Who fought for me when I was incapable of fighting for my own life. Who helped carry my burden as I walked this path and wouldn’t let me stall, turn back or give up along the way.
Lessons Learned – I Beat Anorexia
I’m not perfect…and I never will be!
I have huge and ridiculous expectations of myself and always want to do my best. However, in the process of striving for perfect I beat myself up and speak to myself in ways I would never speak to others. Instead now I focus on positive reinforcement and self-encouragement. I remember that sometimes giving 100% does equal an A+ and winning. But I’m a winner whenever I do my best and that’s always good enough!
There’s great satisfaction in letting go of being perfect. My greatest strength – and perhaps greatest weakness – is my love of planning, scheduling and organization. It allows me to achieve huge things and get a lot done. But it’s also been my downfall.
Sometimes (even though I don’t like it) I need to let others be in control, make the plans and allow myself to take a back seat and be flexible. I am working to release my fear of free time and an opening in my schedule. It reminds me of the miserable days I spent in New York. However, I work hard to remind myself that without open space in my life there’s no room for spontaneity. Instead I try allowing a day just to unfold.
In the process of reconnecting with my body I kept hearing “be patient, be kind and be gentle”.
That’s how I live now.
I have always wanted to jump to the end and go as fast as possible. I pushed until there was pain – always going to the extreme and not thinking there were results unless a workout ended with my legs wanting to give out or the entire to do list was done.
I now understand that you can’t rush some things. You actually make them harder trying to do it quickly. Sometimes there is action in the act of being passive and watching things unfold.
“It always works out in the end, and if it hasn’t worked out, it isn’t the end.”
This is a quote from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel my mom loves and I have learned is true. As annoying and condescending as it sounds things always work out in their own time and opportunities reveal themselves when we are truly ready and open to them – not when we THINK they should or want them to.
There is pain, but we create suffering.
I have known true, excruciating pain. But I got through it. The torment I put myself through - the beating myself up for not meeting my own self imposed expectations or the guilt I could feel for eating an entire jar of peanut butter – that is suffering.
I created the suffering and I can release it.
Why would I impose suffering upon myself when there is true pain in the world?
You are smarter and wiser than you were yesterday.
Even though many times you feel the same, if not weaker or that you haven’t made progress, you ARE stronger and wiser. You are always moving forward. Lessons take time to be absorbed. So even when you feel like you’re repeating mistakes of the past you’re not.
My mom gave me a fantastic mental image that I still use when I hit a plateau and feel frustrated. This [life] journey is an upward spiral like a slinky you are holding in your hand above the ground. There are times in life when you feel like you went in a circle and are back where you started. But in reality you are moving up the spiral every day. You have elevated yourself through the living of life and with that comes new wisdom you’ve gained along the way.
I did it.
I survived my eating disorder and fought back because I finally decided I was worth it.
I was worth fighting for.
I decided it was time I did it for myself rather than expecting others to do it for me.
It was time I nourished and cherished myself in every way.
I now give myself the things I deserve whether it’s food, clothing, a manicure or a nap.
Nourish yourself in every way.
My life became one of deprivation- not allowing for joy, happiness, food, new clothing or fun because I didn’t think I deserved these things. Food merely became an easy way for me to physically punish myself the way my mind was already doing so. It took a long time, but I learned that I am worth it.
I not only deserve to be safe, content, loved, strong, beautiful and confident, but already am.
And you are worth it, too.