I often say my eating disorder helped make me the woman I am today. That statement is not false, as it developed at the start of my adolescence and carried me into adulthood. My eating disorder comforted me through the stress of middle school; the pressure to be perfect in high school; fear of failure in college and the desire to be the best female officer in my military unit. My eating disorder was the third wheel in my marriage; the shoulder to cry on during death of my father, and the driving force behind my postpartum depression and anxiety following the birth of my daughter. While the eating disorder held and overwhelmingly large role in my life during my developmental years, it also robbed me of a plethora of youthful experiences throughout my life. It took away time that I’ll never recover.
As a 30-year-old wife and mother, I have grown to realize while most people my age where identifying their personalities, likes and dislikes, and exploring the world around them I was focused on food. Nearly every memory I can conjure up over a 16-year span in my life involves food—or the fear of it—in some form or fashion. It is almost as if my adolescent and college years were laser-focused on calories, food, exercise, and fear of public opinion. I did all I could to remain the innocent and sweet girl the adults in my life knew and wanted me to be. Very rarely did I push the boundaries of what was permissible and, when I did, it was under extreme peer pressure. I never attempted to sneak out of the house in high school, despite having the perfect bedroom setup for such a feat. I was never late to anything and panicked over timelines and deadlines. I watched Center Stage on repeat, longing to have the body of a ballerina. Instead of reading mysteries, romance, or what was popular, I was reading Reviving Ophelia and Stick Figure as triggers and an attempt to further normalize my eating disorder. Something about reading books like that in adolescence hardwired my brain to forever only find eating disorder and recovery-based books interesting.
In college, when friends stayed out late, I was pulling late-night study sessions in the library because my fear of failure wouldn’t allow me to have fun. Instead of bar hopping and enjoying my new-found freedom in turning 21, I would gym hop and spend hours exercising. I didn’t buy beer for my birthday, I bought a second gym membership off campus. Rather than participating in “Pizza and Real World” nights my friends would have in their dorm room, I pulled marathon sessions of HBO: Thin, Secret Between Friends, and Dying to Dance; making absolutely sure I burned every last calorie I had eaten that day. Sometimes I would break down from extreme hunger and drive to Wendy’s in order to buy my favorite “binge foods” off the dollar menu, only to go home and purge. Sometimes I didn’t even make it that far before I had to do the deed. I remember how my thoughts raced in fear the night my roommate and her boyfriend brought home a Chicken Alfredo pizza; calories upon calories that I would have to attempt to eat and would subsequently purge. Rather than attending a local fraternity party, I went running on the dark streets of Ypsilanti, Michigan late at night only to pass the fraternity party a friend was attending and he insisted on walking me home because he was worried. All I could think about was how I was missing out on burning more calories instead of being thankful someone was looking out for my well-being. When President Obama was elected in 2008, I watched his victory speech from the treadmill at my 24-hour gym…it was past midnight. I was the only one in the gym other than the employee. The eating disorder robbed me of a true college experience; made of bad decisions, pizza, and making fun memories with friends. My memories involve all those things, but most are far from positive memories.
By the time I commissioned in the Army I knew I had a serious problem. I would do training on as few calories as possible; fortunate not to become a casualty by means of mental illness. Knowing I was my body’s biggest enemy while attending Airborne school at Fort Benning couldn’t stop me from restricting my caloric intake and purging before training to jump out of airplanes. After nearly passing out on a five-mile formation run, and being forced to drink copious amounts of water by my peers in an attempt to keep me from getting booted out of Airborne school, I ate a little more for the duration of training…which was all of one week longer. After I was assigned to my unit, I purged lettuce while on training missions out in the field in order to cope with the perceived stress of my job. After going to dinner one evening with my superior officers, I purged in the restaurant bathroom then had an anxiety-filled meltdown on my cot later that night about what I had done and the fear of being caught. The eating disorder robbed me of being the best officer I could’ve been by being healthy.
When I got married the eating disorder played a role in everything. My husband is a saint for putting up with it—in many ways, he still does. I didn’t want to have him feed me cake at our wedding because I didn’t want to eat cake. We did the wedding ritual but that was the only cake I ate. The eating disorder became my partner when TJ went away for work. We lived our lives in three or four week increments at that time and each time TJ went away, the eating disorder returned full-force. Then TJ would come home and I would have to resume eating like a “normal” person. It was a vicious cycle. I would argue with him over food, my body, and how I viewed myself. To this day I don’t know how TJ dealt with the grief I was giving him. We have had to work hard to establish our marriage in recovery because TJ married a different person than the woman he is married to now.
Finally, by the time Vivienne came along, enough was enough. My dad died while I was pregnant, and instead of restricting my calories or purging, I ate my feelings. I ate everything. I thought I was granting myself reprieve from the eating disorder in order to nourish a healthy baby, but really I just exchanged my traditional eating disorder behaviors for a new set of behaviors. Instead of eating less to be “healthy” I was eating anything and everything in order to help numb out the grief. I ended up giving birth to a nearly 10-pound baby girl, but she was healthy nonetheless. The eating disorder robbed me of experiencing joy and a true emotional attachment to pregnancy.
While the eating disorder has given me many, many memories and robbed me of so much, it also gave me many positive things. My senior year of undergrad I attempted to get help when my Army ROTC program forced my hand a little. I attended therapy and an off-campus support group. I still remember the phone call and conversation with the treatment provider at the Ann Arbor Center for Eating Disorders. Even though I was often a less-than-willing participant in my therapy sessions, I was given the first (albeit shaky) foundation for my eventual recovery. In the support group, I met four brilliant and beautiful women with whom I formed a very strong friendship that remains to this day. We called ourselves the Monday Night Enthusiasts because, let’s face it, when you’re spending time in therapy and support groups instead of partying it up in college, you connect with those who understand you and your situation. Some of my best, happiest, and most fond college memories involve those women. (T-rex arm fight, anyone?) Down the line, when I attended IOP in Columbus, I met another woman who I would call a best friend—more like another sister. We barely knew each other in treatment, as she was leaving in my first few weeks of attendance, but down the line she lived with us and we formed an amazing friendship. She helped fill the support gap when TJ went to work, offering me accountability in recovery after treatment. I often think I wouldn’t be where I am today if she hadn’t come to live with us for those six months.
The eating disorder gave me the chance to go to treatment and truly get to know myself. Over the course of two years I dug deeper into my past and myself than most people ever will. I learned how to view the world through a different set of lenses, ones that allow me to love myself with open arms. Being on this earth and occupying space in this body is a gift; one that many people take for granted every day. Society tells us we should hate our bodies and compare our lives to everyone else—for these is always something better, right? Recovery, which was only possible because I struggled with an eating disorder, taught me to value it all. Value my experiences, my body, and my life. That doesn’t mean it will all be pretty and wonderful, but with each experience is a lesson and it is up to me to value the lesson. The eating disorder gave me the chance to be a healthy role model for Vivienne because I chose to recover. I will continue to teach her to love her body, value her experiences, and see that life is a precious gift.
I used to wonder why God “made” me suffer from an eating disorder for so long. It wasn’t to punish me or because He didn’t love me. No, God wanted me to recover all along but it was up to me to choose when to fully immerse myself in the joy of recovery. What was supposed to be “the best years” of my life were no where near what I am experiencing today. Being a healthy, recovery-minded mom and wife are definitely the best years for me. Every day I see God using my struggle for the benefit of others and I realize all that pressure–16 years of pressure–was to help form a diamond. A rough around the edges, uncut diamond that is still being shaped into a shining gemstone for Christ.
With Body Love,
This post is dedicated to K.K.M. Your light was beautiful, bright, and will always be remembered. I know you’re t-rex arm fighting in heaven.