It's National Eating Disorder Week. Here are some interesting facts about this misunderstood disease:
1. 30 Million Americans will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
2. Anorexia is the most fatal mental health issue.
3. Disordered eating is on the rise in YOUNG Americans.
This is not a unique story. It is just an untold one. Or a misunderstood one. Or something. This topic is difficult for me to write about as I feel that it is something I more deeply struggle with than anything else
I am anorexic because... I am. I cannot blame magazines filled with beautiful, airbrushed models, because I never really read them and don't read them now. I don't feel societal pressures to be someone else (as you all very well know!) I can't blame my parents, my siblings, my peers. I can't even blame the pressures of being a young and impressionable dancer. Who do I blame? No one. Not even myself. Blame feeds anger. Anger makes it worse. Love and acceptance make it better. Blame is futile.
The first time I can remember despising my body was in the third grade. For some reason I just started to hate my arms. Then I started to hate my legs. Then it gradually crept over my whole body. I used to write in journals late at night because of some serious insomnia and every day there would be another entry written about how disgusting my body was or how stupid I was, or both. Writing helped me fall asleep, but it also fed these hateful fires towards myself.
Stereotypically, I was a dancer. I spent 6 nights a week for at least two hours per day examining myself in mirrors. Not good enough. Not good enough. Not good enough. It should be noted that I rarely compared myself to the other dancers at the studio. I compared myself to a version of myself I thought I should have been. Taller, thinner, no freckles, longer neck, more flexible (I was most flexible in my class), stronger, more dedicated... the list could go on and on. Ironically, the art made me feel both disgusted with myself AND more beautiful than I felt if I were at school or at home. The mind reels.
While I was dancing, I ate. Enough. I never was a big eater and often left quite a bit of food left on my plate. I felt (and often still do feel) like finishing my plate was some kind of failure. Like I would magically become a fat cow if I ONCE finished a plate of food, no matter how much or little was in front of me.
Then I stopped dancing. Too many serious injuries, a bout of mono that left me homebound for over three months, and a dance studio I didn't much care for anymore led me to quit. Panic rushed over me. How will I stay thin and beautiful and graceful if I stop doing the one thing that makes me feel these things?
I gradually stopped eating full meals. A bite here, a bite there. Anxiety left me feeling nauseous most of the time and so my excuse of feeling sick was truthful, and it got me out of eating my dinners. In times of desperate hunger I would angrily binge on crackers, feel disappointed that I gave into the crackers, and stop eating for some more days. I chewed gum CONSTANTLY to make my body think it was being fueled. By the time I graduated high school, I think I was barely 100 pounds. I'd look in the mirror at night and continue to hate my body. Again, never in comparison to the other girls I knew, but in comparison to someone I thought I should be. Not thin enough. Not good enough. Not smart enough. Not in control.
I had taken up yoga as a means to maintain flexibility and grace. I did it in my basement before school. In an angry and competitive fashion. Because I wanted it to replace ballet in all ways possible. I wanted to practice hard, be better, be thinner, be more beautiful, not to mention the promise of happiness yoga seemed to offer. The woman on the DVDs drove me absolutely crazy- smiles seemed fake, tone of voice seemed fake, but if that was what happiness was, perhaps I could do the same thing. So I walked around with a smile on my face and "happiness" in my voice. No one suspected a thing. In fact everyone constantly labeled me as "happy." Which then became something I felt I needed to live up to. And because I knew that I wasn't happy, but instead a suicidal, hateful little girl, it made me feel all the worse.
I saw a psychologist from time to time in order to get my cocktail of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills. Every time I saw him, his favorite comment would be something like "I don't understand why you think you are fat." To this day that comment is amazing to me. This doctor of the mind does not understand that this is a mental disease. It is an inability to see things as they are. A desperate need for control that cannot be met. I'm sure other psychologists have more tact. This one just seemed to lack ability to understand his patients.
James caught on quickly. When we were in school together, I would go to his house and he and his roommates would kindly force me to eat a full meal with them. His roommates never said anything, but I think they all knew. The rest of the time I lived on Venti coffees, pastries, and Chick-Fil-A binges.
Fast forward about six years. I do not own a full length mirror. I avoid rooms with surround mirrors and abhor trying on clothes at the store- especially when there are mirrors that kindly reveal the dreaded backside. I feel anxious at meal time. I feel anxious when I have to eat with others, but if I am eating alone I am less likely to nourish myself properly. Sometimes I can conquer my mind and make myself something good and nourishing, at which point I realize how good it feels to care for myself. But on many other days I cannot win and struggle to get something, anything at all down.
Pregnancy has been the number one, greatest therapy as someone with Anorexia. Learning to let go of control has never been so necessary. The extreme nausea that comes from not eating enough forces you to actually eat three full meals a day. If I'm being honest, before I was pregnant I was averaging around 1.5 full meals a day still. Nibbles for the rest of the meals. Now, if I skip breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I get a quick and painful reminder and I EAT. I am not able to do as much rigorous yoga as I could before, and so my arms, back, and legs are less toned. My belly gets bigger and bigger. I have no control over how my body responds to this baby. And I have to let it be. I don't look at the scale at the doctors office, I don't want to know how big my belly is all the way around, but I can find peace with myself knowing that there is a beautiful little girl growing in there. I work daily to keep the peace because I have to bring a healthy, nurtured baby into the world. And I have to be of sound mind and body in order to give her the best life she can have. And that makes me feel happier and more willing to nourish myself.
Before the pregnancy, TEACHING yoga has been a great therapy as someone with Anorexia. If you know me, you think that I am laid back. This is true toward other people. I don't care what other people do. I am a closet control freak, with the need to control and compete with myself. To be a good teacher, however, guards must be removed, fear of embarrassment or making mistakes must be abandoned, neurosis must be set aside. If you are caught up in your own junk, you cannot provide a safe, mindful environment for your students to let go of their own junk. We all just have to let it all go together. We have to be willing to be completely ourselves. What is "good" and "bad" about ourselves simply become what is. Who we are. Full, rich, vibrant human beings with complexities that make us beautiful and unique.
As you can see, this is something I still struggle with, and will continue to struggle with forever. I know that I will continue to get better, but the inner nagging never stops. If this is YOU, find something that will help you learn to speak more kindly and gently with yourself. Find activities that make you feel nourished and healthy instead of activities done with the sole intention to lose weight or be "better" in some way. Practice yoga with the intention to give and to heal, practice meditation in order to get to know yourself and to recognize that your thoughts are not who you are, and practice caring for others.
Have your husband take pregnancy photos in bare minimum clothing and post them on Facebook. Have no fear.
Be empowered by your beautiful body as it is.