"Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity." -- Brené Brown
As I sat down to write, I asked myself what I want to achieve from this piece. I want to end the stigma associated with addiction, depression and anxiety, but I know our culture is still improving its open-mindedness. I want to change the world, but I can't change the world until I find myself. What I can do is be vulnerable in sharing my story. I hope it will inspire others to have the courage to speak up when they are struggling, because no one should be ashamed of needing help.
I experienced the ultimate vulnerability when I admitted that I had relapsed in my eating disorder and put myself into treatment for the second time. In that moment and in that choice, my quest to understand my authentic self truly began.
As the sun rose over New York City on the first day of May, I realized how fast June 7 was approaching. I sighed at the thought of another birthday. Every year since I had turned 16, I promised myself that by my next birthday, my life would be different. To me, different meant being skinnier, which in my mind was synonymous with happiness and perfection. Here I was, a month away from 24, still blaming my body for all of my woes and still hating myself.
Sadness didn't just overcome me; it became me. I didn't understand these agonizing feelings, and neither did my friends and family. They reminded me of my dream job, accomplishments, meaningful relationships and memorable experiences. The worst part was that they thought that because I was no longer sick-looking, as I had been during my first round of treatment, that I was cured. I couldn't tell them how wrong they were because I didn't want to disappoint them. My childhood traumas still haunted me, and I never finished working through my nightmares. A dreamer armed with an active imagination and intrinsic motivation, I fought hard to push through the heartache and pretended I was okay. I would continue climbing to the height of their expectations despite the stress and sadness weighing me down.
So as I mulled over turning 24, I had another thought that I am not living, just merely existing. I was allowing my eating disorder to control my life, again.
In the beginning of recovery, it was hard to share my thoughts and feelings with my team and my peers for fear of judgment. I later discovered that my trust issues stemmed from a pattern of punishing myself by pushing everyone away, just to use the evidence of people abandoning me as further proof in the story I told myself: I'm unlovable. I owe this breakthrough to my incomparable therapist. She revived my life.
Twelve-hour days of appointments and therapeutic, discussion-based groups really did pay off. I noticed that when I feel triggered or defensive, my emotions spike, and I consequently act on impulse. I became aware that when I am in my eating disorder, my behaviors are not aligned with my values. The more difficult my thoughts and feelings become, the more I feel pulled in the direction of my ED-based coping mechanisms. I wondered if this is so habitual, is it even possible to take my power back from my eating disorder? If I can't blame my eating disorder for my problems, does that mean I'm the defective denominator in everything that's gone wrong in my life? If I'm just me, am I enough?
The anxiety of authenticity didn't disappear, but my team encouraged me to explore sitting with the discomfort. They challenged me to confront shame-based beliefs I had about myself since childhood that were maintaining my eating disorder. My enlightened therapist explained to me, "Every time you reach for an eating disorder behavior, you rob yourself of the opportunity of finding out what works for you." With her help, guidance and support, I realized that if what I have been doing to "fix" my problems hasn't worked, maybe I just have to be as I am.
As I've slowly started to shut the door on my eating disorder, I've opened the door to celebrating my body and myself, and embracing the physical and temperamental changes that come with recovery. I learned the difference between my object body (the idea that my body is something I can manipulate) and my awareness body (acknowledging my body's function and honoring its needs). I learned the difference between my rational mind (knowing I don't have to respond or react immediately) and my emotional mind (acting based on impulse without acknowledging other options.)
It is unrealistic for me to believe I will love my body when I leave treatment, but it's realistic to grieve the loss of my eating disorder, and learning to love my body will come in time. It is unrealistic for me to expect people to understand what I'm going through, but it's realistic for me to pick myself up if I slip up and use my voice when I'm struggling. Recovery is not for the faint of heart.
I am eternally grateful to my team of doctors, therapists and dietitians for showing me that the benefits of recovery outweigh the short-lived relief my eating disorder gave me. In treatment, I conquered fear foods, improved my self-directedness, practiced setting boundaries, quieted my inner critic and allowed myself to celebrate my revolutions, no matter how tiny.
I am fortunate to have become friends with people who have helped me be more open and honest, and who have shown me that I'm not alone. We are bound by something greater than ourselves because no one gets us like we get us. No one can support us in the way we can support each other.
I believe that the body is a masterpiece. Sometimes paintings are colorful and vibrant, and other times their beauty is less evident. One needs to have a closer look at these pieces to identify the depth, meaning and purpose. But often times it is these obscure pieces that are forever remembered. Only one person needs to acknowledge their existence and take the time to find the beauty in their dissimilar colors and brushstrokes. If we all invested a little more time to find the beauty in each other, the world would be full of masterpieces.
The way I felt about myself when I was in my eating disorder goes against all of my values, and that used to make me feel angry and hypocritical. I was a walking contradiction when my logic and emotions were at war. I was hesitant to let go of my inner turmoil because I believed it fueled my artistry when really it only clouded my view.
For the first time in a long time, because my recovery has intent, my values of laughter, beauty in the world, kindness, passion and inspiration are vibrant. They are louder than my eating disorder. By choosing vulnerability, I chose love, joy and creativity.
My wish for my 25th birthday is not to be thinner or to be happier or to be different. My hope is that I'll be celebrating one year of recovery.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.