"I had no idea."
That's the theme of this year's National Eating Disorder Awareness week. And it's also the mantra for my own personal struggle with the eating disorder that I've finally come to terms with.
For the past three years, I've let this particular week in February slip by without acknowledgement. Sure, I saw the Facebook statuses, the Instagrams, the #NEDA hashtags on Twitter. I read article after article alone in my room where no one could peer over my shoulder and see my computer screen. So no one could wonder why a seemingly-confident, put-together college student had her eyes glued to these stories of personal struggles with these disorders instead of doing her homework. I posted nothing -- I didn't even say anything, but I read everything I could get my hands on. And I wondered why I, as a journalism major and generally outspoken individual, was terrified into silence.
This year, I'm choosing to finally write a post about the subject I spent so many dodging. Not because I think I'm brave, and not because I think I will be anyone's inspiration. But because I've finally realized what it was that made my own struggles so painful and why, to this day, I've never fully escaped the troubled mindset that's left in their absence.
I was never formally diagnosed with an eating disorder. I'd always struggled with control issues and anxiety, which are often factors, but I didn't hate my body and I'd always been thin. It was confusing, but in retrospect, it's painfully clear that something was wrong. If you need a label, let's say I had "orthorexia" or "EDNOS." This cultural obsession with labels was just the beginning of the problem for me. Because my personal struggle didn't fit into a neatly-labeled doctor's chart checkbox, in my mind, it became irrelevant. And because I, thankfully, did not suffer to a severe or debilitating degree, my struggles were not worth anyone's attention. My eating disorder became my best-kept secret.
Of course, there are so many reasons that eating disorders are harmful, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Because I was a competitive runner at the peak of my disorder and, I knew that I had to retain at least a little skin on my bones to keep running as hard as I did. Luckily for me, I never sustained any permanent physical damage and, at least to my knowledge, it wasn't apparent that there was anything wrong. But my mind was completely and irrationally overcome with thoughts of all the things I couldn't eat, all the hours of exercise I could use to burn it off, and nothing else in between. And after a year, I started to get better, that obsessive focus was channeled into maintaining my image, to myself and others -- eating disorder not included.
At first, not telling anyone was a point of pride. But soon, it became just another layer of defense, one more level of control that I exuded on how the rest of the world viewed me. After a year of not telling anyone, the prospect became terrifying, and then impossible. Being "the girl with an eating disorder" was not a part of who I was, and I wasn't willing to admit to my own struggles and sacrifice what I viewed as "strength."
Today, I've put back on the pounds I once was so happy to shed, and then some, and I can't even imagine consuming the reduced amount of calories that I used to live on. I exercise because I love it, not out of fear or guilt or necessity. But what I still struggle with every single day is the mindset that I can't shake: learning to hide my struggles from the world became just as addictive as my disordered behaviors had been themselves.
National Eating Disorder Week is supposed to be about awareness and empowerment, and in many ways, it is. But since my senior year of high school, when I was first able to say the words "I have an eating disorder" out loud (but to no one, of course) it was a reminder of my own cowardice. I was confused and amazed by the bold proclamations by so many people of what I saw as an example of my biggest weakness.
To almost everyone who knows me and reads this post, I think I can guess your response. "I had no idea." But, really, that's okay. And that's what this week is really about -- not pretending, not protecting the image you think others may have of you, but owning up to the parts of yourself that you struggle with the most and admitting that it's okay. Struggling does not mean that you're anywhere close to weak. No eating disorder, or any mental illness for that matter, should ever be a secret. Just sitting down to write this post has gotten me further than years of silence ever did.
So whatever you're most afraid of, be it admitting to something you've hidden for years or just about anything else, I challenge you to say it, to talk about it to a friend, to write about it. Because I can guarantee that there's someone out there that will secretly marvel over your words until one day she realizes that hers matter too.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.