“What do you mean, you’re grateful to have had this chapter in your life?” my mom asked me that night. Not maliciously, just curiously. I understood what she was asking, but I didn’t want to answer. I was in so many different frames of mind at that moment. I was proud that I had successfully completed three levels of eating disorder treatment (that kind of makes it sound like Candy Crush, but nevertheless it was an accomplishment). I was terrified of moving forward and terrified of not being able to stick it out on my own. And I was stuck in this awful place where I was no longer actively and dangerously anorexic, but I hadn’t yet learned how to shut off the horribly self-deprecating thoughts. I knew, clearly, that there had been something positive in this experience, but I couldn’t quite place what it had done for me.
Well, Mom, I’m ready to explain now.
Let’s rewind to January 2012, to the day I decided I wanted to lose twenty pounds. The day I downloaded MyFitnessPal onto my iPhone and started obsessively tracking every calorie. The day I started going to the gym every morning the second it opened.
Those days didn’t feel monumental. They certainly began a series of events that turned a human into a skeleton, but they didn’t feel any different to me.
They were also not the beginning of my unhealthy relationship with food. The first year and a half that I was in school, I used it as a coping mechanism in a totally different way. I stress ate. The busier my schedule was, the more items I piled onto my to-do list, the more I consumed. But even more importantly, those days were not the beginning of my unhealthy relationship with myself. I had spent years as a terrified perfectionist, hating all the things I was and all the things I wasn’t. I suffered from low self-esteem, social anxiety, and constant fear of rejection.
I was a functioning disaster. Good at hiding most of my issues behind a polite, positive demeanor; constantly aware that it could unravel in a heartbeat. I was good at following rules and telling people what they wanted to hear, but always a step away from a breakdown.
I’m not glad that all the internal turmoil and external triggers led to an eating disorder.
But I’m glad they led to something.
I was a functioning disaster. Keyword: functioning. I wasn’t in good shape, but I could have graduated college. I probably could have found a job and done pretty well and gotten promoted. I probably could have lived my whole life that way. After all, I got through the first 20 years without too many hiccups. And if I hadn’t been crippled by starvation, I would have gotten through many more.
But what quality of life could I really have that way? A mediocre one at best. I was speeding through things a mile a minute, hoping that someday the choices I’d made would magically make me happy. I had hastily declared a math major my freshman year of college when I felt pressured to know what I wanted to study, because it was practical and I was good at it and I told myself it didn’t matter if I really loved it. I was always preoccupied with the future instead of concerning myself with (what I considered) the frivolity of the present.
Being diagnosed with anorexia pulled the emergency brake. It forced me to immediately stop everything I was doing and reevaluate. It forced me to confront all of the truths I’d been running away from for years and years. With no forward momentum, I had no choice but to examine the present, and I didn’t like what I found.
Look at who I am right now, in today’s present. After almost a year of struggling and soul-searching, I’m no longer the disaster I used to be. I have a clearer picture of who I am and more realistic expectations of myself. I’ve learned how to ground myself in moments and get back down to earth when my mind starts wandering. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am smart and strong and valuable and yes, completely and utterly imperfect.
I’m grateful that things got so bad. Unbelievably, incredibly grateful. I know that some of the scars from this experience will never heal, and I’m not thrilled by how closely I danced with death. I’m not naive about the severity of what happened to me. But now I get to feel happiness in ways I never have before, and I know I have the tools to make a pretty amazing life. I don’t think pre-ED Gwen would ever have been able to say those things.
I don’t know if this answers the question my mother asked me eight months ago. I hope it does. But even if it doesn’t, at least it will have explored something I’ve been trying to put into words for a long time.