Mental Health

I Don’t Hide My Insecurities, I Hide Behind Them

“I don’t know,” I say with a frown as I angle my body sideways in the mirror. “Does it really look okay?”

“It looks fine,” my best friend replies, rolling her eyes. “You look good.”

I smooth the ruched fabric over my protruding hipbones. They are the part of my appearance I will never accept, no matter how long I spend trying to convince myself that they’re normal. I spin one way, then the other, watching as my shape goes from backyard stick to lopsided pear. But nobody wants to hear my complaining, so I just sigh and move away from the mirror.

“You don’t dress like you hate your body,” a friend remarked once as we ride the el to our downtown destination. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I didn’t even know what that meant. I felt like I should be offended, but I wasn’t sure why.

I’m bothered by a lot of things about myself, not just my hips. I’m bothered by how quickly I clam up in social situations and how easily I blush when I’m embarrassed. I hate that I have to work twice as hard as the people around me to do something as simple as eating breakfast in the morning, because my brain refuses to process things the way that it should. I hate that I take everything personally and spend maddening hours feeling guilty for things that aren’t my fault.

And I’m open about all that, I really am. I write posts like these that present my inner turmoil for the world to see. I crack jokes about my social ineptitude and never fail to cry loudly when the situation demands it. And I guess when I put it like that, it sounds kind of admirable.

It’s not.

I’ve been known to drunkenly disclose my eating disorder when I’m scared someone is getting too close. I tend to use my awkwardness and social anxiety as an excuse to avoid putting myself out there. And I guess, yeah, I don’t dress like I hate my body, because I don’t want to feel like I’m lying. I emphasize the parts I hate the most for no good reason other than the fact that I want to drive people away. Truth be told, that’s the one thing I know I’m pretty damn good at.

Some people hide their insecurities, faking self-confidence until they start to really believe in themselves. Some people actually embrace the parts of themselves they don’t love, because they know it makes them beautiful and unique and human.

Not me. I hide behind them, using them as a crutch, constantly making excuses to wallow in self-pity. I dwell on my insecurities until they’re all I see, and I make myself believe that I don’t deserve good things because of them. I’d rather force people to leave right away instead of waiting until I’m attached and the loss actually hurts.

I hide because I can. Because drowning in self-pity and self-loathing is the lifestyle I’m accustomed to, and because it’s easy, and because that way I’m the only one who’s allowed to hurt me or hate me. I hide because that’s what I do.

I take one last look in the mirror on my way out the door, turning away when I feel the tears brewing in my eyes. Someday maybe I’ll be really, truly brave. Just not tonight.

 

5 Things That Didn’t Happen When I Gained Weight

To someone struggling with an eating disorder, the idea of weight gain is one of the scariest things in the world. I still panic sometimes when I have to step on a scale, even though I actively choose not to look at the number. The words “weight restoration” send shivers of dread down my spine, and on days when I eat “too much” I imagine myself looking like a beached whale. The funny thing is, though, all the reasons I’ve ever had for being so terrified of a few extra pounds are slowly becoming non-reasons, because they simply aren’t realistic. Here are five of my favorite things that didn’t happen when I spent a year and a half gaining weight.

1. I didn’t grow out of all my clothes. I’ve grown out of one pair of pants, and that’s it. Almost everything else I own, I still wear on a regular basis.

2. I didn’t suddenly become obese. I don’t mean to skim over obesity, because I know it’s a real issue that a lot of people struggle with. But gaining enough weight to actually be classified as overweight or obese would be extremely difficult, especially for someone who began by barely eating anything at all. Besides, my nutritionist is looking out for my health – she wouldn’t push me somewhere just as dangerous as the place I started.

3. I didn’t lose control of my life. I thought that by moving toward intuitive eating, I would sacrifice my agency. That by giving up rigid, restrictive behaviors and obsessive self-monitoring, my life would spiral out of control and there would be nothing I could do about it. But I wasn’t in charge back then – my eating disorder was. Intuitive eating, weight restoration, and self-care are things that are 100% under my control.

4. I didn’t hate my appearance any more than I already did. I thought that when I gained weight I would be even more disgusted with the way I looked. But in the depths of my eating disorder, even when I was emaciated, I thought I was the most hideous person in the entire world. To be honest, I still struggle a lot with my appearance, but weight restoration is slowly making it better, not worse.

5. People didn’t like me any less. If anything, I’ve become a more social person, a much better friend, and a lot more fun to be around. The people that care about me don’t give a shit if I weigh 110 pounds or 160 pounds, as long as I’m confident and happy.

So my fears were unfounded. And you know what? When I gained weight, I also gained a lot of other wonderful things. Things I never thought I’d be able to attribute to something so scary. I gained confidence, control, energy, and optimism. I rediscovered my love for writing and decided to use my story to inspire others. I learned to take ownership of my life instead of always playing the victim. I laugh more and take more chances and worry less and less about what other people think.

A lot of things didn’t happen when I gained weight. But one thing did. I gained myself. And that’s worth every pound.

Crazy

The walls weren’t the right color.

“They’re blue, please, they’re supposed to be blue,” I implored the white-clad women as they ducked in and out of my room. Nobody seemed to pay me any attention; the bustling never stopped or slowed long enough for my words to catch up. I just wanted somebody to listen to me. This was all wrong, everything, the walls and the floors and the noises –

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

The room trembled and quaked as a high-pitched wail reverberated off the strange walls and settled in my eardrums. Searing pain ripped through my head like I was being impaled by a hot poker. Suddenly there were hands pressing on my arms, my legs, my forehead, my mouth – oh.

My mouth. That was me. I was screaming.

“Can’t she talk yet?” I heard one of the girls whisper to another. “I’m so fucking tired of all this yelling.” The other girl giggled. What did they mean, couldn’t I talk? Wasn’t anybody listening to me at all?

“Relax, now,” one of the older women said as she cupped my face in her cold hand. I squirmed under her touch. She smelled like bleach and baby powder, and it was churning my stomach to have her so close to me. There were still too many people crowded around my bed. I felt the sting of bile rising in my throat.

“Stop it, please,” I begged, turning my head to the side. “Leave me alone.” My vision blurred as their faces grew closer and closer, until all I could see were faces, eyes, blackness – and then I couldn’t see anything at all.

“This one’s seriously batshit,” a voice echoed as the sound sped further and further into the distance. “She’ll be lucky if we lose her. It’ll save her a lot of pain.”

Lose her?

Laughing. Then nothing.

When Your Words Matter

A week ago, I got an email inviting me to be a Book in Global Engagement Summit’s Living Library. I was flattered, but honestly, a little confused. The premise of this event was that people would come and check me out from the library because they thought the premise of my “Book” was interesting – but I’m not interesting, am I? What do I have to say that is valuable enough to share with a group of people whose influence stretches across the globe?

I expected to sit in my chair undisturbed for two hours. After all, the other “Books” in the library had far better stories to tell. They had made documentaries in foreign countries or been the first in their families to go to college. Nobody would want to waste their time talking to me.

I was wrong, though. Plenty of people took the seat opposite me for a ten or fifteen-minute period. Yes, a couple of them stumbled my way by accident, thinking I was somebody else, and many of them probably stopped by because all the other Books were occupied. But that didn’t matter in the end. Regardless of how they came my way, they did. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past couple of years, it’s that every accident is a wonderful blessing.

Do you know how many people I’ve spoken to, out loud, about my experiences with writing and blogging and recovering from the disorder that has torn my life apart? Not very many. I think it showed. My 1-2 minute opening “spiel” was awkward, erratic, and probably not very much fun to listen to. I felt the people across from me flinch as I said the words “eating disorder” out loud – perhaps I shouldn’t have led with such a jarring phrase. The second it left my mouth, I regretted it. “This was a mistake,” I thought. “This is personal. I shouldn’t be sharing this with the world.”

Should I?

The first person I talked to seemed rather startled by what I had to say. “Oh…” she trailed off as I waited expectantly for her reply. It took her a second to figure out how to respond. “Oh. Wow.” Not the worst response I could have gotten, but not exactly the one I was hoping for, either.

The second person I talked to laughed nervously when I told her what my Book title was. “Um, whoa.” At least the conversation moved a little bit from there. “That’s amazing. I can’t imagine going through something like that.”

I got better at talking the more I talked. By the time the coordinator sat down and said, “got time for one more conversation?” I was an expert in my own subject. Words started pouring out of me, words that I didn’t even know were true. “I have an eating disorder,” I said boldly. “And I was given this shitty, God-awful experience for a reason – so that I could share it.”

There are moments when I surprise even myself. That was one of them. Until that moment, I don’t think I fully processed that my voice, my blog, my writing…had saved my life. I don’t think I’d ever realized how much I owed Little Growing Pains, the brainchild that became the life source. I learned that I had a story, a story worth telling, a story that had the capacity to change other people’s lives as well as my own. I learned that everything I’d written was worth more than I ever could have dreamed.

I walked out of the Library that day prouder than I can ever remember being. There’s nothing quite like knowing how much your words matter.

NEDAwareness 2014: Breaking Up With ED

I have a confession to make. I’ve never been in a relationship.

(Big apologies to my tenth grade “boyfriend” for this statement. No offense, you’re a great guy, but I don’t think you quite count.)

I can’t pretend I know exactly what it’s like to go through a breakup, although I think the experience is different for everyone. I’ve watched friends go through them. I’ve watched my little brother go through them. I’ve watched overly dramatic television characters go through them. They’re sort of inevitable. Most relationships end. But they don’t all end the same way. Sometimes things deteriorate of their own accord, when two people realize they’re just not as compatible as they thought they were. Sometimes someone falls in love with somebody else. Most of the time someone gets hurt.

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which ends tomorrow, I’m going to share the closest thing I’ve ever had to a breakup. I’m going to talk about ending my relationship with my eating disorder.

My ED (which I not-so-affectionately personify as “Ed”) was manipulative and charming. He wasn’t smart, but he was clever. He made me completely dependent on him and used that mercilessly to prey on every ounce of confidence I had. It was a tumultuous, violent, and abusive relationship, and the worst part was that he wasn’t some separate entity. He was a part of me. Leaving him was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

I loved him, even when he was horrible to me. I loved him when I decided I had to let him go. I still love him. I think I always will.

I think about going back to him sometimes. When my life gets too difficult and I feel like there’s no one else I can rely on, all I want is to lean back and have him catch me. How sick is that? I know that all of his words are empty air and that he lives with the sole purpose of destroying me, but I still feel better when he’s there.

Does that sound familiar? I think it might. It’s a breakup. Not a romantic one, but a breakup all the same. When I’m drunk and sad, I’m in danger of “texting my ex,” except for me, that means giving in and using disordered behaviors. Sometimes all I want to do is call him and I need my friends to come over and talk me out of it. I have a box of stuff that reminds me of him – too-small t-shirts, diet cookbooks, running wristbands – shoved under my bed where I won’t be tempted to look for it. It’s been a year, and I’m still not over him.

More and more, I’m realizing that’s okay. Maybe I’ll never be over it. Or maybe in another year, I’ll laugh at the fact that I just said that. I don’t know. What I do know is that we have every experience for a reason: to learn something. Relationships end, but each one teaches you something about yourself you didn’t know before. Every mistake leads the way to better mistakes, and every bad relationship leads the way to great ones. If anything, you learn not to stand for anything less.

I’m not going back to Ed, because I know I deserve better. But I wouldn’t have figured that out if I hadn’t let him break me. Being knocked down was the only way I figured out how to stand on my own.

Break up with Ed. Get out of there. Love him, miss him, yeah, that’s life. Just don’t go back. Something better waits for you on the other side.

Objects In Mirror Are More Beautiful Than They Appear

I have a hate-hate relationship with mirrors.

First of all, I can never be sure that I can trust a mirror. After all, the world is full of unreliable ones, mirrors that make you look shorter or thinner or tanner than you actually are. Sometimes I think I look good in a mirror, but then someone else’s face comes into view and I see that their nose looks ridiculously crooked, and I think, great, that must be how crooked my nose looks in real life. But of course, I can never really know, so I’m left uncertain of the tier of unattractiveness I’m currently occupying.

Second of all, mirrors seem to do a really great job of overemphasizing the most unsatisfactory aspects of my appearance. If I have even the slightest zit on my face, all of a sudden I look like I’ve come down with a ghastly bout of hives. If I’m having a weird hair day, I immediately look like I’ve just been electrocuted. Anything and everything I could possibly be self-conscious about is exaggerated tenfold when I look into a mirror.

The only mirror in my apartment, besides the one in my roommate’s bedroom, is in the bathroom, and let me tell you, the lighting in there is seriously terrible. With the overhead light on, it’s still too dark to be able to really see yourself correctly. But if you turn the mirror light on, every flaw you’ve ever tried to hide is exposed in a harsh, unforgiving solar burst. Bags under your eyes. That weirdly shaped mole on the side of your face. The upper lip hair you apparently failed to bleach away. Oh, yeah. That’s the kind of thing that really makes you feel like you’re ready to conquer the day.

Honestly, sometimes I’d just rather not look. There are mornings when I get up, run a comb through my hair, put on an outfit I’m pretty sure matches, and walk out the door without so much as a glance in the mirror. I know I’m going to find something unacceptable about my appearance, but I don’t have the energy to fix it, so why bother?

Today was one of those mornings. I used the mirror for about 3.5 seconds while I put my contacts in, but other than that, I just wasn’t interested in knowing how I looked. I did everything else I had to do – went to class, turned in my quiz, ate my lunch, went to work – but I had no concept of what I looked like while doing it. I could have had a cowlick or a giant forehead pimple, for all I knew. And with my luck, I probably did.

The thing is, what I see in the mirror doesn’t actually have anything to do with the success of my day. Today, when I could very well have been walking around with some unbearably tragic blemish, I still had a super helpful math class and managed to write a post for the first time in two weeks. And even more importantly, knowing I had a gargantuan zit on my chin wouldn’t have made it go away. I am what I am, and apart from basic hygiene (with which I would argue I am quite skilled), there’s nothing I can do to change that. Especially not while antagonizing myself in front of a mirror.

Anaïs Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” And maybe that’s true. It’s impossible to see myself the way I’m perceived by professors in class or neighbors on the street. Mirrors are reflections; we see ourselves in them through our own eyes. I don’t get the opportunity to see me, only to see the way light bounces my image off of a thin sheet of glass. We do not have the pleasure of observing our true selves.

We must have faith that there is beauty, even when we cannot see it.

So Thanks For Making Me A Fighter

I’m doing well.

I visited my therapist for the first time since winter break. “You seem to be in a really good place,” she said.

“You sound happy,” a friend told me on the phone. “I love hearing you sound happy.” I love hearing me sound happy too.

I was chatting with my academic advisor in her office, and she told me I had a really great attitude. I don’t think I’ve ever been told that before. I usually have a remarkably disturbing and pessimistic attitude, one that tends to make medical professionals uncomfortable. Twice my therapist has kept me ten minutes after my appointment was supposed to be over because she was worried about something I’d said. Yeah, having a good attitude is new to me.

“Want some chocolate?” one of my fellow interns asked me at work today. She slid the two-pound bag of caramels toward me. “Sure,” I replied. I ate a few. I still ate my entire lunch half an hour later.

I’m happy. Not creepy happy; things aren’t perfect all the time. But relatively speaking, I like my life. I like the people I surround myself with, I like the work I do, I like the hobbies that occupy my free time. I like me.

I think for a long time I was working toward the wrong goal. I spent so much time fighting the eating disorder that I forgot what’s important. I’m important. It’s not about making the ED weaker, it’s about making me stronger.

Eating disorders don’t disappear. The thoughts that drove me to self-decimation still occur just as frequently as ever. I sometimes spend hours agonizing over my reflection in the mirror even when I have better things to do. I still order fish instead of steak at restaurants because I know it has fewer calories. I still get nervous when things don’t happen right on schedule, the way I like them. The eating disorder is strong, and it will probably always be strong. The difference now is that I am stronger.

I write and I know that my writing matters. I study and I know that it does not define me. I sing and it touches people. I goof off and they laugh. Sometimes, just sometimes, I walk past a mirror and I see someone who’s a little bit beautiful. I know that I have the potential to do great things, regardless of whether I meet someone’s subjective definition of “perfect.” Even if it is my own.

Recovery is a lot of really hard work. It’s long days and uncomfortable situations. It’s emotions you don’t want to feel. It’s a battle against something you so strongly perceive as part of yourself that sometimes fighting seems fruitless. It’s not. Because the eating disorder isn’t you, or me. Finding yourself, growing yourself, and loving yourself – that’s the only way to beat it. I had to stand up tall, stare it in the face, and say, “I am stronger than you are.” I had to trust that I was smarter, more important, more worthy.

I don’t pretend that I’m an expert, because I’m not. I’m just happy. And that’s something I never thought I could be. Imperfect, but still happy. I am not a supermodel or a movie star. I am not a genius or a comedian or Beyonce. I’m just me. That’s all I ever have to be. And that’s okay. I can live with that. I can be proud of that every single day, because it’s more of an accomplishment than anyone will ever understand.

Ed

My Reverse Disappearing Act

I remember running my fingers over the bones in my ribcage. Trying to hold on to the feeling of emptiness, of open space, of nothing. Stroking the hardened curve of my hip as it guided my hand down into the valley of my stomach.

I never thought of myself as a junkie, but I was. I was addicted to nothingness. My energy was drawn from hunger pangs; my self-worth unmistakably correlated to how little space I could occupy. My meals got smaller, my clothes got smaller, my world got smaller. And then one day all that remained were bones and hollowed eyes and a deep disappointment that I hadn’t disappeared altogether.

Addictions don’t just go away. They take an unbelievable amount of effort to overcome. Alcoholics pledge sobriety; gamblers avoid casinos. But what do you do if you’re addicted to being empty?

It’s so easy to just say “today I hate myself, and maybe
if I just don’t eat dinner tonight, then
I won’t take up so much space.
And then everything will
be okay. Just this
one time.”

But then when there’s nothing left, when you’ve shrunk into a half-person, when your highest high crashes into your lowest low – then you can’t string two words together or walk up a flight of stairs. You waste away and you disappear. Isn’t that what you wanted? To feel nothing? To want nothing? To be nothing?

I’ll never be empty enough to satisfy my craving. Human beings are made to feel and love and be; it is our blessing and our curse. There’s no good way to disappear, no matter how many bones you count or sizes you drop. There is too much of me, of everything that I am, to be confined to such a tiny corner of the universe.

It’s not about taking up less space. It’s about giving meaning to the space you already take up.

It’s about
slowly branching out
and sharing your space with
the rest of the world, letting yourself
expand into a deluge of everything you have to offer.

You can’t quit emptiness the way you can quit smoking or drinking. There’s nothing to stay away from. But you can choose to fill your life to the brim, with people and places and things that you love, until being hollow is no longer an option. You can choose to let all the crazy facets of your humanity matter.

I want to have a bigger brain and a bigger heart. I want to do bigger things and make a bigger impact on the world. I can’t be small. It’s time to grow.

The Recovery Pants

I, like probably every middle-class, twenty-something female, own several pairs of pants. These pants range in size from zero to nine, run the spectrum of color from white to black, and take up way too much space in my dresser, banishing my shorts to a second-class home on the shelf of my closet. But that’s neither here nor there. Yes, I have many (probably too many) pairs of pants. I would like, however, to tell the story of one.

It was December 2012 when we first met. I was two months into treatment; better, but just barely. I was still pretty convinced that I could recover without gaining any weight, at least until the day when I could no longer button my smallest pair of jeans. That hope died fast.

The Pants were hanging on a rack at Macy’s, waiting to be snatched up on holiday sale. I was looking for Christmas gifts for my family, giddy from the atmosphere of lights and wreaths and carols, trying to forget about the loss of my beloved flared jeans and doing a pretty good job of it. Then Willa and Kate saw them.

“Hey, Gwen, didn’t you say you needed new pants?”

On came the rush of speeding thoughts. Those are cute. They probably won’t fit me, though. I don’t even know what size I am anymore. I could be a 2. Or a 6. Or oh dear Lord Christ I could be a 16 or a 32 or what if they don’t even make pants big enough for me? What if I have to make my own pants from now on? I don’t even know how to sew!

They must have been able to read my mind, or at least my deer-in-the-headlights facial expression, because they immediately offered to help me buy a pair of perfectly-fitting, gorgeous pants without any knowledge of their size. “Trust me,” said Kate. “I’ve done this before.”

I followed her blindly into the dressing room, where I was given strict marching orders. “Close your eyes,” Willa instructed. “I’ll throw you a pair of pants, you put them on, then you open your eyes. No peeking at the label.”

“Sir yes sir,” I muttered as the first pair sailed over the door and smacked me in the face.

The first two were unsuccessful. One pair was too small, the other so big I easily could have fit Kate and Willa in there with me. And then there were the Pants.

I could tell they fit perfectly from the second I pulled up the zipper. They were soft and long and a little stretchy; a beautiful rust-red color that glowed just enough in the fluorescent lights. Kate was right. They were gorgeous.

I didn’t look at the label. I took them off and lobbed them back over the door and held them tag-side-down as I stood in the checkout line. And right after I’d finished paying, Willa asked the cashier for a pair of scissors and snipped the tag right out of the Pants, ensuring that I would never again have a chance to peek.

It’s been a year since then, a year in which I have gone shopping several times and been totally aware of the size of my new pants. I’ve learned to accept that I am not defined by the number on the label; after all, it’s not actually very reliable. But there’s something comforting about my Pants, the lovely Pants with no size at all. They are the size of me, and they are perfect.

Do You Trust Me?

Aladdin asked the question as he beckoned Jasmine onto the magic carpet. Jack asked the same of Rose right as she was about to jump.

“Do you trust me?”

Four words. Probably the most difficult question four words can create.

You asked me once with your hands behind your back, and I said yes with my fingers crossed. Neither of us really knew how to trust at all.

And now we’re here with a lifetime of what-ifs and should-haves and whys, but I trusted you in all the ways I could. You wanted more than I had. You didn’t mean what you said when you said you could save me.

Someone asked me again today. “Don’t you trust me?” they joked as I tactfully criticized their argument.

I don’t trust you anymore. I don’t believe you.

“Sure I trust you,” I reply with a smile. “Of course I trust you.”

I used to believe you. You broke everything I am into a million tiny jagged pieces.

“I would never lie to you.”

You broke me and you swept me up and you tossed all my fragments into the garbage can. You never thought about me again. How dare you ask me to trust you.

It’s not you asking anymore, but it is. Because since you, the answer can never be yes.