February 26-March 4, 2017 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I am proudly healthy, and I also I believe that recovery is a lifelong journey. All week, I'll be sharing thoughts about the joys (and struggles) along the way.
Please know that some topics and language used may be triggering to those in a vulnerable state.
To learn more, get screened, help or get help, visit nedawareness.org.
I was 16 when I first discovered that I didn't have to feel challenging emotions if I didn't want to. And I didn't want to.
I was emerging from two years in battle with EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified; now classified as OSFED/other special feeding or eating disorder) and anorexia. I was doing everything right. Meal plan? Check. Water bottle full of cranberry juice sipped all day long to boost my calorie count? Yep. Plastic baggies full of animal crackers, granola bars? Uh-huh. Loaded veggie burgers? Yes, and with the bun to boot. If it was beneficial to the physical manifestation of "recovery," I was doing it.
But something else was brewing beneath the surface: the realization that recovery wasn't just about nutrition and weight and getting my parents to stop nagging me to eat breakfast. Recovery was going to require an honest look at my fears, scars, and damaging thought patterns. For the healthy behaviors to move from a place of obligation to desire, work was required. I wasn't ready to do it. And so, at age 16, I made the choice to disengage from my emotions.
Let me set the scene for you. It was winter in Syracuse, cold and gray and damp. I was dating a boy who was 17 and had his own car, though few redeeming qualities beyond that. He was not a very nice person, but I liked his goatee (So grown up! Such a dead-ringer for Roger from RENT!). We had just finished watching a movie, which actually means making out, which actually means something more. It was the first time I'd been intimate with anyone, although intimacy was hardly the sentiment I felt gripping in my chest as he rolled over and checked his flip phone for new texts.
I placed a hand over my belly. I wanted him to hold me and tell me I was beautiful, but I didn't know how to ask for that. Vulnerability seeped in around the edges of the mattress, but before it reached my skin I deflected. Did I look fat, was my stomach bulging, did he regret this? I shifted to my back and let gravity play a cosmetic trick on my abdomen. There! What quick work I had made of the issue. I later got dressed and drove away, thinking the problem was in my body. Thus, the problem was fixable.
When I arrived home, I binged on food. I ate graham crackers slathered with peanut butter, and then just graham crackers, crushed into handfuls. I ate a block of cheese, gnashing into it with my teeth. I ate jam with a spoon. I ate ice cream straight from the container. For a full hour, I ate and felt blank. Blissful nothingness. The only thought that occurred was how to get more food and how fast I could eat it and oh god why did graham crackers taste so good.
Once I had eaten past the point of capacity—when my stomach was so distended I couldn't stand up straight—I walked into the bathroom and made myself throw up. For ten minutes, I vomited and felt nothing. More blissful nothingness.
For years, I carried on this way. I got so good at dodging feelings, I lived in a near catatonic state. I got good at acting.
See, the problem with quashing negative emotions by way of bulimia is that I also killed everything good. Joy, bliss, contentment, sensuality, kindness, pride, even and especially love were casualties of my search for quiet.
I knew that life would be better after recovery, but I was not expecting to crash so dramatically into my emotions.
Since giving up the crutch of bulimia, I have no choice but to directly confront them. This does not mean I must address them in the moment they arise, a realization that calmed my initial fears about recovery (Who has time for feeling feelings all day long?). It is not always the right time to dive deep into issues of abandonment or inadequacy. Life as a healthy person means you must place them gently aside and soldier on. And when you are ready, you must take the time to be present with what is difficult.
It also means you gain full access to the good shit, too. When you accept vulnerability, you welcome in comfort.
The most seismic shift that occurred during my recovery was not that my hair looks healthier, or that my digestive system began working, or even that I fell in love with cooking again—although all of those things happened.
It is that feelings have become beautifully intense. Love radiates so brightly I can sense it for miles. I can feel it in my belly and every single one of my fingertips and pulsing at the crown of my head. Sadness takes hold and wraps around me tightly like a blanket, but if I lean into it, that too can feel familiar and welcome.
Post-recovery emotional life is like being able to hear after a lifetime of deafness. It is like tasting honey for the first time; like being touched gently by someone you love, over and over and over again.
The best part about being healthy isn't that I am able to experience my emotions in all of their brilliance. The best part is that I want to.
To read more about my recovery from bulimia, check out this piece on The Lonely Hour.