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Content note: this piece describes life with anorexia, bulimia, and suicidal ideation.
In late 2009, I left the hospital wondering how I would cope without being constantly monitored, a feeling I simultaneously hated and craved—and knew well, after struggling with anorexia and bulimia since I was 14. By age 26, I had survived 18 hospitalizations for my eating disorder.
These stays were my respite. I was terrified of bleeding out on my bathroom floor after an esophageal rupture, and even though I didn’t want to live my life institutionalized, being locked away was the only place I knew I’d be safe from myself. I have spent time in centers whose quality of care ranged from confinement in a giant hallway with dozens of other women (urinating and defecating into commodes because the staff didn’t trust us with a toilet), to upscale facilities with art and trauma therapy and day-passes for outside excursions.
Trapped in an addictive cycle of binging, purging, and restriction, I wondered if I would be among the four percent of eating-disorder sufferers who died of the disease. I became ambivalent about my own life, part of me thinking I’d be better off if I were to become one of the 10,200 people who die each year in the US (one death every 52 minutes) of an eating disorder.
A starvation of the spirit
Today, I’m grateful to be free of that distorted thinking, though since my release from the Renfrew Center more than 13 years ago, my recovery hasn’t been linear. I’ve had several excruciating relapses, including one five years ago: after a bad breakup, I again suffered the cycle of self-destructive eating. After years of not engaging in the behavior, I suddenly found myself back in my bathroom, throwing up after a binge, shame settling in like a childhood blanket—at once comforting and long past its utility. But after a few bulimic episodes, I clawed my way back to food sobriety, with a lot of help. Over the years, I established a network of support rooted in community, honesty, love, acceptance, and accountability. I moved to Philadelphia because I wanted to build a life oriented around recovery, not relapse.
In February, which is Eating Disorder Awareness Month, I like to reflect on my life now, in recovery, versus life in the disease. I don’t think it’s reductive to say that an element of my eating disorder was the starvation of my spirit. I craved a life that aligned with my values, cultivated connection, and enabled me to live authentically.
At my sickest, my life wasn’t structured to feed my soul at all. I’m a storyteller at my core, yet I was working in finance, a career that can be fulfilling for many, but wasn’t for me. I worked from seven in the morning until seven at night, transferring money between millionaires’ bank accounts, and feeling like I wasn’t making a difference. I’d sit in my glass fishbowl office trying not to cry (because everyone could see me). And it wasn’t just the job. I was also dating emotionally unavailable people, isolating and concealing my true feelings from myself as well as others. My only relief was the knowledge that, at the end of the day, I could funnel my frustrations into food.
Complex causes, rigorous recovery
Eating disorders are complicated and multilayered for everyone who suffers them. In retrospect, I recognize that mine has its roots in biology, social conditioning, trauma, diet culture, my physiology, the identities I hold, existential angst, inadequate coping skills, sexual abuse, a chronic medical condition, and numerous other factors, all of which interact and intersect with one another.
With such complex causes, it's no wonder eating disorders can be so difficult to diagnose and treat. They affect people of every age, race, size, gender, sexual orientation, background, and body type, and take many manifestations. Their spectrum of severity ranges from mild restriction and emotional overeating to starvation and/or binging and purging. At my worst, I was spending $300 a day on food and purging 12 times every day. But it started by “going on a diet” and has shifted shapes innumerable times. I have more freedom from it today than I’ve ever had, but I know that the capacity for self-destruction lives within me, so I prioritize self-care and recovery.
You are worthy
Emerging from anorexia and bulimia has also been my path to a full, nourishing life in Philadelphia, where I first arrived to enter a treatment center. I fell in love with this city, and decided to stay. Recovery gave me permission to leave finance and to pursue my dream of writing, and it ensured that I had to begin nourishing myself on all levels: physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. While my eating disorder was potentially deadly, severely impacted my health, and cost me a lot in terms of time, money, relationships, and opportunities, the work of recovery has also led me to an incredible life. That beautiful duality helps me not to regret my past. I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on anyone, but I am grateful for all the ways recovery continues to enrich my life.
If you suffer from an eating disorder, or any type of disordered eating, support is essential—and it may look different for every individual. You may find support in therapy, treatment, a 12-step group, spiritual counseling, mentorship, coaching, meditation, or innumerable other forms. There are many outlets for help and healing. If you are struggling, you may feel alone and perhaps even unlovable. That’s how I felt when I was in the depths of my disease. But wherever you are now, I promise that you are worthy of a fulfilling, self-actualizing life, and I encourage you to step out of shame and secrecy and keep reaching for self-love and authenticity.
Here are some places to start if you or someone you love needs help:
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