I’ve had the good fortune that my circumstances have allowed me the time, resources, and familial support to address issues that have plagued my young adult life, namely my eating disorder and the depression that lies at the core of it all. The pain, suffering, and isolation that manifest themselves in abnormal and shameful eating patterns, though terrible any time of the year, are especially noticeable to family and friends around me during the holidays. Though my journey to recovery from my eating disorder has not yet reached its end, I do have the strength of body and mind to reflect on some of my experiences and the lessons learned.
Though not always, many times, and certainly in my case, issues such as eating disorders and addictions can stem from mental illness. When my anorexia first started to develop during my time as an undergraduate at The University of Notre Dame, my understanding of mental illness was minimal. My mom saw a therapist for her own depression when I was growing up, and I just saw it as part of the normal routine, not as the painful process that it actually is. I was as naïve as it gets.
However, it was during those years in South Bend that I first encountered my own mental illness. My depression seemed to come alive at the same time that I began to starve myself, though I’ve been told it was most likely lying under the surface for many years. I began to cry at night for no reason, I started to avoid the people I cared about, and I lashed out at my boyfriend who was trying to stand by my side because I didn’t know where else to place my confusing anger. Nothing mattered to me anymore. The busy, social girl, who used to run from the library to Student Government Meetings to meet friends at the dining hall, all with a smile on her face, had disappeared.
Being in a college environment eventually proved to be too much for me, both physically and mentally. I was fortunate enough that I, the perfectionist that I was in those days, had enough credits to graduate from college a semester early and head home for treatment.
Though leaving school early certainly saved my life, it also had painful consequences that I still deal with today. Many of my friendships remain broken. I spent much of my illness in complete isolation during my later years in college. And when I began treatment, I was forced to embark on an exhausting process of focusing on myself, and didn’t have the time or energy to call the people I cared about. What resulted was lost connections. I also lost my first love. Though it may not have been meant to last forever, our relationship ended prematurely because I no longer had the mental capacity to handle being connected so intimately to someone else. Finally, I had to abandon my love of learning to enter treatment centers where I spent more time coloring and collaging than I would ever like to admit.
When I was sick and starved, I didn’t have the energy to care about these losses, and it is only now that I have begun to deal with the pain. I often feel ashamed to reach out to those people I have lost, because so much time has passed. I also know that I hurt many of those people by isolating from them. I wasn’t a friend to them when they may have been in need, because I was so consumed by my illness. Even today, repairing those damages seems like a daunting task.
My eating disorder has taken many shapes and forms since my years at Notre Dame. Though I truly believe that any eating disorder, no matter what type, is devastatingly painful and should not and can not be compared to another, I also think it is important to put my experiences in context. I probably do not even need to write that eating disorders are often glamorized as something to be aspired to in today’s culture of thinness. However, my path has not in any way been glamorous. Yes, for a while I was very thin, but that time was also spent sitting alone in an apartment, wishing I could be anyone else. In addition to anorexia, I have also suffered from bulimia and EDNOS. Each has brought a different version of destruction.
I still have bad days. I still have days when I wish I could be someone else. The holidays are an especially tough time. Food is everywhere. Sometimes I want to throw it all away, and sometimes I want to eat all of it. These thoughts are difficult to escape, and since everyone in my family knows about my issues, all eyes are on me. However, years of treatment have taught me what steps I need to take in order to make the right choices, each and every moment of the day.
One thing that remains steady in my life is my depression. I think of it as an ocean. Sometimes it is quiet and calm, but then some force can come and create a tidal wave, sending everything askew. For me, these forces have been fights with family members, abandonment from friends, and most recently, heartbreak.
What I have written seems to suggest that every day is a struggle, which is certainly true. However, every day also brings me another lesson learned and more hope to hang on to. I have learned that the relationships in my life are precious, and that I am going to make endless mistakes when it comes to the people that I love. But if I take responsibility for those mistakes, I can mend relationships as they grow. I have learned that though depression will remain a part of my life for a long time, it doesn’t have to be a force that constantly takes over. Some days it still gets the best of me, but I know that if I keep working diligently in therapy, those days will eventually become rare occurrences. I also have had the opportunity to see what a life worth living is not, and that has only driven me closer to my goals, my values, and my truths.