This is not just a story. This is my story. This is relaxation, transcending discomfort and becoming one with the body, the vessel that will propel me towards my dreams, my goals, the only thing I will own all my life, that no man can ever take away from me no matter how hard he tries. This is violence and diamond-studded teeth sinking into jagged fingers. This is love and softness, holding hands on the beach and peach-blushed, sunburned skin skin. This is housekeeping, picking up trash on the floor of my heart and putting everything back in its place so that I can heal, and that the garden of my heart will flourish. This is admitting, accepting, embracing, and screaming that I am not broken, that I have always been as cratered and glowing as the moon herself. This is no bra and stiff sandals on the way love in home, all the way to body love and letting her in. This is amazement and feminine magic, hair out of place, and being seen, loved, and deemed beautiful without makeup. This is cheap lipstick and men’s deodorant, all the random beads I strung together the year it happened to me and all the little girls in the world, and how their discordance hummed and throbbed and glowed with all the magic of the first time I saw a firefly at summer camp. This is healing, and loving, and letting myself grow. This is admitting, accepting, enjoying, annd loving that I have a body and knowing that I am.
Ever since I started experiencing psychotic symptoms, I’ve had a really hard time with religion. Going to temple is just inviting the voices in, and prayer only stirs them up and gets them screaming at me. I don’t even know how to start a conversation with God. I thought God hates me, or even that God isn’t real. I’d basically given up on having any kind of spirituality in my life, which was a big deal, considering I previously wanted to become a cantor. I was recently hospitalized because I was suicidal and having flashbacks to a traumatic childhood event. While I was in the hospital, I had an illuminating conversation with the hospital chaplain. After talking to him, I felt lighter. The chaplain, Tony, told me that God must love me because God made me, and She doesn’t make garbage. God loves Her creations, and God can be whoever I want her to be, so I decided that God is a woman. If God loves me, then She has to understand how devastating it was to be hurt by men. I love women so much more deeply than I could ever love a man; I connect to them; I understand them; I laugh with them; I ache with them. I am sure that God, that my God, is a woman, and She loves me.
As a child of God, I have no right to hate Her creations. If I can love my own creations– my photos and my writing– then I have to be able to love the person that God made me. So that’s it. After a lifetime of hating myself, I’m going to do something about it. I’m going to love myself. It’s hard, and it’s weird, and I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m managing. I am learning not to tear myself down, but to build myself up– or at least keep my head above water. I am loved from all around. My parents love and support me no matter what I do. My elementary school classmates have stuck with me through my very first hospitalization to college; I don’t think they would have done that if I was the bad, worthless friend I thought myself to be. My English professor from last semester stopped me at work to tell me I’m a spectacular writer. I doubt he was doing that just to be nice. I have my friends from GSA who I always have fun with. And of course, there’s Christin, who pours so much love into our relationship that it’s almost impossible to believe I’m not everything she says I am.
I’m learning that it’s painful to love someone who doesn’t love herself, and I don’t want to put people through that pain anymore.
I’m finally gaining insight into all the nights I spent crying in my mom’s arms telling her I would do anything to see my collarbones again. She would tell me that I was beautiful as I was, and I’d argue with her because I hated myself so much I couldn’t understand how anyone could see any goodness at all in me. I have learned firsthand that you can’t plant self-love in someone else. That’s why it’s called SELF-love– it has to come from inside. Christin has inspired me to make a change in myself. If she can treat me as caringly and lovingly as she does, then I’m going to return the favor to myself because I am worth that much. I no longer say mean things to myself. I don’t tolerate it. I’ve gained enough confidence and self-respect not to let anyone else talk to me the way I talk to myself, and I’m not going to be a hypocrite and continue to treat myself like trash. I am a good person. I am smart. I am valuable. I am kind. And yes, I am beautiful.
Happiness is not getting on the scale and seeing that you’ve lost weight. Happiness was what I experienced today. I went out to brunch with Christin, and we walked on the beach where we tried to feed stale matzah to the birds. On the drive home, we held hands in the car, and I felt truly present in the moment. We had the windows down, and I wasn’t obsessing over my hair getting messed up or my makeup running. Why would I have wanted to think about that when I could have focused on the beautiful girl sitting next to me laughing at my passenger seat dancing and holding my hand? I was grateful to live in such a beautiful place, grateful that God brought so many wonderful people into my life, and grateful to be in love.
At age fourteen, I was a mess of contradictions. I felt like no one cared about me despite the outpouring of love I received from my family and friends. I thought my parents hated me and sent me to treatment to torture me and make me fat, not because they were at a loss for how to help me and only wanted me to be happy and healthy. I thought my boyfriend only liked me for my body, which couldn’t possibly have been true because I was well on my way to emaciation, and he put more than enough thought into my wellbeing.
At the same time, I didn’t want anyone to care about me. I often confided in my journal and to my therapist that I wished people would simply give up on me and let me self-destruct. I wished my boyfriend wouldn’t beg me to eat. I wished my mom wouldn’t confiscate my razors. I wanted people to leave me alone and let me drown in self-loathing and unhealthy behaviors. I ignored the people who loved me, misinterpreting their concern as an attempt to control me, and I was repulsed by any act of care or kindness because I felt like I wasn’t worth it.
These days, I have a little more perspective than I did when I was first diagnosed with anorexia and depression. Sometimes, I still wish people would just leave me alone and let me self-harm or starve myself. But I’ve also learned that I can’t have it both ways. If I want to have meaningful relationships in my life, I can’t immerse myself in my mental illnesses.
If I did everything alone, or went everywhere with only Ana, things would be different. I could have purged that night at Hamburger Mary’s. But my friends were there, and Oxana followed me into the bathroom. She didn’t do it because she was mad at me or trying to control me; she did it because she was concerned. My little freak-out really scared and upset Christin. She knew exactly what I was doing when I headed towards the bathroom, and she said she felt “defeated,” when she saw me leave. That’s not how I want the people I care about to feel. I don’t get to have it both ways. I can’t care about my friends and girlfriend and not expect them to care about me in return. If the roles were reversed, and Christin were the one with the eating disorder, I would want to do everything I could to help her on her journey to recovery. It only makes sense that my friends want the same for me.
Anorexia is loneliness. It is not strength or hard work. It is a potentially fatal disease that I have to fight. My ultimate anorexic fantasy was as follows: I live alone in my own apartment. I don’t have a refrigerator because I don’t ever buy anything to put in it. My cupboards are bare and empty. I have a coffeepot that I use frequently, and I feed my dog more often than I feed myself. The fantasy never involved any friends, a girlfriend, or even a roommate. Letting anyone get close to me meant that they might care, and having someone care about me meant someone coming between Ana and me. I couldn’t have that. I see now how miserable and lonely that fantasy is. I would much rather have a full life, complete with friends, family, and Christin.
Food is not just necessary. It is fun, pleasurable, and it can bring people together. Today, I have a nasty cold, and when I told Christin that I’m sick, she offered to make me some soup. She loves to cook, but I told her not to bother with all that because I didn’t feel like I was worth the trouble. I was self-conscious at the thought of my girlfriend seeing me in sweatpants and a t-shirt, and I had been too tired to even take a shower. I fell asleep, and the next thing I knew, she was at the door with a container of homemade soup. If I was still my fourteen-year-old self, I would have been terrified that someone cared about me that much, but today I was just happy to see my lovely, gourmet-cooking girlfriend. I ate the soup without a second thought, and it was delicious. Ana was nowhere in sight; she wasn’t whispering in my ear that I needed to purge as soon as Christin left, or that I wasn’t allowed to eat dinner if I ate the soup. Sick people should have soup. It’s a fact of life. When someone I care about cooks for me, I want to be able to enjoy it wholeheartedly, and not obsess over calories and the like. That’s exactly what I did today. I can only hope it means Ana’s grip on me is loosening.
In all honesty, I haven’t been prioritizing recovery lately. I’ve let anorexia creep back into my life, and it’s making me miserable. Today, I went out to lunch with my girlfriend and some friends from the GSA. I would have liked to have been able to spend the afternoon catching up with everyone and planning our next excursion to the local drag venue. Instead, I obsessed over calories, compared my plate to everyone else’s and hid in the bathroom debating whether or not to purge.
This is not the life I want to live. I am more than an eating disorder, more than a jeans size, more than a number on the scale. Things are going so well for me right now. I’ve made a ton of friends at school. I’ve assumed a leadership position in the GSA, and I’ve been running meetings recently while our president is otherwise engaged. I have a beautiful, lovely girlfriend who makes me incredibly happy. I’m teaching myself new skills in Photoshop so that I can do more with my photos. I have a new idea for a novel, and I’ve even been writing poetry again. So why have I slipped back into self-destructive behaviors?
Letting people get close to me is hard. When I was a freshman in high school and dating my first boyfriend, I didn’t know how to use my voice, so I used behaviors instead. I would self-harm on areas of my body I didn’t want him to touch. I would purge when I needed him to pay attention to me. I would talk about how much I hated myself to get him to tell me how great he thought I was. My relationship with him set the framework for all of my future romantic relationships, and I am trying to unlearn some of those old patterns. Back when I was fourteen, it was easier to put up a wall of mental illness and self-destructive behaviors and let people get close to that than to let someone get close to the real me.
But the real me is more than a list of labels and diagnoses. I’m more than an anorexic, more than a person with psychosis, more than a lesbian, more than a trauma statistic, more than one single word or idea. I am a daughter, a sister, a best friend, a girlfriend, a writer, a photographer, an artist, a GSA leader, a teller of bad puns, a clumsy dancer, a bow-tie-wearer, a good listener, a learner, a questioner, a Jew, a granddaughter. I am the person my friends can count on when they’re desperate. I am the “mom friend.” I am constantly learning and growing. Why would I ever want to slap a label as confining and static as “anorexic” on myself when I contain universes more than an eating disorder?
I’m not sure who the person under the layers of self-hate and self-destruction is, but I’m going to find her, care for her, and love her. She’s worth it.
I spend an inordinate amount of time at the mall. It’s about five minutes away from my college, so it’s easy to head to the food court between classes, get a bite to eat, and hit up my favorite stores before going back to my lectures. Plus, there’s not a whole lot do to do in my town, so when I’m looking for a way to kill a few hours with some friends, we make our way over to the mall.
In the countless hours I’ve spent looking at jewelry that will surely turn my skin green and drooling over band t-shirts at Hot Topic, I’ve noticed that there is a common language of body-bashing that girls especially seem to share. It starts innocuously– we’ll be looking at an item of clothing and debating whether or not we want to try it on. But more often than not, one of us will decide that it wouldn’t look right on us, not because the clothing is flawed, but because our bodies are. Then, the “fat talk” starts. I’ve watched my friends, whose good qualities like humor, intelligence, and honesty make them beautiful, pick apart every aspect of their bodies, from their hairlines to their calves. I’m guilty of this too. All too often have I stood in a fitting room and wished my stomach weren’t so big, that my thighs didn’t touch, and so on. But when I’m with another female friend, who has her own insecurities about her body, we can spend the entire shopping trip criticizing ourselves until we’re out of the notion to buy anything because we feel so ugly and unattractive.
I think it’s sad that girls bond over hating their bodies, but on Monday, I got a breath of fresh air. My friends in my college’s GSA are getting ready to go to a local university’s Pride Prom, a dance for LGBT+ students, and on Monday we went to the mall to look at formal wear. We’re a range of different sizes; some of us are more plus-sized, while some of us are rail-thin, and some of us are in between. We tried the most ridiculous, expensive dresses we could find, and then some that were more appropriate for the event.
Dress shopping has always been challenging for me because the sizes vary by brand and store. My anorexia likes absolutes. It likes to know that I am as small as I can be, that there is no room for “improvement.” But when I’m buying a dress, I might be four sizes bigger in one store than I am in another. It drives my anorexia up the wall. For this reason, I typically avoid dress shopping at all costs, and I give up very easily. If I don’t fit into my desired size, the trip is a failure, and I feel like a failure. This time was different. I grabbed dresses off the rack in any size I thought might have even a chance of fitting, and I tried them on without even glancing at the tags. Sometimes, I had to get my friends to help me zip a dress, and even then, the zipper wouldn’t stay up. In the past, this would have sent me spiraling into self-loathing, but this time, it was no big deal. I simply put the dress back and tried on another one.
But even more amazing than my personal victories was the fact that throughout the whole shopping trip, no one said a negative word about their bodies. There was no fat talk, no body-shaming, and no comparisons. We told each other that we looked beautiful. We looked for dresses that would match each other’s eyes, and we laughed when we looked silly in an ill-fitting dress. It was so refreshing to be around people who accept their bodies for all their uniquenesses. I’m realizing that I’m not so different from my confident friends that I can look in the mirror and actually like what I see. I used to believe I wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, or thin enough to “deserve” that privilege, but I know now that everyone deserves to love their body, regardless of their weight or size. It’s been a long road to self-acceptance, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.
Eating disorder rules often have very little to do with food or weight. Turning my plate in a circle before I allowed myself to start eating didn’t do anything to affect how many calories I ingested or how quickly I dropped a dress size, but these obsessive rituals gave me the illusion of control, when in reality, I had none. Luckily, at this stage in my recovery, I am mostly free of ED rituals, however, they were tough to eliminate.
In the depths of my eating disorder, I ran mostly on caffeine. I would stop by the grocery store on my way to work and pick up a couple of energy drinks—one to compliment the pot of coffee I’d consumed before leaving home, and one for lunch. I frequented coffee shops, often stopping at several during the day. By 5:00, I was an anxious, jittery mess. There are two differences in my relationship with coffee shops these days. One is that I don’t calculate the caffeine-to-calories ratio in everything I order; the other is simple: whipped cream.
For years, I refused whipped cream on my drinks. It was silly, really. The few extra calories in a dollop of whipped cream were but a drop in the bucket of a Frappucino, but like most irrational ED rules, it didn’t matter. I was terrified of the texture, the color, the smell. As my eating disorder progressed, I stopped putting creamer in my coffee, then I stopped ordering anything creamy or milky. While my constant presence in Starbucks or its doppelgangers could have allowed me to be adventurous and try everything on the menu, I was limited to the low-calorie, highly caffeinated drinks anorexia permitted me to sip.
Anorexia makes a lousy date, so I broke up with her. Now, I frequent coffee shops alone. My favorite one is a little orange store called Biggby Coffee where the baristas know me and my order: a large “Butterbear” with an extra shot, no whip. But just a few days ago, as Brianna the barista was making my drink, I said, “You know what? I’m going to be crazy today. Put some whipped cream on it.” Brianna grinned at me and topped my drink off with a lovely tower of whipped cream.
As it happens, whipped cream is delicious. It’s fun to eat, fun to spray (especially into my dogs’ mouths), and keeps your latte from looking naked. I am proud to say that I am now a bona fide whipped cream-eater. Anorexia has no place in my coffee shops, at the dinner table, or in my life at all. So I’ll pass on the extra shot to make room for a little more whipped cream.
I am not the same person I was at age fourteen. No, I am taller, smarter, more widely-read, more experienced, happier, healthier, and yes, I am heavier. But why shouldn’t I be? Can you imagine how dull life would be if all progress stopped at fourteen? No driver’s licenses, no college graduations, no weddings… In my current state of mental wellness, it seems silly to want to pause my life in 2010, but when I was in the grips of anorexia, I was obsessed with the idea. If you have ever been fourteen, you’re probably wondering what in the world was so great about that age for me, and the answer is simple: nothing. My first two years of high school are a blur of poor study habits, subpar boyfriends, and waking up too early. The only clear memory I really have from that age is my weight. That’s what was so great about being fourteen; I was comprised of a very small amount of mass.
As my adolescence wore on, my eating disorder tagged along. I lived in a constant fog of hunger, and very quickly forgot how miserable I was at my lowest weight. As I sat in a treatment center during my sophomore year of high school, I thought, as soon as I get out of here I’ll start restricting again. I’ll get my fourteen-year-old body back. During my senior year, when I bought the biggest pair of jeans I’d ever worn, I gazed at pictures of my fourteen-year-old self. She looks happy, I thought, ignoring the tired eyes and the fake smile the photos depicted.
The truth is, I was not happy. I was prioritizing weight loss over friends, family, school, my writing, and everything else. It wasn’t worth it. I missed out on a lot of what high school had to offer. I missed out on parties, friendships, concerts, publications, and life itself. Today, at nineteen years old, I am proud to say I am a completely different person from that anxious, miserable fourteen-year-old. I’m finally learning what it means to have a normal relationship with food. I’m learning to accept my body unconditionally—not when I hit a certain weight. My mind is sharper and more creative, and I actually feel in control of my life, not just in control of my food. In fact, it was only when I relinquished control of my food to a treatment team with my best interests at heart, that I was finally able to take control of what really mattered. Today, my fourteen-year-old self is just a memory, not a goal. I joyfully embrace change and growth, and I am excited to see where life will take me next—without anorexia in the passenger seat.