Seven years ago, I sat at the top of the stairs, my knees pulled into my chest, wanting nothing more than to cry but being unable to. I was too tired to cry. I was too tired to lie to my mom when she asked if I had made myself throw up after dinner. I was too tired to stop the connections I saw forming in her brain as she added up all the “stomach aches,” missed dinners, obsessive running, “I already ate”-s, and declining grades.

Seven years ago, I was too tired for anything. With the last ounce of strength I thought I had, I told my mom I didn’t want to do it anymore. I did the closest thing I could manage to ask for help, and at that time, asking meant not denying.

For months I went through hell to heal. Prozac; talk therapy; the humiliation as I sat in front of my guidance counselor as my mom explained my eating disorder; the frustration of being monitored all the time; the peer positive image group in school — day by day, piece by piece, I was made to face my Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. It was a label that I hated because it made me feel as if, even in mental illness, I had fallen short. Day by day, and piece by piece, my parents, my therapist, my doctors, my friends, and my family worked to let the girl they used to know — the girl I used to know — resurface. But for months, I remained without change.

Finally, my therapist, Tonya, asked me, “Do you want to live?”

Did I want to live? What the hell did that mean? Of course I wanted to live. I just wanted to live skinny. Beautiful. In control. What was so wrong about that?

“She’s jealous,” I decided. “She’s jealous because she’s not as skinny. She wants me to stop so she can win. I’m not going to die. I’m seventeen. Seventeen-year-olds don’t just die.”

But that question stuck with me. It stuck with me as I packed lunch in the morning, knowing I would just throw it away. It stuck with me as I forced myself to still go running, despite a bad upper respiratory infection. It stuck with me as I spent hours searching for weight loss tips and diet plans instead of resting or getting homework done. And it stuck with me as I watched my parents watch me with worry, wanting to say something but forcing themselves to be quiet.

Did I really want to live?

Months after Tonya had asked, I walked into my therapy session and said, “I do. I do want to live. Help me.”

I thought that getting to the point where I accepted help would be the hardest part of recovery. It wasn’t. Recovery itself was a thousand times harder. It was like trying to start a fire on a windy day with wet matches: every time there was a spark, I had to fight like hell to keep it from being blown out. And even then, sometimes it would get blown out anyway. I would backslide, sometimes one or two steps, sometimes 50. Every day I reminded myself that I wanted to live, no matter how hard it was. I wanted to be able to go on a date and eat. I wanted to enjoy my mom’s cooking again. I wanted to eat my grandma’s tamales at Christmastime and not be worried about the fact that every tamale recipe is different and there was no surefire way of knowing how many calories were in each one.

I clawed my way back to recovery over months. And finally, Tonya looked at me and said, “I think that this might be our last appointment. What do you think?”

Every siren in my head went off. “I thought you wanted me to live! Why are you giving up on me?”

“I’m not giving up on you. You’re ready for this. You’re ready to not give up on you. And most importantly, you want to live. So go live. And if you need me, I am here.”

I thought that realizing I wanted to live and learning how to manage my eating disorder was the whole of the battle. Now I’m learning how to manage that disorder and grow in my independence at the same time. When I was in therapy, I never failed alone. Now, though I can reach for help, in the end I am solely responsible for my recovery, for my life, and for my story.

When I was in therapy, my parents helped me monitor what and when I ate. Now I have to monitor myself. When I miss a meal I have to ask myself, “Why did you skip lunch? Were you just too busy? Not hungry? Or are you backsliding?” When I was in therapy, Tonya helped me regulate my responses to daily stress in a positive outlet. Now I have to find my voice at work, in relationships, in life, and be able to say, “I am feeling overwhelmed, tired, stressed, sad, frustrated and I need a minute to process.” Now I remind myself that I am human, prone to error, and I have to forgive myself.

Now I remind myself that part of my role as a survivor is education of others.

What I have learned in the past seven years is:

  • I am responsible for my peer situations and I have to advocate for myself.
  • It’s okay to choose recovery over friends, work, relationships and other instances. If I have been upfront and honest, and those situations are still jeopardizing my recovery, there is nothing wrong with walking away. In fact, there’s everything right with it.
  • I am only as sick as my secrets. I give my eating disorder power when I hide it. I have to be willing to tell the necessary people that I have an eating disorder and ask for their support when I need it.
  • Ask for help. If I’m starting to struggle, or I know a particularly stressful situation is approaching, I’ll reach out to my friends and ask them to help me help myself. Whether it’s a text reminder at mealtimes, an invitation at mealtimes or just a check-in, it helps me stay on track.
  • Relapses happen. When they do, I try not to get so caught up on feeling bad about it. Instead, I ivest that energy on working through it and continuing to commit to my healthiest, happiest self.
  • Keep fighting for recovery. It is an everyday commitment, even after treatment ends.

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