The first time I saw “anorexia” on my medical chart, I sat in my car and cried for ten minutes. Even though I had been attending therapy for several months, seeing anorexia written out made it feel more real. Permanent. Because it was on an official medical document and not just in my head. Anorexia had raised eyebrows on some of my blood work because, in a shocking twist, skipping or shrinking meals on a consistent basis visibly affects your physical well-being. Most of the time, I still avoid talking about my eating disorder and when I do I talk about it in euphemism or in ways that aren’t really talking about it at all.
“Oh yeah, I’m just dealing with the eating thing today.”
“You know, my other issue.”
“Meals are just bad for me right now.”
Part of the problem is that naming anorexia terrifies me. Naming anorexia means I can’t pretend that I’m just eating “light meals” or being “health-conscious” or a “picky eater.” Naming anorexia forces me to take ownership of the fact that this mental illness is now a part of who I am, and likely will be for the rest of my life. And that’s a commitment I’ve not been ready to make, even though I don’t really have a choice in the matter. Anorexia made that commitment for me the first time I consciously restricted my calorie intake.
I also worry in the same way many who suffer from mental illness do – the worry that my sickness isn’t “sick” enough to deserve naming. I never intentionally skipped breakfast (though I did skip other meals occasionally and snacks entirely), I was never at an unhealthy weight (though I teeter on the precipice now – but that’s a discussion for another post), I never entered rehab (though I have been in talk therapy for over a year). I can’t be “that sick.” I fear that the reality I experience is not severe enough to warrant the support, compassion, and healing I feel those with this illness deserve. I fear I am not enough to seek my own support, compassion, and healing.
I’m not “that sick.”
I keep waiting to hear “no, you don’t have that,” or “no, your problem isn’t that bad,” or “no, you’re just being dramatic.” Because it still doesn’t feel real to me that I have anorexia. I watched my therapist’s face when I said the word for the first time this week to see if she would contradict me. But she didn’t say “no, you don’t have that.” She didn’t say “no, your problem isn’t that bad.” She didn’t say “no, you’re just being dramatic.” Because I have anorexia.
I am anorexic.
Mental illness and hardship aren’t all-or-nothing contests – they aren’t contests at all. We hear so often that someone’s objectively worse situation does not make our situation less challenging or painful, but it’s so hard to believe in the moment. There’s a perpetual loop of “at least you don’t have it as bad as –” or “at least you haven’t experienced –” or “at least you have –” trying to invalidate my pursuit of healing. It keeps me from owning my truth so I can begin to heal, because until I am honest with myself there’s no work that can be done.
The truth is, I have anorexia. Anorexia doesn’t care that I never skipped breakfast, that my weight has been objectively normal, that my healing process has started through therapy instead of rehab. It’s still here, telling me to skip meals so I can maintain control over this out of control 23-year-old life, so I can better adhere to what society tells me is the “right” way for me to look. So I can have whatever it is eating disorders pretend to promise you so you’ll do what they want without asking why – but cutting out over one thousand calories a day didn’t make me any happier, and neither does missing a meal or a snack when those thought patterns convince me again that this time they’re right. Anorexia hurts the same, no matter how much “luckier” I feel I am with the eating disorder experience I’ve been dealt. Today, I name my anorexia. Because this is not what I want.
I want to heal. And I deserve to heal.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, there are plenty of resources to use! Something that has been helpful for me is the National Eating Disorder Association website. I used their online screening tool before I began therapy, which was one of the things that encouraged me to seek out support. The NEDA website and toll-free Information and Referral Helpline, 1-800-931-2237, provide extensive resources nationwide.