I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa a week after my 25th birthday. I had been struggling with a sub-threshold eating disorder for years and had been -- for many months prior to the "official diagnosis"-- very, very sick. I didn't recognize it at the time, of course. You never do. In fact, anosognosia (the inability to recognize that you are ill) is extremely common in anorexia. It is biological and brain-based, like many of the seemingly "strange" behaviours people who are malnourished exhibit.
I had a nightmare once. It was one of the few nights when I was deep in my disorder where I was tired enough (and perhaps had enough nutrition in me) to sleep deep enough to dream. I woke up in a panic, my heart racing. What was so terrifying, you ask?
I dreamt I had eaten fried chicken.
I clutched my pillow when I woke up, gripping it for dear life, trying to assure myself that it was only a dream. I had to walk myself through the previous day, accounting for everything I ate, everything I drank, everything I bought. Had I bought fried chicken? Had I eaten fried chicken? In my dream, I had eaten fried chicken out of the refrigerator downstairs. Did we have fried chicken downstairs? It took everything in me not to run downstairs at 3 am and check the refrigerator. I checked every inch of my body, trying to be sure that I hadn't accidentally consumed fried chicken, hadn't accidentally ballooned overnight.
I had no idea I was sick. I had no idea that counting every calorie wasn't normal. I didn't know it was not normal to cut celery into exactly four pieces, carrots into exactly eight, cucumbers into exactly eight, and that your total number of vegetable sticks must always, always be twenty-five. I didn't know that everybody didn't measure out their cereal and soy milk and perform exotic rituals with it every morning. It seemed perfectly normal to me to drink gallons of diet soda everyday in an attempt to keep up my energy, long since sapped from months of a starvation diet and sleepless nights.
I grew accustomed to broken sleep, the muscles in my leg cramping for minutes at a time, the pain enough to wake me. I grew accustomed to staying out past midnight so that I could get in my hours at the gym after long days at work and church. I grew accustomed to lying, to telling the people that I love most that I was fine in an attempt to allay their fears.
Nothing about those years was normal. Nothing about those years was healthy. And while I may wish for that small, androgynous body again, I certainly don't wish for the cracked hands, hair falling out in clumps, bruises forming simply from sleeping. I don't wish for the depression and anxiety, the utter hopelessness and emptiness that overshadowed every day. I don't wish for the worried looks, the shattered friendships, the broken trust.
It's hard, some days, not to be nostalgic for the eating disorder. And if you're early in the recovery process, you need to have an idea of how to deal with those days. I call friends, go to Starbucks, and remind myself that I don't ever want to be getting up at 5 am for vitals again while spending my days in a treatment facility. I create art, and read books, and eat "safe" meals until I feel like recovery is worth it again.
And it is worth it. If you're struggling with an eating disorder and wondering if you want to give it up, you should know that it's much better on the other side. It's much better even in this wilderness land I'm traversing now -- not yet "healthy" or "recovered," but miles away from the sickness I lived in for so long.
You should know this isn't even half of my story. To be honest, I haven't got my "story" all figured out yet. But I know that this is part of it. I know that part of my story involves telling it to others. It is part of my calling, to share my wounds with others in an effort to help them heal. As Henri Nouwen says in his book, The Wounded Healer:
"Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.
Jesus is God’s wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed. Jesus’ suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others."
My story isn't over yet. Neither is yours. 26 Feb - 3 March 2012 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. If you think you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, call 1.800.931.2237 to get referrals and resources for help. There is no such thing as a small eating disorder and it is never too late to attempt recovery.