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I want to begin this post with the caveat that this is a story of my personal experience and it may resonate with some people in recovery – to help show you are not alone – but it is in no way representative of the broader population and the effects of eating disorders in general. I also want to acknowledge that a majority of people who struggle with eating disorders are not underweight, and you do not have to be underweight, or even experience any weight changes, for your struggle to be real and valid. 

One of the sneakiest parts of an eating disorder is its ability to convince you that you are not “sick enough” or in any real danger. The concerns of family and friends seem overly protective and misguided. Frustration arises that they can’t seem to understand how hard you’re trying, or how fine you think you are. Even now, while recovered from an eating disorder, I didn’t have a full understanding of what exactly my loved ones saw when they looked at me and why they responded in the ways they did – until recently. 

I was scrolling through photos on my phone’s camera roll to find a recipe for a friend when I stumbled across pictures from a past beach vacation where I was at the worst point in my eating disorder, struggling with anorexia nervosa. I stopped and gasped, and immediately tears sprung to my eyes. I didn’t recognize the girl in those photos one bit.The very light of me was gone. And I remember being annoyed on that vacation about how concerned everyone was about me when I was clearly making an effort to take the recovery actions and be “normal.” Looking back now my heart aches with empathy for how hard it must have been for my loved ones to stand next to me like that and feel powerless to help or heal. And mostly my heart hurts for that girl who was so consumed by her eating disorder that she couldn’t see how life-threatening and terrifying her condition had become. 

I couldn’t quite believe what I was looking at. So I cried. A lot. For myself and my loved ones. And when the hurt felt overwhelming and consuming, I picked up the phone and called a trusted family member. Talking to them I sobbed about how sorry I was, that I had no idea what I was doing or what I put them through. I couldn’t see what they were seeing clearly until now. After I unloaded what felt so heavy I was met with the comforting words: “never for a second did we blame you, we just simply knew that wasn’t you, you were battling an illness and we just wanted to help you any way we could for you to come back to yourself.” Even then, when I was unrecognizable, they knew I wasn’t defined by my eating disorder. If you are confronted with reminders of your eating disorder you can feel startled, overwhelmed and even confused. But you are not your eating disorder. You are so much more.

My family member also shared the helpful reminder that each of my loved ones had their own personal moment where they were forced to confront the severity of my eating disorder and process it. I’d never had that opportunity, going through the thick of it, and so seeing those pictures was my own first time truly seeing the eating disorder in terms of the ravaging impact it had on my physical and mental health. And that gives me some self-compassion and patience, that just like others around me, I may need some time to process it. Even though I’m now recovered and know what the other side of the story looks like, I still feel the need to honor and recognize the struggle and fear that existed then. I also feel incredibly grateful that in recovery I have the distance I need now to look back and recognize what was wrong then. Looking back I can have both profound sadness for the girl I see in those pictures and grief over lost time and relationships and also gratitude and awe for how far I’ve come since then and the ability to reflect on that time with more clarity and self-compassion.

Confronting the effects of my eating disorder head-on was hard. But I’m also stronger than I was then. I journaled, I talked about it with people I love and trust (even though it felt hard to pick up the phone) and then I sat in the feeling for a bit recognizing what it was bringing up in my mind and body. One of the insights my eating disorder taught me was that those hard feelings of guilt and shame thrive in isolation, and part of breaking their power over you is talking about them with those you trust. After a night of gentle processing I woke up the next morning and I thanked my body for holding on, for seeing me through the other side of a dark time, for not giving up on me. I planted my feet on the floor, felt the cool surface beneath me and started another day, recovered from my eating disorder. 

By: Maddy Weingast, Assistant for Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image