My 4th year in college I took an anthropology class on storytelling, and I wrote a paper about the stories and narratives that we tell ourselves about ourselves. An interesting point that came up was that people can tell many different narratives about their past, and they can switch between them depending on the circumstances.
One version of my story that I’ve told many times recently is this one: I did gymnastics non-competitively starting when I was about 7. A few years later I was asked to join a team but decided not to because it would have meant giving up alpine ski racing in the winter, and all my friends were skiers. Soon after, I stopped gymnastics all together. Then in college I picked it up again and wondered why I had ever stopped, it was so much fun! I joined the university gymnastics club, became an assistant instructor for a tumbling class at a rec. center near campus, where I met my coach/supervisor, started taking classes downtown, and now I’m coaching at two different gymnastics gyms.
Then there’s the story of “where are you from,”— always a difficult question for me to answer. It goes like this: I was born in England and I lived there until I was 7, and then I moved to New Hampshire because of my dad’s work, and then I moved again for college, and I went home for the summer after I graduated but I’ve just moved back because I missed gymnastics too much (yep that’s the reason).
Both these stories completely ignore a whole giant chunk of my life, the part I think of when I see the ominous words “my past.” “My past” isn’t really something I like to think about much, because it’s the part where I struggled with anorexia and disordered eating for 5 years. It’s not that I’m ashamed (at least I hope not), but I don’t want it to influence how people think of me now. That said, it is important, because being sick and then finally coming out the other side has influenced who I am today. Eating disorders do need to be taken seriously, and are very misunderstood by a lot of people.
The most important thing is that they are not really about food or weight or appearance, they are about control. I can’t pinpoint one cause, but around the time it started my parents had just separated and I had no idea why (they're back together now), my best friend had moved away, I had very low self-esteem, and I’d become an over-worked, overachieving high school student who couldn’t help focusing on all the people who were better than me in some way.
I really don’t remember that much, and it’s funny, I kind of see it all happening to a different person. When someone refers to something I did between 2009 and 2014, I realize, oh it happened THEN, as if that’s not relevant to me at all. It feels like anything I accomplished THEN doesn’t count, it wasn’t really me. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not, but I don’t see it as a failure on my part, rather as something that happened TO me.
The part that I was in control of was my recovery (eventually). I saw a nutritionist at the end of high school and I gained weight, but it was reluctantly. I was still in denial that anything was wrong, and I thought everyone was out to get me. It wasn’t until I was almost done with college that I was honest enough with myself to realize I’d never fully recovered. I was still slightly underweight, thought about food all the time, avoided social situations, etc. I thought I was doing everything I could to be healthy, but I was desperately trying to find other explanations for the signals my body was giving me when really I just needed to eat more! I didn’t want to be at war with myself any more, and I finally decided to truly take care of myself and not stop.
It was still hard. Learning that everything your mind is telling you is WRONG, and you have to call yourself out and do the opposite from what your thoughts tell you every day. I made some progress, fell back, moved forward a bit, over and over. Sometimes it was scary, and when I tried to rationalize my fear of course I drew a blank. It’s kind of interesting how my metabolism went crazy, and I’d eat twice as much as a “normal” daily amount and still wake up starving at 3:00 AM.
Some people say that you never completely recover from an eating disorder. I like to think of it as a journey that doesn’t stop, but changes as you get further along. I don’t think I’m in danger of ever starving myself again (now when I’m hungry, it’s like I NEED FOOD NOW! vs. before when I felt my stomach growling it was like a shot of endorphins). But I can still take steps to improve myself every day, to notice if I’m ever restricting food, to be more open with people, to spend more time socializing and less time stuck in my own thoughts. I eat roughly paleo now (primal/whole food/whatever you want to call it), something I started for all the wrong reasons, but instead I found a really supportive community of people who stressed loving yourself and treating your body right, and now it’s just what I do and it doesn’t feel restrictive at all. I think in the end I’m much more self aware and I know that I can take control of my own happiness and my own life. I want the same for YOU, whether you're struggling with disordered eating or not!