When I accepted that I had an eating disorder, I immediately started working on ways to recover. After months of defeat and little success I decided to write a letter to the author of a book I had read on eating disorders. I never sent the letter to her, but instead left it with Cody (my then boyfriend, now husband) as I headed off to work one day. When I returned home, he had written me a letter back and cooked dinner. It lead to hours of conversation, tears, and snuggles. It was the moment that my recovery really started.
There are a few reasons I have never put this on the internet before. First, it is pretty embarrassing, not because of the acts I committed during my eating disorder, but because of the person I was when I wrote it. As you will see I was lost, and my value systems were appalling. To be frank, I didn’t want people to read this and see it as a reflection of the person I am today. But to be fair, I don’t think many of us would be proud of our 19 year old selves.
More importantly, I have never put this on the internet before because if you are currently dealing with or in recovery from an eating disorder this may be VERY TRIGGERING. If you fall into one of these categories I strongly recommend you skip reading the letter that I wrote 6 years ago, deep in the throws of my eating disorder, and move down the second letter, a response that I wrote to past Emily (or anyone else in her shoes) now, as a recovered, healthy, and THRIVING adult. Please, whatever you do, do not stop at the first letter, it is full of anger and bitterness and I do not want you to leave on that note.
Lastly, It has always been important to me to put this out in its raw, unedited form because if I was feeling this way, I know thousands of other individuals are too. However, please please please recognize that this was written by a troubled 19 year old with A LOT to learn.
My story starts my final year of high school. I had always been a little insecure and just disguised it as modesty. I claimed that I wouldn’t wear shorts or go to the beach with boys because it was slutty and promiscuous, but in reality it was because I was afraid of what people would think if they saw me without anything to hide my flaws. I have never been fat. I am 5’5’ and the most I have ever weighed is 135 pounds, not even on the upper end of the healthy BMI scale, but being raised in Orange County a place full of judgment and criticism has lead me to many years of struggle with my weight, eating habits and confidence.
I am and have always been a compulsive person. I was diagnosed with OCD at the age of 7 and spent 10 years on medication to prevent myself from washing my hands raw of skin and having anxiety attacks over minuscule details. My compulsions and anxiety had seemed to disappear by my senior year of high school. I attribute much of that to my boyfriend (of three years now) who unknowingly forced me through a lot of battles. So at that time I decided to wean myself off the medication, something I had always hoped to do before leaving for college.
Before eliminating the medication from my life I was a great eater. I would brag that I could eat more than most of my schools football players and It was probably true. I was an athlete and a growing girl and had no limits or restraints. After school I would go to chipotle and order a burrito, a quesadilla, a bag of chips and then a cookie from the corner bakery next door. I thought I was impressing people with my ability to hold all of that food in my little body. Even after a meal that big I wouldn’t feel full. Looking back on it I wish I could go back to that time where I was so careless about my diet, but at this point, I will never be able to return to that lifestyle.
Once the medication was no longer part of my life I started noticing comments that were being made by girls. I picked up on small things that had never affected me before like a sly whisper during soccer practice about how one of the teammates thighs had grown since last season or about the love handles on the waitress serving us our food. I had always known that girls were catty but I couldn’t help but wonder if people were saying things like this about me behind my back. It only got worse with my male friends. Their demeaning comments towards women would often make me wonder if I would ever be good enough for them, even though most of the time I had no interest in them as a romantic prospect. Comments would be made about someone’s girlfriend eating a whole loaf of bread at dinner, a girl whom I had never seen as overweight was being made fun of for her habits without any knowledge of it at all. I saw my guy friends liking pages like “the gap”(the space between a girls legs) and “big boobs don’t count if you’re fat” on facebook and my insecurities only continued to skyrocket. I started counting calories and limiting myself to 1,000 calories a day. I would do no less than 70 minutes of cardio 7 days a week. The physical results of these efforts were not noticeable to me. I didn’t ever realize that I had a problem until a friend confronted me on my shrinking waist size. At that point I tried to make some changes and gained back the weight plus more over summer because wasn’t being called anorexic worse than being called fat?
When I left for my dream college I was at the heaviest I have ever been 135 pounds. Leaving Orange County for northern California was the best thing I could have done for my confidence. It made me realize that everyone isn’t a size zero blonde with big boobs (apparently orange county filters who they will let in because that is the only breed inhabiting the area). As time went on there and I became successful in my academics I started running in my free time to explore the trails and the beaches that Santa Cruz had to offer. Running became a stress reliever. Within weeks I went from barely being able to run two miles to running 6 or 7 without even any heavy breathing. I felt good, my skin looked good, I started eating healthier, I was making tons of friends at the gym, and I was happy. People around school knew me and I could hear guys talking about me in the cafeteria. It was the first time I ever felt like I was turning heads. In high school I was a nerdy jock who didn’t get much attention from anyone with a Y chromosome. That is of course with the exception of my perfect boyfriend. It was nice to know that I was being noticed, even if I would never talk to any of those guys because I already had the person I loved waiting for me 500 miles away.
I didn’t notice that I had lost any weight, because it happened so gradually, but by the time I went home for spring break my parents confronted me with their concern on how thin I was, which only pushed the concept of weight to the forefront of my thoughts. When I went back to school I started comparing myself to others just as I had in high school. What I noticed was that all the girls around me had gained the freshman 15 (no thank you to our all you can eat cafeteria) where as I had lost 15 pounds. This brought out the competitive side of me and urged me to continue to try and widen the gap between me and all the girls (and while I was at it my thighs), especially with the rapidly approaching swimsuit season. I wanted to be a beautiful package for my boyfriend and my friends when I went back home for summer.
By the time I got home for summer I was down to 110 pounds and for the first time didn’t feel like I had to wear a cover up to the beach. I gained a little weight over the summer with constant pressures from my parents. It was then that my real eating problems started. I would binge eat when I got home so that they would see how much I was eating and not worry about me, but little did they know once they were gone it was straight to the bathroom to throw it up. This continued and its severity escalated all summer. I had occasionally thrown up after meals in my past, but it was never a part of my everyday life until then. I just kept telling myself that when I went back to school I would change.
I did change. I started eating extremely low calorie foods with almost no nutritional value and running more than ever, but hey, at least I wasn’t puking. Two of my other four housemates were also anorexic and we seemed to feed off each other and always be in competition. I definitely ate more than them, but it was counteracted by my excessive exercise. At this point in my life food was, still is, and I believe it will always be all I can think about. Early in this second year of school I broke up with my boyfriend of two years. I was not confident in my decision, but I had never even kissed another man and needed to quite any questioning voices in the back of my head. Not long after the break up I had a night of promiscuity and drinking and at 7 in the morning after being dropped back off at my house decided I needed to go for a long run to think about my actions. After 11 miles of running in the
cold with a hangover I got home and was instantly very sick. I didn’t run for two weeks of that time and then when I started up again tried to go too far too fast and injured myself, the doctor said I wouldn’t be able to run or even bring myself to a brisk walk for months. I cried, no I sobbed in the doctor’s office because to me that meant at rapidly approaching weight gain.
In those months I couldn’t run I realized the only variable in the equation to my weight was my diet. It was heavily restricted and if my housemates decided to order in pizza or go out for ice cream, the indulgence was always followed a trip to the bathroom to quickly rid myself of the mistakes. I became obsessed with food, all of my meals were strictly planned out and my days just became ways of figuring out how to fill time in between them so that I would not snack or eat extra food. I became so strict and rigid that I started counting calories to the extreme, even my vitamins were included.
After a month or so of this I eventually made it down to 98 pounds, no one noticed because one of my other housemates was in a much worse situation, and at the point of creating medical issues for herself. I could see what she was doing was killing her, her face was shrunken in, all of her bones popping out, her heart was shrinking and her liver was failing. It was by no means an attractive situation. But still, I could not help but feel jealous of her self control and be a little competitive towards her.
I continued to limit my eating but then developed a whole new set of problems, my “eating in secret”. After all my housemates went to bed I would eat an entire box of cereal or five pieces of peanut butter toast or a whole gallon of ice cream. This happened on a nightly basis and only got worse. I was never hungry, never craving the foods I was eating but I couldn’t stop myself. I had reached an all time low, once everyone was under their covers I would reach into the trashcan and pull out the rest of my burrito from dinner that I had made sure to carefully wrap to keep out the contaminants. I even began to steal food from my unsuspecting housemates. I could not go to bed until after this binge eating was done and I hated myself for it. I felt guilty every night, and often woke up sick but I couldn’t help myself. I was a slave to the food around me.
Although I am no longer at the point of reaching into the trash can, my binge eating still occurs and food still runs my life. I look forward to going to work because that is six stress free hours of my life where I do not have to worry about food because I do not have the option of eating it (although on slow days much of my time is spent thinking about what will be eaten after work). I have tried going to a few therapist to talk about the problems, but I can only talk about the facts and the statistics regarding the issue because that is impersonal, I would never bring up the feelings and the heartache it has brought me. The problems come in phases and right now my eating habits are better than they have been in a long time, but I still feel guilt every time I eat something bad and feel sorrow every time I look in the mirror and realize the outline of my abs is no longer visible. This is a progressing battle, and hopefully I will figure out how to permanently beat it one day, but I still know that no matter how I look or what I eat these obsessive food thoughts will always be a part of my life.
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A response to my past self:
I hear you, I understand how hopeless you feel. I understand how angry you are. Yet, I see how far removed you are from yourself and your emotions. I understand that you are putting on a strong front to counteract how out of control you actually feel. It makes sense that all these events have lead to you feeling the way you do, but it kills me to see you in so much pain.
I know that you don’t believe recovery is possible. But, I am here to tell you that it is. You will not only build a healthy relationship with food, but stop placing such a high value on your appearance and other people’s perception of you. You will learn to love yourself.
When I tell you that “recovery” is possible, I don’t just mean you will learn to cope with all of the self destructive thoughts you have around food, I mean that YOU WILL STOP HAVING THOSE THOUGHTS ALL TOGETHER. I know it seems absolutely impossible, but I promise you that it is not. It is going to be more work than anything you’ve ever done (yes that includes those A’s in O chem) but it will be worth it. You will cry on the floor in the middle of restaurants, people will make comments, you will relapse, but at the end of this you will come out as a strong, empowered woman. You will see who stands by your side and holds your hand through this process and those people will become even closer to you. You will have fought a war together and won.
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do not place blame on anyone else in your life for not recognizing your struggles or reaching out to help. Recognize how much effort you have put into hiding your actions and your feelings from these people. They are here to support you now and that is all that matters. Some of them HAVE noticed your behaviors and are hurt by your lies and mistrust. They have been waiting for you to come to them just as you have been waiting for them to come to you.
Though you may feel alone right now, this does not have to be a solitary battle. Asking for help shows strength not weakness and you are stronger than your eating disorder. But just know, if you don’t fight it you have already lost and there is so much waiting for you on the other side.
Lots of love,
For those of you who have not experienced an Eating Disorder I thank you for making it this far and hope that you will be able to take something from this. Please recognize how the comments you make are affecting those around you. For me, one comment about how much bread a girl ate stuck with me for YEARS. Please do not make rude or judgemental comments about people, it reflects poorly on you and only breeds more negativity.
For those of you dealing with body image issues, disordered eating, eating disorders, or who can identify with anything I wrote in that first letter, PLEASE REACH OUT FOR HELP. Do not compare yourself to others, your condition does not have to be as bad as the girl next to you, or as bad as mine at the time of writing this letter. YOU DESERVE HELP. You deserve to be free of destructive thoughts. You deserve to love yourself.
Please, if you have recovered from an eating disorder, I would love to hear what you would want to tell your past self in the comments below. We can all help each other, and those still dealing with these problems start there path to recovery.