By De Elizabeth
CW: The following talks about eating disorders & restricting behaviors.
The first time I heard about National Eating Disorders Awareness Week was in college; I passed a sign in the dining hall that showed a picture of a girl probably around my age holding a piece of fruit. Across the poster, in big letters: “What does an eating disorder look like?” As I methodically put things on my plate, taking twice as long than everyone else because I was terrified to eat anything at this point, I remember thinking: This, it just looks like this.
Since becoming a writer, I’ve written a lot about my eating disorder, and eating disorders in general. I’ve detailed my own journey in personal essays, and I’ve interviewed other people about theirs. I’ve spoken with medical experts: doctors, psychiatrists, and representatives from NEDA, always with the goal of lowering stigma, helping other people feel less alone, or educating the public about what eating disorders are, what they aren’t, and how to assist someone else who might be struggling.
I haven’t written anything on this topic so far this year; it’s the first NEDA Week where, as a professional writer, I have not participated in some way. Not because I don’t have anything to say — I always do — but part of me feels like I’ve exhausted a lot of it. I’ve said it, and I’ve re-said it, and I’ve said it again: Recovery has never been linear for me. And it is always present tense. My ED is with me every day, no matter how “healthy” I am, no matter how well I eat, or what I weigh. And in a lot of ways, I feel like I did this to myself; I set goal weights, memorized calorie contents, created detailed meal plans, constructed rules for myself to follow until it was no longer deliberate, it was instinct. It was about food, and it wasn’t about food. It was about fitting into the smallest clothes, but it was also about taking up the smallest amount of space, feeling the smallest amount of things. And I’ve said all of this before, in a variety of ways, in everything I’ve written about my ED, because there’s nothing more to it than that. It’s complex, and it’s simple, all at the same time.
All of it will take a lifetime to untangle; it often feels impossible to unlearn. Because, even with every single piece of knowledge I have gained in recovery, with every single iota of information I have learned from my research and work, I still hear the whisper of the “ED voice.” It makes me feel unqualified to talk about recovery, to be any sort of authority on the subject at all.
But I recently went back to my 2006-2007 journal, from when my ED was at its worst. And it occurred to me: OK, wait. I have grown a lot since then. I am so much more than this. This tiny black journal was filled with numbers and math problems and ruminating and entirely redundant entries. I’m sharing some of them here (with specifics and numbers blacked out) because I feel like it’s easy to forget how endlessly boring eating disorders are. They are so, so fucking boring, and lonely, and repetitive, and sad.
So. What does an eating disorder look like? For me, it looked like fear, isolation, leaving parties early, ghosting on friends, avoiding relationships, making jokes instead of opening up, being quiet and small and sad. Above all, it was incredibly, extremely, inexplicably dull. It was the blackest of black holes, the emptiest of hallways, a doorway to nowhere. It was words scrawled in black ink saying the same thing over and over and over and over, and at the same time, never really saying anything at all. Small, smaller, smallest. Repeat.
In the first year of my recovery, someone asked me: “Are you better now?” I didn’t know how to answer it then, and I still don’t really know how. Yes? Question mark? But looking back at that notebook paper with the tiny handwriting, I can at least definitively say that I’m better than I was.
I’m always compelled to end my writing on a positive button, especially regarding this topic, but the truth is that eating disorders are clingy. They hang onto you like a demon, following you from house to house, possessing you here and there for decades. Perhaps then, there is no real way to exorcise an ED; maybe it’s more about co-existing, living with it, keeping it at bay. Maybe you can’t throw holy water on it and watch it shrivel up and disintegrate. Maybe you’re never really “better now.”
My eating disorder will always be part of me; but it’s not all of me, not anymore. And that is something, something that is more than nothing.