The letter I never sent about my secret eating disorder
One our readers wrote a letter to her friend about her eating disorder—a letter she never sent. She decided, years later, after coming to terms with her personal struggle, to bravely share that letter with us, hoping it might have a positive impact on other people who are suffering from similar battles and to remind them they’re not alone.
It’s odd to write a letter to you that I doubt I’ll ever send. It would be impossible to share this with you, the friend that knows all but doesn’t know this dark little secret. A secret I can’t even admit to myself except in the quiet hours of the night when all my walls are down. I’ve known for a while now; years, if I’m being honest with myself.
I have an unhealthy relationship with food. (See, I’m qualifying and minimizing the problem even now.) I used to tell myself that almost everyone else did, too. How could you not, in this day and in this society? But it’s harder to deny now. You see, it’s gotten worse in the past couple of months, living on my own. If not in action, then in the little voice in my head that constantly judges and critiques what I put in my body. That voice has gotten louder; louder and less forgiving.
It started in high school. Doesn’t it always? It’s the time in our lives when we’re most vulnerable to others and their perceptions of ourselves. Their perceptions so often become our own. Perhaps that was the case with me. I was an awkward gangly child and pre-teen, all bony arms and legs. I was constantly “complimented” by family and friends on how thin I was. Like it was the best thing I could possibly wish to be. Thin was the ideal. As a teenager, I began to realize how tied to my self-identity and self-worth that one word was, “thin.” I wasn’t particularly pretty but I was thin. I should be thankful, people too often told me, thankful to be blessed with such a good metabolism. But soon, I was warned, it would slow down and the weight would announce itself. On my hips. On my thighs. Around my waist. They never said so, not in words, but my teenage self understood. Once those pounds presented themselves, my worth would decline.
I began to obsess over everything I put in my body. Calories became a dreaded word. Counting my ribs became a bed-time tradition, replacing the fairy tales I was told as a child. But this was an even deadlier fairy tale I was telling myself. That I could stop myself from needing food. That I could limit and control what I put in my body without consequence. The Brothers Grimm would approve, I think.
One day sticks in my mind. I was taking a walk with my family. A short one, nothing strenuous. But by the end, I was lightheaded and dizzy. Unbelievably so. You see, I had eaten a candy bar a couple days ago. A delicious Snickers bar. And to punish myself for giving into that chocolaty, calorie-ridden bar, I didn’t eat for three days. I was 17 at the time.
In that moment, as I struggled to blink away the black spots clouding my vision, I knew that there wasn’t any going back if I continued. I had understood, on some level, what I was doing to my body. I reasoned with myself that I had it under control. I didn’t have an eating disorder. Those other girls you read about did. But not me. Until that day in the park. If I continued this pattern of behavior I wouldn’t be able to stop, not until I was an emaciated, shell-of-a-person. Until there was nothing left but bone.
So I made myself eat. And for years after, I convinced myself that I still didn’t have a problem. I couldn’t possibly suffer from an eating disorder. But I did. And I do.
I may be more than bone and I may sit next to you and eat, but that damn voice in my head still questions everything I put in my body. Still passes judgment on the size of my waist, on the thickness of my thighs. The little voice still judges whether or not I’m “thin” enough. I never am.
I’ll have “flare-ups.” That’s what I call them. But it might be more accurate to call them “relapses.” Moments where I lose control of the voice. Those are the times I stop eating. I’ll allow myself a handful of fruits or vegetables at the end of the day. These flare ups can last a couple days or a couple weeks. But eventually they end. I tell myself that I don’t have a problem. I can’t have an eating disorder because eventually, I do, in fact, eat. I am under control. Can you hear it? The fear and lies?
The truth? My big secret? In those moments when I am “controlling my appetite”, those are the moments when I’m spiraling out of control. My biggest fear is that once I start eating, I’ll never be able to stop.
They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. Well, here I am, admitting that I struggle with an unhealthy self-image, an unhealthy relationship with food. An eating disorder, if you will. (Does it count to admit it in a letter I’ll never send? I hope so.)
I’m tired of hating my body. I’m tired of basing my self-worth on one little word. I am so much more than that word. We are all so much more than the little, hurtful, words people use to label us. We are inspiring creatures of complex emotions and contradictions.
“My body is strong and beautiful. I am strong and beautiful, just as I am.” I will repeat this mantra in the mirror until it becomes the kind, caring voice in my head. This loving voice will drown out the ugly, judging one. I am strong and beautiful, just as I am. We are all strong and beautiful. Say it with me?
Liz spends most of her time wondering how life can be so filled with so many amazing people with such inspiring stories. Her dream? To travel the world and hear as many as possible. But until then, she contents herself with drinking all the coffee, reading all the books, eating all the hummus, and staring in awe at the beautiful mountains that currently surround her.