“Max, are you done with your drawing?” I asked. “It’s time to go.” It was June, and I was working as an arts and crafts counselor at a summer camp. Today was my day with the youngest group, the four year olds.
“Okay,” he said. He dropped the marker and pushed the paper to me. “I made a drawing of you,” he said. “You can see it’s you because of the smile.”
He had drawn a round gingerbread-like person with a big grin across the face. Six months later, it’s still in my collection of favorite things—a symbol of how far I’ve come. If you had told me four years ago that I could be recognized by my smile, I don’t know if I would have believed you. Back then, I didn’t think I could ever love my body, or myself.
Four years ago, I was struggling with Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or EDNOS—the most common, and deadliest, eating disorder. It began in my first year of high school with skipping breakfast, then lunch. The hunger kept me up at night, letting me work on my homework so I could be the straight-A student I wanted to be. When I woke up in the morning, so hungry I could almost faint, it made me feel powerful. I felt like I was in control of a life that sometimes felt impossible to manage.
I would go to school and my hunger would build up all day. By the time I came home, I would eat anything I could find—bread, stale tacos, leftover pasta. The foods I binged on were nutritionally empty; I avoided food that would nourish me because it felt more permanent, somehow. The binges only happened a few times a week, but I would use them to justify skipping my meals again the next day. It turned into a cycle that I couldn’t escape: starve, binge, starve, starve, binge. I was always cold and always hungry, and my hands trembled constantly. I sometimes felt like I was about to pass out in class. But I always stayed around the same weight, and because I never dipped below the “healthy weight range,” I never imagined I could have an eating disorder.
Then, one day when I was 17, I had a wake-up call.
I was sitting in my high school guidance counselor’s office, looking at a bowl of mints. I wanted to reach out and take one, when I thought, “If I take one of those, I’ll kill myself.”
In that second, I realized how unhealthy my eating had become. So when my counselor sat down with me, instead of talking about college or my recent heartbreak, I told her about my problems with food. Once I began, the words spilled out of me and everything started to come together. As I finally acknowledged my behavior out loud, I realized for the first time that I might have an eating disorder.
At the same time, I didn’t know what disorder that would be. I didn’t have Binge Eating Disorder, because most of my behavior was restrictive. I never purged, so I wasn’t bulimic. And because my weight never fell into the “underweight” category—in fact, I stayed the same build I had been all my life—I couldn’t be diagnosed with anorexia. But there was no doubt that I had an unhealthy, disordered relationship with food.
When I started meeting with a therapist, I found out that the name for my condition was EDNOS, now re-named Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, or OSFED. OSFED is an umbrella term for serious disordered eating that does not meet the requirements for anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. An estimated 52 % of adults with eating disorders have OSFED, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, and, they state, that some studies suggest it has the highest mortality rate of any eating disorder.
When I first heard the diagnosis, I felt a wave of relief. I wasn’t alone. There was a name for cases like mine. Hearing that I had a real diagnosis was the first step to recovering.
Recovery was slow, and it was agonizing. For months, I met with a therapist, a doctor, and a nutritionist to make sure that I was on the right track. I had to learn how to eat normal foods again—foods that would nourish me—and then how to eat them in a healthy, balanced way. My first eating goal was to have one item for breakfast and lunch every day, and the first time I had to eat one of those goal meals, it was so difficult that I cried. I felt as though I would never reach a place where I could be happy with myself.
But with time and effort came peace, and a newfound strength. Slowly, eating healthy food became easier. And over time, I learned more than how to eat again: I learned to take care of myself. I learned to find power in self-love, not restriction.
If I could go back and say anything to my 17-year-old self, it would be that recovery is possible—and so incredibly worth it. When I was in my darkest moments, I didn’t think it would ever get better. But after four years of recovery, I love myself and my body. I may have the same build, and I may still look the same; but I know that I am healthy, that I am worthy of love, and that I am beautiful the way I am. I have learned to accept my flaws and weaknesses, and to celebrate my strengths. And I do my best to greet every day with a smile.
Sara Laughed is a blogger and college student. Her dreams include adding “freelance writer” to her resume and becoming Leslie Knope. You can read her writing at her blogs, SaraLaughed and Healthy Plus.
(Image via Jo In Hyuk.)