When I accepted that anorexia is a mental illness, I let go of my shame — and started to heal
The doctors stood around my hospital bed, looking very serious, as my 15-year-old body lay hooked up to IVs and beeping machines. They told me that I would have died if I hadn’t come in when I did. I pulled anxiously at the red band wrapped around my tiny wrist as they used the words that I would hear again and again over the next 10 years: anorexia nervosa.
Lying there, shivering cold, more bone than girl, I had no idea what those words meant. I had no idea that they would steal the next decade of my life — I only thought that it couldn’t be true: I had simply wanted to get healthier; it was an innocent diet and workout plan gone wrong. I wasn’t anorexic; I could fix this if I just started eating again.
The denial lasted for months, long after I was discharged from the hospital, as I unsuccessfully tried to control my powerful compulsions to exercise and restrict my caloric intake.
And even then, after finally accepting that I did in fact have an eating disorder, I fought the idea that it was a mental illness.
I wanted desperately to believe that this was my choice. If I really wanted to get rid of it, I could. The reality of having a mental illness was a much harder pill to swallow: I couldn’t suddenly rid myself of the desires to starve myself, obsessively exercise, or purge up whatever food I managed to get down.
If it was an illness, then no matter how hard I tried to stop those disordered behaviors, my brain would crave them anyway. It terrified me that I wasn’t fully in control of my own mind.
It has taken years to fully accept that I have a disease, and begin to cultivate self-compassion — not self-judgment or blame. That process has also taken a huge weight off of my shoulders.
I remember crying in a therapist’s office as she told me that it wasn’t my fault, and that the shame I was carrying didn’t belong to me. When I began to view it as an illness like any other, I saw treatment, therapy, and medication as things that weren’t shameful, but part of my movement back to health.
It was healing to reframe my experiences as sickness, because shame and self-judgment actually perpetuate the eating disorder — while self-compassion moves you towards recovery.
While it still being researched, scientists are studying potential biological causes of eating disorders, looking at how brain chemistry and family history may be a factor. While I may not fully understand the mechanics behind all of that, it reinforces what I already knew: that self-compassion and letting go of an incorrect belief that you chose this, it’s your fault are integral parts of moving towards recovery and health.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, I hope that you are able to hear this:
It isn’t your fault. You didn’t choose this.
Recovery is possible, but it requires being gentle with yourself, taking care of yourself the way you would if you had any other illness.
You can call the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Helpline at (800) 931-2237, message them online, or text NEDA to 741741.