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Finding Order in My Disorder: #NEDAwareness Week 2020

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is February 24- March 1 2020. The theme “Come as You Are: Hindsight is 2020” invites eating disorder survivors to reflect on experiences and to celebrate positive steps taken. The NEDA community is diverse and each story is different, but our challenges unite us as a community rooted in perseverance. 

As an ED survivor, I’m thankful for this opportunity to pause, reflect, and share what I’ve learned along the way. I have the utmost respect for all those who have been affected by eating disorders and choose to be brave. Radical acceptance of the self and of others are cornerstones of NEDA’s mission, and I echo their invitation to “Come as You Are.” My journey is uniquely my own, and my dedication to recovery is a lifelong battle. Moreover, living in recovery is a conscious choice.

When I first stepped foot into Central Coast Treatment Center in February of 2014, it wasn’t by choice. I was 21 and living across the country from my family, who threatened to move me home if I didn’t get help. I reluctantly agreed to meet with a nutritionist, but truly didn’t believe I belonged in an eating disorder center. I wasn’t consciously struggling with body image issues; however, it was clear that my body had some issues with me. I’d lost ~40lbs in 4 months. I was cold all the time, my hair was falling out in clumps, and I wasn’t menstruating.

After one session with a nutritionist, It was clear that lack of nutrients was the cause of my physical symptoms. However, I still wasn’t convinced I had an eating disorder. In my mind I was fine, I just wasn’t getting the right nutrients. I believed I’d feel better physically and psychologically as soon as I made the necessary dietary changes.

Me: I’m fine. It’s just food.

My nutritionist:

She suggested I meet with a therapist, who (conveniently) was available to chat right after our meeting. I lasted about five minutes in session before completely losing it. I realized that my eating habits were manifestations of larger issues. I was shaking and sobbing uncontrollably. I remember thinking, “They KNEW this would happen. This was planned! They GOT me!”

I realized that my it’s just food mentality wasn’t necessarily wrong, but that I was missing the bigger picture: Controlling my food intake created the illusion that I was in control of my life. At that point I realized how OUT of control I was and that I needed professional help. If I wanted to truly bring order to my disordered life, I had to start where I was. I was suffering from Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa. As they say, acceptance is the first step. Come as You Are.

I spent the next four months in an intensive outpatient program. It was unbelievably uncomfortable in every way possible. Getting to the root of my issues meant bringing subconscious memories into consciousness, AKA openly discussing my most suppressed traumas. I found myself telling stories in a group setting that I’d never even said out loud to myself. I began remembering experiences in vivid detail that I’d completely forgotten about. Memories I’d deemed insignificant were reclassified as defining moments. It felt like everything was falling apart yet coming together at the same time.

My Brain:

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It was messy. It was painful. It was never something I wanted to go through again, so I fully committed to recovering. Of all the lessons I learned in treatment and over the six years following, these have been (and continue to be) the most impactful.

Life didn’t stop when treatment began. When I started the program, I quickly realized I’d have to press pause on the defining features of my life: college, work, friendships, and hobbies. As someone who believed that multitasking to the point of exhaustion would one day bring success, making the choice to focus solely on treatment felt counter intuitive. However, this shift allowed (OK, forced) me to refocus the lens through which I viewed my life. Moving out of a doing-driven mindset and into a space of simply being allowed me to feel my way through life instead of force my way through. Life is going to happen regardless, why not be present for it? 

Food is just a variable. Controlling food intake was a maladaptive attempt to internally regulate emotions. Within the context of my eating disorder, this manifested as: 
Anorexia (restriction):
The less I ate, the less I felt. The less I felt, the less I freaked out.
Bulimia (Two fold):
– Binging: A temporary loss of control (in the moment felt like freedom), and
– Purging: A way to regain (the feeling of) control.

The more I engaged in maladaptive behaviors, the less control I actually had. This one seems pretty obvious, but it was SO SCARY to let go of the self-sabotaging behaviors I mistook for self-empowerment. Stepping out of these behavioral patterns allowed me to step into my truth and to live a life rooted in authenticity. 

Post-treatment, I replaced food with other variables. The eating part of the disorder was eliminated, but I realized I was still relying on external factors to influence my internal state. My variables of choice were sex, drugs, and alcohol. I used them to regulate how much or how little emotion I’d feel at any given time. I’d experience temporary relief, but never true homeostasis. Same same, but different.  

Control is an illusion. This is THE BIGGEST ONE. I still struggle with this on a daily basis. All of my maladaptive behaviors (ALL!!) are rooted in the doomed quest for control. That elusive b*tch. I’ve spent so much energy trying to either hold onto it for dear life or lose it completely. It’s been my primary motivation and my measure of success. The more I tried to manipulate the order of my life, the more dis-ordered I felt.

These lessons weren’t easy to digest, but I’m thankful that I chose to step up and fight for the life I want. In hindsight, I see my ED as one of the best worst things to happen to me. Accepting who I truly am in every moment isn’t easy, but it’s a choice I’ll continue to make. I invite you to join me in showing up for yourself, exactly as you are, wherever you are on your journey. I invite you to trust the timing of your life. It may not always make sense in the moment, but life has a way of working out the details. Come as You Are– you’ll be thrilled with where you’ll go.

For more information on NEDA Awareness Week 2020, visit their website.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at (800) 931-2237.

Author, Danielle Sharkey

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