This article is an instalment of MUSE Magazine’s Mental Health Theme week, taking place from October 25th to October 30th, 2021.
Trigger Warning: This article contains discussions of mental health, mental illness, eating disorders, and disordered eating which may be a trigger for some readers.
Disclaimer: The author wants to acknowledge and make it known that these are their personal experiences. The author would like to recognize that other people have other experiences and that no two people are the same.
I want to introduce you to a friend of mine. Although maybe better labelled as a frenemy or a toxic ex best friend.
I call them Ed.
The first time I recall meeting Ed was when I was 10 years old, however, I was not aware of it at the time. Ed convinced me that I need to follow a rigid workout routine and follow a strict diet in order to be healthy so I complied. It felt like such a sense of relief listening to the voice inside my head. Ed came in and out of my head for many years without my knowledge of them being an issue. When I was 18, Ed came into extreme power and this is when I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Towards the beginning of our relationship, Ed pushed me to be better, or so I thought until the reality of my relationship with them finally came to light. Even when I tried to separate myself from Ed they lived as a voice in my head, convincing me of disgustingly unhealthy beliefs, and created rules I couldn’t break. Even now I still hear them some days. Ed made me incapable of listening to my body. Ed would force me to run more kilometres than my legs could endure, count out every single strawberry before I could allow myself to eat them and prevent me from doing the things that a carefree teenager is meant to do like go out to parties or out for meals.
Doesn’t sound like a great friend, does it?
Ed was my eating disorder. I called it “Ed” because I knew it wasn’t me. What I was being told to do was not my choice and far from being under my control. And because living in the real world threatened my disorder, I was forced not to… But “Ed” and I are no longer friends. My awareness of the power dynamics in my relationship with my eating disorder has brought me the courage to break free from its control.. Just because I am far along on my recovery journey, doesn’t mean that I am fully healed. I still face “Ed” somedays, and while the worst is thankfully over, I see my past every day, especially at school as this is the place where I became sick.
My alarm clock wakes me up each day, along with the sun streaming through my window. Some mornings I feel myself being transported to a day in the past, waking to a grumbling stomach, my body aching as I roll over, crushing my weak bones, in an act of desperation to silence the pain without having to eat.
I’ll be in the Starbucks line on campus, and the smell of the building and coffee overwhelms me with memories of the past. Inhaling the same scents as I had when I would hide from my friends and my life, worrying about others not seeing me eat, and dealing with the damaging envy towards the healthy bodies surrounding me. Listening to people order their coffees- sugar-free, unsweetened, no milk or just black, provokes a reminder of when I only allowed myself to have black coffee and was convinced by “Ed” it was a proper meal.
Some mornings, I walk to the gym feeling strong and full of life, but the moment I get in I am immediately met with the sick girl I once was pushing herself to run further, harder, and longer than her body was capable of. But seeing so many other peers pushing themselves in the gym, I am left feeling I should be doing the same, igniting the unhealthy mindset “Ed” constantly tried to instill in me. Seeing these things in the midst of my recovery made it incredibly difficult for me to understand that I had made the right choice. Because when you see your past, sometimes it can be easy and almost comfortable to slip back into those old habits no matter their damage.
Sometimes I’m in the grocery store and catch someone hunched over a nutrition label. I recognize the panic on their faces as their eyes scan over the calories or ingredients because I used to do the same. Their actions bring me back to a time when just holding a pack of regular pasta instead of konjac noodles could cause my body to react, react in a way where I felt my body getting larger just from holding the pasta.
Restaurant menus used to terrify me. Not knowing the exact ingredients or how many calories were in each meal contradicted the strict rules that “Ed” subjected me to. Today, I am still immediately reminded of the place I was in when I look at one, but my recovery has allowed me to gain a new mindset in such situations; When these thoughts come up from my past, I need to take a breath and look at the menu neutrally and order what is drawn to me. This is something that was a vital aspect of my recovery- learning to take a step back and compose myself when I became overwhelmed in a situation
Our past is always here. It is always with us whether we like it or not. It is out there in the world. And though we will cross paths with it sometimes, and experience the emotions that are intrinsically connected to it, even to see it and recognize it as the past is therapeutic.
While your past has shaped you, it has not defined you, just like your mental illness does not define you. I used to feel guilty for recognizing these moments that reminded me of the past. But I realized there is nothing to be ashamed of or upset about. I lived with my eating disorder for a couple of years and can confirm it doesn’t just vanish one day, and it is NOT a phase. It takes time and hard work to break free from its strains over simple tasks every day.
Eating disorders are far from being about food; instead, they are about gaining a sense of control. Your past does not define you, but it does shape you. While I have anxiety, I am not anxious. While I had anorexia, I am not anorexic. I am Kathryn. We need to learn that we are separate beings from our illnesses. We can take the pain that our illness caused us and transform it into power. With the power you have gained through your illness, the triggers that come up in your daily lives can be pushed aside from all you have learned in the past. Eating disorders, like any other mental illness, do not go away on their own. You cannot expect to be healed from years of trauma without putting in the work. Your recovery depends upon persistent commitment, intention, and dedication. Unless you address your past struggles and actively face what holds you back from recovery, you cannot set yourself free from them.
I’m still learning how to love and how to receive love. How to accept the life I’ve been given, the body I have, the way I look. How to be kind, stay stronger than “Ed’s” whispers, and keep going when it feels impossible to do so. Recovery from an eating disorder is a lifelong pursuit, but I do believe it is fully achievable. My past has formed the foundation of my present, and I would not be who I am without it. Yes, I may regret it and despise it, but it has shaped me into who I am today. While I honour and acknowledge my past, I more so appreciate it for allowing me to see the beauty in how far I have, and we all can come. Although I see my past every day when it comes around I know to let it be, accept it, and rise above.