It is the week of midterms. I am sitting in the college dining hall, surrounded by tables full of boisterous talk and platefuls of food. In just two days we will all be free to engage in a week of spring break debauchery.
In general fashion, I can’t quite tell what most of the food is, but the other students seem to be enjoying it well enough.
I chew on my teeth, nervous from the crowd and food that surrounds me.
I have been at war with myself recently. Despite the mercifully warmer weather, I am still wearing my trusty jacket to hide the scars from last week’s run-in with destruction.
Shadows ink their circles beneath my eyes, but because it’s midterms no one considers that the exhaustion comes from inadequate nutrition instead of sleep deprivation.
While some students may be going to the Bahamas or Spain next week, I will spend my spring break battling an eating disorder.
Headphones in, I try my best to look confident and official, as if I’m working on an intense and skillfully crafted essay for an equally intense class—not writing about an eating disorder. The truth is, all of my homework is done and none of it included anything remotely important. And I am terribly insecure. For someone who defines herself by what she produces, I am left only with a glaringly empty table surrounded by empty chairs in a college mess hall, trying to convince myself to get a plate of food and eat.
It’s not that easy.
The few people privy to the information that I relapsed, or even that I have an eating disorder in the first place, all asked me with slightly varying diction why I allowed anorexia back into my life. I haven’t been able to come up with a good answer.
Relapse was not a conscious decision.
I did not wake up one day and decide that I would jeopardize all I’ve worked for on the pinnacle of starvation. I would not choose that empty table, exhaustion and dizziness for myself intentionally. I would not choose the isolation, obsession and lies over a happy and fulfilled college life. If I had to choose between sociology and anorexia, I would choose sociology whole-heartedly. And slowly, that’s what I’m empowering myself to do.
Unfortunately, when I am trapped in a labyrinth of obsession and impulsivity, I cannot see a way out.
The solution is not obvious. One would think that after the amount of times I have fallen back hard on anorexia that I would hold the key to recovery somewhere in the jacket that hides me.
My only solution is this: find what matters most.
Relapsing threatens to take everything from me—the relationships I sabotage by secrecy and isolation; my degree, which starts losing focus; the assignments completed in the haze of food obsession and weakness; my dignity and sense of respectable self. Even my ability to remain in school at all.
In order to recover, I must decide to take the power from anorexia and restore it to its proper places.
I do not have the power to wake up tomorrow and be “fine.” (If that were possible, I believe treatment centers would go out of business.)
But I do have some power.
I have the considerable power to say that I am important, worthy and talented. My worth is not derived from consumption and, contrary to what society propagates, it is also not directly tied to the quality of my production.
The fact that I have aced my midterms is irrelevant to the intricate beauty of my self. I am more than a wavering number on a scale, or an easy A. I find my worth in what I contribute—and contribution to me is not synonymous with production.
I can produce papers and thoughtful questions with relative ease and my anorexia feasts on that. I justified my lack of behavioral safety based on my ability to continue to produce well. What slips, however, is my ability to contribute.
When self-destructing, I spend more time with my headphones in, my pen scribbling frantically to try to expunge the sickness from inside me. Hoping that if I put it on paper it will remove the kaleidoscope from my eyes, contorting all the beauty and promise of the world and making it somewhere intolerable and unstable. I lose connection and, in so doing, I lose what I love most about life.
So I have to decide to take it back, however imperfectly that process must be.
I have to do what it takes to affirm the splendid truth that I am more than my relapse. I have to decide what matters more—my education, activism and volunteerism, writing, sharing hope, community and contributing love to a world that so needs it.
How to decide to recover is a complicated matter.
It is not nearly as simple as “just eat a sandwich.” Not only can the consumption itself be overwhelmingly anxiety-provoking, but the remedy is not about the food. The remedy is about claiming my worth and necessity.
If I continue to believe I am expendable, then it is easy to see how I justify making myself disappear. Claiming individual necessity is a process, as is all of recovery. It is examining my talents, passions and goals—and creating productive arenas to utilize them. For me right now, that is through sociology and activism. These arenas should remain fluid.
Claiming worth is also embracing my limitations and knowing when to rest. It is seeing and believing how much better and more fulfilled life would be without anorexia and striving to bridge the gap.
Because I deserve to be here. I am needed. I am vital.
I start slowly.
I take one headphone out, volunteer to go with a good friend to the computer lab so she can write some baffling codes and I can write about recovery in the company of someone who makes it feel worth it.
I reexamine my priorities. I resign from some commitments that feel unfulfilling and production-based instead of contribution-based. I also sign myself up for some new things that matter to me and make me feel important.
I am learning to construct a life that I actually want to live instead of feel compelled to speed through at an anorexic sprint.
It’s about what matters more. Reassigning priorities is definitely not the cure-all. But I’m finding that, as I assert what I want and engage in what empowers me, I feel much more comfortable in my body.
This battle will certainly not be won in a day, and there is so much more to it than deciding what I want to participate in and establishing goals. But I believe these steps are critical. The nature of recovery goals can include things like “just eat a sandwich,” but if they focus solely on consumption then we will still be operating on the belief that our worth is based on food.
Instead, I propose that goals should encompass our totality as human beings—because eating disorders affect our whole selves, not just our physicality.
It is critical for us to take care of ourselves physically as we recover from a relapse, but also important is nurturing the aspects of ourselves that our afflictions have sabotaged. It can be something simple—like taking one headphone off—but the greater connection with the world I have received from that small act has made a difference in my perception of my importance.
It is worth it to recover, even if it feels impossible and admitting I have a problem is terrifying. It is worth it because it is the embodiment of affirming that I am necessary and beautiful and that I am more than I produce.
Recovery is worth it, because food does not deserve to be the most important thing in life. With food as the nucleus of my existence, I do not have the energy or ability to engage in the really awesome things I am capable of doing.
The more comfortable I am becoming in not looking official, the more I’m realizing how splendidly flawed and worthy of life I am.
Author: Emily Taggart
Assistant Editor: Hilda Carroll / Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Christy McKenna/Flickr