I had an eating disorder in my teens and early 20s.
It was pretty classic perfectionist white girl in the early 2000s, except I was bulimic (the “bad” and shameful disorder). And it absolutely ravaged my life, until I had nothing (no family, no friends, no college, no health, no happiness, no hope, no safety).
My rock bottom was a nine month stint with meth—eventually losing whole nights to picking my face in the mirror or listening to the (likely not-in-reailty) voices of the neighbors above me incessantly critiquing my every move, choice, or word. And then I met my husband. I had a person and I had hope and I got sober and really quickly found out I was pregnant. I’d just turned 22.
I got better.
And then I went on with my life with zest and vigor and a powerful touchpoint for gratitude. I went to back to community college. I got married. I began volunteering in the domestic violence field. We bought a house. I went to social work school. I had another daughter (like, really universe? You’re giving me not one but two perfect little girls to raise into strong women? In this world?!).
I got into Paleo and Crossfit (and I see now my recovery got shaky). I got a job working for local government—still in the domestic violence field (and my family had benefits for the first time ever!). I juggled work and school and motherhood and being human-ish for a year and got my master’s degree in Social Work. Somehow I also squeezed in getting a tummy tuck that year.
And then—last October—I turned 30.
I’d checked everything off my proverbial “show everyone you’re okay and you belong in this world” checklist. And then I fell under an overwhelm of work stress—and I was tired. I’d been going so fast and so hard. I felt really powerless and stuck in my life and and this breakdown, started closing in around me.
My health and fitness obsession? Gee, that was feeling like some old eating disorder behavior. My social drinking was starting to feel self-medicative. My work in the social services field was bringing up a barrage of my personal treatment horror stories that had me running and numbing and spinning. And then I finally took the advice I’d been given for years—check out Brené Brown’s work (this is about to be so cliché, current pop culture climate considered). And it immediately began changing my life. And I started pushing myself into bravery and courage and showing up and leaning into discomfort.
It became clear that I needed a break from work. I needed space and quiet and to find out my baseline without a constant barrage of stress and politics and systemic uncertainty. I felt the weight on my shoulders that survivors of abuse deserve to be well served—and that my own shortcomings or inadequacies were playing a role if/when they weren’t.
Oh, and I’d started having panic attacks.
I’ve been off of work for eight weeks. I’ve changed way more in my life than I intended to. I’ve used therapy, self-help books, naturopathy, yoga, meditation, lots of connecting and re-connecting to people—mostly to women. I’ve taken a lot baths, prioritized sleep, embraced writing, music, time with the children, and stories. And love. A lot of feeling love and learning about the needs of love and being intentional about showing it.
It’s been much harder, and much more rewarding and transformative, than I would have dared to predict. I’m also talking about it a lot. I’ve posted a lot about this process on social media and have gotten to know well what Brené refers to as the “vulnerability hangover.” It is vital to me not to hide this process and these pieces that rise from my self-conscious and first whisper, then murmur, and occasionally scream—or blip for a second and then just disappear.
I caught this one the other day—this list of things I’ve learned through this breakdown.
10 Things I Learned at the End of my Breakdown:
1. This is probably not the end of my breakdown.
2. Choice is one of the most powerful tools we posses. Somehow choice invites kindness and gentleness and an attunement to self or others that we desperately need more of. Choice trumps ultimatums or obligations or expectations. Choice is empowerment. Give choice. Not because someone told us to or it’s in our treatment model, but because it is humane. It is the right thing to do. And sometimes the right thing and the hard thing are the same. And sometimes it sucks.
3. Making space creates opportunity, but requires actually getting rid of things/people/places/priorities. Because, making space.
4. Brené Brown is a goddess. Her work has changed my whole life—way more than I was ready for it to be changed.
5. Bodies are a touchy subject that most people haven’t been taught to talk about respectfully, lovingly, kindly or even appreciatively. Even hearing positive/neutral body talk can be initially off-putting because we have been so conditioned with the negative and the never-enough. We’ve been sold self-loathing instead of self-love and told it will feed us. It’s no wonder we’re all walking around so damn hungry.
6. Figuring out what our priorities/values are and living a life in-line with those is the most precious, precarious thing.
7. Children are an answer. They also never stop asking questions. Choose your own peace and purpose (and balance therein).
8. Way too much of our pain and strife boils down to trust. Trust in our loved ones, trust in our community, trust in organizations, trust (yes, I’m going to say it) in ourselves. We don’t talk about it. Unsaid words eating us up often have to do with unacknowledged broken trust. So we all walk around with half our hearts bleeding out and half the time it’s a misunderstanding. So trust, speaking up (vulnerability), and communication—also worth it.
9. The hardest work is at home. The most important people to us often get the short end of the stick. There’s nothing left. They need to sacrifice, be flexible, appreciate what they have. The hard work is here. Breaking well-honed routines. Careening uncomfortably out of worn-in patterns of relating with our partner or spouse. With our children or stepchildren or grandchildren. With our parents or roommates or siblings. The scary people. The ones that know us more at our worst/most comfortable/most vulnerable than anyone. The ones who know our character flaws well. Going to the broken trust place with them. Saying the unsaid—and then learning not to let it become unsaid in the first place. Doing it wrong and acknowledging it. Apologizing. Staying open. Staying present. Finding that loving place inside you even when the righteous and indignant anger flares. And showing love even in that moment, even through that argument, even if we don’t agree. This is the real work.
10. Letting go sounds like such a simple and straightforward action. A literal release. It feels nothing like that. It feels like torture and terror and grief and growth and relief and hope rolled up and smoked. Being high on letting go has taken me places I couldn’t have dreamed. And embracing the process has presented before me paths that practically have a red carpet rolled out to them. It feels about that fanciful. And, like I said, I think this is only the beginning.
Believe you me, it’s a huge grievance in my life that I don’t get to know what happens from here. I don’t get to control the outcome(s) and—this still pisses me off a little—apparently I don’t even get to control my appearance when I show up in the world to be uncertain and out-of-control and vulnerable and maybe even surprised. It sucks, this letting go. And it’s beautiful and unbelievable and completely life-affirming. It’s worth it and I’m worth it and whatever does happen, I think I’ll be eternally grateful for this breakdown, for the lessons I’ve learned, for the stepping out as myself to share pieces.
Thank you for being a piece of that process. Right now. You, thank you.
Author: Ashley Lewis Carroll
Editor: Travis May