You are not your eating disorder
Hi, I’m Erica. I’m 27. I am a wife, a daughter, a dog owner, a psychology research assistant, an athlete, and a friend. I am in recovery from anorexia nervosa, and I am here to take you beneath the surface of an eating disorder.
I can’t remember the last time I ate freely without thinking, calculating, debating, but it was probably in 5th grade. I would not say I was care-free; I was never that kind of kid, but I was less burdened than I would be for the years to come. I loved to play dress up and dolls with my best friend. I eagerly awaited my birthday party sleepovers and planned them for months. I was also shy and sensitive. I was eager for acceptance and at the same time I took the blame on myself. I felt undeserving. It wasn’t that I wasn’t loved. My parents have always been extremely loving and deeply devoted to me, but internally I never felt excellent. I felt just ok, average, but I was not good enough. I strove for perfection. I excelled in school but still beat myself up for those 1 point deductions. I desperately wanted to make everyone else happy even though I had no control over this. Little did I know, these traits made me a prime target for anorexia.
I was never overweight as a kid, but I was not skinny. I started noticing my body more in middle school. I was a gymnast, and I wanted the perfect lean body. Anorexia crept in slyly as it always does. No one intends to develop it; it is not a choice; it is an illness. I remember the thoughts of “just a little bit thinner, just a little bit” running through my head. It was like a suggestion, a soft nudging not meant to cripple my life, but that is just what it did. At age 12 the disease blossomed. I started cutting back on food, or restricting, and ramping up my exercise. At this point the disorder went hand in hand with my obsessive compulsive disorder. I had to complete a certain number of jumps in the bathroom at lunch, and if the last one wasn’t perfect enough, I had to do more. It began to consume my world. My life became school and restricting food and exercise.
Anorexia made me into a different person. I lied to my parents about what I ate and what exercise I did. I couldn’t bear throwing food away but eating all the food in my lunchbox was not an option, so I gave it away to homeless people. I even put little notes on it saying it was not contaminated, leaving it on benches outside the public library in downtown Santa Cruz. By freshman year, my weight had dropped significantly, and people began to notice. But the disorder made me believe that there was no problem at all. My coach was concerned. My parents were beyond concerned, and they desperately tried to find help through psychiatrists, with disappointing results. They didn’t know what to do. That year my parents and I participated in a research study at Stanford University on family based therapy for Anorexia. We went to Stanford every week or two and met with a doctor as a family. As with many mental illnesses, family dynamics play a key role. My parents are perfectionists. They are very driven and hard-working, so it is not surprising that I too share these characteristics. Family therapy treatment helped significantly in terms of gaining weight, but it did not address the underlying thoughts.
The thoughts do not just go away. I continued to obsess over exercise and food. As a result of undereating, I had developed osteoporosis, which means my bones lost mass and weakened. And I didn’t mature physically; I never got my period. High school was a blur of starvation and exercise and pushing myself to the limit academically. I maintained all As and took AP classes and was accepted into all the colleges I applied to, but I was miserable. I did not have boyfriends or go to parties or hang out with friends. I was preoccupied with calories and exercise and body image and self-disgust. I was sick. When I did go away to college, I broke down mentally and physically. I was incredibly homesick and fell deeper into anorexia. I began to see a therapist and moved back home, where I began seeing the therapist I still work with today. It is therapy that saved me.
Therapy is absolutely critical because anorexia is about thoughts. It is not about external appearance although that’s what people think. It is about internal suffering – the feelings of low self-esteem, of unworthiness, of self-loathing. Restricting food is a way to cope with pain and life stressors. It is a false way to feel slightly better in the short term. Akin to hearing voices, with anorexia, you hear an internal voice. ED, short for eating disorder, lived inside my head. ED patrols your thoughts and actions and judges you scathingly. ED tells you that you are never thin enough. It truly distorts your vision of yourself. You actually see yourself as fat when you are emaciated. Your brain is chemically altered through starvation. ED tells you that you have fat here and there and most importantly that you have failed. You have failed to restrict enough. You have failed in self-restraint. You are indulgent, you are lazy, you are unworthy and unlovable.
Self-criticism dominates your mind, and it is not just about food and body image. Every assignment, every workout, every performance, every conversation and word you utter is scrutinized internally. You find flaws in everything you do. You are degraded, and yet you are led to believe that the only relief is to further cut back on food, lose weight, punish yourself, deprive yourself more. You are trapped, living under an inner tyrant demanding that you obey and achieve elusive perfection. This was my experience during college. But through therapy, I started to see that this was not me. This was ED. ED stole my life away from me. He stole friends, love and fun. It is a lonely place to be with ED as your closest companion. And that was my biggest motivation to recover- longing for a social life, joy, and freedom. The first key to recovery was this understanding that ED, the eating disorder, was separate from my true identity. Then the feelings of self-hate and unworthiness must be challenged because when they are not present, there is no need for the coping mechanism of restricting. I have been in therapy for 8 years and participated in a full-time treatment program in San Francisco for a couple months 4 years ago. These have been invaluable in my recovery.
I would like to say I have won, I have vanquished anorexia, but I cannot say that. It has not disappeared; it is not erased from my life. Anorexia does not ever go away completely. I still think about what I am eating and ate already and will eat every day. I still have a hard time limiting my workouts. I still feel not good enough and undeserving at times, but I am healthy and strong. I am not constantly preoccupied. I have achieved a level of happiness in life that I never thought possible. I completed a master’s degree and had fun at the same time, I have made incredible friends and I fell in love and married a man that surpassed all my dreams. He is my lifeline and my joy. He has shown me that I am lovable and valuable. He has been such a significant asset to my recovery because he has helped to me learn to love myself.
So to all of you, I urge to be an ally to someone suffering from an eating disorder. Offer compassion and understanding and a space to share those deep, painful feelings. Encourage those suffering to get help- to see a therapist and to talk. Show them that they are valuable and lovable and deserving. Tell them “you are more than good enough.”
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Hello, my name is Erica Johnstone. I live in Folsom, CA with my wonderful husband and our little dog Oso. I work at the UC Davis Imaging Research Center in Sacramento, CA, where I interview and assess patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Our center conducts research on the neural bases of psychosis. I am also an avid swimmer and runner and enjoying cooking, kayaking, camping, watching movies and boating with my husband.
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