I grew up in the ballet world, so it’s impossible for me to remember a time when I wasn’t highly conscious of my body size. As a recovered anorexic, many people assume that ballet must be the sole cause of my years-long battle with an eating disorder — but it’s far from that simple. I believe that, like most eating disordered individuals, I was born with a genetic predisposition to the illness and a perfect storm of environmental factors pulled the trigger and sent me into the abyss of anorexia.
I was an extremely confident child, to the point where my mom sometimes had to tell me to take it down a notch when it came to bragging about my successes at school and dance. Until around fifth grade, I was unaffected by any criticisms that were thrown my way and I was unfazed by authority figures. When I was 10 years old, all that changed seemingly overnight. A series of recurring traumatic events occurred in my home and I abruptly became a shadow of my former self. I stopped talking and laughing like I used to. I became skittish and I stopped sleeping because I was plagued by nightmares. I cried at the drop of a hat, and any sort of criticism from an authority figure absolutely crushed me. It wasn’t until years later that I realized these were all hallmark symptoms of PTSD.
At the age of 11, I scrawled in my journal that I needed to lose weight. That same year, I got my first period and developed breasts. I was absolutely horrified, and not just because every pound and every curve was painfully obvious when I put on my dance leotard each day. (Although that certainly compounded my self-consciousness.) I know now that it’s common for females who hit puberty early to develop eating disorders — becoming sexualized at such a young age is a scary feeling for many of us.
I flirted with an eating disorder for about a year before I developed full-fledged anorexia. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when a wardrobe mistress at my ballet school was fitting me for my Nutcracker costume. She commented that the girl who’d had the same role the year before me was stick thin and I wasn’t. More specifically, she told me that she’d need to make alterations to my costume because I was “too fat” for it. Did I mention she said this in front of a room full of fellow students? I couldn’t breathe, but I held back my tears long enough to go back to another three-hour rehearsal. When I got home that night, I laid in bed and sobbed for three hours straight. Then I came up with a game plan. Losing weight should be as easy as gaining it. I set a goal weight, established a timeline, and marked my calendar. This was all under my control.
I met my goal weight, then I set a new one. I was good at this, so why stop now? By the time opening night of The Nutrcracker rolled around, the wardrobe mistress had needed to alter my costume because I’d lost so much weight. I felt triumphant. I’d shown her, hadn’t I?
Fast forward to springtime and I was twenty pounds lighter. I could feel my stomach eating itself and I saw stars every time I stood up too quickly, but I felt high off of starvation. To this day it pains me to admit that out of all my academic and professional successes, few things felt as good as the control I felt when the pounds melted off me. I was over the moon about my weight loss, but my mom wasn’t. She took me to my pediatrician and I was quickly diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Outpatient therapy proved ineffective and I was hospitalized shortly before my eighth grade graduation. It would prove to be my first of seven hospitalizations over a twelve-year period.
Even when I withdrew from the ballet world, my eating disorder persisted. I wasn’t ready to face my PTSD and the pain of starvation was a welcome reprieve from the daily flashbacks and terror I experienced. I would “recover” for brief periods, only to quickly relapse again and again. I was lucky enough to receive a lot of amazing treatment, but none of it stuck because I couldn’t confront the traumas of my past.
I took medical leaves from high school, college, and my first job in New York City. At the age of 22, I was lucky enough to meet a therapist who made me feel safe in a way that I’d never experienced before. I didn’t realize that I had PTSD at the time, but I was able to open up to her about what had happened to me as a child. This was the crucial first step in achieving real, lasting recovery. The work was nothing short of excruciating. My shame was so deep-rooted that I couldn’t form the words to tell her what had happened to me — so, for a period of time, I would email her before our sessions because writing was easier than talking. Slowly but surely, we began to openly talk about my trauma in our sessions. I said things out loud that I never thought I’d be able to verbalize. My therapist validated me in a way that I desperately needed — and, because I trusted her so much, I finally was able to take it to heart that terrible things had happened to me that I did not deserve.
Once I went through the hard work of confronting my PTSD, I still had to deal with the eating disorder symptoms. They didn’t simply disappear because I was receiving help for the events that had triggered my illness. But, as I regained a sense of control and a realization that I had nothing to be ashamed of, it was easier to allow myself the “luxury” of eating a real meal and acknowledging that I deserved to be healthy. We all deserve this.
Today, I’m 28 years old and I’m proud to consider myself a fully recovered anorexic. The recovery process was, at times, more painful than the eating disorder itself — but I can’t emphasize enough that it was more than worth all the hard work. The message I want to send to anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder is this: no one is “meant” to live with an eating disorder. We all deserve better. The path to recovery is messy, complicated, and there are setbacks along the way. But we should never give up, because we all deserve to be physically and mentally healthy.
Caitlin Flynn is a Seattle-based writer who specializes in women’s issues, entertainment, and mental health. She’s a full-time Gemini, a former ballerina, and a proponent of the Oxford comma. Caitlin has recovered from anorexia nervosa and PTSD.
Caitlin can be found on Bustle, Facebook and Twitter.
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Shame is so universal. I am amazed every single time I read about how it nearly destroyed someone else. But I am also so thankful each time I see that sharing my story is so shame-defeating. Good for you! Congrats on your recovery!