Below is a prompt I received in rehab, followed by my response to it. It feels incomplete, as I wrote it more than two years ago, and my opinions have evolved and changed. However, I feel it’s worth sharing.
Describe your relationship with your eating disorder: What have you gained from this relationship? What have you lost because of it?
[December 1st, 2016]
My relationship with my eating disorder is complex to say the least. I often glamorize my eating disorder, romanticizing the “power” it gave me. But I’ve given it too much credit. It’s time to talk about what I’ve lost.
It ravaged all of my relationships, one in particular. From my perspective, this person saw my decline, was terrified, and wanted to help, but what ensued caused me to feel pressure. I felt pressure to eat, I felt unwelcome accountability, and I felt like a point of gossip. I heard from various acquaintances that they had heard from others that I was trying to kill myself. I felt like the center of the rumor mill.
I was in denial, certainly, but even after I’d accepted my problem, that behavior wasn’t what I needed from friends. I didn’t want parenting or policing; I wanted distraction. I needed distraction. I needed fun, and I needed normalcy. But how long can you ignore the elephant in the room? I was not well, and now I feel for the people who had to watch.
I reached a point where I couldn’t be around my friends without feeling their concern. I felt unsafe. So unsafe. I didn’t want to talk about it, so I pulled away, letting the distance happen.
I reached a point where I couldn’t be around my friends without feeling their concern.
The memories I missed because of that – the connections lost – were huge. Even when I did choose to socialize, I was limited. For instance: I couldn’t have sleepovers because of my breakfast ritual. I had to have my kale-berry-carrot smoothie, 2 hard boiled eggs, and organic nut butter every morning, and early enough that it didn’t interfere with lunch.
I had to keep my body – my metabolism – on a strict schedule. Any alteration, and I could slow it down and gain weight. (Of course I had slowed it down, but this is not a disease of logic.)
Breakfast at other homes was out of the question; most of my friends didn’t have kale, and their nut butters were not organic. They often included extra ingredients, like salt or oil – BIG No-No’s.
What I didn’t realize then, which I realize now, is how lonely I was. This is a disease of isolation. So much socialization takes place around food, and food was the enemy.
This is a disease of isolation. So much socialization takes place around food, and food was the enemy.
I came by disease honestly. It stemmed from self-improvement. I wanted to matter, I wanted to be my best self. But when I pushed everyone else away, my presence soon lost meaning. How can you be the center of attention when you aren’t even there?
My eating disorder took my identity away. It robbed me of my ability to laugh, make jokes, and ultimately, be myself. I was trapped in a haze of exercise and restriction, and my personality couldn’t come out.
I was trapped in a haze of exercise and restriction, and my personality couldn’t come out.
I pride myself on my fierce work ethic. I wouldn’t be who or where I am without it. My eating disorder threatened and negated much of the work I’d put into theatre and dance.
I started dancing late – and by late I mean eighth grade – after I discovered my passion for theatre. In my mind, I had to catch up fast. I worked my ass off in all dance classes, but I had a special knack for tap. It just came naturally, and within a matter of months, I had “surpassed” those around me. I became an apprentice with a professional company, performing duets and trios with adults, and was hired to teach beginner and adult classes, all tremendous points of pride.
I restricted to be my best, including in tap, but my genuine love for tap soon became an obsession. Tap became an agent of my disease. Much like when I was restricting and exercising, when I practiced a tap piece, I didn’t know when to stop.
I restricted to be my best in tap, but my genuine love soon became an obsession.
I went to an arts high school, and our spring musical was a tap show, chosen because of the tap talent in our department at that time, which I was certain included myself. I was a shoe-in; I knew it. But as auditions grew nearer, my body grew smaller, and my teachers didn’t want me to audition.
I kept telling them, “I’m fine, I’m fine, cast me, I’ll eat, I swear, if you cast me.” And they did. But I was lying.
A few weeks later, I walked into school and was told I had to go home; I could not come back until I had a doctor’s note. I did my first “walk of shame,” from the front office back into the parking lot, and 24 hours later I found myself at the doctor.
I was told I could have no physical activity indefinitely, including walking the dog or taking the stairs. I couldn’t even park in my school’s parking lot, because the walk to the main building was too long. Instead I had to park in the carpool circle.
I had to pull out of the musical, take a break from my tap company, and sit on my ass in the library every day for months, while all of my classmates enjoyed their dance classes. I had worked my ass off to be “the best” – my best – and I didn’t even get to enjoy it.
But I was determined.
This would not be bottom.
I would still perform onstage in April.
Below is the message I sent to a mentor that afternoon, regarding the spring musical:
January 13, 2016:
Please hear me because I cannot get past this. I’m having mixed reactions to my doctor’s appointment but most of them don’t have space in my head because this one is all I can think about, and I need to resolve it first.
I need to know that right now, at this moment, on January 13, 2016, the spring musical is not off the table yet. Please please please just hear me out.
Initially I was crushed when the doctor didn’t clear me, but all day I’ve been doing ok because I’ve been so motivated. The break is indefinite, which could be bad, but it could also be good!
My goal for this semester has been and still is to perform in the musical. Knowing that if I work hard enough and show serious progress I can still be in it has me so determined and not devastated by the indefinite break.
But thinking that right here, right now, it will be declared that I can’t perform puts me in a horrible, crushed, unmotivated place, and does not make me want to fight as hard.
I know, I completely understand, that the issue is timing, that even if I’m cleared in time there’s the matter of teaching me the numbers, but the show is in April and I KNOW I can do it.
What if we made a deal with the directors or set a date whereby if the doctor has cleared me, I can still be in the show? Whenever that would be is up to them, of course, but let’s say, for instance, it was Mardi Gras:
If by Mardi Gras the doctor says I can resume physical activity, I can still be in the show, and if not, I can’t.
I’m so grateful that I can still come to music and acting classes. That news already made today less hard. But I can’t have the show taken away from me right now. Not this week, not today. It’s what I’m fighting for. I need something to fight for. Otherwise I cannot fight.
Please really hear me. I’m willing to compromise HOWEVER I CAN to keep it on the table, even if the time frame is short. But I can’t take any more bad news today. I can’t have my motivation taken away today.
You know I will not let the show suffer. I will watch choreography rehearsals to learn mentally the best I can for the next few weeks and do extra coaching hours when I’m given the “okay,” to compensate for lost time. Maybe this can be how I make up the grade in my dance classes.
I’m open to anything. ANYTHING. Just please, please, don’t tell me it’s already gone. Please, please, please, just give me a chance.
The message reeks of desperation. But it got me what I wanted. It did reach a point, however, when I knew that performance was not feasible. By mid-March, I had to let it go.
Another goal of mine from the beginning of high school was to attend Northwestern University’s 5-week theatre intensive in the summer before my senior year. I achieved this, and no one can take that away from me. But my eating disorder almost did.
I’m proud of myself for completing the program, but I’m angry because physical weakness and mental obsession robbed me of the full experience.
I was strong and happy the first few days – relatively, anyway – and I didn’t even think about food, at least not to my normal extent. For a beat, I tasted happiness. But that happiness was uncomfortable and my eating disorder started screaming at me to fix things.
The hours were 7 am – 11 pm every day, and the days were emotionally and physically rigorous. I started crashing. The director of the program had to have 2 phone calls with my mom: the first to design a reduced schedule so I could nap during the day, the second to arrange for special protein shakes to be made for me in the dining hall. I had to stop going to my Theatre for Social Change elective, which awakened me, revealing the path I wanted for my career.
I’m embarrassed – humiliated – that the program director had to take time to make special arrangements for me, and that she’ll remember me as the girl with the eating disorder. I respect her and every other faculty member there whole-heartedly, but instead of getting their positive attention, I got their concern.
I’m emabrassed – humiliated – that I’ll be remembered by the program director as “the girl with the eating disorder.”
I didn’t believe in myself enough. I was afraid that without the eating disorder I would get no attention, and I thought negative attention or pity was better than no attention at all.
The thing is, I did get positive attention too, and the fact that I got positive feedback for work that was not my best eats me alive.
Imagine the kind of feedback I would have gotten if my E.D. had not been present.
It didn’t just affect my work, it took me out of the moment. My friends would all connect over food, celebrating Shabat with late-night feasts in their dorm rooms and sneaking out for ice cream after rehearsal in our last few moments pre-curfew, but I couldn’t participate because I was too afraid of the food. I couldn’t let it touch me.
I couldn’t participate because I was too afraid of the food. I couldn’t let it touch me.
One Sunday, instead of having a “brush-up” rehearsal, the director of my show took my cast out for brunch, but I didn’t eat anything. I sat there miserable the entire time, while my castmates splurged on skillets and milkshakes, afraid to even let myself have a cup of coffee, because I’d already had my protein shake at breakfast and lunch was coming.
It would have been one thing if I had eaten enough at breakfast and wasn’t hungry, but I had only had my “special shake,” which was meant to supplement meals, not replace them, and I was hungry.
My body was starving, and I couldn’t engage in the conversation because I was weak and deprived of energy. Brunch wasn’t in my meal plan and flexibility was foreign to me.
Again, I am so proud that I stayed and finished the program, even when I was at my worst. The fact I achieved that with my eating disorder shows me how strong I am and how much stronger I will be without it.
I really do believe in myself. I never want to experience this kind of loss and regret again. From now on, when I do work I believe in, my own actions will not be the thing to sabotage it. I have to give myself a chance. Fuck you, eating disorder. You are a bitch. Love, Bella.
Back to the present:
When I read this now, I detect lots of pride, anger, and jealousy, as well as a need for external validation. I was obsessed with getting love from teachers, particularly theatre and dance teachers. I wanted validation so badly, and I held onto that for much of treatment and early recovery. I also detect a strong sense of identity tied up in my work.
I was trapped in a haze of exercise and restriction, and my personality couldn’t come out. I do believe in being my best, but I don’t believe in competition with other people. We are each on our own paths, and there is space for all of us to thrive, not just exist.
Thank you for reading. I remind you that these opinions are entirely my own, particularly at the time when I wrote them. Take what you like from it; leave the rest. If something inspired you, I invite you to share it, as these messages are for all.