One day when I was fourteen my parents came home from work and announced that we were going to see a therapist. When we arrived, the first thing my mother did was pull out my yearbook picture from when I was 8 years old and declare “this is what he really looks like.” A profound denial of obvious reality, since there I was sitting in front of her, six years older and a goth teen. My hair was really black and green, and I really changed in my natural development as a person. Unfortunately, the therapist didn’t challenge my mother, and tell her that I am real and she has to accept me as I am, not prefer some disembodied photograph taken long ago. Instead he validated their denial, ridiculed my appearance and made jokes with them throughout the session. It was a great way for them to use an intermediary to talk over and around me even more then they usually did, but there was no intervention on my behalf.
Recently I had a relapse. In the midst of a really bad month, I wound up starving myself for a week. I thought I was just making a small change in my diet, but it went too far and every night I was getting hunger headaches, and my body became bogged down with exhaustion and inflammation. I finally stopped and went back to my usual routine but it’s made me re-evaluate what was going through my mind when I made that decision. While in truth I’ve made great progress in sticking to my meal plan and not emotionally eating, my body image has not changed and I was still holding onto the idea that someday I would be much thinner and life would be so much better.
My mother’s attempt to replace me with the caricature in her mind of an exaggeratedly innocent child had a very deep impact on me and my self-perception. She never saw me, or even tried to. And as a result I couldn’t see myself, I also dissociated constantly and became unconcerned with actual reality, leading to my body dysmorphia. I realize that I’ve also kept my own picture for a long time, of when I was 17 and at my absolute lowest weight. I had eaten nothing which contained any fat in it for about 8 months. I got sores on my face as a result and towards the end I could only sleep for two hours each night. Life was terrible but there wasn’t any other way while trapped in my parents house. Today that isn’t the case. I can have a functional life, not spending all of my time under or overeating.
My health is much more fragile now as well, with everything I’ve done to myself in the last ten years of my eating disorder. Things that can’t be taken back, like the year I spent constantly doing water fasts for weeks at a time. I had to go through a long period in my early recovery of having blood sugar issues and anxiety about getting my next meal as a result of that insane cycle. Intentionally binging on foods that I’m allergic to also no doubt made the allergies that I have today much worse. I didn’t set out to repeat these patterns recently, but it’s what happened anyway and I also felt myself becoming afraid that at each meal I was still eating too much.
Since this relapse though, I’ve had a breakthrough where I can really see myself more clearly then ever before. I’m not anywhere close to being overweight, and I know that looking after my health and making small changes when needed will lead me to the right place. But I’m starting to see that there is nothing wrong with my body today, and I’m good enough today. I felt like a prisoner of my body all this time and couldn’t see changes because that’s what I was taught to do, not because there is genuinely something wrong with my appearance. I look forward to living without my self-image swinging wildly back and forth with whatever emotion I’m feeling. And with that stability, I won’t look in the mirror and be inspired to destroy myself in some way.
In truth I’ve had very little experience in my life without suffering from one eating disorder or another, so what standard I have to look for needs to be something new. Not a reference from my anorexic period, though it almost turned into something healthy and stable and I always thought it would be better to start from there. But I don’t have that option anymore, I have to start from where I am now. I will never get back to my low weight, but that’s not my goal anymore, so it’s fine.
I’m also starting to accept that healing from my eating disorder is a process. If I still do something ed-related today, it’s a part of that process and I’m seeing and learning things. As much as I used to fantasize about being able to say that it was all behind me and I was 100% recovered, I don’t have to prove anything to anyone and there is no timer that’s going to go off letting me know that “your life begins now!” whether when I’ve lost a certain amount of weight or spent a certain amount of time in recovery. It’s already here, as difficult and sad as it is.