Road to Acceptance: A Personal Chronicle of Recovery

I am on an airplane, flying from Bozeman, MT to Portland, OR wondering how in the

world I got here. How I, a 40 year old wife and mother of two young boys, could be in the grasp

of a life threatening eating disorder. It was September 0f 2011 and I was on my way to a

residential treatment facility for eating disorders. Looking back, I know I got there slowly and

steadily. Looking back, I had been heading there for much of my life. After years of restricting

food and exercising for hours and hours each day, coping strategies to manage my anxiety and

to manage an impossible body ideal, I had finally gone too far. I was severely underweight and

experiencing many health problems. I had heart palpitations, low sodium levels, and severe

osteopenia from years without a menstrual cycle. I had been using the domination and control

of my body as the perfect replacement for the utter lack of control I felt in my life A lack of

control of thoughts, emotions, circumstances and a general sense of overwhelm. With out

really being aware of it, I had slipped under the control of ED(the Eating Disorder). Let me give

you an idea of how I began this slow decline into the most life threatening of all mental

disorders, anorexia nervosa.

Many people suffering from eating disorders recall a feeling of not belonging from an early age. I

am not different on that account. The middle child, the drama queen, the one who demanded

the attention, I often felt too big and too much for my family. I have also had since, my earliest

memory, an anxious temperament. Anxious in particular about my own health. I began having

panic attacks at age 14. One day I ate some candy that had turned white from the summer

heat. I thought it must be poison. I was convinced that I was dying. That first panic attack

spiraled into daily attacks. I thought I was a ticking time bomb hidden in the perfectly healthy

body of a teenage girl. I imagined brain tumors and aneurysms. I imagined food poisoning and

choking to death. The anxiety from the attacks left me so distraught that I had little appetite. I

lost weight and for the first time in my life was skinnier than my thin and beautiful older sister.

When I started high school that fall, all of the kids told me how good I looked. Something clicked

and I began to restrict my food purposely I needed to keep the feelings of success and

importance that losing weight had given me. . Amazingly, by distracting myself with starvation

and my outer appearance, my anxiety attacks improved. A powerful coping skill, obsession with

controlling my body, was born in my teenage brain. I am still battling this coping skill 2 1⁄2

decades later.

A history of anxiety disorders is not unusual in the genesis of Anorexia or it’s sisters Bulimia

nervosa and binge eating disorder (BED). Underlying every individual eating disorder

experience is a complex web of factors which contribute to its development. People with eating

disorders often have co­occurring psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.

They often suffer from loneliness, feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. Interpersonal

factors also play a part, such as troubled family relationships and general difficulty in managing

and expressing emotions. A history of being teased for weight or size is also common. One

often hidden contributing factor is sexual abuse. The abuse translates into self ­loathing and

eventually to self­ destruction. New research is also focused on the underlying biology of

people who develop these disorders. There also appears to be a genetic component. Eating

disorders often run in families. There is also evidence that people with an eating disorder have

an imbalance in certain chemicals in the brain which regulate hunger, appetite and digestion.

Finally, none of us lives in a vacuum free from social and cultural influence. We as Americans

live in a culture which glorify thinness and values obtaining the “perfect body.” We are force fed

narrow definitions of beauty that include only certain shapes and sizes, that are then

photoshopped to create a truly unattainable image. Our Media has overt and covert norms that

value and criticize people based more on physical appearance than inner qualities. It is no

surprise that the more economically developed a society becomes, the more “westernized,” the

greater the incidence of eating disorders.

Eating disorders are on the rise worldwide. In the United States it is estimated that 10

million women and 1 million men suffer from an eating disorder. An estimated 5% of sufferers

die as a direct result of their disorder making eating disorders the number one killer of all mental

health disorders. Eating disorders are also on the rise in older women such as myself. Whether

resurfacing in our later years or as new disorders, the pressures of being fit and beautiful as we

age have affected older women.

Eating disorders are a very sneaky disease. I once read that the best way to prevent an eating

disorder in your child is to NEVER let them try to lose weight. Almost all disorders begin with

weight loss. The initial weight loss creates feelings of success and fear. Success at the

accomplishment, and fear of losing it. Maybe if we can avoid ever dieting we can prevent the

disease in those more susceptible to it.

People in the general population may also have sub­ clinical symptoms of eating disorders such

as food restriction and obsessive thoughts about body and weight. . 80% of women are

unhappy with the size and shape of their bodies. Ask yourself if you ever look down at your

thighs or at your wrinkles in disgust. How often do you berate your own appearance? How often

do you think to yourself, “ I look just as my body was meant to look, or I am good enough just

the way I am.”? Our society is hyper focused on outer perfection, and as a result, our own

perceived shortcomings. We can’t measure up to the unattainable image. Sadly though we

believe if we just try this workout or this diet maybe we will get closer, and just maybe we will be

able to feel about ourselves the way we want to.

The problem is, it is an impossible moving target we will never hit. Only through accepting

ourselves just as we are, can we find peace and wholeness. But How? How do we do this?

Practice, practice, practice. We must begin to focus on what we like about our bodies, about

ourselves. We must shift the focus from what we must change, to what we can embrace and

celebrate.

I personally struggle desperately with self acceptance. My eating disorder wants to keep me

hyper­ focused on my body because it keeps me distracted from other issues and areas where I

lack control. I turn to it to help me make sense of the seemingly nonsensical parts of life. I

temper the pain and the suffering that all human beings experience, with a focus on food,

exercise and body obsession. Other addicts use drugs and alcohol, sex or gambling. Ask me

to go without a glass of wine, no problem, a workout? No way sister. Most of us use

something or other to distract ourselves from life’s inevitable pain. It is only when we are willing

to let go of these defenses and truly feel the pain, that we begin to heal.

Returning to Bozeman after 10 weeks of treatment has been difficult. There is not a quick fix

for eating disorders. The average length of time to heal is 5 to 7 years. Often acceptance of

body is the last piece to come. When people tell me I look good or healthy my brain hears, “fat”.

I have a strong network of support, but it takes daily attention to maintaining my food and

limiting my exercise. I have weekly therapy and support meetings. I turn to prayer and

meditation to deal with the compulsions to restrict my food and exercise to excess. I have

struggled with returning to my behaviors in some capacity and am inching my way back toward

the recovery that my truest, highest self believes is possible.

The path of recovery is giving me a lens to see deeply into myself. Such a gift out of such pain.

My hope in sharing my story, is to offer to anyone suffering with these self destructive coping

strategies the knowledge that you are not alone. We, humans, are all in this together. There is

a way out. By accepting ourselves, we can truly begin to improve the quality of our lives.

-Anonymous