My name is Christina Joy and I am 20 years old. Among other things, I am a student, a freelance photographer, and people-watcher extraordinaire. This blog is a mason jar for the fragments of my increasingly jumbled soul. Don't be afraid of the monsters under the bed.

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All photographs are my own creations unless otherwise stated, and are not to be re-posted without proper credit to this website or my Flickr account. All content unless otherwise stated © Christina Joy 2011

25 February 2013

Thoughts on NEDA From a 20-something in Recovery

I wake up at 5:30 sharp, nearly knocking over the old glass of water sitting on my bedside table in my haste to carpe diem, etc. The sun has not yet risen to chase the gloom of night from the corners of my little room. As I dress, I am filled with the weird energy that comes from being awake while it is still dark outside. Morning people will understand.

Breakfast is a leisurely affair, as I woke up earlier than necessary to allow myself time to linger. I choose the last solitary apple from its hiding place behind the avocados and pair it with peanut butter—an indulgence, since I typically embark on a peanut butter spree if I allow myself a taste. This morning, however, I am confidant that I will be able to have my cake and eat it too. I pour coconut milk—sweetened!—into my coffee with a rush of wild abandon.

 It’s Monday, February 25th, the beginning of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

As I drive to work in the slough of morning traffic, Cat Power croons to me, her solo audience, while raindrops splash onto the windshield. I take extra care on the road, remembering my uncle’s advice that the water can mix with dust and oil in the pavement and be hazardous to drivers within the first few minutes of rainfall.

All about me are my nameless, faceless comrades, each encapsulated in the dark bubble of their Honda or Buick as they make the daily pilgrimage to their place of work. We have this in common: the cold, new world, hidden from the eyes of those who are asleep. No doubt many of us long to be among them still.

Three years ago, I could never have pictured my future self performing such a mundane, normal task as driving to work. To be fair, I couldn’t picture my future self doing much of anything. On February 25th, 2010, I was in a psych ward for an eating disorder and a whopping case of depression.

When I reveal this to people, I can never tell if they think I’m oh-so-interesting or if they’re secretly wondering if perhaps I’m more screwed up than I let on and that they should drop me from their lives while they still can. Being the pessimist that I am (my mom nicknamed me “Eeyore” when I was little), I usually assume the latter.

In reality, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. The fact that I was hospitalized for (gasp) “psychological issues” in my senior year of high school is less a part of my identity now than it was last year, and will be even less so a year from now. I see this as a relief.

But I still have a secret.

The hospitalization, that epitome of my teenage struggles, was only the beginning. The real hell came afterward, and still emerges every now and then when I’ve convinced myself that I have finally achieved the coveted state of normalcy, if such a thing exists for anybody.

Take driving to work, for instance.

In a tote bag lying next to me on the passenger seat are my laptop, journal, lunch comprising pretzel rods and carrot sticks, and “The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Overeaters Anonymous”, shipped from Amazon the previous afternoon.

Wait. What?

I have a problem. Like countless people with past or present eating disorders, I flit back and forth between restricting my diet and gorging myself on forbidden treats, torn between the need for emptiness and the desire to be filled. The concept of maintaining weight is bizarre to me, since I have convinced myself that a person must be gaining if they aren’t losing. This is a fantastic irony, since my weight has stayed roughly the same since I was 15 years old.

Despite inconsistent eating habits and a self-image that is perhaps a wee bit distorted, I still consider myself in recovery. I can tell when the voice of my eating disorder begins to whisper in my ear, and I am armed to the teeth with ways to shut it up. I journal. I analyze it with a friend. I bake, surrounding myself with nurturing smells. I write myself affirmation cards. And, ultimately, I Just Eat That Damn Piece of Pizza. (Look out, that’s going to be the name of my future autobiography.)

Still, things like National Eating Disorder Awareness Week roll around and I am reminded just how abnormal I am.

There was a time when my eating disorder played such a key role in my life that organizations like the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) provided excuses to embrace my illness all the more. Sure, I’m unabashed in my advocacy of positive body image, self-nurture, and eating disorder education. But sometimes I wonder how much of that stems from genuine passion to help others and how much stems from the desire to be associated with something I still see as attractive, unique and even glamorous—an achievement of sorts.

Those of us who are educated know that an eating disorder is the polar opposite of these things. This is the fact that NEDA supporters wish to make known. While this is certainly admirable, it strikes me that not even once during past NEDAwareness Weeks have I been struck by the error of my disordered ways, resolving to put all that negative stuff behind me and start afresh on the path to healthy living.

There have been no “holy-shit-I-have-an-eating-disorder” moments for me. There have, however, been plenty of “holy-shit-I-need-to-get-sicker” moments.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that eating-disordered people typically know that what they are doing is disordered, and telling them so won’t give them reason to get well. In some cases, the opposite is true; by repeatedly and intrusively telling a person that they are sick and need to change their ways, you may in fact be giving them more reason to get sicker.

During my freshman year of college, I found myself caught up in the vicious cycle of bulimia for the second time in my life. Away from my parents’ watchful gaze, I became drained and lackluster as the result of daily binging and purging. Engulfed in angst, I took to writing vague bits of poetry on the subject of my inner turmoil and publishing them on a popular social blogging platform. One of my friends saw it and told my parents that she suspected relapse. My parents, in turn, told the dean of women, who prescribed regular therapy sessions with a school counselor.

I was furious. Of course, I knew my friend had my best interests in mind. Her method was perhaps ill advised. As close as we were, she never voiced concern about my eating disorder to me, instead telling my parents behind my back. It hurt, and my trust in her was shaken after the incident.

You might be wondering at this point whether it is appropriate to say or do anything at all to help an eating-disordered friend. The answer, of course, is yes. However, going about it can be all sorts of tricky.

What I am about to say is very important, and has required a lot of thought for me to put into words. When dealing with an eating-disordered person, you must respect their choice to have an eating disorder.

Please don’t misinterpret my meaning.

I don’t mean that the person set out to have an eating disorder in the first place. While there are many people who are curious to see what will happen, an equal amount of people stumble into an eating disorder by accident. Just as one does not “mean” to catch a cold, one does not always “mean” to develop an eating disorder.

I also don’t mean that you should stop being concerned and go about life as though nothing were wrong.  Why wouldn’t you be concerned? Your friend is obviously playing with fire, and you’ve taken it upon yourself to stop her before she ends up like Karen Carpenter.

What I do mean is that just because the person has an eating disorder does not mean that they are any less intelligent for it. You have to assume that she knows perfectly well what she is doing. Then you have to respect it. Only then will she be open to any advice you might have.

Eating-disordered people can always provide reasoning for their unusual behaviors. As I mentioned before, most of us know that what we’re doing is unhealthy, but continue to do it anyway for whatever reason. In my case, there was a time when I had no interest in “getting better”, and became revolted when someone suggested I “take care of myself”, “get some help”, etc. Didn’t they know that if I wanted help, I would get it?

Eating disorders are difficult to treat because they are neither wholly psychological nor wholly physiological—in short, they affect the body and the mind. An eating-disordered person might not look sick, therefore they reject the claim that there is something wrong with them. When dealing with such a person, I cannot stress enough how important it is to approach them respectfully and try to see things from their point of view. If someone had done that instead of immediately seeking help for me, I might have been more receptive to help in the first place.

My path has been a twisted one, to be sure. Since my hospitalization in 2010, I have undergone a series of relapses varying in severity and duration.  I have gone through periods of total vulnerability and periods of icy solitude. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, and I’ve sure as hell eaten a lot of Saltine crackers. And you know what I’ve figured out? I am in recovery today not because someone gave me the facts, but because I decided that I didn’t want to be sick anymore. I didn’t want to miss out on life.

That isn’t to say other people didn’t have a positive effect on my recovery process. The people in my support system are absolutely amazing, and I wouldn’t have made some of the breakthroughs I did without them. The fact is, it takes two to tango. If you aren’t invested in your own recovery, the other person’s efforts will be for nothing.

Really, it’s all about respect. Respect for the eating-disordered person and, if you are the eating-disordered person, respect for yourself.

Let’s carpe diem, everybody.

1 comment:

  1. Really really awesome post. I was literally shouting "yesyesyesyesyes" in my head during the bit about how people with EDs are already aware of the dangers, etc. and so NEDA Week often makes us just get more triggered. I know I am.. Also, you're a truly beautiful writer. Thank you for writing and sharing this. Sending love and happy fuzzy thoughts your way!