Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, pp. 18-19
This interview relates the experience of a woman who speaks from a dual perspective. Having struggled with an eating disorder, she is now helping others with their struggle. Because of her position as a therapist, she wishes to remain anonymous, feeling that if her identity is revealed, it may take away from her clients focus on their own recovery. Now, in her 40s, she tells a story about a lifetime journey of self-discovery and finding her self-worth. “In no way, is this ever going to give justice to the complexity of the experience,” she states, emphasizing, “you can’t fit everything that contributes to eating disorders in one article. But people need to know that life is so freeing without anorexia.” And she begins to tell me her experiences.
‘I had three personality traits for being at risk. I was a perfectionist and had obsessive-compulsive traits — things always had to be a certain way for me. The third trait was that I always had this nagging self-doubt that I was never good enough. But having personalities doesn’t make you have an eating disor der. Your family environment always puts you at a higher risk.
I was neglected emotionally, because we were poverty-stricken and my parents were always working. To me, as a child, my parents not being there meant that I was not loved. My mother’s emotional and physical abuse also added to my sense of not being good enough. In my teen years, there were so many adjustments to get used to, and my mother was always commenting on my body in a negative way. I was always being compared to my sister who developed earlier. I was skinny, but even in the 70s, our society and the media were obsessed with thinness. Going through adolescence with all these challenges in play, I didn’t know how to deal with them. I was so limited in my knowledge about who I was and how to cope with abuse.
Being a perfectionist, I was dealing with trying to be perfect. As I tried to cope with the stresses of life, I had never heard of anorexia, but the only way I knew how to feel good about myself was if my body was perfect. At the time, I didn’t know that I based myself on shape. I had no sense of myself, and I used anorexia as a way of feeling like I was really good at something.
Different stresses made my disorder worse. When my first boyfriend broke up with me, I lost ten pounds in four days and I felt powerful and because I could control what I put in my mouth. I had no idea that losing weight and exercising were symptoms of a much larger problem.
I didn’t have much of a voice. I couldn’t share my thoughts and opinions because I wasn’t aware of what they were. I got into destructive relationships where people would say things that made me uncomfortable; because I grew up not knowing how to say, ‘That is not okay,’ I took the abuse. For me, I really had to discover my sense of self in order to recover. I had to find identity, worth, and things that were important to me.
My journey to recovery started with education in my chosen profession. It got me thinking about myself. Another key that contributed to learning about myself was finally experiencing a real loving, caring, and nurturing relationship with someone. I was able to trust him because he modeled accepting me for who I am. Being with someone who wouldn’t change me — or expect that I look a certain way, helped me to feel safe about exploring who I was.
The more in touch that I got with my opinions and values, the more I was able to share them. I learned to set boundaries around what people said to me and started respecting myself. Every time I said “It is not okay for you to say that to me,” I reclaimed myself. And as I got my voice back, I was able to experience others accepting me as well.”
Her life is a continuous journey of self-understanding but her story ends here. As we end our conversation, she tells me, “I was always being told to improve or change — nobody accepted me for who I am. But when I focused on discovering and accepting who I was, I began to recover.”