Three Things to Remember When You’re Ready to Give Up — How my Eating Disorder Teaches Me to Stay Strong

Earlier this summer, I went to a Coldplay concert with my sister. Opening for them was Alessia Cara, the gorgeous 20-year-old singer currently sweeping the billboard charts with her singles “Wild Things” and “Here.” And for all you Grey’s Anatomy fans out there, her song “River of Tears” was featured in the midseason finale (and it was perfect background music because oh my goodness I cried so much that episode).

She killed it — that girl has serious pipes. I typically don’t look forward to opening acts, but Alessia Cara was definitely an exception. One of her songs in particular stuck out to me. It was the kind of moment where you’re left thinking, “wait… she wrote that for me. That’s me. Am I the only one in the room right now?”

Before starting, she told the audience, “I wrote this song because I think it’s something we all struggle with. Something we all need to hear.” Hmm OK, this should be interesting I thought.

The song was “Scars to Your Beautiful,” her current single airing on the radio. If you’re not familiar with the song the message is on body image — this looming pressure the world places on us to be perfect. Flawless. Beautiful.

At one point in the song, the lyrics sang:

She has dreams to be an envy, so she’s starving

You know, ‘Cover-girls eat nothing’

She says, ‘Beauty is pain and there’s beauty in everything.’

‘What’s a little bit of hunger? I could go a little while longer’

She fades away

I couldn’t hold back the tears. That’s me. That’s exactly how I feel…

My fight against anorexia started in middle school. And it’s still an uphill battle for me at times because the thoughts, the feeling, the insecurities… they’re all still there. While this year has been a tremendous improvement for me — mentally, emotionally, physically — I still have a long way to go.

Last summer I had the opportunity to take 3 months off from my PhD training and intern in Washington, D.C. It was just one of those things I couldn’t say no to. In a matter of weeks, I had to pack up my things, find a place to live, and set up camp on Capitol Hill.

I fell in love with the city. I know for a fact that I’ll live there someday (gotta make the big bucks though, rent is certainly NOT cheap). I worked for an advocacy agency and learned all the ins-and-outs of science policy. I met with Congressman, sat in on House and Senate hearings. I got to walk the halls of Capitol Hill just like they do in The West Wing (still the best political show out there. Sorry, Veep fans).

Science Policy became my passion. But during that time period, I dropped 10 pounds. Naturally, I’m very petite to begin with (I’m 5’2”. Well… On a good day at least), so this drop in weight was not healthy. And given my history, the weight loss was alarming. And really noticeable.

I’ll be honest: I knew I lost weight. And I welcomed it. I liked feeling smaller because I felt that it made me beautiful. I accomplished something. “My pants are loose, that’s a good thing.” “My ribs stick out, that means zero body fat, right?” It’s so easy to slip back into old, unhealthy habits. I was trapped inside my own thoughts — thoughts that were not true.

I didn’t realize the damage I had done until I arrived back home. I remember everyone back in my research lab sort of did this “double take” when I walked in. My friends and classmates took that extra second to look at me before giving me a hug. It wasn’t until one of my closest friends was point-blank with me later that evening when we met for dinner when it all hit me: this is bad. He told me, “Naomi. You’re so tiny… it doesn’t look good. What’s going on? Talk to me, how can I help?”

He understood my struggle, but knew how to balance providing stern advice with a sense of loving, genuine concern so that I never felt attacked or belittled. I could let my guard down, and trust him. And I needed that. I still need that — those who will hold me accountable.

Since then, I made serious life changes and was determined to be honest about it this time. I’ve managed to gain those 10 pounds back and am much healthier, much happier walking into the lab now (yayyyyy neuroscience!).

But that just means I’m back to baseline. There’s still a mountain to climb because I still have quite a bit of weight to gain. From here on out, my mental and emotional strength will be put to the test. Every single day. And it’s so exhausting. It’s so easy to give up. Sometimes… I really want to. “What’s 100 calories less today.” “Nah, I don’t need to eat that extra snack. I’m fine.”

So when I heard Alessia Cara sing those words, it was like the refresh button was hit on the web browser that is my mind. It was an important reminder that I can’t give up. I want to be a mom with kids one day (all with loud, crazy laughs like me of course). I have to keep going. I will gain the rest of this weight.

And it also allowed me to remember something we all tend to forget as we go about our daily routine, and get lost in the hectic lifestyle of our time:

Everyone has a battle they’re up against. Everyone has something they’re working towards.

And when you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, that you’ve lost all motivation to move forward, remember these 3 things:

1. Cling to loved ones. Keep in touch.

I’m a pretty independent person. I like my alone time, I enjoy my routine. But too much of anything isn’t healthy, and that goes for all of us. Surrounding yourself with good people — the ones that that know your strengths and weaknesses, the people who make you laugh harder than anyone else — will always lift your spirits in times of doubt. Even when you feel like you just need to be alone… those friends will remind you again of your purpose, the goal that you have in mind.

My sister is without a doubt my best friend. She knows everything about me and is the one person on this Earth who will call me out when I’m acting like an idiot (which is often I can assure you). She saw me at my very worst, all 55 pounds of me. And yet, she has never held that against me. She doesn’t judge me for it. Instead, she’s honest with me and understands the hold this mental illness has over me.

So when I run into this plateau as has happened recently, that’s when I know I need a reality check — that’s when I need to call my sister. Or have dinner with a friend that gives it to me straight by saying, “you’re just too tiny, but how I can help you get better?”

Life gets busy, I completely understand that. Plans get pushed back, work sucks up all your free time, and you lose touch with people. I say this because I’m sitting here in my neurobiology lab waiting for DNA to thaw and I can’t remember the last time I had a fun “girls night.” Adulting sucks, I completely get it.

But when it comes to health — mental, emotional, and physical — you have to do whatever it takes to keep that top priority. Being with those you love most will bring you back to center, and keep you grounded.

Try not to realize this before it’s too late.

2. Understand your “triggers” and let go of negative messages

Everyone has different goals. One person may be trying to make it into business school, another person may be trying to publish a novel, or juggle three jobs as a single parent. Whatever the situation may be, there are things in life that can push us forward or push us back.

And what this year has especially taught me is learning to be self-aware of exactly what those “things” are — my triggers.

This day in age, we are bombarded left and right with all sorts of messages from the media. There’s no escaping it, really. So it can become really easy to buy into the negative ideas the world is trying to sell us from day to day.

The key is to filter out what will and will not help you. And stick to it.

For me, I’m trying so hard to overcome my negative self-image — this relentless burden I feel that I am ugly, overweight and not worthy of enjoying food. I will hear my stomach growling and my first thought is not, “jeez, I need food I’m starving.” Actually, it’s always, “I’m hungry but I don’t deserve to eat, I need to lose weight.” It’s so difficult to fight against these thoughts day in and day out.

So for me, it’s especially challenging to stay focused in gaining weight because we live in a world where diets, celebrity “bods,” and weight loss transformations are all the rage. And while it’s tempting to click the link or pay attention to the commercial, I know that’s not healthy for me and what I’m trying to accomplish. I need to actively fight against my instinct because I need to get healthy.

Hold yourself accountable. Be honest with yourself. If you genuinely want to achieve your goal, it’s important to recognize what encourages you and discourages you.

2. We all make mistakes. How you react is what matters.

A few weeks ago, someone asked me that if I had the chance to go back and somehow “prevent” my eating disorder from happening to me would I do it?

Part of me was screaming, “oh my goodness yes, without a doubt.” Because quite frankly, I don’t wish this mental anguish I battle every single day on anyone in the world. My insecurities, my fears… it’s a hurt that cuts so deep.

But after thinking on it a little longer, to my own surprise another part of me was saying no. My eating disorder does not (and will never) define me. However, it has shaped my outlook on life. It has forced me to evaluate who I am as a person in a way no other incident could have. And for that… I’m actually grateful.

I embrace life now. Because I was once knocking on death’s door.

I focus on the good and not the bad now. Because my whole world was once filled with hurt and pain.

I accept now — people, situations, and whatever comes my way. Because I once took everything for granted.

I trust God now. He certainly kept me around me for a reason, and I trust that His plan will always succeed.

I love now. Because judging and hating myself got me absolutely nowhere. Love is what sustains. Love holds no fear.

So no matter how hurt you are, however beaten down you may feel… it’s still your choice on how to react to it. You can choose to wallow and dwell in just how terrible life may seem. Or you can come out of it stronger than before.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying you’ll be okay in a week or two. What I am saying is that I’m so grateful that I chose to be strong and rise above my eating disorder. I may stumble and I may steer off track from time to time… But I promise I will never look back.

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