Before I drove home from my Tae Kwon Do class, I texted one of my best friends.
“I’m going to tell them tonight. I need to tell you so that I actually do it.”
I needed help and I knew it. I was having such a difficult time reaching out, just like many others. No one seemed to see the pain I was living with. No one realized that my switch to the same small lunch every day, the constant excuses not to go out to eat, and my inability to watch cooking shows meant that something was seriously wrong with me. I was in the midst of an eating disorder and no one seemed to be able to see a thing. All they saw was someone who had gotten skinnier, someone they “wished they had a body like”, someone who — on the outside — somehow seemed relatively fine and put together. However, I was slowly being eaten away on the inside, in both the physical and the emotional sense.
I got home that night, and told my parents that we needed to talk.
“I… I think I have an eating disorder, and I think I need help.”
They were shocked. Somehow, I had managed to keep it hidden from them. Because of this, they thought that I wasn’t “that bad”. They could help me gain the weight back I needed to. We could do it all ourselves, within our family. No one else really had to know.
However, as you, dear reader, might expect, that wasn’t the case. I was in too deep for just my parents to be my only support for my recovery. I love my parents dearly, and they were a huge part of my recovery, but neither of them are particularly great at talking about difficult emotions; they’d much rather pretend they didn’t exist. I needed a professional. The summer before my senior year of high school I started outpatient family-based therapy for anorexia. It did what it needed to do in that moment, but, for me, would not have been a sustainable option long-term. Despite that, as I went through the half-hour individual sessions that my bi-weekly appointments included, I learned to begin to reach out to others. And, somehow, I realized three major insights about myself:
1) I’m queer.
While I was at war with loving myself, I came to the realization that if I find a partner, I don’t care about their gender. If someone is willing to love me, and I love them too, it doesn’t matter if they are a man or a woman or nonbinary or any other gender identity. This realization has continued to be one of the most important self-discoveries I’ve had in my life. Who knows how much longer it would have taken me to realize if I hadn’t been pushed to be open to my feelings. This has now become such a huge core aspect of my identity that I am so proud of, and has led to amazing friendships and relationships I wouldn’t have imagined just a few short years ago.
2) Talking to others is important.
Until I got into therapy, I rarely talked about what I was feeling. I rarely felt what I was feeling. I was a tight little ball of concealed anxiety and depression who would cry herself to sleep every night, only to wake up the next morning and pretend like everything was fine. I felt the need to be strong for my friends, to be the motherly-type. For some reason, in my mind, that meant my emotional needs were a burden. On the flip side, I considered it my job to be there consistently for other’s emotional needs. Learning to reach out and talk to others about what I was feeling was all sorts of terrifying, but has since become something that I value in my relationships with others. Being the one to do all the emotional labor is exhausting, and wasn’t sustainable for me. I needed to find friends who I could vent to without judgement.
3) Advocating about mental health is what I want to do with my life.
Even though my first therapist and I didn’t vibe super well, our relationship and the work we did together planted a seed in my mind. The seed germinated when I started seeing a different therapist when I left for college, and then went away for a summer to do a service project. I was not taught about mental health growing up, I was never taught that “it’s okay to not be okay.” I never felt like I had a space in which I could express that. By coming to terms with what I was battling within myself, I realized that I want to be someone that others feel comfortable talking to. Doing so within a professional role will allow me the necessity of setting boundaries with others, helping me maintain my mental health as well. Working in a field related to mental health would also give me the ability and credibility to be someone others felt comfortable turning to.
This is not to say that everyone needs some trauma to be able to find themselves. This is not to say that you can’t have an extremely fulfilling life without going through a challenge like this. This is not to say that I would ever wish what I experienced on anyone. Every day is still a challenge for me not to fall back into habits that are still so seductively tempting.
However, for me, fighting through an eating disorder — and battling the anxiety and depression that it masked — revolutionized my life in so many ways. I’ve become a friend that people can talk to, but also someone who knows her boundaries. I’ve found power in loving myself for who I am. And I’ve realized what I think I’m meant to do with my life. In just a few weeks, I will be starting a Master’s program for social work, and I will be able to make my advocacy a profession. I will be able to use my experience to help guide me in service to others, while also learning how to better how to care for myself.
I know that my struggles aren’t over, that sometimes they get close to surfacing again, but I’m not in the same position that I once was.
And I’m better because of it.