Have you heard of the It Gets Better Project?
It's a pretty cool project. While specifically designed for the acceptance of LGBT youth, much of their pledge and purpose can be translated to the eating disorder recovery world, whether it overlaps with the LGBT world or not.
In a nutshell, the project is dedicated to letting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth know that yes, in time, it will get better. It might be hard when you're young, but it will get better. Far from just saying that, though, the group works on actually making the changes that will make it better.
I wish, wish, wish, that there was a project like this for disordered eaters in recovery.
What if I promised you right now, whether you're anorexic or bulimic, a binge eater, drunkorexic, orthorexic, or EDNOS, that it can get better...that it will get better?
Would you believe me? I can answer based on my own past experience: it's complicated.
If you had told me that it would get better when I was in the worst phase of my bulimia, or when I was at my lowest weight with anorexia, I would have wanted to believe you. And maybe if we were talking heart to heart or if I was in a therapy session, I would believe you...but only for a few minutes.
Because not long after, I'd inevitably find myself back in my habits. And let me tell you, when I was mid-heave making myself throw up, or when I was feeling mean and miserable because I'd eaten less than 500 calories on a given day, I would lose that faith. I would not believe that things could ever get better. At those times, I simply felt like the disordered eating was my lot in life. It will not, it cannot, get better, but it's ok. I can handle this. I've done it for years.
What will it take for you to believe that your life is NOT ok with an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is never enjoyable, exactly, but it is tolerable enough of the time, like a heavy object you've just gotten used to carrying. But think about the burden you are carrying every day. I personally think about all the time I wasted obsessing about food, what I would eat, what I should eat, what I couldn't eat, when I could eat, what I needed to work off or throw up, and it's as if I was carrying a Santa-sized bag full of meaningless bricks.
I'm sorry I held on to it too long. I lament that I wasted so much time worrying about that stuff when I could have been doing meaningful or at least fun things. I think about every conversation that I was only halfway engaged in because part of me was mentally ticking down the minutes til my next meal. I think about all that I missed, and it makes me deeply sad.
Personally, I "tolerated" life with an eating disorder for over 15 years--far too long, if you ask me. And if I had continued to think and act in the same ways, maybe it never would have gotten better.
Andy Warhol said, "They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself."
So there's the thing. It gets better, but only if you put in the effort. If you continue with your disordered behavior, it is probably not going to disappear over time. It will morph, it will transform, you might go from having bulimia to anorexia or from anorexia to orthorexia, but you won't get better. Your eating disorder will not heal itself.
So it becomes important to have an attitude shift and decide not only that you want to get better, but that you are willing to put in the work.
That was important, did you get that? Basically, you have to really face this question before things can improve:
Do you want to get better?
It's a simple question, but for me, it wasn't that easy to answer. On the one hand, the answer was simple: duh, yes, of course. But on a deeper level, I wasn't ready to let go of my eating disorder, which, while shitty at all of the above things, had a huge role in my life. My eating disorder acted as boyfriend, best friend, boss, confidante, confessional priest, catcaller on the street, and more. Even though it was an abusive relationship on basically all counts, I was so used to it that I was scared of a world without it.
I wanted to be better, but for a long time, I wasn't ready to actually work at getting better. I wanted to be better but I didn't want to "get fat" (that is the phrase that ran through my mind at the time). I didn't want to have to deal with icky emotions or talking about myself or my feelings.
I don't think it was one single thing that changed my outlook--I think it was a culmination of several things. I suppose if there was one straw that broke the camel's back, it was getting divorced. Divorce was highly traumatic for me, but I suppose one positive thing to come from it was that it forced me to evaluate who I was, accept things I had done or not done enough of, and really just facing the idea that I wasn't living the life I wanted. I didn't even know what I wanted.
At one point, I even made a cheesy list of things that I wanted.
I wanted someone to love, I wanted to have a baby one day, I wanted to have a home, I wanted to live somewhere warm, I wanted to make real and meaningful work that made people happy. I wanted to do something I loved.
I don't think that there is anything crazy about this list. But every single thing on it would be impossible if I didn't stop holding myself back with my eating disorder.
So I was faced with a choice: did I want to stay in the "safety" of my eating disorder, or did I want to take the jump into the unknown, where my heart might get broken, where I might not have control, where I might (once again that refrain in my head) get fat?
Finally, I decided to take the jump into the unknown.
I took up therapy in a hardcore way. I had a personal therapist. For a time, I even had a second therapist, at the free clinic (where therapy students gave sessions). I went to an eating disorder support group. I joined eating disorder support groups online. I talked about my food phobias with anyone who would listen. I invested myself in sharing in therapy, and being honest. I cried a lot.
The food part came slower. For a long time--I would say about 2 years, which was hard--I felt like I lived in eating disorder purgatory. My old habits seemed to be so seductive--I would find my mind wandering to calorie counts, I would feel the temptation to lie to people so I could eat alone rather than sharing food with them, I found myself confused and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of TIME I had now that I wasn't allowing so much of my brain to be consumed by food. My brain became consumed with thoughts of who I was now that I wasn't consumed by thinking about food. It was a weird time.
Yes: it was hard easing into the real world. I felt I was sharp, weird, not like other people. I felt like my work suffered. I felt like I wasn't smiling enough. I wondered how people did it, stayed alive and thriving, in such a complicated world.
But then, little by little, it began to get better.
There were little breadcrumbs along the way. Like waking up and realizing that food wasn't the first thought on my mind one day. Or going to a restaurant and not evaluating the calorie content of every food and planning my day around it. Or actually talking to someone.
Realizing that with all of that extra time I had, I could do things like make friends and go do sidewalk chalk and have coffee dates and do yoga. And that these things were not merely filling time between meals. They were the meat and potatoes of real life, rather than the side dishes.
Truly, the thing that helped things get better for me was realizing that the world, for all of its confusion and complication, is a deeply beautiful place. And that if I decided to engage with the great wide world, I could become an engaged, real, and non-eating disordered person.
I won't say it's going to be a fast process--it certainly hasn't been for me. But I will say that if you decide to break away from disordered eating, there is a great wide world out there, full of small and large wonders, delight and true connection, just waiting for you.
Here's my updated variation on the "It Gets Better" pledge, adapted for disordered eaters.
I am more than my eating disorder. I deserve to be respected for who I am, and to be able to take up space in the world, and I respect this right for others, as well. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family and neighbors. I'll speak up against fat shaming, thin fetishizing, food commentary, and diet policing whenever I can. I'll provide hope for anorexic, bulimic, and disordered eaters of all sorts in recovery, letting them know that it gets better.