More than a diagnosis: how finding my identity helped me find recovery

As a little girl, I was a wine glass, round and full of
sweet red purple liquid. I didn’t know it was
rotten until you put my rim to your lips
and raised me into a champagne flute
but you thinned me out too much
and the liquid you lit inside
me was sparkly bitter
tears. I shattered.
now there’s a
stain on the
carpet and
you forgot:
even broken
glass
reflects
light.

Writing these words at 13, I knew that when readers would attempt to decipher the context behind this poem, their intellects would jump to situations like toxic relationships or cliché breakups or even alcoholism. The fact that these scenarios were absurdly far off from the headspace of poem’s original conception reassured me that this poem had done its job, and I closed off the word document in a frenzy of satisfaction.

Five years and 13 hospitalizations later, I open that same word document and feel my eyes moisten as I long to envelope the little girl who wrote this poem in a cocoon of love and validation. She had no idea. She had no idea that the liquid inside her, the liquid of a life-threatening eating disorder, was not only bubbling, but was boiling and slowly incinerating her insides. She had no idea that soon her insides would burn and she would become a shell of a person who she could no longer recognize. She had no idea that because of the curvy shape of the glass she was in, society wouldn’t take her seriously. Not even when she shattered. But she also had no idea that the light she would reflect would be so strong that it would melt the glass and allow it to mold itself back together into a thicker, stronger, more resilient glass.

A few months after writing that poem, I was officially diagnosed with an eating disorder. Being the unabashed nerd that I am, I have read extensively about research detailing findings about the causation behind eating disorders. While eating disorders are strongly rooted in genetics and neurological preconditions, they can often be attributed to environmental triggers. There is no doubt that growing up as a the only plus-sized Latina in a community that festers with the pests of Eurocentric beauty standards and fat phobia was one of these triggers, as was training as a competitive rhythmic gymnast and facing athletic abuse that often centered around my “deviant” body type.

My illness became the entirety of my identity

I believed that my new shiny diagnosis would slap a hypothetical name tag on my polyester t-shirt that read: “Hi I’m: Anorexic” and that I would finally have a clear-cut place in society. I would no longer have to hate myself for being different from the rest of my community because I could channel all the energy spent hating myself into something productive: starving. Soon, my illness became the entirety of my identity, and I wore each new hospitalization as a badge of pride on my pristine child-sized Anorexia Army Cadette uniform. I thought I had finally found my place in line, saluting to the impending misery that loomed over me.

Once again, I had no idea. I had no idea that the eating disorder treatment system in the United States seemed to be influenced by the same beauty and health standards that are linked to contributing to eating disorders themselves. I bounced back and forth between medical hospitalizations and stays at inpatient psychiatric care facilities. Now, I have enough trauma therapy in my back pocket to call some of these centers out for what they are: negligent and often abusive towards people who do not fall within lower end of the Body Mass Index (BMI). Upon extensive reading of research into this area (see below), I am of the opinion that the BMI itself was influenced by the Eugenicist and Social Darwinist movement and has been used to discriminate against minorities, particularly women of color. I believe that the BMI should not be used in medicine at all, let alone eating disorder treatment. I had no idea that as a naturally curvy woman of color, the health system would discriminate against me, and that once again, I would feel like I had no place in this world.

Writing, especially my poems, inspired me to create a place and purpose for myself

So, after fully recovering at 17 years old in 2019, I looked back on my 13-year-old self’s writing, especially my poems, and decided to create a place and purpose for myself. The outpouring of love that swirled around in my soul produced so much warmth that my broken self began to melt back together. I began speaking out about my experiences and advocating for equitable mental health treatment through creative writing. Seeing my words printed on a page in loopy monospaced font for the entire world to read sparked more pride within me than I had previously thought possible, dare I say more pride than I ever had in my illness in the thick of my brain-washed belief that my eating disorder was all that I had going for me. I expanded my advocacy efforts beyond mental health awareness and into other areas I grew passionate about, thus growing the little space in society I created for myself.

Having worked as a teacher for undocumented and unaccompanied Latinx child immigrants since the age of 12, I began to connect to my students not only in the classroom, but by advocating for them through my newfound interest in immigration policy and minority racial equity. In 2021, I founded an organization focused on providing young Latinx leaders with role models and with the space to have discussions about topics like mental health and beauty standards. Through the connections this organization established, I was able to secure more than 500 inquiries about fostering the unaccompanied minors I worked with.

To this day, I refuse to attribute my unlikely survival to the troupe of “miraculous recovery”. I recovered because I learned that rather than change myself to fit the needs of society, I had to change society to fit my needs.

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5617791/

https://dcjournal.ca/doi/pdf/10.3148/cjdpr-2018-023?download=true

 

About Sophie Szew

About Sophie

Sophie Szew is a Jewtina and mental health warrior from Los Angeles who is passionate about advocacy and social justice on all fronts. Since recovering from an eating disorder in 2019, her writing (both poetry and personal narratives) has been published in a number of outlets, including FEAST, the Dillydoun Review, Channel Kindness, and Jewtina y Co, among others. This year, she founded the Youth Latinx Leadership Conference, (https://www.youthlatinxleadership.org/) a student run organization that connects Latinx student leaders to the resources to succeed as future change-makers. She also spends her time teaching undocumented and unaccompanied children and bringing awareness to issues that affect BIPOC communities though her work with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and her congressional internship!

You can find her on Instagram at @sophie_szew

or on LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/sophie-szew-87aa5420a

All articles by Sophie Szew

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