An eating disorder fuels a toxic relationship with self
As human beings and social creatures, relationships are an integral part of a healthy, happy life. For most of us, our first relationships are with our parents and siblings and gradually that circle expands to include friends, classmates, teachers, and so on. Some people have many relationships and others may have only a few. I’ve always thought that it’s the quality rather than the quantity that matters. To have even one true friend is a blessing.
Another relationship many people have is with an eating disorder. While it may sound strange to refer to an eating disorder as something with which to have a relationship, it’s oh so true. And powerful. I wasn’t diagnosed with anorexia nervosa until I was 64 years old and as a result, I unknowingly had an extra, somewhat secret relationship in my life for a very long time. I’ve given it a name—Edie—in order to create distance between us, because you see, I am not my eating disorder.
Edie crept into my life around the age of 11 and settled in for a very long visit. I assumed that all the negative thoughts I had about my body and myself were simply a part of growing up and thought everyone felt the same way.
Teen and fashion magazines reinforced the belief that women were supposed to look a certain way. Because I never lost an extreme amount of weight, nobody suspected I had an eating disorder, including me. I thought I was just “watching my weight” or “eating healthy.” I was praised for my willpower and self-control, even by my doctors. As an adult, I occasionally wondered if I had an eating disorder but, being determined to maintain the status quo, I never examined it further. I believed that to be happy, I needed to maintain strict control and follow the rules that Edie was more than willing to provide.
I didn’t know Edie was there; I thought she was me
Edie’s first order of business was to convince me that I wasn’t good enough the way I was. As a result, I latched onto what I thought was the easiest thing to “fix,” which was the way I looked. Edie told me that I had nothing else going for me and that nobody would like me if I didn’t look good enough.
I started wearing makeup at the age of 13 and wouldn’t go anywhere without it until after I began treatment for the eating disorder. It’s exhausting to always try to look and be “perfect,” whatever that is. Edie was always there, always critiquing everything I did and said. Always. Other relationships would come and go, but not Edie. The problem was, I didn’t know she was there; I thought she was me.
The constant distraction of Edie made my life very lonely at times. I had a loving family, had friends, got married and had children, but always felt that something was missing; I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I was ashamed to feel that way because I had a very good life. For years, I kept berating myself and told myself to “get over it.”
Until my diagnosis, I had no idea that the thing that was missing was ME. No matter who I was with or what I was doing, Edie was always whispering in my ear, telling me that I wasn’t thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough, good enough. I envied those I saw who didn’t seem to have the same worries and wondered how they did it. I often felt like an outsider, that I didn’t really belong. Thinking back to the journals I kept during those years, it breaks my heart to recall the cruel things I wrote about myself in order to maintain or lose more weight.
I couldn’t see my relationship with self was toxic
In terms of relationships, I couldn’t see that the relationship I had with myself was toxic. I never would have treated a friend or loved one the way I treated myself.
One way eating disorders create havoc and take control is to damage basic trust. First, you don’t trust your body or yourself at a very basic level. There’s always a question in your mind as to whether things are really as they seem. For example, at one point I didn’t trust that if I ordered a Diet Coke that the drink I was served was truly diet. The very thought of consuming a non-diet drink made me panic. That mistrust extended into other areas of my life. At the very least, it made for a very cautious person. I always felt on edge.
As I write this, I greatly regret not being diagnosed in childhood. Fortunately, there were times when I was able to keep the eating disorder at bay, like when I was raising my children. In fact, as a mother, I trusted myself completely. Now I know that it was because of how complete and pure that love was and still is. There was no room for Edie in those relationships. How much better our lives might have been if I hadn’t been controlled by Edie for all those years. Perhaps every relationship would have been better because I would have been completely myself, with no doubts about my worth.
All I can do now is to be grateful for my diagnosis and that I’ve learned as a result of it. It’s never too late to get rid of the shackles of an eating disorder. It’s not easy, but definitely worthwhile. All the relationships in your life will be richer for it, most of all, the relationship with yourself.