Strength in Vulnerability
I am surrounded by the early morning Arizona sunshine as I sit at my kitchen table finishing a cup of coffee. I glance out my bay window and see the mountains in the distance. A realization suddenly hits me…it is time to share my recovery journey. This is a story I feel in my heart I must tell to help those who struggle with disordered eating and addiction. It is my wish that through my recovery story you will find hope, healing, and peace as you navigate your own path to recovery. I will embark where all journeys must start…at the beginning.
I am six years old, face pressed up against the car window. I watch the only home I ever know become smaller and smaller until it is not there at all. The feelings of sadness, fear, and anger hit me in waves. I do not understand all these feelings and my young body does not know what to do with it all. I keep quiet and try to process my feelings. I am sad because I am leaving my home, my best friend who lived next door and essentially my life behind. I am afraid of the unknown and this lack of control. I am angry because I did not have a choice. Intellectually, I understood my parents wanted a better neighborhood and school system for me and my sister. Emotionally, I did not understand what was happening to me. This was my first experience of feeling out of control. I quickly learned to suppress these feelings and “be a good girl.” Throughout elementary school, I was shy and teased for being tall, thin, and nerdy. I wore glasses and braces. I desperately wanted to fit in and be popular. My best friend discovered the secret to being popular and I was left behind. I remember thinking “What is wrong with me? Why am I not good enough?”
I am standing at my open bedroom window. It is eleven o’clock on a hot August night as I wave goodbye to my boyfriend and, to my young sixteen-year-old heart, the love of my life. I start sobbing because in my heart I know this is the last time I will be with him. The next day he is moving to college. Even though we did not officially break up, I know I am being left behind again. All the feelings I worked so hard to suppress as a young child surfaced once again. Sadness, fear, and anger are with me stronger than ever. I fell apart and sank into a long depression. That weekend I stayed in bed and could not stop crying. I went through the motions of my days, but nothing gave me joy. Looking back, I was clinically depressed and should have sought professional help. Instead, I threw myself into my studies, partying with my friends, working out and dieting. I was a healthy weight and did not need to diet, but the activity allowed me to burn off all the feelings and emotions I was struggling with. I started to feel better and was getting positive attention for the weight I was losing. Suddenly I was more popular, happier and outgoing. I felt good enough. I kept dieting and working out. I was under the illusion that, finally, I was in control. And I was addicted to it.
I am thirty-six years old, staring out the gym window as I complete my early morning workout in the gym on the aerobic machine. As I finish and step off, my right foot sends shooting pain up my leg. I remember thinking I just sprained it and tried to ignore the pain. Resting and not working out for even one day was not an option. The most important thing in my life was working out and being thin. If I had these two things, I was in control of my life. Yet deep down in my soul I knew something was very wrong, but I did not want to accept it. I was in denial of my eating disorder. Family, friends, co-workers, even strangers tried to help me. Instead, I pushed them all away and continued to eat less and work out more. I couldn’t see it but I was wasting away and slowly killing myself.
I am sitting on the doctor’s exam table, noticing the cars driving by outside the window. I try to process the diagnosis that changed my life. I have a stress fracture on my foot due to the excessive working out and lack of nutrition. My bones were brittle and weak. I have osteopenia. The doctor put me in a walking boot and I was told to not put any weight on my foot until I see him again in four weeks for another X-ray. I remember asking him if I could still work out in the boot. All I cared about was being thin and working out, despite just being told I am injuring myself by doing the very thing I could not stop. As I spiraled further and further toward hitting rock bottom, my relationships began to suffer. I isolated myself because I did not want help. I continued to eat very little and work out while wearing the boot. I soon developed a second stress fracture in my left foot and was put in a second walking boot. I was now wearing two boots, off work, and basically bedridden. I had finally hit rock bottom and was terrified. Everything I had worked hard for was gone in an instant. As I lay in bed profoundly depressed, staring out my window into the snowy wooded landscape, I remember thinking: “You have two options. Option number one: Continue on the road you’re on and eventually kill yourself. Option number two: Get help and live.” I chose to live. From that day forward I was in treatment on an outpatient basis, while still working full-time and attempting to save my career as an occupational therapist. I was seeing a counselor, a dietician, and a physician weekly at the start of my recovery.
I am sitting on my counselor’s couch, watching the light summer rain hitting the window beside me. It is my first counseling session and not sure what to expect. Mary began by asking “What brings you in?” I briefly paused, not knowing how to answer her. I did not believe I had an eating disorder. I answered with “I have a body image issue.” I was there to make my husband, family, and friends happy. I thought I would go to a few sessions and then that would be it. Little did I know this was the start to the hardest work I would ever do in my life. During our sessions, Mary was patient but firm. She did not fall for any of my excuses or, quite frankly, my bullshit. I distinctly remember how she used my competitiveness to aide in my recovery. I wore a Fitbit every day and believed I needed to achieve at least ten thousand steps daily. I was religious with this, until I could no longer do it due to the physical limitation of the walking boots. I expressed to her how my inability to get my ten thousand steps made me feel stressed and out of control. She responded by: “Challenge yourself to try to get the least number of steps you can get in a day.” The lowest step number I totaled was fifty-two in a day. Eventually I was able to take off the Fitbit. Mary taught me Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a process to balance mindfulness, acceptance, and change-oriented strategies. I was consistently saying to myself “what evidence is there that this is true?” I learned having feelings are natural and ok but are not necessarily the truth. I started making decisions and acting on facts rather than feelings. I began to learn to trust myself and my body. When I looked in the mirror and saw myself, I knew what I was seeing was distorted and not to be trusted.
Chelsey, my dietician, helped me to slowly start healing my physical body by the method of re-feeding. I was severely lacking in vitamins, minerals, amino acids as well as an electrolyte imbalance. I was profoundly underweight. She taught me the facts about food, including how my body breaks down the calories and absorbs the nutrients. She listened to my fears surrounding food, in particular gaining weight, and allowed me choices in my meal plan. I began to trust her and I slowly gained the much-needed weight over the course of a year. Lauren, my Life Coach, helped me heal emotionally through methods such as meditation, breath work, Reiki, and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). She taught me how to nourish, honor and celebrate my body. I began to discover who I truly was at my core and to love myself unconditionally. She taught me how to forgive others and, most importantly, myself. Slowly, we broke down the walls I had built around my heart and ultimately opened my soul. I reclaimed my power and my voice. I was no longer a slave to the eating disorder.
I was also under the treatment of many physicians during my recovery process, for I developed several physical conditions and diseases due to the eating disorder. I was diagnosed with osteopenia, multiple stress fractures in my feet, and no menstrual cycle. I miraculously did not develop heart problems, but was told that would have been the next system to start failing. My body was protecting my vital organs by shutting down the non-essential body systems, such as my musculoskeletal and reproductive systems. When my stress fractures healed and I started walking without the boots, I developed a bulging disc in my lower back and sciatica pain in my right leg shooting down into my foot. I lived with this for over a year until I could barely walk. The pain was unlike any pain I had ever experienced. It was relentless and constant; I believed I was being punished for my eating disorder. When the pain worsened, even after undergoing all possible treatment methods, it was finally discovered I had a severe right hip labral tear. I underwent surgery a little over a year ago and was in rehab for six months. The first four of those months I was on crutches, dependent on my husband and family. This, ultimately, forced me to surrender the control and to let go. I had finally broken free.
I am thirty-nine years old, officially three years out of recovery from my eating disorder. I have a beautiful home in Arizona now; a place that was just a dream not even a year ago. I was able to return to work as an occupational therapist, helping patients recover from injuries. I am still healing physically from the damage inflicted on my body from the eating disorder. I continue to suffer from chronic pain, but it has taught me to listen and be gentle to my body. I now have regular menstrual cycles and I am grateful for them every month. I have eating disorder thoughts and feelings daily, but no longer act on them. Instead, I have healthy tools and ways to cope with stress, emotions and life’s problems. Instead of running to the gym, restricting food and isolating myself, I journal, meditate, read scripture, or call a friend. I am very close to my family and speak with them often. My husband, Chris, is my rock and my soul mate. I truly know what love is now, for he never let me give up and loved me through it all. Early in my recovery journey, I discovered and nurtured my relationship with God. In my darkest hours and lowest points, I believe God was with me by giving me strength. He gave purpose to my life…to help others who are recovering from disordered eating.
During those years of recovery, as I repaired by body and soul, I became stronger, healthier and happier. I realized beauty and light can be found in even the darkest of places. The day of my hip surgery I made a promise to myself to never harm my body for the purpose of being thin. Instead, I honor and love my body and take care of it as it took care of me. As I write this today, I know I was saved not just by God, but by love. By the love of my husband, family, friends, and team of professionals. It is my wish that my story will give you hope, healing, and peace. I will end my story with perhaps the greatest lesson of all: There can be great strength found within us, even when we are most vulnerable. You too can break free.
How have you found strength in vulnerability? What would it mean to you to break free from your eating disorder?
-Written by Jessica G.