The day that I found out I was being sent to a residential treatment program, I ordered two bracelets on Etsy.com from a seller named Fair Quarry: a red bracelet to symbolize my battle with anorexia and white one to symbolize my recovery.
I wrote the seller to ask if the bracelets could be mailed as soon as possible, as I would be leaving for treatment any day now. The question ended up prompting a string of emails between me and Fair, who revealed that she, too, had battled anorexia. Recovery is hard, she acknowledged, but the experience of going through treatment is a rare gift:
“The self-discovery was one of the best parts. I’d not had any sort of adult life without the disorder, so I had no idea what sort of things I was interested in, or what colors I liked, or hobbies or activities or anything really. So it was like rediscovering the lost little girl [in me] — sitting her down with crayons, or browsing through bookstores, or going out for a walk and seeing what sort of things she was curious about. It was scary sometimes, but also fun — there was just so much about me I didn’t know, and finding out was such a beautiful and unusual experience.”
As Fair said and as I later found out first-hand, self-discovery is key to reclaiming one’s life after an eating disorder. I developed my eating disorder at age 14, just when I was supposed to be refining my taste in music and giving heartbreak a test run — not honing a talent for rapid weight loss. Twelve years plus ten months of treatment later, I woke up from the fog of anorexia to realize that I had become an adult and still didn’t know even basic facts about myself.
An eating disorder is an insidious and powerful illness. As it progresses, the disorder takes on a life of its own — it has its own voice, its own set of rules, and its own goals and aspirations. Recovering from it is extraordinarily disorienting, and half the work is this grueling process of self-discovery, sifting out which thoughts are yours and which are the disorder’s.
The process is different for each person. For those who receive treatment in the early stages of an eating disorder, recovery is a matter of getting back to who they were before they got sick — self-recovery, if you will. But for those like Fair and me, whose illnesses spanned years, even decades, there is no getting “back” to who we were. We don’t remember the girl who existed before the eating disorder and we’d never met the woman she was supposed to have become. For us, healing can only be achieved through self-discovery.
Of course, self-discovery doesn’t happen overnight. There were long stretches in which I felt utterly adrift, with neither eating disorder nor sense of self to ground me. But rather than run back into the identity that I’d clung to for twelve years, I have tried to take Fair’s advice. I try to remain curious about myself, as if I’m a friend that I’m meeting for the first time. In the last few months, I’ve found out that I’m a pretty good listener, that I enjoy drawing, that I have a good sense of humor, that I really love learning about psychology, and that all traces of shyness and insecurity fade when I talk about the experience of recovering from an eating disorder. In short, I’m heeding the things that excite my spirit and I’m using them to build the person I want to be. It’s not an easy process, but it’s allowing me to be authentic for the first time in my life.
Worth it? Absolutely.
I’ll let Fair wrap this post up:
“It’s funny, but even though I did lose nearly a decade to this disorder, I don’t at all resent it. Yes, it kept me horribly isolated and damaged my health and stole most of my adolescence and university and young adult years, and being in it was miserable and terrifying, and I couldn’t imagine wishing anorexia on my worst enemy. Still, it gave me the opportunity to recover, and nothing else in the world can come close to touching the confidence and self-awareness and strength that came from that journey. The self that you discover through recovery is so much stronger and resilient and sensitive and wise than the selves of those who’ve never had to decide that they want to live.”
About Joanna Kay
Joanna Kay is a writer in New York City and is recovering from an eating disorder. She is the author of The Middle Ground, a blog that deals with issues that impact people midway through the recovery process. You can follow Joanna on Facebook and Twitter, and additionally you can check out her blog The Middle Ground. Follow her HMC posts on Twitter with #AfterAnorexia