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I Am the Master of My Fate

Things rarely go as planned for me. I’m in my third year of a two-year program at my college. I’m not even at the college I intended to go to. I’ve lost an astounding amount of friends in the past year, and Jon, my best friend from summer camp, lives an ocean away, and I haven’t seen him since high school, despite our haphazard efforts at arranging a reunion. Meanwhile, my body has ballooned instead of shrinking like I always wanted. I don’t grab a couple of drinks at Hamburger Mary’s with a couple of gal-pals like I always thought I would before I turned twenty-one.

These could all be construed as negatives, but it’s really just a matter of perception. Spending more time at Daytona State instead of a traditional college has given me more time to make sure my major is right for me. The main reason I am so far behind my peers in my education is because I was hospitalized almost every semester for mental health reasons. A community college like DSC gives me the flexibility to retake classes, withdraw late from courses I won’t be able to finish, and establish a rapport with my instructors so I can let them know what’s going on with me.

As for losing friends, well, I’ve drifted apart from the clubs I was once involved with at school, partly because of other commitments like work and synagogue (It seems like EVERY event is on a Friday night!), and partly because I’ve grown and changed a lot, and I just don’t vibe with some of the people who used to be my friends. It’s important for me to explore various types of friendships with a multitude of people so that I can determine what does and doesn’t work. Am I a little lonely at school? Yeah, sure. But this pushes me to get outside of my comfort zone, talk to the people in my classes, and it challenges me to be my authentic self, regardless of whether or not people like that.

Jon and I will always be best friends. He stood by me through anorexia hell, multiple rounds of treatment, and even the time I got unhealthily obsessed with a crush for a solid six months and drove him nuts asking questions  about the mystery of the male mind. We email each other all the time, just to share anecdotes about our lives and our plans for the future. Jon is one of those special friends who will always be in my life. He’ll be in my wedding, either as the groom or as my maid of honor. He’ll look so pretty in a dress!

My body? Forget weighing 98 pounds. I’d rather be able to keep up with my kindergarteners, walk across campus, and eat some freaking fries when I want to!

And as far as not going out for drinks with friends on the weekends? That’s my choice. I can decide to start drinking whenever I want to. I don’t know what would happen if I did, and that’s why I choose not to drink.

I went back to school towards the end of March, and I’m taking a very easy class called Managing Your Success. The intention of the class is to teach students how to thrive in college, how to manage time and money, etc. It’s really basic stuff, but sometimes it’s good to get back to basics. My professor recently included the quote, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” in one of his slides. Curious, I Googled the quote, and found the poem “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley.
invictusI realized I’d heard the poem before and scoffed at it, but my take on it was different this time. One of the key lessons I learned when I was in treatment at Magnolia Creek was that no one can “make” you feel anything; rather, your reactions are a choice.

I had trouble with this concept at first. I thought it was normal and natural to feel bad about being abused, for example. I thought that “bad” things happened to me, and I had a right to feel ashamed, dirty, depressed, and helpless. In short, I was being a victim. I wanted to feel that way. I thought my abuse “didn’t count” unless I tortured myself emotionally over it.

It’s not my job to decide if the things that happen to me are “good” or “bad.” I can perceive them however I want, but I am only human, thus I have a finite perception of the events and course of my life. Labeling things that happen to me is another example of the myriad ways I try to play God in my life. I’m pretty sure God has this whole “running the universe” thing covered. I don’t think He needs my help with that. I am probably not the literal “master of my fate.” I think that probably falls under God’s jurisdiction. However, I do believe that I have a choice when it comes to how I feel and what I do. No, it’s not my fault that I have anorexia. However, every time I engage in an eating disordered behavior, I’m making a conscious choice to act on that impulse, just as when I overcome a relapse or an ED thought, I’m taking charge of my own mind. If we are responsible for our successes in recovery, we are also responsible for our failures. I certainly don’t want to admit that it’s my fault when I weave an elaborate web of lies about why there are bloodstains on my sleeves and razors hidden in the bathroom. I don’t want to take responsibility when my breath smells like vomit after meals and I’m losing weight. However, I want all the credit when I pick up another milestone chip at AA, when I listen to my hunger cues and eat a snack even though it’s against anorexia’s rules, or when I end an unhealthy relationship.

After a traumatic event as recent as December, I resorted to purging to deal with my feelings of shame and depression. It was symbolic for me; kneeling in front of the toilet represented apologizing to God, the universe, or the person who hurt me for whatever I’d done to “deserve” what happened, while the act of vomiting represented “purging” the painful memories out of my mind. At first, I told myself I’d “just purge once.” Then it became purging once a day. Pretty soon, I was purging as often as I could and eating as little as possible in the meantime. I knew something was wrong when I found myself in the employee bathroom at work while I was supposed to be taking out the trash, heaving up whatever low-calorie morsels I’d had for dinner on my break. Mid-barf, I was being paged over the intercom because the front had gotten busy and my supervisor needed an extra cashier. I had no choice but to finish vomiting, clean myself up as quickly as I could, and drag my shaky, pale, embarrassed self to a register.

It’s not my fault that this is how my brain taught itself to deal with stress. It’s not my fault that I was the victim of a crime prior to this and it caused a great deal of stress in my life. However, it was my responsibility to be good to myself (and to fulfill a duty to my employer), to make healthy choices, and to my best to resist these self-destructive impulses. The ex-boyfriend who violated me was neither directly nor  indirectly responsible for what I did that night. Yes, his actions were inappropriate and wrong, but so were the ways I chose to react to them. He wasn’t “making” me purge. I was doing it to myself.

These days, I have faith in a God that has granted me an “unconquerable soul.” I will never say I am grateful for the abuse I went through. Many people, even a few therapists have told me that I should be grateful to be a victim of childhood sexual abuse, dating violence, and rape because it’s made me so much stronger, and I will be able to use these experiences to help other people going through the same thing. While I am grateful for the outcomes of the traumatic events I’ve experienced, I am not grateful for the road I had to take to get here. However, I am the captain of my soul, and I choose not to dwell on what brought me to this place. Rather, I will look forward and see what the future holds.

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The Island of Ana

At age fourteen, I was a mess of contradictions. I felt like no one cared about me despite the outpouring of love I received from my family and friends. I thought my parents hated me and sent me to treatment to torture me and make me fat, not because they were at a loss for how to help me and only wanted me to be happy and healthy. I thought my boyfriend only liked me for my body, which couldn’t possibly have been true because I was well on my way to emaciation, and he put more than enough thought into my wellbeing.

At the same time, I didn’t want anyone to care about me. I often confided in my journal and to my therapist that I wished people would simply give up on me and let me self-destruct. I wished my boyfriend wouldn’t beg me to eat. I wished my mom wouldn’t confiscate my razors. I wanted people to leave me alone and let me drown in self-loathing and unhealthy behaviors. I ignored the people who loved me, misinterpreting their concern as an attempt to control me, and I was repulsed by any act of care or kindness because  I felt like I wasn’t worth it.

These days, I have a little more perspective than I did when I was first diagnosed with anorexia and depression. Sometimes, I still wish people would just leave me alone and let me self-harm or starve myself. But I’ve also learned that I can’t have it both ways. If I want to have meaningful relationships in my life, I can’t immerse myself in my mental illnesses.

If I did everything alone, or went everywhere with only Ana, things would be different. I could have purged that night at Hamburger Mary’s. But my friends were there, and Oxana followed me into the bathroom. She didn’t do it because she was mad at me or trying to control me; she did it because she was concerned. My little freak-out really scared and upset Christin. She knew exactly what I was doing when I headed towards the bathroom, and she said she felt “defeated,” when she saw me leave. That’s not how I want the people I care about to feel. I don’t get to have it both ways. I can’t care about my friends and girlfriend and not expect them to care about me in return. If the roles were reversed, and Christin were the one with the eating disorder, I would want to do everything I could to help her on her journey to recovery. It only makes sense that my friends want the same for me.

Anorexia is loneliness. It is not strength or hard work. It is a potentially fatal disease that I have to fight. My ultimate anorexic fantasy was as follows: I live alone in my own apartment. I don’t have a refrigerator because I don’t ever buy anything to put in it. My cupboards are bare and empty. I have a coffeepot that I use frequently, and I feed my dog more often than I feed myself. The fantasy never involved any friends, a girlfriend, or even a roommate. Letting anyone get close to me meant that they might care, and having someone care about me meant someone coming between Ana and me. I couldn’t have that. I see now how miserable and lonely that fantasy is. I would much rather have a full life, complete with friends, family, and Christin.

Food is not just necessary. It is fun, pleasurable, and it can bring people together. Today, I have a nasty cold, and when I told Christin that I’m sick, she offered to make me some soup. She loves to cook, but I told her not to bother with all that because I didn’t feel like I was worth the trouble. I was self-conscious at the thought of my girlfriend seeing me in sweatpants and a t-shirt, and I had been too tired to even take a shower. I fell asleep, and the next thing I knew, she was at the door with a container of homemade soup. If I was still my fourteen-year-old self, I would have been terrified that someone cared about me that much, but today I was just happy to see my lovely, gourmet-cooking girlfriend. I ate the soup without a second thought, and it was delicious. Ana was nowhere in sight; she wasn’t whispering in my ear that I needed to purge as soon as Christin left, or  that I wasn’t allowed to eat dinner if I ate the soup. Sick people should have soup. It’s a fact of life. When someone I care about cooks for me, I want to be able to enjoy it wholeheartedly, and not obsess over calories and the like. That’s exactly what I did today. I can only hope it means Ana’s grip on me is loosening.

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Ana Is NOT Invited

Ana is getting more than a little clingy. Last weekend, I went to the fair with Christin and Kerry, our friend from GSA. I love fairs and carnivals. I brought my camera and got some shots I’m really proud of.

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Christin and me being silly while Kerry played with my camera. 

I rode a ride that went upside down, which was something I’d always been too scared to do in the past, and I got Christin a caramel apple even though she told me not to, and it put the biggest, most adorable smile on her face.

Still, I wasn’t as happy as I wanted to be. Eventually, we got hungry and decided to eat something. I was really, really hungry, but I didn’t want to eat. Let me rephrase that. I wanted to eat. I wanted to enjoy fried food on a stick, something I’ve always loved (I mean, who doesn’t?) and not think about calories when I could have been laughing at the powdered sugar all over Kerry and the water he spilled on his crotch when his friend leapt up from the table to buy fried butter on a stick. (No, I’m not making that up.)
But instead, even with Christin’s hoodie wrapped around me, Ana was whispering in my ear that it would be better if I didn’t eat anything, and if I did, I’d better slip away from my friends and purge. “You can just pretend that the rides made you sick,” she said. Ana isn’t exactly the brightest. She tells me lies, like that my friends will like me better if I don’t eat, that I’ll like myself more if I’m half my size.

Ana also showed up uninvited at the GSA movie night/pajama party at my house last Friday. There was pizza and a plethora of desserts, but she kept dragging me away from Christin to remind me that I “couldn’t” eat anything. “I’m having fun with my friends,” I told her. “Who cares if I eat a slice of pizza? That’s half the fun.” Still, she wouldn’t leave me alone.

I’m sick of Ana crashing my parties. On Friday, the GSA is going to Applebee’s to sing karaoke, and even though the event is four days away, I’m already worried about what I’m going to eat. Nevermind the fact that I’m learning a new song and I’m going to rock it at karaoke, the fact that a bunch of my good friends (including Christin) will be there, and the fact that Applebee’s has this amazing chocolate cake I love.  Ana has already tried to convince me that I can’t have the cake. At the fair and the pajama party, I let her win, but she’s actually given me an advantage this time. Since I started worrying so far in advance, I’ve had time to check out the Applebee’s menu and devise a plan of attack. I already know what I’m going to order, and it’s something I want, not what Ana wants me to eat. I WILL get that chocolate cake, and I’ll share it with my friends. Time in college and time spent with the GSA is about making memories and strengthening friendships, not isolating myself in eating disorder hell.

I’m posting this article to keep myself accountable. I’m making a promise to myself that I’m going to order the pasta dish and cake I want, not diet water and air, or whatever it is Ana will try to get me to eat. I have escaped Ana’s clutches in the past, and I will do it again and again and again.

 

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The Love Triangle

Ever since I read Life Without Ed, I’ve thought of my eating disorder as a relationship with a really unpleasant bitch named Ana. She’s terrible. She’s always putting me down, calling me fat, and trying to control me. She hates my friends, but tags along to every lunch outing to make sure I don’t actually have fun. Every time I say I’ve had enough and that we’re done, she cries and says she’ll change, that this time it will be different, that she loves me. And I fall for it every single time.

Meanwhile, I’m dating a wonderful girl named Christin. She makes me incredibly happy, and I love spending time with her. She accepts me for who I am and lifts me up. She thinks I’m beautiful the way I am, and I’m slowly learning to believe her. She supports me through the ups and downs that accompany my mental illnesses, and she wants me to be happy and healthy.

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Christin and me at the park yesterday.

If I had to choose between Ana and Christin, it would be a no-brainer. Do I want to be with the girl who thinks nothing I do is ever good enough, the girl who will never like me unless I change everything about myself? Or do I want to be with the girl who likes me just the way I am, who appreciates the things that make me who I am, who sees good things even in the parts of myself that I don’t like? The answer is obvious.

Still, for some reason, I end up clinging to Ana as if I can have meaningful, fulfilling relationships with her and Christin. The reality is that I cannot. Last night I went to the local drag venue/burger joint with Christin and some other friends. It was my idea to go, and I was looking forward to it until I started thinking about what I was going to eat while I was out. Ana wasn’t invited, but she heard that we were going out, got jealous, and I reluctantly agreed to let her come. She told me that she’d love me more if I didn’t eat dinner, that it would make me prettier and more desirable. I ended up ordering something really small, much to Ana’s dismay, and I ate about half of it.

Immediately after I ate, I fled to the bathroom in the middle of the show to contemplate

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Anastasia, my rescuer, pictured with one of “Mary’s men.”

purging. I ignored the fact that I was in one of my favorite places, surrounded by good friends; the fact that a place like Hamburger Mary’s celebrates acceptance and loving who you are, and Ana was screaming at me to do the exact opposite of  that.
Before I could do anything detrimental, one of my friends came to check on me, and I returned to our table.

It doesn’t make sense to cling to “people” like Ana. She’s cold, cruel, hateful, and mean. I don’t want people like her in my life. I’m breaking up with her once and for all. This is the end.

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In all honesty, I haven’t been prioritizing recovery lately. I’ve let anorexia creep back into my life, and it’s making me miserable. Today, I went out to lunch with my girlfriend and some friends from the GSA. I would have liked to have been able to spend the afternoon catching up with everyone and planning our next excursion to the local drag venue. Instead, I obsessed over calories, compared my plate to everyone else’s and hid in the bathroom debating whether or not to purge.

This is not the life I want to live. I am more than an eating disorder, more than a jeans size, more than a number on the scale. Things are going so well for me right now. I’ve made a ton of friends at school. I’ve assumed a leadership position in the GSA, and I’ve been running meetings recently while our president is otherwise engaged. I have a beautiful, lovely girlfriend who makes me incredibly happy. I’m teaching myself new skills in Photoshop so that I can do more with my photos. I have a new idea for a novel, and I’ve even been writing poetry again. So why have I slipped back into self-destructive behaviors?

Letting people get close to me is hard. When I was a freshman in high school and dating my first boyfriend, I didn’t know how to use my voice, so I used behaviors instead. I would self-harm on areas of my body I didn’t want him to touch. I would purge when I needed him to pay attention to me. I would talk about how much I hated myself to get him to tell me how great he thought I was. My relationship with him set the framework for all of my future romantic relationships, and I am trying to unlearn some of those old patterns. Back when I was fourteen, it was easier to put up a wall of mental illness and self-destructive behaviors and let people get close to that than to let someone get close to the real me.

But the real me is more than a list of labels and diagnoses. I’m more than an anorexic, more than a person with psychosis, more than a lesbian, more than a trauma statistic, more than one single word or idea. I am a daughter, a sister, a best friend, a girlfriend, a writer, a photographer, an artist, a GSA leader, a teller of bad puns, a clumsy dancer, a bow-tie-wearer, a good listener, a learner, a questioner, a Jew, a granddaughter. I am the person my friends can count on when they’re desperate. I am the “mom friend.” I am constantly learning and growing. Why would I ever want to slap a label as confining and static as “anorexic” on myself when I contain universes more than an eating disorder?

I’m not sure who the person under the layers of self-hate and self-destruction is, but I’m going to find her, care for her, and love her. She’s worth it.

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A Celebration of Sizes

I spend an inordinate amount of time at the mall. It’s about five minutes away from my college, so it’s easy to head to the food court between classes, get a bite to eat, and hit up my favorite stores before going back to my lectures. Plus, there’s not a whole lot do to do in my town, so when I’m looking for a way to kill a few hours with some friends, we make our way over to the mall.

In the countless hours I’ve spent looking at jewelry that will surely turn my skin green and drooling over band t-shirts at Hot Topic, I’ve noticed that there is a common language of body-bashing that girls especially seem to share. It starts innocuously– we’ll be looking at an item of clothing and debating whether or not we want to try it on. But more often than not, one of us will decide that it wouldn’t look right on us, not because the clothing is flawed, but because our bodies are. Then, the “fat talk” starts. I’ve watched my friends, whose good qualities like humor, intelligence, and honesty make them beautiful, pick apart every aspect of their bodies, from their hairlines to their calves. I’m guilty of this too. All too often have I stood in a fitting room and wished my stomach weren’t so big, that my thighs didn’t touch, and so on. But when I’m with another female friend, who has her own insecurities about her body, we can spend the entire shopping trip criticizing ourselves until we’re out of the notion to buy anything because we feel so ugly and unattractive.

I think it’s sad that girls bond over hating their bodies, but on Monday, I got a breath of fresh air. My friends in my college’s GSA are getting ready to go to a local university’s Pride Prom, a dance for LGBT+ students, and on Monday we went to the mall to look at formal wear. We’re a range of different sizes; some of us are more plus-sized, while some of us are rail-thin, and some of us are in between. We tried the most ridiculous, expensive dresses we could find, and then some that were more appropriate for the event.

Dress shopping has always been challenging for me because the sizes vary by brand and store. My anorexia likes absolutes. It likes to know that I am as small as I can be, that there is no room for “improvement.” But when I’m buying a dress, I might be four sizes bigger in one store than I am in another. It drives my anorexia up the wall. For this reason, I  typically avoid dress shopping at all costs, and I give up very easily. If I don’t fit into my desired size, the trip is a failure, and I feel like a failure. This time was different. I grabbed dresses off the rack in any size I thought might have even a chance of fitting, and I tried them on without even glancing at the tags. Sometimes, I had to get my friends to help me zip a dress, and even then, the zipper wouldn’t stay up. In the past, this would have sent me spiraling into  self-loathing, but this time, it was no big deal. I simply put the dress back and tried on another one.

But even more amazing than my personal victories was the fact that throughout the whole shopping trip, no one said a negative word about their bodies. There was no fat talk, no body-shaming, and no comparisons. We told each other that we looked beautiful. We looked for dresses that would match each other’s eyes, and we laughed when we looked silly in an ill-fitting dress. It was so refreshing to be around people who accept their bodies for all their uniquenesses. I’m realizing that I’m not so different from my confident friends that I can look in the mirror and actually like what I see. I used to believe I wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, or thin enough to “deserve” that privilege, but I know now that everyone deserves to love their body, regardless of their weight or size. It’s been a long road to self-acceptance, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.

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From left to right: Ellie, me, and Greta, the GSA president. Not pictured, Ty, the GSA treasurer, who is taking the photo. According to Ellie, “Boob sweat is the essence of being a woman.”

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Eating Disorder Awareness Week

It’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week, so I want to talk about the realities of what it’s like to have an eating disorder. There seems to be this misconception among many people–young women especially–that an eating disorder is a quick, easy way to drop a few pounds and look great by bikini season (which is about to start for my fellow Floridians and me). People seem to think that restrictive eating disorders like anorexia are about willpower and strength, and that binge/purge-type eating disorders like bulimia are gross.

The truth is, whether you have anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS, binge-eating disorder, or any other type of disordered eating, it is not glamorous, strong, or easy. When I was first diagnosed with anorexia, I believed that starvation brought be closer to God. I felt “pure” and “holy” when I was hungry. My journal was filled with senseless scribblings like, “Experience hunger as euphoria; experience hunger as nothingness; become nothing, become holy, become clean.”

But the more I starved, cut, and purged, the unhappier I became. I didn’t feel closer to God. In fact, going to synagogue with my family became an eating disorder nightmare. Choosing something to wear that I didn’t feel fat in could take hours, and after the service, the oneg (basically the Jewish equivalent of fellowship) was a minefield of ED thoughts. I couldn’t even enjoy the service because I was too busy doing frantic calculations of whether I “deserved” a slice of challah during Kiddush.

It’s easy to buy into the “fantasy of being thin,” the idea that once you hit that certain number on a scale, that certain dress size, or your “ultimate goal weight,” your life will be perfect. That cute person in your physics lecture will ask you out, your boss will give you a raise, and you’ll gain seven billion followers on Instagram because they’ll all worship your bikini body selfies. I’m being silly here, but once you put your faith in the fantasy of being thin, nothing else seems to matter. Your life is on hold while you put all your energy into losing weight so that you and your life will become perfect.

I tried to tell myself that my anorexia made me a better person, when, in fact, it turned me into a monster. I threw away the lunches my mom made for me every day. I ignored my boyfriend who begged me to eat. I screamed at my parents when they told me I couldn’t get up from the table until I’d finished my dinner. I believed my parents wanted me to be fat, when all they wanted was for me to stop torturing myself and be healthy and happy again. I thought everyone was against me and my quest to become holy through starvation.

When I was in treatment at the Creek, there was a woman named Sara there who’d had her eating disorder for a few decades. She was a devoted wife and mother with a great sense of humor, but at times, we couldn’t stand each other. One day, I made a (hilarious) remark to her that was a little too sarcastic for her taste, and we got into a screaming match that upset another patient who was very afraid of loud noises. The next day, that patient checked herself out of the Creek, and I blamed myself for it. When, Sara and I were talking about our argument, and she said I wasn’t at fault because, “Eating disorders are nasty. There’s nothing nice or tame about them.” I was still pretty peeved at her, and I desperately wanted her to be wrong, and–more importantly–I wanted to be right. I dredged through my brain for evidence to support my claim that eating disorders made us better people. I imagined myself sweetly baking cookies for all my friends and not touching a crumb. Not only was that untrue, but it was sad. Had I not been too terrified of food to bake a batch of cookies, I would have wanted to be able to enjoy them with my friends.

I’m happy to say that these days, I do bake cookies, and I have friends to share them with. Though I may  not have always liked Sara, she was right on that count. Eating disorders do not make you a better person. They do not make you holier, happier, or healthier. Anorexia brought me to my knees and could have killed me had I not chosen recovery. I am grateful for the amazing women I met at the Creek, including Sara, for my treatment team there, and for my family whose unfailing support helped me on the path to recovery. This Eating Disorder Awareness Week, take some time to educate yourselves on the realities of eating disorders. It’s not about strength or willpower. Eating disorders are a desperate grab for control when you have no sense of control in other aspects of your life. But the truth is, only by choosing recovery can you truly regain control of your life once and for all.