To say that I was a heartbeat away from death due to an eating disorder is both melodramatic and cliché. It’s also true. Last winter I entered the Anna Westin House, a residential eating disorder treatment facility in St. Paul, Minnesota, depleted yet determined to reclaim a life that I was barely living. My decision was reinforced by the Hennepin County court system, which granted a stay of commitment mandating my compliance with an official treatment plan. Now, six months later, the stay of commitment has expired, but I remain firmly committed to my recovery.
For years my eating disorder had been the best friend who controlled me, the lover who abused my body, the security blanket I hid under when I didn’t want to face my problems. I traded this habituated self-destruction for my care team at The Emily Program, a staunch support network, and the courage to be vulnerable and show my true self.
Instead of outsourcing my internal struggle to physical manifestation—my body pronouncing it indirectly in a distorted language of protruding bones, spindly limbs, and swollen glands—I began speaking up for myself. This meant rejecting the convenient self-loathing to self-love recovery narrative and laying bare the ugly truth of this ravaging disease.
Therapy provided the space to articulate my story—to dredge up buried emotions, unpack negative thoughts, peel back the layers of identity that my eating disorder had suppressed. In therapy, vulnerability was encouraged and failure was not only an option, but often the best one. After all, what better catalyst for meaningful change is there than the anxiety and uncertainty that exist outside of your comfort zone? And in failing outside of my comfort zone again and again, I have cultivated resiliency and resourcefulness that have motivated me to meet challenges with renewed alacrity.
I created a relapse prevention plan that outlined several anticipated challenges, which allowed me to focus on addressing potential struggles such as my compulsion to overexercise, and explore healthy alternatives. Other challenges have been unexpected and unpredictable, as when my first ever panic attack left me heaving and sobbing my way through a guided meditation.
Many parts of recovery have required only cursory effort, like selecting and sharing a recovery anthem. (Nothing takes a group therapy session from a two to a ten faster than playing Ice Cube’s “Check Yo Self.”) More difficult has been the continuous process of reassessing and redefining existing relationships, both with the people close to me and food.
The latter has meant learning to separate my taste preferences from my eating disorder’s rigid food rules. It’s my eating disorder that launches a mental resistance movement at the very thought of processed food, but it’s Robyn who insists that a Pop-Tart functions better as a Frisbee than as breakfast fare. This has also meant dismantling the good food/bad food dichotomy and dismissing the implication that I’m “naughty” for “indulging” in “sinfully” delicious chocolate mousse when I’m just eating dessert.
Compounding my recovery challenges is a culture that manufactures and sells an airbrushed, objectified, mass-marketed definition of ideal female beauty at a cost that is just out of our price range on a shelf that is just beyond our reach. We are always a peel and a cleanse and an injection and an implant away from being pretty enough, thin enough, young enough, sexy enough.
Given this environment that preys on our insecurities and thrives on our shame, chronic body dissatisfaction is disturbing, though hardly surprising. My own dissatisfaction was so entrenched that it wasn’t until this summer that I slipped into a swimsuit for the first time since childhood, ignoring the annual blitz of listicles offering tips for getting the perfect beach body and taking my own advice: Have a body.
As if viewing myself as inherently flawed wasn’t deflating enough, there’s also the guilt of perpetuating the beauty-industrial complex by buying into to the conviction that appearance dictates worthiness. But does buying this product or following that trend actually demonstrate that I’ve fallen prey to the message that I’m perpetually incomplete? I’d like to think that how I express myself through my appearance is a decision I make based on my own standards and style, whether I’m flaunting my untamed curls (after years of frying them with a flat iron) or applying a fresh coat of Ravish Me Red lipstick.
While I was looking at old photographs recently, I found a snapshot of myself as a little girl, fully nude except for a tangle of beads slung around her neck. Unconcerned with the camera, she looks down, studying her full belly. She is still too young to have considered the notion that she should shame, not celebrate her body.
If I could say one thing to that little girl in the photograph, I would tell her that she is enough, just as she is. I keep telling myself the same thing and I have finally come to believe it.