I used to hate Valentine’s Day, but this year I think I might grow to love it. I used to tell myself that it was tacky and sentimental, a celebration of things – love, I guess – that I didn’t have time for. I didn’t need cards (I had books to read), I didn’t need soppy messages (I had journal articles to write), and I certainly didn’t need a candlelit dinner for two (I had an eating disorder).
For me, having an eating disorder was an intensely lonely experience. At the same time, it was the best relationship I’d ever had. It kept me company, soothed me, and helped me to feel safe. It gave me hope, structure, and purpose. It was there for me twenty-four hours a day.
Sounds like the perfect partner, right? I used to think so, but now I’m not so sure. It left me cold, tired, and feeling increasingly worthless. Nothing was ever quite enough: it demanded more and more (more weight loss, more exercise, more time spent making myself sick, more journal articles) in order to offer the same illusion of safety and belonging. It left me increasingly cut off from the very people that might provide me with these things for real.
Happily, things are changing. I’m learning to love myself. I love my slightly crazy (unnaturally) red hair. I love my ability to get interested in things. I love how I keep picking myself up and trying again. I love how my smile makes other people smile.
I love how I’m learning to feel loved, too; to feel safely held by the garland of little hearts that surround me. So, although my relationship with the eating disorder is coming to an end, this year I have the best bunch of flowers a girl could wish for: the buds of a dozen new friendships and the seeds of lots more.
Today it is 1 year, 1 month, and 22 days since I decided I didn’t want an eating disorder. Four hundred and eighteen days later, it feels like I have come a long way; but somehow it also feels like I am just beginning.
I wanted to share my story.
This story has many beginnings. It begins this time with fear and exhaustion. It begins with rapidly losing weight as a way of making myself feel in control, and of shoring up self-esteem that had been battered by the scuffles of the academic job market.
It begins with a stranger getting off a bus and offering me a hug that I felt unworthy of accepting.
It begins again. It begins with eating. It begins with not making myself sick afterwards. It begins with forcing down my fear and resisting the urge to go running at 2.00 am on a cold, wet March night.
And yet, I must begin again. At the age of 33, I am free to decide how I would like to live life without an eating disorder. But how do I begin, in the middle? I begin with the support of a dedicated group of friends, some amazingly supportive colleagues, and an incredibly compassionate therapist. I begin with the skills and talents that I bring with me to this point, with my creativity and intelligence, with my strange ability to see the connections between things, with my caring for others and with my sense of humour. I begin with a big pile of books. I begin with words and photographs, with the radio turned up loud, with getting outside and finding wild places, with walking on the beach and diving in at the deep end.
I begin with connecting with others.