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The picture album in my mind is full of food. It leaves room for little else. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner—dissected and cataloged. It would seem all I ever do is eat. Or not eat.

My 15-year-old Birthday. I’m told there was a sleepover. A group of friends from school gossiping about boys and teachers. I see a picture my mom took; a friend is dressed up in a mermaid costume and everyone is laughing. I am noticeably absent. Perhaps I was staring down the sugar-free, fat free ice cream cake my mom had special-ordered from TCBY. Because that’s all I can remember from that day.

A family vacation to Disney World. I’m trying hard, I swear I am. My sister and I run, carefree through the park, laughing at inside jokes. We watch a parade as it rolls down the street. Fireworks light up the night sky, casting shadows across the ground. This is what I tell people when they ask me about my trip. But if I’m telling the truth, all I remember is the fight I had with my dad over whether I would eat another bite of chicken.

The first day of college, standing in front of the salad bar, I have a panic attack when I realize they don’t have fat free dressing. I don’t remember what my dorm mates looked like or the classes I took. But I remember that fucking dressing.

My wedding day. Everyone tells me to stop a moment and take it all in—you only get married once they say. I look through my wedding album, am amnesiac patient sifting through the ruins of her life. The hair, the nose, the awkward rolls of fat where I wish there were none. That girl in the pictures is clearly me. I flip through and see a picture of a towering cake, laced with delicate, pink fondant flowers. 400 calories a slice easily. And now I remember. While everyone else was dancing and drinking and being merry, I was worried about how much cake my husband had shoved in my mouth.

This is what my memory has become. Moments defined by my relationship to food. A life defined not by what I achieved, where I’ve been, or whom I loved. Only by what I ate.

If I could I’d erase all these images. Hope to make room for something else. But there in their too deep, and I am tired of fighting.

Can anyone relate? Please share your stories in the comments.

One year ago today I wrote a blog called 27 Reasons in celebration of my 27th Birthday. It listed 27 reasons how overcoming anorexia changed my life. Reason #26 on that list was: “I can become a mom (this is a big one and has not always been a reality).” One day after writing this I found out I was pregnant with my now 15 week old son, Oliver. So this year on my Birthday, in keeping with tradition, I give you reasons #28. I am the mom to a beautiful baby boy.

 

While motherhood has had it’s fair share of struggles, when I think of everything I’ve already overcome to have him, I wouldn’t trade in my sleepless nights and spit-up stained shirts for anything.

But oh how easy it is to lose perspective in the moment. When Oliver is red-faced and screaming in my ear and my relief is hours away from coming home from work I find myself wondering if I’m really capable of being a mom. Am I strong enough? Compassionate enough? Patient enough? Do I have the fortitude to see this through? When I start to have my doubts all I have to do is think back on my past struggles. Overcoming anorexia required all those attributes that I am now calling into question. If I possessed them then, if I could do the seemingly impossible, what makes now different.

Most of us are capable of more than we think and it just takes a little reflection to realize it. Isn’t that what past trials are all about anyway? Building up a memory bank of successes and of exceeded expectations. What if I started to view motherhood in that way? Undoubtably there will be a day in the not so distant future when I find myself facing another challenge. With my back against the wall and my reserves almost on empty I will question if I am enough. And then I will think back to these past 15 weeks. I will remember that I survived and came out a stronger woman, and I will smile and move on.

 

I spent the last hour trying to concoct the perfect opening to my blog on how exhausting perfectionism can be. Ironic, I know.  So before I’m forced to don my pajamas and take a nap on the couch after writing the grueling 42 words you see above, I’ve decided to settle for good enough, and thus you see the sentences before you.

There was a time not too long ago when writing this blog would have been agonizing. I could spend hours debating whether or not the selected words captured the exact sentiment I was trying to convey (impart? communicate? divulge? express?). Let’s just stick with convey. I would become extremely unhappy if, when finished, I still thought ‘I can do better than this.’ And as a perfectionist, ‘I can do better’ is a phrase that’s as clichéd as it gets. Over the years I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to be perfect and to do everything perfectly. It’s time that could have been spent actually improving myself. As a perfectionist, I believed that everything I did could be done better, and as much as I sought perfection, I never felt like I attained it. If only I could have seen how the more I sought perfection the farther from perfect I became.

Perfectionism also robbed me of my ability to easily adapt and change in novel situations. It’s odd that something so critical to our survival as a species, adaptation, is such a foreign concept to a perfectionist. It’s like somewhere along the way the evolutionary umbilical cord was cut and in its place a conglomeration of rigid rules and standards arose. Adaptation requires an acute connection with reality. It requires an honest assessment of the situation so that the necessary, survival focused change can occur. This is the perfectionist’s first problem. Perfectionism traps people in rigid black and white, good or bad thinking. It blinds them, turning facts into fiction and fiction into facts. People suffering from an eating disorder tend to fall victim to these illusions. For them, there is only one right, one perfect way to eat, to exercise, to look, and to behave. I must only eat xxx calories; I must only weigh xxx pounds; only then will I be perfect. When the goals set are found to be impossible, instead of embracing flexibility and moderation, the perfectionist barrels forward, often on a path to self-destruction, depression, and extreme self-loathing. Perfectionists fails to recognize the limitations within the environment. Instead they only see the limitations within themselves.

Perfectionism ultimately deprives people of the ability to learn and grow. Making mistakes is often the first step to learning. Trudging through the trial and error of decision making, embarking down the wrong path and being forced to blaze a new, and picking the wrong door to walk through or curtain to look behind (I’ve clearly watched too many game shows in the 80s), all of these are necessary steps to gaining new insights. But a perfectionist does not like to make mistakes. A perfectionist does not like to be wrong or to admit error. Instead of joining in the race and risking the potential of taking a wrong turn or, goodness forbid, finishing last, the perfectionist would rather sit on the sidelines observing. I have all too often adopted the attitude of ‘if I can’t be the best I might as well not even try.’ This ultimately translates to, ‘my whole identity is wrapped up in how well I perform and if I’m not the best, I don’t know who I am.’ Missing out on the opportunities for growth that go along with making mistakes is unfortunately a price many pay when identity is on the line.

Are there benefits to pursuing perfectionism? Of course. When a perfectionist finds a skill set at which he or she excels, the ‘nothing but the best’ mentality tends to produce superior results. Psychology research suggests that when people are extremely prepared, knowledgeable, or skilled at a task, high expectations, in this case perfection, sets the person up for a superior performance. However, on the flip side, expecting perfection in an area where one does not possess superior skills, as opposed to holding more moderate expectations, often leads to poorer performances and higher levels of anxiety. Since most of us aren’t true Renaissance men and women, are the benefits of expecting perfection in every area of our lives all the time really worth it?

Perfectionism is elusive and fleeting. In the face of continually changing standards and subjective ideals, one must admit that attaining perfection is not really the attainment of reaching an external maxim. It’s more about living up to the ridiculously high internal standards we set, some which have no basis in reality at all. Having recently come to the conclusion that my life is far from perfect, both personally and professionally, I’ve had to let go of the notion that only perfect things can be good. I’ve had to let go of the belief that there is a right way and that there is a wrong way. Because in the end, the only way I can do anything, perfect or not, is my way, and that will have to be good enough for me.

This is how I feel with every attempt (or lack of an attempt) I make at freelance writing.

I broke my foot exactly 1 month ago, and with it, all my dreams of losing too much weight, overdoing it at the gym, and once again reclaiming my eating disorder glory. Let me explain.

About 2 months ago, I stumbled upon the website sparkpeople.com. Much like diet and exercise trackers I’ve used in the past, it allows you to set a goal weight and a day at which you would like to achieve said goal weight and POOF…. it pumps out a daily calorie allowance and suggested exercise program.

The fact that I searched out this website to begin with says something about my general mental well-being. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with grieving the end, or death if you want to sound more poetic, of my anorexia. I’ve been struggling to fill the void it’s absence has created. At one point in my life eating disordered behaviors could be the answer to almost any question or problem. Feeling bored? Turn to ED. Feeling stressed? Turn to ED. Feeling overwhelmed? Turn to ED. Feeling angry? Turn to ED. You get the idea. Lately, I’ve had to admit to myself that anorexia is no longer my coping method of choice. I’ve had to admit that even if I wished to develop anorexia again, I don’t think I could. Just as much as I didn’t control its onset the first time around, I can’t magically will it into being now. And all that makes me sad.

I liked having an “easy” answer to all life’s problems. I don’t like having to deal with issues in a mature, adult way. I don’t like having to look for alternative coping mechanisms, or what most often happens, not cope at all. Over the past year I have fallen into quite a depressed state, and without my fixation on weight loss, or the sense of accomplishment I get from sticking to a diet, I’ve been hanging out at the bottom of this dark hole for quite some time.

Enter sparkpeople.com. I became hooked on its community based approach to weight loss and point system very quickly. I loved entering my food for the day and seeing the ticker land right between my designated calorie allowance. I loved watching the calories burned bar far surpass the calories consumed bar. I especially loved watching the slope of the line graph indicating weight steadily become steeper and steeper.

In about 1 month’s time I had lost 7 pounds. The depression was starting to lift, and I was feeling on top of the world. I was feeling like a somebody instead of a nobody. And then in a seemingly innocuous fall while playing tennis I broke the base of my 5th metatarsal (aka: a Jones fracture for all you medically minded people). The moment I heard the doctor say it was broken I knew my weight loss plans were over. The tides had been turned and I was bearing straight toward a sea of home alone binges, uncontrollable crying sessions and irrational, nearly suicidal thoughts.

It’s always been that way with me. The moment my plans are disrupted I can no longer stay on course. In effect, I do a complete 180. It’s my all or nothing mentality at its finest. And sitting on that cold, paper-lined hospital table I knew it all too well. I started to cry, not because my foot was broken, but because I knew that meant I was heading into a period of compulsive overeating, purging, and depression. And despite having complete awareness over what was happening, I had no control.

It’s been one month since that accident, my foot is still cast bound, and my follow-up appointment isn’t until September 6. I’ve completely abandoned my sparkpeople account, except for the rare occasion when I wake up committed to track for the day and make it through lunch. Those half days only make me feel bad when I look back over them…reminders of my failure. I’ve tried telling myself that this broken foot was a relapse intervention; it was some higher power’s way of telling me to cut it out. Or it could have been the universe’s way of showing me just how ill equipped I am at overcoming obstacles, how little drive and perseverance I have.

Despite the cast, I still make it to the gym 3-4 times a week, my weight is “only” up about 2 pounds, and I’m managing to eat a more balanced diet than I normally would were I in a typical binge and purge period. I’m hoping once the cast comes off and I get the go ahead to apply weight I can flip the switch again and get back into tracking and out of this funk. I know I should hope for a future that isn’t centered around any extreme eating and exercise behavior, but frankly, I have a hard time imagining what that would look like.

Because it is the thing that makes me most miserable that I also need to find any joy at all.

October 2011 Update: I am completely managing all eating disorder behaviors and have taken this incident as an opportunity to deal with some of the latent emotions I have surrounding the “death” of my eating disorder.

Back when my eating disorder was the dominant force in my life, I was ready to punch the next person that told me “fat is not a feeling.” I used to get into this debate with my therapist all the time. It went something like this.

Dana: I hate the way I look; none of my clothes fit anymore. I feel so fat.

Therapist: Your weight gain is right on target; no need to worry. And remember Dana, fat is not a feeling. Why don’t you tell me what you really feel: sad, frustrated, scared?

Dana: I feel like I want to punch you (is what I should have said). I don’t know (is more likely what I did say).

Therapist: Fat is a physical state; and you either are or are not fat. You need to ignore your own perception and trust me when I tell you that you are not fat.

Dana: Yes but fat is also a relative term. I feel fat now compared to what I once weighed. Therefore, relatively I feel fat.

Flash forward 10 years, and I weigh in at about 50 pounds heavier than when I previously felt “fat.” The interesting note: I have lots of days when instead of feeling “fat” I feel “normal” or “healthy.” So what’s changed? Most notably it is my perception of what is considered healthy in addition to the fact that I no longer need to use my body nor my weight as a tool for self-expression. I now recognize anorexia for what it is: a disease that distorts perceptions. I recognize extreme thinness as a symptom of the disorder. In the past, I didn’t even recognize my physical condition as a problem that needed correcting. I was healthy I thought, my life was under control and my body reflected that. If I were to gain weight, to give up the disorder, all the calm feelings would leave and my life would be in chaos.

Today I see my body less as a statement of how I am feeling and more as a source of strength, a vehicle to get me to where I am going, and only a small fraction of who I am as a person. With so many more things defining my life, I don’t rely on my body to determine my self-esteem or self-worth or to serve as a temporary fix. Today when I feel “fat” I know it’s because something else in my life is grating on my patience and my body becomes an easy target for expressing my dissatisfaction.

As much as I hate to say it, my therapist was probably right. By calling myself fat and focusing on my appearance I avoided the real issue, which often felt out of my control or too large to tackle. Losing 5 pounds, that I could handle. Resolving the anger and sadness that were building in my head, not quite as easy. Luckily I realize all this now and can act as stand in therapist when the girl I see in the mirror starts to tell me I feel fat. I now look at her and repeat: “fat isn’t a feeling Dana, why not try telling me how you really feel.”

If only… If only I was prettier. If only I was richer. If only I was more popular. If only I was skinnier. If only I had more friends. If only I was smarter. I catch myself saying this “if only” a lot to myself when things in my life aren’t going exactly how I had hoped. Life is throwing stressors at me left and right, but clearly everything would be better if only I possessed some elusive, magical quality. With a history marred by an eating disorder, that quality for me tends to be thinness. If only I were thin; all my problems would dissipate. Like when I drop 20 pounds I will instantly turn into some super-human that can handle anything with ease and grace.

I bestow the quality of thinness with a lot of power. I view it as a cure-all to any of life’s ailments. When I’m stressed and having trouble coping; when my vision becomes so myopic I can only see the current hardship, I fixate on this desire to achieve thinness. My world is spinning out of control but if I can just focus on losing weight, everything will be okay.

I’ve lately come to the realization that when I try to use thinness as an answer to my problems, I tend to make my problems even worse. Instead of focusing on finding real, achievable solutions to what is stressing me out, I focus on an alternate goal, thus pushing the real problem to the wayside where it develops past the point of an easy fix. It’s like waiting to fix a crack in a damn until the entire wall is ready to come falling down. Instead of patching the fissure, I sit right in front of the wall building a protective barrier out of straw, hoping that will hold off the deluge of water.

Anorexia is not a solution to a problem; it is a problem in and of itself. Yes, it may numb the pain of the outside world for a while. Yes, with its intense focus on a singular goal it may provide a great distraction. It may even make you feel so good, so in control initially that it feels like a real solution, but never be fooled; it is not. When the quest for thinness ends (or when your parents force you unwillingly into treatment), and you can no longer hide behind the straw wall you have built, all the problems that were once small and manageable will be towering above, waiting to strike.

Next time I start telling myself my life would be better IF ONLY I were thinner, I need to stop and remind myself that thinness is only thinness, neither a solution nor an easy fix. It’s a straw wall that is sure to come crashing down the moment the floodgates open. What I need to tell myself is this: My life will be better ONLY IF I actively choose to make it so, and I can only actively choose to make it so IF I let go of the notion that thinness will make the choice for me.

This is my third and final (for now) installment of old journal entries that highlight the struggle one faces on a daily basis when living with the remnants an eating disorder. This entry was written on October 10, 2003, and centers around me questioning why I hang on to the disorder.

Why am I so willing to give up my future dreams in order to sustain this disorder?  I can’t avoid or dismiss the fact that everyday I kindle the disorder I take one step further away from ever being a competent and successful adult; that much is obvious.  Everyday I remain subdued in a world of weight obsessed thoughts is another day I spend separated from the real world, a world that is tangible and outside myself. A world that is carrying on without me.  Perhaps what I see out there scares me so much I would rather remain imprisoned in my internal reality.  The world I live in is more predictable, more controllable, more stable, more comforting than reality.  Is that it…does the unpredictable real world frighten me?

Perhaps the disorder is too much a part of who I am anymore.  I don’t know who I am without it; it is my identity.  To give that up would be like a slow internal death with no hope of a definite rebirth to a new “better” me.  Loosing the disorder is like loosing my best friend…a friend whom I at times hate but one whom, never-the-less, never lets me down, never lies, never is deceitful or selfish.

Perhaps the disorder is my coping mechanism, without which I couldn’t deal with life.  I’ve spent so many years turning to the disorder when life gets hard.  I don’t think I know how to constructively deal with conflict or hardships.  The disorder is like Novocain, numbing my experience of the world: both good and bad.  There’s no fluctuation, no variance, just a flat line that resonates with neutrality.  Is it worth giving up the good just to avoid the bad?  I don’t know.

Perhaps the disorder gives me a power that I don’t feel I possess otherwise: a power over others, a power over myself, a power over life.  Perhaps I fear growing up.  The disorder leaves me fragile, child-like, needy… qualities a capable adult isn’t supposed to have.  Maybe I’ve seen everything adulthood entails and have decided that I want no part of it.

There are so many “perhaps”…. too many possible causes that I can’t begin to discern which it is.  All seem equally probably at times.   Do I really need to know the reasons to get out of the disorder?  Do I even want to get out?  Just more questions; there never are any answers.  My whole life just seems to be one big question; mainly, why am I alive at all?

Written March 7, 2005. I wanted to share just how far one can fall emotionally while trying to overcome and deal with an eating disorder. While the physical signs of the illness may be gone, the internal struggles can rage on for years, unseen by even those closest to you.

It feels as though I am living the worst possible day of my life over and over again. It feels like I am wading through thick murky water, and no matter how hard I try to pull myself from the abyss, I am sucked back in. Everything around me is moving in slow motion. I can’t stop crying; I can’t pretend to smile or force a laugh; I can’t find anything worth living for. I feel like a rotten person who lacks any semblance of a positive attribute.  I don’t like the person I am or the person I am becoming for that matter. I have dug myself into a hole that is so deep I can’t imagine a way out. I have no control over anything in my life. All I am capable of is hurting people. I’m a terrible friend, a terrible daughter, a terrible sister, and a terrible person.  I can’t imagine anyone wanting to know me; I don’t even want to know me.

I wish I could erase the past six years of my life and do everything over. Or maybe it would be better to erase the past twenty years and to have never been. I hate feeling like this, but in a way I feel like I deserve it. I shouldn’t be allowed to be happy because I have hurt and disappointed other people too many times. I wish I could make things right; I wish I could make everyone happy. Maybe that’s my problem… I want to make everyone happy when reality tells me that’s not possible.  Regardless, I feel like I should be able to do everything perfect all the time and I can’t.  Trying to do everything right makes me do everything wrong all the more.  I can never live up to other’s standards or to my own.

I don’t know what to do… all I want sometimes is to just disappear for awhile, to cease existing. Thinking about just disappearing somehow brings a sort of relief and peace to my racing mind. I don’t know how much longer I can go on with these thoughts of hatred and failure and disappointment in my head. The one person I can’t stand to be around the most is the only person I can never get away from. I don’t know what the point of life is anyway.  I know I sound ignorant and ungrateful saying this when I have so much and am so fortunate, but none of that seems to matter.  It’s just nothing makes me happy anymore.  I hate myself all the more for feeling like this because I don’t feel justified in being miserable.

This is what I am going to do. I will cry out every last tear tonight, feel as much misery as I can bear, and then wake up tomorrow with no tears left to shed. I will move on, forget about past failures, make peace with myself, and do nothing that will cause regrets. With whatever happens, I will take credit for my successes and brush off my failures. I will try to just let go. I can’t change what has already happened but I can move on and not make the same mistakes again. I will always be honest with myself and I will always try to love myself regardless of what opinions others may have of me. I don’t know if I really think this is possible but it’s a nice idea to entertain.

Okay…. I need to stop… this is a bunch of shit and I know it. It’s called flipping through one too many self help books. You can’t just move on and let go; nothing is that simple and trying to pretend it is will only get you more hurt and disappointed in the end. Maybe I just need to find a way to deal with the depression and live with it.  No, I take that back…I am sick of just dealing; I’ve been just dealing for far too many years now and “just dealing with it” does not deal with it at all.  I need help; I just wish someone could understand how I feel because I feel so alone.

The Fallout of an Eating Disorder

Since the initial purpose of this blog was to explore the twisted world of disordered eating, I thought I would start a series of posts focused on journal entries I wrote about the role the eating disorder played in my life. I like that this blog has evolved somewhat beyond the disorder, as it says a lot about where I am in my life, but I do think it’s important to remember just how far I’ve come.

“You are more than just a number.” “Your value is not defined by your weight.” I’ve heard that before, in fact, probably anyone with an eating disorder has. Unlike most people though, who might feel inspired by these clichés, my thoughts tend to turn to the darker side. I agree I am more than just a number, but what if the more that I am isn’t worthwhile, isn’t special, unique, important, impressive, or any positive attribute? What if the part of me that is not the number on the scale is pretty pathetic and uninteresting? Sometimes I feel like the only defining thing about me, the only thing that could be good and noteworthy is my weight. I often don’t like who I am as a person, or really believe that I will ever amount to anything in life. Losing weight, being anorexic, that is something I can achieve, that is something that will set me apart from others and give my life purpose and meaning. I know this sounds twisted, and even I don’t quite understand the thought process behind it. I do know that in times of crisis or stress it is to this dark and scary place that my mind wanders.

I’ve never found history lessons to be too interesting, so with that in mind I will keep mine brief.

The entire purpose of this blog is to share my experience dealing with an eating disorder turned disordered eating. At 15, 5’4″ and 82lbs. I was diagnosed with anorexia. I entered treatment, “recovered,” and since have been dealing with a myriad of eating disordered tendencies. I am now 25, 5’4″ and 138 lbs. My life revolves around my weight, food, and exercise, yet I don’t meet the clinical definition for any specific disorder (besides ednos, which stands for eating disorder not otherwise specified). I find that my mood is dictated by the number I read on the scale and the size of jeans I can fit into at the mall, it’s an 8 in case you were wondering. I’d like to let go of this preoccupation with food and weight once and for all, but my identity has become so enmeshed with it that I don’t know where the disordered eating ends and I begin. The goal of this blog is not to glamorize or sugar-coat my struggles, but to candidly share my everyday experiences while living with this “preoccupation.” The URL for the blog is “MoreThanMediocrity.wordpress.com” because, as the name suggests, I’m hoping to find some semblance of success or achievement in something, anything. For the last 10 years I’ve been settling with being just “okay” or “fine” or “good enough.” I’ve let my eating disorder turned disordered eating handicap me to the point where each day my whole goal is to just make it through the day so I can go back to bed. Well here today I am publicly stating that I am tired of just getting by. I want to be more than fine, more than just okay. I hope to use this blog as a platform to get a handle on my unhealthy obsession with weight, food, and exercise once and for all.

Inspiration for the day: “More Than Fine” -Switchfoot

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