For 20 years, I thought I knew what an eating disorder looked like.
It was what I had seen in the media: an underweight or overweight teenage girl scrutinizing herself in a mirror, turning to the side and placing her hands over her stomach. Her diet? Either a salad — with no dressing of course — or nothing at all.
What this told me was an eating disorder had a definite face — she was always girl, she was always insecure about her body image, she always ate nothing and her symptoms were always obvious.
If you didn’t have that face, you didn’t have an eating disorder.
But that’s not what an eating disorder looks like all of the time.
Sometimes it’s not so obvious.
Sometimes it’s someone like me.
I had already been silently struggling with depression and anxiety for almost a year when my mother noticed my weight loss. She saw my eating disorder symptoms before she knew I had one — and before I knew I had one.
“Your legs…” she said. “They look skinnier.”
At the time, I was a freshman at community college, struggling with feelings of loneliness after my transition from high school to college didn’t go as smoothly as I hoped. Friends I had known for years moved to out-of-state schools, sports I had played since childhood ended and my days were suddenly filled with only two things: school and my part-time retail job.
Though I still lived at home and had a boyfriend nearby, I often felt completely alone and isolated. My social media feed was full of my friends and classmates from high school smiling at their new schools, and I hated where I was.
Home just didn’t feel like home anymore.
It wasn’t long into freshman year when I started having suicidal thoughts and anxiety attacks.
How did I cope? Through self-harm and a restricted diet. I couldn’t control how I felt or how long these depressive episodes lasted, but I could control what I did myself, which included when and how much I ate.
To me, that was all I could do.
What I didn’t know was I was also living with an eating disorder. And since I still ate small meals and looked “normal,” no one else knew either.
A few months after my mother commented on my weight, I finally found the courage to tell my parents about my depression and anxiety, and started seeing a therapist during the beginning of sophomore year.
Although I only saw the therapist for a few sessions, my eating disorder behavior gradually lightened up, and I could eat full meals again without getting a stomach ache or feeling nauseous. I felt like I had conquered my eating disorder, as if recovery was a finish line; once I crossed that line, there was no chance I could go back to the “weak” person I thought I was.
But then came the start of junior year.
I had just transferred to a new college after graduating community college in May when I started to have feelings of loneliness and severe body insecurity, as I had gained back the weight I lost freshman year.
To others, I looked “normal” again, but what I saw in the mirror didn’t reflect what people saw.
I couldn’t go through the day without looking at my body in the mirror, squeezing my arms and sucking in my stomach multiple times a day. I often felt distracted from reality, thinking about when I’d eat next, calories and weight constantly.
I did what I could to ease the fear of gaining more weight. Though I ate more than I did freshman year, I still restricted my diet and often went throughout the day feeling hungry, refusing to snack in between meals as it made me feel disorganized, dirty and out of control.
Every time I did eat, all I could picture was my body blowing up like a balloon, which sometimes triggered a trip to the bathroom.
My second therapist, who I had started seeing the summer before junior year, reassured me an eating disorder was first and foremost a mental disorder. This meant everyone — no matter their gender, sexual orientation, size, skin color, religion — could have an eating disorder.
My therapist also told me an eating disorder, like many disorders, is a spectrum. The symptoms of an eating disorder vary for everyone, because mental disorders affect everyone differently. And just because I looked and behaved “normally” didn’t mean I wasn’t suffering, too.
I felt a wave of security, comfort and peace.
But I was still too scared to talk about it outside of therapy in fear that people wouldn’t understand, or they would shame me for it. I imagined their comments in my head:
“But I’ve seen you eat.”
“You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.”
I could also hear the toxic positivity that would come from admitting my eating disorder:
“But you’re not fat. You’re beautiful!”
“You have to love yourself!”
How would people understand my eating disorder lived between the blurred lines of body insecurity and a need for control? That telling me I was beautiful and not fat only deepened the societal standard that fat meant ugly to me? That saying I had to love myself when I didn’t only made me feel more ashamed and weak?
It was an unwanted spotlight I hid from until today.
But now I that understand an eating disorder, or any mental disorder, doesn’t have a definite face, it’s made talking about it easier. Eating disorders happen to everyone of all genders and body types, and everyone’s symptoms are different. Some people eat smaller portions, some people only eat at certain times, some people binge eat — each of these are valid eating disorder symptoms.
I’ve also come to realize that recovery is not a finish line, nor is it a line at all.
Recovery is a journey of ups and downs fueled by one thing — curiosity.
Even in the midst of my eating disorder recovery failure, I have had moments of sheer joy and love, and moments of severe insecurity and self-hatred — and this is what I want.
I don’t wish to live a life that’s all good all of the time. I want the highs, the lows and everything in between, because that’s what creates a rich life.
At the end of the day, I won’t remember what I looked like on a certain day, or how much I ate, or how much I weighed. I won’t remember the way my thighs jiggled when I walked on the beach in a bathing suit, or even how big my arms looked in that picture.
But I’ll remember how good that extra piece of cake tasted, how I felt, what I learned, the memories I made with my friends and family, and the lives I’ve impacted by sharing my story. That’s what matters.