What These Two Women Learned From Writing About Their Eating Disorders

·Contributing Writer
These women wrote about their eating disorder struggles.
These women wrote about their eating disorder struggles. (Photo: Getty Images)

Brenda Ray, 25, is a writer, singer and spoken word artist in Seattle, Washington. She also has an eating disorder.

Ray recently wrote about her eating disorder on her personal blog the first time she addressed the subject and her relationship to it.

“Here are a list of things you can eat that will fill up your stomach but not your conscience: Diet Coke, Lettuce, Trident gum, cigarettes,” Ray’s essay begins. “The last one does not fill up your stomach, it fills up your lungs but for all intents and purposes, it can remain on the list. The Diet Coke can give you a headache so be wary of that, but you can chew Trident all day.”

Ray tells Yahoo Beauty that she was motivated to finally put her experiences with her eating disorder into writing after noticing that she “had been really stressed” out in her life recently. Ray said that between graduate school and Trump’s presidency, her sister’s cancer diagnosis and her parents’ divorce, she found that the habits that defined her eating disorder — which began when she was about 11 — were “creeping back in. I kept joking to a friend that I was going back to my old, evil ways.”

But really, Ray says, what she felt was that she wasn’t in control.

“And if I can’t have control, I will run for an hour every day and watch what I eat,” she said. “I definitely wasn’t doing it consciously, but it’s interesting to me how it slowly started to slide in, bit by bit again.”

Despite this increasing awareness about changes in her behavior, though, Ray was still hesitant to write about her eating disorder, noting, “I’ve never written about my eating disorder before because it’s always been such a big part of my life that I’ve never thought of it as a disorder. I don’t think about it as not normal. It’s so integrated into my life that I don’t think it’s weird until someone points it out.”

The essay she wrote after finally reflecting on her behavior is intentionally “creepy,” she says, “because the thinking is off. I can see that on paper. It’s meant to scare readers a bit. I have the disorder under control for the most part — I have a support system, I have my family, I have counseling services available if I need them. But it was really interesting for me to poke around at myself, at something I never considered a ‘legitimate’ disorder,’ but that was on my mind. And I thought, ‘Well this is something on your mind — write about it.’”

Jennie Newman, 34, is in recovery from an eating disorder. She explains that when she first moved to L.A. after growing up in the South, she liked the freedom of being able to live her life “without everyone knowing” her past and labeling her “the sick girl.” Newman says that while she was attending support groups weekly and had a recovery tattoo, only a few friends knew about her eating disorder history, and she felt uncomfortable explaining the meaning behind her tattoo — “because I felt like it would give me that eating disorder identity I’d been trying to detach myself from.”

But on March 4 of this year — the anniversary of her recovery — she decided to do something different. She decided to share her recovery story on Facebook.

I wasn't going to post anything, but so many of my friends on here have been posting for #NEDA week, and since it ends…

Posted by Jennie Newman on Saturday, March 4, 2017

“I spent so many years without a voice — eating disorders steal your voice — and without being honest about what I was going through, that now I refuse to stay quiet and to hide or feel ashamed about my past,” she says. “I’m used to speaking to groups of people about what I went through — I’ve shared my story with many support groups across Los Angeles and have met with parents of adolescents struggling with anorexia — so the act of being very honest in my post wasn’t challenging. Probably the most challenging thing was the possibility of people judging me or labeling me again, but at this point, I honestly don’t care. I’m really trying to live life as my authentic self.”

Newman adds that writing her post was also a good reminder of all she has overcome on her road to recovery.

“It’s easy, especially living in Los Angeles, to think you aren’t doing or accomplishing enough, and occasionally I find myself comparing my life to other people’s,” she says, adding that writing about her eating disorder reminds her of how much she’ accomplished and how far she has come. “I got a later start in life, because I spent high school, college, and the years after fighting an eating disorder,” she says. “Recovery is almost like becoming a toddler again, because you have to learn to enter the world in an entirely different way and without the safety blanket of anorexia, bulimia, compulsive exercising, binge eating or whatever the disorder may be.”

Newman explains that the slew of positive reactions to her Facebook post were almost hard to hear — a fact that speaks to the dangerous sense of competition that is often emblematic of eating disorders.

“Reading that people found me powerful, brave and strong felt weird. I often don’t feel like any of those things,” she says. She also adds that often, she worries that she wasn’t “sick enough” for her story to count. “That’s literally the dialogue that goes through an anorexic’s head daily. It’s such a disordered thought, and the truth is that eating disorders don’t all look the same. So many people who need to be in treatment think they aren’t sick enough to seek treatment, so it becomes this giant competition, except the first place prize is you die,” Newman says.

Indeed, as Ray says, “I do know this cannot be a healthy thing, but when I hear other women discussing their diets and things they can’t eat, I feel powerful because I know I’m capable of not eating anything at all. I take pride in the fact that I could starve myself if I want to, even I know this is a bizarre way to think — that it’s not healthy. But I feel power in the self-discipline.”

“I think my disorder is kind of funny in that I have very high self-esteem,” Ray continues. “I’m very confident in who I am, and I really believe in myself fully. I believe in my writing and myself as an intelligent person, a loving person, a giving person. But my disorder takes up time in my mind, it takes up space in my mind just to execute it — running every day or not eating or eating healthy — but I don’t really internalize my disorder as a part of who I am. I know it’s a part of my brokenness, but there are other parts of my identity that are much bigger and feed me much more in who I am.”

She mentions that she recently performed the piece about her eating disorder for the first time on stage — and it resulted in a surprising reaction from the audience.

“I told the audience, ‘I’m going to perform this poem for you. It’s new. I’ve had this eating disorder since I was 11 and I’ve never written about it. OK, let’s go.’ I feel like I’m more comfortable with it, my brokenness, than the world is. The audience was so quiet. Dead quiet. And usually people are really engaged when I perform and it’s really empowering. But by speaking about my eating disorder — the word itself has such a stigma. I’m trying to take it, own it, claim it. Tell everyone to just calm down and let’s just talk about it.”

And Newman says that for her, “The healthier I get, the more of a voice I have and the clearer I get about the types of people I want to surround myself with. If someone isn’t supportive, they trigger you — and it’s not worth keeping them in your life. I’ve had a lot of friends talk to me about their diets and how they need to lose weight. I don’t believe in dieting … but let me make this clear: Talking to someone in recovery for an eating disorder about your diet or wanting to lose weight is inappropriate. I don’t understand it. Find someone else to talk to about that stuff. Recovery’s hard enough as it is.”

Ray says she is also disturbed by how she hears friends and family talk about food, albeit in a totally different way.

“Women always have to explain why they’re eating what they’re eating, and it sucks. Even jokes like, ‘Oh, haha — I’m just going for it! I’m eating this donut!’ — men don’t do that. They’re going to eat, and eat a lot, because they’re men. But women have to make themselves the butt of a joke to even eat a second piece of cake. It’s frustrating — just eat the cake, because it’s good. But as women, we always have to shame ourselves,” Ray says.

And Ray also sees that shame carry over in the reaction she’s received to her written piece. She notes that right after publishing her piece, she only received a handful of “likes” online, but her Google analytics showed that more than 500 people had read the piece.

“I get it — people don’t want to “like” a disorder or encourage a disorder. But the silence was interesting to me. I shared my story because I thought maybe some women experience the same things I do and don’t want people to know they do the same things I do. And it wasn’t this empowering piece — I didn’t end it by saying, ‘I’m better now and I’m strong.’ I ended it by saying, ‘I live with this every day and I wrestle with this every day and this is what I do every day,’” Ray says.

Newman also explains that when it comes to eating disorders, “there will most likely be relapses, but that’s okay — learn from those relapses, figure out what triggered it, and then jump right back on the bandwagon. I found the time between each relapse got longer and longer until it’s now been eight years. I could not keep food in my apartment for a long time. I don’t know how to fully socialize. I’d never lived truly on my own. Learning how to have and express feelings was hard too. I had to learn to regulate anger and sadness. It was almost like a child experiencing anger and sadness — it came in extreme bursts at first, but then I learned how to express emotions properly. With each passing year of recovery, I’d look back and realize I’d conquered more and more steps. I treated each year of recovery as a new year of life. If I was feeling bad about myself compared to a friend of mine, I’d stop and think, ‘Oh, I’m technically 3-years old right now — I am doing just fine.’ I developed my eating disorder when I was 13 and wasn’t caught until I was 17, then started treatment. But it wasn’t until my dad died at almost age 25 that I decided to recover.”

Newman concludes, “When someone first develops an eating disorder, there eventually becomes this point of no return. I’ve always visualized it as sort of a cliff. If you can catch a disorder before the person has gone over the cliff, the odds of a quicker recovery are higher, I think. Once a person goes over the cliff, it’s so much harder to climb back up.”

Read more from Yahoo Style + Beauty:

Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for nonstop inspiration delivered fresh to your feed, every day. For Twitter updates, follow @YahooStyle and @YahooBeauty.