An Open Letter to My Younger Self
I write this letter because it is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (NEDA) and I couldn’t think of a better time to sit and reflect on the journey.
At the time of this letter, you are a 31-year-old Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) at a private practice in Texas. Becoming a therapist is certainly a far jump from your childhood desire to be an astronaut but you enjoy what you do and the people you serve. I know this letter doesn’t touch the years that the eating disorder embodied a venomous snake. Taking hold of all your joy, wrapping itself around hatred, and disgust all while surviving on the abuse you took out on yourself. No, this letter barely scratches the surface, but it’s a step towards healing and forgiveness.
When thinking about where the journey starts, I can’t help but float back to sixth grade. Do you remember sitting on the floor with a pair of scissors and a turkey baster? You sat there for hours and hours. You sat, crying while contemplating how to proceed in accomplishing the only goal in mind: To remove all fat.
There wasn’t a safe way to accomplish this goal, however, this moment paved the way that we would continue to view ourselves. Fat. I can’t help but sit in this moment and be filled with a feral urge to protect you. I wish I could go back, hug you and tell you that you’re just a child who is still developing, a child who plays sports, and most importantly, A CHILD.
This self-hatred would become the fuel to our narrative and our core belief and would take over the next 20 years of our life.
Throughout therapy we have tried to address the core belief that we are unlovable or unworthy unless we look a certain way. We have carried this core belief around like a backpack for years collecting experiences and spoken words. In this backpack we carry memories of being called a hippo while wearing a swimsuit, being harassed sexually for the way our body developed, having our stomach or love handles pinched by peers, being known as the bigger friend, and so on. We carry self-comparison, failure, rejection, and discomfort. We carry the idea that we shouldn’t take up space and we carry examples of times when our physical form mattered more than the emotional parts of ourselves.
I remember the moment when the weight and pain of the backpack became too much. You were in college having just undergone your second hip surgery. There was a frustration at the failure of one’s body and the anger of having college soccer taken away. In addition, there was disconnect between you and friends, anxiety of what the future would hold, and a dire need to have some control in a situation that felt like chaos.
Unfortunately, that control came in the form of an eating disorder, specifically anorexia nervosa.
I didn’t think discussing the eating disorder would bring up emotions, but I can feel my heart rate increasing and tears pricking at my eyes demanding to be felt. I think the emotion comes from understanding how much you hated yourself and the disgust that would consume you when looking in a mirror.
When you started to lose weight, you were met with compliments, admiration, and adoration. It was a shock to the system to receive praise for your body and physical appearance. This was foreign and addicting and led to a continuation of maladaptive behaviors. You ate less than 500 calories per day, exercised with the goal of burning 1,000 calories, ran an average of 4 miles daily and utilized laxatives for the times when you couldn’t avoid a meal with family or friends. You weighed yourself incessantly and became fixated on everything related to food. You measured progress in being a size 0, having a thigh gap and being able to wrap your index finger and thumb around your bicep.
I don’t think anyone knew the depression, anxiety, or fear that lurked beneath the surface.
But I do.
You were scared to live life being unlovable. You were hopeful to achieve a certain body image that would result in finding your worth. But it doesn’t work that way, does it?
We pushed the goal post back inch by inch until even our own body image goals were unattainable. No matter how low the number on the scale got the image in the mirror continuously displayed all the insecurities and areas of needed improvement. You slowly chipped and chipped away at yourself until you were described as ‘skin and bones.’ Your nails were brittle, your hair was thin, you lost your period, and the light in your eyes wasn’t there.
But I have never been prouder of you than the day you decided enough was enough. It was the first and only time that you purged. I won’t lie – I was petrified we were going to go down a deeper hole, but instead you found a voice.
I am so sorry for the way that I have treated us over the years.
I am so sorry for being at war with our body more often than I have ever been at peace.
I am so sorry for refusing opportunities out of shame for how we looked.
While the road to recovery is a long one, we can celebrate in the fact that this road is no longer paved with restriction and purging.
We eat food without labeling it as healthy or unhealthy.
We eat because our body deserves it.
We exercise out of enjoyment rather than punishment.
Of course, there are days when our eating disorder voice is especially critical, demanding and loud. It is extremely tough work to reframe the way the mind naturally wants to gravitate towards negative statements. We are still learning that love and worth don’t come from how much we weigh, what our body looks like, and how our body can perform.
When thinking of all the reasons why you are valuable it never comes back to whether you have abs and can do a pull-up. When thinking of the reasons why you are valuable, I think of your loyalty and the way you show up for others. I think of your kindness, humor, and the way you wear your heart on your sleeve. I think of your intentions with life and the desire you have to be the change.
Most importantly, I remind you that your body is the least interesting thing about you.
Eating disorders can be isolating and lonely. It is a battle that we often feel needs to be fought individually, however, I encourage you to seek out help. There are therapists, nutritionists as well as family or friends who will hold that space for you. You deserve to take up space and heal. You deserve to have someone walk alongside you and provide hope during periods when it feels hopeless. Let’s take this one day at a time, together.