The Art of Letting Go: Why Post–Eating Disorder, I Still Feel So "Other"
What does it really mean to let go? When we turned this question over to our editors and readers, their responses proved that grief, catharsis, and rebirth come in all forms—whether it's finally moving on from a failed relationship, rebuilding oneself after a painful trauma, or quietly saying goodbye to the person you once were. Our series Letting Go highlights these compelling and complicated stories.
If you follow along with us on Instagram, you've probably caught a few light and hopefully comedic glimpses into the Byrdie G-Chat: beauty-loving banter discussing our favorite products, hair eras, and the like. But what you don't see are some of the very real and very raw conversations that take place behind the scenes as well. In fact, it was one such conversation I had with senior editor Hallie Gould (and later wellness editor Victoria Hoff) that inspired this story in particular. And while I don't remember what prompted the conversation, I do remember the cathartic release I experienced from simply talking to others who'd also grappled with the sly unwieldiness of an eating disorder and the isolating stigmas and sensitivities that inevitably follow.
Though we may now be in different seasons of our lives, when our eating disorders typically sit backseat more often than shotgun, there are still shadows, assumptions, stigmas, less-than-ideal reactions, and scars to contend with on a daily basis—aftershocks still visible and vulnerable if and when we decide to show them. But here's the thing. Most of the time, we don't. Because sometimes, when you're still healing and the world can feel like a judgmental forcefield, it's easier to just not go there.
Because of this, Victoria, Hallie, and I can admit we've at times been more candid about our experiences in this space right here—with co-workers and readers—than with some of the people we've known far longer and more intimately. So to explore the topic of stigma and how the anticipation of someone's reaction has affected our ability to let go, I asked Hallie and Victoria if they'd be willing to share some words with me on the subject. Here's the result.
"I rarely ever talk about my eating disorder aloud. It's still something I struggle to be open about even several years after feeling somewhat 'recovered' (if that can ever truly be a thing), and I think a lot of that has to do with the innate stigma still associated with the disorder, even among well-intentioned people in my life. It also represents the darkest parts of my psyche—it was, after all, an all-consuming manifestation of my deepest insecurities and hurt—and now that I feel like I've worked through most of that, it's not something I like to revisit, let alone try to explain to other people.
"But that's also why I find catharsis in occasionally writing about my experience, and why I very intentionally offer only my story and perspective instead of any 'advice.' When I was in the thick of anorexia, one of the things I struggled with most was feeling completely alone and misunderstood. The vast majority of literature I read about the disease and recovery was extremely clinical, generic, and/or instructional, and I couldn't relate to any of it.
"It all seemed to abide by the antiquated and woefully incorrect notion that eating disorders are exclusively about food and/or body image; that there was in effect a one-size-fits-most 'cure.' In reality, eating disorders are usually a devastating symptom and coping mechanism for deeply personal anxieties and psychological injuries, and as such, recovery is a long, complicated, highly individualized road. There was a moment when this all suddenly felt incredibly obvious to me, but for a while, I thought the fact that these books and techniques weren't resonating with me was my problem, that I might be beyond help.
"I couldn't talk to my loved ones about it, either—they were experiencing their own kind of hurt on the periphery of my disorder and were terrified to say anything that might trigger me in any way. I was very aware of this, which only made me feel more alienated. It was a vicious cycle that, quite frankly, has only just begun to repair itself in the past couple of years. It was only after I began seeing a therapist that I finally began to feel the power to pull myself out of this and to shift my perspective forever, and I think that it's because she's this amazing sounding board who exists completely independently from the rest of my life. Because my eating disorder was triggered by a lot of the hurt I was feeling in certain relationships at the time, it was extremely difficult to recover without giving myself an opportunity to step outside that web and get an outsider's POV. In other words, I had to remove myself from my life in order to really take a look at the pieces, even if only for an hour each week.
"These days I'm feeling totally whole, and I mean it when I say I wouldn't change my experience for anything. It's the most difficult thing I've ever survived, and every day of contentment is a reminder that I managed to pull myself from the cusp of fading away completely, of my own resilience. My eating disorder does not define me, but the alienation that I felt in the thick of it has given way to the knowledge that I am different than others because I went through this, and that doing so has given me a unique kind of strength. That's why I feel a very special kind of sisterhood with other eating disorder survivors and why, in turn, I share my story through writing: If I can help one person who feels completely isolated in her pain feel seen and understood, then that's all I could ever hope for."
"My experience with anorexia is what I would describe as a crashing tour de force. And eight years after the onset, I'd be lying if I said I completely understand the disease's inner workings or am 100% at peace with the impact it's had on my health, my family, and the way I go about my daily life. What's ironic (or perhaps not so much considering it's a deadly mental disorder) is how its grip took all of two to three months to turn my world completely upside down—imagine a relatively peaceful snow globe that one day is picked up and violently shaken. The difference being a snow globe's glitter and snowflakes cleanly resettle after the initial seconds of chaos. And while I would say I'm for the most part 'recovered' both mentally and physically from the initial chaos of my eating disorder—the experience in its entirety and consistently fending off triggers and stigma—sometimes still takes me by surprise.
"During my last couple years of high school, when I was truly in the throes of my eating disorder and in and out of treatment (both in-patient and out), I was probably in the darkest, scariest, and loneliest chapter of my life. It was such an intense experience, and I think both my family and I felt we were in the midst of a fight-for-life battle. Everything else fell away. I ostracized my friends and kept my class and dance mates at arm's distance. Everything was bending. Deadlines, expectations and plans for my future, hours at my two jobs. All of a sudden there was nothing in front of me except for my eating disorder. Therapy sessions, family huddles, and doctors visits were almost always filled with tears and frustration, and for over a year, I willingly played the victim on two counts: for having anorexia to begin with and for feeling forced into a treatment program and recovery I wasn't ready for and, frankly, didn't want. Then one day something inexplicably changed.
"For months and months, I had seen patients who at just at 25 years old looked 80, who had heart attacks, who had irreparable tooth decay, who had severed and surrendered every last important relationship in their life to their eating disorder. And one day I decided that no matter how painful it might be to commit to saying yes to therapy and recovery (as Victoria mentions, it has so much more to do with food), images of those women (who were without a doubt a flash of the future if I continued my patterns) were far worse. By the end of high school, I was set on attending college like all of my other classmates, and much to my family and treatment teams' surprise, I actually succeeded. Flourished, perhaps.
"That being said, I felt so mentally drained from the past two years of my life that I couldn't bear for my eating disorder to have a presence in my 'new' life. Of course, it was still there, and with time I shared an abbreviated rehashing with a few of my very closest friends in college, but I never went into detail. It still felt ostracizing and taxing, and to be completely honest, I didn't feel mentally prepared for how their image or opinion of me might change. I knew they would still love me, but I didn't want them to all of a sudden observe with interest or worry how many slices of pizza I was or wasn't having or burden them with having to care about how they spoke about food around me. It was easier to just act like it wasn't a part of my identity anymore. I now recognize this as a form of denial, but it's how I've coped and carried on for the majority of my life post–eating disorder.
"I'd like to say I've become more of an open book when it comes to my eating disorder, but right now an elephant in the room feels a little easier than coming completely clean. I've still never told a significant other about the experience (though at times they may have had an inkling), and while many of my friends and co-workers know about my eating disorder because of details I've shared for stories, most have never heard a peep from me face to face on the subject. While I know most people try to be sensitive and unintentional in their impact, over the years I have seen one too many shifts in eye contact, painfully awkward pauses, and even one or two careless comments which have all contributed to my perpetual pause. I'm hoping I can slowly increase my candidness, but until then, I'm content to breathe my experience into my writing. It's a process that not only provides catharsis for me but hopefully for others as well."
"I've only recently begun to feel more open and forthcoming about my eating disorder. Talking about it used to feel humiliating—or worse, weak. I never wanted to believe I was 'damaged' or 'afflicted,' and I certainly didn't want anyone else to know it either. Over the years, I've experienced a genuine departure from the feelings of jealousy and control that so closely narrated my anorexia. It was an unbelievable release when I finally came to it. Every time I feel triggered or hear those sleuthing voices in my head, I find relief in responding, 'Who cares?' I wasn't able to disengage like that before. I have to accept I am never going to have a different body. I can diet or exercise or tone up, but this is always going to be me. If I can't get behind that, I'm setting myself up for a life of unhappiness. And I'm no longer willing to be miserable.
"When I was going through it, I was reclusive, despondent, and constantly cloaked in this seemingly inescapable sadness. I felt like all my intense insecurities were coming from a force outside of me—that I was just trying to keep up, hopelessly and without control. But no one looks at your body the way you do. When I remember my self-doubt is a delusion, it's easier to release my white-knuckle grip and keep living. Similarly, it makes it easier to talk about. I feel distance from my disorder, even when I know it still breathes inside me, which allows me to objectively classify my feelings and describe them out loud. I'm not hiding anymore, and I'm certainly not alone. And once I did start talking about it, the prevalence of this issue became even more apparent. While every single experience with restrictive eating is different, we share this comprehensive understanding of what it's like to live with a disorder that affects both our mental and physical well-being—one that has no cure, and is so casually dismissed as vanity or misunderstood in mainstream media.
"Now, it's a pretty common topic of conversation among my friends and co-workers. Perhaps less so with my family because of residual baggage that still lives below our consciousness from those years in the thick of it. I was an angsty teenager with deep-rooted body issues, and that's not an easy situation to navigate. My mother learned early on never to bring it up, and perhaps we've just continued to follow suit in the years since then. But, I will discuss (and write about) my former and current struggles as part of my own catharsis—forming the words so I can set them free. From time to time, though, I watch those words settle into someone's mind, and a shift happens. Either they understand me a little bit better, or, they begin to recalibrate their opinion of me right before my eyes. At this point, I don't mind either way. Without experience, what would we have to talk about? Who knows who I’d be if I didn’t have to pick myself up and keep moving with permission to be flawed. I'm better off having gone through something painful and I'm hoping at least one person will be better off after hearing about it."
Ed note: These are our own unique experiences and are not meant to counsel your own. If you or anyone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, it's important to seek medical advice from your physician or a recovery center near you. For additional information and support, the National Eating Disorder Association is another wonderful resource and also offers a helpline.