Trigger warning: This blog discusses personal experiences of anorexia.
I am an author and mental health advocate who has lived with an eating disorder for the past decade of my life. This is my story of how, in the process of recovering from my illness, I’ve been able to embrace my authentic self and reject the so-called “norm” I had spent years of my life desperately trying to fit into.
Fitting in has never come easily to me. Even as a child, long before I spiraled into the clutches of an eating disorder, I struggled to connect with other kids my age. I was wildly creative and very independent, and I had a way of thinking about things that made those around me scratch their heads. Factor in some underlying anxiety and impulsivity, and suffice to say, I was not one of the “popular kids.” I had a couple of friends, but for the most part, I drifted through my childhood on my own. That was A-okay with me; if anything, it was how I preferred it.
Enter middle school. Burdened by a myriad of body insecurities and an ever-growing pressure to perform academically, I quickly became caught up in the competitiveness that pervaded the halls of my school. I had to get the best grades, take the most challenging classes, score the most goals in soccer, lead the brass section in band, and so on. I also felt an immense obligation to fit in and be liked. Struggling to balance academics with my complicated social life, I felt myself spiraling out of control.
I was trying so hard to be someone I wasn’t, to hide my authentic self behind a façade of what I thought I was supposed to be, that I was making myself miserable.
I needed a way to cope with the stress and found that in restricting food.
What began as an innocent diet quickly developed into anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder categorized by a persistent, paralyzing fear of food that ended up costing me a lot more than I had bargained for. In the span of a few months, my grades slipped, I pushed away all my friends, I lost interest in the trumpet, I quit soccer, and I was eventually taken out of school when my anxiety reached a new — and dangerous — level.
Alone and afraid, I sunk deeper into my mental illness. The personality I had fabricated to fit in faded, and I became defined by my disorder instead. Anorexia was my identity, and back then, at a time when I was so insecure and unsure of who I was, I clung to that false sense of certainty as if my life depended on it.
My closeness to my disorder inevitably made moving on from it very difficult. After two years of going in and out of hospitals, constantly at war with everything and everyone, I finally grew fed up with this hellacious cycle I had fallen into. Couple that with an eye-opening stay on an inpatient eating disorder ward that treated adults as well as teens, and I decided I didn’t want to be imprisoned to my illness for the rest of my life. For the first time since I got sick, I genuinely wanted to get better.
In the long and tenuous process of getting better, I had to reject my eating disorder as my identity and essentially discover who I was, if not an anorexic. I also had to find non-traditional ways to accomplish my short- and long-term goals, as my circumstances made it virtually impossible to succeed on the path followed by most. For example, I was never able to return to school full-time, and as a result, I had to take a fifth year. I didn’t even attempt the eight class course loads many of my peers took on; although taking such a rigorous schedule would have allowed me to graduate on time, it could very well have come at the cost of my mental health.
Having gone through what I did, I was committed to putting my mental health first, no matter what, as I knew when my mental health was lacking, that jeopardized every other aspect of my life. While my diligent prioritization of my mental wellbeing was often met with skepticism by teens and adults alike, it has been well worth it, as it has kept me solid in recovery and ultimately helped me get to a better place in my life.
Returning to school after a nearly two-year absence, especially as someone who is inherently very introverted, made socializing even harder than it had been in my youth. Additionally, the more I was learning about my identity, and the more space I was allowing myself to come into that identity, the more I was realizing how different I was from most — and not only because of my experiences with mental illness. I was also realizing how very undesirable that “traditional” path was, and I was questioning the expectations society has for young people — expectations I had once held myself to. Why were college and a high-paying, nine-to-five job seen as the end-all-be-all? Surely, there was more to life than that; after all, if you weren’t healthy or happy, what was the point of going to a top school, making lots of money, and adhering to society’s very rigid idea of success?
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that I would turn to some type of self-destructive behavior when forced to conform to the norm. I’m not “normal,” I have never been normal, and the pressure, the expectation, to be quite literally drove me insane. But my struggles with mental illness, as deeply traumatic as they were, were ultimately a blessing in disguise, in that they instilled in me the importance of being myself and showed me the beauty in difference. Like everything else in my life, arriving at this powerful revelation has been a journey that has taken years. It wasn’t until a few months ago, just shy of my twenty-second birthday and nearly a decade after spiraling into mental unwellness, that I was able to completely reject the need to conform and wholeheartedly embrace the very unique individual that I am.
Throughout my mental health battles, writing had been the one thing I consistently found solace in, and when I was seventeen, I wrote and published a novel based on my personal experiences called Changing Ways. In the years that followed, I published two more books centered around the same protagonist to create a trilogy.
I’ve known writing is my passion since I was fourteen; recently, I decided writing is going to be my career too and have owned that decision, despite various family and friends — with good intent, I’m sure — telling me how difficult and lonely an artistic career path is bound to be. But I’ve already proven by surviving an eating disorder that I can handle difficulty, and anyway, I’m an independent introvert; I don’t mind being on my own!
But my career of choice is really only the tipping point of all that differentiates me from the vast majority of those around me. My lifestyle, as well, as a vegan eco-minimalist, who would rather spend time in nature than on my phone, who doesn’t drink or smoke, and who has never been in a romantic relationship and isn’t yet sure whether that is something I even want, falls way outside of the norm. But, again, I don’t see the harm, nor fault, in that. Living my life this way has improved not only my mental and physical health but elevated my happiness as well. Why would I aspire for a more traditional life, when the one I lead now feels so right and so true to who I am at my core and is also kinder towards animals and the planet?
When I reflect on the last decade of my life, it saddens me to think about all those years I spent pretending to be someone I wasn’t, sinking further into a pit of self-loathing despair as a result. Worse still, I know my experiences are not unique. I know there are many others who feel stuck in this system that not only doesn’t cater to difference but often dismisses and degrades it; others who, as a result, may find reprieve in self-destruction, just as I had when I was a teenager. I wish I had known then what I know now, but because I can’t change the past, I feel that the best I can do in this present moment is own my truth and live a life that works for me and that I feel good about — and encourage others to do so as well.
There is power in being yourself, especially in a society where you have been made to feel unworthy or unacceptable, and there is freedom in rejecting that traditional path and paving your own. I have found that on my journey of self-discovery, and so can you.