TW: eating disorders/mental health
I wasn’t going to share my story. When I was first diagnosed with anorexia, I wasn’t going to share it with anyone at all. It was too raw, too real. Too much to put into words. I wanted to sweep it under the rug and continue to live a lifestyle that eventually would kill me. But over the past year, I have seen that there are so many other people suffering from eating disorders and mental health illnesses every day, and I want all of you to know that you are not alone and you are loved exactly as who you are.
Life with an eating disorder, if you can call it life at all. It is similar to a puppet show. You are the puppet, and your disorder is the controlling the strings. It calls every shot, telling you when you’re going to eat and how much. It degrades you and tears you down, even over the smallest things. It even writes the narrative, putting its own values where yours used to be. All of a sudden, you don’t care about your health, your friends and family, or your dreams. You lose your motivation to live. All you care about is being thin, and you don’t even really know how it happened, when, or why. So there you are, smiling as your bony body parades around onstage. Some appreciate the sight of your bones, while most stare in horror at what you’ve become. Blaming themselves, and wondering how they can even begin to help. They don’t know that after the show, you go and cry because you’re tired, hungry and scared. It’s funny because I consider myself a very educated, intelligent, and successful woman – but this past year and a half, I have been trapped with an eating disorder.
It started out so simple; I had just graduated from VCU’s School of the Arts with a degree in Fashion Merchandising - one of the top 5 programs in the country. I was driven and on fire for what would come next and was looking forward to writing my own script. Underneath that desire and passion, was the desire to be thin which had been raging inside my mind for about 8 years at that point. I started restricting small amounts, and eventually worked my way up to starving myself completely. It only ended up as a powerful, inner, self-loathing endless mental battle. I slowly began to lose not only my weight, but my reality, my mind, my friends as well as anything and everything that I cared and loved. Anorexia had 100% control of me and my life. I was no longer Emma. I was an eating disorder, a lying, destructive, conniving eating disorder. It was an out of body experience, a loss of control so intense that I can’t even put words to it. The eating disorder was there for me. It protected me from this uncontrollable world. It was my coping mechanism for handling my emotional distress of feeling unloved and unworthy. The feeling of nothingness. It gave me a sense of belonging to something, when everything else felt so out of place. I weighed my self-worth in pounds. Anorexia was a slow form of suicide, and I was prepared to die. Nothing mattered more than achieving “perfection”
For a while I was in denial. Everyone was just jealous of my self-control and determination to be thin. But eventually thin became too thin, and I was told that I was going to die. My organs began to shut down. My hair was falling out. I couldn’t make it up one flight of stairs without having to take a break halfway in between. I couldn’t sleep because my bones were so prominent and brittle that even laying on the bed caused immense pain. My muscles and bones were being stripped to nothing, as was my sanity. I was fading into my disorder, but I was still not thin enough. I remember going shopping with my mom one afternoon, and I was trying on a cropped sweater, not knowing that my hip bones were highly visible through my jeans. When I walked out of the dressing room, she almost fell to the floor. It was at that point that I had to enter recovery, it had gone too far. We searched for treatment centers close to us, but there weren’t any available and the costs started at $10,000 for their basic treatment program. Where were the mental health professionals? Where was the access to better care for a deathly illness?
We eventually found an outpatient program in Richmond through my own team of specialists. They had the plan to have me make small, manageable changes in my behavior. Sounds simple, right? Well, these changes were neither small or manageable. They asked me to do things that horrified me, like eating regularly whether I was hungry or not. They explained that because I’d been ignoring my body’s hunger signals for so long, the signals weren’t working properly anymore. To me, however, eating more often sounded like a quick recipe for weight gain and I couldn’t do that. I would lose my shot at perfection. No matter what they said and how much sense it made logically, I told myself I could never do any of it. Being thin and perfect was more important. And for what?
Asking me to just change my eating-disordered thinking would be about as successful as asking someone with cancer to change their sick cells back into healthy ones. Whenever I went to eat something, the eating disorder always had something to say, dictating what I was allowed to eat, if anything at all.
At first, recovery felt like making a path through darkness, and I couldn’t trust myself, only others. I had to keep going over and over the same original path to create a new trail and shift my thinking. It has taken months, but slowly I’ve been able to reconnect with myself and push the eating disorder aside. One thing I had to remember throughout this journey was that this eating disorder required so much of my will power and discipline to get into, I knew I had that same power and strength to get myself out. And I can confidently say, for the past 8 months, that I did just that, and am on the road to being fully recovered.
My support network has put positive and high expectations on me. They challenged me beyond what I thought I could do. My therapist recognized my strengths and helped me to see where I was strong, which kept me in a hopeful mindset. During recovery, there are days where your determination and willpower are put to the test. Especially during hard or difficult times in your life (such as exam time, moving, changing schools, family issues, money, etc.), and you may be tempted to return to the old, familiar, unhealthy ways of coping with those situations. And for me, as you already know, it was with my eating disorder. I always tell people it’s okay to relapse. It doesn’t mean they lack effort or motivation, in fact, it’s often an inevitable part of recovery. It’s what we learn from the relapse that matters.
My journey with anorexia has taught me so many things about mental health, and the importance of mental health awareness. Colleen and I started EVOLVE 3 months before I was diagnosed with anorexia. We wanted our mission as a company to be that we would change the fashion industry for women who had been torn down over the years by society’s unrealistic standards. In the early 1950s, mannequins and models were fashioned to the average waist of an American female. Nearly forty years later, mannequins and models were being made to have waists that measured SIX or more inches smaller than the average American woman, distorting the perception and body image of 90% of women all over the world and ultimately leading to one in five women suffering from an eating disorder, and many dying because the lack of treatment options and funding. And to you; the beautiful women of the world: my size 2 girls or my size 18 girls, your size doesn't determine your beauty; your life does. The size printed inside your clothes is a product of the fashion industry's personal taste and it fluctuates daily. Stop believing the social normatives about who and what you should be. You are beautiful inside and out and you are loved. Just the way you are.
Today, one in four people are suffering from a mental illness, and 800,000 of those suffering from mental illness die by suicide each year. That is one fourth of our population, and only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year, so we need to ask ourselves, where can we create change? How can we better the lives of the people around us who have the ability to give so much to this world? I believe that we are all here to serve a purpose. A purpose that is bigger than ourselves and the lives that we live in our own daily struggles and successes. We have to continue to speak up and speak out about mental health and the importance of bettering our mental healthcare system. We have to continue to raise awareness and spread the message that YOU are enough. You are worthy. And we are all standing behind you with an army of people that believe that you are here for a reason. If you or anyone you know is suffering from a mental health illness, ask them to tell you more. Let them know that you are there to support them and that you believe in them. Asking someone to tell you more might save a life. It certainly saved mine.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, please share my story and let them know that they are not alone.
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) tel:+1-800-931-2237
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255