I recently agreed to answer some questions for a high school senior working on a project. The questions made me think, and I thought they might be helpful to others seeking to understand or recover from an eating disorder or mental illness in general.
How could your experience with an eating disorder affect you in the future? Positively or negatively.
For a long time, I’ve seen my eating disorder as a distinct and dichotomous turning point in my life.
On one hand, it was a shattering of innocence: after having an eating disorder, it’s impossible to forget what it’s like to have one. Food will never be just “food,” exercise will never be just “exercise,” everything takes on a greater meaning and suddenly, life isn’t simple anymore. Birthdays and holidays, which were once effortless and joyous, now require conscious effort and discomfort to appreciate. Food means more to you than it does to others. Your body becomes a constant consideration, a tear between health and preoccupation and fear and love.
On the other hand, it lead me on a path that I’m forever grateful for. Had I not endured my eating disorder, I can say with certainty that I never would have begun practicing yoga, I never would have become a yoga teacher, I never would have started writing the way I do now, and I never would have encountered the countless inspiring people that I’m lucky to call a part of my life today.
What do you believe were the root causes of your eating disorder? Stress, social, body image, etc.
Everyone’s eating disorder is different. For me, I felt like my disorder spurred from a lack of control culminating with a lifetime of anxiety and depression. Various aspects in my personal life just collided at a very vulnerable time- the beginning of highschool- and took on the form of an eating disorder. For some that may have lead to addiction or suicidal ideation. For me, I compensated with an extreme control of my food and exercise.
Is it frustrating or difficult to explain this mental illness to those who aren’t familiar with it or don’t understand?
Sometimes. I try to appreciate that most people don’t fully understand what it means to have an eating disorder. I think most people have a very surface-level understanding of what they are. I commonly get asked, “That’s when you just don’t eat, right?” or “That’s when you try and lose a lot of weight, right?”
Well, yes and no. Those may be parts of it, but they are not the whole story. There’s so much more to it than just body manipulation, and not every eating disorder looks the same. Binge eating disorder, orthorexia, bulimia, and anorexia all look remarkably different from one another, and I wish more people were able to identify the warning signs of them in those they love, or even themselves.
Describe your healing process.
I'll try to be as as succinct as I can: the hospital spurred the healing of my body, my stubbornness made me determined to not go back to the hospital, and yoga gave me the grace to move forward.
Do you feel this eating disorder will always be with you in some way or could you eventually move past it, if you haven’t already?
It’s a part of me now. It’s not the greatest or most important part of me, but it’s a part of me. I’ve moved past it in the sense that it no longer controls me, but I think it would be a disservice to myself to try and completely forget it. I’ve learned and grown so much throughout my illness and recovery that I would never want to lose the progress I’ve made. I’ve learned gentleness and strength. I’ve learned compassion for myself and others. My eating disorder kept me silent for a long time, but now I’ve learned how to speak over it.
Would you say you’re still recovering or are you past this illness?
Recovery is a constant process. I’ll always consider myself “actively in recovery.”
Do you ever find yourself going back to old habits?
Of course I do. I think everyone who has ever suffered does. But I like to think that failure is “programmed” into recovery. If you expect yourself to never have a disordered thought or action ever again, I don’t think you’ll ever find peace. I take these slip-ups as a part of the path, as little hills I have to climb over in order to keep heading upwards. They’re difficult and challenging, but a necessary part of the journey.
How do you feel about “rock bottom?” Was it a foundation to grow on or simply a horrible time that didn’t benefit you?
I’ve written before that there is no better foundation for growth than rock bottom. I’ve met countless people who have taken complete devastation and trauma and made it into something beautiful. It all depends on how you look at it.
Explain your views on mental illness as a whole.
It’s an illness, just like the flu or a cold or anything else we see no shame in going to the doctor for. The greatest issue we have with treating and understanding mental illness is that the causes of it are so difficult to understand and vary to such an extreme degree. It makes treatment difficult and unpredictable. Perhaps it’s because of this that people have a hard time talking about it: many people feel as though they’re enslaved to their disease forever because of the difficulty to overcome it.
I wish more people were open about mental illness. The taboo around it hurts both sufferers and loved ones of sufferers. It shames people into not seeking help, and only prolongs the painful journey of healing from mental illness.
What is your advice to those struggling with an eating disorder or other mental illness?
Find your support system. Find your professionals, seek out the therapist and doctor that makes you feel comfortable and you’re willing to work with. Find the family and friends that you trust to support you. And, most importantly, trust yourself to handle this journey. It will challenge you and it will be difficult, but it is so incredibly worth it.