Opinions, Column

On Eating Disorders And Being Enough

“You must forget everything you think you know,” the woman in black leather said as she entered the room. It was the third day of my second stay in residential treatment for the eating disorder that had swallowed the past 10 years of my life. In my years as a calorie-counter and professional label-checker, the information I collected had not benefitted me, but it still seemed unfathomable that what I read on “good” and “bad” foods and that each weight-loss experiment I had conducted were all nonsense.

Each construct of my eating disorder had been carefully placed to protect me from the reality of our society, which contains pressures that consistently made me feel inadequate. Limiting my focus to the realm of my food and body provided me with an escape from the more complex fear and question of my purpose. The fixation on my intake kept me numb from the pain that came with accepting myself, and this purpose made cutting the ties of every food ritual and behavior that much more difficult. Although I could see the truth in the words emitted from my dietitian’s mouth, it took me a long time to realize that I would have to entirely surrender to new information if I wanted something different.

That time did pass, though, and over the next year, the foundation of my reality was uprooted and replaced with tiles of self-love, self-acceptance, and trust in my humanity. With my food, I stripped away the beliefs that had left me with an empty stomach, and I approached each meal with a blank slate and the reminder that I didn’t know what I liked yet, nor what would fuel me, and that my only job was to listen. The words of my treatment team were eventually replaced with the internal wisdom I had lost. I began to trust my body, rather than the numbers on the back of a package, and fed myself based on when my stomach grumbled.

As far back as I can remember, I was always striving for more. Whether it was in the way I brushed my teeth or the grades I earned, I could always do better. I associated happiness with success and, since there was always more I could do, I was consistently unhappy. Although many may associate eating-disorder treatment with feeding tubes and weight gain, the primary focus is not how many pounds you can add, but how much self-worth you can establish. Anyone can put on weight, but many who struggle with the mental illness will not keep that weight if they do not care enough about themselves to continue to nourish their bodies after discharge.

Being taken out of normal life and placed in various forms of inpatient treatment, the only way I was able to measure my success was by how hard I fought for my life. Ironically, fighting for my life came in the very form of letting go of “success.” At first, it was devastating. I knew pushing myself was killing me, but if I didn’t push harder, I thought there was no point in surviving. I fell into serious depression and most words didn’t reach me until I was asked, “What if everything you already are is exactly enough?”
The concepts I’d developed drove me to reject this notion. I had nothing left to believe, though, and so I held onto this new truth, and it wound up saving my life. I began to greet myself with acceptance, which was, at first, extremely unnatural. I had to force back the self-loathing and believe that each of my quirks was right, that every mistake I made was necessary, and that I was wholly adequate. The external by which I had once defined myself was taken away, and I was left with just my body, my mind, and my soul. I embraced every aspect of myself and lived with the perception that I was perfectly enough.

Eventually, I no longer needed convincing of this. It was a principle upon which I built the rest of my self, and anything that challenged it was rejected. “Be more” fell into this category. This summer, I left transitional care to test out orientation at Boston College. When I had initially deferred my acceptance in 2013, I thought I had lost everything for which I had worked so hard. I couldn’t imagine my life without school and grades and outward measures of success. Arriving for orientation, I was still unsure whether I would attend—not for medical reasons this time, but because I wasn’t certain if college would be right for me. I had just begun to love my life and myself, and I didn’t want that to be cut short with the demands of college. With the Ignatian principle of “magis” so strongly emphasized throughout the session, I was quite certain I did not want to attend. I turned to my mom after a presentation on the importance of striving to be better than you are and whispered, “I don’t think this is going to work. Norah [one of my therapists] says I’m already enough—who are they to tell me otherwise?”

“Alexandra, I don’t think that’s what they’re saying …” my mom replied.

Although it’s true the idea of magis doesn’t specifically say, “you are not enough,” nor does it tell me to starve, purge, or exercise my way to a dangerous perfection, the underlying message to work harder and be better, to compete with the you of yesterday, is a precarious one in and of itself. I wound up attending BC, and in many ways, I have loved my experience thus far. There is, however, more than just an undertone of stress that is obvious to me. Having spent the past two years hearing only the pressure to love myself more, words like “I should have done better” stand out, and I hear them every day. The mere fact that the cafeteria labels the bakery goods as “Temptations”—sending the message that certain foods are wrongly desired—makes me cringe, and every time I see groups of girls decked out in Lululemon running to the Plex, I wonder if they’re doing that for themselves or for who they believe they should be.

I try my best to live in acceptance. I don’t knock people down for following a diet or wanting to do well in school. When I see a fellow freshman literally bent over shaking because one received a B- on her exam and is worried she won’t be accepted into medical school, though, I wonder if she will be able to live with herself should she be unable to achieve. I stick out when I ask for the intentions behind individuals’ workout routines or their latest diets, but I don’t think it’s so strange to want to know the reason behind what seems like extraneous pain and stress.

For me, eating healthy means choosing what I want and honoring my body. Yet, in my first floor meeting, I was told my floormates and I should encourage each other to do quite the opposite, with words that went something like, “If you’re going down to Mac and you want to eat ‘healthy,’ you should encourage one another to eat salads together, rather than going for the pizza.” These constant messages make their way into our subconscious and go unchallenged, which determine how we divide ourselves into “good” and “bad” identities, with “magis” supporting all of them. Although the initial intention for all of these might have been to expand our awareness and support our growth, society has a way of taking everything to the extreme. Each time I pass the group of kids drinking to excess—perhaps to be the “best” partiers—or I overhear conversations over who did and did not fail his or her Chemistry midterms, I have to question whether anyone’s really growing from “being more.” I have to think maybe we are already enough.

Victoria Mariconti is off this week.

Featured Image by Daniel Lee / Heights Senior Staff

November 20, 2014