I looked around the room and took in the familiar sight of the hospital-like setting. About 50 or so folding chairs were arranged to face the podium where I would speak. Another survivor--an inspiring young woman half my age--was the first to speak, and she walked us through the trials and tribulations of her recent journey out of the disease and into recovery. As my name was called and it was suddenly my turn to face the audience, I walked to the podium with some trepidation. Scanning the audience, my eyes stopped on a dozen or so teenage girls. They had the look I knew so well. Their cheeks were sunken; their eyes glazed over; and their clavicle bones protruded from their chest.
I recognized a former version of myself in these girls.
And all I wanted to do hold every single one of them in my arms and beg them to believe that they are worthy of love and nourishment.
It's not easy to talk about eating disorders. There is shame associated with eating disorders. And even though I have been recovered for 30 years, I still feel that sting of shame when I open up about the brutal disease that stole most of my teenage years. Although I have found, as Brené Brown tells us, that the more I talk about it, the more my shame dissipates. So I decided to say yes to an opportunity to speak at a recovery night at The Emily Program, an eating disorders facility, in St. Paul.
As I put together my thoughts for the 30-minute talk I would give to patients, family members of patients, and health care professionals, I decided to lean on my work as a writer and utilize excerpts from three pivotal pieces of writing that illustrate various stages of my disease, and most importantly, my recovery.
The first piece I pulled from was a paper entitled, "If Only I were Thin I Would Be Happy" that I wrote for a magazine writing class I took in graduate school, three years after my recovery. The second was my book, The Self-Care Solution: A Modern Mother's Must-Have Guide to Health and Well-Being, in which I explore my disease and recovery and how it leads to my continuing self-care journey as a mother of four and a wife of 23 years. And the third is an article entitled "A Mother's 17-Year-Old Secret" that I wrote for Brain, Child magazine, and deals with the first time I told my seventeen-year-old daughter about my past eating disorder.
Through these excerpts that I wove together with my voice of today, I hoped to give the attendees an understanding of how I became not just an eating disorder survivor but an eating disorder "thriver." But providing a comprehensive picture of my journey from sickness to health, loneliness to love, and despair to joy, I wanted to provide all attendees with inspiration, hope, and strength. And as I spoke, I locked eyes with the girls battling the disease, and I saw tears flow from some of their eyes. I saw some relief in the eyes of concerned parents who clung on to my words of hope. I glanced at my own parents, sister, best friend, and cousin who sat sniffling in the back of the room. Trudging back through those horrific years is extremely painful for me and for those who went through it with me.
But the thought that my story could have the power to help move even just one of those girls towards a path of healing, makes it well worth it.
The following is an excerpt from my talk:
I am not sure if everyone will agree with me on this, but I believe that anyone who has ever suffered from an eating disorder is forever in a state of healing. While the food and body image battles may dissipate, as they did for me, the question "Am I really good enough" can often linger in our being. But maybe that question lingers in all of us in some way.
I do not look at being in a state of healing as a curse. Because if we do the honest work to stay healthy in body and mind, we can find peace within ourselves and the world around us. We can live an amazingly wonderful life, filled with beauty, joy, and happiness: We can handle the feelings of pain, struggle, disappointment, and loss--inevitable aspects of the human condition.
There is no question that anorexia, or any type of eating disorder, is a horrific and sometimes deadly illness, and I am grateful to be standing here alive and healthy. I am grateful that my eating disorder did not crush my spirit, my ability to give and receive love, or my ability to bear children. And I am eternally grateful that I did and continue to do all the difficult and painful work necessary to not only survive, but to thrive.