My best friend, ‘Ana’
My constant battle with body dysmorphia
Note: This column contains sensitive content about eating disorders which may be triggering for some readers.
Thirteen-year-old girls are supposed to fawn over Justin Beiber.
Instead, in eighth grade, I was counting the calories in a stick of gum.
I am the oldest of three children to two of the best parents anyone could ask for. I cannot stress enough that they are incredibly caring, present and involved.
But, being the oldest child is stressful. The constant expectation to be self-sufficient, well-behaved and a role-model can be soul crushing. I strove to personify the coveted status of “the golden child.”
But this led me to overwork myself.
I forced myself to join every extracurricular activity that would fit in my schedule, while still striving to maintain perfect grades.
Travel soccer team captain. Varsity tennis in seventh grade. Model UN president. Student Council. Band and chorus officer. Varsity track team captain. Honor roll.
And each proud Facebook post my parents wrote about my accomplishments fueled both my own self-pride and my constant obsession with perfection.
But on the inside, I was breaking.
My life seemed out of control, and at such a young age I couldn’t see any options for how to find balance. I couldn’t bear to quit the activities that I wore as a badge of honor for fear of disappointing those who valued my success.
So I turned to other methods of control.
My relationship with food became a method of coping with my pre-existing anxiety and depression. I couldn’t choose whether or not to go to soccer practice on Sunday mornings, but I could choose whether or not to skip lunch.
I found myself spiraling out of control, dropping weight that I couldn’t afford to lose. Every mirror I looked in morphed itself into a funhouse attraction that showed my slim physique far heavier than it actually was.
This unhealthy habit was brought to my parents’ attention when I began seeing a school therapist in eighth grade. She encouraged them to take me to see a professional to discuss my issues with body dysmorphia.
This began my regular visits to Strong Memorial Hospitals’ Childhood and Adolescent Eating Disorder Program where I was diagnosed with anorexia.
My team of doctors and nutritionists urged me to change my behavior. Through eating journals and threats of feeding tubes, through private shaming and accusations of selfishness, I was pressured to decide to change on my own before my options were taken away.
These monthly visits lasted for a year. In that time, my weight and diet were monitored and I was enrolled in bi-weekly meetings with a therapist.
I wish I could tell you that beating anorexia is as easy as a couple of therapy sessions and a hard scolding from a physician.
Although I deeply admire the drive that it takes to challenge mental illness –– and anorexia is a mental illness –– I cannot say that my own team of specialists provided the best service.
Doctors who preferred scare techniques to education, and a therapist whose only method of connecting was to compare me to her own daughter, destroyed my confidence and psyche.
The road to recovery has been winding and, although I would not currently consider myself anorexic, I still struggle daily with the intrusive thoughts that once lured me into starving myself.
My body still has not recovered from the trauma it has experienced, and this, coupled with my more recent struggle with a complicated digestive disorder, has resulted in multiple hospital visits this semester alone.
Every emergency room stay comes with a bombarding of those same accusations that I did not care enough about my family to get better, and a slew of shameful and disappointed looks from clinicians who do not know my story.
The thing about eating disorders is that they’re incredibly personal.
You wouldn’t tell a cancer patient that they’re ruining their family’s life so they need to just “get over it.” Similarly, mental illnesses are uncontrollable.
When a person develops an eating disorder, they are not selfish.
They are sick.
They are not malicious.
They are scared.
If someone you care about shows symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or other mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression, the best thing you can do to help them is to tell them that you love them and you are there if they need anything.
The worst way to sympathize with someone with an eating disorder is to make it about yourself and to tell them how it’s affecting you. They have bigger things to worry about.
I had an eating disorder. Millions of people around the world — girls and boys alike — have struggled with eating disorders. I refuse to silence my story for the comfort and approval of others.
Reilly Mullen is the assistant features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReillyMMullen.