I’ve just discovered that we are in the middle of “National Eating Disorders Awareness Week”. I’ve not written much—yet—about my long relationship to so-called “eating disorders”, but I figured I’d put a few thoughts down here, as this was my most difficult relationship to end (other than my thirteen-year relationship to Psychiatry, of course.) My struggles with eating and body image began the summer before my junior year in high school, and only in the last two years have I found liberation from this once agonizingly painful, seemingly hopeless imprisonment. I spent years in “eating disorder treatment”, wrote countless food plans and food diaries, saw an absurd number of nutritionists and psychologists and psychiatrists, and spent an unbelievable number of hours with other “eating disordered” young women in so-called “treatment”. Over those years, I would be diagnosed with “anorexia nervosa”, “exercise bulimia”, and “binge-eating disorder”. “Ed” would become my most inseparable companion, and my worst enemy. I loved him and hated him and needed him and yearned to destroy him, and year after year, as I grew weaker, and more desperate, and more hopeless, it sunk further into me that I stood no chance at freedom from the obsessions and compulsions I had around food and body image, and I just about gave up. Just two years ago—at about a year and a half free from psychiatric drugs—I still viewed food as my most reliable weapon of self-destruction. Just two years ago, I spent hours staring at my body in the mirror, repulsed by the grotesque monster before me, totally disconnected from it, wanting to rip off my skin and free myself from the disgusting cage of flesh I felt trapped in. This was how I felt, only two years ago, and it hurt so very much.
I write these words free from that prison today, and with deep respect for my body, and when I sit down to enjoy a meal (often times, leaving food on my plate after feeling full—HALLELULAH! It’s a miracle!— and then moving on with my day without a thought of food in my mind until my stomach starts to grumble—HALLELULAH AGAIN!), I feel unending gratitude to be at peace with my body and with the food on my plate, weapons down, the long battle ended. With every fiber of my being, I once believed this was impossible.
I am here to tell you that freedom from so-called “eating disorders” is entirely, 100% possible, and that for me it happened only in rejecting the medicalized notion of “eating disorder” in the first place, leaving behind the mainstream “eating disorder treatment”, and looking inwards for resolution.
It would take a book to elaborate upon how I found this liberation, so I’ll begin here with the very first step: just as I left behind my “Bipolar”, “Borderline”, “Depressed”, “Alcoholic” identity, I let go of the belief that I “had” an “eating disorder”, this “condition” that made me different, this “disease” that was causing me to fight this battle against myself. This was a revelatory step for me, to realize that “Ed” was but a construct of Psychiatry’s imagination, which I’d internalized as my capital-T Truth.
In abandoning the “eating disorder” model, I instead began to make sense of my incessant struggles with eating and body image as a meaningful reflection of all I felt inside, of the emptiness, the disconnect, and the numbness I’d begun to feel as a young teenager that had magnified in size once I was labeled “mentally ill” and medicated. Once I started to pull at the threads of the story I’d been telling myself for so long—that my self-worth was inextricably tied to the shape and size of my body; essentially, to the way the world saw me—I came to realize that this need not be my Truth. While the seed of this story was planted well before I met Psychiatry, the shrinks I saw over the years exploited it, watering it with their medicalized language and false promises, cultivating my self-loathing until it blossomed and grew to enormous proportions. For, in truth, the more I hated myself and the more hopeless and out of control I felt about my life, my body, and my relationship to food, the more important Psychiatry became to me.
In addition to leaving behind the medicalized language of “eating disorders”, I also began to educate myself about the impact of well over ten years of psychiatric drugs on my metabolism, my brain function, and my ability to recognize hunger and satiation—two sensations I’d long ago lost touch with. Most of my twenties were spent with a “binge-eating disorder” label attached firmly to me, and it began to dawn on me that perhaps my inability to feel full and my obsessive cravings for food were tied to the fact that my hormone production—especially of dopamine and serotonin—had been significantly damaged by psychopharmaceuticals. I was able to find some peace in this, knowing that my “greed” when it came to food was largely pharmaceutically induced (and let me tell you that it most certainly was… I can say this confidently now that I’m three and a half years free from psychiatric drugs, completely connected to a sense of satiation.)
In addition to educating myself about the destructive physical, psychological, and emotional impact that psychiatric drugs had on me, I also came to realize that years of malnutrition had significantly warped my cognitive capacities, my emotional balance, my connection to self and world, and my ability to make thoughtful decisions about my life, and that of course it had become nearly impossible for me to take care of myself—I was operating with biology that had been greatly injured by both me and Psychiatry. Even in the midst of this altered state of existence, when I was still deep in it and significantly struggling with making different choices about food, something inside of me helped me grasp this crucial fact, inspiring me to just keep going and give myself time to heal (which I did!)
As I began the journey of psychiatric liberation, I began to see that the self-loathing, the desire to punish myself, the desperate yearning for control in my seemingly uncontrollable life, and the seeming inability to take agency over my choices and actions, were all rooted in the belief that my abnormal existence was not worthy of being taken care of, that I was not a fully human being, that I was and always would be broken and uncontrollable, a rabid animal to be handled only by trained professionals. Essentially, I realized that Psychiatry had taught me that I’d never be able to take care of myself, and I’d thoroughly internalized this lesson.
I’m not one to believe that so-called “eating disorders” are always rooted in the desire for control; in fact, I don’t believe there’s any one explanation for the experiences that Psychiatry calls “eating disordered”. I should also say that not everyone who meets the DSM criteria for so-called “eating disorders” experiences distress because of it; thus, I believe that only the individual can decide whether his or her relationship to eating is something requiring change. I do believe that at the heart of every single so-called “eating disorder” is a unique story that is full of meaning, a story that only the individual, him- or herself, can and should tell. For me, my varied struggles with eating and body image began in my youth in a social setting that valued so-called “perfection” and rapidly evolved because of the ever-increasing self-hatred and emptiness I felt as I fell further into Psychiatry’s depths. These struggles evolved because my brain and body were pharmaceutically altered and sent into chaos, disconnecting me from myself in such a profound way that I was no longer able to listen to my body.
Just two years ago, I spent every waking minute obsessed with food and my body, utterly incapable of even an ounce of inner-peace. Today, my body and brain now significantly healed from pharmaceutical trauma, I no longer see food as my most reliable weapon, and my body as my most reliable target. I no longer obsess about the size and shape of my body, or about what I am or am not going to eat. (I should say here that I am, in fact, very diligent about nutrition, as I’ve found that when I nourish myself with real, whole food and avoid the kind made in a factory—which I am lucky enough to have the privilege of doing every day—I feel physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually alive.)
Today, I see my body as a temple to be treated with respect and dignity, to nourish and treasure in this one life I am so grateful to have. Those once-ingrained urges to destroy myself with food or to deny my body nutrition are a thing of my past—and a direct reflection of my psychiatric indoctrination—for in abandoning the idea that I “had an eating disorder”, I freed myself up to make meaning of my relationship to food and body in my own, individual way. I discovered that really, I was just a human being full of pain, emptiness, self-loathing, and yearning, and that the answer wasn’t in the DSM or DBT or CBT or a pill bottle, but rather within me, as I worked to uncover the cause of that deep well of emptiness.
Today, when I nourish myself, and feel full of life and connection and pain and joy and love, and hold deep respect for myself (without a mirror in sight, I should add), I am effectively fighting the Psychiatric-Pharmaceutical Industrial Complex, an institutional beast that taught me to believe I was broken and would never be able to maintain agency over my life. When I stand firmly against the medicalization of human experience—including the experiences that get called “eating disorders”—I am building another pathway out of the hopeless and dehumanizing pit of Psychiatry’s medical model, beyond which infinite freedom awaits for all of us; to me, this makes all those years of self-loathing and imprisonment to so-called “eating disorders” valuable and meaningful. All of our stories of struggle should be seen in this way.