A Perfectionist’s Anorexia
My best friend Harriet* and I are running around trying to complete last minute errands before we leave town for the summer. She turns to me and asks if we can stop and get something to eat; neither of us has eaten all day. As we start to eat our Panera salads, she remarks, “I have a hard time eating when I get stressed out.” I nod my head in tacit agreement; so do I.
Harriet and I are cut from the same cloth. We are brilliant, driven, passionate young women. Our personalities have contributed to our success — especially when we measure success with test scores, awards, and external validation. They, however, have also led to our downfall. We crave control and seek perfection. We drive ourselves crazy trying to do our very best and be the very best. We want to please ourselves and those around us. When we fail to achieve the impossible standards to which we hold ourselves, we come undone. When stressed out or anxious, our default coping mechanism is to control our weight and our bodies, which we equate with gaining control over our lives.
My friend Alexis is a beautiful Chicana woman whose infectious laugh and smile light up every room she enters. Alexis and I have known each other since we were eight years old. In elementary school, we were in the same Girl Scout troop; in high school, we spent the majority of our time together, between our AP classes, youth group, and seemingly unending cheerleading practices. Junior year, Alexis lost a lot of weight. We all saw it happening but no one said anything. I recently texted Alexis to ask about the weight loss. In her response, Alexis opened up about her eating disorder – “For me, it was a struggle to find my identity…striving to make every aspect of my identity perfect but missing the point. People just have a hard time being real about the ugly imperfections.”
I’ve been struggling with anorexia for years. The disease has manifested itself differently over time but it is rooted in an ongoing need to be in control. To be perfect. When in remission, I am able to maintain a stable weight and prioritize my mental health. When struggling through a relapse, it takes every ounce of energy I have to even consume a quarter of the calories my body needs to function, let alone three proper meals a day. The lethargy, the anxiety, and the sheer emotional burden that accompany my anorexia are overwhelming.
And the loneliness. Statistically, I know I’m not alone. Up to 24 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, 95 percent of whom are between the ages of 12 and 25. Yet, with such a strong stigma around mental illness, I feel I have to be extremely careful with whom I share such intimate details about my life. For so long, I’ve felt trapped in a solitary battle. Isolated.
It is only recently that I’ve begun to be genuinely honest with my close friends about my struggles. I’ve been surprised by how much my friends have affirmed me and promised to be by my side, regardless of the storm going on within my head. My friend Emma reaches over and gives me an awkward yet comforting side-hug in the car as I tell her that I’m not doing well. Clementine pats me on the head and distracts me with new music and pictures of cute puppies. A couple of glasses of wine in, I tell Caleb I’m considering taking a semester off of school to get help; he tells me that he’ll be there for me whatever decision I end up making. My beautiful boyfriend Thomas reminds me that my flaws do not mean I am broken or unworthy of his limitless love. Sometimes brief, sometimes drawn out, these conversations are mixtures of laughter, tears, and such strong support.
I reached out to my vibrant, feminist activist, Ivy League-educated friend Lydia last week and asked her if she thinks it’s ever possible to recover from eating disorders. I can trust that Lydia, having lived with anorexia and its various manifestations for nearly a decade, will be painfully honest with me. She says what we both know but don’t want to believe — we’re in it for the long haul and there is no guarantee we will ever fully recover. We could try to blame our genetic predispositions as classic “type A” perfectionists or we could shift the blame to society and what Lydia refers to as our “constantly being bombarded [by] our culture’s obsession with being skinny and the sense of validation that comes with it.” It doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that somewhere along the way, our minds betrayed us and we got trapped in this horrible, damaging disease. In the days, weeks, months, and years to come, as we continue to strive for a future where we control our eating disorders and anxieties rather than having them control us, we know we will need support — from each other and from those around us. We will need affirmation from friends who remind us our self-worth is not measured in numbers, achievements, or how close we come to achieving ‘perfection.’
Most importantly, we need dialogue. Far too many people suffer in silence. Eating disorders are too prevalent and too dangerous for this to be a shameful, taboo topic that is continually swept under the rug.
*Names have been changed to ensure anonymity
For help and support, visit: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/find-help-support