Eating-disorder recovery is not easily definable. Recovery and survival from any trauma, mental illness, addiction, or disembodiment of self looks and feels different to and for everyone.
One thing is certain: Eating disorders do not discriminate. And all too often, they are neither obvious nor visible in presentation. All too often, they are stigmatized, or silenced altogether.
As a writer, performer, and body empowerment advocate, I have spent much of my life sharing my eating-disorder survival story. And still, it feels impossible to perfectly articulate the deadly mental illness that is an eating disorder, as the journey of survival is uniquely personal.
We heard from a diverse array of individuals worldwide who have experienced various eating disorders and experiences with body image, who describe their survival in myriad ways. Here are some of the many stories we received.
As a 12-year-old with full-blown anorexia, I was involuntarily institutionalized after having an eating disorder–induced seizure. The institution was not equipped to deal with eating disorders, and their only plan of action was to watch me eat, shower, and sleep to ensure I didn’t throw up, exercise, or throw my food away. I was treated less as a medical patient and more like a criminal, unable to privately mourn the loss of my innocence and adolescence.
This was my first insight into how our health care system is unprepared to treat eating disorder survivors, a travesty compounded by society’s rigid physical ideals for women. Survivors could best be served by the development of new treatment options targeted at modifying harmful behaviors and by eroding patriarchal visions of the female body. Instead, we are treated like social outliers who are shamed and told we have taken things too far. Denying the existence of sexism is a historically convenient method of the ignorant, and to tell an eating disorder survivor that our plight is of self-creation is to validate the disproportionate and unrealistic physical expectations for women that have permeated every aspect of society.
I will never forget the first time I saw my own reflection without wanting to see less of it. It took years for me to regain control of my life and body, both of which deserved respect and love after having spent years as a battleground. Sharing my story was the first step toward total recovery and remains my personal form of resistance. By speaking out, we can reduce the shame and stigma associated with eating disorders and give courage to millions of survivors.
My story begins at age 4. I was extremely underweight for my height and age; however, my grandmother told I had “arms like ham” and was “getting chubby.” I spent my entire childhood surrounded by weight stigma — whether it was from my grandmother constantly telling me to “go on a diet” or comparing my own body to my friends'.
At 12, I went on what I described as a “very strict diet.” I had no clue what anorexia was. I thought it was when someone literally never ate anything due to some underlying emotional problem, when, in reality, accordingly to my personal understanding and experience, it’s a disease that manifests in the mind; an utter fear of weight gain. It does not have a specific physical appearance. It does not pick particular races or genders. It just is.
My “diet” left me with a failing liver, a problematic heart, hair loss, and osteopenia. I went into treatment for anorexia and fully came to terms with my disease, and began to believe that I did not choose this. Anorexia was like a light switch that lived inside my brain, turned off for most of my life. The stigma surrounding my weight is what turned it on.
For me, I will never turn my anorexia off. It’s always going to be a struggle. I can, however, dim the lights. Now, at 16, I remain recovered without relapse. Although every day I see girls in magazines and in person with tiny waists, I am fighting. I am alive. I almost lost my life, and my life is much more important than my weight. Someday, I think I will 100% believe I am beautiful, and I will do that on my own terms, without the help of a boy or Instagram likes. Until then, I remain a 16-year-old girl still surrounded by weight stigma and slowly, but surely, learning to be comfortable with myself.
My eating disorder was a unicorn in shape. I was never terrified of certain foods. I never truly thought I was fat. While I didn’t use my mathematically inclined mind to count calories, I used it to balance an equation in my head: an equation of worth. Growing up, food was taken away when I was bad. In my mind, I equated it to not being worth food at all. I took that mind-set to college, with a bit of freedom, resulting in a streak of bingeing. Each episode left me with this feeling of worthlessness. One might say it contributed to my leaving college after a violent sexual assault campus police refused to do anything about left me feeling even more worthless.
But I was worth the physical demands of the military. I was worth the possibility of dying. During my time in the Air Force, I was told repeatedly that I was nothing. Things I recited to myself for years were now coming out of the lips of those in charge of me. If there was any doubt I didn’t deserve to be alive, let alone eat, it was eradicated. Ultimately, I was kicked out for having an eating disorder, deemed unable to deploy and unfit for service. As a parting gift, the military paid for my first treatment stint.
A couple of years passed before I needed treatment again, this time due to a severe heart problem from malnourishment. I have never been so humbled and humiliated as those days I had to go into work with a feeding tube. I think I needed that. I couldn’t hide the fact I had an eating disorder by lying or saying I had a fast metabolism. I had something sticking out of my nose that couldn’t be ignored. After six months in treatment and the best psychiatrist I have ever had, I have been weight restored and behavior-free for two years. I have found balance. I have found that you assign your own worth. By assigning your own worth, you afford and deny yourself opportunities. So set that worth high. Happiness is not a destination, it’s moments. You won’t get moments of happiness if you feel worthless, because you won’t believe you deserve them. I want you to know: You deserve them.
When I was in college, I developed a binge-eating disorder. As a transgender man, my body already caused me a great deal of discomfort and emotional pain, and it seemed almost natural to take my stress and anxiety out on my physical self. The summer after freshman year of college, I was living at home, binge-eating most nights. In my mind, I was weak; I didn’t have the discipline to restrict eating, and I was running to try to counteract the eating. Almost a year later, back at college, I woke up and couldn’t make myself eat. I just sat staring at my kitchen, crying.
The Emily Program in St. Paul, Minnesota, might be the greatest place in the world to learn how to save your own life. My therapist and nutritionist were patient, constantly morphing a treatment plan to fit where I was at. They helped me understand binge eating, and gave me the strength to identify my bingeing as a disorder, not a weakness, and work to relearn healthy habits.
While in recovery, a teacher/mentor suggested I take steps to look into hormone therapy, that maybe making such positive changes might help me have a healthier relationship with my body. I’ve been on testosterone injections for two years and can honestly say testosterone is the reason I’ll never have an eating disorder again. Putting such positive and affirming energy into my body and into making slow and steady changes to how I see myself pushes me to take care of myself in every aspect of life. I no longer see my body as something to fight against. I no longer see food as a weapon or as a punishment. Sometimes, when I am anxious or sad or stressed, I find myself getting a small urge to binge, but now I know I can trust myself to take care of myself.
When I look at myself now, I notice how I finally have a beard growing in, or how my face is sharpening and my hips are narrowing to a more masculine shape. I don’t see a weak binger or someone who is nothing but an eating disorder they’ll never crawl out of. For the first time in my life, without any second thought, I see someone strong who has survived and thrived. I see someone who has taken control of themselves and their body in a healthy, positive way. I see me.
At nine, when my eating disorder started, I didn’t know what to call it. I knew the moment I’d stuck my fingers down my throat that I was doing something unnatural, and when the pizza that I’d eaten landed in the toilet, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to take it back. But, I’d thought, if it didn’t really happen, then it wasn’t a big deal because it would be O.K.–as long as I didn’t tell anybody. I told myself that I would never, ever, do it again. I was wrong. I’d end up doing it as often as six or seven times a day.
At thirteen when I’d learned that the punishment I kept putting my body through had a name, I rejected it. Bulimia was an eating disorder, and all of the literature that I’d read about it told me that eating disorders were for young, White girls from affluent families. I was a young middle-class Black girl from South Carolina. We don’t get bulimia. Our family physician confirmed as much when my mother finally caught me in the act of unloading my dinner into the toilet. It was just a “phase,” he’d decided. My secret was safe.
I couldn’t bring my issues with food to my parents; with a marriage on the rocks, they had their own anxieties about our family and its future to deal with. When I’d expressed dissatisfaction with my body, I was told repeatedly that African American women were supposed to be curvy. No one addressed the underlying issues of anxiety and depression that made me hate myself.
My parents had always told me to do my best at everything I did so I spent time trying to be the person that they wanted me to be. With my father I raised hogs, smoked hams, learned how to fry chicken and how to preserve fruits and vegetables. With my mother I attended tea parties, learned to sew, ate salads and, on the weekends, bounced around the living room with her, trying to keep up with the latest jazzercise tape.
But I’d failed. Doing my best didn’t fix things between my parents. Unable to express the anger and disappointment that I felt, my brain went numb so that I could focus on my schoolwork, because I understood that getting an education would provide an escape from an unhappy life. For years I couldn’t smile. I never wanted to go out and play. But I got straight A’s.
And then I started binging. I would sneak food back to my room, forcefully cramming dinner leftovers, pizza, and ice cream down my throat until I was painfully full. With a bloated face and shaking hands I would drag myself to the bathroom to throw up. Eating this way made me gain weight, which lead to dieting, and then skipping meals, leaving me to find activities to fill the space where a sandwich and friends should have been. My bouts with bulimia became everyday occurrences, but I’d gotten into Dartmouth College. It was under control.
But it wasn’t shrinking me in the ways that I had hoped, and it wasn’t enough punishment for being a failure, so I began using a knife or razor blade to carve words like “fat” and “disgusting” into my skin. Cutting was reinforcement: physical proof that I was damaged, not worth saving.
Then my habits started jeopardizing my escape plan: my education. I had my head in the toilet when it should’ve been in my books. After a string of failing grades I knew I had to take a medical leave from Dartmouth, because I knew the next term was going to be just as bad and after that I would be expelled. In the early days of January 2005, my reality became too heavy. Shedding hair and rotting teeth, I felt there wasn’t much else to lose. So, I tried to set myself on fire in the snow on the banks of a frozen pond near my college. Thankfully, I failed at that too.
But the shame of it followed me all the way home when I could no longer function at school. My parents couldn’t be at home to watch me all the time, so eventually they checked me into an inpatient treatment facility to get me medically stable. It’s working.
Now my eating disorder and self-injurious habits are in remission. Still, my life isn’t always easy. I’ve just moved back to South Carolina to care for my terminally ill parent. But the time I spent in treatment followed by several years of therapy taught me how to cope. I now have the tools to successfully deal with crises that come my way.
When I have a hard time communicating my emotions, I go for a walk. When I’m frustrated, I no longer pick up a razor blade. Instead, I stop and think about my accomplishments: I graduated from Dartmouth and I just earned my MFA. This past Thanksgiving, I even ran a Turkey Trot, my first 5K. Even though I had put my body through years of torture, finishing the race proved to me that my body was still strong and capable. I’m still strong and capable.
Food will always be part of my heritage, as it is for many African American women, but now my participation and interactions in the Southern tradition are different. Instead of slaving over a stove every week to commit my great-grandmother’s recipes to memory, I collect oral histories from the elders and write down their stories, documenting the experiences of the community so that the knowledge won’t be lost.
As I work to remain in recovery, it’s also my mission to help other young women do the same. I travel the country talking to young women about self-esteem and rarely a week goes by when I don’t get a Facebook message from young women from all over who have heard my story and are worried about their own health or a friend’s. I tell them that there is help, that they too can get better with treatment, that they are not alone.
Eating disorders don’t belong to a specific face or race or shape. Any one of us can fall victim to this sickness. And with help, any of us can be survivors.
Latria Graham's essay on bulimia can be found in the anthology Going Hungry: Writers on Desire, Self-Denial and Overcoming Anorexia. Follow her on Twitter.