Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.
By Hannah Hammon, LCSW
- My Voice Matters. This took the entirety of my experience in 24-hour care to begin accepting. I recall about a month in that my already-high anxiety was peaking. I was certain my family was falling apart because I wasn’t there to help take care of things and, basically, be the glue to the family puzzle. My therapist spent a family session calling my family to ask how they were doing. I was crushed to learn that they were doing well, enjoying their lives, and solving their own problems. By themselves. It was what I needed to hear, really, but my eating disorder heard that I didn’t matter. They were doing just fine without me. My existence was pointless.
Fast forward time to a misunderstanding between me and my peers on the unit. I was known to be a singer while in treatment. I grew up on Disney and so regularly sang Disney songs. The girls would laugh and giggle whenever I sang and I immediately believed it was because they thought I was juvenile, stupid, annoying, and untalented. (I was a pretty good storyteller, am I right?) My negative thoughts grew over the next few weeks until they became the focus of therapy for two or three sessions. My therapist encouraged me to write a letter to my peers and read it to them in group. She wanted to help me see that the stories in my head were just that: really well-created stories that were based in emotion, not fact. I didn’t want to do this. What if she was right? What if I was making it all up? I would feel stupid. What if she was wrong and they really were making fun of me? I didn’t want to have to face that reality. What if they denied it to my face but secretly were making fun of me? I didn’t want to be the brunt of their jokes.
I eventually wrote a letter to the group (out of fear that I would disappoint my therapist if I didn’t do my homework). I brought it with me to group. I asked the group to listen to what I had written before they asked any questions or refuted my thoughts. I was shaking, sweating, anxious, and crying.
The group was really quiet when I finished my letter and I was sure it was because they were “caught in the cookie jar” (pardon the expression). What unraveled actually surprised me. They were taken off guard by my letter. They had no idea I was the least bit offended by their laughing. Why? Because I laughed with them and continued the jokes. They thought it was something I endorsed. They thought they were showing their love for me by laughing and joining in with me since they didn’t know the songs.
That group empowered me to keep opening my mouth in scary situations and speak my truth. Sometimes this got me into trouble because I would take a deep breath and, essentially say anything that came to mind without considering if it was hurtful. As an overanalyzer, if I tried communicating any other way, I would have stayed really silent. For me, the courageous thing to do was not to stay quiet and reflect. It was to speak and learn. That group began my journey of learning that what I had to say mattered and that people were willing to listen.
- I am not my body. I got countless compliments on my looks and body during the first four to five months of actively acting on my eating disorder. Yes, it is true. I got asked on a lot of dates and to a freshman filled with doubt, that was really validating. I assumed I was being asked out because of my looks. (Considering the people who were asking me out, that was probably true!) My older roommates were jealous and I took that to mean that I was important as long as I was being asked out. Well, as my eating disorder continued, I got asked on less dates because I was less approachable, more rigid, less authentic, and, as my sisters later informed me, I was “not very fun to be around.” That was disheartening for me. I didn’t understand that people were turned off by my eating disorder! I thought they were avoidant of *me*.
About 6 months after leaving treatment, I started school again. I became friends with one of the more popular kids in school and found out that he liked me. Man did that feel good! When we started going on dates, I was all a bundle of excitement! It was a January evening and the crunching snow, soft falling flakes, and street lights honestly made me feel like I was in a Hollywood movie. This kid turned to me and asked if I wanted to know why he was dating me. My self-esteem balloon was blowing up quickly. He said it was because I didn’t have “F. P.”
“What is that,” I inquired?
“Fat Potential,” he responded.
I was still new to recovery, still wanting to believe that people would like me for me and I was being told that the reason I was going on dates with Mr. Popular was because of my body. I stayed really quiet the rest of the date because I was struggling with how to talk about this really intense pain I had around his comment. I wanted him to be different; I wanted him to like me for something else. I wanted him to like me at any size. And his comment clearly let me know he was interested in my looks.
With the help of my roommates and some continued therapy, I decided to stop dating this guy. To me, I was saying goodbye to instapopularity (which was very important to me since I believed it would allow me to find my place in the university). Shallow though that may be, that was my head space at the time.
Because I said “no” to that relationship, I had the ability to say “yes” to a lot of friendships with people who were many shapes and sizes. And as I continued in my recovery journey, my body adapted to many shapes and sizes. With each shift in my body, I expected people to interact differently with me. Most people didn’t because they were more interested in my personality that was relatively consistent through all of the body changes.
- Stop making assumptions. I used to pride myself in being a mind reader. I wouldn’t have put that label on it at the time because it was a *fact* that people believed the way I thought. I didn’t ask if people were mad because I *knew* they were mad. I didn’t ask if people were hungry because I *knew* when they were hungry and what they wanted.
Both in residential treatment and in outpatient care I worked on listening to what people said and believing what they said at face value. If someone let me know they didn’t want to talk, I had to learn to accept that instead of believing they *did* want to talk but that there was something they didn’t like about *me*. If someone told me they would love to have me along for the ride, I had to accept that instead of believing they felt obligated to have me as a tag along and that I was a Service Project. I goofed many times and still assumed. I didn’t stop myself in the assumptions and reacted as if the story in my head were truth. No wonder I had some difficulty making lasting friendships! I wasn’t listening very well!
Over time I became more comfortable with taking things at face value and recognizing that a person’s capacity to tell me the truth was up to them, not me. If what they said to me wasn’t their truth, it was their issue to fix, not mine to assume and then take on. This lesson was harder to accept for my eating disorder and it put up a fight! Consistency with therapy and consistency in checking my assumptions out with others helped a lot.
- Some people will like me and some people won’t. One of my worst fears in starting recovery was that people wouldn’t like the healed me. I truly believed people liked me better when I was in my eating disorder. (Now I would call that inauthentic, anxious, and angry but then I would call it striving for perfection.) I was terrified to get to know myself, certain that I wouldn’t like who I met and certain others wouldn’t like her, either. Working through my people pleasing was particularly hard! I was scared to allow others to manage their own feelings! I was worried that if I spoke my truth that it would hurt others and then they wouldn’t like me.
I still remember it was early in 2005, just around 2 years after I discharged from 24-hour care. I was struggling to let go of yet another “little darling” (part of the eating disorder that had sneakily stayed in my life despite my best efforts to let it all go). The struggle was *real*! The grief of letting this go; the anger I felt that I even had the situation in the first place. I can’t say I was a very fun roommate to be around. So when one of my roommates said, “I miss the old Hannah,” I was devastated! How could she miss the old me? No one was supposed to miss the old me! They were all supposed to love the new me so that I could find the desire to stay in this crazy fight of recovery… And yet she said, “I miss the old Hannah.”
She was not the last who didn’t love the me that I am today. A different guy I was dating told me that he found me to be demeaning, belittling, harsh, and too sarcastic. Some of what he said was true and I needed to examine those parts of me to better understand my defenses that were getting in the way of my ability to form lasting romantic relationships. He was right that there were some changes I needed to make. But those were changes I was going to make for *me* so that I could become the person *I* wanted to become. In the past, I had made a lot of changes for others because *they* wanted me to be a certain way. For me, this was no longer a courageous choice. The courageous thing, for me, was to make changes because I wanted to. In other words, most of what he said needed to roll off my back and find its way out of my head because if I had heeded that, I would have made changes to make him happy and stayed in my people-pleasing space.
What I have learned, in general, however, is that the more I work on discovering who I truly am, the more people are drawn to me for the right reasons and the more they appreciate what I have to contribute. The me of 16 years ago would never consider being okay with less than 7.5 billion “friends” who approved of her every move. I am grateful for that girl and I am grateful for who I am today.
- Quitting and Failing are different. In my eating disorder, I would push myself mercilessly to finish assignments no matter how tired. I believed that to do anything else would be failing. In my disorder, if I had a problem with someone, I needed to ignore my feelings because “crying about it doesn’t fix anything,” I would say. I know I am not the only one who believed that quitting was the same thing as failing and failing was the same thing as quitting. This is important background so that the story makes more sense.
One of my semesters of college was very challenging. I was taking full-time credits and not working– for me, this was very challenging because I was used to working, volunteering, and maxing out on credit load. My medications were under a change and I had some shameful side effects. There were some dynamics with my roommates that aren’t important to divulge but it is important to know that there was strife in the small, breadbox-of-an-apartment that semester. About 1 month before the end of term I learned that my roommates had all spent significant time going out to spend time together so that they could gossip about me. I responded by people pleasing and being very agreeable because I believed it would somehow stop them from being so mean. I was wrong.
Rather than quit the roommate situation after what I now consider valiant effort (I had put in 3 months of time trying to develop friendships or even agreeable living space and was getting nowhere), I believed I needed to tough this all out, “be the bigger person,” “turn the other cheek,” and do whatever they thought was best for the dynamics in the apartment. I pushed down my hurt for the next 3 weeks. I didn’t acknowledge how painful it was to know they had been gossiping about me. Three weeks of ignoring my own feelings and I was not doing well with managing my life.
With the help of my dad, mom, therapist and his colleague, I quit. I quit living there even though I had paid for the duration of the semester. I quit living there even though there was a week or two left of school. I quit living there even though we lived in the same community and attended the same church congregation. Because if I hadn’t quit, I would have shut down from the me I had started to develop and grow. Leaving that apartment took a lot of courage, not weakness, because it was harder for me to do than sticking around.
See, sometimes quitting is the noblest, most brave thing we can do. We stop holding up our sword and shield, waiting to be ambushed with hurt, and notice who is on the other side of the battlefield. Because I chose to quit, I found the support and the strength I needed to continue my recovery and continue the semester. I never stopped trying to be my best self and so I never failed.