The relentless efforts to keep our dresser drawers tidy. To keep our homes organized, classy and clean. To keep our lives on track and in check. It is so easy for some people. Not so easy for others.
It is no secret to the people close to me that I suffered from an eating disorder in my late teens through my early 20s. What is even less of a secret is how many people suffer from eating disorders in the United States—according to the Eating Disorder Foundation, based here in Denver, about 30 million people suffer from eating disorders, possibly even more if you count those who never seek help.
There are too many theories at play that attempt to define what, exactly, is the cause of an eating disorder for me to really say. Personal history means everything, and sometimes it doesn’t. What I have noticed though is that culturally speaking, low self-esteem or self-worth in women is almost expected (I’m a woman so I’m speaking from my perspective—I’m aware that men suffer, too). The classic sitcom tangle between husband and wife and her insecurities—“does my butt look big in this?”—is enough to say that it’s practically a social norm as a female to base our value on how we look and how much we weigh. After being through hell and back, one thing I did realize was that my lack of ability to confront things—namely, things that affected me, hurt me, and crossed my boundaries, was directly correlated to my level of self-worth.
The more I let it happen, the more it spiraled inwards, coiling tightly around my mind. The doors get locked. The muscles grow weak and tired. You know that sinking feeling you get when someone insults you or hurts your feelings? It creates a kind of grievance, or you get angry but save face for the sake of, oh, just so you don’t cause conflict, or were afraid of what would happen if you stood up for yourself. Is that just me? Hmm. Have you ever paid $800 to get your brake pads replaced because you didn’t want to tell the guy to take his rotors and shove it? These tiny things built up inside of me for years. Every time I let somebody walk on me, I could feel a tug pull me deeper inside of myself. Like my insides would consume me alive.
After your first major leap at recovery, you stop the behaviors. When trouble strikes, they pull. I was working out fairly consistently, building some muscle and generally feeling like a lady beast. My guy said, “If you get muscley I’m not going to be attracted to you anymore.”
That is not a paraphrase. I was livid, man. Livid. But I didn’t stand up for myself. I skipped dinner for three days straight and lost three or four pounds, and I knew it was water weight but the dizzying whir of my disappearance had me too high to care. When I don’t create boundaries, this is what happens. Not standing up for myself puts craters in my chest. In the sense that it makes me feel empty, frustrated and conflicted. Like I deserve it. Like I deserve low self-esteem.
But newsflash, I do not deserve this. Nobody does.
That guy is now an ex. Because if you don’t put your boot down when it happens, you might never be ready to say no. No. This is my soul, my body, and my mind. It is not yours. Leaving him taught me how to say what I need when I need. It taught me how to tell somebody I didn’t need whatever semi-socially-acceptable-abuse they had to dish out. If my feelings get hurt, now I say something. I get it out. At one point in my life that was an absolutely horrifying thought—I didn’t want anybody to be mad at me for being upset. I didn’t want to cause waves and it was easier to just suffer instead of confronting. Because then they’d be living life fine and I wouldn’t have to worry about the repercussions of saying no.
Part of living without consuming the self is living openly, without fear. To say yes to the consequences of standing up for yourself. To say yes to personal responsibility and making others accountable for their actions towards you. I’m not saying you should punch the mechanic in the face every time he tries to charge you too much for your brakes, but damn, get that guy to at least itemize your invoice so you can figure out how he’s trying to upsell you (and then say no and go to a better mechanic).
It takes a lot of small baby steps to go from loathing to loving. I’m a firm believer in the fact that recovery from an eating disorder is life-long. Recovery from anything is life-long. You can break the behaviors and stop yourself from doing the stupid things so that you become more stable-minded (because starving/purging/being depressed is a total feedback loop that cycles in on itself) but it takes just as much constant, consistent effort to seriously, truly love yourself as it does to bottle up your feelings and get on while you try and restrict your diet and lose weight and participate in the myriad other activities you do to alleviate your constant self-loathing.
When it comes to self-worth, the flowers only grow on one side of the fence. You’re gonna struggle either way. Life itself is a struggle. All of it. Every little struggling amoeba is dancing around, dealing with the same melancholy you feel right now. One side is the downward spiral staircase of your basement mind. The other side leads to the development of higher self-worth and being content with ones’ self. And that is rewarding. That struggle is worth it.
Elle Groves is a freelance reporter, writer and blogger bent on deconstructing diet culture and keeping her life full of food, fitness, family and friends. She is currently writing a novel that spans the rise and fall of a girl’s struggle with eating disorders and her DIY-recovery. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org