By Hannah Joseph
Hope is a reason to take action, to make a plan and then to change the plan when it isn’t working….
I’m never sure where to start when I tell my story. I was a severely anxious and overly-sensitive child with recurring nightmares, OCD-like rituals, and a host of sensory issues. I remember having body dysmorphic thoughts and feelings as early as 4 years old. At 13, my anxiety was replaced by the severe depression that would be my near constant companion for the next 10 years. My path into my eating disorder started at 14 with restricting my food intake so I wouldn’t gain weight after giving up the sports I had been active in my whole life. My weight fluctuated for the next three years as I alternated between restricting and over-eating but never enough that anyone noticed. And then, few weeks before my 18th birthday, I stopped eating almost completely. Thing got very bad quite quickly. And then they got worse. The next six years would see me caught in a never ending cycle of binging, purging, starving, abusing diet pills and laxatives, over-exercising, and self-harming. I was often suicidal, experienced frequent panic attacks, used drugs and alcohol and engaged in every self-destructive, impulsive behavior you can think of from driving almost everywhere at 100 mph without a seatbelt to walking through dangerous parts of foreign cities alone in the middle of the night.
Honestly I’m not sure that any of that matters – when it started, how long I was sick, how much weight I lost, or the specific behaviors that I engaged in. Here is what does matter: My illness did not fit neatly into any diagnostic categories. I am both incredibly anxious and highly impulsive. My depressive episodes are accompanied simultaneously by hypomanic symptoms. I crossed the lines between anorexia, bulimia, and ednos more times than I can count. Even now I do not fit into a PTSD diagnosis but I clearly suffer from trauma related symptoms. I want people to know that even from an incredibly complicated and muddled starting point, recovery is possible.
I celebrated five years in recovery this month although, as with the illness, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when recovery started. Was it when I stopped binging and purging? When I stopped over-exercising? When I stopped counting calories or relying rigidly on a meal plan? Was it when I reached what everyone thought was my “healthy” weight or when my weight stabilized 20lbs above that number? I don’t know for sure when I stopped being sick but I can tell you what being well looks like. It looks like eating all types of foods without guilt or fear. It looks like being active in ways I enjoy because I want to not because I have to. It looks like playing soccer once a week, not caring that I’m not very good, and drinking beer and eating nachos with my teammates afterwards. Recovery means accepting that I need to maintain my weight where my body wants to be even if I don’t really like it. It means understanding my life-long vulnerability to my illness and doing the things I need to to stay well. It looks like asking for support when I am struggling.
People ask me how I got better. I tell them it took a lot of food, finding the right medications and learning the right skills. It took a lot of time and support from people around me and a huge amount of luck – a million little things happened at the right time to keep me on the right track and a million little things that could have derailed me did not happen. I know this answer is frustratingly vague and I so wish I had more concrete advice to give them.
There is one thing I can say with the utmost certainty: finding good information about my illness changed the course of my life. I found F.E.A.S.T in 2007 and began reading the forum daily. Until that point I had only encountered old school ideas about eating disorders – that it was my parents’ fault or society’s fault, both of which I interpreted as meaning that it was mostly my fault. I wish I could say that I was an instant convert to a biologically-based view of EDs or that once converted I was able to immediately begin to apply the principles to my own recovery, but neither of those are the truth. At first I thought the parents on ATDT were horribly misguided – how could they not know that eating disorders aren’t about food? I was, however, immediately struck by how much these parents cared about their children and so I kept reading and gradually noticed something: their kids seemed to be getting better while almost everyone I knew from treatment stayed sick. So I started reading the books and articles recommended on the forum and slowly my view of eating disorders in general and my narrative about my own illness – and what was needed for recovery – began to change. This new perspective allowed me to begin to forgive myself and my family. It allowed me stop searching for reason and meaning where there was none, where there was only ever my own muddled brain chemistry playing malicious tricks on me. It took another three years and several false starts before any of this translated into any lasting change but I know that finding FEAST changed my life.
People tell me I should be proud of myself for my strength and persistence and I am but I don’t for one second believe that those were the key ingredients in my recovery. I do not believe that the way I found recovery should be considered roadmap for anyone else. My recovery is not more real because I did it myself and the fact that my illness did not kill me first is some sort of miracle. Allowing anyone to continue in their eating disorder until they can find their own way out is cruel and misguided and will most likely fail. So while my story is one of hope, it is not a how-to guide. Hope is a wonderful thing and I am truly honored if my story can provide that for anyone but hope by itself is not enough. Hope is the reason to take action, to make a plan and then to change the plan when it isn’t working – over and over and over again if necessary.
I want to tell caregivers that your loved one wants to get better even if they can’t show it. Nobody wants to live in the hell that is an eating disorder but getting out seems impossible and they need you to believe in recovery for them. I want to tell you that their unspoken anger and hurt if you do nothing will be far greater and longer lasting than the words of hatred they will hurl at you when you intervene. And I want to tell sufferers that recovery is real even though you can’t imagine it. You are not too broken – you can be whole again. There are so many wonderful things waiting for you on the other side of this battle. To everyone facing this hideously unfair and horribly misunderstood illness: just keep going. This journey is not never-ending and the view from the top is pretty awesome.
Hannah is 29 and has been in recovery from her eating disorder for five years. She lives in San Diego with her husband and their dog. Hannah currently works at a residential mental health treatment center and plans on pursuing a career in the eating disorder field.