When I was younger, I was told over and over again what great willpower I had. On Sundays, when my friends were out in town grabbing lunch or shopping at the mall, I was at my desk studying- phone outside my room. When my mom bought me several different shirts to try on and pick, I’d only ever keep one, even if the others fit well and looked good. In high school, I was one of the few girls on the lacrosse team who followed the rigorous winter training schedule designed by the boys’ team head coach. Whenever people would marvel at my apparent resilience, toughness, focus, and discipline, they’d call it “willpower.” Often, this word was said with appreciation- sometimes, even a twinge of jealousy. Many people said it like they could not relate, following their initial comment with, “I could never do that!”
Today, at 21 years old, in the middle of my junior year of college and still battling recovery after almost two years, I can tell you that not all rigidity is good. Rather, willpower- the kind that you cannot physically and/or mentally let go of- can hurt you terribly. During refeeding at home, I experienced some of the worst fights, panic attacks, and inner battles. The “three meal and three snack,” “parents decide,” “put on multiple pounds a week” plan tested all of my most practiced, established, and “successful” routines.
No more cutting out food groups? No more speed walks? No more packing, jumping jacks, crunches? No more late–night binges on celery and carrots? Before beginning family-based treatment (FBT), I didn’t fully understand the way I relied on these behaviors. I needed them to feel strong, in-control, put together, and most of all, at ease. These routine actions were not signs of “willpower”; instead, they were signs of desperation, loneliness, and true anxiety.
In a month, I leave to go abroad to University of Florence in Italy. Amidst all of the packing, vaccinations, and final appointments, I have lacked time to truly reflect on how amazing it is that I am going on this adventure. Just a year ago, probably at this exact time of night, I was sitting on Zoom with my therapist, one parent on either side of me, having a “family meeting.” In January of last year, I was arguing with my parents about what the phase following refeeding should look like. I was begging for independence and space. After all, I’d taken the semester off from sophomore year of college and was living at home doing virtual classes. If I’d gained all the necessary weight, shouldn’t I be able to go solo now and make my own choices about food and exercise?
The battles that went on in my house around this time last year were not only volatile, loud, and disruptive; they were also heartbreaking. Because my mom was the one preparing the meals and enforcing the “rules” surrounding exercise and FBT, we had several disagreements. Sometimes, I think back to the words we exchanged at our worst moments, and I feel physically sick to my stomach.
Today, my mom and I went on an afternoon walk together, occasionally linking arms. We talked about her plans to visit me in Florence with my uncle, the birthday gifts she’d received from her friends, the recent highlights of my new (and first) college relationship. We talked about why we never got a dog (ugh- huge mistake in my opinion), the seemingly increasing number of deer in our town, whether lime “Bubbly” is better than lemon “La Croix.” Tonight, we worked on narrowing down my packing list (believe me, it’s hard not to pack your whole closet when going abroad). Our relationship is better at this point than I can ever remember. I really don’t feel like I have much to thank “E.D.” for, but I do believe that the challenges and adversity we faced as a family has make us stronger and more resilient.
Circling back to my initial reflections on the word, “willpower,” I wonder: when does self-discipline turn into self-punishment? When does it all become self-deprecating and self-destructive? Can we determine the transition ourselves, or do we need others to awaken us? I’ve come to the conclusions that we need the help of others in times when we have lost track of our own needs, desires, and passions. Today, I can thank my family, friends, and myself for showing me that we can never, ever show ourselves too much kindness. Willpower can mean different things for different people and different situations. But now I personally know that, for me, the willpower that I must try to practice is shutting down critical voices and having the strength to reconfigure new behaviors.
Thank you for reading <3