When I was 18 I was “vegan.” I put that in quotation marks because I was really just terrified of food. I was terrified, after a long year fighting severe and painful anorexia, of nothing being “off limits.” The concept of being able to eat anything I desired utterly choked me with fear, as in no air could reach my lungs at just the thought of it. So I devised rules.
When I was anorexic I was coined a particular strain: “orthorexic.” Ever heard of it? I hadn’t either. It’s a real thing.
Orthorexia, in essence, is an unhealthy obsession with healthy food. This is usually in regard to behaviors of restrictive nature, as opposed to someone who eats a hearty, healthy diet. The disorder can be read about in detail here: http://www.orthorexia.com/original-orthorexia-essay/
Flash back to me at 18, sitting in a college classroom (English 1A, my most excellent subject), and a teacher whose name became one of my ED mantra’s. DEBLASIO. I wrote her name on my white board as an incognito reminder to stay skinny after she said one day, in front of the whole class, “Most women aren’t blessed with being tall and naturally slim, Sara you’re an exception.” What would have been a compliment to anyone else might as well have branded my forehead with an oozing, blistering burn. I knew I was skinny then, but I was also hyper-aware of the fact that I couldn’t maintain that skinniness. I couldn’t because I hadn’t yet learned the golden lesson of balance and moderation. I had just emerged from the pits of dark and dingy anorexia into the world that was now so bright it blinded me. In order to cast some shade on the situation, I hid beneath the veil of veganism. Literally hiding. Yes, I cared deeply about animals and animal rights, but I had no idea what I was doing when I became vegan. To be quite frank, I was taking the less nutritious route. I was 18 and most of the vegan sustenance I consumed came out of packages from Whole Foods. I also found it a “safe” way to indulge. But, after being horrifically anorexic and restricted in my food consumption for over a year, I wasn’t able to just indulge. I overindulged. I began to practice binging. I was horrified. I still hate talking about it. And I stayed skinny, for a long time. I never got fat. I did eventually put on weight, but on my 5’10” frame it never got out of control, I always stayed within a healthy weight range (though there were times I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror when I got to the higher end of my “healthy weight range,” which I did).
Now flash to me sitting in that same English 1A classroom on Halloween. I was vegan and had been for a while, but my desperate need to satiate the poor, starving teenager I’d been for so long was rearing her ugly head. I had mounds, kit kat, reese’s and god knows what other non-vegan, hideously unhealthy treats littering my desk just like everyone else. I began to scoop them into my backpack literally in between turns telling anyone who would listen, “I can’t eat this, I’m vegan.” I’m pretty sure I even popped one or two pieces in my mouth in class when no one was looking and then shoved the wrappers in my pockets. I was a complete mess and I was completely unsuspected, in my skinny body. Yet another reason to never judge a book by its cover. Underneath the cover I was tattered, torn and disintegrating.
Before I entered the dark, haunting world of binging, I would get out of school every afternoon and log my time on the treadmill at the gym where I worked. I hated it. I’d let myself take a sip of water every 10 minutes, to break up the run. I’d watch my ponytail sway to and fro in the mirror, trying to forget the fact that I completed the same run yesterday and, before I knew it, would be back on the treadmill tomorrow. I would leave red faced and completely unprepared to nourish my body after such a workout. I lifted no weights. I had no concept of healthy exercise. I’d run a nearly five mile loop through my rural town without any inkling of how far I’d run, or how much I needed to eat to actually benefit from the exercise, to actually build muscle and strengthen my heart. I was a hamster on a wheel, subsisting on air puff cereal and creepy frozen vegetable stir-fries.
I was honestly no happier at my thinnest than I was three jeans sizes up. I had boyfriends in both bodies, I had times of brilliant fun in both bodies, I was painfully alive in both bodies…but I was tortured on the inside. I had no idea what my “normal” body was, I was so busy either restricting or trying to make up for all of the restriction by binging, certain the next day would I would wake up balanced and “normal.”
What the hell is normal anyway?
I feel pretty normal now, in comparison to my past, though it’s taken me hmm…six years to get here. And the journey continues. I firmly believe one is never really “there,” as life is truly a journey and not a destination. But compared to the fucked upness that was my poor heart, self-esteem, behavioral patterns and my mind all those years ago, I would qualify my psyche today as the most “normal” I’ve ever been in relation to food, health, and wellness. I have achieved balance. I have achieved moderation. I have chosen a semi-vegan diet for environmental, health and animal wellness reasons. I practice yoga and lead an active lifestyle rather than punishing myself with hours on a treadmill. I write about all the nasty gunk I’ve locked up in the depths of my soul (see essay above) to purge the waste that was my eating disorder. I actively reach out to those suffering from eating disorders and work towards prevention with my writing and wellness advocacy. I strive to lead yoga retreats one day that will help build the self-esteem that I once lost, and will now never let go again.
No I’m not perfect. Yes I still have to keep tabs on my mentality, to make sure I’m being kind to my body when I look in the mirror. I am dedicated to my wellness path because I spent too long abusing my body; I’m perhaps overly protective of my health now, hence my passion for superfoods, holistic nutrition, yoga and the introspective journey of self-discovery, but I’ve earned that right. I’ve trudged through the muck of self-loathing that an eating disorder erects around a person’s once rational mind.
The difference between the treadmill-running, vegan-cookie-binging, terrified out of her size two pants, 18 year old me and the healthy, balanced, ever learning, wellness educated 24 year old me is this: five years, a hell of a lot of trial and error, trauma induced fearlessness, and the knowledge that food simply can’t medicate a person or hide the truth. It’s the truth that will emerge from beneath food wrappers, climbing it’s way out of an overcooked vegetable stir-fry, and through the lid of a nonfat latte…it’s not about the food. It’s not about the body. It’s not about the weight. It’s about life, control, fear; and the only remedy for the suffering is truth. I fell a little deeper in, upon recognizing the truth, but that extra fall is what knocked me hard enough to want to climb. It’s what lit a fire beneath me, what urged me to dig my nails into the gritty black walls and start clambering up.
I’ll never stop climbing. Yes, I’m well now, I’m absofreakinglutely blissful to be in the sunlight again. But I’ll never stop climbing. Because as dark and dingy as the bottom is, I now know I can never climb high enough. I am not that broken, tortured 18 year old girl anymore, but I’ll never stop loving her. I’ll never stop apologizing to her. I’ll never deny her her truth. I’ll never be fallen and broken again, like I was, because now I know how to climb. It’s not to say life will always be perfect, that light will always shine on my path. There will be struggles of every sort, I’m sure, but now I know how to climb. And if I’ve only learned one lesson in six years, it’s that you can’t be afraid to fall, or you’ll never start climbing.