I was honoured to have been asked to speak at this year Recovery Day event in my hometown of Victoria, BC Canada. Here is what I said:
Everybody has a story.
I recently achieved a life-long goal of publishing MY story: a memoir, entitled INSANE. The title may seem overly dramatic but if you read it you’ll understand, and my greatest hope is that you will relate.
While preparing for this talk I initially thought I would read an excerpt from the book. However my story, the only one I have, I could not sum up in less than 53,000 words. Consequently, finding a short excerpt to embody and convey a message of what living with an eating disorder is like… Well, I simply could not do it.
If you are here today because you are striving for or are in recovery, you probably understand this statement. For those of you here today who are allies of recovery, or perhaps grieving the loss of someone who never made it to recovery, or maybe you are a mere passerby -I want to emphasize how important this point is.
Addiction -whether it be in the form of substance, sex, eating or not eating- cannot be summed up and neatly contained into a cookie-cutter story. This is what makes recovery so complex. There is no single illness, therefore there is no single solution. Each person needs to find the path that works for them.
I developed an eating disorder when I was only 8 years old. Throughout my childhood and adolescence my favourite phrase was “I can stop if I want, I just don’t want to.” I whole-heartedly believed this to be the truth. Through a series of circumstances, I thought I chose to have an eating disorder, and therefore I would be able to choose when to not have one.
I had no idea Anorexia is a serious mental illness, with a sky high mortality rate: the deadliest of all mental illnesses. I had no idea it would entirely take over my every thought, feeling, and action, and tear apart my life for years to come. I had no idea that I couldn’t just stop when I wanted to. I had no idea I would nearly be one among the statistics, time after time brought back from the brink of death.
Eating Disorders, as any addiction, begin innocently but turn out to trap you in a tight grip. It feels impossible to not obey the thoughts which bring about incomprehensible rules and rituals. At first there is a fear of defying the sickness, which brings a wave of chaotic punishing self-talk and emotions of self-loathing and failure. Then comes the point when reality kicks in and the fear becomes panic of imminent death. My heart simply cannot take it after nearly 2 decades.
My eating disorder brings a severe sense of hopelessness and isolation. At times I have been suicidal because I felt I was trapped on a mary-go-round that would never end. My usual social and outgoing personality diminished as I was stuck in the private hell of my head.
It breaks my heart to see how it has affected my family. I kept it secret from my parents for years until it was too evident to ignore, and the secrecy meant to protect them back-fired as their child was dying and they could not eat for me, nor continue recovery for me. I feel the sense of helplessness of those who love me, but I don’t think I will ever fully understand. I have terrific friends who have stuck by me; however I have also lost friends due to my insane behaviours and pushing them away when I felt so worthless and humiliated.
I am not going to stand here and say I am recovered. I am not going to say I feel hopeful all the time that I WILL recover. But I am IN recovery nonetheless, because I don’t give up.
I have come to accept eating will be a struggle for the rest of my life. My aspiration is not to never skip a meal or never vomit or never exercise again; My aspiration is to not have every single day be a struggle, and to achieve longer and longer periods of wellness; My aspiration is to stop my lapses from becoming relapses.
I have talked today about the pain of living in an eating disorder. Living in recovery is difficult because it takes so much time and effort to change ingrained thoughts and behaviours -but it brings so much joy! I am able to reconnect with loved family and friends; I am able to engage in activities I am passionate about.
The best part is discovering more about myself: learning who I am as a person and not simply an illness. I have learned I AM NOT MY EATING DISORDER! I am a person of value. I used to think having an eating disorder made me a better person. I know now that it diminishes my great qualities and takes away my zest for life. I have learned to love who I am without an eating disorder. I have learned to love who I am in spite of being mentally ill.
In preparation for speaking today, I was given some prompt questions. One of them asked, “If you could go back in time to when you started getting sick, what would you have told yourself?” I thought a lot about this question.
The truth is, I would have said nothing, but I would have taken my broken 8-year-old hand and walked along side. I do not believe anyone or anything could have prevented my getting sick. I DO believe I gave up and abandoned myself along the way. I cannot change the past; but I do have the ability to change my future.
Society places astronomical pressure upon physical appearance -for both men and women. The fact is it always has, but our ideals have morphed through the decades and centuries. Many people put the blame of eating disorders on media portrayal of celebrities. Let me be clear that no outside force can GIVE someone a mental illness. Media certainly contributes to disordered thoughts and behaviours, but in order to develop an actual eating disorder there are most definitely other mitigating factors.
I started by saying everybody has a story. This comes full circle. Addiction is mental illness, which is comprised of various components from societal pressure or family troubles, down to a physiological cellular level. So before you judge someone based on their seemingly insane actions in addiction, please consider they, like you, have a story.
So let’s invite them to tell it!
Thank you for your presence.