The Exquisite Joy and Pain of Learning to Love Myself

Experts estimate that about 8 million people in the U.S. are currently suffering from an eating disorder—and that’s not even to mention the long, arduous process of recovery nor the rampant misunderstanding of these issues in our culture. As a nod to Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 26 to March 4), we’ll be featuring some of our most thought-provoking content on body image, diet talk, and the stigma and shame that millions of women deal with on a daily basis. Above all else, know that you’re not alone—and if you need help and don’t know where to begin, reach out to the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at (800) 931-2237.

Photo:

Paley Fairman

It’s January 2, and the tall windows of my local yoga studio are opaque with condensation, a signal to passersby that the room within is packed and sweaty with New Year’s resolve. Even I can’t help but see the joke in it for a moment as I stand shoulder to shoulder with my neighbors, stretching into Downward-Facing Dog en masse. We are, after all, a collective cliché—statistically speaking, the crowd will likely thin out in a matter of weeks as the idea of a fresh start begins to grow stale. But then I chide myself mid-judgment because I know that in dismissing everyone here, I’m ultimately dismissing myself. And the notion that brought me here is far more complicated than post-holiday pudge.

Yes, I’d like to see some changes in my body. I want to be stronger; I want to shift the stubborn five pounds that have taken up residence around my midsection since moving to Los Angeles from New York City. (If you ever want to gain weight, move to a city where everyone drives.) I’ve been antsy about it for a few months—antsy but terrified. I don’t just stand to lose an inch or two around my waist, but also gain love and respect for myself and my body, a sentiment with which I’m only just starting to get acquainted.

Those who have suffered from eating disorders might understand the distinct, disorienting pain of starving yourself so much that one morning you wake up and realize you’ve lost so much more than weight. It is at this precise moment that you understand just how much more you are than flesh and blood because you can’t find the rest of it. You can’t find yourself or your place in the world. You’re only bare bones, shivering with the echoes of that brutal voice that got you here. The voice that said that you were taking up too much space, so you had better make yourself smaller. And smaller. And smaller.

And that alone is the most difficult part of recovery: tethering your soul back to the shell from which you excavated it.

Now, the voice is no longer cruel but cautious. Anxious. Careful, she says. You know this slippery slope well—it only took you five years to climb out of it.

And that alone is the most difficult part of recovery: tethering your soul back to the shell from which you excavated it.

Really, it’s been a little more than a year since I first understood that I was already on the road to healing—because against all my deepest, most impatient hopes, the belief system I had spent more than two decades cultivating would not just shatter away in an instant. It took several months of therapy, support from dear friends and family, and a series of lifestyle shifts to pick away at my deeply calcified uncertainty, injury, and criticism to find the self-respect and appreciation that, frankly, I never knew I had. “Two steps forward, one step back,” my mother would gently remind me when I grew particularly restless in my recovery, until I finally bothered to look over my shoulder and realized that the battered person I once embodied was only a shimmering hologram in the distance. I realized I was different. I realized I was happy.

Imagine pulling yourself onto a sun-dappled dock, lungs burning, after daring yourself to scrape the bottom of a lake that was just a little too deep. Can you blame me for worrying that this long-awaited contentment is precarious? That I might lose it all in an instant and fall back in before I even had a chance to fully catch my breath—and just because I want my jeans to fit a little better?

So I take it slow. I go to yoga and hike because they’re the two activities that feed my mind while strengthening my body. I eat healthy, nourishing foods because I want to take care of the vessel that took years to rebuild. I indulge occasionally because I am human and because deprivation has never tasted so bitter. When I feel myself spiraling, I seek out friends or treat myself rather than wallowing. And now, I marvel at the muscles starting to peek through my midsection because I am finally strong. I laugh aloud when I find myself balancing in a yoga pose that escaped me last week. I laugh again when I fall over. I forgive myself when I’m feeling bloated and cranky. I lose those five pounds, but my jeans still don’t fit because my body has changed—and I realize it doesn’t matter. I drop them off at Goodwill and feel even lighter.

Most importantly, I give myself credit. I know myself and what I am capable of more than ever before because I put my soul back together slowly, piece by piece. I know that I can seek change while loving myself all the while because I have already changed.

But this is just one journey. You can read more stories about eating disorder recovery here.