#$%^&* My Anorexia Said
Guest blog post by Dana Lise Shavin
Dana is a recovered anorexic and author of The Body Tourist, a gritty, blatantly honest, and funny memoir about life after eating disorders.
When I was fifteen, I went on a hike with some friends. One of their fathers chaperoned. On our way up a steep mountain trail, my friend’s father asked each of us what our number one goal in life was. I didn’t even have to think about it.
“To die thin,” I said.
He laughed. “You are thin,” he said. Which I was. But I couldn’t see it.
“If I was thin, I would be happy, and I’m not happy,” I said. “So obviously I’m not thin enough.”
My friend’s father was not equipped to confront my growing anorexic mindset, with its dangerous and deeply addictive hypothesis that thinness equals happiness, and as I recall, the conversation moved on to my friends who had real goals, like becoming teachers and doctors and musicians. Four years after that conversation, forty pounds lighter, I still wasn’t happy. But I was still dieting. Not surprisingly, I was hospitalized.
As a survivor of anorexia nervosa, there’s one question I get asked more than any other: What was the turning point in your recovery? It’s an interesting question, I think, because it assumes that recovery is linear—that it progresses from unrecovered to sort-of recovered to completely recovered without backtracking, relapsing, or second-guessing. It assumes there is an eye-opening event or insight that turns a light on in the anorexic brain and makes her say, “What was I thinking getting so thin? I must stop this right now!”
The truth, as we all know, is that recovery happens in fits and starts. You feel better one day and worse the next, eat healthily one day and starve the next. As time goes on, and you continue to do the work of recovery, maybe you eat healthily for two days or two weeks before you relapse. Maybe you eat healthily but feel terrible about yourself, or maybe you eat terribly or starve but feel a shift happening somewhere inside, and you know, without knowing how you know, that real change is coming. This is the true face of recovery.
So while there wasn’t so much a turning point, so to speak, on my anorexic journey, there was, along the way, a growing awareness about my situation. At nineteen, I had been expelled from college and sent home to my parents. Instead of living in a fun, noisy dorm, attending interesting classes, and hanging out with friends drinking interesting herbal teas in beautiful, snowy upstate New York, I was confined to a hospital ward in my disliked hometown of Atlanta. My long black hair, the one thing about my appearance I actually liked, was falling out in huge hanks. Everything I prided myself on: my independence, my spunk, my academic ability, my close relationships with my friends and my boyfriend, anorexia had devoured.
But I could only see this in glimpses. Because anorexia is an illusionist. Along with tricking me into believing happiness and contentment lay in a thinness I could never quite attain, anorexia obscured my ability to see my life, and the direness of my situation, clearly and consistently.
In the early days, weeks, and months of my recovery, I regained (and re-lost, and re-gained) a portion of my weight, each time allowing a few more of the pounds to stay. As my brain began to stabilize and my thinking began to clear, I became able—and (this is important) WILLING—to open my eyes to all the ways that anorexia was stealing my life, my friends, my independence, my joy, my sense of humor, and my future.
There was a growing understanding that I had a choice to make: I could live the way I was living (if I lived—I was already having serious blood sugar plummets and seizures) for years or decades, terrified of food and of eating, denying my body’s wants and needs, forever racing around in a haze of exercise while battling intense hunger.
Or I could put an end to the anorexic madness and get back to real life, which meant gaining enough weight to go back to college and pick up where I left off with my friends and my studies, and summoning the courage to face the difficult and the scary and the disappointing and the profoundly rewarding aspects of being human. The choice of whether to continue to live the painfully simplistic thin=happy fallacy, or to dig down deep inside myself and discover what was really keeping me from feeling happy—and then to do something about THAT—was mine and mine alone to make.
Easy? No. Worth the effort and the fear and the uncertainty and, yes, the restoration of my weight without any guarantees? Yes. My life is fuller, happier, more creative, more interesting, and more resonant than I ever believed it could be.
Like an ocean liner, recovery doesn’t turn on a dime. It takes dedicated and consistent time and effort. You are at the helm. Ask yourself: how do I want to live? What would my ideal life look like? Will your greatest achievement be that you died thin? Or will it be that you summoned your courage, faced your fears, and as a result you really, really lived?
About the author: Dana Lise Shavin was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and now lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1986, she obtained her Master's degree in Clinical Psychology and worked for fifteen years as a therapist, behavior specialist, and psychological examiner. For the past fifteen years, she has made her living as a fine art painter, exhibiting at outdoor art fairs and in galleries throughout the United States. In 2011, Dana returned to her mental health roots and became a certified professional life coach. She specializes in finding balance and fulfillment in life and work, and goal setting with soul. Dana's essays have appeared in a number of journals, including Oxford American, The Sun, The Writer, Alaska Quarterly Review, and many others. She has been a monthly columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press since 2002, and is the editor of the Chattanooga Jewish Federation newspaper, The Shofar. http://www.danashavin.com/