Vanity or addiction?
“Hi. I’m AJ and I have an eating disorder. I have never shared before. I haven’t been to a meeting in awhile. I thought I was doing well.
I had a relapse recently. I thought I was doing okay because my desire to restrict was under control and I’ve gained some healthy weight. Except, the reason I restrict is to make myself small and I fell back into making myself small again. I backed down from a fight where I knew I was right because I’m scared of what the world thinks of me. I shrank myself down to nothing. And that’s why I have an eating disorder in the first place.
So I’m back. I know I’m at risk for falling back into my old behaviors so I’m going to start the process over.”
Back to Step One.
It’s tough for me to parse an eating disorder as an addiction, but that’s how it’s regarded in Eating Disorders Anonymous. I still can’t bring myself to say, “Hi, I’m A.J. and I’m an addict.” I don’t say it at the meetings. I tried it on in a poem a while back.
I don’t have an addictive personality in any other way. I don’t drink or smoke. I don’t get super obsessive about anything in particular, unless I’m in a state of flow, but that’s a whole other animal. That comes from a different place. I flow when I write. Flow is functional. Addiction is not.
Step One is to admit I am powerless over Anorexia.
I’m writing this because my first Step One, back in February, didn’t take. I mean, it kind of did, because I have stopped restricting my eating and have gained 15lbs. But 6 months later I am really digging into the reasons I chose to stop eating in the first place. And it was a choice. I had a conscious moment where I said to myself, “I’m not going to eat.” I remember it — that exact moment. At that moment, I thought it was my best chance to get my needs met. It was my first pill.
I think people struggle to relate to anorexics for that reason. We choose to not eat. We choose deprivation. There’s no influence of chemicals or fear of withdrawals. It’s the opposite of most addictions. It’s an omission, not an addition.
There’s a perception that it’s all about vanity. It’s not. It’s a silent scream for attention from people who don’t feel worthy of asking in any other way... It’s an “I’ll do anything if someone will just notice me and value me for something”. But it’s a special kind of attention. The kind that can consist only of praise. We recoil at the slightest criticism. No one criticizes skinny … until its gone too far.
But we all need attention. Attention feels like love.
So society puts anorexics and our bodies on a pedestal, until it decides that we are “too thin” and “gross”. Then we get shamed for our vanity and moral failings. Then we are abandoned — our biggest fear — with what feels like no way back. The psychological and physical damage has been done.
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Our bodies are literally our bottles of Jack. We can’t escape them in rehab or recovery. Once you believe that the only value you have is your physical appearance, there’s no point in living if your doesn’t body get you the attention and love you’re looking for. You either make it perfect or you die trying.
Except you don’t realize that perfect is not a thing. That the things you hate aren’t on the outside. And that, by the time you are ready to try to function without the self-hate, your brain has already reorganized itself to accomodate your dysfunction. That’s a shit ton of knots to untie.
Like a lot of things at the time in my life when my eating disorder started — around 14/15 — it was an experiment to get attention. I had always been naturally tall and athletic. I got a got of compliments on my skinniness and came to believe it was an invaluable asset that I had to protect. I had been a little weird kid and suddenly people paid attention.
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Tall and skinny is an enviable look. There was no way I was going to let go of it, puberty be damned. Girls wanted to be around it. Guys wanted to get their hands on it. I had this one, valuable asset. This one thing that fixed all of the problems I had had in my socially awkward childhood. People were willing to accept me as I was, as long as it came in that rare package. It got me attention.
It got my attention from my parents, too. Every time they said, “Please eat, AJ”, I would double down on not eating. It was working. They cared. They noticed. Dizzy be damned … I could live with dizzy. I couldn’t live with invisible anymore.
And I wanted a shield from the criticism and rejection that I felt too fragile to endure anymore. Making myself small felt like a fix.
My senior year in high school, 1997, I was dating the local football star. He had gone to the private, Catholic, athlete factory for his first four years, but didn’t graduate. He came to my public school for his fifth year before accepting his D1 football full ride, which is where we met.
We were sitting in his backyard on the dock of the lake.
“Babe! I forgot to tell you! You know Evan Hester!”
Eveything was “babe” with Mike.
“Yeah. I went to grade school with him. He was a real fucking asshole”
“That’s my boy! Baby girl…What happened to you???”
“What do you mean?”
“Baby…Evan said you were a troll in grade school! Like the ugliest little kid you could imagine. He said there was no fucking way you are hot now. He’d heard it from other people but couldn’t believe it.”
“Yeah…I wasn’t cute.”
“But Baby … he couldn’t even begin to imagine. You must’ve been a seriously ugly duckling. I told him you are the hottest chick I’ve ever seen and he wants to go out. Wanna go? I can’t wait to see the look on his face!”
“Okay. I get it. I was ugly. I’m not now. He kicked me on the playground in the 4th grade but now he wants to “hang out”. Hard pass.”
I never saw Evan Hester again, but I’ll never forget that conversation.
So here I am, once again, trying to dig the root out of my psyche. It’s tentacles reach farther than I could’ve imagined. There are parts of my eating disorder in every part of my life. They are in my parenting, in the way I carry my body, in my fears about my future, and in my everyday habits. Attempting to undo all of that has been one of the most difficult exercises in my life. It’s not like I can say, “I’ve gained 15lbs! I’m cured!” That’s not it. It not just about “accepting my body.” It’s about the beliefs that underlie that very first choice I made to refuse food. It’s about feeling unworthy of love. About feeling defective and broken and all of the walls I built to survive with those perceptions eating away at the core of my being.
I am, indeed, powerless. I’ve said the words before, but I feel them now.
In that sense, I am an addict. I don’t know how to function without those crutches…those bolsters.
They are stronger than I am.
I am powerless.