National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 24 - March 1) may be coming to a close, but that doesn't mean the conversation around these serious, life-threatening illnesses should stop. In fact, we think this week, which is dedicated to increasing outreach and awareness of eating disorders and body image issues, should be just the beginning of a larger, ongoing movement. To keep the positive momentum going, we asked seven women who have struggled with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating to share the powerful lessons they wish someone had told them many years ago.
After nine years of bulimia, Gray finally realized that she needed to change — for good — when she was pregnant with her third child, a daughter. Says Gray: "It really hit me, knowing that what I did would affect her. I mean, where do we first learn about dieting? From our mothers, of course. I decided that she would only hear me talk about being healthy and strong, not skinny."
What I wish I'd known: "Know that one bad meal doesn't make you fat, just like one good meal doesn't make you skinny. It's not all or nothing. It's easy to think that when we eat something ‘bad,' we feel like we've failed and we are doomed, but life is full of opportunities to make better choices.”
After years of struggling with her eating disorder, Wright knew she had to change when she met the man she would later marry. Says Wright: "He was bold enough to point out how I was treating my body and stirred up in me the desire to truly get healthy. What started as me changing myself for him turned out to be the exact change I needed for myself.”
What I wish I'd known: "Think about the person you want to be five years from now — does your current behavior and poor body image have a place there? I'm guessing no."
T began throwing up daily at nine years old — a pattern that continued for a decade. She says that her bulimia became so consuming it affected everything in her life, from relationships to friendships to school. Says T: "I remember crying after throwing up my grandfather's roast dinner that he'd spent hours making me on my birthday," she says. Eventually, she came to understand that she didn't have to feel this way, discovering that "there are actually people out there who think of things other than how they look. There are people who are healthy and happy and not a slave to that feeling of worthlessness that accompanies eating disorders." But the real reality check came when her doctor told her she likely wouldn’t be able to have kids as a result of starving herself throughout puberty.
What I wish I'd known: "It is possible to live a life where you love yourself, you love your body, and you can appreciate your body for the other stuff it does, like growing babies, lifting heavy stuff, and hugging friends. I look at my body so differently now and am so proud of how strong and beautiful it is. I have a huge belly, big breasts, and love handles — and I've never looked more beautiful in my life."
For Prins, rock bottom came when a doctor officially diagnosed her with slow heart rate (bradycardia), low bone mineral density, and amenorrhea (absence of periods). Says Prins: "He told me that I was an anorexic, not just the thin bodybuilder I had been trying to be. I was shocked. I hadn’t gotten my period in months — I was aware of that. I was depressed and suicidal —I was aware of that too. But to hear a doctor tell me that I was at risk of killing myself for real… that was the moment I knew that something was wrong. I had been seeking help for years and fighting with those who offered it when I asked, but at that moment, I realized that no one could help me but me. I left the doctor’s office and drove to Whole Foods, where I ordered a sandwich with avocado, turkey, and cheese — carbs, fat… you know, “fear foods." I ate it, crying in my car. And then I drove home, ready to do the work."
What I wish I'd known: "Blogging, sharing my story, and publicly writing down things for which I’m grateful every single day have been hugely instrumental in my continued commitment to recovery. You don’t have to start a blog or talk about your eating disorder on Twitter like me, but acts like journaling, talking to a trusted friend, and writing down something you’re grateful for every single day can help remind you why you are doing the work and why your life — and your body — is worth living in!"
Anorexic since 16, it wasn't until she made the connection between her illness and her relationship with her "loving but controlling" mother that Zilberman was able to start healing. "I had to distance myself (both literally and emotionally) from her and instead align myself with my loving, supportive now-fiance," says Zilberman. "I got rid of the negativity and surrounded myself instead with support and positivity.”
What I wish I'd known: "Read a lot of literature to try and understand why you have the disease in the first place. The best way to conquer something, in my opinion, is to know it!"
An unhealthy relationship brought Pope to a very dark place. Even after she left the relationship, she still suffered, using bingeing to deal with all the pain. Eventually a coworker suggested that Pope see her sister, a counselor. "The first time I said to her, 'I just want you to know, I'm so messed up. I don't think you can fix me.' She looked at me and said 'try me'." Pope decided to trust her. "I kept going, and I keep going, to counseling because the desire to change is greater than the safety of staying in that dark place. I am not cured. I am more aware."
What I wish I'd known: "Don't be afraid to ask for help. Know that wherever you are in the process of recovery, it's okay — no matter how desolate you may feel, your feelings are not bad."
Meier first realized her eating disorder was getting in the way of her goals in life when she signed up to run a 5K and panicked about being "the most unhealthy runner out there." She says that she didn't want people to see her as "someone who was skin and bones thinking they could be competitive, when in reality, I probably would’ve passed out before crossing the finish line. I wanted so badly to have the perfect ‘athlete's body,’ and I knew the moment I pondered signing up for that race that I was anything but athletic and fit."
What I wish I'd known: "That instead of some abstract idea [that] I might possibly, maybe be causing my body permanent damage, I was absolutely, 100 percent causing myself permanent damage. I still love to run but suffer from stress fractures due to low bone density from those six or so years of my life.”
How do you recognize National Eating Disorder Awareness Week? Share in the comments below.