While you were growing up, how many times did adults ask you: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Despite the fact that the question was always the same, my answer was ever-changing.
It wasn’t until a snowy Thursday afternoon last February on my therapist’s couch that I had the troubling realization that there was something I had always wanted to be: thin. Truthfully, I had never wanted to be anything as badly as I wanted to be thin – probably more than I wanted to be smart or funny or popular, and definitely more than I wanted to be a surgeon or President.
Indeed, the endless pursuit of being thin had been the ghost in my closet, the one that got away, the white noise, the only passion I clung to. At 21, I grew so impatient and exhausted by this goal that I revolted against my body and nearly destroyed it in the process – a process that left my throat sore and my back achy, slumped over on my therapist’s couch on a snowy Thursday afternoon last February, succumbing to the crushing realization that the most constant goal in my life had been a pant size.
I cried, longer and more violently than I had ever done on the bathroom floor, in regret, in frustration, in disgust with myself. I pictured myself as an 80-year-old woman reflecting on her youth only to find that she had been alarmingly foolish and utterly lost about what actually matters in this life. For as long as I could remember, my deepest fears had been that my worth on this earth would be measured by the amount of space I took up, rather than the light I spread around me. Though I had wanted to grow up and help others, the most persistent cause that had planted roots in my soul was about the flat plane of my stomach, the protrusion of my hip bones, and the elusive, mythical thigh gap. 80-year-old me thought, how selfish; how silly; but mostly, how sad.
I have heard many references to eating disorders as being the “darkest days” of people’s lives. And while my days did feel undoubtedly dark, I remember them now mostly as quiet. Like when you’re about to go under general anesthesia in the operating room, and right before you slip into another world, you can hear only the humming of voices around you, and you can’t summon the strength to say a word. It was the deep sleep I tried to fight off, but ultimately welcomed with open arms. It was, after all, my most persistent and unwavering passion. The truth is that even now, in the afterglow of recovery, some days the darkness treads lightly behind me and the voices hum around me.
Recovery is owning this: if I had been honest, both with myself and with the well-meaning adults who asked, the answer to their question would have been that what I really wanted was to shrink and shrink and shrink until maybe I disappeared – as a third-grader, as a pre-teen, in high school, after college, that snowy Thursday afternoon last February, always. But recovery is also seeing that even though my priorities have been sadly disoriented, there were some gentle and graceful things I have always wanted to be: a loyal friend, a grateful daughter, a humble leader, a patient sister, an inquisitive learner, a person who truly felt what it meant to be alive. And eventually, that was enough to make me get up off the bathroom floor; enough to make me stop trying to disappear.
The pursuit of being thin is the ex-lover who never stops calling. It is the one who creeps back like a bad habit without me realizing it; it is, at times, the “can’t eat, can’t sleep” infatuation I fear I’ll never get over. But then, on good days, it is the grudge I forget to hold; it is the old, manipulative friend I don’t miss anymore.