When I went away to college, I’d wander off the small, safe campus of my liberal arts college and walk aimlessly around the mall to avoid seeing people I knew.
I sat in dark movie theaters by myself for hours at a time bingeing, because eating while watching other people’s lives unfold onscreen was safe. It required nothing from me.
Bingeing in anonymity meant I didn’t have to know who I was, and I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone.
As a food addict, I hated who I was. I was a liar, a cheat, a sneaker, a thief. I stole money from my parents and food from my friends. I made up elaborate stories about imaginary boyfriends to make other people think I was cooler than I was. I thought these lies would boost my confidence; instead, they only made me feel worse.
I didn’t want people to see the real me. I was certain that if you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me. I hid who I was at all costs.
If it’s true that we’re only as sick as our secrets, then I was a sick, sick girl. Everything about me—or so I thought—was a secret.
After I came into recovery, I brought my mom to a Twelve Step meeting to hear me tell my story. She cried through some of it, and afterward she told me that she and my father felt like they’d “gotten me back.”
You see, my eating disorder didn’t just mess with my relationship with food and my relationship with my body, it messed with my relationship with myself. All I could see, when I was in the thick of my disease, were my flaws and shortcomings. I focused completely on the negative and overlooked all the positive things about myself.
But other people could see the real me through the fog of my food addiction. Even my father, whom I’ve written about before as being a bit clueless when it came to my eating disorder, had insight about me that I lacked. In a letter he sent me the day after my parents dropped me off at college, he wrote:
Saying goodbye seemed like an everyday occurrence when it was happening; but, as we drove home, Mommy and I realized that it was also a bit like a curtain had been pulled and that we would no longer be participants in, or observers of, your daily life.
This made us a bit sad, especially since we didn’t say, along with our goodbyes, many of the things that we would have liked to have said to you (if we had done so, it would have been too easy for Mommy to start crying).
So, with the benefit of some thought, here are some of the things that we would like to have said. First is that we love you dearly and that this will be a constant, regardless of the direction that you choose to take with your life. Second is that we are very proud of you, not just for your academic success and literary prowess but also for the type of adult you are becoming. I feel that you are combining the best aspects of a disciplined, yet sensitive, person working hard to develop a place for herself in the world and to experience new horizons; while, at the same time, being cognizant of the needs and feelings of others. As an observer, and as one who doesn’t combine these traits as well as you do, I have to admire your progress.
It’s interesting to me now how accurately he had me pegged: disciplined, sensitive, caring, and seeking. I, meanwhile, had confused the symptoms of my disease with my personality, and wanted nothing more than to melt into the woodwork and avoid attention for the rest of my life.
Oddly enough, it was only through guaranteed anonymity that I was able to begin to uncover my authentic self. Twelve Step programs are built on a foundation of anonymity—what’s said in the rooms, stays in the rooms—because addicts of all kinds experience the same kind of shame and self-hatred that makes us loathe to disclose our secrets.
As I heard other people share similar eating experiences in Twelve Step meetings, I began to feel safer revealing my crazy behavior around food, too. And the more I talked about it, the more I realized that:
- I needed the solution these people were offering.
- My behavior around food wasn’t a moral weakness; it was a symptom of my disease. I wasn’t intrinsically a liar, cheat, or thief, and if I got my eating disorder under control, I’d be able to get to know the real me.
Eleven years later, I’m grateful that I can see the good qualities in myself. I’m grateful that I can recognize how much I have to offer, and that, through the Twelve Steps, I’ve been able to strip away the disordered behavior that made me feel so crummy about myself for so long.
Today, I’m grateful to be me!
This post is part of the Self-Discovery, Word by Word blogging series for December.