Content Warning: The author talks about an eating disorder, opioid addiction, and moderation management. Be aware if these are triggers for you.
I was seventeen and trying on an acid-wash jean jacket at a thrift store when I saw it — the slim polyester black dress that would finally fix me. A goal dress, I thought; something to work toward. Something that would, by the time I got to wear it, make me deliriously confident in my own skin.
My already strict diet now had an urgent goal but it quickly morphed into an extreme eating regimen that didn’t include much eating at all.
At one point, after many months of this, I was so malnourished, I could barely drag my pale, weakened body up a short flight of stairs without an exhaustive effort. But somehow, I was proud of myself for having so much “self-control”. And after losing over 50 pounds in less than seven months, people around me were patting me on the back, huge grins on their proud faces, saying “wow, you look so healthy!”
What gutted me the most was the fact that, no matter how small I got, the way I felt about myself didn’t change.
Disturbing as this was, what gutted me the most was the fact that, no matter how small I got, the way I felt about myself didn’t change. Even when I finally got to wear that black goal dress, and it actually hung off me, I still felt fat. It wasn’t enough. I assumed my lack of happiness was because I missed food. So, I started to give myself every third day off.
The evenings before this “cheat day” felt like Christmas Eve. I made a wishlist of all the things I’d eat the next day and would force myself into bed by 9:00 pm so I didn’t have to wait any longer. I’d wake up, shovel endless amounts of pasta into my empty body, fried egg sandwiches, Two-Bite brownies (but in one bite), and anything else I could find. Soon, I was planning my glorious cheat days weeks in advance. My moods were intense during this time; my energy plummeted but I kept losing weight. And that was what I wanted — to shrink into something more acceptable to myself.
I was twenty-seven, wheeled into a hospital on a gurney after a serious car accident, and punctured with a needle when I felt it — the warm, pain-obliterating opioids that I thought would finally fix me. Something that muted my inner-critic; something that made life easier and more bearable, I thought. This drug would get me to where I wanted to go in life. It would propel me forward, heal me in a way. I could handle anything as long as I had this.
And just like that, my next extreme vanishing act began. I stopped worrying about what I looked like so much. I didn’t need to worry about that anymore. Drugs gave me hope, and the confidence I’d been searching so desperately for. They did everything dieting never could. They gave me the confidence to be who I wanted to be, without that punishing voice in my head telling me I was stupid, or undeserving… or fat.
That unacceptable me was now cozied up by the fire in my brain, and the relief I felt was monumental. A sense of peace washed over me as my life around me collapsed; I barely even noticed the chaos that took over.
I was emotionally erratic and quickly running out of money (and energy). People weren’t congratulating me this time, they were worried. But I felt so accomplished, so satisfied — for a while. Eventually, once the insanity took hold, I started to notice how disconnected I was and began to realize that maybe this drug wasn’t fixing anything at all; maybe it was just covering everything up. Maybe I was just running from myself like I always had.
It’s easier to run, to escape yourself, to fool yourself into believing you’ve bypassed the necessary work that needs to be done, and just slap on whatever band-aid you can find. But I didn’t know that yet.
I started to notice how disconnected I was and began to realize that maybe this drug wasn’t fixing anything at all; maybe it was just covering everything up.
I was thirty, partially willing and partially coerced, when I got to the treatment center that would finally “fix” me.
Only sixty days and it’d be smooth sailing for the rest of my life after that. So, I worked those steps like I was in the fucking military. I made amends, I journaled, and I embraced the enforced isolation. I worked hard, participated, and paid attention. I even pretended to find a higher power, despite being an agnostic for my entire life. In the end, I barely scratched the surface of the underlying problems that made me want to hide myself in the first place.
When I got out on the sixtieth day, I quit my job, moved, and started a whole new life. I would be the best recoverer anyone had ever seen. I would become a new Mel; one that would be happy and complete, regardless of the self-hatred I still felt nipping at my heels. Slowly, the impermanence of this new plan started to show and, inevitably, the cycle started again. After this new “clean, perfect” person I thought I could be didn’t materialize, my old outlandish weight-loss goals resurfaced.
Drastic, restrictive dieting (and a new bonus: purging!) came back soon after I hit the six-month recovery mark. Then, when the new “clean, perfect, and thin” person didn’t show up, I calmed myself with a glass of wine or two (or ten) until finally that tried-and-true Shit-Show-Mel crawled out of the basement she’d been hiding in. I hadn’t become the person I wanted (and expected) to be after rehab. And I hated myself for it all over again.
So, I worked those steps like I was in the fucking military.
I was thirty-four, exhausted, and hopeless when I felt it — the need to finally stop hiding from myself. I’d tried everything and none of it seemed to fix me. So, I sought out a good counselor, dedicated myself to journaling and meditation, and reconnected with friends. I went on Suboxone to finally quit opioids and took a really honest look at myself.
Without a desperate need to be someone else — quickly and completely — I started to make small improvements, and the way I felt about myself started to change.
I discovered that disordered eating and substance misuse are closely linked, and often overlap. I began looking honestly at how both (shitty) coping skills are deeply rooted in my negative core beliefs and are both symptoms of the shame I’ve always felt about who I am as a person. What has really helped me to improve is recognizing that I will never be “fixed.” It’s not possible. I’m a work in progress, like we all are, cliché as it sounds. But I think that’s the crux of it — I don’t need to be fixed. I am fine just as I am.
It’s very hard though, I’m not gonna lie.
There’s no one thing that makes it all better. It’s a slow, painful process that takes work, honesty, patience, and deep, dark acceptance (something that is not easy for me). Sometimes I still feel like that teenager in that thrift store or like that 20-something in that hospital or that 30-year-old following every rule to a tee in that treatment center. I still sometimes feel that I am not, and will never be enough; that no matter how much I improve, I will never ever be who I want to be. The difference now is that I can accept that. And I never go as far down into that abyss as I used to — not by a long shot.
I still struggle with eating disorder stuff sometimes; my weight still fluctuates, and I have a hard time reconciling my relationship with food. I still drink and do drugs (though, never opioids — ever) occasionally; my level of sobriety is comfortable for me nearly 100% of the time. I am getting better, day by day. And I believe it’s because I’m facing it head-on.
That old saying echoes in my head constantly: “What we resist, persists,” and it’s so true because, in my experience (and I stress this because it doesn’t work for everyone), abstaining from things completely makes my brain crave those things even more. So, I try to remind myself that temperance is key. And for the past two years, it’s worked for me.
I’m not addicted to opioids anymore. I am not anorexic or bulimic anymore. And that’s something I’m extremely proud of because I’ve spent my whole life trying to satiate an insatiable hunger (literally and figuratively). And now I know it isn’t possible but it’s manageable. Maybe I’ll always be hungry, but I deal with it now. I cope; without shaming myself to the point where I wish I was someone else. One thing I know for sure is that I’ll never get to the point where I want to starve myself — spiritually, mentally, and emotionally — ever again.