Bullying

(Reposted from womensenews.org and Proud2bme.com)

On the first warm day of seventh grade, everyone wore shorts to school. All the girls in my small k-8 couldn’t wait to show off their new spring outfits, colored shorts and tank tops with cardigans to cover our shoulders, per dress code requirements.

Everything was going well until my friend showed me the texts his friends had been sending during the day: “Did you see Claire’s legs?” “Yeah, someone should tell her dimples are for your cheeks, not the backs of your thighs.”

Every time I remember it, I can feel my cheeks flush, my smile fade and my eyes well up.

In seventh grade I wasn’t fat but I was developed. I had the body of a 19-year-old by the time I was 13. (Now at 19, I still wear the same jeans, dresses and T-shirts as back then.) But to the eyes of 13-year-old boys, fat and developed are synonyms. And so, beginning in elementary school and for most of middle school, I was teased for my weight and my body.

Since the popular boys teased me, the not-popular boys didn’t want to talk to me. All of my friends, my tiny, barely developed friends, had crushes, went on dates and flirted with boys. I did not.

Middle school students often don’t know where to draw the line between bullying for weight and bullying for character. Like so much of our society, they believe how your body looks dictates who you are as a person. Fat girls are less attractive, less worthy, more obnoxious and more unwanted. Skinny girls are the opposite: pretty, worthy, smart and desirable. And because they thought I was fat . . . well, the rest fell into place, too. I became the girl no one, even the other girls in my grade, wanted to be friends with.

By the time I started high school, most people were more developed and most of my friends were sophomores or juniors (whose bodies, I now realize, looked strikingly like mine), but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that my body was something to be ashamed of. This feeling, combined with the swirl of anxiety, depression, self-doubt, family problems and academics, caused me to start restricting food in April of my freshman year. By May, it was a full-fledged eating disorder.

Recovery Process

Luckily, my friends had the foresight to tell my parents. That started the two-year process of therapy, re-feeding, treatment, recovery, relapses, treatment, re-feeding, more relapses, more treatment and finally recovery, which I’ve been in for two years.

No one has said anything negative about my body to me since middle school. I’m in an incredible place in my recovery; I eat what my body wants and exercise when it tells me I should. I’m happy.

Still, I spend 20 minutes in front of the mirror nearly every day making sure that nothing in the way I look will prompt teasing. In my early teen years, I integrated other people’s beliefs into my own thought patterns. The parts of my body I’m most unhappy with are the ones that provoked the most teasing: my stomach, lower back and legs.

Beyond the body image problems, I struggle with believing that people are honest about liking me. Throughout middle school, people pretended to be my friends and bullied me behind my back. Now, five years later, I still worry about what people think and say about me when I’m not there. Learning to believe that people could truly like me has been one of the hardest journeys of my life, but I’m getting there.

What most people don’t realize about bullying is that it echoes throughout a lifetime. It’s easy to absorb others’ voices as your own. As a result, we have a generation of bullied kids who don’t know how to love themselves in the way they should.

I have since forgiven the people who made my life miserable for years. I’ve taught myself to rely on the voices of people I trust and adore, who never fail to support me: my parents, sister, friends and boyfriend. But regardless of the fact that I’m in a great place in my life, bullying had an indelible impact on my self-esteem that has taken, and will continue to take, years to unravel.

February 2014

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Two Year Review

Today is February 8, 2015. Two years ago today, I discharged from my last hospitalization and treatment center in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I had been receiving care for anorexia, depression, and anxiety. Two years ago today, I walked out of the doors into a life I had no idea I would ever be able to live. A year and a half ago, I stopped seeing my dietitian. I had learned to eat intuitively enough that we didn’t feel the care was necessary. Six months ago, when I left for college, I stopped seeing my therapist (who I miss dearly every day). We decided that I could handle college with the set of tools I had learned and that I didn’t need the care of another therapist 1,000 miles away.

I have been committed to recovery since January 1, 2013. And still, there are days when I can’t find the will to make myself eat. There are days when I force myself not to look up the calories burned by exercise. There are days where I consume a pint of ice cream for dinner with friends and want nothing more than to have skipped it. But instead I finish my food and ignore the calories and sit in my bed until the urges pass. I rely on the skills I learned in treatment and from therapist, tools that have been so engrained in my brain that they often feel instinctive. The days that I struggle often coincide with the days I feel lonely, overwhelmed, stressed, or scared. I understand most of the reasoning behind my eating disorder and I understand how to get myself out of it. But some days, the shiny recovery light seems too far away and too dull, and some days I fail at maintaining recovery. I let the urges win and I feel guilty for doing so, but my eating disorder voice doesn’t.

In the beginning stages of my recovery, I heard someone say that only 1/3 of those struggling with eating disorders will make a full recovery (this percentage fluctuates from 33% to 50% depending on where you get your information). And that number almost scared me out of trying to get better.

But since then, I’ve realized that not recovering fully doesn’t mean you can’t live a full life. Although my health has rebounded from the depths of my eating disorder to normal, although I have stable, wonderful relationships with my family, friends, and boyfriend, and although from the outside it looks like everything is okay, I would not say I’m fully recovered. There are days I still struggle. But, regardless of how much it hurts in the moment, I don’t know if it necessarily matters. My struggles haven’t taken away from my ability to live a life I’m proud of. In fact, they haven’t taken away from my ability to be proud of who I am. Every part of my life has been impacted by my eating disorder: relationships, academics, jobs, self-image, and beliefs. And while the illness was a living hell while I was in it, I’m happy with how it changed me.

I think the problem is that people expect treatment to be a cure-all. We (and I’m guilty of doing it, too), think that a healed body is a healed mind. We think that being out of treatment for a certain amount of time should mean that a person is all better: take antibiotics for a week and your infection will go away for good. But mental health doesn’t work that way. I’m two years out of treatment and I still think about my eating disorder every day. I still miss the safety bubble that is treatment, the girls I met there, and my therapists, doctors, nurses, and technicians that helped in saving my life. But I wouldn’t give up my life. No matter how hard it is, I will fight for as long as it takes. If in times of stress, loss, or uncertainty, I have to battle urges every day, all day, then so be it. There is no feeling more rewarding than realizing you have fought against the illness that claims so many lives and won.

(February 8, 2015)

Fast-A-Thon?

Today, I was walking through my schools student center (where all of our main dining areas are) when I happened to stumble upon a sign by the staircase. Said sign read: JOIN OUR FAST-A-THON followed by small print that read: “Fast during daylight hours and a sponsor will donate money on your behalf” (note that it didn’t say where the money would be donated to or how much would be donated). On the table, there was a sign that said, in color block letters “WHAT DOES FASTING MEAN TO YOU?” Underneath, people had written responses such as “hunger,” “self-control,” and “willpower.”

I stopped. I turned around. I walked up to the table, where the people manning it asked me if I wanted to join the group. I politely told them that fasting wasn’t a good fit for me and asked if I could take a picture of the sign, to which they responded yes and said I could write something down as well. Again, I politely declined and again they asked me I wanted to join the group. I took the photo, said thank you, and walked away.

I don’t know if it’s because of my own personal experiences with a restrictive eating disorder, but the sign made my heart race. Take the words out of context: “hunger,” “self-control,” “willpower.” Those were the words that people so commonly used when I was in the depth of my illness–“how do you not eat? That must take so much willpower?” or “wow, you have so much self-control to not eat the ice cream.”

But I didn’t have willpower. I didn’t have self-control. I had self loathing and anxiety. I know that most people who fast for a day will look at it as just that: a day without eating for money that goes to a good cause. And maybe fasting for a day may not have health consequences but whenever you encourage a group of young, impressionable people to restrict their diets for the day, you risk one member becoming addicted. So many eating disorders begin as healthy ways to lose weight and spiral out of control. Fasting is another doorway to an eating disorder.

Perhaps the problem with fasting for a good cause isn’t the act itself, it’s the rhetoric we use to discuss it. Rhetoric that is not only annoying,  but harmful. In saying that not eating is something that requires willpower, we imply that denying your body what it needs to survive is a sign of strength, that it is something to be envied. It connects hunger, a sign that our bodies are missing nutrients, to the idea of power, of control which most of us strive for.

So maybe the problem isn’t with fasting. Maybe the campus group is trying to do good. But until we rephrase the way we talk about diets and food restriction, no foundation will be laid for paths towards eating what your body wants when it wants it.

(February 4, 2015)