5 Things I Wish My 18-Year-Old Self Knew About Anorexia

by Ellie Tansey

Most of us are guilty of labeling someone else's eating disorder, no matter whether it's an attempt to help, a way to put down his or her slender figure or a way to state the obvious.

Hitting a nerve? Well, you’re actually in the majority. Sixty-five percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 have behavioral issues with food, and an estimated 20 million suffer from anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder.

I don’t know what's responsible for this upward trend, but I can share my story and solution. I became anorexic largely because I was an overachiever.

I wanted to be prettier. I wanted to run faster and be more successful. It wasn’t ever a conscious decision, but after years of therapy, it is the conclusion I have reached.

When I first started addressing my eating disorder, my therapist and I focused so much on my feelings and childhood relationship with food that we failed to talk about the things I was losing along the way. Don’t get me wrong; my feelings were important.

But I was a normal kid. I never worried about an occasional trip to McDonald’s or ice cream for dinner.

But my therapy sessions became a never-ending search for blame, rather than the motivation to change my behavior. I didn’t realize I was spiraling out of control. My attempt to overachieve was actually breaking me down.

If I could go back and talk to my 18-year-old self, I would tell her these five hard truths:

1. People look at you differently, and not in the way you intended.

Your desire to look better on the outside is having the opposite effect. You can’t see it yet, but you’re “the girl with the eating disorder.”

You’re starting to look sick and tired. People are noticing how moody and preoccupied you’ve become. They’re beginning to believe your poor self-image. Look at yourself differently, and the world will too.

2. You are wasting so much time.

The time you’re spending obsessing about weight, making up excuses for not eating, taking trips to the bathroom and over-exercising is not worth your mental or physical energy. This is time you could be spending studying, practicing your jump shot or hanging out with friends.

Imagine the possibilities. Channel your energy toward a worthwhile cause. Reclaim your time.

3. You are damaging your body, possibly forever.

Your eating habits are counterproductive, and they're doing you serious harm. Do you know your metabolism is slowing to compensate for everything you’re not eating? Do you know your missed periods might mean you’ll never have children?

You’re lying to yourself when you say you have more energy, are in better shape and are eating healthily. Don’t fight your body’s instincts. Give in before it’s too late.

4. People will leave you.

Your hyper-focus on food and weight, resistance to change and deception when it comes to food are driving away your family and friends. Despite your therapist’s assertions that “true friends won’t leave,” they’re doing what's best for both themselves and you, even if you can’t see it right now.

Healthy people attract healthy people. Get healthy.

5. Start today.

This may be the hardest one of all, but you’re ready. Stop counting calories, stop skipping meals and stop stepping on the scale.

Instead, focus your energy on your passions. Worry about the person you are on the inside. Despite what you may hear, you will get better if you try. Give your recovery your all, just like you give everything else your all.

It’s now 10 years later. I am five years out of my eating disorder, and I am currently on clinical rotation in an eating disorder hospital. The girls are much younger than I remember being, but the devastating nature of the disease is the same.

As I do my rounds, I see myself in their eyes: the desperation, the fatigue, the never-ending search for being more and weighing less. I’d give anything to be back in their shoes with the perspective I have today.

It took years. But today, I can honestly say I love my body.

That doesn’t mean my eating disorder has completely vanished, but anorexia is no longer an option. I’ve learned to harness the “overachiever” mentality that drove me to self-destruct. I now use it to recover.

In the same way I rigidly refused to eat, I now rigidly refuse to repeat my mistakes. In moments of weakness (which still occur), I regain my strength by remembering the things I have lost.

I focus on the places I am going in the future, and how I will get there. I am not a victim, and I take responsibility for my past. Recalling the grim realities of my disorder has made all the difference.