Supporting Someone with an Eating Disorder

Written by: Emily, the sister and supporter of Morgan (founder of Unpolished), co-director, and logistical mind behind Unpolished Journey.

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Standing by someone who suffers from an eating disorder is not an easy task.  It’s not easy to watch a loved one look in the mirror and be disgusted with their reflection.  It’s not easy to see a sister fail to realize her worth.  It’s not easy to watch a friend put themselves in an unhealthy relationship because they feel that’s all they deserve.  It’s just not.

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve watched my own sister battle an eating disorder.  I’ve seen her at her lowest of lows, and I’ve seen her at her highest of highs.  In light of all of these experiences, I figured I would take the time to share the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over these past few years when standing by someone with an eating disorder.

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  1. Don’t be afraid of anger. Most likely if you’re going to express concern to a sister, brother, friend, or relative, they’re going to push back.  They’re not going to immediately want to pursue a road toward recovery.  But their anger with you is worth expressing concern because someday they will look back and realize you were there for them from the beginning.
  1. Expressing concern does not mean forcing them into treatment. Treatment has to come willingly.  Expressing concern merely means standing by that person when they are in their lowest of lows and always reminding them that you are there for them.  It doesn’t mean assuming a condescending attitude of “I know what’s best for you” because you don’t.
  1. Let them be upset. Don’t tell them that they should “snap out of it” or “realize how blessed they are” because they really can’t.  When an eating disorder consumes their mind, that’s all they know.  That is their reality.  And in their reality, they are upset. tumblr_milo3cwfuw1rw5yn2o2_250
  1. When battling an eating disorder, people are not their authentic self. I reflect back on the points when my sister was at her lows and realize that is not the sister I know today.  In those low moments, I remember her anger and separation, but today I experience her laughter and joy for life.  Seeing her transformation inspires me to want every person to be removed from the eating disorder mindset so they too can experience life fully.
  1. Don’t walk on eggshells. Someone struggling with an eating disorder is still a person.  They are not a ticking bomb about to go off.  Talk with them, make plans with them, check in on them.
  1. Don’t get upset when they distance themselves or when they are in a bad mood. Individuals struggling with an eating disorder will likely avoid others due to their inability to see their self-worth.  And many times their aggravation with their own self will come out in the form of anger, sadness, or distancing.  Those attitudes or actions are really just a manifestation of the individual’s feelings of low self-worth. take-care-of-yourself-gif
  1. Realizing you are not their savior. There is a fine line between supporting someone through their battle with an eating disorder and becoming their lifeline.  You are an individual yourself.  You have your own problems, worries, and concerns.  You cannot be every role for someone with an eating disorder – a friend, a supporter, a therapist, a mentor, a parent.  It’s too much for one person to handle, and it’s not fair for someone to put that pressure on you.  My sister never, ever, ever did this to anyone, but I have seen it happen in other places, and it fosters an unhealthy relationship between individuals rather than creating a support system.

 

10 Things I’ve Learned in Recovery

I wake up in the morning and place my feet on the cozy carpet of my room, I stretch my arms high into the chilled air-conditioned air, and I breathe. I just breathe.  I breathe deep and full and strongly just to, once again, be amazed with the power of my lungs. It’s normal now, to wake up and be shocked with the person in the mirror, to not recognize the fullness in my belly or the smile across my lips. But it isn’t at the same time because when you spent so many years in darkness, to be basking in the light is, and perhaps always will be, jarring.

Those who know what it was like to once live on the cliff between life and death, welcoming in hopelessness, honoring the hatred you had against yourself, now have a view of a world that’s a little different. You know a world that’s more dynamic than the person sitting next to you because your world is one you helped create. You got out and you helped God sculpt and mold and transform the little, frail, helpless child you had become into a magnificent, unpolished work of art. You helped God fulfill His purpose in you by helping yourself become something and you continue to do so everyday. That is recovery. That will always be recovery. The transformation of oneself every minute of everyday.

IMG_2326I look at a picture of myself. The one with my arms stretched out wide over the Gobi Desert and I am shocked. I think about how far I was able to run without a thought of calories or food or how my thighs felts through my shorts and I am thankful. I think about the friendships I have formed over the past year, how I can love so many so deeply now that my mind is functioning again, and I feel so full I want to cry. I picture all the people who came out to Unpolished’s fundraiser and I can no longer deny who I am becoming.

I am not sick anymore. No longer do I have to worry about how long I can go without food, about how far I can run on injured legs, about the endless monologue of numbers that our society throws my way, or how long I can sustain this destructive lifestyle. No, I look at myself, I think about my life, and I breathe. I breathe in peace and out fire meant to burn my past life to ash.  My past behaviors, thoughts, self-deprecations dissolve to ash and fall to the gravel path before me. The ash sticks to the bottom of my muddy, worn down shoes and, with each step, I crush those lies beneath my newly powerful stride. I do so to know how far from being sick I am running.

It hasn’t been that long since I entered recovery. I made several stabs at it over the past couple of years, but those efforts never stuck until a little over 12 months ago. Last summer, July of 2015 was when I gave it all up.  When I finally looked in the mirror and admitted that this was it. That I could no longer have an eating disorder and live. I could no longer welcome in society’s views on beauty and be healed. I could no longer diet or measure or hate or alter or judge myself. I could no longer look at my past as a thunderous storm destined to creep into my present and constantly destroy who I am becoming. I had to peel myself apart, layer by layer to find what was resting in the middle. I had to truly release myself from the bondages of my eating disorder, fighting every thought and every challenging body image moment along the way, until I got to my core. Until I met my soul.

The past 12 months have taught me so much.  Things that I never thought I would ever come to believe for myself and that is why I made a list of the top 10 things I learned to share with you all – to share with someone in early recovery, or who is stuck in the cycles of relapse, or who just wants to get a glimpse of what became of someone who reconstructed the foundation they were once built on. I want you all to find something in my words to connect with.

  1. Recovery is just a fancy word for living. IMG_2350

I used to get real tripped up on what recovery meant. How would I know when I found it, what did it look like, what did it feel like? Was I doing recovery right? What were the requirements? Who graded my progress? Oh teacher, oh grader, oh evaluator, where are you to tell me I am doing everything absolutely perfect in order to be happy, healthy, and recovered? That is all BS.  There is no formula for recovery. Therapists and treatment programs will help teach you skills to get back on your feet, but at the end of the day that isn’t what recovery means. Recovery can’t be taught. It is felt and you feel it the minute you start doing stuff other than tracking weights, counting calories, or hiding food. You understand recovery when you start living. And living is unique to each person so I can’t tell you what that looks like. I just know that only when I finally met life, did I know what recovery was. I knew I had found the key to the recovered lifestyle. Traveling, diving, writing, painting, loving people. Living. That is recovery. Not a DBT binder or your meal plan’s exchange list, but I can’t teach anyone that. That is something they have to figure out for themselves.

  1. The sun rises EVERY SINGLE morning.

IMG_2055Maybe for some this isn’t quite so shocking, but for some reason I had been able to convince myself over the years that the sun might not return.  My mind’s demons could get so loud and so persuasive that I was somehow convinced that once night came it was never, ever leaving. And it was this belief that got me to do some stupid stuff.  It got me to binge over and over again, or starve, or purge, or run, or whatever other behavior because, hell, the sun was gone and I was stuck in this perpetual darkness for the rest of eternity, and life sucked, and I sucked, and I would never feel happy ever again….Then there came one day when I allowed the darkness, instead of sending me into a crazed frenzy, to just scare me. Scare me enough that I was paralyzed and didn’t move. I didn’t run to the eating disorder for hiding. I just sat there in it, exposed, cold, and scared. And you know what? The sun rose. It freaking rose the next morning and I went about my day. Because of this new discovery of mine the past year has been light years different.  I have learned tolerance of the night, urges, triggers, and emotions because I know that even the most horrendous days only last for 24 hours.

  1. I run a lot faster when I eat ice cream.

I run when I want to run and however far I want to run. I eat what I want to eat and how much I want to eat. The two go hand in hand and I know immediately when the balance is off. It’s yin and yang, light and dark, eat to thrive, thrive to achieve. Without the ice cream or the burger or whatever my mind, body, and soul are craving, I have opened the conversation between myself and the eating disorder once again. And running or any sort of movement when the conversation has begun turns south real quick and becomes about numbers, numbers, numbers. But if you eat the damn ice cream, and you savor that stuff with each bite, and you go to sleep, and head out the next day to the trail, it becomes more about overcoming the control than living in it. (All depending where you are in recovery, of course. This being several years out from the first time I stepped into treatment. I know my limits and relationship with movement. I know how and when it is my eating disorder and when it’s for my genuine enjoyment. That is relative to each person though. So be cautious with how personally you apply this point I am making.)

  1. Intelligence means nothing if you can’t connect.

I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to outsmart my eating disorder. Trying to logic my way out of my anxieties around food, my body, or numbers. Trying to will myself away from the irrationalities I was living in.  After I first started to build enough awareness of my actions and how they were ineffective, I knew “logically” that my eating disorder didn’t make any sense. I read books, I studied the DSM, I went to groups, therapy, talked with dieticians, read about why my body needed certain foods, and still, after all that I didn’t get any better. My eating disorder controlled everything, my thoughts, my actions, my values. I knew better than to believe the disease and yet I couldn’t not believe it. It made zero sense.  It wasn’t until I stopped looking to my mind for healing and just let myself be that things started shifting. When I simply was, I felt stuff.  I cried and I never cried. I was excited and I never get excited. I found passions. What were those? Things started shifting the moment I stopped trying to logic my way out of having an eating disorder and started connecting with myself and the world again.

  1. I dance harder, better, and sexier when my pants aren’t falling off my hips.

It’s true. The sentence says it all.  I dance harder, love deeper, live fuller when the size of my jeans or the number on some dumb scale does not define me. I have gained weight over the course of my recovery journey. I know it. I can feel it. And, at times, I hate it. But then I have to remind myself that there was nothing joyful or exciting or rewarding happening when I was X amount of pounds lighter.  Then I get up, I turn on the radio, and I celebrate the new tightness I feel in my pants because I would take pounds over misery any day.

  1. Being a party pooper leaves you alone in your shit. IMG_2047 copy.jpg

I was a miserable person for many many years and in turn was no fun to be around. I was what Meredith and Christina from Grey’s Anatomy call “dark and twisty”. And I used to ask myself why I didn’t have any friends. Why no one ever invited me out? Why I was alone with my own miserable self? Because no one wants you over if all you’re going to do is head into their bathroom and clog their toilet with your week old shit. If you are giving off negativity that is what others are receiving and they quickly learn that is not something they want to be basking in. I don’t get worked up about this anymore. I spent too much time beating myself up for “wasting” so many years reeking of bad attitude. I couldn’t help it because I was blinded by my eating disorder.  All that hatred and darkness, it wasn’t me. It never was me. That was the disease taking everything I was, all the way down to my personality, and keeping me locked away from the world. The eating disorder wants you to feel alone because when you are alone you run to it.

  1. Nothing in life is definite.

Nothing. Zilch. Nada. You can try and convince me otherwise, but I will just shake my head with every word. After losing my cousin, who was more a younger brother than anything else, at the age of 16 last December, you can’t look me in the face and say that anything is final or done or exact or definite. We are humans and we are always changing, evolving, discovering new interests, new passions, experiencing new losses, having to completely change our lives time and time again. Life and death. Recovery and illness. All are cycles and all are subject to change. So don’t tell me anything is certain or absolute because even God, the creator of this crazy world, is a complete mystery.

  1. Love only pours from an overflowing heart.

You can’t fill up others if you are pouring from an empty well.  I can’t offer support if I am still struggling with the disease of my mind. I can’t be a good friend if I am a shitty one for myself. I can’t love if I do not know what love is. Love only fills the soul when there is excess.  Meaning, when physical needs are met, emotional storms are managed, peace is made with the past, then the soul can overflow because the soul itself is no longer searching for water. It knows where to find it because once you enter recovery you find your love in life, in people, in faith. Remember the good old metaphor for recovery?  That just like in airplanes when they say that you have to put on your oxygen mask first before you assist others, you can’t offer others connection, love, or support until you first know what those things are. Heal yourself and you will naturally begin to positively affect others.

  1. Courage is not the absence of fear.

Meaning if something scares you – a food, a job interview, a relationship – and it has the potential of reaping a positive outcome, that is what you need to try. Because it is in the situations that scare us most where we learn just how courageous we can become. For, courage is not the absence of fear, but the conquering of it.

  1. You got to put in effort to reap results.

IMG_2491.jpgYou can’t sit around and wait for some magical spiritual moment before you begin your recovery.  Because if you are waiting for Angel Gabriel to swoop into your bedroom, speak to you in some godly booming voice, and pluck the eating disordered parasite from your mind, you may never get anywhere. You may be waiting in that same spot, on the edge of your bed, for the rest of your life. You have got to get up and start moving. God will meet you halfway. Slowly things will start falling into place. But it starts with that first meal, that first bite, then the second. Recovery gets put in motion with each morning you get out of bed and challenge the disease about what to wear that day, or what to eat, to what to say, or what to do. Recovery will come. I promise you. If you are willing to walk towards it first.  I never fully understood this because each time that I started to enter “recovery”, the minute I felt uncomfortable I ran back to where I began. I put my toes in and then said “nope, too cold”, sat back down, and waited for that magical wave of lightning bolts to come and swoop me out of my eating disorder. But that is a trap. Recovery requires action. You won’t find it, if you never go out looking for it.

Yin and Yang

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As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed this week, I came across yet another post of someone lost to an eating disorder. A sad truth when you have a history inside treatment centers is that you get to meet, connect, and love many individuals who struggle with the same life threatening disease as you. You get a first class ticket to the battles happening inside of people’s minds without the knowledge of how the fight will pan out.

Though manifested in different ways that is what an eating disorder is, a battle.  One that you fight and fight and fight. Even when you are exhausted and you wake up with sore arms and cramping legs and the last thing you want to do is trudge downstairs to make yourself breakfast, you pull yourself out of bed and you deflate the abusive voices inside your mind with each bite. You fight until one day it isn’t so hard anymore. Your arms have grown stronger and your mind more resilient.  You start to know more of yourself and less of the disease that once controlled you.  Fighting becomes, simple.

But some aren’t so lucky. Some loose footing in those early stages of battle. They slip, twice or three times, or perhaps only once is enough to sweep them from the battlefield and pronounce them defeated. After all wars produce causalities and that is the sad reality that those with eating disorders are subject to.  We know battle. It just isn’t loud or flashy or apparent to those in every day life and, therefore, commonly goes unnoticed.  That is until you scroll through your Facebook feed and see another has fallen.  Another gone. Another stolen by an eating disorder.

Perhaps that is what causes the constant push and pull of positive and negative energy inside of my mind.  The prevalence of such beauty, like my trip to Mongolia, and such darkness, like the reality of this young woman’s life lost to mental illness. How can both coexist? How can I know such triumph and still empathize with anothers defeat?

Yin and yang is a fundamental concept in philosophy whose principle is that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites, for example female-male, dark-light and old-young (acient.ed). The principal proponent of the theory was the cosmologist Zou Yan (or Tsou Yen) who believed that life went through five phases (wuxing) – fire, water, metal, wood, earth – which continuously interchanged according to the principle of yin and yang (ancient.ed).

goes with yin yang explainationI have been thinking about yin and yang a lot.  Partially because the symbols were plastered all over the Mongolian city I lived in for the past month proving a great reminder of the solace the philosophy can bring me in times of questioning.  Life is all just one big balancing act.  Food’s power over us only looses authority when we loosen our control and learn balance and intuition at the table. Body image only starts to improve when we are able to look in the mirror and reassociate what it means to be beautiful. Self esteems flourishes when we are able to accept our flaws, mistakes, and gifts.  Allow both the negative and positive energies to pour over you. Refuse and challenge aspects of the darkness. Take in and hydrate in the truths of the light.

I see that another woman was lost to an eating disorder and that there is the reason I have to keep writing, keep sharing, keep falling deeper into my recovered life. I have to use my voice, my story, my insight into the struggle to help spread awareness, to help prevent any further losses. Nothing negates the fact that tragedy sucks, that is doesn’t feel natural or acceptable to move forward after it.  But what is necessary is movement, a constant shifting through time and space, a forever transformation where each of us is falling deeper into the selves we were meant to be.

That is the concept behind the five phases talking about earth.jpgof life that Zou Yan was speaking about. Wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each phase has their own attributes. Wood being creative and luxurious, fire being enthusiastic and passionate, earth, nurturing and stable, metal, ambitious and determined, and water being transformative. Would we want to get rid of one of these things? Cut it out completely from our life?  Leave behind creativity or passion, never experience ambition or transformation.  I don’t think so.  Same are life’s seasons. Each coming with its own surprises, each offering different opportunities for growth, and each melting into the next. Just as wood fuels fire, fire forms earth (volcanoes, ash, etc.), earth contains metal, metal carries water (buckets, pipes, etc.), and water feeds wood (trees, plants, etc.). So does each phase of our own life prepare and shape us for what is to come.

So yes there is darkness and yes there is sadness, heartbreak, grief, and loss in this lifetime. I know it. I get it. I feel it all the time. But out of darkness comes light, growth, and room for transformation.  Without a collapse, no one can learn what it feels like to get back up.  Without my eating disorder, I wouldn’t have my story or insights or perspective on life.  Without it, I couldn’t speak and touch others. Embrace the good, the bad, and the ugly, knowing that everything in life is a balancing act. Where there is bad, so is there good. It all is just a matter of where we choose to focus our attention.

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Being Present

IMG_7710I spent the last four weeks in arguably the weirdest country in the world.  Let’s preface by saying, I have been a lot of places, seen a lot of cultures, tasted a lot of strange food, but nothing quite compares to the Mongolians. From watching five-year-old boys race horses through the countryside to eating goat out of a goat (yes, they cooked the meat in the goat’s body), I was never bored throughout the day. Because, not only was something odd constantly happening, but I also had no idea it was going to happen. No one spoke English and Mongolian is not even remotely recognizable to my English speaking ears.  Therefore, each day I got up and set out alongside my team of nine other girls, expecting nothing and hoping for everything. What else could you do when you had no idea what you were going to be doing?  Do I wear a dress today when there is a possibility that I could be bused back to the countryside to ride camels and pray in yurts? Do I wear sandals when there is a possibility of rain in the afternoon and the swatties (toilets that are just holes in the ground) could flood, overflowing poop into the streets? There was no way of knowing and, strangely, that was the most freeing realization of the trip.

I couldn’t know. I couldn’t prepare. I couldn’t wake up and have even a slight idea as to what food would look like that day, what the schedule would entail, who I would talk to or how I would communicate with the language barrier. I couldn’t humor my eating disorder or insecurities in any way and what a beautiful thing that came to be. Though upon first arriving in Mongolia at 3am and being fed Burger King chicken nuggets and Coke, I would have said otherwise.  But as the days passed and the weeks began to unfold, so did the chains on my heart begin to break. So did the demons start to lessen and the self-ridicule begin to release its grip.  I was in Mongolia, it didn’t matter whether I had Burger King, whether I was running, whether or not I felt less than the people around.  All that mattered was the now, the present, the moments with these amazing girls in this oddly stunning country.  Never again would I be with these people in this place and there was no point on ruining the moments by listening to the critic inside my head. In a year or even two months from now, I would remember what I did and did not do.  And if I decided to keep my eating disorder that would mean, I would remember the time I didn’t have ice cream with my team or I sat on the steps crying over pizza instead of playing Bananagrams inside. Which, sadly those moments came, slinking in, devious, and tricky just as the disorder always is.  But that was at the beginning of the trip, when I was confused, displaced, and I didn’t know what to expect from this country and these girls and my work here in Mongolia. The turning point came in a moment of awakening. This was the moment when being present became the biggest and most important objective of my days. This was the moment when my faith, God, and freedom washed over me.

IMG_7702And so it that the key to enjoying the moments? Faith. God. A Higher Power. I say yes. Absolutely.  How could it not be? When the eating disorder, or whatever else you may struggle with, is just so strong and powerful and all encompassing?  It is a challenge so large that there is no hope of defeating it without something larger than my little, pathetic human self. I always preached knowing this, but somehow it didn’t fully set in until this month. Out amidst the sprawling mountains and hills of the Gobi Desert with eagles flying overhead and the sun beating down on my skin, I suddenly understood. I understood that no amount of therapy or nutritional counseling or psychiatrist appointments were going to heal me. And if I continued to think those things would, I would continue to be a fool, living a life lying to both myself and everyone around.  True healing comes when you let go.  You let go of everything that ties you to your past life. It comes the moment you decide you have had enough and you read out, grab God’s hand, and ask for help.  True healing comes when you decide your weakness and you allow God to be the one to lift you onto your feet.

I could sit in a therapist’s office every single day for the rest of my life and if all I am doing is rehashing all the ways the eating disorder has restricted my life and all the skills I am going to use to overcome my urges, nothing will ever be achieved. I could sit and discuss a meal plan forwards and backwards, making changes, discussing fear foods and challenges of the week, but no fruit comes from that.  These things will not propel me forwards because they are keeping me stuck in the belief that I have an eating disorder and will always have an eating disorder.  And let me tell you, my eating disorder loves those appointments. It loves the hours in the week that I get to once again play the “sick” card.  That I can talk about all the times I screwed up with food, all the anxieties around my body, all the times I felt emotionally overwhelmed.  But the minute I take the comfort of dieticians, scales, therapists, and skills away, I am left in a world where my eating disorder is not the center. That’s where personal choices come into play. I can either allow my weeks to center around appointments where I get to discuss the disorder, each food choice lining up with the discussion I will have with my dietician, each time I cried becoming a mental note to bring to my therapist or I can start letting go.  I can start surrendering. I can start living. And living only happens when the disorder is handed over to God.  When something greater and more powerful is given permission to remove the darkness in my mind.

IMG_7597And when does the removal happen? What does removal look like? Simple, it happens when you ask for it. Sometimes I have to ask God several times a day to take my eating disorder away, to silence its thoughts, to keep me safe from its control.  Other times I go a week or so completely in sync with God’s purpose for my life. It all depends and depending where you are in your recovery journey determines how foreign the removal will feel. If you don’t have an eating disorder, removal still entails the same concepts. Removing darkness does not have to be as concrete as a clinical mental illness.  It can be body image insecurities, self consciousness, grief, being afraid to step out.  Whatever it may entail, it still looks a lot like release.

Now, what removal looks like is an entirely different story because this looks vastly different on each person. For me, removal is looking a lot like freedom.  It is giving myself permission to take a moment and just be.  To wake up in the morning and spend time with God and not planning every minute of the day.  To go to bed and not be concerned by tomorrow.  Removal looks like a peace that comes with being comfortable in the present moment, being content with a moment, a minute, a second.  Being able to look at myself in the mirror and have grace that not everything is perfect, that I am in pain sometimes, that I don’t have to be okay to be joyful, that no matter what I have done or been through I have purpose in this world.

IMG_2330The removal of my eating disorder came to fruition for me somewhere in the Gobi Desert surrounded by mountains and sand and the overwhelming idea of just how expansive the world is, the mind is, God is. It came when I realized what it felt like to be in life, to feel it on my skin and in my hair. To look down at my body and know that it is going to heal. That I will recover. That I am recovering each day with each moment that I chose to experience.

Being present if you have an eating disorder, is not about the skills you know or the meal plan you follow.  Being present in general, isn’t about being able to recount your story a thousand times and process through trauma or loss or insecurities. It doesn’t come when you are happy with every aspect of your life. It isn’t about giving up. It is about giving your challenges over. Being present looks a lot like being recovered, or recovering a life worth living, and it happens the minute you allow it to happen. So look up, look out, breathe, and remind yourself that the heart inside your chest determines the significance of your presence. You cannot decide otherwise because for the very reason that you are alive, you matter.  Therefore, you would do yourself and everyone around a huge disservice to not look into your heart today and welcome in God to remove the darkness the eating disorder has clouded it in.