It was an illness born in the corners of my mind. It paralysed me, affected every aspect of my life but no! it was not a bid for attention.
For years, I suffered from a mental illness. It was invisible to the naked eye, and though I hid it really well, its effects were quite real.
My name is Patricia and I’m an eating disorder survivor.
I suffered from bulimia as a teen up until my mid-twenties. My mental illness went undiagnosed and untreated for almost a decade, and in 2006, it simply got out of control. Now almost 7 years later, I consider myself recovered and haven’t had a relapse for 6 years.
Today, I’m writing to fulfill a promise to myself, a vow made in my darker days of recovery. My vow: if I survived, I would share my personal experience with bulimia as a springboard to talk openly about mental illness. When I look back, that promise was my first step into eating disorder recovery. The rest of that journey wasn’t easy, but a big part of my survival since, has been about keeping my thoughts in check and surviving one day at a time.
Now that I’m vocal about my lived experience, I focus on ending stigma and promoting a dialogue. As a speaker and avid blogger, I’m very often asked the following question: ‘How did you recover; how did you do it?’ My answer, unfortunately, is that there is no one blueprint for recovery from an eating disorder, so I can’t give anyone a cookie-cutter one-size fits all solution. However, the one “truth” I did find, was that to recover, one has to ask oneself a better question: “Why do you want to recover?” For me, that answer was that I still had a very strong will to live.
To better understand what I mean by my own will to live, I want to take you back to the late Summer of 2006. Then, I was about to return for my final year of law school, but before I did, I needed to have emergency surgery to remove my gallbladder. Due to endless episodes of eating disorder struggles of about 4 to 5 years, by 2006, I had developed gallstones. Though it wasn’t the first physical health problem I faced due to my illness, it was the most life threatening. I was bluntly told I needed emergency surgery or else my pancreas could be blocked or severely damaged, not to mention that I was also in a lot of pain and could barely function.
I distinctly remember a moment on my way to the OR: my inner voice told me was that it needed to stop harming myself. Facing that surgery, I knew I was at a crossroads and I couldn’t deny it any longer. In those few minutes I realized that the purging, starving, and lying to people around me would kill me, if I kept going. I knew in that moment that I was bulimic (though I had suspected it prior, in the way an addict knows they have a problem) and that I couldn’t continue it live like this. I concluded, in that moment, that I had to find a way to make this disease stop, because I reached a point where life did not seem worth living the way I was living it. I did not know how I would recover, but I knew I had to.
One of the last things I remember before going into surgery, was wishing that the bully in my mind who had been telling me all these years that I was never good enough, would somehow be surgically removed during the process. Of course this didn’t happen, so in the weeks and months that followed, I made sure to find reasons to help me get on the right path. I started to set goals for myself. At first, the goals were simple: being strong enough to finish my law degree and pack up my apartment. The summer after that, I set the goal of being strong enough to have the courage to decide to not pursue a legal career because simply knew in my heart it wasn’t what I wanted; and later on, wanting and needing to recover because I wanted to be free.
Even with those personal goals, it wasn’t easy. I still needed to go to therapy, but that too, took time to realize. I started my eating disorder therapy many months post-surgery because, at first, I thought I could somehow (unsuccessfully, I may add) white-knuckle my way into bulimia recovery. I was also afraid of the stigma, of being called an attention seeker or any of the other insults that are usually used to label those with any type of mental illness. Worst, because it was an eating disorder, I was afraid that people would call me shallow and make fun of me for having such a poor self-image that I would “let myself”, manifest my “issues” into serious physical damage.
It would take an impressive amount of talk therapy, CBT, online support groups, nutritional counselling, a running coach, and an amazing group of friends and family members, at different points over the last years, to get through it. Now, having done it, I know that a professional was a key component of my recovery, because they could discuss the motivations behind my behaviour, without judging me. Supplementing that professional were hugs along the way, hand holding, and smiles; though at first mostly in private with some key people, who I was comfortable enough to admit that I wasn’t perfect. Then in the months leading up to 2013, I started to open up with my wider circle of family, friends, colleagues, and eventually publicly on social media , It was at that point that I could really admit to myself that I was an eating disorder survivor and that I’m now recovered; that I crossed that line and became living proof that recovery is possible.
Recently, I’ve made it a point to fulfill that promise I made myself back in 2006. Now that I’ve realized that despite its imperfections and moments of grief, life is worth living, I want to share with anyone that is willing to listen, that they/you too can get to this point. That by accepting that with some effort, life doesn’t need to be a constant struggle the way it is when an eating disorder controls you, you too can be recovered and remove that part of your identity which thought that you needed to self-harm, to feel alive.