NEDA Week: What’s weight got to do with it

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Fat is not a feeling, but there’s plenty of emotion behind the word. And I’ve been feeling pretty emotional about it lately. I don’t want to purport the stereotype that eating disorders are all about weight, but the fact is that the fear of weight and weight gain are pawns within the mind game.

After trying for years to manage my anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive thoughts with everything under the sun besides medication, I finally made the very difficult decision last fall to try an SSRI. I understood the risks and possible side effects, and I finally understood that I deserved to feel better. That realization alone – that I deserved it – also told me that I’d finally made some progress. One of my biggest fears about medication, truthfully, was the possibility of weight gain. In spite of all that I’ve learned about body positivity, and as strongly as I believe that all women deserve to feel confident and beautiful in their body at any size – I struggle to believe it applies to me.

In a mind that still taunts me with disordered thoughts, I knew that if I was willing to take that risk then I was willing to do just about anything.

So I did. And I gained weight. I don’t get on the scale anymore, but I went up nearly two clothing sizes in two months. I’d be lying if I said I was okay with it.

Truthfully, it’s terrifying. It has been scary to watch the body that I controlled for so long change without my permission. It sucked not knowing if my clothes were going to fit from one day to the next. It was humbling to purchase new clothes that I didn’t want to buy, specifically looking for clothes that will hide as much of my body as possible. I would dread the very idea of buying clothes, because I’d wonder if I’d even get a chance to wear them before realizing they were now too small.

It’s the flip side of the shame I felt every time I got dressed for three years, trying to hide the shrunken body that felt like a stranger.

While the medication quelled my anxiety, it slowed down pretty much everything else too – metabolism, yes, but also energy and excitement. With the help of my doctor, I decided to try a different option and see if it would be an all-around better match for me. So far, it has been. The anxiety is still manageable, but I don’t notice as many side effects. The lingering impact from the first medication, though, is the extra weight.

The funny thing is that this body actually feels more like me. I don’t know if it’s simply because the constant mind chatter, the self-hatred, has quieted or because this is just closer to my physiological set point. I suppose it’s bit of both.

I can say with absolute certainty that medication is helping me manage my anxiety. And for that I have nothing but gratitude. I can make decisions that aren’t shrouded with doubt and debilitating negative self-talk. I can leave the house without the nagging suspicion that I’ve forgotten something, that there’s something I meant to check, that there’s something I should have done, that I didn’t do enough, and on and on and on. I can get through the day without a crushing panic attack. I can forgive myself for taking up space (and dare I say I’m even feeling thankful for it again).

But for someone who believed her primary goal was not taking up space, it’s a catch-22. Gaining weight is a terrifying concept. It’s not about vanity – in a twisted way that is very difficult to explain, it’s about feeling unworthy of being alive.

And so gaining weight – accepting it – also means accepting life. It means that I’m in. It means that I want to participate in it, regardless of my shape or size or the space I may take up, physically and emotionally. The thing that I was most afraid of while I was in the depths of my eating disorder happened. Physically, I gained weight. I don’t feel like I have control over my body anymore. (A little secret: none of us actually do.) Mentally, I had to release the toxic belief that my controlling what I ate and the size of my body have any impact on my worth as a human being.

Some days I question if I’ve made any progress at all. In spite of the work I’ve done over the past 5 years, I wonder if any of it has changed me. I still have negative thoughts. I still struggle with disordered behavior. I still question if I would be a more worthy person if I just had better control over food and my body.

Those are on the worst days, though. I’m thankful that those thoughts are more fleeting now. But I’ve also come to realize that my brain may always distort what it sees.

I’m writing this because eating disorders, like all mental illnesses, are isolating. They convince you that you are a freak, a mistake, someone who certainly doesn’t deserve love or understanding or compassion. And even once you get yourself into a safer space, mentally and physically, the work doesn’t stop.

We don’t live in a world that is safe for eating disorder recovery. That doesn’t mean recovery shouldn’t be fought for, or that it isn’t worth it. It absolutely should and it is. But it means a commitment to yourself and to your body. It means fighting the voices in your head and in the media that tell you aren’t thin enough. That you aren’t worthy enough. That you aren’t enough. It means fighting the voice that questions if maybe you were better off in the eating disorder haze. Because this recovery thing is hard.

I want you to know that if you are in it, you are not alone in these conflicting feelings. You are not the only one who is sometimes plagued by the question if it’s worth it, even if you know logically it’s supposed to be. You do not have to be ashamed of these feelings. You can give yourself grace if you’re not there yet.

People talk a lot about what it was like to be in their eating disorder. We don’t talk enough about what it’s like once you get out. We get stuck in a place of “recovered enough.” And you deserve more than enough. My hope is that the conversation doesn’t stop as National Eating Disorder Awareness Week comes to an end. We’re just beginning to see what’s on the other side.

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