Author: Val Berenshtein
In February of my freshman year of high school…
I became ill with anorexia. At the time, however, I did not realize it. I did not even know that eating disorders existed or how serious and life-threatening these mental illnesses were. Growing up, I never had problems with food, weight or body image. Nobody in my family had suffered from eating disorders in the past, so I was not genetically predisposed to the illnesses. I was a very happy, ebullient, radiant young girl, who saw the world through a lens of utmost positivity and who loved to live her life.
Although I was happy – the happiest I had ever been –, I always felt like there was something missing from my life, like I was somehow not enough.
In elementary and middle schools, I would look at the “popular” girls and wonder why I could not be more like them. I would question why boys did not take interest in me. I would tell myself it was because of my appearance – because of my body shape, my stretch marks, my hair, my clothes. All of my self-criticism was further supplemented by the hurtful remarks I would get from my peers. I was called earthquake, labeled as the ugliest one in my friend group and proclaimed to be stupid. In addition, weight and appearance were always central to my family, so I was constantly submerged in an environment where I felt it necessary to look my best. Otherwise, I felt the possibility of judgement weighing down on me tremendously.
Going into high school…
I therefore decided to lose some weight.
I wanted to be popular so that girls would want to be my friends and the boys would take interest in me; I wanted to turn over a new leaf and redefine who I was, given that all of my best friends were going to a different high school, and I would be going to my school alone; I wanted general attention from as many people as possible because I was experiencing an unintended lack of attention at home, with the recent birth of my brother; I wanted the bullying about my appearance to stop and never happen again.
Although my weight-loss goal started in a very healthy and balanced manner, my deleterious, self-harmful intentions should have been tell-tale signs that my decision would lead to no good.
Just a year and a half after making my decision…
I went from being slightly, medically overweight, having an athletic build from six years of competitive swimming, to being significantly underweight. In December of my sophomore year of high school, I was hospitalized for risk of cardiac arrest and organ failure due to severe weight loss and malnutrition. I spent seven months in treatment – two of those months being on a medical leave from school –, after which my treatment case was closed in June 2015, the summer after my sophomore year.
Despite hating the mentally-ill condition I was in and despite wanting to recover very badly, I never reached a full recovery. As treatment progressed, the eating disorder continuously fed my brain with a fear of physical change – a fear that was so intense that, by the time my case was closed, I ignored my remaining, and down-spiraling, illness for the following two-and-a-half years.
During those years, however, I dedicated myself…
to spreading awareness of and educating about Eating Disorders. I became a public speaker on and advocate for eating disorder awareness, giving presentations at a handful of high schools, treatment facilities, and community meetings. I organized my own community events and fundraisers: a Walk, two Informational Seminars, and a Family Awareness Night. I taught an in-school class on eating disorders that students were able to take and even started a campaign, Need to bEAT (EAT stands for educate, advocate, terminate), to raise money for eating disorder research. I terminated the fundraising portion of Need to bEAT at the end of my senior year of high school and maintained the campaign just as a blog for myself and others to share their stories and experiences.
My intent with educating and spreading awareness was, and still remains today, to give a voice to those people who are silently struggling alone, to profess the urgency with which society needs to address these illnesses and to spread the message of hope for recovery, for life, and for an end to eating disorders.
Throughout my time with advocating, however, I was ill. I was extremely ill. But, I convinced myself that I was not “ill enough” and that, when I went to college, nine states away from my home, in the fall of 2017, everything would work itself out.
I was very wrong.
Three months into my first semester of college…
anorexia took complete control over my life. I began experiencing severe anxiety and bouts of reoccurring depression, which I had struggled with throughout high school. I could not focus on anything that was unrelated to food because my brain and body craved that which the eating disorder took away from them. One evening, a week before Thanksgiving break, I experienced my first panic attack, followed by a plethora of suicidal ideations and disassociations. To put into words how afraid, how helpless and alone, I felt would be impossible. I had hit my lowest point – a point I did not think existed, neither for me nor for anyone.
It was after Thanksgiving break that I dedicated myself to recovering once again – this time, with the intent of pushing through the physical pain and changes no matter what they amounted to.
My mental health, gaining back a life that I lost five years ago, was now what was most important to me.
I am a little over one month into my second recovery. The physical changes have been difficult: I am experiencing abdominal pain, discomfort, soreness, tenderness, constipation, and nausea. I am also experiencing extreme hunger – mental, physical, emotional and hunger from boredom –, all of which are valid indicators that I need more food. Additionally, the unknown amount of physical and mental changes I still have to go through – changes I cannot predict or determine – scares me tremendously. I struggle quite a lot, and I am nervous to go back to college for my spring semester.
But, I am also hopeful.
I am hopeful because I am redefining my life and myself every time I listen to my extreme hunger, every time I go out with my mom while feeling physically uncomfortable, and every time I reach out to my friends. I am learning what it means to be happy and in love with myself and my life as opposed to solely relying on others for that happiness and love. I am discovering new interests and passions that make me excited to explore all the possibilities ahead of me.
Yes, I am still scared – very scared –, but my life and my happiness are worth so much more than the torment of an eating disorder.
I will not let it win.