How Are You Doing?

A very dear friend of mine asked me the other day, “How are you doing, really? With everything?” Knowing her and knowing that she had been facing similar struggles to mine, I understood what she meant and truly wanted to know: Are you fully recovered? Was it worth it? Are you still sick? Do you still have an eating disorder? Trying to answer these kinds of questions is always difficult, because there really is no one answer. Things change, time passes, and life throws more and more challenges at you in the wake of your attempted healing process. I began by explaining to her that I take things day-by-day and that my life and mentality look a little bit different with the rise of the sun each morning. And while I admitted to still experiencing a lot of complications and struggles with food, eating, and finding a “healthy” balance of it all, I also told her this:

I remember being so cold everyday that I feared my bones would break or crumble if I moved too quickly. I remember being so uncomfortable in my own skin that I would experience panic attacks while out in public because I knew that people would likely glance my direction. I remember wanting to do nothing but hide, being scared of crossing the street because that required calling some sort of attention to myself, dreading hanging out with even my best friends because I knew that in one way or another, food would be involved. I remember often having to stop in the midst of exercising out of fear that my heart would simply stop beating. I remember my hair thinning and how easily I would bruise, somehow finding pleasure in my own self-destruction. I remember lying about having “already eaten,” hiding food and refusing to communicate about what I was going through, and all of the secrets I allowed myself to keep in order to protect the identity I believed was serving and protecting me. I remember not even looking at any form of carbs (let alone eating them) and going vegan, something I was able to use to my advantage in cutting out more and more food groups masked as an ethical endeavor. I remember those 6 almonds and half of an apple I allowed myself to eat everyday that I believed was enough to keep me alive. I remember all of the exercise, all of the “running off the calories” that left me with nothing inside, all of the laxatives I took to feed my obsession with feeling empty, and how much I harmed myself through it all. I needed to feel weightless, frail, weak, and small. Because disappearing and shrinking myself meant that I could learn to feel less. It meant that I could fade away and ignore my own existence and the pain of reality.

I remember waking up everyday hating myself and my body so much that I couldn’t even manage to stop the tears from streaming down my face, let alone successfully complete all that I needed to throughout the day. I remember the thousands of cancelled plans, lies told about why I couldn’t make it to dinner, relationships lost, and dissociation from myself that I experienced, all of which have caused immense pain and have forced me to reconcile with people and things I have pushed away and perhaps even hurt along the way– including myself. I remember becoming so depressed while away at school after isolating myself so much that I lost the ability to reach out and ask for help, all of the classes I skipped and excuses I made for not being able to make it places when I was really just ashamed of how I looked, fainting in classrooms, enjoying being ill, and how often I would make myself sick just from looking into a mirror. Anorexia took so much from me, and working to reclaim all that I have lost over the past 2 years has been the most challenging journey of my life. I did not die, and yet I had lost all of life’s breath.

As life goes on and time continues to pass, I find myself being asked by more and more people about where I’m at currently, especially when it comes to ED recovery. I always start by telling them that I am better, and I am so much happier. I feel freer than I have in a very long time, and I often tend to forget how far I’ve come, because I know there is so much more work to be done. Still, I know that I owe it to myself to recognize the growth I’ve incurred and how far I have been able to push myself since leaving treatment last summer. I can now wake up in the morning with a variety of thoughts in my head, the majority of which are not surrounding food and exercise. I can now decide that if my body is exhausted, I don’t have to run or exercise as hard as I would normally without hating myself for the rest of the day and needing to punish my body for its inability to do what I asked of it. I can now ingest more than just coffee in the morning, and if I need more later, I can allow myself to have another cup. I can now eat a cookie without having to “make up for it” in the coming days. I can now have something other than a smoothie for dinner, and I can even allow myself to eat after dinner if I want to. I can now survive without intermittent fasting and don’t even think twice about what time I can and can’t have food, because I’m learning to trust my hunger cues again. I can now find it in myself to want to be strong and healthy, not frail and faint. I can now (mostly) go out to dinner with my family or friends without having major anxiety about what I would eat or how I would get out of having to eat. I can now say “yes” to my friends when they ask me if I want to go get a snack in the middle of the day just because, and I can even manage to have frozen yogurt with them on a hot summer day. I can now be out tanning and swimming with my friends without thinking about if I looked thin enough, changing my outfit 27 times, or worrying about what they might think of me. I can now travel across the world and eat gelato with my best friend on the trip of a lifetime and not miss out on part of the experience abroad. I can now make it through the day without measuring my waist or my wrists, trying on clothes to make sure they still fit the same or were slightly looser than the day before, feeling every bone on my body just to make sure that I still could, and even stepping on the scale. I no longer seek my own demise, for I know I am worth more than that, and life is a gift to be lived and enjoyed. I still remember that girl, but I am no longer her.

These all appear to be the tiniest of successes and may even come off as insignificant to anybody who has never experienced the harrowing destruction an eating disorder causes, both physically and mentally. But for me, all of these things seemed more than impossible to me even a few months ago. I never thought I would again find myself in a position where I could manage to have thoughts in my head that didn’t revolve around food, compulsive exercising, restriction, etc., or that I could dedicate my time to people and things other than the size and appearance of my body. I truly thought I had reached the point of no return, but the acknowledgement of these small steps as progress towards a happier and healthier me help me realize that no place I find myself in in this life is permanent. A small step is still a step. I can always change, improve, better myself, and learn how to love and care for people, things, and myself each and everyday. And so is the case for everybody. In case nobody has told you lately, the small things you are doing in your life matter both to yourself and others. Your hard work and intentions don’t go unnoticed, and you deserve to be proud of yourself, your own story/journey, and how far you have managed to come.

I know that despite the progress I know I’ve made, I still have a long road to go. But, the road no longer scares me, and that’s the key. I’m no longer afraid to ask for support if I need it, I’m not terrified of returning to old habits if I have a bad day or even a bad week because I know I can get myself back on track, and I no longer feel trapped in my own body and in this life. That’s what keeps me going and allows me to continue expanding my horizons and pushing myself in spite of whatever setbacks may appear.

I knew that telling my friend all of this and having a conversation with her about my own experience as well as hers could have either tremendously helped her or not at all. Through it all, though, I reminded her that I was in no place to offer advice, nor do I think that my experience is equivalent to hers. I can only share what I have gone through and learned from, and hope for everyone to do the same with their own experiences. I often find it hard to talk about my own struggles with people or constructing posts like this one despite having lots of questions and suggestions to do so, because I know how difficult it can be to separate our own selves and experiences from those of others at times. However, I know that the messages I’ve received asking me to continue writing about it, answering questions, etc. are important and may have the potential to help someone, so I always try my best to articulate what I wish to tell. That being said, I remember our conversation ending with me offering a brief outline of the steps I took and even the logical reasoning and even apologetic behavior I had to practice in order to really begin healing myself.

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I told her that if hating myself could have made me happy, I would have gotten there already. So, I tried something different. I gave myself care when all I wanted was destruction, and that’s when my healing began. I convinced myself that I had spent enough time at war with myself, and that I had forced my body to engage in battles it never wanted to fight. I mentioned that I find it all to be unfair. The way I’ve treated myself, the way the world grooms us to believe that we’re never enough and projects this vision of idealism and perfection, the way capitalist corporations and a population of people profit from the insecurities of women (and men), and the way I see so many people struggling to be okay with themselves and find peace with existing in their own bodies. It’s all so wrong in so many ways, and I’m sorry that this is the world we live in. For me, recovery has never been about learning to love my body. Though that would be amazing, putting that kind of pressure on myself in aiming to be able to look at myself and know that my body is 100% beautiful all the time is just not something I’ve set as a goal/wanted for myself. Rather, I am learning how to give myself permission to fully exist in peace regardless of how my body looks. If that comes in the form of finding myself beautiful, then so be it. But, if it comes in the form of simply loving myself enough to not harm my body, work to change how it exists, and feeding it (no pun intended) only positivity and light that contribute to my overall well-being and the maintenance of my heart and soul, then that’s okay, too. I’ve taught myself to understand that “pretty” and “thin” is not the rent I must pay to exist in this world as a woman. I’ve had to apologize to my body and myself for all of the damage I caused and all of the falsities I enabled myself to believe, and for losing so much time. If I understand anything about the universe, it’s that it waits for no one. Life is short, and the inevitable passage of time only makes it harder for human beings to keep up. That’s the human condition. And as tragic as it is, it is equally as beautiful. Don’t waste time hating yourself. Or your body. You deserve better than that. Take a break. If it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it. Eat the freaking cookie. And the ice cream. I promise you that you won’t look back in 10, 20, or 50 years and regret the fact that you allowed yourself to enjoy the food, people, and experiences life had given you. You owe yourself that and so much more.

You are not alive to pay bills and lose weight. Your body is not your masterpiece. Your life is. Remind yourself of this everyday.

 

Problematic Perfectionism

I’ve lived with the presence of perfection for 21 years. “Perfect.” How do you define a word without concrete meaning? “To each his own,” the saying goes. So why push to attain an ideal state of being that no two random people will agree is where you want to be? Faultless. Finished. Incomparable. People can never be be these, and anyway, when did creating a flawless facade become a more vital goal than learning to love the person who lives inside your skin? The outside belongs to others. Only you should decide for you what is perfect. Or, even better, only you should decide what is enough.

In the recent years of my life, nothing has become more blatantly obvious to me than the fact that feeling like enough (in any aspect of our lives) is perhaps not the human default. It’s of great interest to me why it seems that we have to learn how to find comfort in ourselves, internally cultivate our confidence and contentment, and ultimately come to the conclusion that we need only be enough for ourselves, and that we are ALWAYS enough. I’ve thought long and hard about why I’ve spent my entire life having deep sentiments of inadequacy and never being good enough for things or people, and unfortunately, I think the perfectionistic mindset I’ve adopted is so much more nuanced and complex than I could have imagined. I genuinely cannot remember a time in my life where I felt fully and wholeheartedly “good” about myself, my achievements, where I stand in my life and in my relationships with others around me, etc. And while I think this internal desire I’ve always had to continue striving for better, higher, and more is an asset to an extent, I’ve also come to find that there is truly nothing more dangerous. Looking back on my growth over the years, I think one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made is thinking and convincing myself that my perfectionism was a positive character trait. I always understood it as being that innate essence within me that drove me to work as hard as I possibly could, continue setting higher and higher standards for myself, and never being okay with the complacency and satisfaction that could have accompanied any of my achievements or growth. My internal dialogue always told me, “you could have done better,” “it wasn’t perfect,” or “how could you screw that up?”, ultimately leading me to become absolutely obsessed with the idea of reaching that highest level of achievement of perfection I had idealized in my head. But that’s just the thing. My notion of perfection was (and still is) completely idealized, and it lacks any form of foundation or grounding. Nothing of meaning undergirds it, thus making the term itself somewhat insignificant and trivial. In other words, I found that for my entire life, I had conjured up my own understanding and significance for what I perceived perfection to be and even deemed it a virtue, hence giving it an entirely new import and power over my life. Though this process may have been subconscious and unintentional on my part, it set me up for a long road of discontent and dissatisfaction, beginning from a very young age.

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Looking back on my childhood, there is nothing I remember more about my personality than my extreme competitiveness. Whether that was a consequence of having two older sisters who I was constantly compared to and was expected to live up to (because they’re absolutely brilliant, strong and beautiful in every way) is definitely a thought that crosses my mind, but I know that the birth of my perfectionism came from more than just that. From the very beginning, it was a deeply-rooted internal desire that planted its seed in my mind as a child. I always wanted to be the absolute best at every single thing I ever did or tried, and that’s just the way it had to be. It was never enough for me to work hard and get an “A,” because it should have been a 100%. It was never enough to win a soccer tournament, because I probably could have connected more passes, taken more shots, or scored more goals. The insane amount of pressure I put on myself started very early on, and it definitely did not discriminate in how it manifested in every part of my life. In thinking about how my perfectionism and experience in striving to be this version of perfect I had created has impacted the course of my life, I try to be as gentle and forgiving as I can with myself. I know that, to some degree, I simply could not help the fact that my mind works in this way and that these thoughts are something so familiar and even natural for me. I also acknowledge that the structure of my life as a kid, young adult, and even now (simply a consequence of being a human being in this society) only worked to further encourage and harvest these dangerous seeds leading me to believe that I simply wasn’t good enough.

I don’t think I have to explain to anyone how our society works to endorse and promote some ideal of what is “perfect,” not to mention that there is a very distinct vision of what “success,” “health,” and “happiness” are as well. For me, I’ve found that in some of the most devious and insidious ways, the world constantly tells people that they aren’t enough. Right from the start, we’re groomed to believe that only those who go to college and obtain a good job will be successful, only those married and with children can understand the true nature and feeling of love, and only those who embody a very specific aesthetic can be considered beautiful. I grew up thinking that my joy and the contentment of my being as a person was completely dependent on my capacity to be “successful” (that is, wealthy). By the age of 5 and 6, I had already begun to believe that in order to be happy in this world, I had to have a good job and make a lot of money as an adult. And so my desire to one day become a lawyer was born. I didn’t know it then, but what I thought was a burning desire within me to become a lawyer and to help others through it was really just a mechanism through which I thought I could find joy and help MYSELF. I thought being successful in this way would make me happy. And what’s more perfect than being happy, having a successful career, and leading what seems to be an equally fulfilling and exciting life? Well, the fact that not only is perfection impossible, but that filling my life with empty promises to myself and believing that things like happiness and success were avenues by which I could somehow be perfect is the problem. Being career-oriented has always been part of who I am, and the perfectionism that took hold of me throughout my entire academic career (and still rears its head) proved to be extremely detrimental and problematic to my overall well-being, particularly in high school. I remember having long conversations with my mom prior to entering high school in which she advised me to push myself with the classes I chose, but not to overextend or overcommit, for she knew I would also be training, playing club and high school soccer, and involving myself in a multitude of other activities (because I also convinced myself that I needed to do it all and be “well-rounded”). Well, in classic Kamryn fashion, I told my mom I would think about just doing a few of the difficult classes but not pushing too hard, then ended up signing myself up for the full IB Diploma program. While there is nothing I appreciate more than the IB program, all of the growth it allowed me to have throughout those years, and the wonderful teachers I had who taught me more material and things about the world than I ever knew possible, those years were extraordinarily hard for me. I needed to be #1. So I was. I remember defining my entire value as a person by the number listed next to my name in the class rank section, and feeling like such a failure whenever I fluctuated in grades, status, etc. I had set goals for myself, and that was that. They just HAD to be achieved. I had the constant need to prove myself to everyone around me, to my family, and mostly to myself. I never felt good enough, so I relied on numbers and letter grades to give me the validation and worth that I had somehow lost (or never found) throughout the course of my life. Obviously, the way this story ends is that *spoiler alert* I ended up not being #1 in the end and falling down a rank, and my world came crashing down a little bit. This was the first time I was forced to face myself and realize that I had “failed,” and that I couldn’t be perfect. That moment changed a lot for me, but not everything. While I have worked on changing my thought patterns and (as cliché as it sounds) telling myself that working hard and doing my best will always be good enough and that my worth is not contingent upon how others perceiving me, my relationships/interactions or my success, unlearning all that I have been groomed to think about myself and learning how to engage with a healthy form of the natural competitiveness, drive, and passion within me is still brand new and a complete learning process. Still, I am learning and growing through this everyday, and my mere acknowledgement that I am not, nor will I ever be perfect is a start.

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As many of you already know, though, these past few years have been anything but smooth-sailing for me. And constant waves of change sets the stage quite perfectly (no pun intended) for my perfectionism to creep back into my life. I’ve found that my default is acting on my perfectionistic tendencies, which has been increasingly dangerous for me in my college years. After losing my mom and going through a terrible breakup, I immediately fled to the toxic coping skill I had always known to make myself feel better— hyper-focusing on elements of my life to make “perfect.” This time, though, it was my body. I had to be perfect in every way, so I began engaging in horrible habits that led me to developing an eating disorder that continues to pose problems for me. My desire to essentially numb myself and succeed in morphing my body into what I looked towards as being perfect led me to employ a new project; one that allowed me to not only feel perfect, but even look it. I tirelessly tried to make myself as small as possible so as to not be forced to deal with the reality of my life, only to find that the voids within me could never be filled with the disgusting satisfaction and pride I felt when I perfectly executed starving myself and running myself to the ground. I still existed, and the pain persisted. I destroyed my body for a peace of mind I never got, and that has been one of the most difficult things to come to terms with. I’m still working on rewiring my brain to think differently about myself and my body and to teach myself that the way I am is absolutely enough for me and the world I live in. But man, it sure is a hard pill to swallow. Trying to devalue everything I’ve been taught (or have self-taught) to value is a long and strenuous process. But we try, and we continue on. Always.

Needless to say, my notion of what is perfect and the innate perfectionism that has poisoned my life & psyche has proven to create more complications, destruction, and hardships than any version of “success” of “happiness” I thought it could. If you take anything away from this blog post, just know this: you are not alive and present on this earth to be perfect. Nor will you be. And there is nothing better than knowing the truth of that. If hating yourself could have made you happy, you would have gotten there already. Try something different. And if you cannot beat the fear binding you to the perfectionism that brings you the comfort and security you don’t think you’ll ever find elsewhere, then just do it scared. I believe in you, and you are so brave. True strength and bravery come from knowing our own faults, limitations, and character flaws, yet never letting go of the knowledge that each of these is what makes us uniquely us and gives us the grace to be who and how we are in this world. Worth, value, and dignity are not derivatives of a socially constructed vision of what ought to be considered perfect. What a gift it is to not be perfect.