MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
How it started
THERE WAS A VOICE in my head for twelve years. More than that, actually. It told me what I should eat and how long I should exercise. It told me that sleep made me lazy and that my body was a work of art I needed to perfect.
It told me that I was my body, that everything else about me—my interests, my family, my friends, and my health—didn’t matter. All I had to do was be skinny and the world would fall into place.
It will be easy, the voice said. It will be the best thing you’ll ever do.
There wasn’t a real voice in my head, but it felt that way sometimes. My anxiety when I didn’t listen to that voice felt real, too. The anxiety took over my body, making my stomach cramp and my head whirl and my body tense up. Every cell in my brain was devoted to worrying about my body and what I looked like.
I hated it. I loved it.
My eating disorder wasn’t my first experience with anxiety or obsession. I had always been a high-strung child. I had friends and had fun and got dirty, but part of me was always worried about something:
How my socks didn’t feel just right on my feet.
How someone I loved was going to die because I hadn’t said “I love you” enough times before bed.
How my friends were just pretending to like me.
In sixth grade, a friend and I always joked that if we failed a quiz, it would mean we wouldn’t know enough for the big test. If we failed that test, we wouldn’t pass the grade. Then we wouldn’t go on to high school or college, and we’d end up complete failures.
It was probably a joke to my friend, but it was reality to me. In my mind, every situation was a potential catastrophe. Every person could hurt me.
It wasn’t a surprise when I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder in the seventh grade. The repeated rituals and fear of cleaning products were pretty obvious signs. My parents hustled me into therapy, and I went on medication to help with my anxiety. After a while, a lot of my behaviors slowed down. My thoughts cleared enough so I could function better.
Back then, I wasn’t very worried about my body. I thought about what clothes and shoes I should buy to fit in with my classmates (I thought about that a lot), but I didn’t care much about the size I was wearing.
That would come later.
First came the realization that I was still anxious, when I started to prepare for high school and my friends staged an intervention because I was acting too “weird” for them.
I thought they were being mean. They were, of course, but what they didn’t realize—what even I didn’t yet realize—was that my “weirdness” was a manifestation of my anxiety. I was so afraid my friends didn’t really like me that I was sabotaging every interaction we had, acting paranoid and trying too hard to be perfect.
My body issues would come in high school, when I joined the swim team and gained muscles, when my body went through the natural changes of adolescence, and when I broke down in sobs before the school Halloween dance. My friends and I had all dressed up as devils, and I was sure I was the fattest one. I was sure that fat was awful.
My eating disorder would come after I went to college, when I scrutinized my roommates the same way I did my hometown friends, searching for signs that they accepted me. I was so afraid I was boring and unlikable that I retreated into a world of food, weight, and exercise obsession. I thought that could help me avoid any potential rejection.
That’s when the feelings of isolation took over and the disease began.
It all started in middle school, though:
My fear of not belonging.
My awareness of how I looked.
The anxiety that was always hovering in the background.
I wish I had caught it then. I wish I had reached out for help and admitted what was going on. I wish I knew that my body was not my enemy and that gaining weight isn’t a bad thing.
That’s what this book is for.
Whether you occasionally worry about your body or you’re in the depths of an eating disorder.
Whether you think you might have some eating issues or you absolutely 100 percent know your life needs to change.
There’s help out there for you, and there are lots of people who can help you. Taking that first step and talking to a guardian, school counselor, or therapist about how you feel can seem so difficult, but help and support are out there.
No matter where you are on your recovery journey, this book is for you. Because you deserve recovery. You deserve a life free from body worries and obsessions and compulsions and anxiety. You don’t need an eating disorder.
You are enough just the way you are.
The journey, the fight
I spent one Christmas in the hospital. While the rest of my family was celebrating together, eating eagerly anticipated holiday treats, I was on the hospital ward, eating according to my meal plan and writing in my journal.
I wasn’t supposed to be at the hospital. At that point, I had already been an inpatient for a few weeks, which meant that I was allowed a pass home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I could sleep in my own bed instead of on the limp hospital mattress. I wouldn’t have to follow the schedule that was the same every day: Get weighed, shower, eat. Therapy, support group, eat. Support group, nutrition appointment, eat. Eat, eat, and eat some more.
I was supposed to be excited to wake up in my bed on Christmas morning. I was supposed to be excited to open presents with my family and stare at the twinkling lights and talk about whatever “normal” people talk about in the presence of such overwhelming food.
I was not excited.
With every minute at home my anxiety rose, even though I was supposed to be getting “better.” I had gained weight at the hospital. I had been eating the suggested meal plan for patients with anorexia for my entire stay, so these twenty-four hours at home were supposed to be easy. If I were a comedian, I’d make a food joke about everything being a piece of cake.
I was supposed to slide back into normalcy as an Olympic diver enters the water, with barely a splash or a ripple. I was supposed to be better now. If not all the way, then enough to enjoy Christmas the way everyone else was. I wasn’t supposed to freak out at the amount my mother wanted me to eat. I wasn’t supposed to be clenching my fists with anxiety the entire time.
Supposed to. Like should, it is a phrase that has tortured me for years. We all hear these words in some way. We all think them.
Here are some things I thought:
• Women are supposed to be thin, beautiful, and successful.
• Girls should behave and look nice, be confident but not too confident.
• Men are supposed to be muscular and toned.
• Boys should be athletic and popular and successful.
People are expected to fit neatly into categories, and these categories are often binary, with only two options, like woman or man. Girl or boy.
The world often forgets that people are all different. That people naturally come in all shapes and sizes. That boys get eating disorders, too. That gender isn’t always binary. That trans people get eating disorders. That queer people get eating disorders. That fat people get eating disorders.
Anyone can have an eating disorder.
When I was younger, I definitely heard shoulds that pertained to me. I focused on the supposed to and forgot who I really was. When I got that Christmas pass from the hospital, I forgot where I was on my journey.
At that point in my life, I wasn’t ready to do the whole recovery thing on my own. I was too raw. It was all too new. So even though I was supposed to be calm, I was totally freaking out.
So I asked my parents to drive me back to the hospital early. Instead of celebrating my favorite holiday, I went back to the eating disorders unit. The hospital was forty minutes away, and it was snowing heavily, but my parents drove me anyway. Because at that point, faced with the idea of spending all day around the indulgences associated with Christmas, I panicked. I retreated. I hid. Just as I had been hiding during my entire illness. I thought then that hiding was a weakness, but I know now that I just needed some extra help. I needed more time.
There was no Christmas tree on the eating disorders unit, only some lights strung along the windows. My family wasn’t there, but other patients were, the ones too sick or too new to the program to go home for the holiday. We drew pictures and watched Christmas movies. We ate. We passed the time however we could.
Looking back now, the scene feels lonely. Back then, though, I was relieved. I was happy to spend the holiday season away from my family. I was ecstatic to escape the pressure of having to make choices about food. I wasn’t ready to do that on my own yet.
It took me a long time to be fully ready to take care of myself, to truly realize, deep down, that I was worth nurturing and loving and accepting. It took two years in the hospital, off and on, in both partial and full hospitalization programs. It took two stays in residential treatment, each for three months, a year apart. It took medication and visits to therapists and nutritionists. It took relapses and almost ten years of thinking I was recovered but still having a lot more work to do.
I’m a work in progress. A messy work in progress that I’ve started over a thousand times. I’ve erased things and gone back to earlier sketches. I’ve stared at my painting so hard that the colors blurred before my eyes. I’ve been afraid to finish because it might not be perfect. Because there might be mistakes.
There were mistakes. I still make mistakes. But I kept going. I keep going. Because the life that I have right now—the worst day that I have right now—is so much more amazing than anything that came before.
As I mentioned, my disordered thoughts transformed into an eating disorder when I went away to college. College was a big change for me. I am not a big fan of change. I like to know what to expect. I like planning for things. And when things are good, I want them to stay that way.
I loved high school. I was good at school, and I loved being on the swim team. I fit in. Well, I thought I fit in. In reality, I fit in because I worked really, really hard at fitting in. Even with my friends, I was constantly aware of what I said and did.
Was I acting cool enough? Did I sound foolish? Was my shirt in style? Did my body look different from everyone else’s?
I shouldn’t have had to work that hard to feel good about myself, but it was all I’d ever known. I knew that when I excelled academically and was nice and perky and in a good mood, people liked me. So I always had to be in a good mood. I always had to be “on.”
I decided to do the same thing in college. But I worried about what would happen if I presented my “best” self and these new people still didn’t like me.
What then? My biggest fear was that I’d be rejected, that the gut-level, deep-down fears I had about myself (I was worthless, I was wrong, I wasn’t as good as everyone else) would be proven true.
I knew they were true.
They had to be true.
Upon meeting my two roommates, I automatically compared my body with theirs and noticed that they were skinnier. I determined that this made them better and that I’d been right. I wasn’t going to fit in.
So I decided to take things one step further. If I lost a little weight, everything would be okay. If I was skinnier, I’d be worthy. I started exercising. I started eating “better.” My first morning at college, I woke up early and went to the gym across campus. Two girls in the dorm next door saw me leaving and invited me to go running with them.
Wow! I should have thought. Friends! Just what I want!
My mind didn’t think that, though. My mind was so focused on losing weight to get friends that it rejected the fact that potential friends were standing right in front of me. Instead, my mind compelled me to say no and go to the gym instead.
They won’t run long enough for me, I thought. I need a better workout if I’m going to lose enough weight to fit in.
I didn’t become friends with those girls. I kept going to the gym. I ran instead of hanging out and watching TV. I ran instead of creating the bonding moments that cement friendships. I left classes early to work out and only ate what I thought I should. I had rules, and I followed them.
You might have rules, too. You might only eat certain foods at certain times. You might diet for a few days and then give up. You might binge on certain days of the week. You might have to wake up early to exercise for a certain number of minutes or do a certain number of crunches, even if your body is screaming for rest. You might know how hard it is to break these rules.
I couldn’t break my rules. Not even when I realized I was miserable at school because I hadn’t opened myself up enough to let myself fit in. Not when I transferred schools the next year and found that my eating disorder (because that’s what it was, even though I hadn’t realized or admitted it yet) had followed me. Not when I took a leave of absence from school to enter treatment once my parents found out what was going on.
I thought I’d been so careful. I thought I was hiding what I was doing. I thought everyone believed my lies. I said that I was eating healthier, that I just wanted to lose a little weight. I thought they didn’t notice.
They noticed. My family noticed and my friends noticed. They saw me lying and saw me pulling away, saw me canceling plans because I was afraid food would be there.
I was afraid food would be everywhere. I was afraid that if I went to a party or opened up about how much I was struggling, how hungry I was and how I couldn’t stop myself from restricting food and exercising, someone would take my eating disorder away from me.
The funny thing was that I actually wanted my eating disorder gone. I so wanted it gone. I was tired of pushing my body to its limit. I was tired of not sleeping because my bones hurt. I was tired of being hungry. I was tired of always thinking. Always measuring and counting and weighing.
I was tired of never feeling that I was good enough, never feeling that I was getting closer to a finish line forever out of reach. I never lost enough weight. I never looked as good as I wanted to, as good as my friends and everyone on TV did.
I wanted to be happy.
But I couldn’t stop.
One afternoon, I came home from my summer job. I was working at a law firm, answering the phone and typing memos and filing boring papers. I sat all day. I felt like a blob, so I needed—needed—to spend my lunch break exercising. I quickly changed into workout clothes, then hopped onto the bike in our basement. I’d have enough time to get in a mini workout before I had to go back, I promised myself. It would hold me over and hold back the anxiety until later.
And it did hold back the anxiety—until my father walked in twenty minutes later. I never stopped in the middle of a workout, but I stopped then. I stopped pedaling, sweat dripping down my face. I was busted.
I went into treatment after that. My parents made me go, but deep down I was glad. I was relieved. I knew I was sick. I hated my life the way it was. I hated it, but I couldn’t stop myself from self-destructing. Not on my own.
Sometimes it felt as if I would die of anxiety if I didn’t skip a meal, even though I knew I was getting sicker and sicker by the day. I needed to escape. I wanted to escape. I wanted to be free, like my friends were. The ones who could eat junk food at a sleepover. The ones who could skip a workout if they were tired and wouldn’t freak out if they didn’t know what restaurant people were going to more than a day in advance.
When I entered treatment, I was scared and relieved. Scared that the doctors would take away my eating disorder—the one thing that made me feel special—and relieved that they were going to make me eat. Make me rest. I wouldn’t have to fight myself anymore.
I thought I was going to walk in the door and be cured.
I thought wrong.
The path to the other side
Treatment isn’t a cure-all. This book won’t be a cure-all, either, even though I wish it could be. Treatment does help, though. For me, treatment took the form of hospitalization, and it started me on my journey to recovery. It forced me to admit that I had a problem and gave me the coping mechanisms to use in situations that triggered my anxieties and obsession with my body. I learned methods to calm myself down and worked to unravel why I felt that I wasn’t good enough for the world.
I learned about the messages my eating disorder sent me and how to distinguish them from my healthy voice. I went to groups on nutrition and body image, where we made sample meal plans and analyzed advertisements in magazines. I practiced speaking up to my family when they put too much pressure on me and telling my friends what I needed them to do to help my recovery.
I made lists of my goals and dreams, ones that I couldn’t accomplish with an eating disorder. I started to remember what was good about me outside of my body.
And I ate. I ate regularly and fed my body so that it could trust me again. I fed my brain so that it started functioning properly. And as I ate, I saw that food didn’t kill me. I saw that I didn’t gain seven million pounds after eating one meal. That I could wear a different pants size and my friends would still like me. That even if the world told me I had to be a specific size, being—or trying to be—that size was killing me.
And if it didn’t kill me, it would kill my spirit. It would kill what makes life worth living.
I learned all this—and then I left the hospital and relapsed.
Things came up in the outside world, situations that made me want to dive back into my eating disorder:
• Someone commented on my weight gain.
• A friend went on a diet.
• My parents kept staring at me while I ate.
• I wasn’t invited to a party and felt left out.
I relapsed, and I wasn’t able to pull myself out of the hole by myself. I got stuck again, so stuck that I needed more treatment. There are lots of types of treatment, but the right step for me was to go back to the hospital.
After I was discharged, I relapsed again. I repeated this cycle for a while, through various forms of treatment. Some people go through a similar process. Some people don’t go to treatment but work toward recovery on their own instead. Some people relapse, while some recover on the “first try.”
While the recovery process may vary, one truth is generally the same for everyone: It’s hard to leave an eating disorder behind. It’s hard to accept your body. So even though our experiences may differ, you may understand what I went through.
I left residential treatment the second time humbled. I had hit my rock bottom. I wanted a life. I wanted to go back to school. I wanted to be with my friends, who were having adventures without me. They had experiences and memories. They were living their lives.
My memories were of treatment and meal plans and body image homework. I wanted more. I wanted life, regardless of the weight I had to be in order to live it. I wanted myself back.
That’s when things started changing.
There was still a part of me that wanted to be skinny. There was still a part of me that felt like I wasn’t enough. But I ignored those parts. I focused on what I wanted and what I needed to do to get there. I had goals and dreams. I wanted to get married and have kids. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to go out with friends and laugh and swim and run without worrying about how many calories I was burning.
I wanted to eat my favorite foods. I wanted to sleep in without feeling like a sloth. (Sleep is good. My body likes sleep.) I wanted real life more than I wanted the fake life I was living in the fake body I had created.
I left residential treatment and followed my meal plan. I was honest about the times I didn’t follow it, so I could get back on track. I gained weight. I freaked out about gaining weight. I freaked out for a long, long time.
But eventually I realized that I actually felt better when I wasn’t so skinny. I had more energy. My sense of humor was back, and I laughed more. I wasn’t cold all the time, and clothes fit me better. And as I ate and gained, I felt less anxious. Things leveled off. My weight stabilized.
It was a miracle! (Okay, not really. But to me, it felt like one.)
That wasn’t the end of my recovery journey, though, because after a few years, I realized that I had more work to do. I had started internalizing society’s messages again, started feeling like I wasn’t good enough. I was exercising a bit more than I should and my eating became disordered. I wasn’t doing anything awful or “sick,” but I was on a quasi diet, not eating what I was really hungry for. I was trying to control myself, working hard to keep my body at the size that I wanted it to be, rather than the size that it wanted to be.
Bodies know these things. They have set points, where they’re biologically supposed to be for maximum health and comfort.1 Bodies are like machines. Not quite robot level, but pretty cool anyway. When you restrict your food, you feel hungry. Your metabolism slows down so your body can hold on to the calories you’ve already consumed. On the other hand, when you eat a lot, you might not feel hungry later.
Our bodies are amazing. And I needed to trust mine.
So I adjusted my actions and my mind again. I eased up on the exercise. I listened to my body. I let myself eat more because my body wanted more. I let my body find itself.
I let me find myself. I thought I was recovered, but I wasn’t. Not all the way. I still had work to do. Sometimes, even now, I realize that I still have work to do. I’m human, and I exist in this very complicated world. I change. I adjust. I adapt.
I’m not perfect. But I am recovered. For me, recovery doesn’t mean that I never get stressed out. Everyone gets stressed out; that’s part of being human. But now, when I’m anxious, I know there are so many things out there that will calm me down more than restricting food or obsessing ever could.
When I compare myself with someone else, I try to identify what it is that I’m jealous of, then figure out how to fulfill that need in a way that doesn’t make me feel awful. If I’m jealous that someone is prettier than I am, I don’t necessarily yell at myself. I ask myself what “pretty” means. Do I want a new haircut? Do I need more sleep? Do I need to think about ways that I’m awesome, too?
Because I’m awesome. It took me a long time to realize that, but I finally do. My body is bigger now, and that’s not a bad thing. Weight gain isn’t bad. I am so much more than the wrapping paper around my heart, and so are you. We are a collection of talents and skills and pluck and drive and kindness. We can overcome obstacles and enjoy life.
When I was in treatment and expressing doubts about recovery, the counselors always told us about the importance of trust:
Trust in recovery and trust in my hunger.
Trust in what my body needs to function and thrive.
Trust that my coping skills work.
Trust that I’m a great person.
They told us to give recovery a try. To go all in. “If you eventually recover and don’t like it, then you can always go back,” they said. “You can go back to obsessing about your body. You can hide away from the world for the rest of your life. Just give recovery a try first. I promise you, you won’t want to go back. Once you recover, you’ll see. You’ll never want to go back.”
They were right. I never want to go back. Never.
You won’t, either.
Recovery isn’t magical. I still have bad body image days. I still feel guilty about not being good enough—not being a good enough writer, mother, friend, whatever. I still have hard moments in life—financial stressors and family stressors and so much more. But I live, regardless of these feelings and situations. I live and eat and move and make memories. I used the lessons that I learned in treatment until I internalized them. Until those beliefs of worthiness and enoughness became part of me.
You deserve to learn those lessons, too, whether you’ve been in treatment or are soon going to treatment or can’t afford treatment. Whether you have slightly disordered eating or a diagnosable eating disorder. Whether you binge or purge or starve or overexercise. You deserve to know that whatever you’ve done, however you feel, you don’t have to feel like that anymore.
In this book, you won’t find any information about what my lowest weight was or how many calories I ate. I don’t talk about how long I exercised or what sizes I wore.
Those numbers don’t matter. They don’t matter because they didn’t define me then and they don’t define me now. But they also don’t matter because you can be sick regardless of your weight. You can have a disordered relationship with food no matter how often you do certain actions. I don’t want you to compare yourself with me or anyone else. I want you to focus on what’s healthy for you and what is or isn’t working in your life.
That’s what matters. You matter.
This book won’t cure you. No book can do that. You are the only one who can help yourself. And that’s the amazing thing: You can help yourself. You can! You don’t have to be thin to love yourself. You don’t have to look or be a certain way. You can stop hurting yourself and hating yourself regardless of your size or your weight.
You can live regardless of your size or your weight.
You are enough.
You may never be fixed. I may never be fixed.
Everyone in this world has something to work on, though. We all have things we can be better at. That doesn’t mean we’re broken. It doesn’t mean we’re hopeless cases. It means that we’re human, just like everybody else. I am not a perfect person, and I most likely did not write a perfect book.
I am writing this book as a straight, white female. I come from an upper-middle class background. I am cis, meaning that my gender matches the gender I was assigned at birth. I am married. I suffered from anorexia and excessive exercise.
I am privileged in many ways, and I did not and do not experience many of the things that readers of this book may experience. I am different from you. You are different from other readers, too.
In this book, I am not talking only to people with experiences like mine. This book is for everyone who suffers from disordered eating. This book is for all people who worry about their body and think that they are not enough.
Because of my limited background, I made it a point to research other experiences. I have talked to doctors, counselors, and nutritionists who work with various populations and varied eating disorders. I have talked with advocacy workers in the queer community.
I have interviewed people of color and men with eating disorders. I have spoken with transgender men and women, with people of varying sexual orientations, and with genderqueer individuals about their struggles with body image. I have spoken with individuals in the fat acceptance and Health at Every Size movements to discuss the importance of accepting your body size as it is and as it’s meant to be.
It is my hope that regardless of your experience, you will be able to see your struggles mirrored in this book. You may not be able to relate to every chapter, and you may not identify with every piece of advice. But no matter who you are and which pieces of this book you relate to, your struggle matters. You are not alone.
That’s the funny thing about eating disorders: When you’re in the middle of your struggle, you think that you’re the only person in the world who could ever feel this way. And, yes, portions of your experience are unique. You’re the only one who has walked your path. But your emotions and fears are also universal. Lots of people think they don’t matter. Lots of people don’t feel at home in their bodies, whether they’re unhappy with their weight or are dealing with a chronic illness.
Individual circumstances can make recovery more challenging, especially when eating disorders are misunderstood or overlooked.
Research into eating disorders in the queer population is still limited. However, the National Eating Disorders Association reports that as early as age twelve, “gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens may be at higher risk of binge-eating and purging than heterosexual peers.”2 Compared with other populations, gay men report more disordered eating behaviors such as laxative use, fasting, and purging.
Transgender people report more disordered eating than cis people, and they have to deal with more than one type of body image issue: both size and the conflict between their assigned gender and the gender they actually are. A 2015 study showed that 16 percent of transgender participants had been diagnosed with an eating disorder.3 Yet this information is rarely heard in the mainstream.
The eating disorder stereotype is usually a skinny white girl “who wants to be pretty.” But what about the boys who are struggling? What about nonbinary people and other queer people? What about people of color?
Some people develop eating disorders after they are diagnosed with a disease like diabetes, which demands an extreme focus on food.4
Fat people can have eating disorders.
Eating disorders do not discriminate based on body size, skin color, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, health, ability, or gender.
We need to get familiar with the variety of people who have eating disorders so we can recognize symptoms in ourselves and in others. So we can stop making these distinctions and move toward becoming one community working together to erase eating disorders, remove barriers to eating disorder treatment, and get rid of factors that contribute to eating disorders, such as size-based discrimination and the pressure to adhere to societal expectations.
We all suffer, and we all struggle. We all feel out of place. But with that bond comes hope. With that connection comes the knowledge that you don’t have to feel like this forever. Others have traveled this road and emerged into the sunlight. Others have healed.
Even if you don’t connect to everything in this book, it is my hope that every chapter will add something important to the conversation about body image and self-esteem. That in the end, you will find hope and realize that every part of you is enough.
Copyright © 2019 by Jen Petro-Roy