Editor’s Note: If you struggle with self harm or have experienced an eating disorder or sexual assault, the following story may potentially be triggering. You can contact Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741 from anywhere in the U.S.
I don’t know if I have a beginning, or a middle, or an end to this story. In many ways, it has always been there, will always be there. A pattern of self-resent, disgust, shame, and crippling anxiety triggered by trauma, a terror that dismantled my life, one I buried, avoided, minimized, shoved away, ignored, denied. A pervasive cloud of insufficiency edging its way into my brain, distracting me, pulling me away from the world and into my mind, where environmental chaos, biological factors, and genetics had stirred together a fertile breeding ground, where seeds of diets and weight loss and silence, “pretty girls don’t eat” and “sit still, be quiet, keep your legs closed, don’t speak until you are spoken to, don’t take up too much space,” and harsh words and diet ideas were strewn, planted, and festered.
The result was an eating disorder, as it too often is, the result was starving and splitting hairs trying to undo it, falling to my knees on bathroom tile trying to empty myself out, over-exercising and fainting, tearing up my skin, bottles of laxatives, abnormal EKGs, supplements and medical interventions, and dumping food in my napkin, treatment and hospitals and struggle and tooth and nail and grit, pounds lost and gained and lost and gained and lost and gained again. The pattern faded, over time, I gave it up then went back, then gave it up a hundred times. It is still there, I still wrestle with it, but I have healed and grown, am healing, am growing. I am not the same person I was and my story is not what I once thought it would be.
I was young when it started, was younger when I was sexually abused, was still young when my lunch began to find its way into the garbage. Elementary school. I couldn’t comprehend what had happened to me in preschool, didn’t have the language for it, didn’t understand it outside of how it made me feel: disgusting, panicked, ashamed. And that’s how I made sense of it. That’s how I coped with it. Those words became my truth. I forced myself to avoid and bury and distract from my pain, but I couldn’t escape the shame and self hatred that remained. I wanted out of this body that only ever reminded me I was disgusting and unsafe. I attributed my deep internal shame and pain to an external problem, and I hated my appearance and my body more than anything else. So I waged war on it, and I grew silent with the world around me. I hated my body, and even at five, I knew the solution for this was weight loss.
I skipped meals, desperate for some sort of detachment and emptiness. Meals skipped progressed into “diets” throughout elementary school. I had no knowledge of nutrition, I only knew I felt enormous, repulsive, like far too much, as though my body was intruding on space that was never mine to take up. I don’t know what pushed me over the edge, whether the blame belongs to a climate of pressure and invalidation, bullying at school and a teacher who participated in the problem instead of helping, genetic factors, witnessing extremely disordered eating firsthand, generalized anxiety, major depressive, and complex PTSD symptoms that emerged, worsening instability as my family grappled with alcoholism and its aftermath, sexual assault and other traumatic encounters, or the instant rush I felt from depriving my body of the nutrients it required to function, but in a way, I don’t think it belongs to any singular event. Nearly every experience in my life contributed to the development of my eating disorder, whether aiding in its progression or guiding me back toward normalcy for a brief moment. At the end of the day, it just happened.
At age eleven, it shifted. I was sick, didn’t eat much, grew high off the hunger pains, hopped on the scale, was giddy to see the number had dropped significantly. My world shifted under my feet, then broke in two. There was no going back. I kept starving, cue threats of a doctor’s appointment, cue the urge to hide, now, rising like smoke in me, out my lips as I lied, “I’m fine, I feel better,” cue trying to eat, cue the itchy restlessness, cue more lies, more “sickness.” Read a book about bulimia, thought purging sounded like an acceptable avenue of weight loss, then bam, knees on tile and grout in front of the toilet, trying to empty myself out, every night for a few months around my twelfth birthday until I collapsed on the bathroom floor in such agony that I could not rid myself of my dinner.
That first night on the bathroom floor precipitated the steady decline, ushered in a foggy cloud of days, of restriction, skipped meals, tossed aside snacks, excluded foods. I finished seventh grade lighter and more lightheaded. The day before eighth grade, I stared in the mirror after months of avoiding it, more disgusted than I could verbalize. I hated myself with an unprecedented level of intensity, so I plummeted. Sharp descent. Into the darkness of my mind I went, into the madness of numbers and calories and fat grams and weights fluctuated in half ounces, archived in my brain to refer to every time I needed a reminder as to why I deserved punishment, why I needed to starve, why I was doing this.
When forced to stop for brief hiatuses, I turned to self harm. If I couldn’t starve, I’d find another way to destroy myself. It was my back pocket emergency exit, until it wasn’t, until it bled into all of this, until I couldn’t give it up anymore. I hated myself, I wanted an escape, I wanted a way to understand my pain. It never mitigated the eating disorder; for a while, it allowed me a temporary distraction, but eventually, it only exacerbated the impulse to self destruct and dissociate from my body that triggered my eating disorder.
I began to lose my grip on reality, almost every single thought that danced through my head related to food or my body in some way. Taking up space left me vulnerable to more of the abuse and anxiety and crippling shame that dominated my life since childhood. I couldn’t bear to hear the floorboards creak beneath me; any implication of my existence was another painful reminder that I was not safe. I would've preferred to exist theoretically, somewhere in my own head, where nobody could hurt me, not even my own self hatred. So I tried, eliminating my weight and my words.
My eating disorder made my world smaller. It attempted to organize the disarray of my past into the exact precision of hunger. It numbed out my emotions when it drained my body of the energy to feel them, distracted me from real pain with the mind-numbing boredom of calorie counts, and let me float through life in a fuzzy, malnourished brain, detached. It was my restitution, my apology for taking up space, my means of punishing myself in an attempt to earn back my worthiness. It was an outlet for hope that destruction could compartmentalize all the turmoil in my life so that it finally made sense. It was a prayer to disappear completely, to follow my escape route through shrinking to its bitter end. The world became simpler: self punishment took the prototype of the guilt and shame trauma had grown in my mind and elaborated on it. It was more than an obsession, it became my means of survival.
Until I almost lost my life to it. My restriction progressed until I lived each day subsisting primarily off of the hunger gnawing away at me from the inside out. I continued to deprive my body of the nutrients it needed to survive while practicing competitive springboard diving for between ten and fifteen hours per week, until I grew so weak I could no longer stand without my eyes going black or walk up a set of stairs without stopping to rest. I spent every year of high school in and out of treatment, in hospital gowns, behind doors that clicked locked behind me, with gritted teeth and refused supplements and a list of minimizations and denials I was no longer allowed to utter in therapy, with EKGs and electrolyte supplements and pulse deficits and stitches and lecture after lecture, with meal plans and exercise restriction and more appointments than days in a week and so many absences and unmet credits I was told I’d never graduate on time. But I did graduate on time. And, despite everything my fifteen year old self would have told you, I did change.
There was no breakthrough moment, no final decision to let it all go, nothing that woke me up for good. It was a gradual consideration, a progression of relapses, a morphing of behaviors, a collection of conversations and of people who stayed, who refused to give up on me, of feedback I didn’t want to hear and poems I wrote and journals I filled and art I created and friends who helped me hold myself up. It was a slow learning, a slow emergence, slow approach, sudden retreat, approach, retreat, approach, a pattern that still sometimes emerges today, to a lesser extent. It was different treatment methods and the first time I actually realized maybe, possibly, after all, I could be happier without it. It was too many breakdowns to recall and a few critical times when I actually broke through.
It was finally speaking about the abuse, no more lying or denying or mentioning something less painful in hopes that talking about that could somehow be enough to mitigate years of worse trauma. It was someone seeing my very darkest corners and staying. It was suicide attempts and so many nights of self harm and it was somehow deciding to stay, despite it all, maybe not for myself, maybe not for the “right” reasons, but for reasons that kept me alive until I could find whatever it was in me that wanted to live. It was relapsing worse and more rapidly, closing the world out, grasping at every edge of my eating disorder or self harm until I could get my hands on treatment just months before my graduation and nearly destroying everything in my path trying to do so, then waking up. Finally thawing, finally feeling all the pain I’d buried away all at once, reliving all of my hurt over the course of 24 hours that changed everything — not because they altered anything, but because I did. Because everything was brutal, but it was still brutal when I was running from it. The wreckage in front of me did not disappear just because I closed my eyes, and ultimately, it was only ever worse when I opened them and had to confront everything I had lost to my plea for an escape. I was lucky not to lose my life. It was a long time before I believed I did almost lose it, even longer before I believed I was lucky that I hadn’t. But it did happen.
I clawed out some broken, misshapen strength from inside of me, and forced myself to draw from it. I breathed and I sobbed and I pulled myself together and I broke, again and again. I gathered the pieces. I tried to run. I came back, I showed up. There is still so much work to do. But I am here, and I didn’t always believe I would be. And I feel more alive today than I ever have. It all hurts, all of this, the pain and the past I have yet to confront in full, the memories of a darker time, grieving the loss of the person I could’ve been had I sought help sooner or been more receptive to treatment. Resuscitation hurts. But I wasn’t alive when I was numb, and I am now. And that, that means so much more to me than a false perception of safety ever could. Today, the words I can write and the people I can love and the dogs I can hug and the mountains I can explore mean so much more to me than my past ever could. Today, I am here, and I am healing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Written by Katie Hogan