By Caroline Holder
The journey to recovery is a long and winding path. Anorexia was my attempt to escape from a life I no longer recognized. To be free from the grasp of hopelessness. To flee from unrelenting unworthiness. It was a way to disappear. Little by little. Until nothing was left. A means to slowly kill myself.
After all, I didn’t deserve to live. I had been made to feel that I deserved to take up less space. That I should be heard less, be seen less, be nourished less, be loved less. In essence, be less present.
For me, the days before I began my journey to recovery were ones filled with darkness. Confidence and self-esteem were distant memories, ripped from the hands that had once nurtured them. Anorexia was a cry for help, for someone to listen, a yearning for understanding. To be accepted for who I was.
My circumstances had placed me in an environment with which I was at odds. I found myself living in the well-to-do suburbs of New York city where I struggled to identify with the stay-at-home mothers that surrounded me. I was at odds with the intense materialism and pervasive entitlement. I felt like I was suffocating. The focus was not on my worth as an individual but on where I lived, what car I drove, where I went on vacation, how many nannies I had. A never-ending list of parameters used to cast judgment and deem if I was worthy of inclusion. A relentless pressure to rise to unattainable perfection. Every. Single. Day.
It was not an environment I had grown up with, having spent my childhood in Costa Rica, where it didn’t matter what you looked like, what you wore, the color of your skin, your accent. You were valued for who you were. As a human being. Living in California and Europe I felt the same sense of ease and belonging. It was not until New York became my reality that insecurities began to creep in, slowly banishing my self-worth to a distant corner of my soul, buried so deep that it rarely saw the light of day. Tears flowed easily and often. The pain of daily rejection was palpable. Isolation was my salvation. Exercise my escape. A way to numb the pain, the heartache. To find wholeness amid the wreckage.
Throughout my life, I have always had high expectations of myself, demanded the best in everything I do, am my own worst critic. I love being able to perform. To be of service. These qualities brought out the best in me and served me well. As a student, my grades were high and I thrived on my teachers’ praise. As an employee, I got good reviews and loved being acknowledged for the work I did. As a stay-at-home mother, I loved spending time with my daughters but felt lost among the other suburban mothers. It all felt so fake, so superficial, so empty. So I chose to disappear.
Over the years, I tried to reach out to my husband but was made to feel like a problem to be fixed. So I chose to punish myself for not being able to change my circumstances. My attempt at verbal communication had been fruitless so I tried instead to communicate physically. I didn’t deserve nourishment. The less I consumed, the less space I took up, the less of a ‘problem’ I was. I was broken. Our marriage crumbled.
My attempt to self-destruct resulted in a stint at residential treatment; an experience which served to further my feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness. In treatment, the focus was on our faults, our negative emotions, our shortcomings. While there is value in acknowledging both the positive and negative in our lives, there was little that lifted me up during that time. Being away from my daughters and far from family was extremely painful. On a positive note, I did connect with my roommates, fellow residents, and select staff members. The experience did give me tools for self-reflection and introspection for which I am grateful.
I tried to ward off shame by numbing myself, to quiet the guilt by shielding myself and my willingness to love and be loved. My first step along the path to recovery was an admittance that I was powerless over the controlling nature of those whose lives intertwined with mine. It was about being vulnerable, not guarded. It was about being truthful, not fake. It was embracing my emotions, not fleeing from them. It was about seeking connection, not isolation. The first step taught me that with vulnerability comes authenticity. Vulnerability is the origin of contentment, belonging, creativity, love. Vulnerability is not a weakness. I embraced it as a strength. I surrounded myself by those that would lift me up, not bring me down. To seek out those with whom I could share my thoughts, my feelings, my fears, and they could do the same with me. Doing this drew me closer to others, where once I thought it would isolate me. Others had similar thoughts and feelings of guilt and shame, of never being good enough, of not being worthy. I wasn’t alone. I could share my story and be more connected, and on a deeper level.
Practicing vulnerability was powerful. It allowed me to open myself to new experiences. To be honest with my family and grow closer to my daughters. To perhaps even find love in the form of a partner one day. To foster compassion, empathy and gratitude. To be seen, to nurture self-worth, to be present, not perfect. To be who I truly am. Every. Single. Day.