How Did This Happen?

Today's hump-day post is from Emily Zoino. She attends Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, GA, majoring in psychology. Her career goals include working for the prevention, awareness, and recovery of eating disorders. She volunteers with the Eating Disorders Information Network and loves to talk to students about her experiences. Emily Z

The year that I started college was when I learned how to manipulate and harm my body in ways that I never knew I was capable of. For me, this took the form of anorexia. Before this, I never knew much at all about eating disorders, and I had the same stigmatized notions that a lot of people do that eating disorders stem from a vain desire to be thin or beautiful. However, I now know that this couldn't be farther from the truth. Throughout my years of therapy, I have explored a lot of the factors that contributed to my eating disorder, and a few of them have genuinely surprised me-- mostly because they have nothing to do with food or weight.

It started out innocently enough as a personal commitment to stay healthy in college. In a world where I was on my own for the first time, completely in charge of myself, I equated my ability to take care of myself physically to my ability to be independent and successful. If someone had asked me this outright, I wouldn't have been able to verbalize it. But looking back, that’s the best way I can describe my underlying feelings. I had always eaten relatively healthy and played sports before college, but I was very aware of “the freshman fifteen.” So I decided to pay extra attention to what I ate and make it my goal to become a better runner since I wouldn’t be playing any organized sports. This was the biggest “obvious” factor in my descent into anorexia. I started keeping track of calories and cutting out certain foods that I labeled as “unhealthy." I think these are things that a lot of people who diet do at one point or another, but for me, these behaviors escalated very quickly into what was a completely unhealthy lifestyle.

I also put a lot of pressure on myself to be "better" socially than I had been up until college. I was always very quiet and shy, and so in a new place where I didn't know anyone, it felt very freeing to have the opportunity to "reinvent" myself as an adult. I wasn't trying to change who I was, but I guess I was trying to break out of the expectations that everyone had always had of me. Although again, I wouldn’t have said it this way at the time, I somehow equated being extremely self-controlled to having more social success. I felt like if I could make this identity for myself-- as the healthy one, the runner-- then I would have a place to fit in.

The last piece I’m going to talk about is the one that has been the hardest for me to understand and accept about myself. I am an extremely sensitive person in the sense that I am greatly affected by the emotions of those around me. I take on the feelings of others, especially if they are stressed or upset. I tend to put the wants and needs of others above my own needs, and just based on this temperament, it turned into an underlying feeling that others were more important than I was. This feeling turned into me trying not to have any needs- emotional or physical. In some sort of twisted way that I know is not logical, I felt like if I didn’t need anything, other people would be happier and better off. And that led me to feel guilty taking up space, time, and attention. I wanted to make myself as “small” as possible (literally and figuratively) so that I wouldn’t bother anyone. It wasn’t my goal to lose weight, necessarily; I just kind of wanted to disappear. Keep in mind- this was all subconscious, and I've only identified these feelings through hindsight. In the moment, I didn't feel like anything was wrong.

It took me a long time to realize that what I was doing was harmful to my body, and by that point, I wasn’t in control anymore-- my eating disorder was. None of my thoughts were my own; every thought I had was an obsession with food, weight, calories, exercise, or negative thoughts about myself and my body. Treatment and recovery wasn’t just about tackling my “fear foods” and learning to stop counting calories. That was part of it, but the harder part was completely re-working my sense of self and realizing that I am a valuable person who deserves to take care of myself and be happy. In the depths of my eating disorder, I definitely felt horrible about myself. My self-esteem was rock bottom, and quite honestly I didn’t think I was very important. Logically, I knew I was just like everyone else and was not “less than,” but that’s not the way that I was acting. I was treating myself in a way that showed just how little I really thought of my own worth, and it’s still scary to me to think that I was treating myself that way but didn’t know that it was a sign that something was very wrong.

These days, it’s still hard, and sometimes I have some of those same thoughts that plagued me during my worst years. I would be lying if I said these thoughts never affected me. However, I am proud to say that I am now strong enough and love myself enough to push these thoughts out of the spotlight to make room for my truth. My truth is that I value myself, body and soul, and I know that if I hold on to that, I will be free.