Set Free

Jewels3By: Meg Burton

Project HEAL Southern California Chapter


I often find myself using quotes to help explain experiences I’ve gone through. Because, for reals, quotes are pretty much just such a great way to sum up intense lessons you have learned. So let me set up my quote of this piece.

“Our stories can set us free when we set them free.”

One late night during the holiday season of my freshman year of college, I stood behind a Target cash register in total and utter zombie mode muttering, “Hello! How are you doing today… I’m well thank you,” over and over again. I was coming upon the end of my shift and had decided to turn my bubbly personality switch off. A very energetic woman with two kids strode up to my empty lane and began to unload the items from her cart onto the belt. Right away I could tell she was an awesome mom and I loved the way her and her kids were interacting. A few moments in, the family realized they had missed something and the two kids went off to go grab the missing items. The woman was making small talk with me and laughing when a moment of panic hit me as she suddenly asked what the charm on my necklace said, and then proceeded to read it, “Goodbye Ed, hello me…” she said as she chuckled. “Uh oh! Who’s Ed!?”

My first thought that arose was how could she have possibly been able to read my necklace from that far away? The writing on the charm is very small and pretty discreet. I stammered for a moment trying to decide whether or not to tell her that I once struggled with an eating disorder or to make an intricate tale up on the spot. But as the panic ebbed away I began to explain to her what the charm meant to me. I explained that Ed was an acronym for ‘eating disorder’ and that one of my favorite authors wrote, Goodbye Ed Hello Me, where she popularized the therapeutic tool of separating yourself from your eating disorder. I briefly shared my story and said how my own eating disorder began around the age of eleven. I explained how I had been in and out of hospitals, inpatient, and outpatient treatment. I quickly finished up and told her that I was doing really well now and had actually just gotten back the previous day from being on the Dr. Phil show to talk about my recovery. (I only had one sentence though, legitimately 5 seconds of fame.) The woman stood there with her eyes starting to fill with tears and was silent for a moment. She paused for a moment and then whispered, “Thank you.” Then she began to tell me her own story of how she had struggled with an eating disorder during most of her adolescent years and early adult life. She explained how few resources they had back then to get help or even awareness about how many women actually struggled with this. She spoke in that certain way where you can tell she had never been able to be open about her struggle before; that she knew what she went through was serious, yet she tried to convince herself for so many years that it wasn’t. Her past struggle seemed so dismissed. She lit up as she told me having her kids helped her in her journey back to health. She said that was when she realized she wanted to take care of her body in order take care of them. She thanked me a few more times for sharing my story with her as her kids came back up to the line and she wiped away her tears.

As the transaction went through and I handed her her receipt, smiled, and felt an immense amount of gratefulness. These are the moments in recovery where you can’t help but feel filled with the abundance of life and feel so connected. It is these connections that I consistently crave. When I was sick, I pushed these moments away and shut myself completely off from them. I was cold and empty. Most importantly though, I was lonely. I began to learn that the more I shared about myself, the more connected I began to feel. The more I talked about what my life used to be like in my eating disorder, the farther away I started to feel from it.

The entire previous year I told my story many times in schools throughout the Bay Area. Every time I shared, I set my past story free and made room for some new ones. I was no longer bound to my life with my eating disorder. In that moment where I shared my struggle with a total stranger, I was able to connect with her. I was able to listen to her as she opened up room in her book of life as she let go of her old stories.