Anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder or has helped someone in their recovery process can appreciate how complex, unique and different every experience can be. Reading personal essays and stories is a great way to understand what others have gone through and what they have learned. Our blog, In Their Own Words, is a forum for people to share their insights, experiences, and, importantly, to let you know that YOU are not alone

Hannah’s Story: Me, Myself and ED

I was always a sensitive child. In some sense maybe too sensitive. I preferred to be alone and yet I yearned for the approval of others. I wanted to hide and yet I needed people to notice me. I didn’t know how to make the first move. I didn’t know how to engage with people, so I taught myself how to live in my imagination. I lived in my mind every chance I got. There, I could be anything I ever wanted to be; I was everything I thought I wasn’t. I imagined I was pretty, that I was good at sports, that I was close to my family, that I could do anything I wanted, and the biggest one, the one dream I never got out of; I pretended to be happy. I got so good at imagining happiness, I even fooled myself into believing I was fine. And so, my eating disorder was born.

I played right into its hands, I danced my way into isolation, into creating a quiet, sullen persona for everyone to see and believe was me. I remember looking at my older cousins and seeing their hipbones visible and noting that mine didn’t protrude as much as theirs did when I laid down. I wanted my hipbones to be better, to stick out more, I then became obsessed with bones. I was little; barely 6 years old and I already hated myself so much.

I thought it was normal. I didn’t realize that other people didn’t feel the same way. I didn’t even know that I hated myself because I didn’t know there was any other option. I didn’t know what 2+2 was, or that ski was spelt s-k-i rather than s-k-e. So how was I supposed to know that anything was wrong with me? I grew up with my eating disorder, I was raised with my eating disorder, it evolved with me and imbedded into me. Over the years “Hannah” started to fade away and the eating disorder became a stronger presence.

By the time I was 7 I had connected food with fat. I started eating a little less, not so much that anyone noticed but skipping a meal here or there, going to bed hungry, and faking sick to get out of eating. No one noticed, and I learned more tricks to keep it quiet. I would have times I ate more than the guys at dinner, but the next day I would eat next to nothing. This continued on and off to a point that it became second nature.

I withdrew more and more. I became more timid, less courageous. I became more observant and I learned to connect with people that way. I found hiding spots, in the bushes and trees. Where I could see everyone, but they couldn’t see me. I watched them live their lives, I watched them play, and have fun without me. I watched them go tubing and for boat rides. I watched them laugh and smile. I felt alone and yet I couldn’t bring myself to join them. I was young, but I was already so sad.

It happened fast, with the kind of speed where you don’t even notice that it happened until after. Within the first 6 years of my life my fate was sealed, and I would never be the same again. I don’t remember what life was like before I started caring about how I looked. I imagine that it was a time full of smiles, laughs, and hugs. A time when a mirror was just something to make silly faces into, and food was just a break in between playing. I imagine that I was happy, and I hope that some part deep down inside of me remembers what it was like.

I don’t know when my eating disorder started, it was just there. It grew and changed with me and I don’t know why. I don’t know what left me open to it or what part of me was the first to believe what it said. But I did, and in that moment the eating disorder felt like a life preserver when I was drowning in the ocean. I don’t know why I needed it or how it got so bad.

There is no foolproof way to tell if someone is going to get an eating disorder. It isn’t something that you can see before it happens, and just like any mental illness there aren’t solid warning signs. For me mine started when I was just developing a personality and so it would have been almost impossible to detect. There are signs and symptoms that accompany an eating disorder and since one of them is secrecy it is very hard to notice that anything is wrong. The eating disorder knows how to fly below the radar, how to fake a meal, or how to eat in front of people without actually eating.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I made the wrong choice, when I lost my way. I can’t tell you how to see it, or how you catch it. I can’t tell you how to see it before it happens or how to make sure it never happens. All I really know is what I wanted, what I needed. I needed someone to see me. I needed someone to include me, to encourage me to open up. I wanted someone to hug me and to not let me get lost. My family may have paid attention to me but I needed more; I needed someone to look into my eyes and to tell me that I was wanted. I don’t know if that would have even helped, it may not had made even the best slightest difference, but it would have been worth the try.

I can’t tell you the perfect way to help, or how to support someone with an eating disorder because everyone is different. Something that helps anyone, no matter the situation is being listened to. Having someone sit in front of them and really listen. To feel heard and understood, that helps. It may not cure everything, but it helps. Being supportive and being physically there for someone helps. Holding their hand as they try to eat dinner, being the shoulder they cry on, or hugging them until they stop shaking.

Just being present and listening to their needs can make all the difference. Remember, it isn’t anyone’s fault and there is no blame to go around. The most important thing is to know that, that person is in pain, real pain and that they need support, and love.

I was 5 years old when I started hating myself. I was 8 the first time I puked after I ate. I was 10 the first time I attempted suicide. I was 11 when I decided I wouldn’t turn 15. I was 16 the first time I was admitted into a hospital. I was 17 when I finally began my road to recovery. I am 18 and I am still fighting every day. It won’t stop, it will get easier, but I have to work at it every day and I will always have to be aware of what is going on in my head. I wouldn’t have made it and I wouldn’t be able to keep living my life without the support and love I received over the years; from my family, my eating disorder team, my doctors and my friends. Their support and understanding are what made it possible for me to become me and to live not just survive.