Your Recovery Inspiration Series: A Recovery Warrior Story
Written by Kacey Clark (and shared with permission)
This is my recovery journey. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t easy, but it was one-hundred percent worth it. There were days when I just wanted to quit and there were days when I actually did. But the difference between recovering and not is making the conscious decision to listen to your true, authentic self or to your eating disorder, and this decision means everything. Trigger warning for anyone who is triggered by reading about other people’s eating disorder behaviors.
I was thirteen years old when I started restricting. I don’t quite remember the exact moment my eating disorder took hold of me, but all I remember is suddenly feeling like I was “too much”, and also like I was “too little”: I took up too much space but the space that I did take up was completely inadequate. I coped with my feelings of worthlessness by trying to shrink myself, trying to fit into this ideal image of a woman that I had been conditioned to believe existed. I also started running cross-country during this time period, and fell in love with running. Even though I genuinely had a passion that persists to this day for long-distance running, I used it to further my disorder until it spiraled out of control. My restriction increased, and so did my mileage. My anxiety worsened and my depression strengthened. I wound up too weak to do the thing that I loved, and too convinced that I was on “the right path” to do a single thing about it.
It wasn’t until I was hospitalized two months before my fourteenth birthday that I realized the detrimental effects of what I was doing to myself. My heart rate was so low that doctors worried about whether I would make it through the night. I was bedridden for weeks while eating huge quantities of food that made me sick to my stomach. I was resistant, but at the same time, accepted that this was the only way out of the situation I was in, and continued onward.
I went to outpatient treatment after I was discharged from the hospital, but ended up leaving after a few weeks. The therapist there told me that “full recovery is impossible” and that everyone continues to live on with their eating disorder and simply learns how to cope with it. This made me wonder what I was doing there, trying to get better and heal my relationship with food and my body, when I was simply setting myself up for failure. On top of that, I relentlessly compared myself to the other girls in outpatient, who could not eat a single bite of their dinner while I finished it without any problem. The “I’m not sick enough” mentality crept in and I left without fully healing the disordered mentality that had led me down this dangerous path, and this mentality only continued to strengthen.
When I started high school, the eating disorder thoughts stuck with me and haunted me every hour of every day. I weighed myself daily and would restrict if I was over a certain weight, despite the fact that this seldom actually had the desired effect. I felt broken and worthless and ashamed; my body was a battleground and I could not win. I eventually got so determined to “fix myself” and work for the body I was convinced I was “supposed to have” and immersed myself in the world of health and nutrition. I started eating only “clean” foods and joined my high school cross-country team. Somewhere during my sophomore year, I also became vegan, convinced that there were certain foods that were dooming my health and betraying my body, but little did I know, it was my disorder that was doing that. I lost all the weight I had gained during a particularly strong bout of depression and completely lost all motivation to heal. I was cold, tired, and hungry all the time. I isolated myself away from friends and family. I lived my life by strict, rigid guidelines and could not see the joy in anything, anywhere. My world was shaded by the dark cloud of my disorder and all I could think to do was submit to it.
I was rushed to the Emergency Room the summer before junior year, after having similar symptoms to my first admittance to the hospital (digestive system completely stopped, dizziness, faintness, lack of appetite, intense fatigue). They sent me home promptly, telling me that I needed to gain x number of pounds in order to continue running, which was far pounds fewer than I had lost and in hindsight, a terrifying judgement on my healthcare provider’s part. I did what they said and, of course, the weight fell off and symptoms returned as soon as my mileage picked back up and my eating disorder grew stronger.
By this point, I was sixteen and had never had a period, and was diagnosed with primary amenorrhea (absence of a period). Although I was unsure about whether or not I wanted to have kids in the future, as most teenagers are, I was concerned. Everyone else on my cross-country team was running the same amount of mileage and got their periods—why didn’t I get mine? I was told to go on birth control, or that I was a “late bloomer”, or that I needed to gain a little weight. “Well, we’re not doing the last option,” was my only response to this suggestion. And the synthetic nature of hormonal birth control did not sound very appealing to me either, since I was more concerned about why my body could not naturally produce these very healthy and essential hormones in the first place. I was referred to a dietitian despite my refusal and was given the option to either cooperate or go back into inpatient, so I cooperated reluctantly and gained weight using a rigid meal plan prescribed by my dietitian. I did not receive any mental health treatment during this time, which looking back, is why I continued to struggle for years.
All throughout my junior and senior years I struggled with orthorexia and exercise addiction. My exercise routine was rigid and unnegotiable, and kept me locked in a state of constant striving and exertion, and isolating me away from family, friends, and fun. My orthorexia meant that I could not have dinner with my family, go out to eat with friends, celebrate with a birthday cake, or connect over a comforting meal. I was completely consumed by the rules that had ingrained themselves in my head, but this mentality did not progress in a vacuum. It was the toxic mindset around health and nutrition that I had immersed myself in that encouraged me to continue on the path of my disorder.
Although initially wanting to pursue a degree in sociology, I decided to move away to Southern California, at the opposite end of the state, to pursue a degree in dietetics. I wanted to help people be “healthy” and heal themselves from all of the toxins and chemicals and additives that are obviously damaging their health and well-being and sabotaging their body (if you can’t already tell, I say this with 100% sarcasm). While in college, I kept up my rigid exercise routine and food rules, worked on school work twenty-four-seven, and joined student organizations. From the outside, I looked like I was thriving and succeeding and achieving, but in the inside, I was empty. I was the shell of a person completely dominated by a constant, foreboding voice telling me that I’m not good enough the way that I am and I need to do x and eat y in order to be good enough. Still, I relentlessly stuck to my obsessively structured lifestyle until one day, I had a breakthrough
I had heard about intuitive eating and Health at Every Size (HAES) through some nutrition blogs I had read online. I thought these ideas were so interesting and groundbreaking compared to the vast majority of nutrition approaches, but the only thing I could think was, I could never do that! Unconditional permission to eat? Any and all foods? Health at every size? Not for me. Still, I was beginning to be desperate for a solution to my amenorrhea which was still always in the back of my head. So I ate. And I moved less. And I rested more. And guess what? I felt better.
I got my first period during finals week and was elated. I could not believe that the things I had read about and heard about but had never given myself permission to explore had solved a problem as confusing and complex as amenorrhea. This progress brought me so much hope and excitement, but of course, it brought something else along with it: fear.
I succumbed to this fear that grew stronger and stronger with every food rule broken and every day of exercise skipped. I found myself slipping back into habits I had vowed to never go back to. The rigidity reappeared and my mentality shifted; I was reverting backwards. One day in my nutrition class in my second semester, my professor emphasized the international crisis so infamously titled the “obesity epidemic”. She showed us graphs and statistics and numbers, but with my recently gained knowledge I couldn’t help but ask myself, Is this helping people? Is this really encouraging people to be healthy? And what about other things, like socioeconomic status, oppression, stigma, and access? Don’t these things affect health outcomes? In that moment I knew two things: 1) I had a problem, and 2) I knew how to fix it but didn’t want to. This realization led to a quite literal breakdown, and eventual, my withdrawal from the university. I went back home to Northern California determined to heal, only to straddle the line of recovery for another full year.
In that year, I struggled more intensely with my disorder than I ever have before. I dropped out of school again, left the country on a whim, and went through drastic and traumatic life changes. By the start of 2019 I was absolutely exhausted and one-hundred-percent certain that this was it: I needed to recover. It was now or never.
I reached out to some eating disorders dietitians I had come across through social media, and settled on Jamie. Her calm and reassuring vibe instantly clicked with me and I knew she was the right fit for me. I was so scared to finally confront the disorder that had both taken my life and preserved it, for it was the only way I knew how to cope with my self-perceived inadequacy. But nevertheless, I persisted. We started working together in late January, and quite honestly, I spent the whole month of February and early part of March in a state of pseudo-recovery. I was trying, but not really, and still listening to all of the food rules I had internalized. I ate the same things every day, and although I reduced the intensity of my exercise, kept a rigid exercise schedule that left no room for flexibility or intuition. I even weighed myself one day after having a particularly rough day of body image, and disgusted by what I saw on the scale, retreated to the synthetic comfort of my disorder. This happened again several times in various ways: spontaneous intense exercising, restricting, purging, “clean eating” …only to land me right back where I started: fed up with diet culture. I threw food at my mom. I cried during and after meals. I skipped meals and snacks. I ate things I hadn’t eaten in five years, and I actually listened to my ravenous appetite. I oscillated between feeling scared and triumphant, trapped and liberated, but ultimately, I was filled with fear and terror that I was becoming more and more inadequate every time I disobeyed my eating disorder. I was convinced this was the case.
After a severe anxiety attack in which I almost took my life, I ended up in a mental health facility where I resided for a week, and that is when things finally shifted. While in the facility, I thought relatively little about my body or food. All I could think about was the fact that I was still living and breathing and had the decision to keep listening to all of the lies that had led me to the brink of a permanent solution, or I could go a different route and choose recovery. And while I was in the hospital, I chose recovery.
Once I was discharged from the hospital, I went all in. I rested. I ate. I laughed. I cried. I watched the sunrise every morning and the sunset every night. I spent time with other people and found joy in helping those in need. I returned to my studies with more confidence than ever, and focused on less study-time and more self-care. I disobeyed my food rules every chance I got, and with every bowl of ice cream and every slice of pizza, I eventually whittled down the ED voice in my head to a sad and misguided echo of a culture that values women based on how much, or rather how little, space she takes up.
It took recognizing my values, challenging my thoughts, and envisioning the kind of world I want to live in to break out my eating disorder. It took unconditionally accepting myself and others for everything that makes us human. It took evaluating the fatphobic society that we live in and immersing myself in the work of awesome, badass non-diet professionals like Jamie. It took not just acknowledging but embracing diversity and understanding how it courses within each and every one of us, and that is a truly beautiful thing. Every week I met with Jamie, I became stronger and more confident in my ability to reaffirm my true, authentic self and dismantle the bullshit fed to me by diet culture. Once I got a taste of freedom, there was no going back: I chose recovery.
I’m happy to say that I’m more joyful, fulfilled, and at peace with myself and my body than I ever have been in my life. I have a job that I love. I’m engaged in activism. I have a regular period, eat any and all foods (especially ice cream), and am not preoccupied with my weight. I’m in a loving and fulfilling relationship. I’m pursuing a degree in something I love. I have friends and family that love and support me. And I have a desire to love and support others as well. I want you to know that full recovery is possible, and it’s hard and it’s scary and it’s straight up not fun, but it’s the difference between living a life according to someone else’s rules and living a life that is authentically your own. I hope you choose to do the scary thing over and over and over again. Full recovery is possible, and I am living proof. Give yourself the love and care you need and deserve, because you are so much more than a number and too amazing to spend your whole life shrinking yourself. You deserve to take up space.