“You throw a gaggle of eating-disordered girls together in a room and guaranteed, the conversation will turn into a macabre game of Whose Life is the Most Messed Up, Anyway? in thirty seconds or less. I’ve seen it. I’ve played it. I’ve won it. If you can call it winning.” – Donna Shute
Below is a guest post from my very dear friend and recovery sister Pam. I asked her to write about the topic of competition among eating disorder patients and she chose (or rather it seemed her writing led her) to write about the competition that exists inside many of us. We can be our own worst enemies and Pam describes a bit of what that is like here.
Hello blogosphere! My name is Pam. Kate asked me to write a guest post for her blog and I [clearly] jumped at the opportunity!
First I want to rewind and give you a little background about me and how I met Kate before I jump right on into my post. I am 21 years old and I am from New Britain, Connecticut. I am a student and in the fall I will be transferring to a new school. I am pretty stoked and I could probably ramble on for this entire post about my excitement but I don’t want to bore you to death.
Kate and I met in treatment at the Center for Change in October of 2010. When I first met Kate she was really struggling. We both were. I think one of my favorite things about my friendship with Kate was that we never bonded over being sick, but we became friends because of our strong desires for recovery. I think it is also really important that we have things in common that do not include our eating disorders. We pretty much talk every day now, whether it’s a long conversation or a quick check-in. Our daily chats pretty much cover it all- from the hilariousness of our days to our struggles, challenges and triumphs.
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The other day Kate posted about competition among girls with eating disorders. At first I intended on continuing with this topic. But then I started thinking about the entire idea of competition and how it has played a role in my relapses and in my recovery. Yes, I have sat in treatment and jealously eyed the new admits, wishing I still had that unhealthy body. I have had friendships that are solely based on the common ground of having an eating disorder where every conversation turns to how sick we were or what treatment rules we broke or lets play the game where we one-up each other on how many stupid/crazy/reckless things we did to stay sick (these friendships have definitely not lasted).
But ultimately what I have realized (while journaling about writing this…) was that when it comes down to it, my biggest competition in all of this has been myself.
I was diagnosed with Bulimia Nervosa when I was seventeen and first admitted to residential treatment. I had been bingeing and purging for five years prior before it got so out of control that someone at school noticed and told my parents. After numerous phone calls I found myself sitting in Cambridge Eating Disorder Center’s adolescent unit for the first time, somewhere I did not think I needed nor wanted to be. I did not think I had a problem. I had been functioning “just fine, thank you” without all this treatment nonsense. I was not sick. I was second in my class, an athlete, did tons of extracurriculars. I was not “the girl with the eating disorder”.
It didn’t last long though. Take a seventeen-year-old kid out of school for five weeks and it feels like their entire world has changed. The phrase “my life is over” is probably written a thousand times in my journals from that year. No longer was I the Harvard-bound, star student but the crazy, messed up kid who disappeared for the last four months of junior year.
I have always been a competitive person. Growing up playing every sport imaginable, competition is in my nature. The desire to be the best was always at the top of my to-do list. But my best was never good enough. I wanted to be perfect. I believed for years (and I will admit, I sometimes still do) that achieving perfection was well within my grasp. I stressed over getting perfect grades and cramming as many extracurriculars into my day as possible. I trained year-round for volleyball while simultaneously playing other sports in school, I took more classes than were allowed in my schedule, and I attempted to make everyone around me happy and make it look like I was doing all of these things flawlessly. I had always struggled with my body image and feeling entirely too excessive, but at the beginning of my junior year my quest for perfection in everything else was starting to fail me. I could not make everyone happy so instead I channeled that insane drive into the one thing that I felt I had complete control over: perfecting my body.
Fast forward six months later and you find me sitting in treatment numero uno, declaring that I am not sick, dammit. I had proof. I recited over and over and over how wonderfully I had been functioning and how putting me in treatment was just so unnecessary because I could easily stop if I wanted to, even though I didn’t have a problem.
Sometimes I still struggle with the belief that if nobody had “caught” me, I would be totally okay today— super successful, going into my senior year of college like I was supposed to (instead of barely being a sophomore), and having a super thin body that I was happy with. This is when my therapist bluntly points out that I clearly was not really functioning as well as I led myself to believe. Well-functioning girls do not end up in treatment centers. Eventually I would have crash-landed myself into the hospital or I would have died. Neither was really a suitable option for the whole “I am Super-Pam and I can do everything all at once” act I was trying to pull.
We hear it all the time: girls with eating disorders are perfectionists. But I don’t think most people really understand how much we are willing to sacrifice in order to attain that. I didn’t care about my happiness or my health or having a social life. All I wanted was for everyone else to see me as being amazing at everything I did. I wanted it to look easy. I think the worst part of it though, isn’t that I was willing to give up being happy or healthy or having friends, but that I was able to convince myself that being thin and perfect, was what truly made it possible to have those things and that without perfection, everyone would abandon me.
You cannot move forward without letting go of the past. I am done competing with that seventeen-year old ghost. That girl was sick and she was only getting sicker. I didn’t think I was good enough when I was her, so I am kidding myself by believing that she was happy and successful. I am not that girl anymore and I will never be her again. That girl was not living life. She wasn’t happy or sad or angry or funny because she didn’t know how to do anything except produce for others.
It seems simple. Let go of the past and move forward. Eat some food, stay away from the bathroom after meals, surround yourself with supportive people. Eating disorder = cured. Except take that drive for perfectionism, that drive to do whatever you set your mind to, and intertwine it with a million other cognitive distortions and irrational beliefs and expectations and trauma and depression and anxiety. Now try to pick that apart and figure it out how to “fix” it. It takes years. It takes effort. It takes fighting with every damn fiber of being and when you are too exhausted to fight anymore, it means getting up and pushing harder. But it is possible. Anyone who can deprive themselves of their basic physiological needs can sure as hell can handle anything life throws at them. You have to be willing to give it all up, to stop competing with your past and your eating disorder.
There is no winning against a ghost.