I’ve been sitting on this idea for years, and finally I said eff it, it’s time. It’s time for me to stop caring about the shame and embarrassment I’ve carried around for years and harp on the successes and challenges that I have and continue to face each and every day. My story is unique, valid, and worthy of saying out loud.
The timing of this post is not random… not at all. This week is NEDA’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and I am going to speak out and tell you my story: my story of pain, of suffering, of perseverance, and of empowerment. Before I get started, my purpose in writing this is purely to inspire others and put words to the struggles that many people face. I do not want your pity. I do not need your attention. What I do need though, is for you to truly listen to the words I’m putting out here and think about how society and our current culture continues to promote such unhealthy and unrealistic ideals, that ultimately harm people.
My story dates back to 2015. I was an 8th grade student at Welsh Valley Middle School who only wanted distinguished honors. Grades were important to me and anything other than an A signified failure. It was the second quarter of 8th grade and I got my first B. Although it seems silly now, I honestly felt like my life was over. Forget doing well in high school, getting into a “good” college. I was a failure, without a doubt. I spiraled down quickly into a state of depression and self-hatred.
I think back to this period of time and still cannot identify a particular moment of decisive restriction where my internal dialogue told me this was something I needed to do. It was more gradual and then became habitual and addicting and I couldn’t stop. In this time I was not starving myself with the purpose of losing weight, but instead to punish myself for being the failure I thought I was.
Despite going to therapy and taking medication to help my depression, eating got worse and worse. I refused to eat. I would force myself to starve to the point of pain. Fatigue, nausea, dizziness, migraines, body pain and stiffness all became second-nature and something I got used to as my norm. I would wake up starving, not eat much throughout the day, and go to bed starving, crying because I was in both physical and mental pain. I could certainly sugar-coat this and tell you it was no big deal, but it was a living hell.
March 10th 2015 was my first trip to the ER. I was dehydrated, starving, lethargic, and could not get myself to eat or drink a single thing. I was consumed and caught up and too stuck in the cycle. I was given IV fluids and some graham crackers and a social worker came in to try to talk some sense into me… I heard absolutely nothing he said and told him everything he needed to hear simply so I could go home. I remember the nurse came in to check on me and she pointed my attention to the white board to let me know the shifts were switching… there were lots of words on the board, but only one thing stood out. March 10th. Shit. It was my dad’s birthday. I felt awful. His little girl was in the ER and I know he was so upset…. Again, I failed. What was wrong with me??
This pattern of behavior did not stop. The pattern of starvation. The pattern of depression. And the pattern of missing out on life events and being consumed by my thoughts. I needed help and was ultimately admitted to the hospital. I think back to 15-year-old me, driving with my parents to a hospital in Princeton, New Jersey. I remember sitting with them in the waiting room feeling anxious and scared. I remember being in complete denial of why I was even there, reading the words “Eating Disorder Unit” was confusing, because in my mind, I did not have an eating disorder. I met with the doctor and once my parents left the room she weighed me…
She talked to me and explained my diagnosis and what treatment would look like. She explained the risks and potential damage I could have done to my body before she examined me.
“Osteoporosis, osteopenia, heart failure, loss of bone density, infertility… death”
But again, I was certain I wasn’t sick and she was being dramatic, so I told her everything she needed to hear and continued on with the admission process. My parents helped me set up my room and then they left. I was scared but I tried to act like I was okay for their sake. Some patients on the unit stopped by to introduce themselves. They were all really nice and welcoming.
I will never forget my first night there. I sat at the table and had my dinner in front of me. I remember being surrounded by strangers who were anxiously shoveling food into their mouths, trying to make small talk to get through the meal. I was zoned into the plate of salmon, green beans, and mashed potatoes that I was most definitely not about to eat. I cried, my tears falling right onto my food. A nurse came over and whispered, “Emily, you can’t leave the table until you eat”. I didn’t care. I wasn’t doing it. Slowly each patient left the dining hall after clearing their plates, and mine was untouched. The same nurse explained that if I refused to eat I would be given a supplement drink, and if I refused that, a feeding tube.
Ensure is gross. I don’t recommend. The chalky chocolate flavor tasted like failure. I went back to my room and stared at myself in the reflection of my window… I was really skinny. In that moment I knew. I realized that all these people were right. I was really sick and I needed help. I cried myself to sleep.
The next day I was woken up at 4:30 for vital signs and blood work. I was groggy and dizzy and when the nurse instructed me to stand for my blood pressure I passed out on my floor. I don’t remember that happening but I do remember four nurses running into my room with a wheelchair and a new hospital bracelet. “Fall risk”. Cool. What a badge of honor…
I spent three days in the wheelchair until I gained enough strength to walk. I spent 18 days in the hospital until I was weight-restored enough to try things in the real world. I spent the next six years of my life fighting the internal battle that is Anorexia Nervosa.
My battle has been long and so incredibly exhausting, but right now, I am so insanely proud of myself for how hard I’ve worked over the years to make some headway. Do I still have anxiety when I eat? Yeah, sometimes. Do I still have days where I hate the way I look and would rather starve than eat a single thing? Yep. Do I still compare myself and my plate to others and notice how many calories are in certain things? Oh my god, yeah. And do I get crippling anxiety when I eat with other people? Absolutely.
Every single day is a work in progress. My demons are slowly losing their power…
Again, though, I don’t want you to feel bad for me, because I am so grateful for my struggles (more on that in a bit). Here’s what I want to talk about… the myths, the toxicity, diet culture…
“I can’t eat that, I’m trying to be good”
“I need to lose weight ugh”
“Carbs are so bad for you”
“I didn’t workout today so I can’t eat that”
“That has way too many calories”
You get the point.
These phrases have become so common that people throw them around and don’t even recognize the problem with them. I could sit here and blame every person I’ve heard say these things and say that they are spreading toxicity… and although I still believe that they are, I don’t think it’s their fault, per se. We have been learning from a fucked up society that values physical appearance far more than personal achievement, mental health, relationships… the things that really matter in this life.
As I’ve endured the struggles of this disease and gone to treatment and therapy and all of that, I have been taught what a healthy relationship with food is supposed to look like. I’d be lying to you if I told you I’ve achieved that relationship, but I am getting really close. The hardest part of it is blocking out the things you see on social media, the comments people make in conversation, and learning to recognize that eating intuitively is the healthiest way you can eat. It’s empowering when you’re able to hear the toxic comments and instead of allowing them to make you feel guilty for eating or not working out, you actually are able to understand that compensatory behavior is wildly unhealthy and is exactly what propels diet culture. It’s what keeps these diet companies alive. Can you imagine how much money companies would lose if we didn’t buy into their rhetoric and instead learned to love ourselves? They feed on our negative self-talk and desire to be better. They want to make us hyper focus on our flaws… notice the marketing tactics, and don’t let them win.
My message here is not that self-betterment is wrong. I’m a HUGE fan of it. But, too many people are focusing on the wrong things and spreading the wrong ideas. I know I have personally been harmed by that, and many others have been too.
- Food is fuel. Food is essential to life. Food is not “good” or “bad”.
- Working out should be done with the intention to feel strong and healthy, not as a way to compensate for what we eat. *This statement is not for the folks who are trying to lose weight, so don’t come at me please:)*
- The real secret to healthy eating is ~moderation~ just like most things in life. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard carbs, or gluten, or meat labeled as “bad”. That’s not even true!! Because guess what, I can tell you for damn sure that my mental health does much better when I let myself eat that cookie. Our bodies are temples, but restricting food groups leads to cravings and in the end, unhappiness. I have been given CLINICAL advice in therapy and by my primary care physician to eat the cake. Let that sink in.
- You know how we’re not supposed to curse in front of kids? If they hear us say bad words, they might repeat them… same goes for talking about food and our bodies. One of my biggest fears is the toxicity of diet culture and the nonchalant negativity about ourselves is going to rub off on young minds and create self-conscious people. PLEASE BE MINDFUL OF WHAT YOU SAY!
- Nobody leaves this world being remembered for their body. People are remembered for their hard work, their kindness, their thoughtfulness, their humor… focus on improving the important parts of who you are. Call someone to check in, send a quick text to let someone know you’re thinking about them, volunteer, take a class, read a book… use your mental and emotional energy to make a difference.
- Live a life of balance….of green smoothies and chocolate cake. Of kale and of pizza. Because both are nourishing and fulfilling!
I’m almost done, I promise! Although I could keep going forever…
I am grateful for my struggles. Not because I liked spending so many years in pain or because the journey has been fun, but because I have learned so much. Anorexia pushed me to my limits and made me look death in the darn face, but I overcame, I fought, and I am winning!!!!
I have gained such insight and passion for this cause and for psychology and the way our brains work! I cannot wait to dedicate the rest of my life to helping others recognize their potential. I am so thrilled to announce that I have just accepted my first real job as an Inpatient Mental Health Counselor at Arbour HRI Hospital. I start in July and will spend every day meeting and supporting patients in the psychiatric unit, helping them on their journeys just like others have done for me.
About the Author
Emily Hersh is a 20-year-old from Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. She is a second-year student at Northeastern University studying Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience. As someone who has personally struggled with Anorexia Nervosa, she is passionate about raising awareness about eating disorders. In her future, Emily hopes to help eating disorder patients reach a recovered lifestyle as a clinical psychologist. Additionally, she’d like to work with organizations to make treatment accessible to all people, regardless of age, gender, race, diagnosis, and socioeconomic status. In her blog post she explains her journey and well as some issues with diet culture. You can read more of Emily’s writing here: www.beginnen.me