Disclaimer: This story contains mentions and details of abuse and disordered eating that may be triggering to some.
“There’s an old photo of me around age four splashing in the ocean. The smile on my face mirrors the sunlight reflecting off the waves around me. I’m a happy, healthy, tow-headed little girl, arms outstretched, ready to embrace the next person who crossed my path. Everyone called me Lizzie. Around age ten, my zest for life began to fade, and my characteristically open arms began to close in around me, a shield of protection from the outside world. Our family’s attention shifted to my brother. Caring for his health became the center of our lives.
My oldest brother Dan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and manic depression before most doctors understood the complexity of the disease and how to treat it. Sprinkled in between memories of soft-serve ice cream and bike rides around our neighborhood are recollections of my brother being admitted to psychiatric hospitals, erupting with rage at the dinner table, and being held by my father after he had attempted to harm himself. When Dan was manic, his thoughts were erratic and his actions were unpredictable. Our family lived more or less in fight-or-flight mode for some 10-12 years.
Mealtime was especially traumatic. Dan’s rage would reach its height when all five family members gathered around the dinner table or for holidays and birthdays. I began to resent and even fear family meals. Around third grade, I became a target of Dan’s aggression and began to find refuge in my closet. This closet was a little girl’s dream. It was large enough to shelter my stuffed animals, soccer shin guards, and church shoes. It was large enough to shelter my collection of Titanic movie posters and Leonardo DiCaprio paraphernalia. And it was large enough to shelter me when Dan grew violent.
What began as name-calling and sibling bullying developed into more concentrated abuse. Dan’s favorite names for me were ‘stupid,’ ‘worthless,’ and a ‘mistake’—a reference to my accidental conception. It was difficult to distinguish teasing from aggression, something I’d struggle to resolve throughout my relationships into early adulthood. I learned vulnerability was a weakness, so I’d mask fear with humor and trade discomfort for silence. Along with my parents, my other brother Jeremy became my protector, a role I’m not sure he ever chose, but performed as gracefully as any teen could.
Memories surrounding the day Dan’s aggression turned especially violent are fuzzy, but it was a turning-point-like moment in my life. I could never fully describe how I knew this time was different—how I knew if Jeremy hadn’t found a way to stop Dan, this instance would have ended in serious harm or even death. I imagine it was the first time I experienced primal fear. I recall running up our second-floor stairs, Jeremy trying unsuccessfully to calm down Dan. I recall the three of us trapped in our narrow hallway, Dan trying to keep me from entering my room. I recall staring at our baby photos inside a faded brown picture frame on our hallway wall.
I recall the rattling of my door handle, as Dan tried to enter my room once I’d finally escaped inside. I recall muffled outbursts between my brothers. And I recall my dad finally returning home to find me huddled in a closet corner, wrapped in my Lion King comforter, now tear-soaked and crinkled between my trembling hands. That next week, I began my first of several stints in therapy. (I’m still in it to this day.) My parents created a detailed schedule designed to keep Dan and me apart.
We were all diagnosed with one mental disease or another. We all took an antidepressant or two. A few of us tried to take our own lives. None of this is run-of-the-mill type stuff, but I’m able to speak somewhat matter-of-factly about it now because we all received treatment. We all survived. My parents’ commitment to our mental health saved our lives and was ultimately what allowed me to forgive and reconnect to my brother later in life. But a lot had to happen first.
I started dating Mike my junior year of high school. I thought he was the smartest person I’d ever met. We both played sports and liked the beach. We enjoyed listening to classic rock and watching bad comedy movies. Our connection felt familiar. But Mike preferred to spend time alone, whereas I was a social butterfly. His focus was intense, and his commitment to excellence bordered on compulsion. Sometimes my interests and activities pushed him too far outside his comfort zone, and he’d become angry.
About four months into our relationship, something shifted, and it seemed as if I was the primary source of Mike’s unhappiness. This felt familiar, too. I had become a master at walking on eggshells, so I did my best to keep Mike calm and happy. But things gradually grew worse. Mike frequently told me to ‘shut up’ or ‘get out of the way.’ He told me I was ‘stupid’ or ‘not good enough.’ One of my repeat transgressions regarded the way I ate. ‘Stop scraping your teeth on your fork,’ Mike would yell when we ate meals together. I learned to eat quietly or not at all—a pattern that stuck for a long time.
Mike’s yelling increased to physical aggression more than once. I remember him pushing me forcefully against his door and off his bed during a fit of rage. After his outbursts, I would almost always stay, apologize, and try to clear the air. I used to become angry with myself for not leaving sooner. How could I, a self-proclaimed feminist, stay so long? I rationalized our relationship with a common refrain of women who’ve been mistreated: ‘It wasn’t that bad.’ In retrospect, I think I meant, ‘It wasn’t all bad.’
When I finally broke up with Mike, I felt free, but also consumed by a deep void. That same day, I began counting calories—the first stage of a nearly fatal battle with anorexia that characterized 10+ years of my adult life.
When there was no one left to harm me, I harmed myself. This was the pattern I knew, and in a strange way, it felt safe. No one could control me if I had control over everything in my immediate sphere, including, and especially, my food. Pat, the therapist who guided me back to health in my mid-20s, helped me identify the thread that led me to this place: a sh*tty mealtime experience as a child, family history of mental illness and addiction, an abusive boyfriend who silenced the way I ate, and other key experiences along the way. Pat encouraged me to name my eating disorder—I, innovatively, called it ED or Eddie—to distinguish my own thought patterns from those driven by the disease.
From age 19 to 25, surviving on as few calories as possible became my superpower. Seeing my ribs protrude through my clothes lit me up in a perverse, yet powerful way. I experimented with painkillers to eliminate hunger. At certain times with my brother and Mike, I searched for a way to numb myself to the feeling of not being good enough. Sophomore year of college, I finally found it in a combination of pills and anorexia. By fall break, I had lost some 15 pounds on an already small frame. I had the sullen, lost look of an abandoned puppy waiting to be rescued. My skin was sallow; I didn’t sleep, but didn’t care.
The mother of my high school best friend was the first to notice something was off and called an ad hoc intervention. I recall telling her everything without shedding a tear. I had promised myself I would never cry again after I broke up with Mike. Gone were the days of being vulnerable (read: weak) in front of others. I was strong when skinny and untouchable when numb. I agreed begrudgingly to tell my parents how bad things really were. I remember sitting on the dark green carpet in their bedroom, saying simply, ‘I need help.’ And so, armed with more anti-anxiety and sleep medication than I’d ever had, I returned to college with the agreement I would seek therapy and my parents would be in constant communication with my therapist.
I weighed 98 pounds back then and was surviving on 400-500 calories a day. By all accounts, I was not a very interesting person. I had stopped taking opiates, but my lack of nutrition and addiction to thinness had dulled my former wit. I barely participated in class and cut back on extracurriculars. I had no idea who I was outside of my eating disorder. I met my now ex-husband Aaron that year, at the height of my battle with anorexia. He was aware of the severity of my illness, yet committed to walk beside me and support my off- and on-again efforts at recovery. We married two years later, seniors in college, young and naïve.
It wasn’t an easy relationship. One night, I ended up in the hospital after ingesting too many laxatives after trying to purge my lunch. I experienced PTSD while we were play wrestling in his dorm room. I tried to mask my disease by retreating from my social life and hibernating in our studio apartment. After graduation, I began job training for a Spanish teacher position halfway across the country. Only a few days into my training, my brother Dan called and told me my dad was in a coma after suffering a stroke. Doctors didn’t know if he’d survive. I needed to come home right away.
I spent all my money to move back home and help care for my family. Aaron came, too. I became a caretaker to my 1.5-year-old nephew, whom my dad had been babysitting nearly full-time. I worked any job I could find. 7-8 family members and an aging dog lived together under one roof—not the ideal post-graduation and newlywed experience. Miraculously, my dad recovered from the worst of his stroke within six months. But our world had been turned upside down, and my eating disorder grew more serious than ever.
Shame still bubbles to the surface when I consider some of the things I did while watching my nephew: purchasing syrup of ipecac in the pharmacy to make myself throw up after an all-day binge, over-exercising to the point of a stress fracture in my hip as an early 20-something, and more. Probably the worst I’ve-been-found-out-experience (eating disorders thrive on secrecy) was being caught by Dan in the middle of a binge. ‘Liz, stop eating,’ he told me at the height of it. ‘Just stop eating.’ Shocked and embarrassed, I did. I stepped away from the binge and shifted my attention elsewhere.
I don’t recommend this approach when supporting one through disordered eating, but being caught by the very person who taught me to avoid vulnerability was one of the biggest turning points in my recovery. That week, I looked for an eating disorder therapist (Pat) and found a nutritionist who could help me learn to eat joyfully again. This began an on-and-off-again relationship with eating disorder recovery, something I’m still working on to this day.
Regardless of what’s happened since, Aaron was there through it all: ER visits, substance use, bouts of bedridden depression, my dad’s stroke, and more. In many ways, he’s what kept me alive for some 10+ years. For this, I will be forever grateful.
About a year and half ago, I learned Aaron’s love for me had changed; it had changed years prior, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave for fear I’d relapse. I thought maybe we could work things out; he seemed uncertain. Things became more certain when I discovered he had fallen in love with someone else and developed a relationship outside our own.
I’d heard of the divorce diet. It’s not something I really understood until I was in the thick of it. As I worked through a mix of shock, sadness, anxiety, anger, and grief, I struggled to eat well and take care of my basic needs. For the first time in years, I lost weight without trying. When I came out of basic survival mode, I considered how this dramatic life change and rapid weight loss could be the perfect conditions for relapse. I could feel my eating disorder trying to regain control of my very out-of-control world.
But I refused to go back. I shared my concerns with family and friends aware of my past, so as not to isolate. I nurtured and cared for myself with activities that bring me joy and help me feel healthy and strong. And I reflected back on my time living with Eddie and my ex, and realized it was time to divorce both.
While I place no blame on anyone for my ED, there were ways my marriage perpetuated my disorder. In our early years, we’d often share in a binge. When our relationship made me anxious, I’d fixate on my weight and over-exercise. I’d eat mindfully and enjoy home-cooked, nourishing meals only when my ex was out of town. As I’ve become more aware of my habits and learned the tools to help me remain centered, I’ve realized how our patterns did not serve either of us and what I need to shift for the benefit of my personal health and the health of future relationships.
I often marvel at all the steps that brought me to where I am today. I try to reflect on what’s happened in my life without resentment for my brother, exes, or myself at the height of my disorder. I haven’t quite gotten there yet, but I do feel grateful.
A few years ago, a friend and fellow activist said to me, ‘We’re all just one step away from being homeless.’ Her comment struck deeply. She was right. If not for my circle of support, I could have been homeless. Or addicted. Or in jail. Or dead.
I grew up in a middle class, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered family with enough means to keep five people on anti-depression meds and in therapy for most of our lives. Had no one been there to catch me, my opiate use could have grown into full-blown addiction, and my eating disorder could have cost me my life. During my divorce over the past couple years, my support system is what has kept me afloat. My current partner has reminded me of my worth and that we don’t have to go through any challenge alone.
Her love and outlook on life reminds me of Ram Dass’ famous quote: ‘We’re all just walking each other home.’ It’s a phrase that has become a guidepost for my life. We are not on this journey alone, nor are we meant to be. The more we segregate, the more we disconnect from our true nature and each other. All my work and the way I seek to show up in the world now is an attempt to reverse the idea of separation and inspire others to stand up and show up for all people, not just those with proximity to power and privilege. None of us is free until all are free—free from trauma, free from the systems that oppress us, and free from the notion we are separate.
As my family, friends, and partners have reminded me throughout my life, we all have the right to feel loved and supported. We all have the right to mental wellness services. We all have the right to liberate ourselves from whatever holds us back from experiencing a sense of wholeness. If I can extend those rights to even one person, then this was all worth it.
I now experience joy through food. I experience freedom through travel. I experience joy when giving love. I experience freedom when receiving it. And when things aren’t going exactly as I planned, I trust that everything will be okay. For the young girl who loved to splash in the ocean and bask in the sun is not just a distant memory or picture in a frame. She is alive and well, a reminder to smile, slow down, and reclaim my joy.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Liz Getman of Boone, North Carolina. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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