Trigger Warning: This story contains descriptions of eating disorders that may be triggering to some.
“I kneeled over the toilet, my heart racing and body shaking. Dripping with sweat, I anxiously prepared to make myself throw up all of the cake and bread I’d just binged on at a friend’s Fourth of July party. I’d never purged before, but my starvation diet had finally brought me to the point of occasional and uncontrollable binges. My body was in physical pain from all the food I’d eaten a couple of hours ago, and I was terrified I’d gain weight from eating so much. In desperation, I concluded that purging would be the best solution.
Suddenly, I heard God speak to me, almost audibly: ‘Don’t do this, Rachel. If you do this, you won’t be able to go back.’ These words shook me out of the overwhelming urgency I felt to throw up. How had I gotten here? Could I ever escape from this prison of disordered eating, self-hatred, and destructive pursuit of weight loss? Would I ever find love, much less feel worthy, of love? My knees ached as I shakily got up off the cold tile floor. I couldn’t keep living my life like this.
Let me rewind a couple of years. I was 15 when I started starving myself. I was a straight-A student in high school, the eldest sister of five girls, and a daughter to two amazing parents. My life had been filled with love, joy, and my faith in God, but it was also riddled with a deep dark demon – perfectionism.
I dealt with perfectionism for as long as I can remember. In middle school, I would stay up until 2 a.m. memorizing every single answer to every possible question in order to ensure I’d get nothing but an A+ on any assignment, test, or quiz. When I got to high school, the rigorous classes I took did not mix well with my desire to get at least 98% on every assignment. Many nights, I would cry hysterically while finishing my math homework. I was exhausted from staying up until 3 a.m. studying. To make things worse, feelings of social anxiety were starting to develop, along with a deep fear something was wrong with me and I would never be deserving of love. The last straw that left me crumbling to the ground was when my relationship with a guy had ended in rejection and heartbreak.
For months, I wrapped up my identity in the attention I got from this guy and I centered my life around his approval. Now I was without him. I didn’t know who I was and I blamed myself for how the guy treated me. Around this time, some girls at my school started talking about how they needed to cut out cookies and go on diets to lose weight. I thought they were absolutely gorgeous. ‘If they need to lose weight, then I most certainly need to as well,’ I thought to myself. Suddenly, I had a new mission in life. Not only would I be drop-dead gorgeous after losing weight, to the point where no guy would ever leave me again, but I would also secretly beat these girls and lose way more weight than all of them. Most importantly though was my desire to feel worthy of love. I believed losing weight would finally make me happy and deserving of love.
My drive for perfectionism and achievement served me well in this weight loss endeavor. I was ‘disciplined.’ I counted every calorie in every green grape, granny smith apple slice, and bite of food I consumed. I lost weight. I lost it fast. Eating 1,000 calories less than you should be each day will do that to you. As the numbers on the scale went down, I expected my self-worth and happiness to go up. Little did I know, the absolute misery I was getting myself into.
As my weight dropped, anxiety and depression replaced my previously joyful and optimistic personality. I was freezing cold all the time and would wear half a dozen layers of shirts and sweatshirts to try to fight the ice-cold feeling in my bones during the winter. Climbing the steps in my house to go upstairs left me breathless and with a racing heart.
After I finished one measly meal, I obsessively counted down the hours to when I was allowed to eat my next one. I didn’t get my period for a few years, and my hair and nails became dry and brittle. The weight on the scale dictated how I felt each day. If the number went down, I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment. If the number went up, I felt ugly and my day was ruined. Regardless of what the scale said, horrible thoughts constantly shouted in my head. I wished I had never been born.
When the scale finally displayed the magical numbers I thought would make me happy, I felt confused. Why wasn’t I happy? I looked sickly and I felt worse than I ever had in my life. I decided I needed to lose more weight, and I fell deeper and deeper into a dark pit of starvation. Many weeks, I also exercised for 20 to 30 hours.
My dance teachers complimented me on how ‘fit’ I looked, and asked me what my secret was. I told them I was just doing some extra hiking, which I was, but I did not tell them I was also starving myself and doing a ton of other physical activity. To this day, I honestly don’t know how my body survived doing all of the activities I did with such a small amount of calories. Even a sedentary person should eat more food than I was eating.
Seeing myself in floor-to-ceiling mirrors in nothing but spandex for hours each week at my dance studio fueled my self-hatred and obsession with losing weight. I knew what I had to do. God whispered it to me at first, but it got louder and louder. I had to give up my dream of becoming a dancer. Deep down, I had always known that was not the career I was supposed to pursue, but I held on with clenched fists anyway. Finally, I got so sick I gave up dancing. It was no longer a healthy outlet for me. And to this day, I still cry when I watch dance performances.
Fast-forward to that day where I was kneeling in front of the toilet, ready to purge. I’d been starving and over-exercising for a few years, and it was finally time to talk to my parents.
We had some hard and honest conversations. While I previously had no desire to get better, I realized a part of me now did want to get better. My mom shared with me how she felt like I was a different person. My dad, with tears in his eyes, lamented I was no longer the joyful girl who would light up a room with my smile. I took a long hard look at myself. I was an anxious, fearful, self-hating shell of a person. I was letting my self-hatred and my fears of relationships rule and ruin my life.
A huge catalyst in my journey of recovery was my four younger sisters. I was afraid they might follow in my footsteps, and I didn’t want that to happen. I wouldn’t wish what I’d gone through on my greatest enemy and certainly never on my sisters who I loved.
The road to recovery was long and hard. Many days I felt like giving up. I ended up trading starving for binge-eating during some of that time, which was terrifying because I felt absolutely out of control. Gaining weight and experiencing edema felt so scary. Giant clumps of my hair fell out whenever I brushed it or took a shower. As my body began to heal from starvation and my hormones started working properly again, I got hot flashes every night and even during the day, for weeks. I also had some pretty embarrassing moments where I binged on snacks at college parties with friends. I felt like I couldn’t stop myself. At the end of the night, I’d ride the subway back to my apartment in Brooklyn feeling sick and deeply ashamed.
Recovery felt like going against every voice in my head. I worked hard to stop those voices. In the beginning, it felt like I had to refute those voices every second of every day. Over time, the voices got quieter and quieter until they finally disappeared. During this time, I also had to rebuild my life and my understanding of who I was. It was like rebuilding your life after a bad break-up. My life was completely dedicated and dictated by my eating disorder and now I had to break free and learn how to be me without it. I had to realize starving myself was really a cover-up – a way of coping with my fears of failure, not being worthy of love, and ultimately, not knowing my true value.
Through the recovery process, I realized my beauty and value is not in what I look like, but in who I am as a person. I have a purpose in life, and I can beautifully influence the world for good. I realized it was okay to take up space in the world, both physically and metaphorically. My faith was a huge catalyst in these areas of recovery and my family, friends, and church community helped me a lot.
Remember how I said one of my greatest fears had to do with romantic relationships? My fear no guy would ever love me was a huge catalyst that threw me into disordered eating. When I was in college, I went on some Tinder dates, and quite a few dates with guys who asked me out on the subway or at the Whole Foods I always got groceries from at Union Square.
One day, after an absolutely horrible date the night before, God told me to stop going out on random dates. I was happy to oblige under one condition. ‘God, I will stop going on random dates, but I want the next guy I go on a date with to be the man I marry.’ Little did I know, I’d meet that guy several months later, but in the meantime, I went through lots of healing and neared the end of my eating disorder.
‘Did you make these cookies? They’re amazing!’ I looked up to see the face of the man who would be my future husband. I shyly nodded, engaged in small talk, but then quickly returned to appreciating the performances at the art show I had helped provide refreshments for. A few hours earlier I desperately prayed to God that these cookies would turn out ok. I was out of butter and flour, so I had to make some interesting substitutions. I guess God took my prayers seriously because those cookies had caught me a husband.
I was back home in Ohio for the summer, determined to enjoy my life and love myself, even though I weighed the heaviest I’d ever weighed and my body was still dealing with some water weight puffiness. I decided I would wear a swimsuit, go to fast-food places with friends, and just live my life not caring about what others thought of me. I felt so free.
This guy had recently moved to my city for work. He started attending the church I went to while I was away at college. I was not aware of this at the time, but some of my friends, who are now also his friends, told him a few months prior he and I should get married. With many mutual friends, I ended up interacting with this guy a lot. I learned his name was Thomas, he absolutely loved baked goods, and he was a pretty amazing and fearless guy. After a match of ping-pong with him at a party one night, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this guy is really interesting and super kind. I’d like to marry someone like him.’ The more I observed how he interacted with people, the more I was impressed with his heart of gold.
Fast-forward several weeks later, I was hard-core crushing on him. I was not interested in falling for a guy who probably wouldn’t like me back, and even if he did, he would probably forget about me after I moved back to NYC for school in the fall. One night, I had a dream. In the dream, God told me Thomas would be a good person for me to marry. Exactly a week after I had that dream, Thomas asked me out. I’d find out sometime later that God had given Thomas two dreams, back-to-back, that were similar to mine.
We said ‘I love you’ in less than 2 weeks of dating and then I was headed back to NYC to finish my last year of college. Within a couple of months, we talked about getting married, and the rest is history. I never believed in that feeling where you just ‘know’ you’re meant to be together, but that’s exactly how I felt with Thomas. I worked hard to graduate a semester early and moved back to Ohio to marry my best friend.
Today, I’m at a place I never thought possible. I’m free from disordered eating and self-hatred and I’m continuing to recover from perfectionism. I love my body and I’m married to a man who adores me for who I am. There are many days I wish I could go back to that 15-year-old girl who felt so afraid and worthless, but I can’t. What I can do though is encourage other girls who are on their own journeys of self-love and of healing from disordered eating. That’s why I share my story. I want all women to know that not only is recovery possible, but it’s also more worth it than you could ever imagine.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Rachel Underwood from Ohio. You can follow her journey on her website or Instagram. Submit your own story here and sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more stories about eating disorders and recovery here:
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