‘It started innocent. I figured I’d skip a few meals, run more. I never imagined the horrible, disgusting things I’d do to myself. I had only wanted to lose 15 pounds.’

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“I had only ever wanted to lose 15 pounds.

I was fourteen years old, and it was one of those summer break days when it was too hot to do much else than go down rabbit hole after rabbit hole on the internet. I remember searching ‘fastest ways to lose weight’ because I decided I’d gotten fat and needed to slim down before school started. You know that girl in the movies who transforms from the ugly duckling into the beauty queen over summer break, and then everyone at school likes her and thinks she’s cool? Yeah. That’s who I was going to be. I was determined.

Courtesy of Neva Swartzendruber

So, I googled away. At first, it was your run-of-the-mill, typical diet talk. ‘Cut out carbs! Stop eating dairy! Count your calories! Exercise daily!’ But then, I stumbled across my very first pro-ana website. It was a vast forum where people encouraged each other to eat as little as possible. A never-ending quest for ultimate thinness. I saw picture upon picture of skin-and-bone bodies. I had never seen anything like it, except in photos of German concentration camps. What shocked me more was the sea of comments congratulating them on their emaciation, urging them to ‘keep on going!’

I remember feeling an odd combination of repulsion and intrigue as I scrolled through the pages. There was this awful magnetism to the website that I’ve only later been able to understand. Something about the community, the control, the sense of accomplishment… it just drew me in. I was a fruit fly, and disordered eating was a trash can. I remember going to the fridge later that day and thinking to myself, ‘If those girls on that website can starve themselves until they look like skeletons, then surely I can skip a snack, and probably even dinner!’ And just like that, my 10+ years of battling with eating disorders had begun.

It started innocently enough. I figured I’d skip a couple of meals here and there, start running a little bit more, and by summer’s end I’d look like the girls on the cover of Seventeen magazine. I decided to keep a ‘motivation journal’ where I would write down everything I ate, record my weight, and draw or cut out pictures of my goal body. I was full of determination and hope and, before long, I started losing weight. I was ecstatic.

And then I wasn’t. Because instead of cutting out a meal or two here and there, I started feeling guilty whenever I wasn’t cutting out a meal. Instead of running a little bit more, I started exercising compulsively every day. I remember one night I stayed up as late as I could bear, jogging back and forth across my room, in order to burn just a few more calories. Instead of being happy with my weight loss and my body, I started loathing my body even more. Every time I looked in a mirror, I would tear myself to shreds. I started feeling seriously anxious and depressed for the first time in my life. I was withdrawing from my friends and family.

Courtesy of Neva Swartzendruber

And the hunger. Oh god, the hunger. Hours of my day were spent fantasizing about food. I would journal about it, dream about it, think about it constantly. I would devour food blogs as if I could eat with my eyes. I would have dreams of eating massive amounts of food and wake up feeling like I’d just had the nightmare of my life. One day, I cracked. I couldn’t take the hunger anymore.

I swung the pendulum to the opposite end and stuffed myself with anything and everything I could get my hands on until my belly was painfully swollen. Wracked with guilt and shame, I marched myself to the bathroom and forced myself to vomit without a second thought. Instant relief. ‘I’ve found the cheat code,’ I thought to myself.

Bulimia became my saving grace and ruthless captor in a tangled, hellish mess of a cycle. Binge, purge, starve, repeat. I did horrible, disgusting things I’d never dreamed I would do, and yet I’d return to the cycle time after time. I stayed in this cycle like a hamster in a wheel for the rest of my high school years, and almost miraculously it stopped when I met my current boyfriend, graduated high school, and started living on my own.

For almost a year, I believed I had recovered. That my bulimia had just been a long and horrible phase that was only circumstantial in nature. But sure enough, it reared its head again when I ‘innocently’ decided to lose a few pounds before a vacation. Before I knew it, I was diving head first into the reincarnation of my high school eating disorder. I started an Instagram account to showcase my dedication to losing weight, and people showered me with compliments and support. But as I basked in the congratulatory remarks for my weight loss, I was already starting to feel controlled by my eating disorder. Before long, it felt like I was drowning in a sea of self-hate.

Courtesy of Neva Swartzendruber

I was completely consumed by thoughts of calories and food. I’d spend hours logging every morsel of food I ate, and then I’d log my future meals. I would think about dinner while eating lunch. I would look at food porn constantly. The nightmares of bingeing returned. The body hate returned with a vengeance, even stronger than before. I would constantly pick apart my body throughout the day, but especially if I hadn’t lost any weight since the previous day. I hid my body from my partner, believing it didn’t deserve to be seen or loved in its hideousness. I was starving for more than food. I was starving for self-love.

I knew I was in a bad place, but I was too terrified to leave. My big wake-up call came in the summer of 2016. I took a trip with my mom and little brother. Instead of being present with them, I’d been grouchy, lethargic, and glued to my calorie counting app. I laid in the hotel bed that night with tears rolling down my cheeks. I realized all the times my brother had tried to play with me, and I’d either snapped at him to be quiet or simply ignored him as I plugged calories into my app. I remember thinking, ‘I cannot live like this anymore.’ Did I really want to spend my days fretting over whether a burger had mayonnaise on it or not? Would I just continue to allow life to pass me by while I cried in the mirror and entered calories into my food journal?

It took another year until I was ready to give up bulimia. I spent yet another year in that same damn cycle, but I was finally starting to see that it was, in fact, a cycle. It would never lead me anywhere new. For the first time, I was beginning to realize there truly was another way to live. At the risk of sounding like the most millennial of millennials, I credit this realization to Instagram. I found accounts and communities dedicated to food freedom, body acceptance, and self-love. I latched onto them for dear life. As I filled my Instagram feed (and my mind) with these new perspectives, I began to hope that even I could have a healthy relationship with food and with myself.

Courtesy of Neva Swartzendruber

In December of 2017, I announced to myself and to the world on Instagram that I was done with dieting for good. I was terrified. It felt like I was leaping off a giant cliff to my certain demise. I was afraid of weight gain, yes. But what I was truly afraid of was losing respect, admiration, and love, which for so long I had believed came from looking a certain way. But I knew that I couldn’t stay on that cliff any longer. It was on fire, and if I stayed up there it would consume me.

Since that day in 2017, I’ve had plenty of ups and downs in my recovery. I have gained weight, but I have grown in so many other ways beyond my physical body. I’ve learned that my worth comes from who I am and not how I look. I’ve learned that restricting my food will ALWAYS lead to negative consequences. I’ve learned that there are PLENTY of things that taste far better than skinny feels. Most of all, I’ve learned that there is only one tried-and-true way to develop food freedom, confidence, and a sense of self-worth. And that is LOVE.

Courtesy of Neva Swartzendruber
Courtesy of Neva Swartzendruber
Courtesy of Neva Swartzendruber
Courtesy of Neva Swartzendruber

Not through losing those last 10 pounds, not through eating a specific diet, not through looking a specific way. I’d tried that, and it never worked. In my eating disorder mindset, I was never thin enough, I was never beautiful enough, I was never self-controlled around food enough. I was just never enough. Now that I’ve learned to look at life through a lens of love, I am able to see and know that I am always enough – no matter my weight, no matter what I ate, no matter what I look like. I am enough just as I am. I don’t have to wait to live life until I reach a certain weight or look a certain way. I can live that life right now. I can enjoy time with my brother, my family, my friends.

Courtesy of Neva Swartzendruber

When I think back to that 14-year-old girl on that summer day, part of me wishes that I could wrap her up in my arms and tell her over and over again that she is perfect as she is. That she doesn’t need to change a thing about her body, and that she is valuable beyond words simply for existing. Part of me wishes I could spare myself all the pain – not to mention the pain of my loved ones.

Another, bigger part of myself believes that we (knowingly or unknowingly) choose the paths that will teach us the lessons we need to learn in life. I would be a different person without my struggles. It is because of my struggles that I have learned to love myself more wholly than I thought was possible. Today I say thank you to bulimia and body hate, because they have taught me how to love. They have taught me that in order to truly grow and bloom, to get through the days where I’m tempted to return to my old ways, I must choose myself, again and again.”

Courtesy of Neva Swartzendruber

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Neva Swartzendruber of Pueblo West, Colorado. You can follow her journey on Instagram here. Do you have a similar experience? Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more from strong women who’ve battled eating disorders:

‘At over 300 pounds, I was heading down a road of disease and disorders. I didn’t need to go under the knife. I needed to get under the bar.’

‘My mom even told the nurses, ‘don’t feel bad you can’t fix her, we have accepted she will die from anorexia.”

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