Disclaimer: This story contains details of eating disorders that may be upsetting for some.
Something Else To Focus On
“When I was only two years old, I moved house and country. This isn’t something I consciously remember, but by the time I was 11 I had moved five times, and today I’ve moved over ten, and it’s definitely something that has stuck with me. It’s something that has become a bit of a trend, and a traumatizing one at that. As a child, I often felt I didn’t quite fit in, my accent didn’t quite match, and I wasn’t quite accepted. These thoughts were repeatedly affirmed by the terrible bullying I experienced at the time. I felt like an outcast. Even today, I still think I was.
When I was just 12 years old, I first started dieting. It wasn’t even that I’d ever been a big kid, but it just felt like the right thing to do. The expected and accepted thing. It also made me feel, finally, in control of something. If the bullies had managed to track me down before, I now wanted to disappear. They wouldn’t be able to find me and, if they did, it’d be fine because I wouldn’t care. I had something else to focus on.
When I was 13 years old, I was a shadow of myself. I was diagnosed with an eating disorder – anorexia, a word I’d never even heard of before. It wasn’t that I’d ever actively pursued this diagnosis, but it just… happened. I hated myself and I hated my body, and I figured if I took up less space there’d be less of me to break down and detest. There’d be less of me that could get in the way. At least, that’s what I thought and that is how it started; the tumble downhill was less of a free fall than it was a conscious decision and a string of choices.
After some time, however, these choices became increasingly compulsive (and increasingly constrained). Whenever a meal was plated up and set down in front of me – or worse, whenever I was in charge of getting my own food – I had to ‘choose’ between crippling guilt (eating) and inner peace (finding an excuse). Somehow, it had become an issue of morality. It was no longer much of a choice, considering the eating disorder had already made it for me. That’s the moment that free will was taken out of the equation: the eating disorder was now in control.
Not Ready To Give It Up
I still remember the day vividly. My mom and I walked into the GP’s office for my fatigue and concentration issues, assuming blood tests would be done and some deficiency would be established. Instead, the plump and friendly-looking blond-haired nurse took my weight and height and said, ‘I think she’s anorexic.’ Just like that. She prescribed a bunch of supplemental drinks – 300 calories per bottle – and told me to have them daily, to try and gain some weight. We’d check in again in a week’s time to determine progress. And then the weeks went by, and I lost increasingly more weight. It was as if I was addicted.
Between the ages of 15 and 19, I bounced back and forth between treatment providers, hospitals, therapists, countries, and degrees of sanity. By this time, ‘skinny’ was well and truly tied into my sense of identity. In a society that loves and thrives off labels, I guess I fit in, for once. But I still hated myself and I hated my life, and I could visualize no future the way things were headed. Because you cannot genuinely live if you do not claim your place in life.
This is a realization that hit me, and it hit me hard. I needed to re-learn to take up space, but I knew I wasn’t willing to give up the eating disorder either; the eating disorder had been my only coping mechanism, and somehow it still gave me that warped sense of control that deep down I knew I had. Giving up this sense of control – and this coping mechanism – was asking too much of a girl who believed she could achieve nothing and deserved nothing and would never amount to anything. Giving up this control was something she’d never even considered, and as I went through the motions of treatment I returned to my old and trusted behaviors time and time again. And yes, I did ‘trust’ the eating disorder. It was a dangerous thing to do.
Over the years, my body started failing me in more ways than just one. It wasn’t just fatigue and a lack of concentration now, but I also found my hair was thinning, my blood pressure was falling, my hormones were dormant, and my heart… let’s not even go there. With each new test result, my parents would sigh, and I could feel the hope leaving their bodies with each of these breaths. I saw them cry, almost daily, until it seemed their tears had run dry. And I think it’s only then it really sank in: they had given up hope. I would live the rest of my life with this illness, or I would die at its hands. The thought of this, of leaving this life, was both heartbreaking and liberating. More than once did I hope to sleep and never wake up.
But I could not sleep. Insomnia had taken over my body in a last fighting attempt to keep me alive, and it is this (alongside the other discomforts that had initially seemed so small), which started weighing me down until, one day, I woke up and said (out loud and to no one in particular), ‘I’m so f*cking done with this.’ If death didn’t want me, then maybe it was time to give life another chance.
Choosing For Myself
I voluntarily admitted myself into a hospital in Belgium. Being 18, I was responsible for myself and I chose not to give it up. I chose not to throw it away. For the first time, my parents exhaled a breath of relief. A tiny sparkle returned to their eyes, knowing it was me who had made the decision, which ultimately meant I was still willing to fight. It was still possible for them to get their daughter back, even after all this time. Even if some of the damage could, at this point prove irreversible. Even if the future seemed uncertain.
I admitted myself into the hospital, and I stayed there for three months. I gained weight, gained introspection, and made friends. And, somehow, always putting everyone else above myself and my own needs proved to save my life. From an unquenchable desire to motivate my newfound friends and show them it was possible to recover and to eat three meals and three snacks and not cry (at least, not over food) and to increase meal plans and to get out the other side. I transformed myself into the perfect role model. I ate and I followed protocol. My stubborn nature also played a role: I wanted to prove all the doctors wrong who had lost faith in me and who, with bowed heads and low voices, had told me (or my parents) my chances of success were very very veeeery low. How dare they decide over my future!
It is with these motivations in mind that I started eating again, and that I gained weight. As I did so, I gained bits of my life back too, and I lost bits of the eating disorder. Finding a sense of purpose in helping others, I ultimately learned to help myself too.
Nowadays, I am still the ‘skinny kid’, but it is no longer a label I attach to myself. If my body chooses to grow and change over time, I am okay with that. I celebrate and embrace that, because I know I am more than my body. I am what makes me happy, what brings me joy, what excites me, and I am what I love and cherish. I am not a body, but I do have a body.
Now that I’m 25 years old, I choose to care for this body and to be kind to it, in order to provide myself with the energy to do all of the things that actually matter to me in life. And there’s a lot more things that do in fact matter to me – many more things than I’d realized at the time, when the eating disorder had been all-consuming.
One of these things, to this day, remains to help others find their own light and their own motivation to keep going. As such, I established a popular YouTube channel, set up an array of social media platforms, and recently launched my own eating disorder recovery coaching program. In this way, I keep looking after myself and I keep allowing myself to take up space and to make a difference, knowing that indeed I can make a difference.
I am no longer that girl who believed she could achieve nothing and deserved nothing and would never amount to anything, because I know from experience I have achieved a whole lot and deserve a whole lot! It’s something I could never even have fathomed at the depths of my struggles, and it pains me to see these same struggles reflected back at me during some of the coaching sessions now, with young girls presenting the same way I did back then. Just recently, one of these girls confided she’d never even given recovery a solid chance because she didn’t believe it was possible, at least not for her. But at the same time, she felt staying in quasi-recovery (as she was now ‘stable’ physically but not mentality) scared her far more than either relapse or this elusive thought of full recovery ever could.
Personally, I know that feeling, and I understand and recognize that helplessness. I’ve been there, but I’ve also been on the other side. And I want to say the following:
No matter how low you feel right now, no matter how many people you think have given up on you, no matter how much damage you have inflicted on your body, it is never too late to give life another chance. And there’s most definitely a life out there for you, waiting for you, but you need to fight for it. It’s a difficult fight, it may require you to reach out and use all the tools you’ve got, but it’s a fight that’s worth fighting.”
This article was written exclusively for Love What Matters by Hanne Arts of Alcaucin, Spain. You can follow her journey on Instagram, YouTube, or 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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