Topic Tuesday: Anorexia

“The Self Beyond Starvation” (By: Halley Corapi)

Not very long ago, I was speaking to a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in quite a while. Our relationship during the time we were close to one another was massively impacted by the fact that I have an eating disorder, so inevitably the subject came up during our conversation. Within the span of an hour, something utterly incredible happened: I’d gotten through to someone who hadn’t understood before. I’d communicated in my own language, not the eating disorder’s.

I can finally talk about anorexia without relying on code or retreating to the mirror to escape the reality of what this means to me. I’m no professional, but I’ve been intimate with an eating disorder for half of my life, and this is a personal testimony.

One month ago, I turned 23 years old. As most people who struggle with some form of an eating disorder can attest to, numbers are (often inexplicably) important. The number on the scale, calories in food, pants size—whatever the quantifiable substance, the number carries significance far deeper than the surface-level connotations. Numbers define who we are. Numbers measure our failures, our successes, our guilt and our self-worth.

When I turned 23 years old on August 31st, my friends were celebrating my existence while I silently acknowledged an entirely different anniversary, the one I’d desperately hoped would never arrive: my eating disorder and I had been together for a decade. For a married couple, they call it the Tin Anniversary. For me and anorexia, it was more like Rust—flaky and corrosive, the color of old blood. And some part of me knew—and has known for longer than I’d like to admit—that the “relationship” didn’t work anymore. But an eating disorder isn’t a separate entity you can divorce or push away with a restraining order, and (barring family) it’s been by my side for longer than anyone I’ve ever known.

Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. My eating disorder and I have spent 3,650 days together since, not counting the two years prior to the diagnosis when the internal problem was creeping up on me and materializing into an external issue without my conscious consent. Not a day, not even an hour has gone by since that the eating disorder hasn’t hovered over my thoughts like a storm cloud. Even on my very best days, in my most joyful moments, it’s lurking. It even occupies my dreams. I can’t imagine a life without it. I can’t imagine a me without it.

And this is the main problem when it comes to eating disorders, especially when they emerge at a young age. The disorder becomes so wrapped up in a person’s identity and perception of themselves that the idea of recovery becomes warped into loss of self. In the mind, recovery becomes a destructive force and a dirty word.

For many years, anorexic was my favorite word. It was the ugliest word I’d ever heard in my life, and, as I felt like the ugliest person in the world, it seemed to fit. This was a self-perceived ugliness that extended much further than physicality; this was an ugliness with breadth and depth. Even now, at 23 and with years of creative writing experience and linguistic education under my belt, I have never found a word or phrase that could remotely describe or embody this emotion. It spread beyond a feeling or a phase; it went down deeper than my skin or my stomach. Lacking an adequate form of expression for what I was experiencing, I turned to a different language: I feel fat.

These three words have come out of my mouth more times than I’ve said I love you. These three words have driven my family, friends, and loved ones to near-insanity. Most importantly—these three words do not mean to me what they convey to others. Neither do the words hungry or full. Uncovering the true meaning and communicating that to people outside of the eating disorder is one of the most difficult things to do. Even I don’t know what these words mean to me automatically; I have to interrogate myself to decode my own language.

As a teenager, I felt incapable of reaching that far to try and solve a problem I couldn’t even be sure existed outside of my own mind. For 5 or 6 years after I was released from the treatment center, I existed in an uncomfortable in-between state—never fully well, never truly “sick.” I ate enough. I hated myself even more, not only because I felt like a “failed anorexic,” but because I didn’t even have the opposite—happiness or health—by which to define myself. I felt like a girl with no identity, no definition. I didn’t feel ugly. I felt like nothing.

When I left home for college, everything I thought I knew about the eating disorder changed. I was separated from my parents for the first time, and surrounded by a wide variety of new people who were not going to just let me hide in my self-made hermit cave. I also began to engage in actual relationships. Before college, the eating disorder had never had to “compete” with a human being. It had always come first, and nothing had threatened that. But that changed, and the eating disorder fought back. Anorexia was familiar and safe, and convinced me that feeling so strongly for other people was dangerous. I began to relapse, to self-destruct, as a way of protecting myself from any man that might come along to threaten my relationship with my eating disorder.

In any relationship I’ve encountered, I would hear two opposing voices—one in my head and one in my ear—telling me simultaneously that I was worthless and that I was loved. For a long time, I was unable to reconcile the two. I didn’t know which voice I believed, or even which voice I wanted to believe. I was being pulled by two opposing forces; they couldn’t coexist, so I felt I had to choose. And often, I chose my eating disorder. Even if it wasn’t the honest voice, it was the familiar one. It had been with me for so long, it was a stabilizing force no matter how damaging; it would never leave me. I couldn’t say the same for a person outside of myself.

When it comes to eating disorder logic, the disorder is easier to trust than another human being. Yes, the disorder hurts—but at least the pain is familiar, and anyone with anorexia can tell you how easy it is to convince yourself that you are in control of that pain. A human being can hurt you unexpectedly and in ways beyond your control. Love meant sex, promises, and the potential for pain. Love meant vulnerability, exposure, and loss of control—the very things a person struggling with anorexia has carefully crafted his or her life to avoid. So I kept the eating disorder with me, and it began to shape-shift constantly with each new phase of my life.

Many therapists, nutritionists, and others who struggle with an eating disorder encourage the idea of personifying the eating disorder. This does two very important things: (1) It separates the eating disorder from you, and (2) It gives the eating disorder an identifiable shape. For some people, the eating disorder might maintain the same form for many years. For me, the eating disorder decided it was a very enthusiastic method stage actor, and jumped fully into role after role. This made it very difficult for me to pin down what exactly anorexia was doing for me, and without knowing that, I didn’t know how to attack it.

I was scared by how much the eating disorder seemed to embody—male and female, light and dark, caretaker and abuser—while simultaneously defying definition. Different qualities and roles come out according to different phases and situations of my life. Sometimes anorexia is a childhood friend I’ve outgrown but can’t let go of; other times anorexia is an abusive lover I know is bad for me but can’t escape. Sometimes anorexia is even a parent, and cares for me by controlling me—“protecting” me from potential harm. But in doing so it has limited me from other connections and opportunities, from living a full life that inevitably contains pain but also joy.

Anorexia also made it easier to forgive people who had hurt me. Nothing anyone has done could ever be as painful as what I do to myself. A part of me worried that if I started respecting and caring for myself, I could no longer avoid standing up to people who didn’t do the same. Standing up to someone requires strength and presence, neither of which I was comfortable acknowledging inside of me.

My reluctance to personify the eating disorder stemmed from another place as well: I couldn’t even remotely see it as separate from myself, and to do so felt like a betrayal. That required admitting it was not an inherent part of my nature, which meant it was actually possible to defy or release. I wasn’t ready to do that. It became such a part of who I was that to see it as separate was to remove the only solid label I had for myself.

What I couldn’t see or understand was that the people in my life had their own perceptions of who I was and what I was capable of. When they spoke to me, touched me, thought of me—there were so many other aspects of Halley Corapi that they were seeing and experiencing, while in my head I was convinced that “anorexic” was the only personality trait I possessed of which I could be entirely certain. I was changing so rapidly; identifying myself was daunting. I would stare in the mirror for hours, but not for the reasons people might assume. I wasn’t picking myself apart on a merely superficial level; I was trying desperately to see myself, what I look like to others, obsessed with the idea of my insides matching my outsides. I wanted my mind to leave my body and circle it, examine myself from the outside from every angle, just to get a grasp on who I am.

Now, in order to move forward, sometimes I have to work backwards—from the behavior to the thought that caused it, from the thought to the emotion that inspired it, from the emotion to the situation that triggered it. For example:

            Why am I restricting my food today? Because I think I need to lose weight.

            Why do I think I need to lose weight? Because I feel fat.

            What does “fat” really mean in this moment? “Fat” means overwhelmed.

            What caused me to feel overwhelmed? I don’t know what I want in my life or who I am, and I feel pressure from personal relationships and society to be certain of these things.

And, finally and most importantly: How can I healthily and genuinely deal with this emotion without falling back on eating disorder language and behavior to cope?

This is always the challenge I’m left with after interrogating myself: letting go of anorexia and my long-standing eating disorder rituals so that I can explore new ways to acknowledge and work through my thoughts and emotions. My nutritionist constantly reminds me that an eating disorder rarely sticks around for the same reason that it showed up. Even a person living in the throes of anorexia, seemingly an expert at self-containment and avoidance, cannot stop life from happening. And as life goes on and a person grows, the eating disorder changes, too.

This can be a terrifying thought. If the eating disorder keeps shifting to adapt to each new phase of my life, how can I ever hope to leave it behind? I’ve struggled with this idea ever since coming to college, when my life changed so abruptly and radically and yet the eating disorder maintained its perch on my shoulder.

But after my 23rd birthday, I’m tentatively exploring a new approach: If my eating disorder can change, then perhaps I can finally take control of that change. I can turn it into something else. Because if the eating disorder can evolve inside of me, then I am certainly capable of growing beyond it. In many ways I already have, but was unwilling to embrace transformation for fear of losing my identity.

Because the hardest thing to do in recovery is to own your presence. Doing so takes an enormous amount of courage; an eating disorder can keep you separate from your own body and self for a very long time, and owning your presence requires you to nourish yourself and to let go of that control. Anorexia is a harsh word, with harsh symptoms (both emotionally and physically) and a harsh stigma. But however severe and damaging it can be, anorexia is not inherent to my identity or to anyone else’s.

We stifle our authentic nature when we define ourselves by a diagnosis. We limit our potential when we resign ourselves to living according to the eating disorder rituals we thought were protecting rather than damaging us. And we do our minds and bodies a great disservice by denying ourselves nourishment—whatever form that nourishment may take.

What I’ve come to discover is that the very first step is simply acknowledging to yourself that you are not the eating disorder. Now that I’ve come to accept this, there is no going back—and I don’t think I could even if I tried. I’ve finally gotten a glimpse of myself—not a reflection or a shadow, but the actual human being that is Halley Corapi. And now that I’ve gotten a glimpse, I can’t deny any longer that I am hungry. I am hungry for a clearer look. I am hungry for my own life, the life I’ve denied myself because I felt afraid of my own potential and undeserving of the experiences my life has to offer. And though I still don’t know who I am outside of anorexia, I do know that I am someone outside of it. Even if it takes another decade, I plan on finding out who that person truly is.

About the Author

Halley Corapi lives in East Nashville and works as a producer for a messaging firm focused on advocacy and political campaigns around the country. She interned for Renewed in 2015, and has spoken to students on the organization’s behalf about eating disorder awareness and education. She loves language, and is always looking for new ways to communicate the complexity of mental health and recovery.