Topic Tuesday: Recovery

“Year Seven” (By: Emily Grinstead)

In 2011, I was fourteen and on an eighth-grade trip to Washington D.C. with my best friends. Every year, our school took the eighth-grade class to D.C. for a tour of the major sights. Instead of soaking up the history and beauty of the city, I was focused on the swimming party scheduled for the end of the week. Essentially, a friend and I decided to eat as little as we possibly could so that we would “look skinny” in our swimsuits. My mom later told me that one of the chaperones called our parents because they were so concerned about us. That trip marked the first time I ever experimented with any sort of dieting or modification of what I was eating with the goal of changing my appearance.

Little did I know that seemingly typical teenage girl growing pains would become my new norm.

A pattern, a cycle, a trap.

In 2012, I was fifteen and those behaviors had become habits and eventually fully integrated into my daily routine: weighing myself, calorie counting, body checking, obsessively exercising. Seventeen Magazine was my Bible, and my free time was spent searching the Internet for new ways to speed up my metabolism or curb my appetite. I wasn’t growing and developing like I was supposed to, but I was too young to raise any serious concern within my pediatrician. I appeared to be, simply, in a “healthy phase”.

In 2013, things took a sharp turn. I was sixteen and almost starved myself to death that July. Having slipped far into self-obsession by the end of that school year, I was completely and totally engulfed by my illness. I believed that I was the largest, ugliest, most horrid person in the world, and I wanted nothing more than to shrink. Lose a few pounds here, a few more there, until I could guarantee that I was the smallest person in my grade and win the made-up competition taking place within my mind.

That July was easily the worst month of my life, and I remember a lot of it for a girl whose brain was severely malnourished. My family went on vacation around the Baltic Sea. I had essentially planned the entire trip and convinced my parents–along with my sister and a very extra business-like presentation–to take us on a cruise. I, unfortunately, wasn’t the least bit focused on where we were; all of my thoughts and energy were centered around weight loss. All I cared about was limiting my food intake as much as possible and sneaking in trips to the cruise gym without my parents noticing. HA. To think that I tried to get away with that… I was hardly recognizable at the time: emaciated, shrunken, drained, empty; a ghost of myself.

The first and only time I’ve seen my dad cry was on the very first night of that cruise, after an incredibly tense dinner during which I picked around my meal because I didn’t know how much oil the chef had used while cooking. My dad asked me to come into his cabin, looked at me with teary eyes, and said with the gravity of a physician and the heart of a father watching his firstborn slipping away from him:

“Emily, you have Anorexia Nervosa, and if you don’t start eating, we’re getting off this boat and taking you to a hospital in Europe.”

Year Seven.

In 2014, I was seventeen and entering my Senior year of high school. After the previous summer, I had gained some weight but just enough to appear out of the danger zone. I pivoted my obsessions towards exercise, taking up long-distance running, HIIT workouts, and hot yoga, all while dancing with my school’s dance company (note to self: the human knee isn’t designed to handle the strain of running AND dancing). I was constantly irritable, stressed to the max with college applications, and frequently nursing my injured knee. After being deferred from my dream school, dealing with turmoil at home, and pushing myself to make perfect grades as a second-semester senior (Emily, why?!?), anorexia felt like a safe haven amidst the chaos: although I couldn’t control everything else, I sure knew how to control my body.

In 2015, I was eighteen and first realized that what I thought was healthy for me might actually be doing more harm than good. I’m not entirely sure what clicked that summer, but I remember having a sort of revelation along the lines of, “Wait a minute, all I can think about is food and my body, I’m terrified of gaining weight yet I’m severely underweight, and I feel awful… there’s gotta be something more going on.” I read probably hundreds of articles, research studies, blog posts–you name it, I read it. I soaked up all the information I possibly could about what I was going through until I finally admitted to myself that I had an eating disorder. Naming the illness stripped away a layer of its power.

In 2016, I was nineteen and had just finished my first year at Vanderbilt during which I had attempted to “self-recover” (lol). I essentially tried to be my own dietitian, therapist, and doctor… all while taking too many classes and trying to adjust to college life… yeah, didn’t exactly go as planned. After relapsing at summer camp, I came home and sought professional treatment for my eating disorder for the first time. I’m stubborn and independent by nature, but there was honestly no way I could handle this thing by myself. And man, am I glad I put my pride down for a second. The team I began working with has forever shaped my understanding of the clinician-patient relationship. I attribute the majority of my desire to pursue a career in eating disorder treatment to my P.A. back home; her grace, kindness, strength, gentleness, and vast knowledge have been the greatest blessing.

In 2017, I was twenty and had just experienced my first year in real recovery from an eating disorder. I learned a lot sophomore year, about myself and how doing both treatment and school isn’t exactly easy. That academic year was incredibly tough, but I’m thankful for the ways it grew me. Unfortunately, I relapsed again that summer after a particularly difficult time at camp. I made the decision to come home from my job early and again, to pursue treatment with my team. Best decision ever. Last summer was one of my favorites; truly a blissful time at home, simply focusing on being with family and true healing.

Seven years. Seven springs. Seven summers spent stuck in a prison of meaningless numbers that carried all the weight in the world at the time––my mood, my well-being, my entire self-worth.

Year Seven.

This year is different. This time, I’m breaking the cycle. This time around, I’m twenty-one, and for the first time in seven years, I have not relapsed. While this semester and summer have been a whirlwind of emotions, it’s also been hands-down the best semester of college and one of my favorite seasons in my young adult life so far. I can’t begin to describe the amount of growth that’s taken place in the short time span of a few months. Learning to put my well-being – spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and physically – above the fleeting security of perfect grades or a rigid eating and exercise regimen has allowed me to be more fully myself than I’ve been in a long time. And that feels really, really good.

Year seven, the number of completeness and perfection, might not be the year that I fully recover from my eating disorder, and I’m okay with that.

I don’t know exactly what will happen this week. Or this semester. Or next year. But I do know that I’m done with this cycle that’s made me absolutely terrified of springtime, a time meant to signify new life and hope, not death and destruction. I still believe profoundly in the sanctity of numbers. I just don’t place my worth in them like I used to. Because while numbers are beautiful and mathematical perfection satisfying, numbers can’t capture the joy found in a life lived to the fullest.

About the Author

Emily is a junior at Vanderbilt University majoring in Medicine, Health and Society. She loves Jesus, journaling, brunch foods, and all things Christmas and Disney. Houston, TX is her proud home, but she is slowly becoming a converted Nashvillian. She hopes to become both a Nurse Practitioner and a Registered Dietitian so that she can use her own experiences with anorexia and orthorexia to treat patients with eating disorders.