There's an adage about adulthood that goes something like, "You spend your adult years unlearning all the trauma you faced as a kid." Trauma is something that's not easily definable, but you know when you've experienced it. You feel trauma in your gut. I knew my eating disorder wreaked havoc on my body, soul, and psyche, but I had no idea that its discrete edges would shape my life after I recovered from anorexia and bulimia. The things recovering from an eating disorder taught me about motherhood, as I endeavor to become a mom, have given me surprising courage in a time that's fraught with challenges and joy (I'm talking about parenting here, people, as this is what I've heard about the whole mom thing).
It's difficult to write about my eating disorder. Now that I'm managing my recovery, something I'll be doing for the rest of my life, I no longer feel like the trauma of disordered eating consumes my every thought. I actually feel something that's quite the opposite. I feel responsible to other girls and women struggling with issues about their bodies and/or themselves, and want to make sure I don't glamorize or fetishize those unhealthy things I did to myself the first time, when I hit puberty, and then again after suffering an unendurable betrayal and breakup. When I was sick I would search the internet (and in the early days, the library for books) about stories of other women starving themselves. Their disease provided a roadmap, and often gave me ideas on how to starve, binge, and purge that I hadn't thought of on my own.
So you won't find those details of my illness. Suffice to say, I was sick, and I'm not alone in this particular sickness. According to Parenting, there are more than 5 million Americans who have a clinical eating disorder, which means their symptoms meet the medical criteria. Think about all the people who have fraught relationships with food, their bodies, and the axis of control that moderates disordered eating. Of course, part of that population includes mothers. Research on the children of parents with eating disorders has only recently emerged, according to the United States National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. There's much to consider: is passing disordered eating onto your kid genetic? How do you moderate issues of feeding, eating, weight, and exercise when you're raising a child as a mother recovering from an eating disorder? This topic is rich for mining, and you better believe I'm found my next project. However, for now and because I feel confident in my recovery, I'm going to take inventory of all the ways that recovery can prepare me for motherhood. Hopefully much of this resonates, and this is only the beginning of the discussion.
There's no, "A-ha" moment when you begin your recovery, or at least that's what it was like for me. In fact, I went in and out of recovery for 15 years, and there's no guarantee that I won't relapse into disordered eating again. Like a lot of women I know who've struggled with disordered eating, it wasn't like one day I woke up and said, "Today's the day I'm going to get better."
Having said that, there were plenty of moments I felt shifts towards healing. Those little moments accumulate, and, well, that's when personal growth can happen. Recovering from an eating disorder taught me patience (I hear that's kinda important as a mom). I learned not to expect miracles overnight. I learned to respect the process.
This adage plays out in life, not just in recovery (or motherhood, for that matter). Because so much of my eating disorder came from disillusion that I had to be better than I was, I fetishized the idea of perfection. However, thinness was always beyond my reach because, well, you could always be thinner, and thinner equalled better; even though being the best was elusive. That's the ugliness of the disease.
What's scary is that perfectionism in this context is deadly, but it's also a message that gets played out to kids in everyday life. How am I going to break the cycle? TED speaker, activist and general badass, Reshma Saujani teaches girls bravery not perfection. Following her lead, I think is a good place to start. For someone recovering from perfectionism, striving for progress is a challenge and it's one I know I need to impart to my future child. Because I want better for him or her.
Eating disorders do not discriminate. Writer, poet, and activist, Caroline Rothstein chronicled the stories of eating disorder recovery and survival for Buzzfeed from 17 people (men and women). My story is in there. Read this, and you will see that there's no one way to recover, but there are common threads when you realize your life isn't overtaken by the trauma of this disease. For me, this means being in the moment, feeling present and alive. I hear that's something that can make you an awesome parent. Why? Because it makes you an awesome human.
Like I said before, having navigated the terrains of disordered eating, I know how the mind of someone who's sick might work, and that's why I want to be responsible in sharing my story of anorexia and bulimia. My survival is personal. I mean, how could it not be? But it's also political — because being political means being a part of the public, where you care about your community. I hope knowing this will make me a better mom, and a better citizen of the human race.
Motherhood can be isolating, or so wrote Margaret E. Jacobsen for Romper. You're in this new life and it's tempting to feel disconnected from your former self. But you're you, and recovery has taught me that self-integration is key to living a happy, trauma-free life.
Self-care is essential to being a human, but also to being a mother. When you're in recovery from disordered eating, it's so important to be good to yourself, because, let me say it again: disordered eating is a trauma. It's a mental illness. According to Janet Whitney, a counselor with over 30 years experience in treating eating disorders, an the Eating Disorder Program Director at Sovereign Health in California, "Someone passes away every 62 minutes from an eating disorder." In fact, she tells me, disordered eating has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Armed with this info, I don't ever want to minimize my recovery. That's why I make self-care an integral part of my life. That cannot, and will not, go out the window when I'm a mother.
Moms shame other moms all the time, and for ridiculous things. You and I both know that mom-shaming has to stop. However, for me, it's particularly important because secrecy fostered so much of my disordered eating. Of course this was disillusioned thinking. While I was hiding my unhealthy habits out of shame, my body told another story.
Learning not to be ashamed of my eating disorder is crucial to my recovery. That's why it's so important that I write this. If you are in recovery, you know what I mean. So, let's ditch the shame together, OK?
Piggybacking on the last point, it's not only crucial to avoid feeling ashamed of my eating disordered past for my recovery, I want to set a positive example for my future child. I want to show that I'm confident in my recovery, and that it's OK to be flawed, and come from a flawed or "imperfect" past. Moms shouldn't have to be perfect. In fact, it's that very thinking that sent me down the rabbit hole of my disease.
So, I'm proud of my recovery, and although I haven't figured out how to share it with my future child just yet, I will. I must.