On Lessons and Living

My therapist likes to find lessons in pretty much every problem I have. She always says, “And what did you learn from this?” and I’m supposed to say something about evidence and supporting facts and the resilience of the human spirit. In reality, I shrug with one shoulder, and, if I’m feeling especially lighthearted, I give her a snarky comment. This always makes her smile and shake her head, and then she asks me what I really learned.

The first time she did this, it was right after a breakup. My now-ex-boyfriend had been lying to me, and, by the end of it all, I felt broken down and deeply confused. “And what did you learn from this?”

It was too soon, and I was too hurt, so I smiled smugly and said, “I can’t trust anyone, ever again, ever.”

She actually laughed out loud, then corrected me, giving me the answer she was looking for.  

I don’t remember what she said though. 

I started therapy almost three years ago. I was nineteen, and, at the time, in deep denial about an eating disorder that was slowly taking my freedom with the pounds it took from my body. Eventually, I owned up to it. I needed help. I had lost a lot of weight, my hair was falling out, and, quite frankly, I was sick of counting calories.

I’m not sure what I expected, but I know I didn’t expect to sit down and promptly burst into tears at the first mention of my eating disorder. For the first four months, I didn’t get through a single session without tearsand lots of them.

Recovery sucked. I was constantly bloated, sometimes constipated, and often nauseous. I had to take probiotics. I cut my hair up to my shoulders because it was so thin and dull that I couldn’t stand looking at it.  Going out to dinner was a painstakingly stressful experience. If I’m being honest, it still is. (I turned 22 last week. You do the math.)

What seemed to be the worst part about the whole ordeal was that I never looked like I had an eating disorder. I wasn’t scrawny or emaciated. I was thin, yes, but I wasn’t the kind of thin that lands you in a hospital with a feeding tube.  Even my parents were surprised to learn about my eating disorder, despite all of the abnormal behaviours and weird food rituals. And how could I recover from something I didn’t even feel sick enough from in the first place?

The answer was slowly, and honestly, not that differently from other eating disorder sufferers. The truth of the matter is everyone recovers differently, and everyone’s eating disorder looks different. On me, it was muscles and bones and a lot more damage on the inside than the out. Freshman year, I lost fifteen pounds; I was the thinnest I had ever been. After my 8 AM gym session and three hours of classes, I was drained.  I didn’t have energy to leave my bed. Even standing up to go to the bathroom left me lightheaded, dizzy, and on the verge of blacking out. Hanging out with friends was nearly impossible. I hated the dining halls because I couldn’t count calories or measure my food, and restaurants were even worse. I planned my life around when I could go to the gym. First semester, there were only two days when I skipped the gym, and one of them was the day I flew home at noon.

Fast-forward four years. I just graduated college. I don’t stress about going to to eat, and if I do, I find other ways to calm down, not just refusing to go. I go to the gym twice a week, schedule permitting. I have enough energy to go to class and work. Weekends are spent backpacking, skiing, or beaching, depending on the season. One of my favourite ways to unwind is sitting on the couch, eating too much Nutella and too many pretzels with my boyfriend while we watch Netflix. These are all things I never would have imagined I had the ability to do three years ago.

I often think of what my therapist would say about my eating disorder. And what did you learn from this?

I would probably shrug with one shoulder, but I don’t think I’d laugh it off. Not this time. Counting calories does not make me calmer, even though I think it does. I really like having a routine. Going to the gym is more fun when you don’t have to burn 500 calories. Cereal tastes better when you don’t measure it. Yoga isn’t useless. Some days are way harder than others. I’m strong as hell.

And: eating disorders have no place in a full, happy life.

By Rachel Pfeffer
Photos by Jamie Goldberg

1 comment

  1. this actually brought tears to my eyes. thank you for sharing, rachel. not only was this incredibly well written, but so important.