Fighting the good fight

I think anyone who is in or who has been in recovery has good days and bad days. It’s not all “Wow, eating is a piece of cake! I love my life!!!” Because, after all, EDs are addictions. It’s not easy. Even when it looks easy, recovery is a really, really difficult struggle, every day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the progress I’ve made and trying to conceptualize where exactly I am on the “road to recovery.” I had a really good therapy session on Friday because a lot of stressing situations happened in the last week. First, my dad visited and stressed me out about getting a job next year. Then, my interview clothes didn’t fit. And finally, I have a genetics exam coming up next week and have been trying to prepare for that.

Enter eating disorder.

I talked with my therapist about my family and my realization that, as much as I want them to be, my parents and my sisters are not my support system. We talked about how it’s sad to think about that, but at the same time I have a great support system in the quality friends I’ve made here at Cornell. My friends picked me up this week and have throughout my recovery. Beyond my admitting to having an ED, my parents and I really have not discussed my ED. It’s not that they’re not concerned – they always have been, and I know that – it’s just that they can’t provide support. They still make comments that are focused entirely on success and accomplishment. I’m more aware now and don’t let the comments fuel my perfectionism, but it’s still hard to hear. My family has never been the type to say “I love you” just because or to comfort each other or to ask how someone is doing. I know that at least some of my ED stems from family issues. When I first admitted I was sick, I completely denied anything else was wrong and claimed I only wanted to be skinny so I could swim faster. Now that I’m taking care of my nutritional needs, I can see how many different factors played a role.

In particular, I notice how much my relationship with my older sister has impacted me. Growing up, we were quite close in age and engaged in a pretty sever sibling rivalry. She is three “grades” older than me, and we were on the same swim team. She’s really short (4’10” now) and has always been very tiny, so genetically I had the advantage in swimming and would beat her most of the time. We both got good averages, but mine was between 98 and 100 pretty much from elementary school through high school while hers was in the 93-94 range. I’m a middle child, so in middle school it was really important to me to compete with her – because beating her average or being better at swimming scored me some positive attention from our parents, who really truly only gave out attention when report cards came out or trophies came home. I probably went through a period of ten years when the only time I even saw the words “We love you” was in a birthday card.

If only I had known then what the consequences of our sibling rivalry would be. When she was a freshman in high school (I was in 6th grade at the time) my sister started dating a verbally abusive boyfriend. They cycled on and off over the next two years, but eventually were forbidden from dating by my parents and the high school administrators. My sister fell into a deep clinical depression. The summer before I was to enter freshman year of high school, I caught her trying to commit suicide and told my parents – against her wishes. I didn’t understand depression or mental illness and never talked about what happened with anyone. My sister changed to a stronger depression medication and did more intensive outpatient therapy, and my mom took control of her recovery. Eventually, my sister overcame her depression but is still plagued – to this day – by low self-esteem, insecurity and jealousy.

After her suicide attempt, I never considered my sister “competition” anymore. In fact, getting good grades and having my name in the newspaper lost its appeal. The attention was falsely placed, in my mind, because I didn’t think I deserved it. I wasn’t happy with the 98 average anymore – that wasn’t good enough. So getting attention for it was, quite frankly, annoying. It just reinforced my identity of being a swimmer and a “straight A” student – and nothing else. And throughout all of this unwanted attention, my sister resented me more and more. She felt that I was “perfect” and as much as I asserted (and still assert) that I’m not perfect, her feelings don’t change.

That’s not quite the whole story, but I think it starts to paint a picture. I love both of my sisters and my parents unconditionally, and I know that they love me. I know I have a “good” family. But I think every family has its limitations, and I realize now how different I am from them. No matter how many times I tell my parents not to focus on grades and swimming, they still do. No matter how many times I try to make peace with my sister, she is still aggravated by my presence. Do you know how hard it is to merely walk into a room and have the mood go from relaxed to tense just because you’re there?  Combine that with a poor self-image (thank you, ED and perfectionism) and you have a really unhealthy living situation.

Which makes it apparent to me that after I graduate I can’t go home. I could, but I would suffocate. Returning home would stunt my growth and provide an atmosphere that would make it all to easy to return to my worst ED’d behaviors.

I realize how all of this sounds so….”teen angsty.” I know that I have a good family that really does love me. I’m grateful for all of the things my parents have given me and taught me, and for the opportunities they have afforded me. But they, like everyone, have limitations. Instead of giving up on them, my job is to accept them for who they are. My therapist always has to remind me that I can’t control or change people, and this includes my family. As much as I wish things could be different, they aren’t. Maybe someday they will be, but for now they’re not and I have to accept that. And they, in turn, have to accept me for who I am.

I guess overall I’m sad that I can’t go to my parents or to my older sister with all of this. And I’m bitter – I can realize that from what I’ve written. But I also know why – I’m struggling. During my therapy session the other day my therapist called me out a lot on “saying disordered things” and switching back and forth between my voice and the disordered voice. I’m fighting, and I’m sticking with my meal plan.

But some days, that fight is harder than others. And some days, I don’t have the energy. I wish it was as simple as “Eat X and Y and Z and your life will be fixed! You won’t have an ED anymore!”

But it’s not. It’s a daily grind. I’m fighting the good fight but on days like today I just want to…go on autopilot. To get back that “numb” feeling, even if just for a little while. To escape. And it’s hard to admit that (because honestly I have trouble admitting, a lot of the time, that I’m “still sick” or that I ever even was sick to begin with) but I think everyone who has gone through recovery has had good days and bad days.

And as much as I’m wavering today between disordered and rational (you might be able to even notice it throughout this post), I’m going to keep fighting. I might be struggling today, but it’s days like today that the small victories are huge. It’s days like today that sticking with my meal plan is a celebration. Fighting, even when I feel at my weakest, proves that someday I can really be healthy. Maybe not today, but I have hope for a better tomorrow. And it’s days like today that even the smallest, teeniest bit of hope is what allows me to keep fighting.

A picture of me and my sisters from my grandparent's 50th anniversary dinner. My older sister on left, me in the middle and my little sister on the right.

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5 Responses to Fighting the good fight

  1. First, it sounds like you have had a really stressful week! I definitely notice that no matter where I am in recovery, my eating disorder gets much more manipulative when I am stressed. I am sorry your family has had to deal with so much hardship. It is kinda weird to read, but I also found my oldest sister when she tried to commit suicide. We never really talked about it much either. I think it is great that you are aware that your family isn’t your support system, and I am glad you have so much support at school. Keep fighting!

  2. Sarah says:

    Hey Kim,
    I’m sorry you had such a rough week. Great job trying to keep your head straight and avoid any ED urges that come up…you’re doing the right thing by focusing on your health!
    Also, I’m sorry the family issues have been so hard. I too struggle a lot with my family and I know their crazy high expectations have contributed to my ED. It’s amazing that you realize how different you are than them and that going home would only make things worse. You have a lot of self awareness which is what’s going to keep you healthy!
    Hang in there! I really admire your strength : )
    Sarah

  3. Kim says:

    Thanks so much to both of you 🙂 It’s really great to have support from people that have *been there* and know exactly where I’m coming from. Yesterday was awful but I’m trying my best to hang in there! Thanks for your amazing support.

  4. edoutsider says:

    You seem a bit similar to me. I always got perfect grades and did pretty well with everything, especially swimming. So my parents came to expect that from me and encourage it, and if I didn’t live up to their expectations they would criticize me or ignore it. Some people get in trouble for fighting or partying all night – I’d get in trouble for being lazy at swim practice or getting a B on a test.

    Nobody in my family says “I love you” just for the heck of it. We aren’t very close or loving and don’t talk about feelings or anything much below the surface. 😦

    That’s too bad about your family, especially your sister. I don’t have a sister, but I’m sure there would be some tension and competition there if I did. It must be hard. 😦

    I’m glad you are fighting though! 🙂

  5. muchfruit says:

    You have both a sadness and an opportunity here. The sadness is that everyone’s family SHOULD be supportive, and yours doesn’t know how to be (and it sounds like they can be detrimental.) The opportunity is that you have the chance to do this on your own terms and in the process, to learn self-reliance, to learn to trust yourself, and to learn how to build a social network that can help you. It sounds like you are doing that beautifully. I know it’s not your first choice, but what I’ve gleaned from my own struggle with an unsupportive family is that I KNOW I can move from one place to another and do fine on my own. I am confident in my ability to reach out to others when I need it, and to be able to tell them how I need them to help because I have HAD to be. I am not used to being babysat (“Sarah, did you eat?”) and ultimately, I think this has helped me sustain my recovery because I’m used to motivating myself to practice health instead of relying on someone else to do it for me. I say this not to minimize what you’re going through–just to help you reframe it a little so you can keep going. Like the other commenters said, good for you for fighting!!! Unfortunately, it has to be realllly hard before it gets easy.

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