Letters to My Younger Self is a series focused on wisdom and self-awareness. Just as you write letters to a friend to encourage and uplift them, here is the advice we would go back and tell our younger ourselves.
Dear 17-Year-Old Me,
I’ll be honest with you. This year will not be easy. You have already had a bone density scan, a series of heart tests, a consultation with a nutritionist, an evaluation with an eating disorder doctor and a meeting with your therapist. Now you know—not eating is no longer an option.
Skipping lunch at school. Stuffing uneaten pieces of bagels into crumpled napkins. Consuming nothing more than Mountain Dew during your three-day debate tournaments. Cutting up your food into tiny pieces so it looks like you’ve eaten. All of that must stop. You need to learn how to rest, how to quiet your mind, how to feed yourself and how to begin again.
You need to learn how to rest, how to quiet your mind, how to feed yourself and how to begin again.
The medical professionals seem to think you ended up here because you wanted to look like a Victoria’s Secret model or because you saw some celebrity magazine in the grocery store checkout line and thought, “Oh, if only I looked like her.”
No, far from it. You had anxiety, sometimes crippling anxiety, which bordered on panic. In debate rounds, you would sit on your hands to keep them from shaking. At school, you held your breath. Not eating was a way of maintaining control, of diminishing physical sensation to simple heart palpitations so that you could carry on. This way you could succeed, win awards and maintain your high GPA.
You have always been thin, which is one of the reasons this disordered behavior has gone unnoticed for so long. This illness is not a feat of thinness. It is a feat of will, but it is not noble to suffer like this. Not eating is like throwing gasoline on your beautiful self, your mind, your heart and your body. From the outside, you hide it well, but your bones show the damage.
From the outside, you hide it well, but your bones show the damage.
You have trained yourself out of needing anything, including food. You wage war on your own body because, to you, your desires are the least important. Your hunger is an annoyance, a distraction and an inconvenience. If you paid attention, then it might demand other things besides perfectionism from you. Your hunger might tell you to retreat, unlearn, create and stop pushing through.
This year will hurt. It will hurt your body. You will have night sweats. You will be nauseated and dizzy. You will have to eat even when you do not feel like it. It will hurt to eat sometimes. It will hurt when the nurses look down your hospital gown before they weigh you to make sure you aren’t hiding rocks in your underwear.
It will hurt when, after learning you are in treatment, your boyfriend replies, “But you’re not ‘too thin,’” even though you are in fact seriously underweight. It will hurt when you choose not to tell many of your friends and nearly all of your classmates in your small school, fearing their judgment and gossip.
This year will also heal. You will learn, as though it is a revelation, that your body needs and deserves food to live. You will learn that, in this culture that tries to poison and silence women in so many ways, your worth lies in not how much you can control, but instead, in how brazenly you can learn to just be.
Your worth lies in not how much you can control, but instead, in how brazenly you can learn to just be.
Being fully human bears gifts—generosity, kindness, creativity and courage—truly beautiful and world-healing things. The kind, courageous women in your life (your mom, your therapist and your doctor) are the people who will usher you through this fraught year. Under their care, you will realize that your sensitivity is your superpower.
You will find your voice, not in your current relationship, but as soon as it ends. You will discover that you are stronger and braver than you think you are. Somehow, this lesson will become a part of you, as though baked into your fortified bones—your feelings and desires, your hunger and passions, your intelligence and wisdom are worth listening to and cherishing. They are your guides. Do not silence them.
Your organs, your muscles and your bones have weight. Together, they make up your body. That is a miracle, is it not? Success does not have to come at the price of your health. You have been given a body which functions, a true blessing. Tend to it, tend to her.
Someday, you may think with heartache, “Why did I waste all those years living half-full?” I promise you—this time has not been wasted. Your recovery is part of the story of your body. There is nothing shameful about that. It is just something you will carry, the way we all carry things in our arms that sometimes weigh us down but also make us human.
I promise you—this time has not been wasted. Your recovery is part of the story of your body.
Many years from now, a nurse who learns you have recovered from anorexia, will say to you, “Sweetheart, that is not easy. You should be very proud of yourself and your growth.” You will be. You will see yourself through loving, honoring eyes. For now, I’ll hold that vision for you.
Do not shrink from the world. Live in it. Live for it. Live fully. I promise you there is unimaginable grace and beauty on the other side of this.
The only way is through.
Your future self
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
What advice would you give your younger self? What do yo know now that you wish you better understood then?
Image via Alexa Glazer