Letting Go of Perfectionism in My Recovery from Anorexia
Just like every other human emotion and experience, eating disorders are full of colour, chemicals, and different combinations. No two experiences are the same.
I am a self-described overachieving perfectionist, who has cared far too much about everything my entire life. The expectations of my generation are that you’ll be brilliant at everything and it’s terribly important to look wonderful. I have always tackled numerous projects and tasks that would prove me worthy of respect and admiration amongst my family, friends, acquaintances, and society.
Everyone carries baggage. For me, anorexia was like a demon I carried around in a basket on my chest, and recovering meant I just put it in my rucksack along with the rest of my baggage. These demons regularly kick us in the small of our back. However, keeping them zipped up in there rather than strapped to our chests is what makes us functioning adults. You don’t just get over something so immense in your life; you just need to learn how to find the silver lining, no matter how impossible it seems.
My story begins after three years of running my freelance photography business part-time. I decided to walk out of my well-paid, well-respected job to pursue it full-time. The day I walked out of that office, turned my back on that toxic environment was the happiest decision of my life.
I cared for too long. I was overextended, overburdened, stressed, anxious, and panic-stricken by commitments and by life. I felt the constant pressure to be the perfect daughter, friend, girlfriend, employee, business woman, and the perfect female society had moulded for me.
Starvation gave me a sense of comfort, routine, and safety in control. Recovery was hard. Months ago, I was too weak to get out of bed. I couldn't think, couldn't focus, was getting chest pains, and was losing sensation in my feet and hands. It was as though I was attempting to disappear altogether.
Despite hating my body my entire life, I have always been a positive and optimistic person. I have never been someone who dwells on things that I can’t change. Standing in front of a mirror criticising myself wasn’t going to achieve anything.
I have just never felt in control. Starvation gave me the power to harness that self-punishment. The pressures are unbearable and society fetishizes thinness. I felt that I was never good enough for anyone. My dad didn’t think I was healthy and my mum didn’t want me to go down the path of being "overweight" like she did. Starvation gave me the crutch to show them I could do absolutely anything I wanted to.
The problems started when I was working in a job where food was free. I gained a sense of pride in knowing I could resist. I feared the loss of control over food. Appearing thin made me feel in control when everything else was lost. Yet I didn’t realise that the compliments had turned to concern for my health. I took the comments as jealousy and toxicity ran through my veins. It began to control me, follow me. I couldn’t go out with friends or family without planning and panic. I would tell myself that I wasn’t allowed to treat myself or to enjoy myself. Food began to replace people and the isolation increased.
Being with people was just a superficial way to kill time until I could go home and find ways to control everything around me. I knew something was wrong. I hated that food was so important, but I was trapped. I couldn't get the thoughts of food out of my head and I didn't know any way out.
I tried to be perfect inside and out, but the strain was enormous. I kept thinking that at any minute, I was going to be found out. I lived in terror that people would see through me. It's ludicrous; I do the best that I can, like we all do, so why was I haunted by these fears? I felt capable outside and completely inept inside.
I’d be fine as long as I was busy, but as soon as I was alone, nothing seemed to satisfy me. I felt empty, lost, with this sense of vague uneasiness. It is so peculiar, how lonely I can feel even when I'm not alone. It's a chilling feeling, like I'm cut off, all by myself in this world.
When I was wrestling with the idea of quitting my job to go freelance I was extremely anxious about all aspects of that decision, specifically what people would think. Then I realised that if people think I’m lazy, that’s their problem. I had to stop caring about what others thought and start caring about respect. The day I stopped caring about how I looked, what other people thought about me, and focused on my own opinions was like a basket full of puppies rained down from heaven to perform “I’m Every Woman.”
Health is about sleeping enough, making time for yourself, and keeping calm in times of distress. Weight restoration isn’t about gaining weight, it’s about gaining life. Because of my strong thighs, I can now climb the stairs. There’s more flesh on my bones but I’m warm, give better hugs, and smile. Weight restoration is tough, but my worth is showing that I can overcome everything that fought against me.
Become the journey. The more you suppress your demons, the heavier the baggage becomes. The journey won’t end, but it will change direction. I want someone to look at me and say that because of me, they didn’t give up.
Slow down. It’s easy to get caught up in every decision being the defining decision of your whole life. I have learned to value life, health, and the importance of not caring. It’s okay to not be okay.
Relax your sense of obligation and ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen? Will Rogers once said, “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.” Sing it, sister! We all need to learn choice over obligation and worry about the things we can control over the things we can’t. I can assure you that it’ll make life so much easier.