Billy Ferguson/Fourth Estate


Shortly after I was officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, my grandmother told me that it was a mistake for people to refer to the disease only by the first half of its name. Nervosa was a critical word in the condition and she was right in remembering that even as I tried to make myself forget. There was fear, true fear, coursing through me constantly. I was terrified of eating, terrified of being fat, and terrified of seeing my own shrinking body in the mirror because I knew that my starving mind would twist it into a false shape.

To be frank, that fear has diminished but not vanished. It’s a depressing thing to realize that I will carry around fragments of that pain forever. My world is still warped by fun-house mirrors waiting to show me how fat I’ve gotten no matter what my actual shape is. Deep down, there is a lingering, ugly conviction that I do not deserve to eat, I do not deserve to feel full, and I do not deserve to take up space in the world.

Recovery is never a straight line. There are ups and downs, twists and turns, and setbacks waiting to diminish every accomplishment. Anorexia nervosa has a high rate of relapse, usually with devastating consequences on physical, mental, and emotional health. I’ve seen plenty of cliched drawings of the “road to recovery” as a squiggle of lines eventually inching towards a sunny horizon; I get sick of it. After so much time, I don’t want to just be “better than I was before.” I want to be better. Period. End of the journey. I want to shake off the hateful effects of this disease that I never asked for and do not deserve. I want to just be done with it already.

If a little girl came up to me and said, “I’m fat. I don’t deserve to eat, and I won’t ever eat again because I have to be thin,” I would be horrified. I would scoop her up in my arms, hold her tight, and do anything possible to keep her from starving. Why can I treat a stranger’s body with love and kindness while denying my body those same things?

What do I do now? I’m starting to realize, as I challenge the remnants of my eating disorder each day, that I need to go back to my grandmother’s advice. I have spent two years or more focusing on only half of the problem. I never wanted to admit, much less battle, the fear that lies at the heart of anorexia nervosa. It’s the nervosa half that I need to recover from now. There are all kinds of fears inside of my mind that will stand in the way of the bright dreams I’ve dreamed for myself—the fear of not being good enough, the fear of failure, and the fear of disappointing myself and others. All of those fears are self-fulfilling prophecies tied up in my eating disorder, because if I do relapse, then I surely will fail, disappoint, and not be good enough all at once.

Recovery is a wandering, incoherent, and convoluted mess—but I’m hoping that it doesn’t have to be. Fear distorts things, but if I can manage to let go of it, then I will not have to make that difficult journey while blindfolded. Perhaps recovery still won’t be a straight line, but it will at least be free of the years of nightmares lining the road. That’s a journey I can make with more hope.