This is my story of how I found self-love, self-compassion and self-acceptance in my journey. It was written a long time ago, shortly after finding recovery-or what I thought was recovery back then. After a relapse, I learned that what I thought was full recovery, was not and I’d gone on to do much more in-depth, transformative work. Hence though my struggle was nearly twenty years long, this essay says ‘ten’ as that was the point it was written at. May you find comfort and hope in these words:
For The Love of Myself
Recovering from an eating disorder is a path fraught with anguish, fury, confusion, and joy…a stormy mix of emotions indeed. My own life-threatening struggle with both anorexia and bulimia lasted nearly ten years, five of which I literally lived in hospitals. In the beginning of my treatment, I remember thinking that I could just get better. Then I didn’t think I would ever get better at all. Ever. In fact, the majority of people who worked with me did not think I would ever get better either, as they continually sought new ways to ‘manage’ me. But I did get better; I did find a way to free myself from the chains of my eating disorder. And although everyone around me wanted my recovery to be an event, it was in actuality a rather slow process. A process that could have been a little smoother and a little shorter had I only found the key and the tools to claim it as my own a little sooner.
I always knew that it would be crucial to my recovery to remain open and willing to try new things, including things that I didn’t even necessarily want to try. And try things I did. I think I’d tried every treatment modality known to humankind, from conventional to alternative and seemingly to no avail. Then somehow I began to understand that I had to learn to care about myself as much as I cared about others… and I had to feel OK about doing that. People had been saying to me for a long time, “You should love yourself;” “You should take better care of yourself.” I had always rejected those statements simply because I hated myself, and I hated myself about as vehemently as one could hate anything.
Loving myself… the one thing I could not bring myself to do. Suddenly I began to feel that my recovery from my eating disorder hinged on my ability to do just that. I found myself wondering how one makes the trek from intense self-loathing into the realm of gentle self-love. I knew it did not happen just by having someone tell you that you should love yourself, nor did it happen by attending sessions of groups entitled ‘self-care.’ Self-care groups were a frustrating experience for me personally. We would all sit around in a cozy circle creating lists of nice things we could do for ourselves, and at the end of group we would all resolve to try some of them. My feeling at the time was that asking me to do something nice for myself, when I hated my own guts as much as I did, was akin to asking the average citizen to jump off a cliff. Several times I tried doing them just because I thought I would hate doing something nice for myself. When I thought that it might actually make me miserable to do them, I did them—Because I felt most deserving of misery, you see.
Once I got through that stage I thought perhaps I could just do some of the nice things on my list while keeping in mind the theory: “do the actions and the feelings will follow.” In other words, if I did enough nice things for myself I would eventually and naturally begin to like myself. I found that not to be the case. As I glanced over my lists one day, it occurred to me that they would be helpful only when I felt worthy of them. I scratched my head and realized I was back to the drawing board, wondering just how one makes the gigantic leap from despising one’s self to loving one’s self. At this point when I heard the feedback: “you should love yourself,” a desperate voice within me begged to know how.
I began thinking about the concepts of gentleness and compassion. I realized that I had never been treated that way in my life. All of the treatment programs I had been in felt harsh, cold, and rigid—Much the way I treated myself, much the way I’d been treated my whole life. Looking back on it, I see that my therapist was gentle with me. In fact, she was the only one who ever was. Unfortunately my eating disorder, suicidal ideation, and self-mutilation blinded me at the time, and I simply could not see it. I also did not recognize her gentleness because, although I liked her a great deal, I did not trust her for a long time. I always expected her to turn on me at any moment and without warning. Not because she gave me any indication that she would do that, but because that was just how things usually worked out in my life. So, if I allowed myself to recognize the gentleness that was there, I would only be all that much more hurt in the end. Anyway, in the
course of just thinking about gentleness and compassion, somewhere deep inside I longed to feel some sort of kindness. I began to ponder treating myself that way.
I started writing. I love writing because you can write things you cannot say, you can write things you do not yet believe, you can write—anything at all. Between my journal and a writing therapy group I attended, I had ample opportunity to explore the whole concept of being gentle with myself. I began by writing about being nonjudgmental with myself. It seemed to be a logical place to start. I wrote about how I thought it would feel if I suspended all judgment about myself, what it would be like if I could not label anything I said or did—or anything else about myself for that matter—as good or bad. Then I tried it. I was astonished by the number of harsh judgments I made about myself. It turned out to be a valuable exercise indeed; it really highlighted the wrath and disdain I had for myself. I saw with great sadness the distance I had to travel before I would be able to hold myself in any sort of positive regard.
I forged on in my writing, still searching and exploring, with the words ‘nonjudgmental,’ ‘gentle,’ and ‘compassionate’ always close by. I recognized that when I was in the throes of my most intense pain, a time when most other people would comfort themselves, I invariably hurt myself. As awful as that may sound, being self-destructive actually felt good to me. But I also knew that I had to do something about that. I had heard many times that ‘everyone’s process through takes its own time.’ I decided that I needed to start honoring my own process and accepting where I was in it… and I needed to be gentle and compassionate with myself around that. Part of being gentle and compassionate meant changing my vocabulary to use those very words. It meant I had to visualize treating myself tenderly instead of harshly.
I started writing things I did not yet believe as a way of making myself more comfortable with them. For example, although I did not believe it, I wrote that instead of hurting myself I needed to allow myself to cry and surround myself with people whom I cared about and who cared about me. That was not an easy thing to write; I didn’t believe there was anyone in the world that cared about me even a little tiny bit. But I continued writing, saying that I needed to connect with people instead of isolating from them. I understood that a component of isolating from others had to do with my wearing a mask in front of them, smiling when I felt like I was dying inside. I was taught from such a young and tender age that my feelings were unacceptable and intolerable to others. I simply was not entitled to feel anything, unless it was something pleasant… in which case no one cared anyway. My father had so often told me to “think happy thoughts.” Due to all of the abuse I suffered, I just didn’t have any happy thoughts to think. I was left feeling like the real me was black, slimy, and ugly, and I felt terrified to let anyone know the real me. I was always worried that I would ‘bring everyone else down’ if I showed my true feelings. I knew intuitively that this was an obstacle that would take some time to hurdle.
I wrote on, observing that whenever I experienced any sort of joy, I felt guilty. I wholeheartedly believed that I did not deserve any kind of peace or happiness in my life. Again I found myself writing something I did not yet believe. I wrote that these, too, were times that I needed to be gentle with myself and affirm that I do indeed deserve to experience wonderful moments. I wrote: “My life has been filled with tremendous sorrow and unspeakable shame and humiliation which makes it even more imperative for me to experience the high points in life.” I concluded with: “Even when I don’t want to, I need to practice gentleness and compassion and resist self-destruction. I need to nurture the growth of my soul. The feelings of self-love will follow, at which point my spirit will flourish.” …Now if I could just make that happen!
After a good deal of writing, the next logical step was to go through a period of doing nothing at all. Meaning just that. I couldn’t go from hating myself to being nice to myself in one breath. First I had to stop all of my destructive behaviors, and this was difficult because I had a lot of them. During this time I thought in graphic detail about doing all sorts of mean and nasty things to myself. Sometimes the impulses and urges were so strong that I felt like I had to sit on my hands. I felt raw, edgy and just plain awful all the time—Something like going through a period of withdrawal. I just had to ride it out.
As I sit here writing now I realize just how far I still had to go once I had done all of that. Because the writing I did and the ‘withdrawal period’ I went through comprised only the framework for me. They were very intellectual. They concerned my thinking process and they addressed the cognitive changes I recognized and knew I had to make. But as I write about it now, I feel a certain coldness, a certain eerie disconnection from myself reminiscent of times past. Because in the things I just wrote I had not yet made the most vital connection of all: I had to somehow feel in my heart the gentleness and compassion I thought about in my head.
I sat down with pictures of myself that spanned my life. I started out with the ones of me as a little girl. Because my self-hate was still so intense, it was impossible for me to look at the picture, know that it was me, and not make some sort of cruel comment like, “what an ugly little brat.” So I decided to pretend it was a picture of another little girl, someone separate from myself. Only then could I look at it more objectively. I looked at the tiny little wrists and fingers, the shimmering long blond hair, the big blue eyes, and the sweet smile that turned the corners of that tiny mouth upward. I wondered what I would do if I knew her. I closed my eyes and imagined meeting this little girl somewhere. When I imagined her talking and laughing, I felt my own desire to cuddle her, take care of her, and love her. I imagined taking her out for ice cream, my heart melting from the smile that brightened her face. I imagined watching her chase butterflies in an open field under a bright blue sky, my spirit laughing at her playfulness. I imagined taking her out to watch fireflies at night, my soul delighting in the wonder dancing in her eyes. I imagined taking her to a playground, playing with her, and watching her play with other little children, my entire being softening in her presence.
I made all of the scenarios as detailed and vivid as possible. In each one I fell in love with this precious child. Little by little I integrated some of my history into the life of this little girl. Taking some of my most horrible memories, I pretended that they happened to her… and I felt devastated for her. Eventually I did understand that she was really me, and for the first time in my life the tears streaming down my face were tears of compassion for myself. I still remember that day clearly: I was sitting on the floor of my living room with the pictures spread out in front of me and a soul shattering pain filling all of me.
Once gentleness and compassion for myself came, I discovered that it does not necessarily remain constant. It tends to ebb and flow, and not necessarily as predictably as the tide. Although lately it has been nearly constant for me, and my return visits to self-hate have been brief, never involving destructive behavior of any kind. And when I am there (in self-hate) I recognize it as a habit of sorts… you see, it really is easier to hate myself and blame myself than it is to feel the pain that comes from surviving the kind of abuse I survived. It never takes long for me to listen to the soft, gentle voice within that urges me to be gentle and honor my process and myself—Something I am increasingly comfortable with as time goes on.
In the course of finding and holding onto compassion for myself, I had to challenge some harmful ingrained beliefs I held about myself. For example, ever since I could remember I had thought that I was worthless and beneath everyone else in the world. It was not a question of who was better than who, but rather I believed that as a person I had no value at all. I believed that I was not deserving of the same basic respect as any other human being. Through writing and therapy I explored how I had been taught that I was on earth only to serve others, that I was here to be subjected to the painful and whimsical manipulations of others, and most of all that I was neither allowed nor entitled to have feelings. I asked and tried to answer questions like: “How am I different from other people?” “What is it about me that makes people treat me in these hurtful ways?” and the hardest question of all, “Why?” They are questions that I have so far been unable to answer. The question “why?” continues to echo in my heart and gnaw at my spirit.
I could not shake the feeling that there was ‘something’ about me that made me a worthless person, that somehow I was different from everyone else. I had always blamed myself for all of the awful things that had happened to me. Perhaps partly because I did not want to believe that there were that many cruel people in the world, and partly because it was hard to believe that they all ended up in my life hurting me. It was so much more logical to think that it was something about me. I wanted so desperately for someone to tell me that it wasn’t me, that it wasn’t my fault. But I also knew that I would never believe it if someone really were to say that to me. I knew, with the very deepest sense of knowing there is, that this was something I would have to discover on my own. It was a discovery I made accidentally, while spending time with small children. Children have a certain magnetic force that draws me to them. Being with them makes my heart soar—and sometimes it makes my soul ache a bit, too. I have such an abundance of love and nurturing for them that flows so freely and naturally from me. I appreciate them more than I could ever capture with words. Being with them has taught me that every child is special, vulnerable, and greatly in need of love and protection. In time, I realized that I had been no different than any of them. As I spent time with these precious little ones, more painful questions arose as I saw only too clearly what it was that my own family threw away.
The more my compassion grew, the gentler I became, and the more I began to see myself as my own perpetrator. My mind and body had been through years of unspeakable abuse, and there I was subjecting it to my own destruction and self-loathing. I was no different than the people who had been hurting me so terribly my whole life…I was no better than the people I professed to hate. How hard it was to look at from this perspective. Because, you see, it is impossible to hurt something you love.
Yes, somehow it just happened in doing all of these things. I care about myself, I strive to be gentle with myself, and I try to follow my heart everyday. My heart has led me to ask all sorts of questions and try all sorts of things. With the combination of gentleness and compassion mixed with warrior spirit and perseverance, I was soon free from the prison of anorexia and bulimia. Totally and completely free—very much back to the way I was when I did not even know what a calorie was.
Following my heart has allowed me to reclaim pieces of myself I’d buried long ago, a process fraught with both joy and anguish. Sometimes I feel like parts of me are waking up after a long sleep. Battling anorexia and bulimia was the fight for my life. And one day,as I said just that, I sadly realized that I was the only one who ever thought my life was worth fighting for. But now I have moved on from my eating disorder and into my life. I still strive to honor myself while dancing lightly with my demons as I search for a newer kind of peace… The other day I came across something Adrienne Rich wrote that brought tears to my eyes as I thought, “yes, that is exactly it.” She wrote: “ I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.” But that is a story I will save for another day. For now, I urge you to find your voices…the voice of the eating disorder is so crippling and limiting. Above all be gentle with your own hearts…and fall in love with yourselves… the best is yet to be…