Losing the resentment

The news of my Salzburg Scholarship yesterday got me thinking about how my eating disorder has impacted my life. I never thought when I first got sick that this journey would last so long and result in so many changes in my life--like getting a scholarship to attend an international eating disorders conference.

Shortly after I was first diagnosed and began actually acknowledging that I had a "problem," I thought that my initial decision to lose five pounds was probably the worst I had ever made. Certainly, it was a doozy. But along with that thinking went the idea that if I just went to enough therapy, I could put this whole "problem" behind me and my life would go on as if nothing ever happened.

Time passed and this "problem" dragged on, but I still thought that I could put everything behind me. And as time continued to pass, I began to grow bitter about the fact that an increasing number of years of my life were being sucked up by this stupid eating disorder. I thought I should have been smarter than to get entangled with anorexia. I thought I wasn't working hard enough in therapy. I started to wonder why on earth I had been cursed with an illness that made me afraid to eat.

I still don't know exactly why I got sick. I know genetics had a lot to do with it. I know that it wasn't a misalignment of the planets, or a divine punishment, or a foregone conclusion (Girl in Modern American Succumbs to Pressure To Be Thin! OMG- STOP THE PRESSES!). But that still didn't stop me from being bitter about the whole experience. I wanted to erase anorexia from my life, get past it and never speak of it again and one day, it would be like a very bad dream, only with bone density scans every two years. I was truly and profoundly pissed off. Anorexia and hospitalizations and treatment and beeping heart monitors and near-death experiences was not in my plans. This was not how things were supposed to go. I was supposed to graduate from college, get a fellowship to become a PhD virologist and then I would work at the Centers for Disease Control while fighting Virus X amongst the rural poor of some famine-stricken African country.

I had it all planned out.

And then came the decision to exercise a little more, eat a little less, and shave off the five pounds I'd gained while studying abroad in Scotland, and all of my plans literally went down the toilet.

So yeah, I was seriously pissed.

I recanted a little bit- first I would get my Master's in Public Health, and then my PhD in Infectious Disease Epidemiology, and then I would go work for the CDC and fight Virus X. Except ED followed me to grad school (persistent little bastard) and I managed to get my MPH but had no energy or fight to pursue any more education. I was done.

ED then followed me into the job world (like I said, he's a persistent little bastard), and that's when I realized my life plans had been well and truly f*cked. There was no getting around this eating disorder. I thought I could stay slightly underweight and get on with things, but I'll let you guess how that little idea turned out. As my brain begins to wrap itself around the knowledge that my life has been utterly scrambled, the anger then starts to seethe. I was angry that therapists didn't whack me over the head with their magic wands. I was angry I hadn't gotten sicker and lost more weight, because if my life was going to pot, at least I could have done something decently. I got angry that many of my friends had managed to recover with minimal outside help, and here I was, still stuck and treatment bills still mounting. It wasn't fair.

No. It wasn't.

Yet it was because of the eating disorder that I first seriously began to write. It was because of the eating disorder, and the desperation with which I was seized, that I screwed up the courage to apply to a science writing program. It was because of the eating disorder that I quit my dreary corporate-esque job to heal and then begin freelance work full-time.

I'm not happy I got sick. It doesn't make me proud, and I still cringe when people ask me about my college years. For that matter, I probably always will. But--and this is perhaps where my thinking has shifted the most over the past few months--I would no longer just wipe those years from my life. If I wanted to be all happy and mushy and positive, I would call them "Learning Experiences," and wax poetic about how strong I learned I could be. But you know me better than that. This past decade was what it was. Yes, I had anorexia. Yes, it sucked. Yes, it totally screwed with the life plans I'd had since seventh grade when I made my first Punnett Square. Would I have been happy as a scientist? Quite possibly. Would I have ever discovered my real love of writing if I hadn't gotten sick? I don't know. I'm not happy I got sick. I'm never going to sling my arm around Anorexia's shoulder and say "Gee, I'm so happy we had this chance to get to know each other."

If I could stand in the shoes of 20-year-old Carrie and make that decision again about whether or not to start eating more healthfully, I would tell her not to do it. But I no longer harbor an immense resentment towards my younger self for getting sucked into anorexia and having such a difficult time finding her way out. It is what it is. My experience of an eating disorder and recovering from it have profoundly changed me. I'd have to erase over one-third of my life, and I'm not so sure I'm willing to do that.

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Cathy (UK) said...

Having only discovered your blog a few months ago I was unaware of the timeline of your anorexia nervosa (AN). The fact that the trigger was a plan to lose just 5 pounds, at age 20 yrs sounds so 'innocuous'. Yet, it was hugely powerful, with far-reaching consequences...

Without wishing to sound too inquisitive, may I ask whether you viewed losing those 5 pounds as 'a solution to a problem'? Were you unhappy with yourself and your life at the point you decided to lose weight?

I know of many people with AN who say that their life was difficult pre-AN and that when they started to lose weight they felt so good about themselves (their 'skill'/'mastery' at weight loss) that they continued to lose weight because however low their weight became weight loss still made them feel better.

My own experience of AN was that I felt deeply unhappy, anxious and depressed pre-AN. I never tried to lose weight; it happened inadvertently because I started to over-exercise to relieve stress. I starved for self punishment because I hated myself. I actually became frightened when my weight fell rapidly, yet I was frightened to eat more and exercise less. I was only 11 years old at the time.

I guess the question I am asking, is 'can weight loss alone trigger AN'? Or, does the person also need to have other problems in their life (perhaps which they are endeavouring to resolve through weight loss)?

Katie said...

Having had this on my mind this week anyway, I think coming to terms with the effect that a chronic illness has had on your life can be similar to being bereaved. You go through denial, anger, bargaining (I know that I kept falling into the trap of thinking that if I hung on to some ED behaviours and stayed a bit underweight I could strike a balance between being sick enough for it to keep my anxiety and depression under control but well enough to function - of course that didn't work!) and depression before hopefully accepting it. Not accepting the illness obviously, just getting rid of the resentment. I don't think I would erase my past either. It's mine, however difficult it was. I'm glad you got the chance to discover your love of writing :)

Amy said...

Because, well, because I'm me, I'm obsessed with the small decisions we make that tumble down through the years. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. (Like, for good, in high school, I took a friend to another friend's house where she met a friend of my other friend. A decade later, they've been married for a year.) But I like how, good or bad, those moments always seem to put us exactly where we need to be.

/nerdy discussion that usually happens when I talk about why I write creative nonfiction

Sarah said...

This is beautiful, Carrie.

I can definitely relate to this as someone who also resented the intrusion of a disorder I didn't want and didn't want to fight. However, as the years have passed and the intensity of each day's battles has diminished, I can look at those portions of my life with more perspective, like you show here, and point out positives and strengths that I have acquired because this was my story. My life plans changed, too, and so did my relationships.

Would I go back and erase the situations leading to my weight loss if I could? Yes. But it's my life. This is what my story entails, and where my path led. And if I'm honest, I feel like I have "gained" so much beyond weight in my recovery. If I had not lost the weight at 19, it would have come at another point because the MENTAL stuff was what I needed to tackle, and I'm so glad that it was addressed at a relatively "early" age for me so that I could be more free for the rest of my life.

Kim said...

This is something that has taken me a long time -- getting over the anger about being sick. I feel like I lost so many years, and it pisses me off. I was very ambitious and driven, and I became a zombie. I'm still recovering from this -- physically, emotionally, mentally. When I was in treatment, people had these "F#@k you" attitudes toward their eating disorder. I remember thinking that didn't feel authentic. I was grateful that anorexia made me feel okay at a time in my life when everything seemed chaotic. I just knew I had to move on, be healthier, etc. It's hard for me not to wonder what would have come of my life if I hadn't started restricting (it seemed so innocent at first!). But, anger isn't productive, certainly for someone like me who takes everything inside. I agree with Katie that it's sort of a mourning process. I'm still working on acceptance.

malpaz said...

oh,my. I seriously could have written this post. I have so much resentment toward my eating disorder and i thin kthe more i try and push it out of my life the harder it fights to get back in. I cant seem to let myself accept it and get past it. I totally relate when people ask about my "college years" because those were the depths of my ED. i have asked myself the "why's" and "what if's" but i know i cannot change the past.

it's like i woke up one morning hating the world, being pissed about what i had done and suffering some major depression because i finally realized not only what i had put myself through, but my family, friends and those who love me. i was so resentful and hateful.

Lou Lou said...

Hi carrie, I have been reading your blog for a while now, it is so brilliant. I really realised how much anger I hold towards my ED and myself when I finished reading this post. It helped me decide I want to be in peace, and let it go, and I don't think I would change anything, as I know that I wouldn't be who I am today without my experience with ED. I am going to let it go, and I know it will be a long road, but I am more ready to embrace the journey than ever.
thank you!

Carrie Arnold said...


No, that's not an intrusive question. I thought that having "healthier" habits and maybe just losing those couple pounds would make me happy. I didn't even have a scale at the time, though I had a basic estimate of what I weighed. I didn't even think I had lost any weight when my mom came and picked me up when the school term finished and freaked out. I had lost ~10 pounds (4 kg) and I remember going home and weighing myself because I didn't believe my mom that I had lost weight. Literally, I chalked up my looser-fitting clothes to the crap clothes dryer in our apartment (it was crap...) So I got on the scale, and I see the number, and I felt freaking elated. That feeling lasted a split second, and then I started to panic about what might happen if I gained the weight back. So I decided to lose more weight so I wouldn't have to worry about that...and two months later I was in the hospital.

At the time I started losing weight, I was tremendously depressed, to the point where both my mom and my best friend were corralling me into therapy. I was also going through a terrible anxiety phase, but I never recognized it as an actual anxiety disorder. I thought it was just me, being really stressed out. The interesting thing is that I made the connection between the anorexia and depression early on, but I've only just come to recognize the link between my eating disorder and my massive anxiety issues.

Eating Disorder Treatments said...

Eating disorders are devastating and life-threatening disorders. Choosing the right treatment facility is crucial in overcoming these disorders.
Thanks for sharing your experiences on the disorder here.

Jacee said...

Wow, that was beautiful. Thanks so much for posting. Such inspiration!

Elle said...

I stumbled across this post while sitting here bewildered myself. Having just completed an inpatient program I seem to be at a crossroads and not sure which way to turn...thank you for sharing this....I understand completely. I have so much anger but yet so much understanding of my eating disorder and how it has served me all these years.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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