The Contest

As a card-carrying perfectionist (and the card must be replaced if the card gets dirty or bent), I have often viewed life as a competition. There is The Best, and there is everyone else. My lifelong goal has been to be The Best at whatever it was--not out of a healthy sense of competition, but more because I viewed myself as a failure if I wasn't The Best. My constant striving was fueled by a desire to stop hating myself and finally feel like I could measure up to everyone else.

The anorexia only amplified this thinking process. Losing weight, conquering my need for food, rest, sleep, and affection, was the way I found to "win" the competition. Anorexia made me feel special. It was my trump card. Giving up my eating disorder meant giving up this one way I had of feeling special, of being The Best. As long as I ate less, weighed less, and exercised more, then at least I could be The Best at that. Right? Too bad this contest is so tremendously self-destructive.

Although I've learned in the past few years that this is a very distorted and disordered way of thinking--a way of thinking that preceded the eating disorder by decades--it's still very much there and very much present. Reading my college's alumni magazine is an exercise in self-loathing. The accomplishments of my classmates make me almost feel ill when I look at my life. Now, I can't even say "Well, at least I'm eating less then they are!" Because I'm almost certainly not.

My metabolism has once again gone through the roof. It calmed down somewhat during my Europe trip and yet again with my stomach bug, but now that I'm back in my work routine at the bakery, my metabolic rate has gone into overdrive. It seems I am hungry all the time. Adding an Ensure Plus each day is starting to seem like a good idea (it's quick, easy, and convenient). All of this means I am eating more than anyone I know.

This brings me right back to the contest, and how I defined being The Best for so long as eating the least. Now, I seem to be The Worst, which is pretty much a living hell for someone who has perfectionism. I feel like a failure because I cannot seem to resist my hunger and I feel like I should. I don't want to restrict as much as I just don't want to eat more than my minimum meal plan. Of course, eating less than what my body needs is restricting, but I never said an eating disorder was logical.

I don't always want to feel I need to participate in the contest--after all, Lily Allen said that whoever wins the rat race is still a rat--but I don't know how else to feel okay with myself without these concrete measures. I have no sense of myself except in relation to others. I only know I'm smart because people tell me I'm smart, not because I have an innate sense of my intelligence. It goes along with my body dysmorphia, and how I'm always comparing my size to others', in large part because I really don't have a sense of what size I am and what my body looks like. I can't do that with my life, either. I always have this profound sense of inadequacy, and this was mediated, temporarily, by the eating disorder. It quelled the anxieties of not measuring up, of not being good enough.

I know that I need to stop defining myself in relation to others. And not just any "others," but those who have achieved the most and done the most and make me feel like utter crap when I think about what my life is and what it has done. I know I need to compare me to, well, ME and to hell with everyone else. I'm following my dream to be a writer, which I know darn well isn't going to put me on a financial par with most of my classmates (although I've never been much worried about the financial yardstick, thankfully). I'm starting from scratch and busting my buns, and I need to start giving myself credit for overcoming a difficult and lethal illness.

The question is: how? How and where do I start?


Fellow OCD Sufferer said...

As usual, I love your writing! Whether you are The Best, The Worst, or somewhere in between, I appreciate your ability to put into words the tricky ways the perfectionist, anorexic, and OCD mind works! It's like you somehow read my mind to tangibly pin down the thoughts that have been floating around in my head for years!

I love this part:

"Losing weight, conquering my need for food, rest, sleep, and affection, was the way I found to 'win' the competition."

This is exactly how I felt during my brief, but acute period of anorexia, and more recently, it is how I have felt and often still feel in my latest and most severe battle with OCD.

Even as the original reason for my excessive washing and avoidance faded away, I felt the need to continue to self-sacrifice, to see if I could conquer my desperate desire to NOT have to do long and complicated rituals. In some sort of twisted way, I wanted to be "the best" at being OCD by seeing how many tortuous rituals I could force myself to do. Even now, when I hear about others' OCD symptoms, I feel a relentless tug to prove to myself that I can endure equal suffering, that I too, can force myself to perform such time-consuming and exhausting rituals. Like you said, too bad this sort of contest "is so tremendously self-destructive." I can't win and live the life I want to live at the same time. Whether it's forcing myself to wash for hours on end, depriving myself of food, or something else altogether, trying to prove to myself in this way that I am "special" is a game that can't be won. As I get better, I have to continue to fight against this desire to compare myself to others and the urge to see how far I can push myself in self-destructive ways.

Good for you for going for what you want! You certainly do deserve credit for overcoming a difficult and life-threatening illness. I wish you the best in your writing endeavors, and I hope that no matter what, choosing this path brings you satisfaction because you are doing what YOU want rather than measuring yourself by others' standards and expectations. said...

i'm leaving this comment while falling asleep in bed, so, excuse the lack of coherence....

but I wanted to say that, a question I always come back to while working on giving up my ED is "but how will I evaluate myself and my life without calorie math?" I mean, I totally agree that calorie math is a pretty dumb way of evaluating oneself. And, I've come to believe that that evaluation system is too destructive to continue to try to use.... but I'm left without a "self-evalutation system." I always try to explain this and people say "why do you need to evaluate yourself?" sometimes I think I make progress in figuring out a new system for self-evaluation, sometimes I just live without a system for now..... even something a/b the word "system" here sounds eating disordered....

and, lately, i've been starting to feel okay about myself and (sometimes) even okay about my body. But I new feeling that surprises me in its positivity (it's not always here; but it pays me a visit a lot more often than it ever did before)... I have found myself feeling self accepting even w/o an achievement or a measure or a calorie sum/difference.... and so I wonder "how do I trust that I really can feel okay about myself? Can I trust this part of me that says i dont' need to agonize over how good of a person i am or am not? Can I trust this positive feeling a/b myself even when it doesn't coem from concrete data?"

i just wanted to share; i related to you in this post a lot!

(i def have perfectionistic tendencies in a big way... but not when it comes to reading over my writing and capitalizing "i" lol - sorry 'bout that!)

Cathy (UK) said...

Hi Carrie, I'm sorry you often view yourself so negatively when you are, in fact, so very successful in so many ways...

You write: "I know I need to compare me to, well, ME and to hell with everyone else."

You are correct. There will always be others who are better at various things than we are, but the important point is that the fact that we're not 'the best' doesn't mean that by default we're a failure! The black or white thinking is as self destructive as is the perfectionism.

I sort of understand what you are writing here, at least in theory. In practice my own experiences of AN were rather different. I took no pride in being much thinner than everyone else, because my thinness was unwanted. It was an inevitable consequence of behaviours (restriction + over-exercise) I 'used' to control anxiety. My goal was not to be thin, but to feel I could cope with anxiety that plagued me. My anxiety was unrelated to fearing failure or fatness. Rather, it stemmed from a fear of the apparent chaos and unpredictability of the world. The rituals and routines of AN made my life feel less chaotic.

I also wanted to point out that people who may appear very successful have their problems and insecurities too. This is probably why many people (especially women) seem to enjoy reading all the vacuous cr*p about 'celebrities' in those silly gossip magazines. I don't 'get' those magazines myself, but they seem to be very popular, and there must be a reason for it.

charlotte bevan uk said...

OK Carrie. We are all plagued by insecurities. We all feel jealous at times of other people's successes and lives. Do you know what? Those people feel jealous of us as well. I know a few "golden couples" who seem to have it all but they don't. They may be able to "throw money at the problem" but they still have the problem in the first place. There is no point me comparing myself to them because I have chosen not to get on that particular hamster wheel.

You are in the process of following your dream, having overcome the most lethal mental illness there is and, at the same time, reaching out to hundreds of us, both sufferers and carers, and giving us all hope.

You are the person whom I recommend every time to new parents who come to me for help. Read Carrie's blog, I say, and then you might just begin to understand what is going on in your child's head.

Because you are the only sufferer whose words I have read (and I have read a lot of others) without wanting to bash them over the head with a blunt metal object! You tell it like it is.

You are the best at translating for others what it feels like, in a clear, practical and pragmatic way, without sounding totally self-absorbed. It is a gift that very few have and you have it in spades.

We have never met and I don't care a damn what you look like. I love you for your passion and compassion, your wit and your wisdom and your honesty and integrity and the fact that you are human, not perfection.

That means that I can relate to you because you, like me, have flaws and you don't pretend that you haven't. You are very precious to me.



A:) said...

This is me as well.

I am grieving for my ED. I constantly read blogs of individuals who are so much sicker and I feel like AN's worst most disgusting fucking failure.

Similarly, when I look at what my friends from university are doing this summer or my current GPA, it just doesn't seem to be good enough.

I measure myself by BMI and GPA. I compare my lowest BMI to others and feel inadequate. Why didn't I get lower? Why didn't I take my MCAT this summer?

Right now I fulfill neither of my expectations in school or AN. How do I measure myself and my worth if not through numerical measures?

I am literally lost without these things.


Angela Elain Gambrel said...

You start by remembering the you without your eating disorder - smart, strong, intelligent, a writer and a very good person.

Then remember how you felt about yourself with your eating disorder. You may think you felt like The Best, but did you really? Was the number on the scale ever good enough? Was the amount of exercise ever enough? Did you really ever feel like you were thin enough? Remember how crappy you felt much of the time? And perhaps most importantly, remember the energy it took to be in the midst of your eating disorder? It took away from friends and family, your writing and future goals and simply being you - a wonderful, fantastic person!

No matter what, you will probably be the type to compare yourself to others (I know I am and it causes me much grief at times.) But forget about that. Look at what you have accomplished and what you hope to accomplish, and know that you can have the life you dream of and deserve - but not with the eating disorder.


Mary McClain said...

Thank you for leaving this post today -- what perfect timing! I have recently acknowledged that I have an eating disorder, specifically anorexia, and I really realted to your response today.

Almost every line I was nodding my head in agreement and starting to realize that my self-worth and esteem is dependent on others.

Thank you for opening my eyes and for sharing your words and struggles as you work towards recovery.

Katie said...

I just found your blog love it. This why or part of why I got into my ED and why I want to stay there. I'm in the middle of a relapse and NO I don't look underweight or sick... But I've almost passed out and I shake constantly I cry myself to sleep at night when I eat a cookie YET I am not skinny enough to be considered and anorexia patient *rolls eyes*

I am a perfectionist I want to be the best, I want to be good enough for someone. I always said I'd date when, I'd get this job if... The reality is that I AM good enough or should be! I love how you write! I keep reading your back blogs.

Anonymous said...


I really relate to what you have written in this post. Throughout my life, I think that I also have had the need to be The Best at pretty much everything.

You wrote, "Reading my college's alumni magazine is an exercise in self-loathing. The accomplishments of my classmates make me almost feel ill when I look at my life." I get sucked into the trap of comparing myself to others as well and it really doesn't help my self-esteem. And I wonder why I continue to compare when I know it doesn't make me feel good!!!!

Recently, I was talking to a counsellor about how I wasn't feeling good about one of the hobbies I like to do, and how I felt like I wasn't good in comparison to others. And I remember saying to the counsellor, 'Why does everything need to be a competition???!!'

I think that perfectionism can lead us to a very rigid place, one in which we are stuck in black and white thinking: it's either pefect or it's a failure. Consequently, this can lead us to not even trying because we don't want to risk *not* being perfect and don't want to be a failure.

There's a book that I would like to read and I'm not sure if you've heard of it - it's called The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life by Tal Ben-Shahar. Take a look if you get the chance.

Thanks for this post - like I said, I really relate.

Anonymous said...

Hi Carrie,

Also a survivor of AN here and I can indentify with every word in your post.

Perfectionism is a terrible trap that prevents you from seeing who and where you really are and then prevents you from living. I still work on this problem, more consciously now because I see how it has hurt my life.

BTW, I don't even receive my alumni mag anymore. Moved years ago, didn't update my address. A copy makes its way to my parents' house once in a while and my mom has instructions to toss it into recycling. Let old news I don't need be reborn as something new. : )

Anonymous said...

Interesting. So often the girls I've been in treatment with ... as well as myself ... have been envious of those that whose metablosisms shoot through the roof. Yes, it can be uncomfortable and a chore to comply with what the body is demanding, but it was often touted as almost an eating diosrdered badge of honor to need a higher meal plan. There was a sense of being special there too by requiring more food just as there was a similar feeling of being special by restricting. And for those that whose bodies never went into overdrive, there was an added sense of failure. Basically with an eating disorder, there is no way of feeling good. The eating disorder and can take and twist everything to make sure the outcome is you feeling as crummy about yourself as possible.

Anonymous said...

EDs are so hard to give up just for this very reason. The quest to be perfect drives me into the chaos that I ran from in the beginning. And what makes matters worse is when I feel like I am "failing" in recovery!

I failed to fend off the illness in the first place, then I failed at restricting (hence binging behavior), now I sometimes feel that 100% recovered should have happened on day one of my counselor's visit...

As if I'm not good at anything and pretty much sucky in everything-total black/white thinking.

So perfection is far far far off and truly something that none of us can reach. EVER. It is dealing with this that I struggle with daily.

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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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