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8 Life Lessons — as Told by My Eating Disorder

Madeline Cardoza
a woman is looking at the sunset while standing on a balcony

I have learned a lot of life lessons in my battle with anorexia and bulimia, here is a comprehensive list:

1. People that show up for you are special, do what you can to be grateful.

Eating disorders are obsessive, secretive and irrational. They are all consuming, because they are driven by fear. This means that the motivation and energy required to maintain relationships may still exist, but not at the cost of the disorder. If you have friends who make an effort to be there for you, please understand that this is not the case for many. And those friends are likely doing all they can. I have been both people: the friend with the disorder, and the friend who loves someone with a disorder. When you aren’t doing well, it is usually a one-way relationship; and while that is not your fault, it is not their fault either. At my worst, I felt like my friends and family were trying to guilt-trip me, or secretly derail me from achieving a “better version of myself.” In hindsight, I know this was part of the problem. It was the voice of my disorder isolating me, pulling me away from anyone that might help. If a friend comes to you with concerns about your disorder, it is likely driven by love and genuine fear for your well-being.

Related:The Part of Eating Disorder Treatment We Don't Talk About

2. People will walk away from you at your worst, and that is not your fault.

Eating disorders of every kind are scary and most of the time they exist with other ailments. They change the way the brain fires, and that makes them hard to understand for someone who has not lived that reality. There are few people who will stand by you in the midst of self-destruction. If someone walks away from you, understand that it is not your fault. However, you do need a support system. Make sure someone you love and trust knows what you’re dealing with, wherever you are in your disorder or recovery. It can be hard to know when it’s time to get help. A support system can step in when you are no longer able to make rational decisions for your own health.

3. Your mental health is more important than achievement or commitment.

Related:5 Reasons You Might Be on the Verge of an Eating Disorder Relapse

Your mental health is more important than work, school, social outings, etc. This is true for any mental health struggle. Listen to yourself — you know the difference between nerves and hesitance, and panic or dysfunction. While it may be beneficial to challenge yourself occasionally, if it is hurting you more than helping you… consider opting out for your own good.

4. Nobody in the world cares about your appearance as much as you do; free yourself.

This is not to be misunderstood as a vanity statement. Eating disorders are about worth, love, control and many other issues that do not include public praise. Public praise might play a role in one’s disorder, but that’s because it is interpreted with worth. I don’t hear that you think I’m hot, I hear that you’re noticing me, I am achieving something, you like me more this way and I’m going to keep on going. Worth, love, control. Eating disorders can also be about self-harm, in which case, I’m doing this to myself out of disgust and self-hatred. I am all of these things, so let me just say this — this disorder will only make all of these horrible, undeserving feelings you have about yourself worse. It is not a fix, but it will kill you trying to convince you otherwise. Please get help before it takes you that far.

Related:When I Told My Friend Losing Weight Was a 'Silver Lining' to Her Illness

5. You cannot effectively help someone else until you help yourself.

This is not to say that you cannot help anyone at all, in any circumstance. I was engaged in group therapy sessions weekly for years, and some of the most significant strides in recovery were made in friendships. However, helping another individual with issues close to you can be detrimental to you and/or that person if you are not in a healthy place. If we aren’t careful, we may mistakenly place self-worth in our ability to help someone else, and that is not a solid foundation for recovery. Take care of you. You are worth the love and support you are trying to give to other people, too.

6. Recovery is not a one-time choice; it’s a choice you need to make daily.

Some days it will be a really hard choice, and some days you won’t have to think much of it at all. Remember why you decided to get better. Remember who you want to be and ask yourself what behaviors support that person, rather than the person your disorder wants you to be.

7. Empathy is not common sense, it is a gift.

The disorder you struggle with is life and death. You have faced thoughts and behaviors detrimental to your own existence and yet, here you are. You are strong and you have an ability to relate to others and their struggles. Use it. Help others. Reach out to someone if you notice behaviors that seem disordered. Be the person you wish you had before you were too far gone to listen to anyone.

8. You do not deserve the destruction and heartache that is your disorder.

Period. My disorder  — all of my struggles — have been driven by self-hatred. I understand feeling like this is what you deserve, or feeling like you are unlovable if you do not achieve the standard you have set for yourself. Please understand that this is not true, even though it feels so certain. You do not deserve what this does to your life. You have worth as you are, and that does not change according to anything: not numbers, not looks, not the size of your circle of friends or the ability to achieve any standards.

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