I am a generally cheerful person. I look on the bright side. I have faith that things will work out. I am also independent. I work through things on my own. I have confidence in my abilities. To some degree these are part of my natural personality, and I am grateful. But in the context of my early life, these assets also became liabilities. I learned to minimize my experiences of pain, both emotional and physical, in order to minimize my need to rely on anyone else for help. This has resulted in lifelong experiences of going to the emergency room because I ignored physical pain until it was severe, and complicated grief due to denial of the significance of loss.
Related to my eating disorder, this tendency surfaces in thoughts like, “I didn’t have a ‘real’ eating disorder,” or “It couldn’t have been that bad because I got over it.”
With counseling and lots of inner work I have learned to be cognizant of and to honor all of my feelings, physical and emotional, including those that cannot be “solved.” I recognize the value in my own lived experiences, even if my experience or memories are different from others. I have a partner who accepts my interpretation of events, even if he perceives them differently. And I have learned that the time to take headache medicine is when I think I am getting a migraine, not when I am lying in the fetal position in the closet.
But I don’t completely trust myself when it comes to memories of my eating disorder. In addition to the anosognosia factor in play at the time (the inability to recognize your own severity), I was hiding my behaviors. I have no contemporary corroboration from family and friends, because no one knew what I was doing in secret. Anything that was observable was admired, like strict dieting and exercise, nothing that would have raised red flags at the time. And in the early part of my career, dietitians in recovery was not a concept. I didn’t lie about my experience, I just didn’t bring it up. Since no one knew what had happened, it became easier to forget.
Eventually I told my story in a public local forum, and then in a national magazine. I felt so free and powerful owning my experience and not being ashamed. Then minimization took the stage: Am I exaggerating what really happened? I felt scared, like I couldn’t trust my own memory. So I opened my journals from that time and there was the truth. The horrible truth behind the fear: If I had a problem worth writing about in a magazine, then I had a problem worth getting help for. And I didn’t. And I suffered. Alone. And scared. And that is what my defense mechanism had been trying to protect me from.
The good news is that I don’t need that protection any more. I am confident that my experience was real regardless of what anyone else observed or thinks. Most importantly it was mine. I have used my experience to propel me in life. To determine to be real, and honest, with others and myself. To help individuals who are struggling and get them the support that I needed and didn’t receive. To assure them that their story is real, and important, and that there is hope.
Written By: Jessica Setnick, Registered Dietitian, Survivor and Encourager