The founders of Project HEAL, Liana Rosenman and Kristina Saffran, met while undergoing treatment for anorexia nervosa. These two girls helped each other to reach full recovery and decided to help others achieve it as well. They founded Project HEAL to raise money for others suffering with eating disorders who want to recover.
A few weeks ago I could easily count the number of people in my life who knew about my struggle with anorexia and depression. That is no longer the case, because last week I released a video with my story to the world.
How I Conquered My Eating Disorder Recovery | Hear Me Roar - YouTube
For years, I was ashamed and embarrassed about my struggles with mental illness. I hid that piece of my life from everyone around me for fear of what they would think. I thought if I shared my struggles I would be viewed as weak and unstable. Most people didn’t know about that piece of my life and I had every intention of keeping it that way.
I spent my teenage years consumed with feelings of not being worthy, deserving, or good enough. I had convinced myself that I needed to be perfect, so I set impossible standards for myself. I wanted to fit this ideal I had created in my mind, and I nearly let that kill me. While most people my age were worrying about first loves, graduating high school and other teenage concerns, I was worrying about how many calories I had consumed or how much weight I had gained. I was stuck in a world that revolved around numbers. I spent years going through the same cycle of relapse, recovery, relapse, recovery, on and on. It consumed my life for years.
When I finally got to a place where I was able to hold a job and lead what would be called a more “normal” life, I never once considered telling people about these struggles. These aren’t things you can just waltz into an interview and share with people. Mental illness is often misunderstood, and I was scared of being labeled a certain way. So I kept my past to myself and that seemed to be working.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to land a job at Jerusalem U, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of film to educate and strengthen the connection of young Jews to Israel and their Jewish identity.
Although I built close friendships at work, until a few months ago only one coworker of mine knew about my struggles with mental illness. And I’ll tell you a little secret, that coworker happens to also be my mom.
But then something changed. A few months ago, I was casting for a short video series and we hit a wall. We were producing a series about personal journeys from despair toward empowerment and self-love. The idea was to feature people with a range of stories, touching on different issues. Right off the bat we had a few topics we knew we wanted to cover, one being mental illness.
This immediately struck a chord with me because of my own personal experience with mental illness. I knew that I was going to put everything I had into this series. We had an opportunity to make a difference, and I was excited.
We started casting for the series, but we were struggling to find someone to go on camera and discuss their struggles with mental illness publicly. I couldn’t blame anyone for making that decision — I was doing the same thing. After hitting a few dead ends, we began wondering if we should give up on the mental illness angle and look for another story instead. It was an important topic to talk about, but we couldn’t tell a story we didn’t have.
As we discussed this issue, I would think to myself, “I could talk about this topic,” but I kept pushing the thought away. I had worked so hard at hiding that piece of myself, and I wasn’t about to get on camera and tell my story now. And then one night I jolted awake at two in the morning with the realization that I had to tell my story. The opportunity to make a difference was right in front of me, and I was going to look past it because I was scared.
I realized that if I let my fear of being judged keep me from telling my story, I was no better than all the people who made me feel I needed to hide that part of myself. The next morning I called the director and told him that I was going to tell my story on camera.
For so long I had feared telling people about my past, but as soon as I started, I realized how wrong I was. They didn’t judge me or perceive me as weak. Learning about my struggles made me stronger in their eyes. I was so sure I was going to be judged that I didn’t know how to react to all the positive feedback I was getting. I know that without their support, I would not have been able to follow through with telling my story on camera.
When the day came to film my story, I felt ready. I’m a naturally shy person and I was definitely out of my comfort zone. But as soon as it was over I knew I had made the right decision.
My goal in sharing my story was to help other people know they’re not alone. It’s hard to share our struggles and stories, but if we don’t, people going through similar experiences might never understand that others have walked this path, and it can get better.
My struggles and my past are a part of me. Obviously it sucks that I struggled with mental illness, but it made me into the person I am, and that is something I can live with. I hate when people tell me that what they went through is nothing compared to me. Anyone who is able to overcome their struggles is a hero in my eyes. The scope of your struggles isn’t what’s important. If you overcame the cards you were dealt, you should be proud of yourself.
Life isn’t always fair and unfortunately many people learn that the hard way. I was one of those people. I spent years living in a dark place and thinking about how unfair life was. It was not a way to live. If all you see is the bad, you won’t ever be happy. It’s not always easy to find the good, but it’s so important to remind yourself that there is good in the world, even if it’s just the small things. At the end of every day, I try to think of two good things that happened that day. They can be anything — I smiled at someone, I liked my outfit, I had fun, I love my family, anything. It forces me to remember that there is so much good, even when it feels like everything is bad. I hope that by sharing my story I can help other people remember that there is good out there, and that they are not alone.
About the Author: Gabi is a survivor of an eating disorder, a pastry chef extraordinaire, and a film producer at Jerusalem U, where she is thrilled to be creating movies that make a difference in the world.
A little over three years ago, my whole world changed. My parents were separated, living in CT, while I️ was in DC, working at the American Psychological Association. I️ usually texted my family every day, and always heard from my mom every few days at least. One day I️ tried calling her, but no answer – it went straight to voicemail. I was worried, but I️ thought her phone must have died so I️ tried to call later. Voicemail again. I️ called the next day. No response. I️ became worried, anxious, and didn’t know what to do. I said I️ would wait one more day and sure enough, the next day, no answer. I️ panicked. I️ left my desk and started calling everyone in my family, but no one had heard from her for several days.
I️ asked my dad and my sister to go to mom’s apartment to check on her. I was worried about what they would find. Her door was unlocked, car in the driveway, but her computer was gone. She was missing. I️ almost lost it. Where was my mom and was she OK? I️ immediately thought the worst. Little did I️ know that just a few months later we would receive a diagnosis that, in my mind, is worse than I️ ever could have imagined. In the months leading up to my mom’s diagnosis, she was evicted, in the hospital, and finally ended up in a woman’s shelter. It was so sad to watch my mom bounce around from facility to facility with no where to call home. We knew she was sick, but no one had a clue what was wrong. Thankfully, after several weeks, a social worker at the woman’s shelter started asking the right questions, and they were finally able to determine a diagnosis that made sense, and she was able to get the appropriate care.
Three years ago, at the age of 59, my dear mom was diagnosed with Pick’s disease, an extremely rare form of frontal temporal dementia. Unlike other forms of dementia, Pick’s disease is different. You see, it attacks its victims at a very young age. My mom was only 59 when she was diagnosed, but in retrospect, it started several years earlier, perhaps even when I️ was in middle school, nearly 10 years ago. This form of dementia changes people. My mom, like me, was once a very emotional person. She was the most creative person I’ve ever known. She’s intelligent, brave, and always stood up for what is right. But now, I don’t know who she is. She has no emotional affect. Hardly a smile. No laughs. No tears. Just a blank demeanor. Each time I️ visit her I️ just pray that she remembers me. Who was this woman? Her eyes are lost. Is she in there? Can she hear me? Can she understand me?
Her body is shutting down. She has lost most of her vocabulary and her main means of communication is humming. It is without a doubt the saddest and most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever witnessed. There are so many things I️ wish I️ could tell her – so many things I️ wish I️ could say – and so many things I️ wish she could understand. How much I️ love her. How much I️ looked up to her. How much I️ miss her. How much I️ took her for granted. How much I️ wish, more than anything, I️ could hear her talk about her passions, her stories, her life. There are so many questions I️ didn’t get to ask. So many things I️ never knew. And now, there’s no hope.
Her life is trapped beneath her empty eyes, and all I️ can do is sit with her, and hug her, and hope that deep down, she knows that I’m right there with her. I️ hope she isn’t scared and I️ hope that she knows how much we love her. She was, she is, an amazing woman and I’m so glad I️ get to call her Mom. I cannot help but think of all things that we will never get to do together, and it makes me so sad. She won’t be there to help me pick out a wedding dress. She won’t be there, and I mean really be there, for my wedding. We will never be able to talk about parenting when I have kids. She will never get to babysit or give me advice. I will never be able to go to her when I need her. And this is so hard.
I miss her and all I want is to spend time with her, and I mean true quality time. This is SO tough. I️ think this would be tough for anyone. But for me, going through recovery from anorexia, it often feels impossible. Every time I️ went home to see my mom, I️ would relapse or slip or slide. I️ would stop eating because the pain in my heart was just too unbearable and I️ couldn’t cope with it. The only way I️ knew how to cope with the sadness and anger and hatred was through restricting. And it would send me down a spiral that could last days, weeks, even months.
But now, I’m in recovery. And I️ have to use every ounce of strength I️ have to stay in recovery, even while watching my mom drift away. I’m sure my mom always had a hunch that I️ had anorexia, but she never knew for certain. And sometimes I️ just wish she knew, so that she could be proud of hard I’m working to be better- to get better. And sometimes, I’m glad she never had to see the depths of my eating disorder because I️ cannot imagine the pain of a mother seeing her daughter starve herself.
But I️ just wish she could be proud of me. I️ wish she could tell me she loves me, no matter my weight, no matter my size. I️ wish she could tell me that she thinks I’m beautiful or that she thinks I’m hard-working, or that she thinks I’m brave. I️ so desperately wish to hear these words from her, but I️ know I️ never will. So I️ have to reach inside myself and remember all the wonderful memories I️ have of her. Every laugh. Every smile. Every story. I️ know deep down that she loves me. She told me a thousand times. But I️ took it for granted. I️ know she’s lost now, but I️ know that if she could, she would tell me everything I️ needed to hear. I’m not sure how many of you are in this situation – probably not many. But just know that if you are going through recovery while faced with heartbreaking situations, you are not alone. My friend recently told me that I️ have to chose recovery every minute, every hour, every day. No matter what obstacles come across my path, I️ have to stay strong and fight for my recovery. Every day is a new beginning. But you don’t need to wait for tomorrow to start over. Fight for your life because no one else can do it for you. Recovery is so worth it, and I️ hope that you can find the strength to recover, no matter what tries to stop you. And Mom, I️ love you. More than you will ever know.
About the Author: Lizzie Janniello is a Project HEAL treatment grant recipient. She graduated from Hillsdale College with a degree in Psychology in 2014. Lizzie lived in DC for several years, working at the American Psychological Association and a large research firm. She recently moved to Cleveland, OH and wants, more than anything, to help others recover from their eating disorders.
I work in a medical practice. I’m a medical assistant. I greet the patients, escort them to their exam rooms, get all of the information, and take their vitals. When we get to the “I’m just going to have you step on the scale so I can get your weight” part, there is always a pit in my stomach. I have not had one person that is eager or happy to oblige with the task I suggested. It brings down the entire mood of the person, eating disorder or not.
It’s a terrible feeling for the patient, but also for me because I get it. We allow this silly number to have so much power over us that it literally can make or break someone’s day. I have gotten used to dealing with the patient’s comments, because well, we have no choice. I need to get their weight, it’s part of my job, it’s protocol. I try to make jokes to make light of the situation, and normally we get through the awkward moment fairly quickly. The part I’ll never get used to is the patient’s that say to me “If I looked like you I wouldn’t have a problem getting on the scale.” I grit my teeth, and I smile, because what else can I do?
I can’t tell them that I was a slave to the scale, I spent my days not eating, or getting rid of every little morsel of food I did let myself indulge in. I did this because I didn’t want to look like me. I was depressed, I was sad, I was trapped in my own body and I was a slave to the scale and my eating disorder. One hospitalization and treatment center after another, hostage by my own mind for 12 years. They don’t know this though, how could they? I’m short, and at my healthy body weight I am on the smaller side, but I’m healthy. I’m strong, I’m courageous and I beat a disease that almost killed me.
I’m proud of the way I look because it took me a long time to get to that point, and you know what? If you were me, you wouldn’t have a problem getting on the scale because I don’t have a scale, I don’t weigh myself because I am more than a number and I will never let a day be ruined by a number. I will never be a hostage to a number and I am damn proud of that. Recovery has given me my life back, and it has given me so much more than that as well. A new outlook on life, a new power. A new passion for helping people especially those struggling just like I was. I know these patients don’t mean any harm by what they are saying, but I guess my feeling is, you can never be too careful with blunt statements. Everybody is fighting their own battle and demons, think before you speak, bring each other up. Spread love, not hate, and especially not germs.
About the Author: Brenna Briggs is a Project HEAL Boston Chapter volunteer.
In honor of my official discharge from my (almost) 4 year journey of being in all different levels of treatment, I want to repost an article I wrote for an awesome online magazine, “Be Wise”, started by my beautiful friend and role model, Ceciley Hallman.
I spent the majority of my high school experience in treatment for my eating disorder. Strong people fight cancer. Brave people fight in war. Educated people fight within a justice system. I fight with myself. I fight a battle inside my head every day. It is not easy, nor enjoyable, and it is certainly not a choice. A common phrase one might here is, “You are your own worst critic.” Analyzing the world around us, why shouldn’t we be harsh on ourselves?
Women and men are bombarded with guidelines the world has laid out for us. For example, a common expectation is to look like we always have everything together. Mothers are supposed to be holding the world on their shoulders, smiling, without breaking a sweat. Men are coached to show no sign of weakness. One’s manhood is threatened when they choose to open up to someone. The world has also given men and women guidelines on what the ideal body looks like. Men are supposed to be built and muscular, when women need to be skinny yet curvy. Women are taught they need make up to look beautiful… the list goes on and on. So how does that impact our lives?
Step back and ask yourself: What do I see when I look in the mirror? Am I happy? Am I comfortable in my own skin? Do I immediately find a quality that I wish I could change about myself?
I started nitpicking about myself in the fourth grade. People started commenting on my body and I became very self-conscious at a very young age. I started talking about diets and was worried about exercising. As I got older, those thoughts turned into my reality. Through my high school years, I went through many trials which I didn’t know how to handle. Some people cope by drugs or drinking, which turns into an addiction. I coped through eating disorder behaviors, and it became my addiction. It took me going to treatment to realize how unhappy I was.
Often I listen to the seconds of the clock ticking away… physically I think I am alone until I listen extra closely. I hear a voice. A clear voice who knows exactly what I am thinking. It is a voice who I am so familiar with that I don’t even notice that it is around. It is a voice whom I can find being my best friend and advocate, but it is also a voice who is my worst nightmare. My frenemy is the voice in my head.
When I went away to residential treatment, I felt stuck for a long time. I was just sitting there, following the rules, not speaking to anyone, and keeping to myself. When I had therapy appointments, the first little while, I kept things very vague; until my therapist asked me, “Do you love yourself?” The question brought me speechless. I ended up just shaking my head, no. She continued on, “Do you believe you have self-worth?” To be honest, I had no idea what she meant. The dictionary defines self-worth as “the sense of one’s own value or worth as a person.” Your self-worth is commonly used as a synonym for self-esteem; but I have found it goes much deeper than that. Self-esteem is usually measured through one’s actions, when self-worth is valuing your own inherit worth as a person. It is about who you are, not what you do. My therapist told me that I needed to find what makes me worth it as a person, before I could love myself; so the journey of finding my worth began.
The first step to building self-worth is to stop comparing ourselves to the world and being overly critical about every move we make. Easier said than done, I know. To be able to conquer the challenge of caring what everyone thinks, we need to challenge our “critical inner voice”. With these internalized conversations of thoughts, or “inner voices”, it undermines our self-worth and may cause destructive behaviors and may make you feel worst about yourself. Dr. Lisa Firestone explained in her article “7 Reasons Most People Are Afraid of Love:” We all have a “critical inner voice,” which acts like a cruel coach inside our heads that tells us we are worthless or undeserving of happiness. This coach is shaped from painful childhood experiences and critical attitudes we were exposed to early in life as well as feelings our parents had about themselves. While these attitudes can be hurtful, over time, they have become engrained in us. As adults, we may fail to see them as an enemy, instead accepting their destructive point of view as our own. As we challenge these critical thoughts, we will be able to see who we are and what we are capable of.
Find self-compassion for yourself. Self-compassion is the practice of treating yourself with the same kindness and compassion as you would treat a friend. I often resisted having self-compassion because I didn’t want to be conceded. WRONG. That was just an excuse my critical inner voice told me. Having self-compassion is a form of self-care. I learned three steps that helped me to have self-compassion.
1) Acknowledge and notice your suffering.
2) Be kind and caring in response to suffering.
3) Remember that imperfection is part of being human and something we all share.
By challenging your inner voice and stopping to compare yourself to others, you can begin the process of recognizing your own self-worth. You can push the way you see yourself from just an average, or below average, to a worthwhile person in the world. Developing my self-worth is something I work on every day.
This is my battle, and it is not easy, nor does it happen overnight; but it has truly changed my life. You do not know how your subconscious or present thoughts about yourself, truly affect your and your everyday choices and lifestyle. You can’t control many things in your life, but you can surly control your thoughts. It is hard to dig up uncomfortable feelings about yourself, and it may bring up a lot of emotions; but I promise you, it will change your life, because it has changed mine. Don’t let that inner voice stop you from becoming the best person that you can be. Don’t let others bring you down, because my friend, you are worth it.
About the Author: Blogger – NYC Based – Trying My Best In Recovery, Project HEAL volunteer. Follow her journey @leilani_mcintosh
Nine months ago, I stepped into a room knowing that for the first time, I was going to sit face to face with other people diagnosed with eating disorders. I knew that throughout my life I must have met many people struggling in the same ways as me, but it was never an acknowledged fact. All I had ever heard about support groups or treatment facilities were how “triggering” they could be, so it was with great faith, and quite a great deal of fear, that I joined the Project HEAL program. I was also skeptical about the mentorship program. Having lived with a restrictive eating disorder for over 20 years, the thought of true recovery seemed altogether impossible.
I am elated to say that after only a week as a Project HEAL mentee, I knew that recovery was not only possible, but was inevitable for me. My mentor, Jacqui, was an invaluable source of support, guidance and reassurance during the first few months of recovery. There was nothing I could say that she hadn’t heard, or felt herself. She introduced me to Carolyn Costin’s 8 Keys book and workbook, which is filled with countless stories of recovery, and a clear roadmap to follow. Setting weekly goals that I shared with my mentor for behavior change and self-care was so important at the start of recovery.
However, I quickly learned that healing from an eating disorder is so much more than learning new behaviors; it is learning how to live. I never realized how isolated I felt my entire teenage and adult life until meeting other girls who had the same thoughts and fears, and often, similar personal histories that led to their eating disorders. Project HEAL brought me out of isolation and into a community of others who not only understood me; they accepted me wholly, without reservation, or shame.
I have made friends for life through the Project HEAL group. Every time I felt overwhelmed by the path ahead of me, my mentor or the support group would inevitably pull me out of my tough spot and reignite my recovery fire. While everyone recovering from an eating disorder ultimately has to do the work for themselves, I believe that my mentor and friends I met through Project HEAL helped me finally believe that I was worth the struggle. My life is now so much more than the cage I had constructed.
I will never forget my time as a Project HEAL mentee. I am committed to staying involved in Project HEAL. My greatest wish is to become a mentor myself in the future. I would recommend Project HEAL without reservation to anyone who is ready to open their hearts and minds to the possibility of freedom from a life of being “less”.
What is Communities of HEALing?
Communities of HEALing is a brand new pilot program, launched by Project HEAL in 2017, and currently being studied in partnership with Columbia University, designed to explore the ways that peer support and mentorship can help individuals to fully recover from an eating disorder. The program includes several separate components: weekly support groups in local communities, possible 1:1 mentorship for those newly out of treatment, other facilitated experiences, and in some cases social support in the form of group outings like going to a movie together!
Am I eligible to be a mentee?
Study participants must meet a specific set of eligibility criteria in order to participate. Participants must be between the ages of 14 and 45, have been discharged from treatment for your eating disorder at a higher level of care (hospitalization, residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient) in the last 6 months. All participants must also have a current treatment team. If you are interested in participating, these and other criteria will be assessed during a series of screening calls with the research team.
If you do not meet the eligibility criteria, we still want you to be involved! You can learn more about our local support groups, which are open to anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder, here. Please also feel free to reach out to us to learn about other volunteer opportunities.
How do I join?
If you are still interested in receiving mentorship through Communities of HEALing, and in participating in the study, the next step is to call the team at Columbia. Their staff will be able to assess whether or not your are eligible to participate, and answer any questions you may have about participation.
To express interest in participating in the study and receiving mentorship in your recovery, please call (646) 774-8066 and indicate that you are interested in participating in the Communities of HEALing study.
For as long as I can remember, I have considered myself an athlete. My parents tell jokes of how I went straight from crawling to running, I played soccer as soon as I was bigger than the ball, and I was a three-sport athlete all throughout high school. When I went off to college I immediately joined every intramural sports team I could find, and treated intramurals like division I sports.
Competition, athleticism, and an active lifestyle were all just engrained in who I was. When anorexia took over my life my sophomore year of college, in its cruel and wicked way, it used my competitive nature and love of sports to fuel the fire of my eating disorder. Soccer for fun became soccer for 5 hours. I started running as a way to give myself permission to eat. Sports and activity lost its fun and became a numbers game. I am now seven years into my fight with anorexia, and my relationship with exercise has been complicated throughout that time.
Since leaving residential treatment for the last time four years ago, I have been trying to figure out what healthy, recovered exercise looks like for me. About a year ago, my friend asked me to do a 15k race with her, and I decided to give running another try. After all, I was several years removed from treatment. Since my time in treatment I had struggled to stay in my weight range for any extended period of time, but I reasoned with myself that I had never strayed too far from my range… I was by and large leading a fairly normal recovered life—seeing my dietician and therapist every few weeks, still dealing with ED thoughts, but for the most part able to still hold it all together.
And so I ran. And I’ve been running ever since. I told myself that this time, running would be for fun. I wouldn’t worry about being the fastest, wouldn’t sign up for any huge races, wouldn’t make it something I “had” to do…I would run in a healthy, recovered way. But anorexia has a funny way of slipping in the back door when you aren’t looking, and convincing you things are fine when they really are not. If you have any experience with anorexia you will know that it is fueled by perfectionism and competition, and it was almost laughable that I thought that I would be able to “just run for fun”. Before I realized what was happening, things escalated. I meticulously tracked every mile I ran down to the second in MapMyRun, trying to convince myself that this was different than when I had meticulously tracked every calorie I ate.
Reality hit when I went to see my dietician, and once again my weight had dropped. I rationalized and whined and debated with her that running was a healthy coping mechanism for stress, and the weight loss was not related and was under control. Luckily, she has known me for seven years and knows when she is talking to me and when she is talking to my ED. So she dropped a bomb on me: “Quit the half marathon. Quit your “running goal”. And DELETE MAP MY RUN.” For me, a perfectionist, an obsessive goal setter who will finish whatever I start even if it kills me, her words were equivalent to asking me to cut a limb off.
I walked out of her office pissed off and not planning on listening to her. But then I happened to take a look at my half marathon training plan. It was color-coded, with little boxes to check off when I completed the run. It was one of those slap in the face moments where I instantly saw the hands of ED that had snuck in and once again twisted my love of exercise into an obsession without me even noticing. That day I deleted MapMyRun.
Today was my first run without the app. I decided to take a route I didn’t know so I wouldn’t know the mileage (which was difficult since I had nearly every route near my house mapped out to the tenth of a mile in my head). I purposely didn’t look at the clock when I left so I wouldn’t know how long I ran for, giving me no chance to estimate my pace. I ran slow, enjoying my music, looking around at the sights, taking whichever roads seemed scenic. And BOY was it both hard and incredible at the same time. I found myself freaking out, wondering if I was running “too slow”, or if the route I was taking was “too short.”
At the same time I found myself actually relaxing, enjoying the scenes, singing to the songs as I ran. I ran with ease, slowing down when my lungs got tired, taking a break when I needed one, turning back home when it felt right instead of when I had reached the “right” mileage. I have no idea how far I ran, how long I was gone, what my pace was, or what calories I burned. And as hard and as scary as that feels, it also feels incredibly freeing. If I am to reclaim exercise and my identity as an athlete, it needs to be purposefully separate from numbers.
Just like I had to retrain myself to forget the hundreds of calorie facts I had memorized for every food, every restaurant, every serving when I decided to choose recovery, I now have to retrain myself to forget the rules I have put in place about exercise and return to the pure joy that I used to find from movement, without the numbers, without the counting, without the guilt. Maybe I’ll take up yoga, or kick boxing, or go back to playing soccer. Or maybe I still will be able to be a runner, this time really in a recovered way. Only time will tell, but I know one thing is for sure—MapMyRun will never again find its way on my phone.
I am a warrior built from a million shattered pieces,
I am girl with a dirty and damaged core who clings to the hope of grace.
I am a daughter of laughs and love who cowers at the sounds of anger.
I am a fragile mended soul with just enough glue to hold it together,
But enough cracks that one push could make me crumble.
I am a preacher of forgiveness, believer in forgiveness, seeker of forgiveness.
I am a heart desperate for love but afraid it might leave.
I am a romantic who believes in happy endings but fear I might be naive.
I am a fighter battling demons that you can’t even see;
I run emotional marathons daily while you have the luxury of taking a break.
I believe that I am broken but also believe in healing,
I am fiercely independent, yet don’t want to have to be.
I accept my past and shake off my demons,
Even when others flaunt them in my face.
I am a half-grown, half-healed, half-brave shell of a girl who’s tired of life being a battle.
I dream of a world where I am normal and whole and not tired, but I know this is a fantasy.
But I am a warrior and I will fight on.
About the Author: Throughout my recovery process, writing is how I process my emotions, deal with my demons, and find the strength to keep fighting. I wrote this poem in year 8 of my battle with anorexia. I started writing when I was in a dark place, beaten down and feeling trapped in the narrative of past trauma. Writing it allowed me to remember to forgive myself and fight on.
You see, it is extremely easy for a perfectionist to fall into this trap of discrediting themselves for small things because of their grandiose nature. I mean, come on, their title says it all…PERFECTIONISTS, though obsessively detail oriented, do not think in small terms. Their whole self-endowed “life purpose” is to strive toward and achieve a momentous (often unattainable/unrealistic) goal. // i.e. to be successful, to be the most successful, to be the wealthiest, to be a genius, to be the most liked person on earth, to be known by all as kind, to be the a generous philanthropist, to be the most adventurous, to be the most attractive. to be perfect in some area or all areas of their life // The goals I listed, though, are more so character traits that must be quantified by actions and physical concrete achievements. And thus, perfectionists strive to prove themselves as the most (insert adjective here), by setting out to “win.” Perfectionists believe that they have not arrived until they achieve the most respected position in their field. They have not proven themselves until they have received the highest prestige or accolade. Until then–but quite frankly, NEVER–they will not see all of the small steps leading up to earning that Ph.D./M.D./Nobel Prize/CEO promotion/$1 million salary meaningful.
Okay, so thanks for bearing with me while I try to clear things up for you. I know the last paragraph was very dense and abstract, so I’m going to use my own life now as a concrete example.
From a very young age, I found my identity in academics (more on this and placing self-worth in external things in another blog post). It was something I excelled at and something I got true joy out of. Okay, fast-forward to high school/college. Everyone kept asking me, “So what are you going to be? What’s your major?” And all I heard was, “How are you going to prove yourself? How are you going to make your family proud?” What I said was, “I’m thinking of being a physician.” And what I said to myself was, “I have to go to medical school.”
Character trait being obsessed over: intelligent
Big goal to prove character trait: medical school –> physician
Motivations to prove character trait: fear, failure, low self-esteem, need for validation, not knowing who I truly am
Got it? It’s a lot to take in. Basically, on my darkest of perfectionist days, I tell myself I’m not good enough. And I will never be good enough unless I get into med school and become a physician and have “things” to my name. Anything else, any other “small” accomplishments until then are just boxes to check off.
Being valedictorian of my high school class
Getting straight A’s in college
Being a member of a research team studying memory and the brain
Volunteering at three world renowned hospitals
Being a University Scholar for the Class of 2018 (top 2% of the junior class when I was only technically a sophomore)
Completing a 168 hour nursing assistant course at community college
Creating a blog and posting really vulnerable content
Writing songs on the piano
Shadowing a physician during an 11 hour shift
Passing nursing assistant certification exam on the first attempt
Buying new running shoes and working out three times a week
Just physically putting one foot into a gym that used to be intimidating
I don’t mean to write some of these things to brag. I am writing them because I want to be 100% honest about how I’ve viewed my prior accomplishments. All of these things before recovery meant (or would have meant) absolutely nothing to me. I’ve taken so much for granted. Perfectionists expect so much of themselves and, what often times makes it worse is, they are able to meet their exceptionally demanding expectations. But they blow it off as nothing because, again, their optimal performance is expected. Every. Single. Time. Successes no longer exist when they are the norm. Instead, failure is the unwelcome/feared occasion that is the motivation to continue operating under the view that “success is normal,” and therefore, positives are disqualified.
Filling in boxes to Living a Full Life
Promise, I’m almost finished! Thank you so, so much for reading this far. I know I can be wordy, but let me tell you, I appreciate the time you’ve given me.
One of the most life-changing experiences in my recovery was seeing how empty my life was. Sure. I was filling boxes, but my life was not full. That’s because looking toward the sky blinded me from the beauty down here on earth. What I lacked was gratitude. I admit it, my goals were selfish. I wasn’t thinking of other people when I was thinking medical school. I was thinking about how I can bolster my resume. And that upset me greatly. I was embarrassed by my ulterior motives and wanted desperately to remove myself from the situation. I told myself that I didn’t deserve to be a physician if it was merely a selfish endeavor. I would instead settle for physician assistant, but that, too, has robbed me of understanding and has shown me how extreme my mindset has manifested itself. Removing yourself from external temptations does not show growth in character, just as running away from your fears does not make you brave. The only way I’ve found to remedy selfishness and anxiety is gratitude for the small things, and so I’ve decided to celebrate the small successes.
Waking up in the morning
Being able to smile and laugh
Having friends who accept all of my imperfections
Walking on my own
Having the money to buy frozen yogurt
Making my grandma laugh
Being able to make patients lives more comfortable
Being able to afford an education and the teachers who believe in me
The opportunities to fail or succeed
Having my health
Knowing that we were all created in our own, flawed ways for a reason
Reasons to Celebrate, Reasons to Serve
The question I’m beginning to ask is not, “what is there to celebrate,” but “why aren’t I celebrating?” And the best way I’ve found to celebrate, is to serve others. Once you find your reasons, I encourage you to share them with others. Help them to see that there is always a reason to celebrate because really, what’s a party if it’s only you?
But if you’re feeling stuck, try the exercises that I did in this post.
Reflect on the character trait you’re obsessed over, the big goal you’ve designated to prove the character trait, and your motivations for proving this character trait to yourself and others
Qualify the positives by listing all of the things you achieved this week, no matter how small. You’re writing straight, objective facts here. No minimization or negative feelings. (Qualifying: I walked for 10 minutes today. vs. Disqualifying: I only walked for 10 minutes today but I should have ran for 20.)
Write down what you are grateful for, what makes you happy, and what you look forward to
Find ways to serve and celebrate with others; Enjoy your favorite food or activity; Create and share!
Alright, friends. That’s it for this blog post. I hope it helped convince you to celebrate your small successes, as well as continue to debunk any misconceptions of perfectionism. Feel free to share this post if you found it enlightening. And if you feel like you need someone to talk to or still have questions because you think I was completely incoherent, by all means, PLEASE message me!
Until the next post, celebrate!
About the Author: My name is Angelica Fei Li, and I am a recovering perfectionist. In the past, my hobbies included scrutinizing my entire existence and trying to live up to unattainable standards; however, I’ve recently decided that perfection and I just aren’t meant to be. Join me as I strive to become more self-aware and redefine “imperfection” by exploring my insecurities and pushing past my comfort zone…publicly.
Although every client is different, here are the five most frequent things we hear from anorexia patients at Columbus Park, together with our response:
1. “Why can’t I stop thinking about food?”
That’s what happens when your body is starving.
Chronic food deprivation and loss of body weight results in heightened interest in food. When your body weight drops below a comfortable set point range, the brain switches into starvation mode—metabolism slows and hunger signals pick up. This focus of the starved mind on food may lead to increased interest in food preparation (often for others, not oneself), obsessive planning of meals, extending eating experiences for long periods, reading about recipes, and/or looking at photos of food. Many describe this fixation on food as persistent and profoundly distressing. Weight restoration helps reverse these effects.
2. “My weight isn’t low enough; how can I be starving?”
Your body feels starved long before you look emaciated.
The popular image of anorexia and under-eating is that of someone emaciated. While some people do get to this point, most enter starvation mode at higher weights. Each of our bodies has a set point range (usually about a 5-7 pound range) it works to maintain. Set points vary by individual—based on genetics, lifestyle, height and weight as a child, and where the body was prior to the start of the eating disorder. Once weight falls below your set point, your body enters starvation mode.
3. “Why can’t I keep exercising a lot? It makes me feel calmer.”
Yes, exercise can be relaxing, but too much can impede your recovery.
Mammals who are in areas of famine show remarkable strength and single-minded focus to migrate to areas where food is more plentiful. There is some evidence to suggest a similar effect in those with anorexia; a kind of hyper energy even in the absence of adequate food. Exercise also stimulates the production of neurochemicals which serve as natural soothers.
4. “Why can’t I limit my diet to just healthy, clean foods?”
Is it really about health?
I’m all for healthy eating – but “healthy and clean” eating often gets taken to unhealthy extremes. When clients with anorexia frame healthy, clean eating as in the service of health, I remind them that this extreme restriction and rigidity has actually had the opposite impact; it has taken them to a dangerously unhealthy place (hair loss, poor circulation in extremities, slowed heart rate, loss of periods in women, and more). These clients typically require intensive medical oversight due to their compromised health – hardly a “healthy” place. It’s not really about a pursuit of health; it’s about taking eating habits that might be considered ideal or even virtuous to an extreme.
5. “Why can’t I get better without gaining weight?”
It’s not possible. Your body and mind simply cannot recover if you remain underweight and malnourished.
The consequences of maintaining a low weight include constant thoughts about food, low energy, avoidance of social situations, isolation, poor sleep, inability to focus, and obsessing about the number on the scale. Clients sometimes want to shed those un-pleasantries without actually gaining weight. It can’t be done; they are inseparable. Achieving a full and balanced life means restoring health and balance to your body. Most of our clients with anorexia notice that as they restore weight they feel better, not worse. Depression and anxiety symptoms remit along with obsessive food and body thoughts. They develop the kind of flexibility required to re-engage socially. Physically, they feel stronger, more energetic, and better able to concentrate.
Melissa Gerson, LCSW is the Founder and Clinical Director of Columbus Park, Manhattan’s leading outpatient center for the treatment of eating disorders. As a comprehensive outpatient resource for individuals of all ages, they offer individual therapy, targeted groups, daily supported meals and an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). Columbus Park uses the most effective, evidence-based treatments like Enhanced CBT and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to treat binge eating, emotional eating, bulimia, anorexia and other food or weight-related struggles. They track patient outcomes closely so they can speak concretely about their success in guiding our patients to recovery.