Living Recovery: The Illusion of Control

by R.

The second I realized that I didn’t need to constantly be in control, my relationship with my body improved dramatically.

Thank you to R. for sharing her story. Before you read it, please note that she shares detailed information about her experience with Bulimia Nervosa. Please consider your own health in choosing to read about her recovery journey. 

Control. That was the only sensation I craved. Not to be skinny or ‘beautiful’, not to look like a Runway model, not to fit into a particularly difficult pair of jeans. And not to torture myself, as the one person I had confided in seemed to be suggesting.

All I wanted was the reassurance that my body was mine, and that I could choose what I wanted to do with it. I couldn’t control what people said to me or thought of me or did to me, what the weather would be like, what the next day would hold. The uncertainty scared me, but I quickly realized that unpredictability had to be taken as the norm of life. That said, I could control what went in and out of my body.

The realization first lead to a rush of adrenaline and strength—I felt invincible, like I could take on whatever hardship the world had to throw at me. It was like I was protected by a glass shield: I could see everything happening outside and was powerless to change it, but I was in charge of what happened in my own bubble. Despite the physical trauma, I was content.

But slowly, insidiously, cracks began to appear in my glass shield, exposing me to reality in the most humiliating ways possible. A ray of sunlight that would burn my eye, a shard of glass that would poke my skin. I knew that one day, my illusion would shatter—that my bubble would burst, and that I would be destroyed.

Bulimia nervosa is a devastating illness to live with. It is addictive, like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, but has a much greater societal stigma attached to it. It is a difficult illness to deal with, and even more difficult to hide. During my darkest stages, I became someone I wouldn’t have recognized before the illness hit: withdrawn, hopeless, empty, and worst of all, deceitful. I became a master manipulator, coming up with ingenious lies and excuses even I started to believe.

Why are there so many candy wrappers in your closet? Oh, my trashcan was full the day after Halloween so I stashed the wrappers at the back of my closet and forgot all about them. Sorry!

How is your pocket money already over? I gave you a month’s worth of money! Come on mom, don’t you want me to do well in school? I bought the cutest notebooks and planners for the school year—watch me get all A’s!

Why did you spend so long in the bathroom? I was getting concerned! Oh, please don’t worry about me. There was some cake stuck in my teeth and I’m terrified of getting a cavity and having to go to the dentist. Sorry, I can be pretty neurotic about dental hygiene.

Well, I guess there were a couple unintentional truths I would spout out. I was terrified of going to my dentist, because I knew that she would notice something very, very amiss. And somehow, despite my mind-numbing internal turmoil, I did manage to pull off near-perfect grades. I still don’t entirely understand how, but I believe that it all boils down to my perfectionistic nature, which in itself boiled down to my need—actually, not need—desperation to control.

I had always been perfectionistic in nature, but my desire to control every aspect of my body came about when I was fifteen. I had been sexually assaulted one month prior, and sincerely believed that my body didn’t belong to me—after all, how could it, when two men could strip away my autonomy, leave me entirely powerless, and choose what to do with my body in a traumatic hour of brutality?

In the month immediately following the assault, I alternated between feeling helpless, feeling ‘impure’, and feeling isolated. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents—or anyone, for that matter; and as the days stretched to weeks stretched to months, telling anyone what had happened to me seemed too big of an ordeal. I just couldn’t.

So I turned my mesh of complicated, miserable feelings to myself.

I hate to say it, but somehow, my eating disorder gave me a sense of empowerment I had lacked for that month. I was doing awful things to my body, sure, but at least I was doing them. Genetically speaking, my stomach couldn’t hold a lot of food—often people would accuse me of dieting, but I was only eating until I was satisfied.

That was why eating huge quantities of food was an alien, unbearable experience—to my mind and to my body. I would eat until I was uncomfortably full, stuffing myself with chocolate bars, bowls of cereal, cheese on toast, bagels, ice-cream. Binging would keep my emotions at bay—but of course, only temporarily. Then would come the guilt—the debilitating, horrified guilt. I would wait a bit, wait until the house was reasonably empty so that no one would suspect a thing, and then hurry to the bathroom and vomit. But through the agony that comes with forcing food out of your body, the nauseating tastes, sounds and smells, I found some bizarre form of solace. It was weak, it was destructive, but it was there. And I hung on to it like it was my lifeline.

And the worst part is, I knew that it was seeping away any life I had in me.

Even now, a part of me is terrified that I will seep back into my old methods of coping. My eating disorder lasted many months, almost a year—and my secret, greatest victory ever is pulling myself out of it. The process was long and painful. I found a new will to live in the March of my junior year, and it took me several months after that to get out of my previous mindset. The exhaustion did end up taking a toll on my mind and body, and I missed the last month of my junior year. To the rest of the world, my leave of absence was because of anxiety and depression—which wasn’t entirely untrue. The real reason, however, stayed with me.

Even now, at 19, I wish I could say that I’ve found a healthy means of reasserting control over my life. I wish I could say that every eating disorder story has a happy ending. Even though I wasn’t bulimic my senior year of high school, I ended up regularly resorting to self-harm to deal with the stress of schoolwork and college applications, my turbulent social life, and the whirlwind that was my mind. Even though I wasn’t bulimic, I was still abusing my body and inflicting pain upon myself—again, in a desperate attempt to establish some control in all the chaos and unhappiness.

But upon graduating from high school, something clicked. As I started seeking out career advice from different sources, I made a mental distinction: there were those who knew what they wanted to do straight out of high school and were still doing it, and there were those whose life had taken multiple turns, leading them into avenues they had never considered before and continuing to surprise them. I had always considered the former path to be ideal—but after talking to those who fell in the latter category, I realized that… maybe some unpredictability, some surprises here and there was a healthy, empowering thing. The realization extended far beyond my career goals—it was only an analogy. Maybe my life didn’t have to be perfect. Maybe I didn’t have to be in control all the time.

That revelation was a turning point for me. The second I realized that I didn’t need to constantly be in control, my relationship with my body improved dramatically. However, the revelation came with confusion—so I turned to the internet for guidance, where I discovered self-love and body positivity. I used the summer before college to find healthier means of coping with stress, anxiety, and unhappiness, which included journaling and yoga.

Even though my story seems to have a happy ending on paper, I still have a strained relationship with food. I have had panic attacks over eating one extra slice of pizza. I have had my heart crawl to my throat because the flu was making me nauseous—and because the sensations reminded me too much of one of the darkest periods of my life. Even now, any mention of sexual assault or rape can lead to my mind shutting down entirely. And on the ‘anniversary’ of my rape, it takes multiple attempts, buckets of tears, and every inch of my willpower to drag myself out of bed and function like a normal human being.

Life is hard, but coming to love and respect my body was a major step in my recovery. I am by no means completely recovered, but am getting stronger by the day. It takes sweat, tears, and conscious effort; it is a series of weekly, daily, hourly battles. I know I’ll lose some battles along the way, but I’ve come to accept that—as long as I win the war.