“Ava, Sophia, and Emma were hanging out again without me. I saw it on their Instagram stories… But that’s ok. I planned to workout today, which means I don’t have time to go anyway.” I wrote in my diary, “Besides, I’m too tired to go socializing with people.”
That was two years ago. I was deep in my eating disorder (ED) and had a low desire to socialize with people. My ED tricked me into believing that I liked to be alone because I was anti-social, even though the real cause was a lack of energy from not eating enough. Indeed, my ED was a liar that made me suffer for almost every moment that I was awake – yet at the same time, it was the most comforting thing that I had known during my first year in the United States.
I decided to attend high school in the United States because I was fascinated by its multiculturalism. Back at home in China, my favorite activity to do before bed was making up imaginary conversations that I was going to have with my future friends from all over the world. I couldn’t wait to share things about my cultural identity with them. However, a few months after I became an actual freshman in high school, I realized that I couldn’t make any real friends. The reason, ironically, was that I felt uncomfortable and ashamed for having a different cultural background.
It’s not that the people at my school were mean to me. In fact, they were very welcoming. For example, at the beginning of high school, some girls invited me to sit with them for lunch and welcomed me to join their friend group. I made friends quickly, but I always felt awkward when I was with them and found I couldn’t relate to many of their experiences because I didn’t have an American childhood as they did. We were different in many ways.
We were interested in different things. I remember that one day during lunch, all of my friends cracked up over a joke about a TV show that they all grew up watching. I found nothing funny about it because I didn’t even know what the show is about. Still, I faked laughing because I didn’t want to appear different. Besides the cultural challenges, I felt the new environment that I was trying to fit into resisted my intrusion. My friends seemed to know each other already before I joined the friend group, which made me realize even more how different I was.
I later learned that transitioning to a new environment can be difficult for everyone. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this back then. I was disappointed with myself because I felt that I was the only one who struggled with social life. I also wanted to change myself to be more similar to my friends. The realization that real friends will always accept me for who I am didn’t come until much later.
At that time, I needed to feel a sense of belonging to alleviate the discomfort that the new environment brought me. I needed to feel successful because I was filled with self-blame and self-doubt. I needed an identity because I lost mine in the process of changing myself.
My eating disorder gave me all of them. When my friends praised me for having the “willpower” to exercise almost every day, I felt proud of myself; I felt accepted. When I was able to starve myself the whole day to eat below a certain amount of calories, I felt a sense of achievement. I earned the new identity of “the healthiest one in our grade,” which I desperately needed because I’d lost myself. The temporary relief that my ED gave me, however, came at the cost of being completely consumed with thoughts about food and deteriorated physical health. Still, I couldn’t let my ED go because I was afraid of facing the person that I would be without it.
Fortunately (and unfortunately), I was hospitalized on the day of my 16th birthday. Treatment saved my life, but I had to leave school for the rest of the year. For the first time, I wished that I hadn’t had my eating disorder, because it deprived me of education. Education was so important to me that I studied whenever I could in the treatment center.
It was through treatment that I realized that my eating disorder is just like a drug; it can make me feel better temporarily but miserable in the long term. I finally decided to let it go completely after a conversation with my therapist.
We were talking about values. I told her that nothing is more important than education, family, and gratitude to me. The realization that comes after this was mind-blowing: my ED is against all of my values. It not only made me leave school but also made my parents – the two people that I’m the most grateful for – leave their jobs temporarily to go to treatment with me. My ED blinded me from my values so that I would choose it instead of everything else that matters to me. “To combat it, you need to always remind yourself of your values and focus on the bigger picture,” my therapist told me.
This, of course, is easier said than done. My ED voice didn’t go away at the flick of a switch, nor does my mind automatically remind me of my values each time an ED thought pops up. What’s more, I worried about losing friends for showing who I truly am rather than the identity given by my eating disorder. However, I told myself that with 7 billion people in this world, there’s got to be someone who wants to be my friend. And that’s exactly what happened. I found new friends who I feel accepted and cared about me. I no longer have to pretend to be who I am not because my new friends like me for being myself.
The more I practice combating my ED thoughts with reminders of my values, the more natural it becomes. Now, whenever my ED urges me to engage in harmful behaviors, I pause and ask myself: “Would you risk your education for your eating disorder? Is being thin more important than your physical and mental health? Think about the bigger picture!”
I know that when I’m 65 years old, I want to look back at a life driven by my values, not a life spent counting calories and feeling anxious about my next exercise. I always ask myself this question, and now I want to ask you: Would your 65 years old self be happy with the way that you’re living your life right now?
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
About the Author: Alison Qiu is a student who is passionate about advocacy for mental health awareness. She was born in China and currently lives in Massachusetts. Having previously struggled with anorexia, she now writes blog posts to help others who share similar experiences.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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