A 20 Year Journey

“I’m going to transform myself and come home looking like a completely different person – beautiful, tan and in control of my life”. This was the thought that I had sitting in my grandmother’s living room on a sunny day in June. My parents had just left me in Poland for 2 ½ months to “learn Polish” and “soak up the culture”. They did this almost every year since I was 8. I was now 14. This was also the year that my 9 year old sister stayed along as well and I was suddenly thrust into coping with the usual challenge of communication and culture whilst being responsible for another human being.  By the end of that summer I was a pillar of control, tan, and fit and having lost a significant amount of weight. I was rewarded with my parents’ positive astonishment and admiration (and envy) from my friends. I had finally found something I could control amidst all the challenges thrown my way. 

This was the beginning of my eating disorder, a journey that I would travel for 20 years. The “honeymoon” of my anorexia was short-lived. By the end of year 1 of the journey, I had dropped so much weight, I was seeing a therapist once a week and my father was checking my breathing several times a night. Anorexia had taken over my thoughts, feelings and even my will. I simply couldn’t eat. I couldn’t give up the control. I couldn’t let the complexity of feelings and uncertainty back in my life.  I was barely 15.

As quickly as anorexia came, and for the same reasons, I began to eat. I ate because people wanted me to eat. I wanted to be admired, envied, and loved. I “recovered”… on the surface. I found that  the most evil thing about anorexia and recovery- the thing people don’t tell you is that after the admiration, attention, empathy and care subsides, you are left alone with the feelings, thoughts and voices telling you are fat and out of control. I couldn’t disappoint everyone and relapse- I couldn’t bear to see the concern in everyone’s faces and the disappointment in my parents. Binging and purging became a way of controlling the voices and not causing waves for anyone. This was only year 2, I was 16. 

My parents had grown weary of being constantly concerned about me so my latest endeavour did not earn me the love and attention that my anorexia did. Instead I was ostracized, belittled, spied on, whispered about, and blamed for our ruined home life. My erratic moods, uncontrollable anger and lying did not help the situation. The difference between anorexia and bulimia was that in anorexia I was sublimely in control and I communicated honestly with others through the slightness of my appearance. Cognitively I was at peace as I had limited capacity and it was consumed with calorie counting, planning and recording. I was disengaged from life’s complexity and uncertainty.

Bulimia carries with it the shame and guilt of deceiving everyone, concealing disgusting behaviours and the (perceived) complete loss of control. I quickly developed the “flight” mechanism- if someone got close enough to see something was wrong- I was gone. My disgusting behaviours were a necessary evil in order to cope with the uncertainty of relationships and the disappointment of failure. I moved from city to city, job to job, flatmate to flatmate armed with my little secret. I didn’t respect people’s things, values or views because that would require engagement thus possible disappointment. I lived a lie and only I knew the truth but everyone believed me. I was invited to parties because I would say things others wouldn’t, I didn’t care. I was admired for taking risks others wouldn’t - advancing my career, moving to NYC, making increasing amount of money.  On the surface I was a tough career woman with her life under control. Reality was that I was spending most of my money on food for binging and purging and I was staying home from work to rejuvenate the strength to face the world again. 

The turning point came in year 15 when I met my boyfriend. As expected I was terrified of him knowing my secret but secretly hoped that a change of lifestyle (living with him and moving to England) would fix me. It did not. I found SYEDA and thus began the final bend on my journey. 

I realise that at this point it would be nice for me to say that my boyfriend and I embraced recovery and the love and support I got helped me on my feet and let me run. This was not completely true. My recovery was not like I thought.  It was not a straight line trajectory from bad to good. It was a series of starts and stops – my enthusiastic engagement, followed by my certainty that I was well, only to fall backwards and admit I need more help. SYEDA was there through every step. Unlike everything and everyone there were no judgements or expectations. I could engage with SYEDA when I needed to.

In year 19 of the journey I learned my final and possibly hardest lesson. I learned how my eating disorder can hurt a loved one(s) and do irreparable damage to my relationship. My boyfriend had stood with me throughout my recovery but the sacrifices he had to make and symptoms of the Bulimia has broken trust and mutual respect between us. I had my final challenge.

I thank him as his distrust made me realise who I was doing this for. It made me whole. I had to not only recover but I had to understand that my eating disorder “used me”. It made me distrustful, angry and distant but that these are still things I must be accountable for. I had to accept- not dismiss- the hurt that I caused as this part of me too. It was when I accepted these things and ostensibly embraced my eating disorder I felt true strength. I knew that I had done this for me and for my next 20 years. 

Thank you to SYEDA, St. Georges, and Jackie for saving my life and giving me the strength to live my new one as a whole person. 

-    Monika Wojtanowicz, 2016