Mary walks into an in-patient facility for a 12-week intensive treatment program for Anorexia Nervosa. Her frail frame disappears under layers of clothing, which cover the marks on her arms from the times she has hurt herself. Her cheeks are sunken. A doctor has informed Mary's parents that not only is she significantly underweight, but her organs are at risk for permanent damage. The scant amount of food she consumes is forcefully brought back up. It isn't hard to see that Mary is sick.
Beth's skin isn't as bright as it used to be and her eyes have a subtle shade beneath them. She's started regularly carrying a sweater because of how cold she often is. Her energy level has noticeably decreased, but it hasn't slowed her down thanks to multiple cups of coffee throughout the day. Some friends praise her for her recent weight loss. Others are beginning to express concern that she looks ill. The doctor confirms that Beth has lost significant weight, but doesn't seemed bothered by the final number on the scale as it is not yet "underweight". He fails to make an association between Beth's weight and her recent hair loss. She's thriving at work though and she was recently engaged. Life continues as usual. She eats three "meals" a day and snacks every hour. However, those meals are drastically shrinking in size and "snacking" is a joke. She can recall every item she's consumed in the last week. She'll eventually turn to a nutritionist for help regarding the hair loss. They'll talk about Beth's history with food and weight. She'll answer questions regarding how she feels when she eats. Before the meeting ends, Beth will be told she has an eating disorder not otherwise specified. She doesn't look like Mary. But she is sick.
I was Beth. This was my story.
"You have an eating disorder" she said.
"It's called an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. It doesn't meet the criteria of Anorexoria or Bullimia. You can get past this. It will take hard work."
"How long will it take?"
"Probably a year. Here's a food journal I'd like you to work on before next week. It would be great if we could start meeting once a week."
It was three months before I returned.
Health occurs on a continuum. On one end, there is healthy and well. On the other, seriously ill. When you are traveling down that line, moving around in the grey, at what point do you say "I need help"? With Mary, the need for help was clear. In my case, the point of need was blurry.
It could be an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, drug use, self-harm, an addiction...or maybe it's something else - like an abusive relationship. In the walk from healthy to dramatically unhealthy, there stretches a grey road full of deceit and justifications. It's a walk covered with lies of "it's not that bad" or "it could be a lot worse.""I've got it under control" is a favorite motto.
Dark clouds of confusion settle in, misleading travelers until they stumble so far that they fall deep into a pit on the other end. Few people sprint down that road and dive-in head first. Many spend years slipping down the miles of "in-between", unaware of how far they are going. The darkness is deep. The evil is thick. It's a place that whispers death.
A hands reaches out of the dark and grabs the arm of the walker. "You are not well. And I'm not letting go."
I chose to focus on the positive comments about my weight loss. I felt accomplished. Organized. Strong. The occasional "you look sick" didn't bother me. At first. Around Christmas a woman I respect came across a busy room to talk to me. I smiled and she started to speak. "You look emaciated. Are you okay?" That one stung a little more, but I continued on. The compliments waned. Then came the hand that jerked me awake.
I sat down at my desk one morning and received a call on my work phone. It was a man who worked in another department. "Hey. I just wanted to check on you. Because you look really sick. And I wanted to make sure you were okay." I could barely breathe. "I'm fine. I haven't felt well recently, but I really am doing fine. Thank you." I hung up the phone and cried. An hour later I called back the nutritionist and made an appointment.
I didn't need inpatient treatment. I met with a nutritionist and counselor every other week for a couple months and then moved to seeing them just once a month. It had been easy to initially tell myself that it could be worse, so I didn't need help. I was wrong.
Today I am healthy. Grateful. Awake.
If you are walking down that grey road in-between...beginning to slip into depression...hurting yourself "just on occasion"...showing signs of an addiction...continuing in a relationship that has turned abusive...living in a story that looks like mine did...even just continuing in a pattern of self-destructive choices for your life...hear the voices around you that are calling for you to wake up. Don't wait until the pit is so deep and dark that crawling out requires putting your entire life on hold. Reach out now. Take hold of the arms that are extended to you today.
My dad is a painting contractor and he told me something interesting yesterday. He said that the biggest mistake people make with their homes is that they wait until the whole house is falling apart and needs repair before they call for help. If they would take care of the little problems along the way, making adjustments as needed, they could avoid significant trouble later.
Don't wait. Turn around. Tend to your health now. Ask for help. See a counselor. Tell a friend. Get support.
Life out of the grey is beautiful, clear and free. Run to it.
Extra resources: Are you wondering about counseling? Nicole Unice has listed some great points to consider. Also, my sister has created a beautiful blog about recovery that is relevant for everyone, regardless of the struggle.