Often, we tend to focus on the negative aspects of having an eating disorder or other mental illness.
It (almost) destroyed my career. My relationships. My marriage. My life.
All of this is true. I am still rebuilding the trust and intimacy of family relationships. My marriage is over; we will be filing for divorce soon.
And I almost died from anorexia.
I’ve volunteered since I was a fourteen-year-old candy striper, working in an urban hospital cleaning out bed pans and reading to the patients. (I suppose that shows my age, huh?)
I continued in that vein during the early 1980s, sleeping in an unheated shanty to protest South Africa’s apartheid policies and participating in a college-based program that connected American and Soviet students to promote peace and understanding.
I went on to study psychology and volunteered at United Way, directing marginalized people to needed resources such as food pantries and shelters.
But was I really engaged?
I went back to my dorm room after the one night sleeping in the shanty, sleeping in my warm bed and taking a hot shower. I didn’t really understand what it was like to be an African living under apartheid.
I watched the fall of the Soviet Union, casually wondering where Lia, my pen pal, was during all the turmoil. I received one letter from her describing the upheaval. Then no more.
I didn’t really give it much thought.
Am I by nature a crass person? No. But I was young and naive, and it is hard to connect on a meaningful level to circumstances that you can’t relate to personally.
All that changed after I developed anorexia.
It is perhaps odd that I knew very little about eating disorders, in spite of the fact I have a degree in psychology, before I developed one.
Sure, I read a few books and seen a few ABC Movies-of-the-Week. I vaguely remembered that Jane Fonda struggled with bulimia and Karen Carpenter died from complications related to anorexia nervosa.
But there’s nothing like experiencing something to create empathy.
A fellow blogger recently asked: Why are you grateful for your eating disorder?
I am grateful because:
Anorexia has taught me to appreciate life.
Anorexia has taught me to be more compassionate and forgiving of others.
Anorexia has taught me — yes! — to appreciate taking care of myself, and that includes feeding myself, getting enough sleep, and finding time to relax.
Anorexia has taught me that I am strong and can overcome anything.
Anorexia has taught me that I don’t have to be perfect — something I’ve struggled with for decades.
I know it may seem odd that a deadly illness has taught me such life-giving lessons. Simply put, I would not be the person I am today without having struggled with anorexia.
And I’m finally learning that person is a pretty awesome being.