Photo: Courtesy of Marissa LaRocca
From the time I was 18 years old to about my senior year of college, I struggled with my own form of anorexia and bulimia. There are a number of stigmas surrounding eating disorders such that they are a “choice” made by young girls who are feeble-minded and following the lead of celebrities and Instagram models. When I was younger, I thought eating disorders only happened to girly girls who cared too much about their image and read too many issues of teen magazines. I was never one of those girls. But shortly after graduating high school, I began starving myself (eventually purging, as well), because I felt hungry for so many things I could not yet define.
A decade later, I’ve just published my first book, Starving In Search of Me (Mango, Feb 2018), a memoir and self-help book on overcoming anorexia and bulimia, and finding self-acceptance in the modern world. In the process of writing my book, I spent a great deal of time meditating and reflecting on this question: why did I hurt myself?
“But at the root of it all, my eating disorder was a coping mechanism I used to distract myself from a deep and painful void I felt inside.”
I could glorify my eating disorder and say I was on an existential quest to understand the limits of my body and mind, and this was certainly a part of it. I had a strong interest in Eastern Philosophy, particularly theories on craving and attachment, and the idea that I could transcend to some state of nirvana through self-discipline. But at the root of it all, my eating disorder was a coping mechanism I used to distract myself from a deep and painful void I felt inside. As it turns out, what appeared to be a food disorder really had nothing to do with food at all – it was only a distraction to push away my real issues having to do with low self-worth, internalized shame, social anxiety, and feeling like I didn’t fit in (I’m too perceptive for my own good and as a result, I’ve always been incredibly self-conscious).
Throughout all of my school years, I never knew which table to sit at in the cafeteria, both literally and metaphorically. Come college, I still didn’t know how to navigate the social “scene” and felt overwhelmed by the pressure to assume an identity before I really knew who I was. I was not yet equipped with the tools to nurture myself, nor did I have the courage to make my needs known to others, and so I clung to very deliberate rituals that had predictable outcomes… like starving myself. All the while I was dodging calories, purging, and compulsively exercising, I was actually just trying to protect myself from a reality that felt dangerous and unsafe.
As I unraveled more and more of these layers throughout the process of writing Starving In Search of Me, I began to think more openly about addiction and mental illness as a whole. I began to wonder: to what extent are disorders actually “disorders” and to what extent are they doorways to helping us understand the truth about our lives? Perhaps at the root of addiction is the refusal to acknowledge and permit certain feelings – feelings that, if witnessed, have the power to free their sufferers. Perhaps the suffering is even a valuable and necessary part of the journey to healing.
“I’ve started making more choices that make me happy, I’ve stopped caring as much what other people think, and I’ve gained self-confidence. As a result, I no longer feel the urge to play with my food.”
I’ll be the first to admit that what’s unknown is often scarier than what’s familiar, even when what’s familiar is killing you. That is why people remain stuck in abusive relationships and addictions, and it’s why I remained stuck for as long as I did.
For addicts and people with a fragile sense of who they are, oftentimes continuing to go through the motions of what is familiar is just easier than taking a risk or creating a new opportunity. However, I believe that healing begins with acknowledging our pain and choosing to face it – when we have the courage to stop running and “look the monster in the face,” we open ourselves up to a powerfully transformative experience.
I am happy to say that today, I no longer struggle with an eating disorder, or with any other form of addiction or self-harm. While I’m still a work in progress like anyone else, in the past decade I’ve developed an amount of self-awareness and self-respect that makes it feel impossible to want to hurt myself in any way. Don’t get me wrong; even after thirty-one years on this planet, I still don’t feel fully adjusted to this world. And yet, I have found much healthier ways to cope with all the strangeness. Today, I recognize that it’s my own responsibility to take care of myself, and with the realization of this responsibility comes a great deal of power. So I’ve put in the work of getting to know myself intimately well. I’ve created a practice around being present in my body every day, which has enabled me to become more in touch with my truth and more trusting of my intuition. Slowly but surely, I’ve developed the courage to express vulnerability, communicate my needs, and stand up for myself. I’ve started making more choices that make me happy, I’ve stopped caring as much what other people think, and I’ve gained self-confidence. As a result, I no longer feel the urge to play with my food.
“Like a toxic parasite, self-destruction cares only about being fed.”
My recovery didn’t happen overnight, and my healing journey has been by no means linear. It’s been a long, crooked walk complete with relapses and backwards steps. But in the grand scheme of recovering from an eating disorder, even the backwards steps are giant leaps forward, in that they teach you to forgive yourself, and to surrender to the inevitable truth that you are not perfect or invincible.
The way I see it now, suffering is not always the same as pain. Sometimes suffering is a choice that comes from avoiding pain, or avoiding life. Self-destructing is easy. It neglects to ask questions. Like a toxic parasite, self-destruction cares only about being fed. It doesn’t care who you are or what you need. Self-love, on the other hand, is all about curiosity and asking questions. When you love yourself, you check in with yourself regularly. You are mindful about where you invest your energy, you pay attention to all the things that have the ability to nourish or deplete you, and you make choices that are productive rather than destructive to your wellbeing.
The process of coming to love myself has been an art, not a science. It’s taken courage, patience, experimentation, and having compassion for myself throughout it all. I will never be the master of my own life, just as you will be never be the master of yours – we are all constantly growing and evolving. But I will embrace my life as a beautiful gift; I will let it bloom. I’ll acknowledge that there is so much value in taking responsibility for the things for which I can take responsibility. And there is so much freedom in surrendering to the rest. Enlightenment is not having the discipline to escape our bodies; it’s having the courage to be present within them.
Marissa LaRocca is an award-winning writer, speaker, and LGBTQ activist. She is passionate about helping adolescents and young adults embrace their individuality, challenge social expectations, and overcome challenges related to eating disorders, self-acceptance, gender and sexuality, body image, and mental health.