A Picture's Worth a Thousand Lies

By Thea Sterling, Guest Contributor

In just a few short weeks, I will celebrate 1-year free of using bulimic symptoms. One whole year without my diet consisting of as little food as possible and copious amounts of stimulant laxatives to purge any food I had allowed myself to eat. 

I have to admit. I feel nostalgic as this anniversary approaches. I find myself thinking of the past, when I resented having to make the choice between my life and the very thing (bulimia) that was threatening my life itself. I chose to let go of the eating disorder in order to reclaim my life. I could not be happier with the choice I made. However, I find myself giving into the urge to look back at old writings and pictures. I guess the saying “progress, not perfection” is true.

Upon seeing pictures from just a few years ago, I feel like I'm looking at a woman who doesn't know me. I know her though, and I know all of her secrets. I see a face that I vaguely recognize; it has attributes that my recovery body does not. I am overwhelmed, but I march forward: The only way out is through.

After looking at these pictures, I allow myself to feel anger, loss, jealousy. I breathe deeply and they begin to subside.

The woman in the photos has a vibe of natural-carefree happiness, which I know she worked very hard to create. She is tall and thin, but she’s not waif thin. I know that she desperately wished she were. Her face is defined by her protruding cheekbones, lack of substance, and defined jaw line. Notable is the fatty pout around her mouth, which in retrospect looks like a perpetual allergic reaction. Without end, she would simultaneously critique and secretly take pride in it. Her lanky body is at times distracting, as her bones jut through skin and clothing. Her collarbones are most notable, as she shared the same obsession with them as her antihistamine-seeking lips.

Her aesthetic is of course what society, her peers, and others deem beautiful. Even now, I doubt she allowed this to be recognized as truth. She is an educated, successful career woman, working in mental and behavioral health. She outwardly has all the makings of a 30-something woman who had nowhere to go but up. I can tell you that her greatest fear was, without a doubt, that someone might “find her out,” that someone would see her as she saw herself: a fraud.

This woman’s secrets were killing her. I see these photos and even now I struggle at times to pull myself away from them. I know the work she put into this "look," and it sure as hell didn't come from eating healthy with a reasonable exercise routine. It was the result of staving off hunger for days at a time. She suffered pain, cramps and dehydration. Her main sustenance was Pepto Bismol, Gatorade, and Peri-Colace. Whether she had eaten or binged prior to a purge was rare, but that mattered less and less as time went one. What did matter was purging her body of whatever she put in it. Beauty is pain though, right? For her? Without a doubt! In real life? No.

There was a cost for this beauty, and it was certainly not a dollar value. I think it started slow. Perhaps she was in denial or the price tags were adding up so slowly she didn't notice. For 23 years I’ve gone through so many different versions of the same thing with her, and she paid for it.

As her body changed, the price tags were adding more secrets to her vaults. She paid by changing her outward self again and again. Like when she got her new bangs that were a really cute way to frame her face. It turns out they were also a great way to hide a bald spot, and she was petrified someone else would. Later, when she told people she 'felt ready for a change' and decided to cut off her long curls, she left out that she was made ready by her hair falling out at a rate so rapid that she couldn't hide it. So now, in conjunction with “being inadequate” just because it was an inherent personal perspective, she began to feel overwhelmed with the need to control the entirety of her life.

Unfortunately and ironically, her need for control was exactly what led to her loss of control. Her illness distorted her priorities so much that she spent her energy trying to convince others she was everything she “knew” she wasn’t. Despite everything collapsing around her, as long as she kept up appearances she’d be ok--after all, that new haircut looked good, right? As long as no one else knew things were falling apart, she knew her secrets were safe.

I finally walked away from the photos. It was a pivotal decision for me. I asked myself: am I going to give into her again or to the commitment I made to myself? See, she is not so far removed and always one step behind me. Despite the countdown to my very important anniversary, I know that, while I am better, I am not entirely OK. The trek towards being recovered is one I will be on for some time. However far I've come, though, I can't deny that she is part of me. Not only is she me, she's one of millions, one of 30 million people (men and women) who live with an eating disorder (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org). She could be your child, partner, friend, or sibling. She could be you.

Luckily, I got help before it was too late. My body is forever altered, my mind recovers more every day, and I am surviving the deadliest of mental illnesses. I’ve earned my second chance at life; more importantly, I now allow myself, my REAL self to be visible.

I can't go back in time to warn her sooner, to tell her that her secrets and shame were just a slow suicide. What can I do? I can see me and let you see me and hear my voice to reach out to as many of my 30 million brothers and sisters as possible, and warn them. Even if it is one at a time. I know there are so many who, like me, are staying as resilient as they know how.

Don’t be afraid to live visibly. Your story could be what helps someone else get help in time. I also know there are some of you out there who are still silent. Speak up! You are greater than your shame. I wish to live visibly to tell you that the life of recovery is worth every step.

Thea Sterling is a writer and speaker. Motivated by her recovery from bulimia, she became an advocate for those living with eating disorders and other mental illnesses. Thea is the founder of the advocacy campaign Live Visibly, which reminds us that when we allow ourselves to be seen  as we truly are, we empower ourselves to move towards healing. Follow Thea and Live Visibly on Facebook and Twitter