New York Times 2019 Modern Love: Notable Essay

A Love Letter to My Therapist

My therapist, Val, told me I should start putting lotion on my stomach every night so I would learn how to forgive it for existing. She’d given me a long string in the beginning of that session and asked me to make a loop that I thought would fit around my middle. When I stepped into it, Val held the extra space out in front of me to show me how wrong I was about my body. Mirrors lied. My eyes lied. Photos lied. Val had the truth.

Once a week, every week, for two school years, we HGTV’d my brain. We handled a month of purging triggered by Thanksgiving. Created flashcards of rational thoughts to combat the spirals and anxiety attacks I had when I wasn’t with her. Worked through an entire semester of addiction to and repulsion from the wall of bulk candy in our student center. We spent hours and hours talking about the way I used “fat” to describe feelings.

My fat days used to coincide with the days I did homework for micro and macro econ, accounting, and finance – four semesters of business classes required for an ill-advised minor that I endured purely due to sunk cost fallacy. Val and I analyzed this for months before I finally struck a conclusion:

“It’s like I never learned how to deal with feeling dumb, so my brain just detours me to feeling fat.”

For months Val guided me through a struggle with this so I’d be able to figure it out on my own. When I felt stupid, I restricted my calorie intake more. I spent twenty-five minutes trying on and tossing away clothes, searching for something I could bear to leave the room in. In the months I worked to phase these behaviors out, there was only one course of action that made any difference: Caring Less. Why put so much effort into classes that made my mental illness worse without making my life better? So I started devoting all my energy to the things I loved and the challenges in my life that were difficult but conquerable. My graduating GPA for the business minor will be a 2.7 – and it doesn’t matter, because all I need is the line on my resume. Val and I are so proud of me.

She cleared the way (in a gas mask, with a chainsaw) for me to achieve my greatest goal and act of self-love: deleting the app I used to track my calories.

It took almost a year of recovery to do it. For the first half, I cried every day and ran 5ks when I felt guilty. I didn’t know what to eat when I started doubling my calorie intake, since everything I loved had been off-limits for so long. I found myself able to pay attention in class, but I felt horrible about my body all the time. In the winter, when my psychiatrist and I decided on a prescription for drugs that would make me want to be alive, I didn’t even ask if they’d make me gain weight. I just laid in bed, stared at the wall, and felt grateful to be thinking about nothing, for once, rather than food and numbers.

My app knew when I ate less than the minimum calories necessary to function; it had a little popup telling me not to do that. But apps don’t know the difference between forgetting to log meals and deliberately ending the day with only a few hundred calories painstakingly documented, ingredient by ingredient – a list I recounted every fifteen minutes for the duration of the day, just to be certain. The app didn’t see ten months of sub-minimum calorie counts and lock down my account, because an app can’t analyze the signs.

Val could analyze the signs.

Without the app, I only count in my head. I don’t add the five calories in my daily multivitamin. I don’t count out exactly fifty-five goldfish and feel guilty about popping a fifty-sixth as I put the bag away. I taught myself to not count fruits and vegetables at all, so that I never punish myself for eating something so healthy. (This, obviously, is the goal for all foods, because life-sustaining actions should not be punished). When I buy myself a fear food each week at the grocery store – mastered Poptarts, still afraid of Doritos – these are the difficult but conquerable challenges on which I expend the energy I’ve diverted away from my business minor.

In my third semester of recovery, Val invited me to group ED therapy because I’m an oversharer and a good listener. It was a community I’d never have been able to find on my own; although I’m very open about my mental health, the only eating disordered students I know are still the six from this group. And they understood everything – they knew exactly how it felt to stand around open food at tailgates for seven hours every Saturday of the fall semester. They were also terrified to eat in either of our only dining halls – both buffet-style, both unlimited. We all felt out of control. In almost all of my female friendships, very few unaffected by anxiety or depression or SAD, I’ve found we are all afraid of falling out of our own control.

A year later, one of the girls from my group posted a picture of a brunch date on Facebook. I commented, “brunch!” Purposely innocuous, such a stereotypical thing for a white college girl to say, but for us it was a code word. My comment said, You finished a meal at a restaurant that includes calorie counts on its menus. It said, You ate a meal and weren’t ashamed. She messaged me back privately with a heart.

Val sowed this for me. When I graduate this spring, I won’t have her anymore. But she’s not only guided me through an excavation of my soul and then helped me put it back together; she’s also shown me how to build myself a support system. Val knows there’s nothing that scares me more than being alone and feeling like there’s no one I can call, and she planted me in a room full of people who needed someone, too.

Anorexia let me handle my emotions without actually being aware of my emotions. Val forced me to work through my anorexia by recognizing and handling my emotions. We went to the roots: I feel below-average at my university, and I’m an English major who – let’s face it – can’t rely on a business minor to get a job. In September of 2016, when I started recovery with Val, I was also desperately lonely, six months away from rock-bottom depression, and newly deaf in one ear after a bout of meningoencephalitis.

And at the root of the illness: I was first diagnosed Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, because I wasn’t underweight and therefore did not qualify for anorexia. I’d never felt like more of a failure, and I haven’t ever since. The deepest disappointment I’ve ever felt came from knowing that even though I couldn’t eat like a normal person, I still couldn’t succeed in my own disorder. Those horrible Before/After photosets all over social media – so empowering for some girls, but so triggering for me – even now seem to mock me with what I never achieved. But when I see someone’s ribby, skeletal Before photo, or a friend tells me about their diet or justification for eating dessert, I can finally handle it on my own, without Val. A partner I had in my second year of recovery used to ask me, while I was lying face-down on the floor of our bedroom: “what would Val say?”

I surprised myself by knowing. Val would say it’s only one day, or only one meal. Val would say sugary candy is a nice treat, and I don’t have to earn or deserve it. Val would say that every morning is a new day, and we never punish ourselves today for yesterday’s challenges. Sneaky, wonderful Val drilled those coping cards into my head so hard that I can’t help but know exactly how I need to respond to the anorexic bullshit my brain spews in its insecurity.

In my thirty-one months of recovery, I have gained an uncomfortable amount of recovery weight. Yet I have not lost control the way I feared I would. When I’m not actively trying to destroy my body, it settles at a weight it’s happy with. Wouldn’t you think that drastically decreasing calorie intake would make you thinner? But no – it just makes you obsessive, compulsive, distracted, and really, really hungry. Then, because you’ve tricked your body into thinking food is scarce, it hoards nutrients once you start eating like a human again. Surprise: your body can’t trust you to feed it anymore.

With Val, I learned how to trust my body. I learned how to feel the hard things, like anger and failure, and how to push through feeling nothing at all. I learned how to eat bread, take healthy vacations, pull myself through breakups, make a tentative peace with my stomach, stay alive, walk past a wall of candy without even thinking about it, wear a crop top, ignore the numbers, and get back up off the floor. This is a love letter to us both: the team that dragged me through college.