I hide my eating disorder

I'm afraid and don't know what to do

Published September 11, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

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Dear Cary,

I feel a bit silly sending this letter as you frequently address others with questions and issues and problems far deeper than mine, but I like your style, your voice, your compassion. You feel safe.

I'm 27. I own a home, have the job I've always wanted (which I got right out of college), I'm in an awesome master's program, have awesome friends, a crazy-in-a-good-way family, and a cool boyfriend. Sounds pretty darn perfect, right?

I struggled through high school and college with disordered eating. I limited calories, exercised for extreme amounts of time, and generally avoided situations where I could not control what was entering or exiting my body. My college roommates noticed and staged an intervention. I love them for this, but all it did was increase the guilt and powerlessness I feel over these compulsions. When I am feeling down or stressed or alone, you can guess right where my brain goes: calories, my weight/size and exercise. Did I mention I run half marathons? And lift weights? And am fit and healthy and look "normal"? I do. This only makes things worse because no one would believe how I see and feel about myself. I'm slipping down this slope again. I don't know what to do.

I told my boyfriend about these thoughts. He didn't get it. He was supportive but couldn't believe what I was saying. He tried, poor thing, but I don't know even myself how to deal. How could he? Another problem? I can't tell him I love him. I think I do. I've never ever felt like this before with any guy, and it's been well over a year now that we've been together. Thinking about telling him gives me such anxiety that it makes me want to run. Literally: It makes me want to numb my brain with exercise. Did I mention this is my longest relationship ... ever. That I usually dump guys after three or so months ... or pick asshole-losers who'll run away to Saudi Arabia to avoid commitment? That's my usual M.O.

Cary: My life is too good for me to be thinking like this. How can I get over this stupid obsession with my body and be as perfect as my life appears?

Thanks for your support,

Always Counting, Always Running

Dear Always Counting,

Your boyfriend isn't going to help you with this. Your friends aren't going to help you with this. It is time to admit that you have an eating disorder that can't be solved on your own and isn't going away. It's time to get serious help.

There are clinics. There are groups. There are websites. There are programs. There are counselors -- therapists, psychiatrists, M.D.s, specialists. It is time to stop pretending. You are afraid. This is serious. You are worried. I can tell. So do something.

Sometimes when we are scared we need step-by-step instructions.

Find two hours today when you will not be disturbed. If you cannot find two hours today, then find a day within seven days and put those two hours on your calendar. At the appointed time, first gather some things that make you comfortable when you have to do something difficult. That might be some tea or coffee or some snack you like, and it may be a blanket or other thing that makes you feel safe and warm. The purpose of this is that you can stay focused on your task for two hours. That will give you enough time to make some progress. Be somewhere where there is a computer connected to the Internet. Quiet yourself. Sit still for a few minutes and breathe regularly in and out. If you meditate regularly, then do your regular meditation, or prayer, or whatever brings you peace.

When you are sufficiently calm, open your Web browser and go to this website. Your task, over the next two hours, is to familiarize yourself with the treatment options and make some notes about options that appeal to you. Read carefully and slowly. Take your time and write things down.

There are various options. Some will appeal to you more than others. For instance, you may want to use the phone or you may not. You may prefer to just read.

The important thing, now that you have set aside two hours for this work, is to make a commitment to yourself to not be a victim of your disordered eating anymore. That means getting treatment. You may not know yet what kind of treatment. It may be seeing a counselor. It may be arranging to go for a residential program. The key, the one big important thing here, is that in these two hours you have set aside, you must define and commit to your next step. Make an appointment with someone. Put it on your calendar. That means not just making a plan, but an appointment, where someone will be expecting you. It might be an appointment with a counselor, or with a residential treatment center, or with a doctor, or some kind of specialist. What you need -- and what will make you feel better already -- is to chose a step and make a firm, concrete commitment to it.

You may feel drowsy or nervous sitting here doing this. You may want to fall asleep, or have a drink, or take a walk. That is normal. But we can make a deal. If it doesn't take you two hours to make the concrete commitment and put it in your calendar, then you can leave as soon as you have done that. I just said two hours because these things often take longer than you expect and you don't want to be rushed.

Then keep that appointment. At that appointment, make sure you make another appointment, and keep that one. Keep doing that. Keep making appointments and keeping them, and keep doing the things you agree to do to get better. That is all there is to it. There will be times when it is hard and times when you don't want to and times when you backslide but this is how you go from being an anxious, frightened person hiding a deadly disorder to being a calm, strong person taking regular steps to keep a serious but manageable problem at bay.

I wish I could do more but you will have to do this on your own. I can't stay there and make sure you do this. I hope by making it simple and painless that I have increased the odds that you will do it. The sooner you make contact, the sooner you can begin healing and getting help with this terrible disease.

Thank you for writing to me. I appreciate the trust you showed in doing so. Please show yourself that same kind of trust. Make a commitment and follow through.

By Cary Tennis

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