I wasn’t happy for seven years of my life.
It wasn’t so much that I was sad; it was more that I simply didn’t let myself be happy. Sure, I had fun and had friends and went on trips, but the pervasive feeling in my life was one of guilt; If I was watching a movie, I’d be thinking “I should be doing something to make the world a better place right now.” If I was studying for a test for one of my seven college classes, I’d think “I should be getting better grades.” I was never truly happy.
Instead, I had an eating disorder.
If you’ve ever had an eating disorder (which I hope you haven’t), then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, I’ll try to explain it to you: Eating disorders destroy you. They take over your life and your mind, and if you’re not busy feeling guilty or anxious or depressed, you’re thinking about your next meal, your next workout, your next purge. Your brain is constantly working, and it’s not full of pleasant things. On top of all of that, you hate yourself for always thinking about yourself. You want to be able to spend all your time making everyone else happy, your own happiness be damned.
When you have an eating disorder and your mind is always working, always calculating calories and workouts and how to eat in private, it’s impossible to be truly present at any moment. You can’t really give to another or even take from another — in other words, you can’t be in a full relationship — because your mind is always elsewhere. Marriage, though possible, I believe, would never be as fulfilling or successful when one of the partners has an eating disorder.
A classic eating disorder personality is someone who’s spent most of her life caring for others, whether it’s siblings or children or strangers in a homeless shelter; caring for yourself seems selfish, and that’s part of why we don’t get help — taking the time to focus on ourselves seems like an unworthy task. After all, there are starving children in Africa. Let’s help them first.
Long story short, I finally got help, thanks to some wonderful friends, more wonderful doctors and nurses, and my exceedingly wonderful family. It’s been almost three years since I’ve experienced an eating disorder symptom, and it hasn’t been an easy journey. But by all accounts, I’m a success story; I’ve recovered from an eating disorder with no relapses (yet), and I’ve made it to a healthy enough point that I’m able to not only be in a healthy relationship, but even get married.
And now, I’m happy.
This, for me, is an astounding fact. Ask any eating disorder patient, and they’ll agree — being happy seems impossible. So when I come home from work to an apartment that I feel at home in, to a man that I love, and all I feel is simple joy — that’s a miraculous feeling. I don’t feel guilty when I spend my nights reading on the couch with my husband; I’m allowed to spend time on myself. And I’ve discovered that spending time doing things I enjoy makes me truly, deeply happy. It’s the type of feeling that makes me want to dance around my living room in my PJs. And sometimes I do just that.
When I was in the hospital being treated for my eating disorder and I saw men who came to support their wives, girlfriends and fiancées who were going through treatment, I was always in awe. It seemed impossible to me that anyone could or would love me enough to do that for me. I felt, simply, unlovable, except perhaps to my family who more or less had no choice but to love me. I spoke recently with a young woman struggling with an eating disorder, and she agreed — part of having an eating disorder is always thinking you’re not good enough. It follows that no one could truly love you, because you are not perfect or worthy of that love. Being in a healthy relationship wasn’t possible with a thought process like this. Now, almost three years later, I know without a doubt that if ever I had to go through something like hospitalization again, Jeremy would be by my side throughout the entire thing. I am loved, and I feel loved.
When I had my eating disorder, I was afraid I would never be able to get married. It seemed impossible to me that I would ever stop being caught in the miserable cycle of my eating disorder. Marriage, to me, meant having a family, and I was terrified to raise children; I was afraid that if I had kids, I would inevitably give them eating disorders too, when they saw how unhealthy I was. I didn’t want that for anyone. The fact that I’m married today means that I believe in my ability to stay strong and fight my eating disorder permanently, that I believe I can raise happy, healthy children without worrying about scarring them with my own pain.
I used to think happiness was doing something fun. Going to a concert, going bungee jumping, traveling to Ireland — these are all fun things I’ve done, and they made me happy. But now happiness is being with someone I love. Jeremy and I are far from the most exciting couple of the year. If we get out of the apartment one night a week and do something other than go to a movie, we feel fancy. But every moment I’m with him, and even when I’m at work texting him, I’m happy. Watching TV with him seems exhilarating for the sheer bliss it can give me. It’s simple, but it used to be the hardest thing in the world for me.
I revel in that bliss.
Simi Lichtman is a contributor to the Forward.