For years, one of my biggest struggles in therapy and trying to understand my eating disorder was being unable to unlock that A-HA moment. I felt that successful therapy meant I had to “uncover” something…something repressed, something traumatic in some way. Something must have caused my illness. (Too many movies, maybe?) It’s true that for many people, an eating disorder is the manifestation of control in a world where they feel they lack any control. But I had always felt a high sense of control over the direction of my life. I had amazingly supportive parents who had a wonderful marriage; we were financially blessed and well cared for; I was a successful student, had lots of friends, and a great boyfriend. I was very outgoing and socially well adjusted. So, major depression and the inability to stop obsessing over my body seemed almost…unreasonable. I had such a good life. Why couldn’t I enjoy it?
I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about depression*: that you have to have something to “be depressed” about. The thing is, feeling sad about something is different than being depressed. Feeling an emotion, whether sadness or anger or incredulousness or anything else, is a healthy emotional response to some thing, some stimulus. Being depressed is an illness.
Perhaps one person’s depression seems easier to “understand” than another’s. (I can certainly see how people would look at my charmed life and think what do YOU have to be depressed about??) But that makes it no less real for the person suffering. That desperation and isolation is no less intense, no less abundant in every minute of every day of that person’s life. I never faulted those around me who wished I could just be better, wished I would just show up anyways; I very much understood why others couldn’t empathize with what I was going through, and trying to explain it felt futile. So I stayed silent and did my best to fake it when I could and hide from everyone when I couldn’t.
A few years ago, I decided to revisit therapy – something I love going back to when I feel I need to amp up my self-care. I’m lucky to have a special relationship with my therapist, the same one I’ve been seeing on and off since my parents dragged me there at 16. This doctor came to know my family members and the intricate dynamics of our family quite well. But it wasn't until more recently, as I said, that she said something that, suddenly, made sense in a way that it never had before. In hindsight, I think that she had probably mentioned it many times before. But, for whatever reason, it took until that moment for it to register any kind of meaning for me.
We were talking about my family dynamics and, specifically, how I was feeling about my sister’s latest episode. My older sister suffers from chronic mental illness and debilitating anxiety. Unfortunately, her combination of disorders and symptoms makes successful treatment quite difficult. Though not diagnosed until her 20’s, thinking back, there were certainly signs of her disorder going back to her teenage years (at least that I can remember). So it was an observation my therapist made about my “role in the family since childhood” that struck a chord.
I was the middle child, with an older sister that was often suffering and, from my vantage point, causing my parents to worry. I assigned myself the role of being the “good one,” the one everyone could be proud of and not have to worry about. Of course, I didn't realize that’s what I was doing. I just felt I had no choice but to make it easy on those around me. I had to be the straight A student going to the Ivy League School. I had to have lots of friends and an appearance of cheeriness. And, well, I guess I believed I had to “look the part" because that went with the territory of having it all together. I never wanted to be someone that disappointed others or caused them stress. So, when I wasn’t succeeding at starving myself anymore, I felt like a failure.
Turns out, this was the moment in therapy that was my A-HA moment. For me, there was no traumatic event. There was nothing I had repressed, so to speak. My therapist helped me realize that a lot of my struggles had to do with my desire to play a role, even as a child, that NO ONE can successfully fill. That pursuit of perfection is like the rabbit they dangle in front of the dogs on the race track. They will never catch up to it because it’s designed to keep them running. No one can be the perfect child, mother, friend, or sister. No one can always have it together and not need help. Even if they look like they do.
I think it took me so long to be able to process how much my family dynamics impacted me because I aways feared that others would understand it as blame. I feared people would blame my sister or my parents – or worse, that they would think I blamed them. I don’t. I feel beyond grateful for the family that I have. I feel grateful to truly understand what being parents and partners in life means as I am about to enter marriage, thanks to my parents. I feel grateful to know that life can be one hell of a fight, but it’s so worth fighting for, thanks to my sister. I feel grateful to know that kindness is the greatest quality one can have, thanks to my brother. And I feel grateful to have learned the significance of taking care of the most important person in my life first–ME.
Self-care can mean different things to different people. I have identified that the most important type of my own self-care is not being afraid to put myself first when I know I need it. For me, that may mean being able to say to my fiancé “I just need today to be sad, even though I’m not sure why”, or choosing to be comfortable with disappointing someone else in order to do right by myself.
It’s not selfishness to be able to appreciate how much your needs matter, how worthy of love and care you are. It’s a gift.
*Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. These views are my own based on my experiences with anorexia, bulimia and major depression.