written February 17, 2016. Recovered March 1, 2020. Happy Eating Disorder Awareness week.
I used to hate the phrase “you can’t love somebody else until you love yourself.” Probably, because I was in a self-destructive relationship with myself and an “in love” relationship with someone else. So what did that mean? Maybe I loved myself, but I just treated myself terribly? Or maybe I didn’t love myself, and I didn’t really love him. Or maybe that phrase was bullshit. I hated it in the way that a child hates most about her parents the things that remind her of herself. I hated it in the way we all hate unflattering reflections of ourselves, especially when they imply the need for change, most especially when that change feels damn near impossible.
When bulimia came into my life, I immediately recognized it as a threat. I never liked it, never willingly made room for it. I confessed to friends and family and physicians. I tried to bleach it out of existence in the harsh light of truth. But there was some sort of cavity deep down inside of me that let the poison linger, and grow. Perhaps its because those other people could not fix me, they could only help. Perhaps it really was because I didn’t love myself, didn’t know myself enough to fully love myself, that I stayed sick.
For five years I was “getting worse.” Hardly a single day went by that I didn’t vomit. I accommodated my disease like an enabling parent to a spoiled child: “if I’m going to have to live with you, I’d rather you weren’t screaming all the time, so I’ll give you what you want.” It wanted food. All of it. All the time. At any cost.
Ah, but the memory does strange things to emotions. It’s easy to know for a fact that I was engaging in acts of self-hatred all those years, and to know that I didn’t love myself. But it’s harder to know if I was “really” in love with the man I got engaged to, and then married.
I really don’t believe in redacting past emotions. If I said I was in love and I meant what I said, than that’s good enough for me. I will not hold my memories up through the fuzzy prism of retrospection and say “but was I really in love? I mean really?” I was in love because I said so, and I have to trust my former self. But I do believe that I did not love myself and so, to reconcile the two, I’ll concede that I just didn’t love with my whole heart. I was an occupied nation, and the independent region still waved its flag, but whole swaths of the map were enemy territory. I imagine a report card of myself at the time might read “Michele loves at an 8th grade level.”
So many year later, when my husband and I split, I clung to the idea that really I couldn’t solve my bulimia if I was still married. It defied the order of operations. I thought I had to remove all the trappings of my grown-up life, relationship included, to isolate the problem and face off with it directly. Do you have to stop loving another in order to love yourself? I cannot say. But I remember the tragedy of realizing that the longest relationship of my life was with an illness rather than a person.
Isolating the problem helps, in a way, but it can also serve to remove the support structures that kept it at bay. As I wrestled alone with my eating disorder, it seemed to sense its mortality and gain a supercharged burst of energy. Before I knew it, I was pinned as ever, and alone. Every move, break-up, drastic thought or action that I’ve undertaken to CURE myself has a flip side, which is that it makes more room for the illness in the shuffle. It’s hard to discern whether my strong urges for change are based on what I want for myself, or it they are just my illness’ way of stealing more room.
I would like to build a home. I would like to have stability. I would like to distance myself from the days when I binged and purged and get used to the feeling of feeling my feelings. I would like to free my heart I would like to be alone enough to fall in love with myself. And then, I would like to fall stupidly, wholeheartedly, irrevocably in love with someone else too.