Words and images by Margaret Hartmann
As I stood in front of the doors at a residential eating disorder treatment center, I shook with fear. What if these people make me eat so much and I get as fat as a whale? What if my life becomes more miserable than it already is? What if this whole idea of recovery is a lie? Despite the doubts and fears, I raised my arm and knocked on the big wooden doors. That hesitant knock, unsure of what was to come, was my first act of true courage in a stream of many to follow.
At the beginning, courage looked like eating three meals and three snacks without compensating through exercise or purging. While I was scared to gain weight, each time I sat down at the table, I put the fork to my mouth and ate. I ate Cheetos and ice cream, pizza and pasta; foods that I had labeled as “toxic” and had convinced myself that if I ate them something terrible was going to happen to me. I surrendered to the process of recovery and listened to those who were trying to help me because I knew that continuing to listen to my eating disorder would kill me, and somewhere deep inside was a glimmer of hope that life may in fact be worth living.
As days turned into weeks, I began needing courage in a whole new way. While I still faced my fears head on with every meal, I now had to be courageous in allowing myself to feel emotions that seemed unbearable. In my eating disorder, I held in all my emotions and numbed them out by starving myself, exercising past the point of exhaustion, and repeatedly throwing up. Now that I was no longer turning to those behaviors, everything that I pushed down flooded in like water from a broken levee.
Without my eating disorder, memories from a past relationship came rushing back. Once again, I had to muster up the courage to be vulnerable and heal wounds that were left after being emotionally manipulated and sexually abused for years by someone I loved.
I learned to tell myself a different story. Instead of continuing the abuse by repeating the same lies he once told me, I slowly embraced a new narrative. I discovered my strength not only in enduring those years of abuse, but also in allowing myself to be vulnerable and work through that pain today. Through a lens of compassion, I began the process of letting go of the shame that kept me hidden and small in my eating disorder, and I learned how to hold space for both my struggles and my successes.
Recovery is not easy. I could paint a pretty picture and say that each day since I knocked on that door, I have chosen to do the harder thing and have aligned every action with my values and goal to be recovered. But that only depicts a small portion of what courage truly looks like.
After I left treatment, I struggled. I turned to my eating disorder and began self-harming because the lies my abuser fed me were louder than ever. Even though I was engaging in my eating disorder and self-harm during this time in my recovery, I remained hopeful of a better life. I was honest when things got messy instead of lying and hiding in shame like I had done in the past. This courage didn’t roar like a lion; it wasn’t what we typically think of as heroic or brave. However, I believe that speaking up when times are tough even when my voice quivers requires the greatest courage of all.
Continuing to be courageous in this way has been a main player in how I have grown in my recovery. It has strengthened my voice and ignited a passion within me to share my story and be an advocate for recovery – something I never would have imagined doing at the beginning of my journey. Each time I have taken the chance and courageously shared my story, I have been met with incredible acceptance. Breaking the stigma around mental health has opened the door for other people to feel heard, to not have to struggle alone, to know things can get better.
Where before I was ashamed of my past and my struggle with an eating disorder, today I am proud of my story, and I know that continuing to live authentically will not only lead me to full recovery, but also help others move past similar shame and fear to live a life filled of courage, compassion, and joy.
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Margaret Hartmann is a recent graduate of Loyola Marymount University and is continuing her education at Pepperdine to become a therapist. She is the current leader of the Southern California Chapter of Project HEAL and an active advocate for eating disorder recovery. In her free time, Margaret enjoys DIY home projects, rock climbing, and soaking in the sun on the beach.