It took an eating disorder to finally teach me how to get angry.
Many people with eating disorders are like me in that they feel reluctant — even downright refuse — to express anger. This is by and large a learned behavior.
I grew up in a home where anger was like the steam in a pressure cooker: we kept the lid on until it burst and sprayed boiling liquid everywhere. Consequently, the message I internalized was twofold: Anger is loud, unpredictable, and dangerous; and negative emotions should be concealed.
But if you’ve ever tried bottling your emotions, then you know it doesn’t work for long. Emotions find a way to declare themselves, whether they take the form of a spectacular blast of energy, like the exploding pressure cooker, or they creep up in disguise — as an eating disorder, for instance.
By the time I started eating disorder treatment in December 2013 I had been escaping into anorexic numbness for so long that I’d nearly stopped feeling entirely. I insisted I wasn’t angry or depressed about anything — my life is perfect aside from my compulsive desire to lose unhealthy amounts of weight. However, once I began to eat normally, restoring the energy my starving mind and body needed, the emotions declared themselves. And this time, I couldn’t use my eating disorder to hide from them.
Depression and anxiety were the first to arrive (although these were hardly strangers). Fear followed closely behind, bringing shame along with it. And then anger came. It appeared at first in flickers, like the sparks from a lighter running low on butane. But because I had become expert in quelling my anger, I didn’t know what to do with it. So I put the lid back on, settling instead to deal with the other ravenous emotions.
After a month of toiling through a day program, resisting weight gain at every step, my team told me that 25 hours per week just wasn’t going to cut it. If I was going to kick this disorder, then I needed 24/7 care. I was terrified, but desperate. So, at 5 a.m. on a frigid January morning, my fiancé Luke and I — four months from our wedding — rented a car and traveled from New York City to Philadelphia, where I would spend the next 40 days slowly and painfully freeing myself from anorexia.
Luke made the two-hour drive every weekend to visit. We assembled our wedding invitations in the day room. Each week he brought updates about the florist’s proposals or describing the jewelry my bridesmaids had selected.
Plans were going smoothly, until we tried to finalize our honeymoon. Since our engagement 18 months earlier, we’d dreamed of honeymooning along Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where Luke’s relatives had emigrated from at the turn of the century. But a few weeks into my stay, Luke received a call from my employer. My paid time off had run out, and if I needed more time (I’d ultimately need another two months) then I would need to use the vacation and sick days I’d been saving for the last two years. At best, I’d be able to take a long weekend in the spring to get married. No honeymoon.
I was distraught. My wedding — the ceremony, the reception, and then 10 days alone with Luke far from the memories of these agonizing months — was a primary motivation. My goals pivoted around it: Eat a piece of my wedding cake without guilt; look like a woman in my wedding dress instead of a skinny little girl; eat pizza in Naples. When my resolve wavered, I would think about these still-distant dreams, vowing that I wouldn’t let anorexia onto the altar with me. But now the vision was dissolving before me.
Panic came first. It was just before dinnertime. As I remembered the impending meal, I thought to myself, “I can’t eat after this! How am I supposed to handle both food and this disappointment? I can’t go. I can’t eat.” Thoughts racing, I mentally searched the building for a place to hide from the staff. I couldn’t eat. I wouldn’t. Not after this.
Then, a blaze of anger swept through, swallowing the panic. My whole body burned with it. No more, I said to myself. This has to end. Within seconds I saw everything my eating disorder had taken from me: relationships, opportunities, my health, my job, the experience of planning my wedding. And now it had reached into the future and taken something I’d been dreaming about. I wouldn’t let it take anything else. I hung up the phone and, still crying angry tears, went to the dining room just as the other patients were filing in. That night, I ate every bite of the meal.
In the following days, I began to view anger as a tool. Depression and anxiety (the supposedly “safer” emotions) are not motivators, I realized, but enervating forces that makes one vulnerable to fear, despair, and the like. Anger, however, is galvanizing. Though I had never known it to be productive or positive, I now saw its potential to propel me in the direction of recovery.
Emotions serve many useful purposes, including alerting us to our internal states. In that sense, anger is no different. But the energy of anger is unique. If harnessed properly, it can be the spark we need when our other sources of fuel are running low.
So go ahead and get good and angry — it may be that final bit of motivation you needed.
And as a side note — in the end, I was able to take a short vacation after my wedding. Luke and I did not go to Italy, but we did manage to pull together a honeymoon in Antigua. It was just as beautiful as I hoped it would be, simply because it was time spent with Luke. Anorexia did not come with us.