Here’s the thing about having a body image disorder ~ it takes you a lot longer to figure out who you are and just how much you are capable of. I spent my childhood under the thumb of my parents ~ I was a perfect child. I did well in school, sports and music. I never smoked, did drugs, drank, snuck out of the house or dated anyone my parents disapproved of. I was always in before curfew, finished my homework on time and ate dinner with my family every night. I knew the meaning of the word “no” and almost never argued. My dad often shakes his head when talking about raising me and says, “You were just so great. You made being a parent easy!” (He says the same thing about my brother, but as this story is about me, we’ll ignore the fact that he was also a little rule-following machine).
Somewhere in those years I grew up, though I don’t really remember it happening. All I remember was doing what I was told, succeeding, following rules, succeeding some more and then, just like that, I graduated from high school and was expected to be an adult. Apparently I was supposed to have figured out who I was at some point. No worries, though, if you don’t quite know what you want or who you are, well that’s what college is for. That’s apparently the rule – if you don’t find yourself before 17, you must do it during your college years. Okay, sure. I’ll figure out who I am.
But they sent me off without any guidelines. I didn’t have any restrictions or curfews. My parents were not there to shelter me, to tell me what to do. I could choose who my friends were, what classes I wanted to take, whether or not I wanted to do sports. No one had prepared me for this. All I knew was how to do exactly what was expected of me. I could succeed when asked, but I had no idea how to do it on my own.
I crumbled. My sense of inadequacy grew exponentially. My identity and self-worth became even more wrapped up my appearance, as I had seemingly nothing else going for me. But when your entire being is based on the way you look, and you hate the way you look, you begin to hate yourself. I spent all of college (and beyond) hating myself without even knowing who I was. I simply looked in the mirror, felt ashamed, horrified and enraged, and lived unquestioningly with those emotions for years.
During this time I was lucky if I could wake up on time, brush my teeth and make it to class/work, never mind “discover myself”. My life was my body image disorder. All of my thoughts and actions were wrapped up in it. The friends I made, the classes I chose, the sports I participated in ~ everything was dictated by my disorder. The disorder replaced my overprotective parents and told me what I should be doing and when. It practically screamed out loud at me when I would disobey it. I didn’t know enough to fight back.
I’ve spent the years since graduation trying to fight, and have finally asked for help in doing so. I am just now starting to see things get better, though I know I have a long way to go before reaching “the end” and being healed. Among many others, one of the things I have had to teach myself is how to assert my independence. I went from living a sheltered, protected, structured childhood to an early adulthood crafted by mental illness. I have never learned how to be my own person, how to make demands, how to say no, how to hold my own beliefs or stand up for what I feel is right. At 24 years old, I feel that I have a lot to learn and a long way to go before I can claim that I am an independent adult.
So I'll leave you with a handy list.
Things I need to learn in order to be a real live person:
· How to say “no” – I can not and will not try to please everyone. I have learned that by trying to make everyone else happy, you inevitably neglect yourself. No longer. Not that I am going to intentionally ignore everyone else and that I’m going to cut myself off from my friends, but there are certain times when I need to stop and focus on myself instead of trying to figure out what everyone else wants.
· I don’t need a second opinion on everything – I can make decisions on my own, I don’t need to ask someone else to evaluate my decision or to be there when I make it. I can just do it.
· I need to stop being in constant communication with others. I work with the public, so I am in contact all day with new people, trying to make sure they are happy and getting them to communicate their needs. When running errands, I am surrounded by people. When at home, I am almost always there with my dad or brother. When I go out, obviously I am with my friends. So why do I feel the need to chat online with my friends or check email during my only periods of “me time”? I have become so accustomed to having people around telling me what to do, that I can’t just sit with myself and be okay. I need to learn to be okay as a separate entity – as me and only me. I can choose to let others in, but I don’t want to be dependent on someone always being there.
· I need to allow myself to be. Instead of trying to carve myself into being a certain person, I need to finally take the time I have always needed to “discover myself”. To do what I love. To try and fail. To assert myself. To try new things and meet new people. To live my life and take from it what I wish. To be happy. To be me.