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A common misconception is that an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice. In this true story of a long recovery, an eating disorder was rooted in self-doubt and hatred that had built up for years.
I had the pleasure of meeting Larissa Goldberg during our freshman year of college, when we chose each other as roommates. Four years later, I still consider her one of my best friends. She taught me that we don’t need to plaster a fake smile across our faces and convince the world we are fine.
Larissa learned that life was far from perfect at a young age. She was struggling with her parents’ divorce, while simultaneously trying to silence the insults that plagued her mind.
The numerous stressors were too overwhelming for any child to deal with, and by the time Larissa was twelve, she developed a severe eating disorder. She couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause, but she found herself idolizing thin bodies. She had no idea how to stop herself from restricting and eventually turned to purging in an effort to lose weight.
A common misconception is that an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice, however this could not be further from the truth. Similar to depression, anxiety, or any other mental disorder, the onset of an eating disorder can happen suddenly, without noticeable cause or reason.
There is no limit to the age, gender, or size of a person suffering from an eating disorder. The individual may show obsessive tendencies towards food, body weight, and shape. Many times the thoughts are so overwhelming the individual has a hard time concentrating on hobbies, friendships, academics, or occupations.
Stigma around eating disorders
In high school, the disorder consumed her life. Larissa was constantly in and out of treatment. Her unexplained absences resulted in harsh ridicule from peers. Some of the them insisted that she was making up the eating disorder to get attention, others bullied her in bathrooms for being too thin.
“There is a stigma around eating disorders and in their eyes I was just seeking attention,” said Larissa.
For years Larissa endured the comments from others. The back and forth of people telling her that she looked too sick, or that she didn’t look sick enough to have a real problem. One of the only things that kept Larissa going was her love for dancing. The passion was both a blessing and a curse.
“I was competitive in dance. Sometimes when I received a lead role, someone would claim I didn’t deserve it. They said I was getting special treatment for my disorder.”
I faked my recovery :I was trying so hard, but I wasn’t ready to do it on my own
Eventually, Larissa was told that she could no longer dance because of her deteriorating health. Physical activity was dangerous for a malnourished body; she couldn’t risk any more health complications.
Learning this motivated her to make a change at the start of college. She wanted to create a new identity; a girl that was no longer defined by food, weight loss, or hospital trips.
“I was trying so hard, but I wasn’t ready to do it on my own. Essentially I faked my recovery to stay in school. Two weeks before the semester ended, the University told me I had to leave. I was having heart problems and my weight was dangerously low, so I was immediately sent to a treatment center.”
A month in treatment helped her return to a normal weight, but the transition back to an unstructured lifestyle was too much. She had one therapy appointment a week, but otherwise was left to her own devices to prevent destructive habits. As soon as she completed second semester, she returned to treatment, this time for a total of three and a half months.
“Treatment is a great thing, but it has to happen at the right time and you have to be willing to get better. Being there for so long, combined with my persistence, made a huge difference.”
After Larissa left treatment, she moved to outpatient and slowly learned to adapt and monitor her food intake. The transition was gradual and she had a larger support system She kept her goals in mind: become an early childhood ed teacher, experience college, form meaningful relationships with friends and family.
An eating disorder is so much more than a number on the scale
The tricky thing about accessing treatment for eating disorders, is that even if a person wants to get better, they may not have the financial resources to get help. Larissa explained that one month of treatment could cost roughly up to 30,000 dollars.
Patients were constantly leaving the treatment centers, because their insurance was no longer accepted, or they reached a weight deemed healthy by the hospital.
“An eating disorder is so much more than a number on the scale, it’s a mentality. Being a healthy weight doesn’t mean you’re magically okay,” said Larissa.
Larissa explained that sometimes in order to qualify for treatment, an individual has to be under a certain weight. If people are close to this weight, they will purposely lose five or ten pounds, just so that they can get treatment. This flawed system exemplifies how difficult it is for some people to access help, even when they are motivated to recover.
Coming Down From Cloud Nine
When Larissa returned to school sophomore year, she was determined to remain in recovery, however this didn’t mean the battle was over. She was eating right, and looked healthy, but the negative thoughts still plagued her brain.
“I felt like I was in a foreign body because I gained 30 pounds in treatment. I was at a healthy weight, but for someone that has been malnourished since middle school, the change was traumatizing.”
Larissa said that when she came back, she took on the role of the “inspirational recovered person” in her social circle. She loved knowing that she inspired others, but she wanted people to understand that recovery wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies.
Many of her friends assumed that her return from treatment signified that she was in a perfect mental state. They remarked on how good she looked physically, assuming that the compliment was exactly what she wanted to hear.
“The whole point of treatment was to help us understand that there is more to life than our appearance. So when people would comment on my body, telling me how much better I looked now that I gained weight, this only brought my esteem down further. We all need to learn that there are a lot of compliments you can give a person that don’t revolve around appearance. ”
Even now, in her senior year of college, Larissa has good and bad weeks. She remains in recovery, even though there are days eating a meal feels like the hardest thing in the world. She keeps going, because she knows she deserves a life that is not defined by an eating disorder.
The Truth About Recovery
I asked Larissa what advice she would give to someone battling an eating disorder. She explained that at times, it’s really hard not to give up, but no one should go through recovery alone. It’s crucial to find people willing to support you during the bad times, rather than surrounding yourself with inividuals that only want to see you at your best.
“People need to understand that recovery is not a straight line. Just because you have a good day, or week, or leave the hospital, doesn’t mean you’re healed. The fight is the hardest thing you will ever do and you will regret ever starting, yet the longer you do it, you’ll find it gets a little bit easier.”
I asked Larissa why she thinks recovery is worth the hospital trips, negative thoughts, and all the other pain that an eating disorder inflicts on a person’s life.
“I learned that my disorder was just layers and layers of self-doubt and hatred that had built up for years. Recovery is worth it, because you finally get to know who you truly are, underneath the disorder. And that tiny bit of light you see, well that’s worth more than you could ever imagine.”
True bravery is admitting that life is far from perfect, but still searching for reasons to move forward. I’ve found many motivations during the course of my life, but Larissa Goldberg will always be one of the biggest reasons I keep going, and I truly hope her stories teaches others that recovery is always possible.