What you believe in your heart still can’t cure a mental illness.
I don’t usually write about my mental health when things are “fresh.”
Not in the last couple of years, anyway. I prefer to let things marinate, and to make sure that the words I choose are empowering, uplifting, and most importantly, resolved.
I prefer to give advice when I’m on the other side of something — largely because I know I have a responsibility to my readers, to make sure I’m nudging them in the right direction. I know this blog can be a lifeline for folks who need something hopeful. I try to remember that.
But sometimes, when I perfectly package that hope for an audience, I can delude myself into thinking that I’ve cracked the code and, therefore, can tidily leave a struggle in the past. The perfect conclusion to the chapter, as it were.
“I know better now,” I think to myself. “I’ve learned my lesson.”
If you were to Google “transgender body positivity,” I’m fairly sure more than a few things I’ve written will come up.
I’ve been interviewed for podcasts and articles, and hoisted up as an example of a trans person who — in a simple shift in perspective and following the right Insta accounts — came to redefine his relationship to food and to his body.
I wrote all three of these. Delightful.
That version of events is one that I love, because it’s so simple and comforting. One shiny, bright epiphany, and I emerge victorious, having evolved beyond any worldly, frivolous concerns about my stretch marks or eating ice cream for breakfast.
“F*ck you, diet culture!” I jubilantly exclaim. “I know better now. I’ve learned my lesson.”
When you’re a mental health advocate and writer, especially in such a public way, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that you have all the answers to your own problems.
But that illusion of control and self-awareness is exactly that — an illusion, and a deceitful one at that.
It’s easy to point to the years I’ve spent in this space, and everything I’ve published about this exact thing, and insist I’ve got things under control. It’s not my first rodeo, pal. Or second. Third. Fourth. (I’ve got experience on my side.)
If I can support others through their recovery, surely I can navigate my own. Even as I write that, I know it’s patently ridiculous — giving good advice is much easier than applying it to yourself, especially where mental illness is concerned.
But the version of me that I prefer is the one that said in this interview, “When you get to the other side of whatever you’re struggling with, you’ll see that not taking those chances — living only half the life you could’ve been living — is a lot scarier than any disaster you imagined would come from eating that slice of cake or whatever it was.”
Says the person who is, really and truly, living in that fear in a life half-lived right at this very moment.
Body positivity has felt like a relationship I dove into at such a young age, long before I knew myself or even my eating disorder. And once I was in too deep, having positioned myself as triumphant, I didn’t know how to step back enough to ask for help.
I wanted to believe it was like an incantation I could say in front of the mirror several times — “all bodies are good bodies! all bodies are good bodies! all bodies are good bodies!” — and POOF! I was absolved of any guilt, shame, or fear I felt around food or my body.
I could say all the right things, like a script that I’d rehearsed, and love the idea and the image of myself when I peered through those rosy-colored lenses.
But where eating disorder recovery is concerned, a script — even when memorized — is not a substitute for the work
And no amount of Instagram memes and photos of belly fat could touch on the old, painful wounds that had positioned food as my enemy, and my body as the site of a war.
Which is all to say, I am not recovered. The work hadn’t even begun.
In fact, I used my proximity to body positive spaces to disregard the very idea that I needed help — and I’m paying the price physically, mentally, and emotionally now.
I wore body positivity like an accessory, to project the image of myself that I wanted to be, and my eating disorder reveled in the idea that I could suspend the reality of my illness simply by curating my social media accordingly.
My understanding of body positivity — and by extension, its roots in fat acceptance and liberation — was shallow at best, but only because my eating disorder thrived so long as I sustained the illusion that I knew better. This was yet another way of convincing myself that I was in control, that I was smarter than my ED.
My disorder had a vested interest in lulling me into a false sense of security. I couldn’t have an eating disorder, I thought — disordered eating, maybe, but who doesn’t? I couldn’t because I was evolved. As if mental illness ever gives a f**k about the books you’ve read.
Eating disorders have a way of sneaking up on you. That realization is a new one for me — not because I didn’t logically understand that, but because I’ve only come to accept it in the context of my own lived experience in the last few days.
And I wish I could say that this epiphany came to me on my own, inspiring me to reclaim my life. But there’s no such heroism here. It came to the surface only because my doctor asked the right questions during a routine checkup, and my bloodwork revealed what I feared to be true — my body was coming undone in the absence of adequate, much less nutritious, food.
“I don’t understand how people decide when to eat,” I confessed to my therapist. His eyes widened with deep concern
“They eat when they’re hungry, Sam,” he said gently.
At some point or another, I had utterly forgotten that simple, basic fact. There is a mechanism in the body, intended to guide me, and I’d cut all ties to it completely.
I don’t share this as a criticism of myself, but rather, as a very simple truth: Many of us who are lauded as faces of recovery are still, in many ways, right in the thick of it along with you.
Sometimes what you’re seeing is not a portrait of success, but rather, a small piece of a more elaborate, messy puzzle that we’re frantically trying to assemble behind the scenes, so that no one notices we’re in pieces.
My eating disorder recovery is, in truth, in its very infancy. I’ve only recently stopped using “disordered eating” to obscure the reality, and this morning, finally spoke to a dietitian that specializes in EDs.
Today is, in actuality, the first real day of recovery. That’s three years after, by the way, I wrote these words: “No more justifications. No more excuses. Not another day… this is not control.”
I know there are readers who might have looked at my work in body positivity and absorbed the misguided notion that eating disorders (or any kind of body negativity or food aversion) are simply mazes that we think (or in my case, write) ourselves out of.
If that were true, I wouldn’t be sitting here, sharing with you a very uncomfortable truth about recovery: There are no shortcuts, no mantras, and no quick fixes
And as we glamorize the idea of an easily attainable self-love — as though it’s just one perfect crop top away — we miss the deeper work that must be done within ourselves, that no amount of sparkly, inspirational quotes we retweet can replace.
Trauma is not on the surface, and to strike the heart of it, we have to go deeper.
This is an awful and uncomfortable truth that I am coming to grips with — mainstream, watered-down body positivity can open the door and invite us in, but it’s up to us to do the real work of recovery.
And that begins not externally, but within us. Recovery is an ongoing commitment that we must choose every single day, deliberately and courageously, with as much rigorous honesty with ourselves and our support systems as humanly possible.
No matter how we curate our social media to remind us of where we’d like to be, the aspirational vision we create is never a substitute for the reality that we’re living in.
As is so often the case with eating disorders, I’m realizing, the aspiration — that “what could be” — so often becomes a compulsive, maddening drive, where we live in a future that we never arrive at.
And unless we commit ourselves to being grounded firmly in the present, even (and especially) when it’s uncomfortable to be here, we relinquish our power and fall under its spell.
My ED loved the naïveté of Insta-friendly body positivity, leveraging that illusion of safety to delude me into thinking I was in control, that I was better than all this
And I can’t say I’m surprised by it — EDs seem to take many of the things we love (ice cream, yoga, fashion) and turn them against us in some way or another.
I don’t have all the answers, except to say this: We are works in progress, all of us, even those that you look up to.
A pedestal is a lonely place to be, and loneliness, I think, is where eating disorders (and many mental illnesses) often thrive. I’ve been up here for too long, silently waiting to fall or for it to crumble underneath me — whichever came first.
As I make my descent, slowly climbing down from the pedestal and stepping into the light of my recovery, I’m going to embrace the truth that every one of us needs to remember: It is okay not to be okay.
It’s okay to not have all the answers, even if the rest of the world expects you to, even if you expect yourself to.
I am not, as some people have described me, “the face of transgender body positivity.” If I am, I don’t want to be — I don’t want any of us to be if that means we’re not allowed to be human.
I want you to scrub that image from your mind and, instead, know where I really was yesterday: Clinging onto a nutritional shake for dear life (literally — it’s kept me alive these last few months), having not showered for three days, while texting the words “I think I need help.”
So many of the advocates you look up to have had equally unromantic but profoundly brave moments just like that
We do every single day, whether we have a selfie to prove it happened or not. (Some of us have group texts, and trust me, we are all on the Hot Mess Express together. Promise.)
If you’ve felt like you’re not allowed to “fail” (or rather, have an imperfect, messy, even f**ked up recovery), I want to give you permission to live that truth, with every bit of honesty and vulnerability that you need.
It’s okay to let go of performing recovery. And trust me, I know how big of an ask that is, because that performance has been my security blanket (and the source of my denial) for so, so long.
You can surrender to the doubt, the fear, and the discomfort that comes with doing the work, and give yourself permission to be human. You can let go of that control and — I’m told, anyway — it will all be okay.
And this amazing community of recovery warriors that we’ve created with our memes, our inspirational quotes, and our crop tops? We will be right here, waiting to support you.
I can’t say that I know this for certain (hello, Day One), but I have a strong suspicion that this kind of honesty is where the real growth happens. And wherever there’s growth, I’ve found, that’s where the healing truly begins.
And that’s what we deserve, every one of us. Not the aspirational kind of healing, but the deeper stuff.
I want that for me. I want that for all of us.
This article first appeared here in January 2019.
Sam Dylan Finch is the mental health and chronic conditions editor at Healthline. He’s also the blogger behind Let’s Queer Things Up!, where he writes about mental health, body positivity, and LGBTQ+ identity. As an advocate, he’s passionate about building community for people in recovery. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, or learn more at samdylanfinch.com.