colleen mann

In one of my first individual sessions at treatment, my therapist asked me to describe myself, minus a list of achievements and quantifiable traits. I sat there, unable to think of anything. Even before my disorder, all I saw in my reflection was a number: my report card, a list of musical and academic achievements, the amount of instruments I played, the number of languages I spoke, the exact number of leadership positions I held, the number of friends I could list and the amount of likes I got on my Instagram pictures, and the amount of compliments received on meticulously planned outfits -- things that were so tied to me and yet seemed so fabricated. This inability to define myself through anything but numbers is what I know contributed the most to my eating disorder. That, and the sudden need to cry out, the urge to let people around me know in some way that I wasn’t the “perfect” daughter or the “easy” child, that something was wrong and maybe always had been. In any case, anorexia hit me hard my junior year of high school. I went from disordered behaviors to full-blown caloric restriction, rapid weight loss, and a completely distorted view of my body. I built my days around what I thought was a perfect world I had constructed all on my own, a world where I made the rules, where I was comfortable and small and safe. By no means was I happy, but I was occupied. I had a goal to work towards and an ideal to strive for. Best of all, I didn’t have to please anyone but myself. I now know that this was all a quiet rebellion, a way to stop caring about maintaining an outwardly “perfect” facade and start rewriting my own definition of perfection.


But this new perfection took its toll. My brain didn’t feel like it was mine. I would spend nights dreaming of food and days avoiding it. I stopped singing and listening to new music. My best friend Haley tells me how subdued I was then, how I couldn’t hold a steady conversation with her, how I cycled between laughing about my disorder as if it was funny and isolating myself completely. Eventually, I began purging as a way to manage the constant anxiety that came with food restriction; stuck in a vicious cycle, I wore my body down until doctors advised my mom to send me to treatment. When my mother called various treatment centers in the Boston area, she was told that, with this combination and frequency of behaviors, my heart could stop at any moment.


I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing my mother cry, telling me that she had already coped ahead for the possibility of her only daughter’s death. At the time, I felt guilty but somehow removed from the whole situation, laughing because it all seemed like one big joke, because I couldn’t possibly be “sick enough” to warrant this kind of reaction. When my therapist at the time asked me how I felt about barely being able to sing anymore due to the purging, I said that I didn’t really care. Now, looking back, I realize how much my disorder had completely warped my identity and values. Music is by far the most beautiful gift my life has given me so far, and the person who was willing to throw it all away is not the same person I am now.


I’ll say it a million times if I have to: there is no sick enough. There is no time when your eating disorder will just let you go. Every day I am grateful that when I entered treatment, I actually made the choice to accept the help that was being handed to me. Of course I cried and resisted and complained. But I accepted recovery because some part of me recognized that if this was perfect, I didn’t want it anymore.


Since beginning my recovery, I have been allowing myself to be soft, which is something I don’t ever remember letting myself do. And I don’t necessarily mean my physical changes, my losing the sharp edges that existed on my body before weight restoration; I mean letting go of the idea that I need to be stoic and cold and perfect all the time. I mean choosing hope and asking for support and finding the beauty in things I rejected as “weaknesses,” like vulnerability and outward displays of kindness and cheesy recovery quotes. What I think people don’t realize is that recovering from an eating disorder requires a sort of rebirth, a fundamental change in the core of your being: a core that previously relied on numbers to function. Recovery is not the action of eating or of keeping it down. Recovery means I have to figure out who I am after stripping away all the numbers that have defined me my whole life.


Painful and exhausting as recovery may be, I now have songs stuck in my head, rather than numbers and the size of my wrist and how badly my throat hurts from the damage I’ve done. I can sing and dance around with friends and read and go out for dinner again, so I know I’ve come pretty far already, even though I know I have a ways to go.