This is a guest blog from my dear friend Holly Brantley. In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, she has bravely and honestly penned this post, giving us all a profound glimpse into the world of anorexia. Thank you, Holly. <3
“Outwardly, I was everything a well brought up girl should be.
Inside, I was screaming.”
Words I understand all too well; A line from Rose in Titanic that resonates to my core. For a decade, my attempt at an illusion of perfection is what my social circles and the public saw. As a reporter for KFVS, advocate for charities, friend, and loved one – I did my best to present myself as a young professional and productive woman with the calm and confident aura of having it all together. But that was not the whole truth.
Inside, I was screaming….violently, desperately. I was trying to escape the chains, chipping away at the walls of a self-imposed, all-consuming, maze-filled prison that left me possessed and petrified. Many of you would likely say my screams were visually audible or know first hand they were literally shouted in vulnerable moments…but I did my best to keep up the exhausting act. Yet, I often feel I had the Scarlet Letter tattooed all over me: A, Anorexia.
Eating disorders are the ultimate brainwash, and a life and death battle that comes down to a civil war. As a writer and performer, pen to paper is therapy and connection is key. While I’ve journaled for years, I’ve never written about my fight publicly. But now feels like the right time. In prayer, I kept coming back to the words of John 8:32: “…The truth will set you free….”
With these words, I want to let others know you are not alone, no matter what form of anxiety, fear, or depression you or a loved one may suffer from. I’m writing this to say, there is hope. I’m writing this to bring to light the cruel world of eating disorders too many beautiful, smart, loving women and men face. Now, with a healthy body and mind, I am thankfully in a place to say, “I survived.” And, I will go on surviving.
As I look back on my story, I see now, I was always striving for unrealistic ‘perfection’. The perfect storm for the elements of my life to swirl into an eating disorder came together between 2004 and 2006. I was in my early 20’s, coping with ‘adulting’ for the first time. I was looking for direction to deal with stress and struggling unconsciously with self-love, approval and acceptance. In the world of live television and frequent public speaking, I had a false sense of confidence about what it meant to be self-assured. I would have never labeled myself as someone with low confidence or self-esteem. I thought when I graduated college, got my dream job in television and bought a house I would be euphoric. But I didn’t plan for ‘real life’ and the real emotions that came with it.
Before I could find my place and adult strength peacefully, anorexia found me.
It was in this era that I met a bodybuilder, I later became engaged too. Once a chubby little kid who never felt attractive to the opposite sex, here was finally a man that loved me. He taught me everything I needed to know about food to get the body I’d always wanted. The information about what to eat and how to work out was well-intended. At first I carried it with me in balance. For a hot minute, I had what looked like my missing pieces: I had a body I loved and a man who worshipped me. There was one problem: I didn’t love me. I didn’t see that yet though, and I would go on a hunt for that missing piece. I wasn’t as happy as I thought I was supposed to feel. I was scared to lose my new body…. It was my one illusion of happiness I seemed to be in control of when my feelings and circumstances were too much to rein in.
As one dietitian told me later: “I had just enough information to be dangerous.” I took cutting calories and manipulating food to the extreme. Little was never little enough. Good could be better. Happy could be happier. I did what perfectionists do. I went after the ultimate prize — but how could I have known then that I was playing a deadly hunger game? I didn’t. I started slowly and the intent morphed into an intense obsession with controlling my food to cope with growing fear of daily life. Anorexia starts with a nibble but becomes a ravenous vulture.
It really was the perfect storm. As the relationship with my fiance progressed, I realized I not only did not love myself – I did not love him either. His love for me was indeed, not enough. I didn’t know how to get the love I wanted, let alone express that I didn’t want his love. By this time I had a white dress, bridesmaids, venue, and a misguided and unjustified hatred for my fiance…. who simply didn’t understand why I had become angry, sad, quiet, and reclusive. What’s more — my friends and family didn’t understand either. Where was the girl who turned every day into an adventure? Holly changed into someone they didn’t know. Instead there I was: A pretty girl with a great career, hot fiancee, gorgeous dress ….and smile on the outside. Inside: Loneliness and misery.
To cope with circumstances and feelings I felt I could not predict, I hyperfocused on food and clung the routines and behaviors that came along. Food became my friend and enemy. Restriction served as food’s partner in crime. Both became flimsy, daily band-aids to control my loneliness or uncertainty about life. I micromanaged my meals and meal times, counted calories and bites, kept detailed lists, ate alone, and only select foods. I hid from my fiance in the same house or disappeared for ‘work assignments.’ To me now, I see it as a time when I wanted to be alone with my imaginary friend the eating disorder. It’s a delusion that elusively takes on a life to help decisions, deal with uncertainty and feel powerful. When all else failed, I could choose to eat or not to eat and conjure a false sense of security and love.
Each day the emotions of fear, anxiety and lack of self-worth would be reassessed and rebandaged to determine just how much ‘punishment’ or ‘happiness’ – in the form of food – I deserved. Slowly the hypnotic brainwash ensued. I worked and worked out more, I ate less and became a lifeless zombie with a one track mind to be the thinnest person in the room. More accurately, if I felt the ‘emptiest’ I had won the day, the room, the party. My fiance seemed oblivious and I often wonder how he could stand it.
Just before the wedding announcement came out in the paper, I called off the wedding. Thankfully. I thought everything, including ‘me’ would just go back to normal – but it didn’t. I didn’t. My friends and family tried — but they didn’t understand – they couldn’t understand. See, I had locked myself away long before I pulled the plug on the ceremony. The eating disorder had already taken hold. It felt comfortable. The new habits, behaviors, rules, and ideas were hard-wired already. I was again screaming inside for help with restless confusion emotions and no one knew how to reach me. I didn’t know what to tell them either.
My life became distorted perceptions and denial. It was so dark. Pitch black. It’s a dimness I now sadly see right through. I see and I shudder to know I chose to hold onto ED – and instead turn the light’s out on every shiny thing life has to offer: Job, work, family, fun. I chose to die a little bit each day to control the world I knew and hang on to a false sense of beauty and control of my warped universe. I am blessed – I always have been – I had everything and yet — my fragile world of anorexia felt like everything — it felt like all I had left.
I’ll fast forward for you through the next decade. I had valleys, but also epic peaks of happiness. It was a beautiful, even surreal – ten years that makes me smile now as I look back. So much laughter through the tears … I fell in love three times, traveled to four continents, lived one-in-a million priceless opportunities, met beautiful and irresistible people, made lifetime friends – who are more than comrades, but kindred spirits….I laughed, cried, and prayed. I saw a waterfall in Africa, jumped a plane to Rio, called London home, learned to jump horses, and chased tornadoes across the state. I witnessed beautiful miracles in church, watched my nieces grow into beautiful young ladies, learned what it means to embrace the tragically hilarious side of life and family and covered stories some journalists only dream of.
You know what was there the entire time? My scarlet letter. Anorexia came along for the ride through every beautiful event. It was an annoying companion which I was afraid to leave at home. However — there was something circulating in my heart that kept pulling at my wise-mind …..churning, knowing, if there was so much beauty — even in my prison — freedom must be a miraculous wonder.
With some magnetic pull towards hope, I kept going — reaching for an anchor to pull me from behind the bars. That stretch for freedom brought with it years of research to try and unlock the beast holding me captive. I asked thousands of questions and never stopped searching for a safe way out of eating disorder hell. Through my prayers, I finally realized that something pulling at me and hovering near all those years was God’s Love. I think I finally ‘got it’ when I read a book I heard about at a church service. In Love Does, Bob Goff spelled it out for me:
“Every day God invites us on the same kind of adventure. It’s not a trip where He sends us a rigid itinerary, He simply invites us. God asks what it is He’s made us to love, what it is that captures our attention, what feeds that deep indescribable need of our souls to experience the richness of the world He made. And then, leaning over us, He whispers, “Let’s go do that together……..I understand just a little more how God has pursued me in creative and whimsical ways, ways that initially did not get my attention. Nevertheless, He wouldn’t stop. That’s what love does—it pursues blindly, unflinchingly, and without end.”
When I read those words, I recall one of the first moments when I knew letting go and letting God would be worth it. He enticed me to take another step every day by dangling unique adventures….adventures too good to stay inside my fortress. However, even with this realization, It would still take another five years to pry my hands from their concrete clutches to Anorexia.
The climax of the pain hit at the end of the decade. I was working with two nutritionists and reaching for help at every turn. In spite of my attempts to get better, it seemed my body was ready to declare it couldn’t take it anymore. I withered before my tired eyes, down to less than seventy pounds. I drove myself to the hospital and would spend the next three months between local care and a treatment center in New York City. At this time, I thought healing my body would be enough. But little did I know how much damage had been done to my delicate ability to make choices as a healthy individual. After treatment, I would wither to 70 pounds again because of my body’s delicate chemistry and extreme nutritional support needs to recovery from spending a third of my life in starvation.
I am here because over and over again I asked for help – I prayed to God, doctors, two therapists, four nutrition experts, and any friend I could find. I asked — and those individuals responded with unconditional love and support. I am here — at a healthy weight with a healthy brain — because of their commitment to me and my commitment to myself. I never miss an appointment and I am honest with my team about every thought, fear, anxious moment or slip up. One member of that team taught me where I first had it wrong — and I believe so many others also fall victim: “Don’t get healthy in order to love yourself, love yourself enough to take care of yourself.”
In treatment, I met amazing smart women. One of which used to say: Recovery, It’s going to be Fabulous. I’m here to tell you it is. It’s fabulous – and it’s challenging and terrifying at times. Some of those women I met in New York are back in inpatient care now. It can happen so easily. It almost happened to me. That’s why I make recovery a priority – otherwise I miss out on a million little miracles this healthy life offers every day. I wake up to a beautiful cat on my bed, laughter upstairs, and a day with unlimited possibilities. I love the new life I have now. I have a new job, new friends, and I’m pursuing two additional degrees at Southeast Missouri State University in Theater and Dietetics. Why? Because I believe we must form emotional and physical connections through self expression instead of channeling our emotions into food. I hope one day with continued healing I can work as a Drama Therapist and Nutrition Counselor to pay forward the support I received.
If this all says nothing to you other than ‘you’re not alone’ that’s enough for me. No one should suffer in silence or shame of an eating disorder or any anxiety or depression fueled confusion. There is only one safe way: through love, hope, and life. Blessings are all around every day and each moment I’m learning to love the delightful adventure of imperfection. Life is messy and sticky and gorgeous. So wherever you are, especially if it’s some mental hell, keep going. It can, and it will get better.
“I’ve learned that God sometimes allows us to find ourselves in a place where we want something so bad that we can’t see past it. Sometimes we can’t even see God because of it. When we want something so bad, it’s easy to mistake what we truly need for the thing we really want. When this sort of thing happens, and it seems to happen to everyone, I’ve found it’s because what God has for us is obscured from view, just around another bend in the road.”
Boff Goff, Love Does.