Photo and “5” on my back my Kristen Marie Parker. To celebrate 5 years in recovery.
This is a transcript of a talk I gave at an Eating Recovery Center Alumni gathering. If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please look them up. They’re incredible.
Before I tell my story, or dive too deep into anything, I want to remind you what I remind myself of every day; it’s OK to quit. I’m going to show you why, but it comes down to one real truth:
Most things in the world are worth quitting. I’ll list a few:
- Toxic relationships
- Thinking Dane Cook is funny
- Hair gel
- Taking people seriously who walk around with Bluetooth headsets
- Glee. After Season 1 it just wasn’t worth it. Walk away.
- Tearing other people down
- Being ashamed of who you’ve been
To that end, I want to tell you who I was before my eating disorder had a say in my life. That little Kathleen was a special lady, and is much closer to who I am now than who I was in my eating disorder. When I was younger, I was never an athlete. I spent most of my time writing Lord of the Rings fanfiction and not going on dates. One time I got to make out with a guy on the swim team, and I think I said out loud “Your abs are like Superman’s abs.”
So body image was not on my mind.
In my disorder I got tons of compliments. People thought I was going to be president. I was offered modeling contracts, and men fell at my feet in wonder.
LIES. I was still an awkward nerd. But I killed all the hard stuff about me – the stuff I didn’t think anyone would like. I softened my edges. I limited my scope. I became easier. I tried to make the weird nerd in me disappear. And for the most part, I succeeded in doing that.
Which is why I want you to quit.
I want to share my story with you, but what I need you to understand is that I am a quitter. Most of us are told not to be quitters. The American Dream is built on that idea – never give up, never surrender. Actually, that was Galaxy Quest. Which is still the best summary of the American dream I’ve heard.
But the idea that we can never quit is to say that we can never make mistakes. That we can never double back, blame our mistakes on some cosmic Siri in the sky (NO, SIRI, I MEANT “TAKE ME TO HAPPINESS” NOT “MAKE ME DROP OF OUT OF COLLEGE.”) But you can.
I’ve quit school, I’ve quit relationships that didn’t feel right for reasons that I couldn’t process at the time, I’ve quit jobs that left me exhausted and unhappy, and I’ve quit my eating disorder.
We all know the genetic component behind eating disorders, and I had a big one.
I lost my Aunt Wendy to an eating disorder when she was only in her 40’s. When I was a little girl and would stay with her in St. Louis, I noticed her refrigerator was always empty, she never went out with friends, and I heard the whispers of my aunts and uncles that Wendy’s dialysis wouldn’t “work forever.”
When Wendy died, I was 17, and I saw my mom cry for the first time. I was just a teenager, and my strong mother who believed in dessert first and friends first and life first, cried on my shoulder. After Wendy died, I learned more about Aunt Wendy’s sad heart than I ever did when she was alive. Wendy loved her family, but she couldn’t reach out. It was like someone trying to hug you from behind a glass wall. I could never touch Wendy, and she couldn’t touch me. I would never have believed I would be looking at people from behind that warped barrier in a few years.
My eating disorder started when I was 19. I was not the normal profile for an anorexic. I am an insane people pleaser, for sure. I’m a dictator’s dream. Give me a smile, and I’m like “Hell yeah, who do we hate? I hate them, too. Let’s invade their country. Who wants to come to my birthday?”
But I’m a reckless person. I have always had what my boyfriend lovingly calls “squirrel brain.” I couldn’t quite stick with anything. I was also deeply criticized by my family for being unable to follow through on anything. My parents worried out loud whether I’d ever get my act together. The people pleaser in me wanted to. The rest of me was too distracted by episodes of Lost and writing short stories about the guy I liked asking me to homecoming.
I just couldn’t seem to focus. I have an older brother who knew he wanted to be an engineer at age five, and I am not shitting you – he became one. I jumped between Model UN and theatre and soccer and choir and newspaper and was never that good at any of them. I was told I lacked commitment.
That sank under my skin. I wanted to follow through. I was told that if I couldn’t find something that I would see to the end, I would never be OK.
During my freshman year of college, I found something to finish, and I found it right as life started to unravel. My life unraveled in such normal ways, that felt so specific to me, as personal pain often does.
My dad cheated on my mom, and we found out on Christmas Eve. That was the second time I saw my mom cry. I realized that the theology degree I was pursuing in the deep cold of Montana was a lie, and I no longer believed in God. It was my first real break up. My beloved Grandma Tarrant died, the woman who taught me to tie my shoes and tell time and who told me I didn’t need one thing to be special, that I was special just for being alive. She forgot everyone at the end except for me, and when she died, I felt like the last person in my family who saw who I really was died, too.
I started running, and eating less. First to lose the freshman 15, and then to lose myself.
My genetics kicked in, my depression revved up, and two years later I was laying in my boyfriend’s apartment while he was out of town, listening to my heart beat slower and slower, wondering calmly what it would be like to die at 21.
I didn’t want to live. Most of all, I didn’t want to let go of this thing. This thing that finally made me special. I finally was told how responsible I was, how wonderful it was to see me so focused. That little voice in my head told me I had finally figured out that no one really missed the real me. That this whittled, quiet version of myself was finally what people wanted.
I don’t want to go into the specifics, for one big reason; you can’t compare your story to mine. I was actually lucky. While I laid in that empty apartment in Boulder, Colorado, deeply believing if I died it would be OK because I had followed through on something, and wanting to die, just to finally have a quiet mind and some rest, I remembered what it was like to see my Aunt Wendy when I was a kid.
She was so boring. She didn’t play. She wasn’t living. I realized I was giving up on life, and worse, I was a huge huge boring bummer now.
And when Wendy died, all I remember thinking while I watched my grandmother bury her daughter, was that Wendy finally got to rest. She always seemed so tired.
I didn’t want to follow through on dying as a whisper of a person. As a one dimensional ghost. I would rather go out on fire over a cliff than meekly apologizing to the world for walking on it. I just didn’t know how. I checked into the ERC, with the support of my parents, and my then-boyfriend, and after three months I started to feel all those gross, dynamic feelings again.
Here’s the hard part.
Things did not get better. I had dropped out of school, and suddenly realized I didn’t want to go back. My boyfriend and I broke up because I had become a new and different person with all this energy, and we realized amicably that we had literally nothing in common other than that we loved each other. My parents’ marriage was definitely not great. I couldn’t make any money. It’s really strange how a person with half a theology degree can’t get a job.
I took a couple jobs, and started doing the only other thing I had ever been good at; writing. I got a job at the Denver Post, reviewing shows and albums. I did not make money doing that for a long time. But I was thrown into a group of people who had no idea I was a little scared of cream cheese. They just assumed I was regular about food. It was amazing. I felt like I was peeking into a former life. These people just drank beer and had fun. They had no anxiety about it. They had anxiety about a lot of other things, and big, loud feelings. And I liked them, and they liked me. I made out with a lot of boys, which I can not recommend highly enough. As long as you want to, that is. And no drummers or lead singers.
Eating did not get easier for a long time, I want to say that up front. I still had, and have, days where I sit and stare at myself in the mirror and wonder if life would be better if I went back to the one thing I was good at. But whenever I talked about it to my new friends who ate cheeseburgers regularly, they mostly wanted to talk about other things about me. They just didn’t find my eating disorder that interesting. They thought it was much better when I argued that the Decemberists were awful.
After a year, I moved across the country to Seattle because I wanted to start over. This is something else I just can’t recommend more. Find a place where you feel drawn to, and make a life there. Go there with nothing, have a support system at home if you can, and then watch and see. You’re all resourceful, clever people, I know that without meeting any of you. You go and see how you can make a home somewhere else.
And here, I found my home. It is a messy, patchwork home. It’s full of heartbreak, and mistakes. It’s where I learned how to trust myself enough to go back to school again, realize that nope, I still don’t want a theology degree, and quit again. It’s where I found my chosen family – the ones who when I told them about my eating disorder, wanted to figure out what else there was under there. No one in the past five years has found this story all that fascinating. And if they have, it’s because it told a bigger story – the story of how I pieced myself together.
Since I’ve left treatment and been in recovery, I’ve been hurt, and I’ve hurt people. I have spent weekends alone crying because I couldn’t imagine anyone loving me with all this mess inside. The mess that I unleashed through treatment. The mess that my eating disorder had helped me shove down and shut up.
And then a few months ago, I looked up and it was five years later. Five years since I had left the ERC. Five years since I had quit. And I’d quit so many things since then. And every time I threw in the towel and quit something, I felt like I was falling apart or falling farther from the person people wanted me to be.
But I wasn’t falling apart these past five years. I was piecing myself back together. I still don’t have one special thing I could do, nothing that separates me from the masses. And down here with all the other messy humans eating and pooping and crying and kissing, I have found little bits of myself in the mud. I made mistakes, so many of them. I’ll make a lot more. But so will you. And whittling them down doesn’t make them disappear – it just makes you disappear.
I kept writing. Through all the shit, I kept writing. Now I make money doing that. Not a lot, so don’t get too excited. But even that doesn’t define me.
Because you have to be more. You have to be more than one thing. You only have one life, that’s true. But to only be one thing is to give up on the beautiful insanity that is being alive.
You can’t define yourself by an eating disorder, and ever enjoy driving through the mountains with your friends, eating Swedish Fish and singing Tom Petty in a key heretofore not heard on Earth. Eating disorders don’t allow for loud, fun singing.
You can’t define yourself by an eating disorder, and have room to fall in love with someone. You can’t look at someone’s face in the morning and fully feel your heart expand with gratitude and hopeless happiness when you’re only an eating disorder.
You can’t define yourself by an eating disorder, and find something that makes you come alive. I didn’t write for the years that I was in my own disorder. When I did, I didn’t recognize the voice coming out of me. There is no room for your voice when it’s only an eating disorder doing the talking.
Eating disorders do not love. They do not play. They do not listen with their whole bodies to people. They do not work hard at a career that breaks open the world into a thousand possibilities. They do not have any fun at all. They are super bummers at parties.
They limit you, and you are limitless. You don’t know it yet, and maybe I don’t even know it yet, but you are limitless. Your body is meant to help you play and run around, not trap you.
I’ve quit so many things, but so far I haven’t quit myself. And I’m easy to quit. I’m reckless, prone to crying at dog food commercials, hesitant to say no to people, often selfish. I don’t shower regularly enough, I consider cheese a complete meal, and I haven’t cleaned out my car in…ever. I stuck with me. Me. My stupid, beautiful self. I’ve loved me wholly and imperfectly for 5 years, and somehow other people have followed suit.
From loving myself with stuttering and shaking confidence, I’ve noticed that I love other people much better. I am slowly relying less on their approval, which means they are finally friends, and not wardens of my self-esteem.
In my eating disorder, there wasn’t room for me. I was a vessel for a misguided voyage to an imaginary perfection. I’m deeply imperfect. I always have been, and I’m willing to put down money that I always will be. But I am more than I ever have been, and if you gave me a choice between being scared of making a mess, and making a huge one, I’ll always choose the messier path. Be a quitter. Just this once, quit. Keep quitting, until one day, and I do promise this, you’ll find yourself in a life that actually makes you want to stay.