The day my Leaving Cert results were issued, I was in Spain.
My father had gone to the school to pick up my results. I still remember the feeling of nausea when I saw his name flash on the screen of the phone, my voice shaking as I answered the call.
“Louise,” he said. “I am so proud of you. You got a C3 in pass maths.”
I did very well in my exams; I was even offered a scholarship to study at UCD due to my grades. Maths was my only ordinary level subject, and it was the one that I had to work the hardest at.
My father knew I’d had to struggle to get that C3; it hadn’t come as effortlessly to me as any of my other subjects had. That was what he valued and what he taught me to value too — the effort. The hard work.
He always believed that the journey and what you learned along the way could be more important than how the outside world judged the eventual results.
On June 18th of 2019, I celebrated two years in recovery. For a long time, I had simply accepted that I would be semi-recovered for the rest of my life and that would have to be okay.
My eating disorder wouldn’t be debilitating, as it had been in the past; it would be a tiny portion of my life, a safety valve, a crutch that I knew was there if I needed it. It could remain my shameful little secret that no one else had to know about.
There were prolonged periods of time where I was symptom-less, months that would go by without restricting or purging, but it was akin to being a dry-drunk.
I wasn’t engaging in the eating-disorder behaviours, but I was still obsessed with my weight, food, how many calories I was consuming a day, how tight the waistband on my favourite pair of jeans were.
This ‘recovery’, as I saw it, was a brittle one, a house of cards awaiting a sudden exhale of breath. Ready to fall down.
The bulimia was rampant, as I carefully maintained my weight at slightly underweight for my height – thin enough to look good in photos and for people to tell me I had an ‘amazing’ figure, but not to the degree where they might express concern and start examining my eating habits too carefully.
On New Year’s Eve, facing into 2017, I wondered if I might die in the coming year. That my poor, maltreated heart might simply say enough. So, I made the same new year’s resolution that I made every year since I was fourteen years of age. This year, I promised. This year, I will get better.
I don’t know why it ‘took’ that year. I turned 32 that February and I realised that in my entire life, I’d had an eating disorder for more years than I had not.
Maybe I decided that I was tired of waiting around for other people to say they loved me enough to make me love myself. Maybe I wanted more for myself than to eke out an existence, one day to the next. Maybe, it was just my time.
One of my best friends has three children under the age of four and she told me once that being a mother is the greatest thing she’s ever done, but also the hardest. It’s strange, but I think of my recovery in the same way. It has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life and yet I am certain, to my dying day, it will probably be the achievement of which I am most proud.
Fully committing to this process has been terrifying. I had to let go of my need to control that which I could not. I didn’t restrict, I didn’t make myself get sick. I threw away the scales and measuring tape, I donated my ‘thin’ clothes to charity, and I had to settle in and wait.
My stomach was uncomfortably bloated, trying to reacclimatise itself to digesting normal amounts of food. My weight fluctuated, taking almost eighteen months to return to a size that looks absurdly similar to that which it was before I began restricting calories in the first place. (More confirmation that diets do not work. Our bodies will find their natural set point if we eat well and exercise regularly.)
Body image has been an on-going battle. Having come of age during the Size Zero phenomenon, when magazines were stuffed with photos of painfully thin actresses, there is still a dark corner of my mind that is drawn to protruding clavicles and delicate bones, mistaking their fragility for beauty.
But I recognise that impulse for what it is, and I know that I do not need to listen to the mendacious voice inside me that tells me everything I want – happiness, love, acceptance – awaits me, but only on the other side of another seven pounds lost. I know that is not true.
That voice will always demand its pound of flesh. It will keep demanding it until there is nothing left.
You do not need to listen to that voice either. I promise you, that as hard as recovery is, it is worth it. There is a life waiting for you on the other side, one that is peaceful and kind. This is your life, and no one else’s.
Are you ready to claim it?
GET: Tickets for a Publishing Masterclass with Caroline Foran and me. If you want to write a book, this is the class for you. Running July 20 in the Alex Hotel, Dublin. More details on EventBrite.ie.
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- Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours, Asking For It, Almost Love, and The Surface Breaks