**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.
By Liz Rognes, a former Emily Program client in recovery. She is a teacher, writer, and musician who lives in Spokane, WA.
I have always been something of a perfectionist. As a student, I aimed for straight A’s and I was involved in everything, but just beneath the surface, I was filled with insecurity, uncertainty, and shame. No matter what I did, I didn’t feel like I was good enough. I had terrible anxiety, and I didn’t know how to talk about it, so I just kept feeling anxious. Bulimia and anorexia became a way for me to attempt to manage that anxiety, but instead, my feelings of anxiety and shame intensified. I struggled with an eating disorder throughout high school, and when I moved away to college, I thought it could be a way to finally escape the eating disorder. I thought that moving away from my little Iowa farm town, away from old triggers and patterns, might simply erase the eating disorder chatter and urges.
And, in fact, for the first semester of college, things were okay. I was using eating disorder symptoms less than I had been before. I made friends. I learned about new concepts and theories in my classes: music theory, feminism, philosophy, and I discovered that I loved talking about ideas and examining various points of view. I felt inspired by academia, and I knew that I wanted to give my whole attention to my studies, but I still had the pull of bulimia holding me back.
Instead of dissipating, the eating disorder began to fester and grow stronger. I started skipping assignments, then exams, then classes. I began to distance myself from the friends I had made, and before long, I also began drinking, then drinking more, then doing drugs. For a period of time, everything was chaotic. The bulimia worsened, the drinking intensified, I got a DWI. I wound up in detox, more than once. I started to lose hope, and I sank into depression.
But through all of this, I kept going to my therapy appointments and groups. Even when things were at their worst, I kept reaching out, asking for help and seeking resources. Sometimes all I had was a minuscule, nearly extinguished breath of hope, but it was there, and it was there because there were people around me who kept helping me keep that tiny little flame alive, even when it felt like my world was falling apart. The two things that helped me more than anything were a supportive, encouraging community and that tiny, minuscule, but inextinguishable flicker of hope. A person can do incredible things with a little hope and a lot of support.
Of course, I was lucky to have access to resources like The Emily Program. I was lucky to have health insurance. I was lucky to have a family who did not give up on me. Not everyone has all of those things, but I think that support systems can be wherever we make them, whomever we trust, and whatever resources we can build.
In April of 2004, after four years of checking in and out of treatment centers, I checked in to the final one: a residential treatment center in Wisconsin. I spent three long, difficult, healing, life-changing months there. I followed a meal plan, practiced healthy coping skills, developed important, lasting relationships with my peers, and I talked as honestly as I could to the people I trusted about everything, even the darkest and most painful parts of my past. I started to challenge negative self-talk, and I began to listen to my own body. Finally, I began to really imagine that I could live a life without an eating disorder. I found myself going days, months, and then years without using eating disorder symptoms, and I began to care about taking care of myself.
In the spring of 2014, I celebrated two amazing milestones: ten years of recovery and the birth of a son. In my life today, I am a healthy, thirty-three-year-old new mother with a job I love, a partner I love, a baby I adore, a supportive community, and lots of outlets for creativity. I am happy, safe, loved, and comfortable in my own skin. I’m still inspired by academia, and now I teach at a university. I’m a musician and a writer, and, for me, making the time for creative expression has become a part of my ongoing recovery. I am grateful for the life I have, and it’s a life that, without recovery, would not be possible.
When I first walked into The Emily Program as a college student in St. Paul, Minnesota, I was nervous (and, at first, maybe even a little ambivalent) about doing the work of recovery. It would take me four years before I could say that I was “symptom-free,” but I think of that decision to reach out to The Emily Program as the beginning of my path toward recovery, even though moving forward meant working through many difficult parts of my story: understanding my sexual orientation, healing from sexual assault, dealing with substance abuse, anxiety, and, of course, the eating disorder. I stumbled through dangerous medical issues, slip-ups, full-on relapses, and multiple hospitalizations and trips to inpatient rehab. But through all of it, my therapist and other treatment providers at The Emily Program believed that I could get better, even when I didn’t fully believe it myself.
What I have experienced has given me tools and insight that have helped me become the person I am today. And for that—to be a person who has learned and who continues to learn from her past, to be a mother who can take care of herself so she can take care of her son, to be a person who can wake to watch the sunrise with her baby, who can laugh at mistakes, who can love and be loved, who can find beauty in her own, unique, imperfect and wonderful life—I am grateful.
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