Remembering Who I Was
(Photo taken May 29, 2017 - almost 3 months into recovery)
To recover from anorexia, you typically have to gain weight. In extreme cases, you're emaciated and it's clear to anyone who looks at you that you're ill. To be healthy again, you have to fix that.
But no one ever talks about how in order to gain weight, your entire world has to turn on its head for months - maybe even years.
Gaining weight is a side effect of recovery. The real change happens in your brain. When you starve yourself, it doesn't just cause you to lose weight and be skinny. It changes your entire personality. While in starvation mode, your body begins to break down neurons in your brain for energy and releases large amounts of adrenaline to give you the boost that food is supposed to provide. This sounds terrible and makes you wonder who would do this to themselves, but the feeling that occurs is unmatchable.
With the excess of adrenaline and shift in your brain chemistry, you begin to feel perfect. You're thinking feels sharper, harder. Everything you conceive has glass edges to it. You become braver, moving through life like someone who will never die.
Pretty soon, you begin to carve out little fragments of life you deem "safe" and only play within those realms, feeling on top of the world because you've absolutely mastered things like restricting, knowing the calorie amount in any food without having to read the label, exercising hours beyond the normal person and getting straight A's in school. You no longer know how to talk to anyone and you can't remember the last time you smiled a real smile, but you've figured out the perfect amount of almond butter to eat to make you think you're full, and that's enough.
Just before I started recovering, I was numb to emotion. The change in my brain chemistry had left me so removed from the human experience that nothing solicited anything from me: smiles, tears, laughter, joy - it was all fiction.
As soon as I began eating again, my body sprang into action unlike anything I've ever heard of from other recovered anorexics. It only took me a little over a month to get my period back, which was insane to me. I'd read so much about women who didn't get their period back until they were months (or even years) into recovery and I was both grateful and mortified to be moving along so quickly.
I still remember when it first came back. It was a complete time warp back to that Sunday morning in 2007 when I woke up to pee and practically shrieked when the toilet bowl water was infused with an abrasive red instead of pale yellow (delighting in all of the discomfort this paragraph will bring to some men). This time, I was 23.
I sat in the bathroom for a while, crying. Never in my life did I think I would be so ecstatic to get my period, but I knew what it signified. It meant my eating disorder had finally begun to lose.
Although many facets of my recovery brought me these kind of intimate, beautiful moments alone with my body, it also brought on months and months of mood swings, depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, insecurity and low self-esteem. I want to be open about these topics for none other than YOU, my darling little warrior who has been contemplating recovery for a while but hasn't made the plunge yet. The warrior and warriors I'm writing for all over the world. I'm here for you, because I want you to know this isn't easy. This isn't going to take a few days. This is going to take months, maybe years of backbreaking, life-changing work, but you deserve it and you can absolutely handle it.
I chose the photo above because this was me at the prime of my insecurities. I was beginning to get a butt again, my hair is thicker and the natural glow has returned to my face, but my stomach was incredibly bloated at this point and would be for months and months to come. I was constantly exhausted. I would eat and eat and eat and then have to lay down because I was so dizzy or my heart was racing so fast. I wasn't doing anything incorrectly - my body was just struggling to adjust to this version of myself that eats and it didn't know what to do.
At the same time as my recovery, I was forced to go through a few other massive life changes. Just as I decided to get better, I was also finishing up my senior year of college and graduating. Simultaneously, my parents were moving to Idaho to retire. They told me I could come, but I had just earned my Bachelor's degree and had no desire to start my career from Idaho. The dreams I had been chasing since I was nine were in New York.
But I knew it wouldn't be plausible to move to New York in the throes of my recovery. I didn't want to make that leap until my body and mind were completely ready. I also had ties keeping me in California, so I stayed to recover. I had to move into an apartment with three girls I had never met, find a full time job that would pay the bills and figure out how to be an adult. All completely on my own (including lugging all of my crap to my new apartment), and all while I was recovering from anorexia nervosa. It was so unbelievably hard, but I did it.
All of the physical changes I dealt with were very difficult and at times felt almost lethal. However, what was going on in my mind was even weirder. Even when I had only gained a few pounds, I was convinced I was massively overweight. This goes beyond the skinny girl looking in the mirror and seeing an obese person. That version of anorexia and eating disorders in general is what we see in society, and it's dangerous. It's not just a bunch of rich white girls going, "Oh, I feel so fat." It's a genuine belief that you are. It's not just looking in the mirror and seeing yourself as bigger than you actually are - it's walking around throughout the day and living your life feeling like you are too overweight to function healthily.
There was a point where I went into my therapist's office in hysterics because I thought I had gained so much weight that it was affecting my health. I thought I was at risk for high cholesterol or blood pressure - I literally felt like I didn't know how to move my body when I was walking because I was so unused to the extra fat. It felt wrong, like it shouldn't be there. I couldn't have been more than 115 pounds when I believed this.
I didn't want anyone to look at me. I began to talk less and less and avoid eye contact with people because I was so ashamed of my body. I was always on edge, waiting for someone to tell me I'd gained weight or to ask if I was pregnant (which I did get asked, many many times). I knew I was doing the right thing, but I started to question if it was worth it to be this miserable and unhappy with myself.
My brain started to feel foggy, as if I were on antidepressants at all times. This made me feel both fat and stupid, and my sharp wit and attention-to-detail I had when I was anorexic were gone. Now I'm aware that this was my brain growing back to its normal size, but I felt like a complete idiot. I felt like I'd never make it in life unless I relapsed.
And there it was, relapse. It sounded so delicious. How easy it would be to just...eat less. Little by little. How great it would feel to be who I was again, to have my false sense of confidence and my shrunken deformed brain back in action. I knew I couldn't do it, but for comfort I promised myself that when I was old and about to die anyway, I'd let myself relapse for one last glorious burning ride. Until then, I'd just have to be fat and stupid.
Every time someone didn't talk to me for a while or even just looked at me for a little too long, I figured it was because they thought I was a disgusting fat slob. I figured everyone was pretending to be proud of me because they didn't want me to be so sick again, but I also figured they thought I looked way better when I was skinny and wished I was just able to be that way naturally. And I wished that too.
As my weight crept into the "overshoot" stage, I was completely miserable. I had given up trying to fight it - no matter what I tried to do to slow it down, the weight kept coming. I remember this one morning where I woke up and my very first thought of the day was: I want to die. I lay there staring at the ceiling, the tears running down my cheeks acting as the only clue there might be emotion within me. I felt it so deeply, and I had never felt that way before in my life. My parents were 1250 miles away, my roommate (who I considered a sister) and I were fighting almost every single day, none of my clothes fit and I was barely making enough money to pay rent, let alone buy myself anything new.
This perhaps stung the most. I've always been very into fashion, but during this time I was forced to wear the same clothes almost every single week because my options were so limited. I had grown out of all of my pants and shorts. My underwear were all too tight and gave me muffin tops and I literally had one bra. One. Fortunately, I was still able to squeeze myself into some of the skirts and blouses that fit me when I was anorexic, but that was all I had. About five really tight and embarrassing outfits. I felt like my recovery was on display, and I felt very alone. Death sounded so sweet and peaceful. It sounded like the only way to quiet down my mind. I felt so overwhelmed. I envied the girls I had seen who had the privilege of recovering in a hospital or at home with their parents. They didn't have to work and support themselves while also trying to learn how to be human again. Everything seemed too hard and I wanted to stop trying.
I got back up and kept going. I told my therapist about my thoughts and we worked through them. I kept eating, because I knew deep down I wanted to live. Something kept dragging me forward, something that told me I could do this.
For my birthday, when I was just past a year in recovery but still bloated and overshot in my weight, I booked a trip to New York with my best friend. Yet another thing plaguing me was the sense of failure I got when I thought about New York and how I had originally planned to move there after graduation. Every time I go to New York, things become crystal clear. Life makes more sense to me. I figured if I could just treat myself to a few days of my paradise, maybe I could sort out what was going on with me.
A day before our flight, I received an email from a fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar. She had my resume on file from my previous internship there and wanted me to come in for an interview for an assistant position in two days. I considered this to be fate. What were the odds that someone from a fashion magazine in New York, my dream job, would ask me in for an interview during the ONE week out of the entire year I happened to be flying out there? I said yes.
As soon as I set foot in the City, the extreme hunger that had been harassing me for over a year finally curbed. Was this an eery coincidence, or was seeing the City again and realizing my full potential the final step I needed to recover?
I got the job, and my life threw yet another seemingly impossible challenge at me: I had one week to find someone to replace me at my apartment, sell my car, book a one-way ticket and find a new apartment in New York within my budget. I did it, and I've been living in Brooklyn ever since.
My eating disorder seemed to melt away. My brain returned to its normal size and is finally the brain I remember. I'm fully TAYLOR ENGLE, for the first time in years. Between anorexic Taylor and recovery Taylor, I had forgotten about all of the little quirks and isms that make me who I am, and I am so happy to meet myself again. I am not scared of food anymore and I eat when I'm hungry. My appetite has normalized. I finally remember what it's like to not eat too little or too much - I am just enough.
Recovery is beauty. I've never experienced something so miraculous in my life. I've had so many young women in my Instagram DMs telling me they just want to be who they were before their eating disorder, when they were an innocent little girl who didn't think about food and didn't have a care in the world. This hits so close to home, because that's the exact thing I was craving for so many long months.
Anorexia was a bitch, but I'm grateful for her. I saw myself at my lowest - I saw what a danger I can be to myself if I really set my mind to it. Then I saw myself as a shell of a woman - someone who felt ashamed moving through life taking up too much space. And now I am me.
I am creative and I like to write. I love dancing - I've done it my whole life. I go to parks, I go to clubs. I learn better when things are written down. I'm ambitious and thoughtful and I care so very much about so many people. I am the Taylor that little girl, that little towheaded daughter of Bill and Lori Engle with her nose in a book and her head in the clouds, would be so endlessly proud of.
You are not just here to waste away. Remember who you are.