How Motherhood Saved My Life

BY  Margery Achenbach

“With the hopes that I’ll one day look back at this notebook and realize how far I’ve come, I’m going to attempt to write about my eating disorder.”

I felt chills as I read the words I wrote in a composition book in July 2002. It is now about eleven and a half years later and I am doing just that–revisiting a couple of old journals from some dark times in the depths of my eating disorder to prepare to write about where I am now. It’s amazing how you can be transported back in time when reading the words of your younger self. I almost wish I hadn’t looked–the words and feelings that are forever inked on the pages seem to be from someone I don’t know. They are the sad, desperate cries for help from a young woman living in the midst of complete mental turmoil. It’s hard to imagine that it was me–the same person I am right now. How can that be? It feels like I’ve lived several lifetimes between then and today. I am so thankful and lucky to have somehow survived it all. Reading my old journals really puts things into perspective to show me how far I’ve come.

From about the age of 12, I’ve struggled with an eating disorder.

I don’t really remember a life where food and body-image-centered thoughts didn’t occupy my brain. The history of my eating disorder is complicated–like many fragmented pieces of a large intricate puzzle. I could fill a book with the origins and details of my struggle but that’s not what I’m writing about here. I’ve read many things about bulimia and anorexia: informational textbooks, articles, fictional stories, personal memoirs, and have seen documentaries, talk shows, and movies about eating disorders. As a recovering anorexic/bulimic woman, I know that (for me, and I’m sure I’m not alone) it’s a topic to tread very lightly upon. Just about anything and everything can be triggering (meaning it evokes thoughts, feelings, emotions and/or urges), and/or can read like a how-to guide (there’s just no need to share specifics about behaviors and numbers). I went through some insanely self-destructive, dark, and difficult times and many times wanted my life to just be over. Over the years, I treated myself pretty badly and did a lot of harmful things. I want to share my story of life on the other side. There is light at the end of the tunnel: survival. The aftermath of a totally destructive storm that was my life turned into a gorgeous, sunny day.

I’m so grateful that I had the chance to change my self-destructive ways and choose life. I know women who lost their battles and left holes in the hearts of their friends and families. It inspires me to do what they couldn’t: go on to live a happy and healthy life. I’m definitely not unique or special–I know several amazing women who have also chosen life and have become wives and mothers. We are forever bonded by sharing the knowledge of what it’s really like to go through what we have. These ladies, though I don’t talk with them as often as I’d like, inspire me to keep on the path of recovery.

Something that I’d like to help others understand is that eating disorders, like most other psychiatric illnesses, aren’t always universally defined, easily cured problems compartmentalized into specific titles. So very complex, every person’s experience with an eating disorder is individualized: different backgrounds, different fears, different behaviors, different symptoms, different desires (or lack thereof), for recovery. It’s not as simple as talking with a professional who’s checking boxes on a symptom list to diagnose this deceitful, deadly disease.

For me, bulimia and anorexia are intertwined into one big nightmare–yin and yang.

I hope to see eating disorders talked about more by survivors. I feel that it can help others come out of their secret, shameful shadows to ask for help. Just as I believe in the importance of sharing positive birth stories, I feel that people who have come out on the other side of an eating disorder have the power to inspire, uplift, and give courage to those who feel alone and like there’s no hope for recovery. If I can inspire one person to tell someone they’re struggling, then I’ve accomplished my goal. I am absolute living proof that you don’t have to live the rest of your life consumed by this disease!

I’ve had several attempts at recovery, including a few months at an inpatient treatment center. Over the years, I’ve had times of doing well and times of relapse. Now that I’m a mom, I can see how painful and difficult it was for my mom. I can’t fathom the agony she must have felt seeing me struggle so intensely and not being able to fix it. It wasn’t until I met my husband in October 2005 that I really began to live recovery seriously. When I met Jake, the last thing in the world I was looking for was a boyfriend.  Dating was the furthest thing from my mind–I had recently moved back to Pennsylvania after living in San Diego for a couple years for yet another fresh start of my life. I had started out doing well in California but fell back into the pits of my eating disorder and gradually everything went downhill.  Shortly after returning to Pittsburgh, I took a job at a bank and was sent to a small branch to shadow a teller as part of my training for a week. The bank ladies were excited to introduce me to Jake, ‘the cutest guy in town,’ as they called him. I remember the first time I saw his blue eyes. I think it was an instant mutual connection. We ended up going out a few days later and have been together ever since. We connected so deeply, so fast that he knew all about my eating disorder and the secret self I hid from others. To my disbelief, he didn’t run. I never would have believed that there would be a man out there who would love me and want to spend his life with me, but there he was. We talked a lot about my eating disorder and made a pact that practicing my eating disorder was not an option (I’ll never forget those words). He was going to be there for me, to help me deal with my issues but he wanted the commitment from me that I was going to work toward recovery. I agreed. As you can imagine, it wasn’t totally smooth sailing–I came with some huge emotional baggage that wasn’t going to just disappear. I remember telling Jake that despite my problems, I was a “good investment”. He proposed to me on our second dating anniversary and we were married the day after our third. I always said I wouldn’t get married until I could eat a bite of my wedding cake. We had a pumpkin cheesecake and the picture of Jake and I feeding each other a bite is definitely special to me. I completely hit the husband lottery. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more loving, caring, dependable, amazing man to call my life partner and best friend.

I feel that it wasn’t until I saw myself through Jake’s loving eyes that I could begin to like myself a little bit.
I put Jake through a lot over the years and he’s proven to be a lot stronger than he probably ever knew he could be. I know that it can’t be easy to deal with the emotions and issues that he’s helped me through. I am so thankful that I was sent to that tiny little bank branch.

On December 11th, 2009, I took a pregnancy test and passed with flying colors.  For the first time in my life, I was sharing my body with another life. It wasn’t just mine anymore–it was a vessel to grow and birth another human being. The choices I made each day about what I put into my body weren’t just for me. I had to take care of myself in order to take care of the precious life that was growing inside of me. I was thrilled and ecstatic to be pregnant–definitely a lifelong dream of mine to become a mother. I had stopped having a period for about a year while I lived in California, at a point when my body was absolutely starving. I definitely had fears in the back of my head that I might not be able to become pregnant, that I had damaged my body too much. But those two pink lines were there–and I took about 10 tests just to be extra sure. Motherhood is physical: growing and protecting a baby for those beautiful, mysterious nine-ish months, giving birth, breastfeeding. I gave my body to my child completely and wow, was it life–changing! I really was able to begin to see my body in a new light and felt a new respect for it. Instead of allowing negative thoughts to take over my brain as my body grew and changed during pregnancy, I focused on my baby and how miraculous it was that my body could do such an astounding thing. Giving birth to Jack, although it didn’t happen as I had hoped and planned, was a rebirth for me: when a baby is born, so is a mother.

I shed my old skin and started completely fresh, right along with the brand new life of our baby.

I began to grow into my new role and find my way, following my instincts and mothering by heart.

On September 2, 2013, I gave birth to my second son Wyatt. He was born at home with a midwife in the most peaceful, gentle way. I had an awesome pregnancy and took great care of my body and soul, which made me feel confident and capable. After experiencing birth with zero interventions, I appreciate my body that much more.

I’ve been breastfeeding since 2010–it feels right to me to nurse my kids until they outgrow the need. To impress me even more, my amazing body began producing enough milk for both of my boys–tandem nursing is awesome! Instead of feeling that my breasts were extra fat on my body that I didn’t want there, like I did when I was consumed with abusing my body, I have learned to appreciate and respect them as they provide complete and perfect nutrition and comfort for my boys.

It is so important to me to raise my children to be confident in themselves, both inside and out. I want to teach them to make healthy choices about food and instill the importance of treating their bodies well. Something that has always been a struggle for me is black and white thinking, all or nothing. I want them to experience balance and moderation.  Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.  I find myself biting my tongue when I want to complain about feeling fat or ugly. I want to talk to myself with the respect I would expect others to treat me with. I want to set the best example possible for them.

Motherhood is a mirror, and I am trying to be what I want to see in my children.

Recovery doesn’t look like I imagined.  I’d love to say that I have complete freedom from my eating disorder, but truthfully I don’t.  An eating disorder is a tricky addiction to overcome: you can’t simply avoid food. I have to eat and have to find a way to make peace with food. With most other addictions, the addict can remove the substance/activity or themselves from the situation (not to say that it’s easy by any means!). I have to live with food each and every day for the rest of my life and in order to teach my children to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, I need to keep reminding myself that food is not the enemy.

There are still many food rules in my head, still certain foods that I will never eat, still scarily real fears that eating will automatically make me gain weight the second I swallow it. Sometimes I’m aware of the irrationality of the negative thoughts but in disordered eating thinking, the lines of reality and imaginary are very, very blurred. I still hear myself asking my husband to remind me that it’s ok to eat, that I’m not instantly going to gain weight after a large meal. I am so very lucky to have a man who is so patient and loving that he will tell me over and over again, no matter how annoyed he feels. I still feel cravings to practice my eating disorder sometimes. Recovery is continuing to make healthy choices and combating the eating disorder’s voice in my head with truth.

I don’t know that I will ever see myself without the veil of distortion but I do know that I can trust in the way my husband and children see me.

I want to love myself the way they love me. Recovery is a journey, not a destination. It’s waking up each day and making the choice for life, all day every day. It’s not perfect and it’s not a linear progression. There are many times I’ve been doing well and suddenly fell off the wagon. It’s about getting back up and trying again.  Luckily, every day is a chance for a fresh start. I’ve had a lot of those. A therapist once told me to “do the next right thing” when I feel lost. I find myself thinking this when I’m struggling. When the eating disorder voice asks, “should you eat that? Won’t it make you gain weight the minute it enters your mouth?,” I counter it with “yes, I should eat, no, it’s impossible to gain weight from eating a normal, healthy meal.” It really is work–recovery is a road that I will have to walk for the rest of my life. But I choose to walk my road to wellness feeling proud and lucky to have the chance to keep going.

I’ve learned that I feel best about myself when I’m active; daily walks at the park and making time for yoga make a total difference in how I feel about my body. I’ve been a vegetarian for the past 19 years and eating organic, whole foods makes me feel good about eating. I’ve learned that no matter how critical I am about my body, my husband and sons will always see me as beautiful, and that’s really all that matters. I’ve learned that I am worthy of happiness and love. I don’t wish away the struggles of my life–they’ve made me who I am and have given me strength I didn’t know I had. Maybe we have to go through our worst times to arrive at our best.

Maya Angelou said, “I do my best because I’m counting on you counting on me.”

This really resonated with me in terms of my recovery journey. I want to choose life and health and be my best self because my husband and sons are counting on me. It’s not an option to get pulled into the whirlwind of self-destruction ever again. I am forever a mother now and it will never be “just me.” Taking care of myself matters in a different way now–it’s simply not an option to practice self-destructive behavior. I have two sweet, amazing little boys who depend on me. Taking care of me IS taking care of them.

We are one.