I was born afraid.
So, it became no surprise to me now that, by the time I entered college, my high anxiety, sensitivity, and perfectionism had fueled anorexia nervosa. Restricting food decreased anxiety. And, if I ate enough in a binge, I didn’t have to deal with difficult emotions. Controlling my body size was an unconscious way to cope with perfectionism. (If I can’t get the perfect grade, I can, at least, have the so-called perfect body.)
Of course, none of this worked in the long-term. Eventually, my solution became my biggest problem, my greatest fear. A year or so after college graduation, I desperately wanted freedom from my eating disorder.
What we want often lies on the other side of fear.
I had to move directly into what scared me most—over and over again—in order to save my own life as anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.
I followed my dietitian-prescribed food plan, all the while, terrified. I gained weight and saw horror in the mirror each day. Recovery, in the beginning, was like bathing myself in fear. Of course, I resisted this for a long time. I thought, I’ll face the food and body image issues when I am no longer afraid.
I was waiting for fear to move. Then, I’d move. But, that’s not how it works.
We all know that facing fear is key, but we all get frozen in our lives, waiting for fear to fade away, before acting. I have learned that fear only dissipates when I move into it.
Finally, marching directly toward what terrified me continuously, I fully recovered from my eating disorder. I was even able to turn all of that fear into my first book, Life Without Ed.
Trying to get a publishing deal brought on a whole different kind of fear: rejection. Publishers rejected Life Without Ed well over fifty times. I didn’t quit, because my eating disorder recovery had made me resilient. I was stronger than ever. Or, at least, that’s what I thought at the time.
Enter posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, about ten years later. In my late twenties, I had experienced sexual trauma in a relationship with a man I thought I loved. When I married a different man much later in life, delayed-onset PTSD was triggered, as my brain had stamped “danger” on anything remotely related to intimacy, like a husband.
For me, PTSD equated to pure fear. Adding this level of fear onto an already fearful person felt like unbearable torture. PTSD was like a parasite intent to replicate anxiety and pain into all parts of my life. The world was out to get me; everything was dangerous. I was exhausted, depleted, and oh so scared.
To get better, I once again sought professional help. This time, I checked myself into a PTSD treatment center, one that’s main approach to healing was facing fear, repeatedly, each and every day. Literally, my full-time job in treatment became to approach all that scared me. (Yes, I signed up for this, because I knew from my previous recovery that it could actually work.)
Similar to my eating disorder, walking into this level of fear took awhile. If I hadn’t already had the experience of conquering something else that I thought might kill me, I might not have had the strength to beat posttraumatic stress.
Years later, I write and speak about PTSD recovery, because, finally, I have experienced freedom. In fact, I am writing a book about this journey. Fear has shifted, yet again, into fuel for my passions and dreams.
I might have been born afraid, but I wasn’t born to be defeated. None of us were.
We fall down, and we get back up again. I have discovered that, in the getting back up, we can find ourselves, our strengths, and sometimes, like me, even our life’s work.
Jenni Schaefer is a National Recovery Advocate of Eating Recovery Center’s Family Institute. February 26th through March 4th is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. For information and resources, call 877-957-6575 or visit www.jennischaefer.com/seek-help. Jenni is the bestselling author of “Life Without Ed," "Goodbye Ed, Hello Me” and “Almost Anorexic.”