The Difference Between Letting Go and Moving On
By: Katie Hogan (@katieshogan)
I was sixteen years old when I learned how to say goodbye for the first time. I learned much later than I should have. Fortunately, broken and abrupt endings did not litter my childhood, but they certainly existed. I experienced the pain of relatives outgrowing their capacity for an earthly love, one represented by human connection. I experienced the confusion of friends that had dissipated into popularity. But the deepening emptiness within my body sourced from mental illness that would later ravage my life, protected me from forming extraordinarily close human connections with anyone, even my family. The truth was that I had always felt as if I was standing behind a thin layer of glass in the real world. As much as I pressed my nose against it, I never felt like an authentic part of the universe. Every relationship seemed distant, not quite emotionless, but not entirely organic, as I pretended to be someone I wasn’t.
I forged this little habit of mine in the moments between relentless teasing, collapsing under the pressure of high expectations at home I never felt as if I could fulfill, and the piercing moments with an emotionally abusive teacher. Later, I amplified my pretending into a full on double life. I pretended to be happy, normal, lively. But as the bullying continued and the results of emotional abuse found their way into my personality, they decimated any shred of premature self-worth that might have been inhabiting my body before the age of nine years old. Body dysmorphic disorder and crippling social anxiety fueled the fire of low self-esteem, but not a soul knew. I made sure of that. I appeared fine- good, even. But the act of pretending comes with a price, and with each day, I felt further and further alone and disconnected. I never learned to say goodbye, because I never really had the capability to feel the certain hollowness that comes with goodbyes.
I lost friends to more popular girls and family members to the impending oblivion. But my connection to all of them still felt false, and in a way, it was, as nobody knew who I was underneath the fake smiles that hid the confusion about why I felt so sad and scared all of the time. And when I lost those relationships with other people, it never struck me as intensely as it could have. Closure and familiarity did not associate in my head, and it took me until I was sixteen for me to learn the terrifying and excruciating emptiness of certain endings that required a goodbye, an acknowledgment- ends of things that lodged their way behind my sternum and into the chambers of my heart.
Nothing had ever caused the feelings of fear to throb against my bones the same way they did when I sat in a hospital at fifteen years old; food forced in my mouth for the very first time. It had been several days since my fork met my lips, and my body was hungry. It growled with malnutrition and died a little more with each day I refused to feed it. A physiological desire was not the problem. My self-worth was. The root of anorexia’s reign over my life was so convoluted that it took years of untangling to uncover, but the anorexia itself eventually became so obvious it landed me in an inpatient treatment hospital, sitting in front of a bowl of fruit as my tears splashed the 100 calories of raw melon before me.
As inpatient treatment continued over the following one hundred and forty days, the realization that I needed to let go of my eating disorder unless I wanted to stay stuck in the plastic, bubble-wrapped, feeding tube-laden land of hospitalizations came forward. Upon my discharge from a second treatment center five months later, I had not yet said goodbye to my reason for living, my pursuit of thinness and perfection, the demon that was trying to kill me with every single thought that danced across my mind: “Fat Pig,” “obese.” It took years to realize that my body was not the problem. Never was.
My body, or even my perception of it, was not the reason I was starving myself to the point of extreme hunger and passing out in the shower. It took me years to realize “fat pig” stemmed from “you’re taking up too much space.” A consistent year of constant emotional abuse from a fourth-grade teacher, followed by several more of scattered emotionally abusive episodes from a mother struggling with an alcohol abuse problem, disordered eating, and chaotic emotions taught me who I was supposed to be, as did my father’s rigid rules and picture-perfect painted version of myself. I didn’t fit into the mold of my preppy, all-girls school. My free spirit roamed too far, was too wild, and once again, too much. My soul refused to stay contained to the box society labeled for me: good student, good athlete, good daughter.
My fourth-grade brain translated myself as too big, on both a physical and spiritual level, rather than the box as too small. I did not see a problem with a mother who dieted and exercised obsessively to the point of visible ribs and yet still criticized her body. I noticed an issue with my body and its soft stomach, jiggly thighs, and strong shoulders. I did not see a problem with a teacher who told me I was a failure who would grow up to have no friends and mostly, no life. I noticed an issue with my personality and the way it never fit into anyone’s wishes. I blamed the abuse inflicted upon me, by my teacher and my eating disorder, on myself. I mirrored this process after a sexual assault freshmen year of high school when I punished myself for the assault with a week without food.
Not even 140 consecutive days of meal plans, therapy, and two residential treatment centers could convince me to give up the very first thing that gave me a reason to live. I only knew how to exist in pursuit of that ambiguous, abstract concept of smaller. I only knew how to live when shrinking to fit into a size 00 so easily that the folds of fabric fell off of my bones. I only knew how to exist when attempting to squash my soul and spirit small enough to fit society’s boxes.
My brain absorbed the idea that something was wrong with me at a very young age. I never found the courage to be vulnerable enough with somebody to allow their more accurate perceptions to stream actually into my brain. I never embodied enough bravery to let someone see the darkest caverns of my soul, thus never becoming open enough to process the other’s opinions on my worth as a human being until I met Kathy.
Something about the lavender walls of her office, the hideous dark pink couches we both hated, and the compassion and love that radiated from her smile made me feel safe. She was not my first therapist, not the first therapist I opened up to, and not the first therapist I formed such a deep connection. There were my treatment therapists: Christie, whose gentle nature calmed my overwhelming anxiety, and Whitney, the first therapist to ever hear a version of my life story. There was also Kristen, who was so overwhelmingly compassionate that lying to her, even to say that I was okay rather than desperately struggling, caused guilt to rattle my bones. But Kathy was different.
Maybe it was the length of our relationship, which still has not ended. My relationships with the three previously mentioned therapists ranged from a month to two months, but I have been seeing Kathy for nine months now. But I think it was something else. There was, and still very much is, an indescribable connection between us, something that not even writing could do justice. No matter how complicated our work became, no matter how overwhelming it sometimes was to rehash the darkest aspects of my life, no matter how many panic attacks and flashbacks and dissociations I endured in her office, I looked forward to every single one of our weekly, and sometimes biweekly, appointments.
Her wisdom infected my long held, deeply rooted beliefs that I deserved nothing but the worst in life. Her empathy and compassion reached me more than any other therapist’s had, and it helped me to question my secret thoughts. As time strengthened our relationship, I learned how to be absurdly vulnerable, which led me straight into the warm, loving, and accepting spirit of my tenth grade English teacher.
Ms. Lotze’s room was home for everyone at my preppy, rigid school who felt even slightly out of place. She encouraged my random thought processes, ones that seemed crazy to me. She helped my writing to blossom into the weird, passionate, vulnerable essays and poems it is today, and to let go of my criticism of my writing, which I held onto so intensely. I have never trusted anyone with my most vulnerable writing until one day; I made the decision to step past that fear. To let it slip between my toes as I took a step forward past my most deeply rooted fear: vulnerability.
At the moment, I had no idea why I was walking into her classroom, heart pounding after spending a solid five minutes convincing myself to walk in there, laptop in hand. When I asked her if she wanted to read a poem of mine, her face flushed with excitement and something else I couldn’t quite place. Looking back, I think it was gratitude, and I believe that somewhere deep inside of me, I knew she was just the person who would accept my writing and my story. She helped me formulate my writing style, one that undergoes revision on the daily. But no longer because I hate and criticize it. Because I love it.
I have always loved writing, but something about Ms. Lotze lifted my passive side hobby into a full-blown passion, one that saved my life on countless occasions. More than a writing mentor, she became almost like a second mother to me. I spent free periods and breaks in her room, either silently pouring words out onto my laptop, joking about politics, or venting or asking for help. She helped placate several panic attacks, and still does, as my advisor.
When I was sixteen, I learned how to say goodbye to the pursuit of thinness, of smallness, of shrinking my body and soul to fit societal standards. When I was sixteen, I shattered the wall of glass between me and the rest of the world. My connections were organic. My pain was intense, but my joy was relentless. The peace and wildness within my spirit grew in congruence. There was closure in my commitment to healing from the trauma an eating disorder, self-harm, anxiety, depression, and PTSD had caused. However, I learned that just because you say goodbye, it does not mean all traces of the beings you are leaving behind will vanish from your thoughts. There is a difference between letting go and moving on. An unresolved past never really goes away until you find the courage and bravery within your soul to revisit all the pain and the hurting, to accept it, and to move on.
Anorexia is a mental illness. I gave up the restriction, the symptoms, and stayed out of its firmest grip of severe starvation and malnourishment for almost a year after discharging from treatment, but my mind was still very sick for the entirety of that year. Despite my most intense efforts to stay away from starvation, I scuttled around in the darker corners of life for quite some time. I cut my arms and hoped to die. I closed my eyes on my pillow each night without enough emotion to sprout the pent up tears inside of me, tears that needed to fall. I was hollow, empty, numb. The thoughts loomed around my brain, and I never gave up the shady self-deprecating beliefs that kept me trapped behind the glass- the mirror, the scale, a shard used to split my wrist.
I lived in the shadows of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and self-harm, moving farther into the darkness until anorexia planted its hands around my neck once again. Long before my severe and consistent restriction started up again, my thoughts and perceptions had relapsed. I felt trapped and cornered in my anorexic thoughts as they streamed into my mind; slowly, and then all at once. I started eating smaller, “cleaner” meals and stopped eating meat, dairy, and eggs. I began to count calories and obsess over my weight again. Guilt infiltrated my soul and my fear gradually crept past my range of normal anxiety. I sought out scales, laxatives, diet pills. I considered breaking my streak of abstaining from self-harm. I swallowed suicidality with each calorie I consumed. With my relapse, I absorbed the realization that there is no immediate closure when it comes to recovery.
But there is a letting go, a place in time where you let go of the eating disorder that has the power to convince you that it can save you when all it wants to do is kill you. When you let, go of the agonizing pain that protects you from perceived threats. And eventually, no matter how real those risks end up being, you work through the fear. And letting go ends up so much less painful than holding on, despite the fears and the thoughts that contradicted that very truth. Letting go is where the healing begins.
But even if I have said my goodbyes to anorexia, for once and for all, it is not willing to leave my soul. But goodbye is not enough. Hope is not an exit strategy. I have learned that I must pick the eating disorder up each day and move it a little closer to the edges of my being with each meal and snack and therapist and dietician appointment. I must move on, move forward. My spirit aches with the weight of this disorder in my life, but sometimes the healing is in the aching.
Healing is a funny thing. It isn’t linear. It’s art, a masterpiece in creation- unique to each, expressive of a plethora of personal stories, and weathered with the passion and emotion required to form a coherent picture. I have come to realize my body is a masterpiece too. Nothing else on the planet is like it; with its scars, freckles, soul. It is my home, and I have promised not to tear it down anymore. I will not give into this disorder. My health is worth more. My life is worth more. I am worth more.