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On Empathy, Anorexia’s Rare Reward

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We’ve all had the “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” adage drilled into us since the days when the scope of our suffering ranged from “no dessert for you tonight” to a bum set of Pokemon cards. And, in case we’d forgotten it, King Kanye revisited the mantra in his 2007 hit “Stronger.” [Yes, I’m equally amazed that was in 2007—where did that time go? I have not been having that much fun.] It’s an infallible cliché, mainly because it has meat on it’s bones—in the sea of hollow, modelesque proverbs, this one has booty. Which is a ridiculous way of saying: it’s pretty damn true.

The narrative offered up in those seven short words is often adopted by recovering addicts, and ex-addicts have a lot in common with (and are often compared to) those recovering from an eating disorder. It’s helpful for all of us in that wide swath of people—which is to say, people who have suffered an illness/addiction or self-harmed in some way—to find a little good in the giant suckhole that usually comprises recovery of any kind. But I don’t think it’s disingenuous reframing, and for me, at least, it’s been true that anorexia (and my subsequent recovery-ish), has strangely enough brought with it some gifts.

I was thinking about this yesterday as an absurd amount of like-age was racking up on my Facebook status about getting a new job. Facebook likes aren’t exactly weighted with gold—they are quick, easy, and relatively meaningless. That said, I don’t know many people who like or congratulate the people they don’t like or aren’t—in some tiny way—happy for. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have received such an epic congratulatory response at all other stages of my life, and it dawned on me that, pre-anorexia, at various points, I probably wouldn’t have.

Why? Because I myself was lacking in empathy for other people, and that lack of empathy for others was a yucky byproduct of my own insecurities. Of course, I wasn’t a sociopath walking through life with no feeling—I cried at sad movies, and could feel physically ill about certain experiences my friends were going through—but I generally had trouble accepting the perceived weaknesses of those in my orbit. This had a lot to do with the extreme self-denial of my own setbacks that I was engaged in, flaws that I shrouded in a shaky, faux-confidence that was much more obnoxious than authentic.

When you’re so fragile that you can’t even talk to yourself about your problems, everyone else becomes a potential enemy. Everyone else has the ability to reveal you to yourself with a few choice words, or by simply displaying the failings that you know, deep down, you harbor yourself . And that? That is terrifying to someone in perma-run from themselves.

But in recovery it becomes really difficult to bury your issues, especially now that the crown jewel of hiding places—in my case, anorexia—is being forced away from you. You are forced into a really raw emotional space, and there’s not a lot of towel holding to cover up those naked spots. Instead, you’re encouraged to unleash all the bruises you’ve built up over time, you’re supposed to unleash them in order to get better. If you’re in a program, like I was, you’re also surrounded by people who are doing the same. And, let me tell you, it’s really hard to be an asshole to people who’ve seen you cry over a granola bar.

Frankly, you no longer want to be that asshole—there’s no longer a desperate need. While you once protected yourself via harsh judgment of others (because if “they” suck so much, you don’t have time to think about why you do), you’re now faced with the reality that you’re similarly FUCKED UP—and, sometimes, even more so. It brings you down a few pegs, knocks you off your shitty, angry horse and helps you see other people with a lot more sympathy, and love, than you did before.

That self-awareness has helped me in a very straightforward way: I’m a nicer, kinder human. I am more generous, more willing to listen, and more accepting of other people’s imperfections than I ever was before. And though no announcement was made—no declaration of HEY WORLD, I’M LESS AWFUL—I think it has affected my relationships across the board. Fights with friends are now foreign to me and I am so open to—even excited by the prospect of—bringing old acquaintances into my life. If you’re in my life, even in the most peripheral way (say, we went to high school together and share an interest in running), I want you to do well. Did I want this before? Honestly, probably not.

These changes are noticeable, I think, if they’re genuine. When people realize you’re rooting for them—that you’re no longer on some fighting team—they start rooting for you. Even if it’s as simple as a Facebook like, or a quick “Congratulations!” But those minor moments, they are rewarding, and so pleasant in comparison to what might have come before. They’re also the sole reason why I’d never retrace my steps—why I’d never chose to replace the awful, full-blown anorexia I endured. There’s still a lot I don’t know, and I’m no Mother fucking Theresa (<–Exhibit A), but I do know I’m a better person. And, yes, that narrative might be trite, corny, and overused—but it’s also proven true. I’d venture to guess that anyone else who’s suffered similarly would agree: the pain from those periods can be mitigated, in the end, by the self-awareness and subsequent behavior change that they often bring.

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