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Crystal Karges and Her Path to Recovery

Written by: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Special Projects Director @ Eating Disorder Hope

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

Crystal & Baby Madeleine - 3-1-14My life has not been anything extraordinary.  I have not done anything worthy of achievement in the eyes of the world.  I have however, loved deeply, experienced grief and loss that has buried me in the depths of despair, and known hope that has transformed me from the brinks of death to life renewed.  I have experienced the unraveling of an eating disorder.  I have picked up the pieces of my disheveled life and recreated it into something more than I ever thought possible.  I have met people along my journey that built me up, crushed my spirit, offered me hope, celebrated my victories, and gave me joy beyond what I have ever known.  I have recovered from an eating disorder, and this is my story.

My life began seemingly ordinary.  Born to two wonderful people, both who immigrated to America from two different countries, my parents were determined to give me the best upbringing possible.  I enjoyed a carefree childhood, even with my parents’ limited resources.  As one of five children, hand-me-downs were as commonplace as fighting over bathroom time and cramped living spaces.  I quickly became conditioned to learn that achievement equivocated to attention, which was also spread thin among five children.  I learned that good grades won me praises, certificates equaled recognition, and accomplishments set me apart from my siblings.  The sense of worthiness that I began to develop though my achievements solidified my identity and value, not for who I was, but rather for what I could do.

I was pushed to the threshold of perfectionism in all that I set out to accomplish, including academics, social activities, and sports.  By junior high, it was established that I would become a medical doctor, and high school was strictly a platform from which I would be elevated into college.  My days were filled from start to finish. So much so, that the opportunity to live and breathe and grow was scarce to none.  I became my worst critic, scrutinizing my every “failure”, which only drove me further in my hopeless ideal of perfection.  Though greatly insignificant, I vividly remember losing a spelling bee competition in junior high, and those early stings of rejection and failure burned deeply in my heart that was aching for acceptance.

My drive for perfectionism and outward achievements slowly collided with body insecurities as I approached my adolescent and teenage years.  My first encounter with a scale took me by surprise, as I awkwardly tried to make sense of the numbers flashing back at me.  However, the imperfections of my body of which I became conscious were overshadowed by my ability to excel in other areas, and so, I could passively mute my weakening body image.  All the while, I continued to be rewarded for my achievements, which further perpetuated my need to accomplish in order to be accepted, loved, praised, and cherished.

I began my cross-country running career as a freshman in high school.  This quickly became a venue through which my perfectionism was channeled.  As it was a sport that came naturally to me, I found that running and racing were easy ways through which I could gain the approval I was so desperately seeking.  As I progressed through high school, the pressure increased for me to run faster, farther, and go beyond my previous achievements.  The summer before my senior year, I enlisted myself in a running training camp and ran more than was advisable.  I pushed myself to rise before the sun to beat the summer heat and train, only to repeat again in the late hours of the night.  My energy became focused on doing what I could to improve myself as a runner, and with my efforts concentrated to this endeavor, I had little time to be aware of the deeper pain I was hiding.

With my rigid training and eating habits, my weight began to drop dramatically, though I carefully disguised this as my running ambition.  Instead of questions of concern, I received praise for breaking new records and winning races.  Though my body was fatigued and severely malnourished, I pushed myself beyond limitations.  In the clouded delusions of the eating disorder I had developed, my perceived shortcomings were transcribed into acceptance and acknowledgement.  I did not have to face the fears of rejection or denial when I was achieving the image I had carefully crafted.  My eating disorder did not develop because I did not like the way I looked or because I just wanted to “lose weight”.  It was a cry for help from the child within me that needed to be accepted simply for whom I was and not for how I performed or what I achieved.

When my eating disorder threatened my hopes of college, I was forced into getting help.  My mind and body were incongruent, and though I physically recovered from many of the consequences of anorexia, the deep rooted issues of my struggles were unresolved.  College became the perfect breeding ground for my insecurities.  Areas where I once easily achieved excellence were no longer readily mastered.  The intensity of the academic program I was in buckled the strengths I thought I had, renewing my internal conflict for who and what I could be accepted.  The isolating habits of my eating disorder slowly proliferated and intensified with a vengeance.  What should have been some of the best years of my life were highlighted with the relapse of my eating disorder.  Hardly knowing whom to turn to for help and support, I internalized my loneliness and pain and dragged myself through each day. My eating disorder became the crutch of my stability.

The summer before my senior year of college, my oldest brother was diagnosed with stage four melanoma.  Paralyzed with the fear of death, I turned inward, even further into my eating disorder.  After our family lost him a mere six months later and stricken with surmounting grief, my eating disorder became the only way I knew how to cope.  My anguished spirit could not understand how cancer could have robbed me of my brother; of the future we had together; of the life he still had left to live.  I could not face his death, say goodbye, or face the crushing reality and effect of his passing on my broken family.  Coinciding with this tragedy, my eating disorder reared its ugly head.  Like a double-edged sword, it was the coping mechanism that kept me afloat, treading waters while at the same time breaking me.  So, my brokenness compounded upon itself, feeding my eating disorder and depriving my life of true joy and fulfillment.

I went on to graduate college, move into my first apartment, landed my first full time job.  I learned to “function” with my eating disorder, as it became a regular part of my life.  I normalized many irregular behaviors and drove myself into the chaos of a busy schedule so as not to face my pain.

I wish I could describe the time at which I chose recovery as a point of enlightenment, like a light shining from Heaven, directing me towards the path of salvation.  Journeying towards recovery began ever so slowly, as it was a decision that I had to make EVERY single day.  I grew tired of being consumed with the food “rules” and numbers and calories.  I was weary of constantly feeling fatigued and having immense hatred towards my body; I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, from the damage my eating disorder had wrecked on my body.  When I became engaged (to my now husband of 6 years), I knew that I did not want the ongoing relationship I had with my eating disorder to destroy the opportunities we had together.  I realized that while my eating disorder was helping me function presently, it was demolishing my hope for a future.  I acknowledged that the monster I was battling was much greater than anything I could overcome on my own, so I wearily sought the help I needed.

Recovery is a painstakingly slow process that grapples at your core existence.  It is much easier to remain disconnected, in the throes of an eating disorder, than to face the pain of your past.  However, the joys and potentials of your future will forever be hidden unless those fears are faced.  I chose recovery because I was tired of merely “surviving” life and crushing the vessel that has carried me since the beginning.  I owed it to myself to become nourished, to be healed from the inside out, to find ways to work through the tragedies of my past, and to stop the cycle of self-punishment.  I owed it to the people who cared most about me and wanted me as a part of their lives: my husband, our future children, my family and friends.  I slowly learned to break the habits and thinking patterns that had become ingrained in me since childhood, to reverse the backwards way of thinking that I needed to achieve something in order to be loved.

My husband became an instrumental part of my healing and recovery journey, as he has constantly demonstrated unconditional love for me, in spite of my weakness and fragility. Sometimes, when we are uncertain of how to love or accept ourselves, it is life changing to allow yourself to be loved by another, especially in your brokenness or feelings of unworthiness.  As I have discovered my own value and worth, I have learned to love myself, embrace my imperfections, and celebrate those aspects of my being that make me unique.  I have learned to face feelings of inadequacy and the anguish of grief.  The battle scars that we carry are what make us beautiful.

In my recovery journey, I have found compassion towards myself.  While on the surface, eating disorders may seem a way to superficially synthesize an ideal or standard, they are really coping mechanisms that develop in disparity.  Many of us who develop eating disorders do so out of a sheer need to survive, because that is the way we have learned to function and stay afloat under the weight of overwhelming burdens that are too great to bear.  My burdens were feelings of inadequacy, disapproval, rejection, fear of being unlovable, and later, the tragedy of life taken too soon and the immensity of grief.  My eating disorder arose as a life saving floating device in darkened waters, and I clutched on for fear of drowning.  The beauty of recovery is that it brings you to shore, and teaches you how to swim and navigate through uncharted waters without the crutch of an eating disorder.

I feared the damage I had done to my body through my eating disorder might have prevented me from having children, but my husband and I have been blessed to bring three beautiful girls into this world.  At the birth of each of my children, I felt such immeasurable gratitude for their tiny, precious, beings that were created within my body.  I loved them in that moment, not for anything they had done, but simply because they existed, because they were there in my arms.  Though eating disorders are sneakily present at the most opportune moments, I have learned to dispel the lies that say, “I am not good enough”, “I am not worthy”, “I am not valuable.”

Recovery has come over time, and I have grown stronger as I have committed myself to this path.  This path, which includes due diligence in adequately nourishing my body, my mind, and my soul, is certainly not effortless or comfortable.  But, it has allowed me to breathe, to live freely, to love deeply and richly, and to be refined by pain and grief.

Though it is difficult to survive under the uncertainties of life, there is hope for healing and power for overcoming.  Life at its finest is a compilation of many fragments that construct the foundations of our beings.  We have the potential to truly thrive in life, not hide under the lies and deceit of any eating disorder.  Recovery is possible, and this is the road less traveled by.

 

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