“We need love just as much as we need food. And it never ceases to amaze me how many of us with eating disorders refuse them both.“– SAM DYLAN FINCH
The following is a transcript from the speech I gave at the 2019 National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Walk in San Francisco.
When I first started seeing my dietitian for my “weird food thing” — that’s what I was calling my anorexia back then — I told him that I felt like people were trying to take something away from me.
I still remember what he told me. “Sam, no one is going to take your eating disorder away from you,” he said. “You have to give it away.”
So for the first ten months of treatment, I kept my eating disorder on loan, kind of like a library book. I’d let it go from time to time, negotiate a little, but it always had a due date. I needed to know if I could go back. I needed one foot out the door, just in case.
I’ve white knuckled my way through most of the mental health crises I’ve had in my life. And believe me, there have been more than a few. I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD since childhood, and anorexia since I was a teenager, and plenty of trauma to fill in any gaps that might exist.
And because I figured, why not make my life MORE complicated, I came out as transgender in my late teens and transitioned in my early twenties.
Suffice to say, the hand I was dealt was not an easy one. It’s like everyone around me was playing poker… while I was sitting there with Uno cards, completely lost as to why the game didn’t make any sense to me.
But I didn’t want to ask for help, because asking for help felt like admitting that I had failed.
I approached my mental health the same way I did food: Trying to get by with as little as possible, and then blaming and shaming myself when I couldn’t manage my life that way.
For a long time, I believed that I was responsible for fixing things, for fixing myself. Because deep down, I believed that these mental illnesses that I live with must’ve been my fault somehow. I was defective. I wasn’t trying hard enough. I was “bad.” I was the problem.
And even when I was finally diagnosed, and started putting all the pieces of my life back together, I still took that same mentality with me into my recovery. I stubbornly held out, wanting to do things my way — alone, with as little help as possible — because that was what made me feel safe.
If I was in control, it meant no one could have control over me. If I held the power, that meant no one and nothing could overpower me. I thought these were the things that would keep me safe.
Except I’d missed one tiny, maybe-kind-of-important detail: I wasn’t in control, and I didn’t have any power.
Because I’d given those things away to my eating disorder.
We talk a lot about nourishing our bodies in recovery. And while that’s obviously a critical part of healing, I don’t think it’s the only part, or even the most important.
For me, I couldn’t truly begin my recovery until I was willing to nourish my heart. I couldn’t begin to recover until I was willing to accept help from other people.
At first, I didn’t want to surrender and let other people help me — because to me, nothing felt more unsafe than being vulnerable. I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t do it on my own. To admit that I needed something or someone. To admit that I had any needs at all.
But if I was restricting the amount of love and care I let into my life, I was always going to be starving.
Because we need love just as much as we need food. And it never ceases to amaze me how many of us with eating disorders refuse them both.
The real work, for me, begins here. Nourishing my heart means reaching out when I’m in a dark place, and letting myself be seen in my vulnerability. It means admitting when I’m in over my head, and letting someone trudge through the mess with me.
It means knowing I’m deserving of that care, and that if someone walks away, it isn’t because I wasn’t good enough — it means that a space was made for someone else, someone with more to give, to show up for me.
Nourishing my heart means that I give myself permission to be human.
It means affirming every single day that my worth isn’t cancelled out by ANY so-called “flaw,” whether it’s somewhere on my body or hidden someplace in my mind.
All of me is good. All of me is enough. All of me is worthy.
It means refusing to hide who I am or make myself small — in any sense of the word — because I deserve to show up in my life as my whole self.
And yes, that whole self is messy. If you want to talk about baggage? I’m giving Southwest a run for their money. And I don’t handle it delicately, I’m not graceful. If emotional wounds showed up like bruises, I would’ve been blue enough to be cast in the movie Avatar.
But what I’m learning is that that’s okay. It’s okay to be messy, and vulnerable, and afraid. As one of my favorite poets, Andrea Gibson, says, “It takes guts to tremble. It takes tremble to love.”
Letting ourselves love and be loved can be the most terrifying thing in the world.
It can feel so much easier to shut the door behind us, stockpiling for another binge or getting lost in a distorted reflection in the mirror, letting our obsession eclipse everything and everyone else.
To reject the love and light that comes with recovery seems simpler — safer, really — because then we never have to question if we deserve it or if we’ll lose it.
Our eating disorders have already decided for us that we don’t deserve it, that we aren’t good enough, and that we were never going to be. Because our eating disorders come from a place of fear. By keeping us stuck in one place, we never have to look that fear in the eyes.
But that fear is a lie. The idea that any of us could ever be “less than” is the biggest lie we’ve ever been told.
I want you to nourish and celebrate your body. Yes! Get the big slice of cheese pizza, the kind of slice that’s bigger than your whole face. Post the photo on Instagram with the caption #recoverywarrior. If that feels empowering, by all means, go to the gram.
But as I’m standing here today, trembling with the love of so many people surrounding me — loved ones, clinicians, community — I want to remind you to nourish your heart, too.
You are allowed to ask for help if you need it, or hell, even if you just want it. And you can ask as many times as you need to, until the right people are listening. You’re allowed to let others in, to let them show up for you, to let them offer care to you.
You’re allowed to be loved, even if you have nothing to give in return right now. Even if you don’t feel you deserve it. Even if you don’t understand why it’s being offered to you. You’re allowed to take the love that you’re given. You’re allowed to hold onto it for dear life.
Nourish your heart, not just your body. Let people see you, all of you, the mess included.
I’m still learning that love isn’t a reward for keeping it together, just like delicious food is not a reward for being “thin enough” or “good.”
The good things in life aren’t meant to be held over our heads like prizes. Love and ice cream and pumpkin spice lattes — every joyful thing in life is meant to be ours without punishment, and without conditions.
I promise you that. Experiencing joy in your body and within your life are meant for you. For all of us.
Soon I’ll be starting PHP at a treatment center. Because I now know — even as an advocate, even with all the wisdom I’ve turned into Instagram captions — that a big part of my recovery journey means total surrender.
It means letting myself accept help, and to be seen in my struggle, because I am unconditionally worthy of the care that others have to give.
We are all unconditionally worthy of the care that others have to give.
When my dietitian told me ten months ago that I would have to give my eating disorder away, I didn’t know exactly what he meant. But as I look ahead to my future, it seems perfectly clear now.
To make room for a bigger life, I have to give my eating disorder away — not with one foot out the door, not with a return-by date, not with parameters.
I have to unconditionally surrender to the care and support of those around me. I have to be willing to let my heart be nourished just as much as my body.
And I know it’s hard. Believe me when I say that I know that recovery is terrifying. It’s a trust fall unlike any other.
But when I tell you — when ANYONE tells you that you deserve recovery, please remember exactly what that means.
Because it’s not just eating a donut with sprinkles or being able to walk into Starbucks without having a panic attack (though that would be nice!). It’s not just about stretch marks and stomach rolls, and it never was.
You deserve to step into your power, as your whole entire self, without apology. You deserve recovery because you deserve — without question — all of the love, nourishment, and healing that’s waiting for you on the other side.
And when you’re ready? I will meet you there.
Sam Dylan Finch is the blogger behind Let’s Queer Things Up!, where he writes about mental health, body positivity, and LGBTQ+ identity. He’s also the Editor of mental health and chronic conditions at Healthline.