Dear Younger Me…

If you’ve ever been to the University of Virginia, you might be familiar with O-Hill Dining Hall, lovingly nicknamed “Oh Hell” by my fellow Wahoos. The dining hall is named for the mini-mountain that sits behind it, aptly named Observatory Hill. You can guess what’s at the top of it.


One night I found myself walk/jog/sprinting up the winding road of this hill, as I sometimes did to switch up my obsessive exercise routine. I was alone, 19 years old, probably about a mile from the nearest inhabited building, and it was 9 or 10 o’clock at night. Pitch black, except for the faint glow of the occasional overhead street lamp. I knew then, as I know now, that this was an incredibly stupid thing to be doing. I’ve always been a bit of a risk-taker when it comes to physical feats, but this was very different. Much more dangerous territory. I remember thinking to myself, “What if some knife-wielding crazy person were to jump out from behind these trees? What would I do? How would I get help?” Because I wasn’t in the healthiest state of mind back then, my first answer was, “I don’t even care. It wouldn’t even matter.” Those words might sound shocking – so full of doom and despair. But the fact is, they weren’t true. The fact is, I was scared to death and couldn’t wait to get back to my dorm, to safety. And this is a good thing. This means, deep down, that I had hope. I cared about my life. And so do you.


Having suffered through the immediate effects of an eating disorder for a few years, and the lingering after-effects for a few decades, I can look back now and see what the Younger Me needed to hear back then. And in speaking to her, I hope I might also speak to someone else out there who is stuck in a similar trap. It may or may not be eating disorder-related. It doesn’t really matter what we fixate on – the underlying truths are largely the same. What would I tell that 19-year old? A few things come to mind.


First of all – You matter. You are loved. You are worth it. You can beat this. You are not destined to live (or die) this way. If this is too much for you to believe right now, I will believe it for you. You can borrow my confidence until it becomes your own.


Second – This is not about food. Most likely you can already identify the deeper fears, worries, and insecurities lurking beneath your current method of coping, but if you can’t – start digging. And don’t stop until you can name them all.


Next – Figure out what your triggers are – be they people, places, or things. And then, AVOID THEM. You don’t need an excuse or an explanation. Does the gym compel you to push even harder and do more damage to your body? Don’t go there. Does that friend or acquaintance say all the things that push your buttons and make you question yourself even more? Keep your distance. Does that song pull you into a deep depression every time you hear it? For the love of your sanity, change the station! Do what you need to do to protect your mind and emotions and reconnect with your healthier self. She’s in there somewhere, waiting to be found.


Find a trusted friend, someone you can really talk to. This is probably the hardest assignment of all, because trusted friends are hard to come by, and sometimes the people closest to you are part of the problem. But there is someone out there who will understand, who will listen and not judge. Be on the lookout, because they are likely looking for you, too. Male or female, young or old, your “type” or not. Just be sure they earn your trust and the privilege of hearing your story. This is one of the most effective ways to escape the imprisonment of an addictive habit or destructive behavior. It will set you free.


Have grace for the people who just don’t get it and say all the wrong things. They can’t help it. They don’t know what to do or what to say, and oftentimes their genuine concern comes out sounding like judgment or harsh criticism. Create boundaries for yourself and seek out safe people, the ones who will continue to lift you up and help you see the very best in yourself.


And finally, be patient with yourself and the process. This will take time and a lot of courage. But on the other side of this, you will have a story to tell. And that story might just set someone else free.