“I am one. Not half of something.” I spoke those words from a stage in Duluth, Minnesota, where people had braved the frigid temperatures to attend my presentation and book signing. As a single thirty-something, I have finally learned that I do not need to be part of a couple in order to feel complete. Sure, someday, I would like to be married and have a family, but my life will not start then. I am living happily ever after right now.
I learned the hard way that the most enduring relationship any of us will ever have with a human being is actually the one with ourselves. In the auditorium that evening, I was honored to share my journey of finding myself, which includes, like most people, some failed relationships along the way.
I usually start out by talking about Ed. He controlled my life for nearly twenty years. While I grew to hate the abuse, I could not find the strength to leave for far too long. Ed convinced me that I needed him to cope with life while simultaneously beating me down, yelling things like, “You are fat,” and “You messed up — again!”
Countless people in the audience nodded their heads when I spoke about Ed, because they had been in his arms too. No, we did not all date the same guy! But we did all battle eating disorders. In therapy at twenty-two years old, I was taught to call my anorexia and bulimia “Ed,” an acronym for “eating disorder.” I learned to treat my eating disorder like a relationship rather than an illness or a condition.
Slowly, over time, I began to distinguish Ed’s voice from mine and discovered my own unique thoughts and personality. While I did not choose to have an eating disorder, I started to believe that I could, in fact, choose to get better. Sometimes it felt like I had to make that choice over and over again, each and every moment. My favorite quote is the Japanese proverb, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
When it comes to Ed, I fell down more like 1,007 times. But that didn’t matter, because, with support from both professionals and loved ones, I was able to stand up 1,008 times! Today, even though I have never been married, I consider myself happily divorced — from Ed. But that is not the fairytale ending to the story.
I am fully recovered from an eating disorder but not from life. This was never more evident than when I met Mark at age twenty-seven. It did not take long for me to fall head over heels for this man — a real one, this time. I was so upside down for Mark that I failed to notice that the liquor burning his throat each night was ripping a hole in our relationship. I was blinded by love and even accepted his marriage proposal. The shiny ring on my finger eventually illuminated the truth. After wearing the ring for a few weeks, I came to the frightening realization: I was about to marry a man with whom I could not have a conversation after 7 p.m.
In my opinion, Mark’s blackouts from drinking alcohol at night were that bad. (He often couldn’t remember discussions, even the really important ones.) The tears I cried in silence and the turmoil we never talked about seemed even worse than the blackouts. Hitting what felt like another rock bottom, I knew that I needed help. Unlike times in the past, I did not turn to Ed. Instead, just like in recovery, I went to therapy, attended support groups, and leaned on family and friends.
It takes two to make a relationship. I had contributed to our downfall, so I needed to go inward and work toward change. But, in the end, Mark refused to get help. I knew from my own recovery that nothing was going to get better if I was putting in more effort than him. Devastated to realize what I needed to do, I wasn’t sure that I could. Unlike with Ed, a real wedding was planned with an actual white dress waiting to be worn. Invitations were stamped, but I was grateful they had not been mailed.
At Mark’s house one rainy spring day, I handed back the ring with the words, “I love you, but I can’t marry you.” I will never forget his deer-in-the-headlights look and the ring slipping out of his fingers to the hard floor below.
As I drove away in what turned out to be a downpour, my tears fell even harder. I had hoped for a Hollywood ending, but it wasn’t this brokenhearted rain scene that I had wanted. How could the air smell so fresh outside when my life was over?
Of course, that was not the end either. Over time, I did begin to heal. But this is not one of those Cinderella stories where Prince Charming eventually shows up with a glass slipper that just so happens to fit. Someone else has entered the picture though — someone who is here to stay for better or for worse. Her name is J. I am on the magnificent road of falling in love with her, and she is me. I suspect that this road never ends, as I learn something new each and every day. Through sickness and in health, I have made a commitment to cherish myself. I even wrote wedding vows to me! Some of my promises include nourishing my body and soul, dating without losing myself, and simply having more fun. As strange as this might sound, public speaking is when I have some of the most fun.
I closed that talk in the Midwest with a message about never giving up — no matter what roadblocks and hurdles might appear. Often using props to emphasize important points, I held up a stack of over fifty rejections letters addressed to me from publishers for my first book, Life Without Ed. And, one by one, I dropped the letters on the stage while reading aloud the reasons why the manuscript had been rejected.
“You are not qualified,” someone had thought.
“You will never make it,” implied another.
I explained, “I have fallen down in my life far more times than there are letters on this stage. I am here today because I just keep picking myself up.”
While those letters all seemed to say a different version of “You aren’t good enough,” standing there surrounded by that pile of rejection, I knew the truth.
I am enough — imperfections and all. Sure, I have scars from Ed and Mark. And more will come. Even still, I smiled and said with confidence, “I am whole.”