One year ago, I completed the total transformation of my life after having finally confronted the nightmare that controlled it for the previous six years. I pressed the pause button on everything, including my job at which I had just received a promotion, and focused on my mental health for the first time in my life.
I was struggling with an eating disorder and reached the point where it controlled my daily life. In reality, it controlled my total being and sanity. While it took me a while to admit that, I had come to acknowledge that I was no longer the best version of myself. I woke up every morning discouraged, suffered through every minute of the day stressed out about my next workout or meal, and refused to give myself a second of relaxation physically and mentally. No matter what I did, it was never enough.
It all began around my senior year of college – it started out phenomenally well as I maintained a 4.0 GPA, received countless academic and athletic awards, studied abroad in Shanghai, was head over heels for my girlfriend, received an internship with Disney’s Marketing Team, etc. I was the “Golden Boy” for the first time in my life and it felt amazing.
Upon returning from Shanghai in December 2009, I experienced a few major life events that would change my future. I learned that my so-called “true love” wasn’t really true love, and the relationship completely obliterated. Additionally, my continued academic and athletic accomplishments while abroad made me crave even more success when I returned home.
After undergrad, I took a semester off prior to graduate school so that I could intern in China, thinking it would be an excellent opportunity for my career development. I soon came to learn that being in Shanghai without any classmates or friends was a bit more challenging. Alone in my room every night, I curled up in a cardboard bed and contemplated what I was really accomplishing in my life. With no friends, no GPA to prove my worth, and no recognition, I felt like I had become a failure. I felt even worse as I heard about my old friends and family back home accomplishing meaningful goals.
After surviving those long four months and returning home, I started feeling incredibly self-doubtful about the direction my life was heading. As a result, I held myself to stricter-than-ever standards, expectations, and beliefs. I had to redeem myself and regain my status as the “Golden Boy,” because if I wasn’t that, then what else could I have been? In my militant, self-critical mind, the answer could only be one thing: A completely worthless, destined for failure, idiot.
Riddled with anxiety and a self-demanding mentality of “more, more, more,” I ignored the fact that my vigorous routine of graduate school, work, exercise and repeat was unsustainable. Of course, I rapidly deteriorated physically and mentally, but my militant mindset refused to back down. My body could only take so much before it fought back. Plagued by constant fatigue and stress, coupled with countless other fears like never having a girlfriend again because I was unlovable (in my mind: detestable) or never getting a job because I was too stupid, I suddenly felt like I had no control of my life.
With my life in utter chaos and the feeling that I would only being accepted if I was the “Golden Boy,” I tried to control the only thing I could: My own body. Before I knew it, my “never enough” mentality drove me to develop an eating disorder. My sick mind didn’t notice that my body was slowly disappearing, and despite family and friends voicing their concerns, I dismissed it and assured them I was better than ever.
My energy levels were lower than ever as I could hardly walk up a flight of stairs without tripping, I became incredibly short-tempered, I couldn’t sleep, and I had become obsessed with reaching a state of life that I thought was, “perfect.” I hit rock bottom in October 2011 after my body literally shut down on me during a half-marathon in Orlando, and I contemplated taking my life.
I had this perception that I could control my life, hide my problems from the world, and only then would everything be alright. I now know I was entirely lost. This obsession with being the best soon consumed my every thought. If I wasn’t the best at everything I did, I’d only be some “Average Joe” that no one would acknowledge in daily life and I’d die as a lonely, miserable soul. The constant self-criticism and shame drove me to literally hate myself. As a result, I began isolating myself from the world entirely.
My older sister soon spoke to me again after she noticed my behavior. It was with her support that I finally committed to becoming the type of person I wanted to be. To bringing back the excited, energetic, optimistic Paul who she grew up with. Reluctantly taking a leave of absence from work, I entered the partial hospitalization program at Castlewood Treatment Center.
I arrived the day before my 28th birthday after spending the previous day in the ER because of a dangerously low heart rate. I planned to be at Castlewood for just under a month, which reiterates how far from my true self I had strayed. Suddenly I found myself engulfed in group sessions, individual sessions, and family therapy.
At first, I was stubborn as all hell. Especially when I was forbidden from exercise, asked to write about my feelings, and told that “it wasn’t about the food.” I was uncomfortable both physically and emotionally – I felt like a balloon. I had to eat foods I used to avoid like the plague. Most importantly, I had never addressed my emotions and feelings… because I was a male – and we are “supposed” to be strong, resilient, and never show weakness. But as I dug deeper and addressed difficult topics, I became more willing to be vulnerable. I started confronting things I had swept so far under the rug that I almost didn’t remember them. And somehow, I was feeling more energetic, more optimistic, and more hopeful each day.
Because of that, I fully surrendered. I gave up expectations, dreams, and hopes of things that used to define me. I relinquished self-imposed expectations and standards. I had finally reached the point where I was willing and motivated to do anything to get my life back. To be happy again. I found myself gradually shifting closer and closer to what I wanted to become. And those small, steady steps quickly transformed into a massive snowball of change over the course of the next 3 ½ months.
Over the course of that time, I restored friendships with old friends that I had pushed away. More importantly, I developed a relationship with myself that is defined by self-compassion, forgiveness, and freedom from expectations. For the first time in what felt like forever, I was free from the chains of a living hell.
There is no way I could have done it without the support of a few people. My treatment team, my roommates, my sisters, and other close friends/family were there for me through it all, even when I was close to calling it quits. I am eternally grateful for them – because they’ve allowed me to get to where I am today.
Three months after discharging, I was promoted at work. Four months after discharge, I began a relationship with someone who has made me feel more loved than I ever have in my life. I’ve completely transformed my relationship with my family. And I’ve created memories that will last a lifetime. Most importantly, I have come to love and accept myself for everything I am and everything I have ever done.
The past year has flown by. And to be honest, there have been good days and bad days. And that is what I’ve learned life in recovery is all about. It’s not the same thing every day. It’s not having a perfect day of positive moods, six meals, and “I love you’s.” Rather it’s experiencing both the highs and the lows that come with each day. It’s occasionally struggling with old beliefs, yet celebrating life in new beliefs and habits more frequently. It’s going out with friends without feeling the guilt of indulging in certain foods. It’s living in every single moment without the anxiety of what might happen or what I need to accomplish.
Life in recovery is knowing that I have the power to control how I act and behave. If I start to treat myself critically or harshly, or if I start to stress out over the future and become anxious, I now have the awareness and knowledge of how to work through it. My self-awareness and confidence in addressing my emotions as they arise, my willingness to be vulnerable, and my ENJOYMENT in accepting imperfection daily are all contributing to this new life.
I can authentically say that I am happy for the first time in over a decade. I’m in an incredible place because of the work I committed to at Castlewood and continue to commit to each day – and I’ve never felt more confident, hopeful, and excited for what my future holds.