Leah Lair Conner
It's never too late to become yourself.
Lately, I feel like I am the embodiment of the idea that we don’t spend our lives trying to “find ourselves” and become who we are, but rather we spend most of our lives “unbecoming” everything we’re not. For the last five or so years, I feel like I’ve transformed into a completely different person mentally, physically, and spiritually. I remember the day I turned 44 (five years ago), I was terrified that I would die that year. It’s the age my father died, and for some reason, I had this dark cloud hanging over me that there was some sort of curse or something about that age for me. Silly, but our minds are more powerful than we realize. Obviously, I didn’t die that year, but it did kick off the hardest years of my life, and I do feel like a “rebirth” occurred through the journey to where I am now.
My whole life, I’ve had an unhealthy, disordered relationship with food. When I turned 7 or 8, my body betrayed me by beginning its change into curves and fleshy parts, and for lots of reasons I’ve since discovered, those changes made me feel shame and discomfort and not good enough. I can remember being 9 years old and crying (in the hallway outside the bathroom in the house I grew up in), asking my dad, who’d struggled with his own weight most of his adult life, what I could do to make Mom happier about my body and how I looked. (Sidenote: I know now that my mom did not hate my body, nor was she judgmental about my weight. Her heart broke that I wasn’t happy and that things weren’t easy for me in the body department. A child’s mind works very differently from an adult one, and this is one of the many things I’ve figured out since that long-ago day.) He told me to try not to want seconds at dinner. He was an incredible man, but I don’t think he even thought, for a second, that there was something much deeper going on. It never occurred to him to ask why I thought Mom didn’t like my body. These were the days when therapy was for “sick/weak” people and mental health issues were not only not spoken of but thought of as worse than a serious physical health problem. Isn’t it crazy the memories our minds choose to hold on to? And isn’t it wonderful how far we’ve come?
It wasn’t too long after that conversation with my father that I learned how to gorge myself until I vomited (TMI, but a very specific memory of Dairy Queen and chili dogs comes to mind), and it wasn’t much longer past THAT that I learned to be a real, full-fledged bulimic (planned and unplanned binge/purge cycles, laxative use, etc.). A little-known fact about bulimics, they’re normally not particularly thin, but not overweight, either. The body is an incredible machine that just won’t allow you to COMPLETELY deplete what you put in. Fast forward a few more years when a dear friend’s sister caught me purging, and went to my mom (by this time, my father had passed away). Mom and I then went to a clinic for a psychological evaluation, where it was determined that I was severely depressed, eating disordered, and in need of hospitalization. Well, I was not having that, at all, so I promised my mother that I would stop. And I did. But I also just stopped eating pretty much entirely. I shifted gears from bulimia to anorexia nervosa like it was my job, and in less than 4 months, I dropped 56 pounds. At 5’ 6” and 88 pounds, there was no longer an option about being admitted to the psych ward. After passing out in church (on Father’s Day), my mother took me to Baylor Hospital’s Eating Disorder Unit for six weeks of treatment. I wasn’t allowed to exercise because I literally didn’t have enough body fat to support the frame of my body, and my treatment team was afraid I’d break a bone. There are so many memories and stories from those weeks (I turned 16 in there), but the take-away is that it both saved and changed my life, forever. I have said a million times, since that first stay in a psych ward, that EVERYONE should have to go to therapy and maybe even be hospitalized at least once. Learning who you are and why is profoundly important, and it’s a lifelong process that turns out better with some help along the way. I have been admitted to a psychiatric facility three total times in my life for my struggles with depression and eating disorders, the last time being in May of 2020, and that last time was one of the most empowering, enlightening weeks of my life to date.
Part of my mental health, since I was 15, has included prescription antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications. I would try to go off my meds, and it never worked. I would always, ultimately, have a breakdown and have to start them back. Forever, I have referred to my eating habits as “disordered” because I have always seen food as the enemy and have always had very specific rules and thoughts around its consumption. Body dysmorphia has been something that until very recently, I just thought everyone struggled with. More recently (like in the last handful of years), my body has betrayed me again and no longer bows to my disordered methods, again mostly due to hormonal changes that are inevitable for a woman. Something is different this time, though, and that’s what urges me to write and share.
Something started really breaking inside me over these past few years, and I now know that the breaking was part of shedding so many things I feverishly clung to in hopes of being loved and being enough. My happiness had always been found in the approval/attention of others, and I quite literally didn’t realize the danger in that mindset. I thought that if I wasn’t thin enough, didn’t pray enough, didn’t follow so many societal rules, didn’t cook and clean and do everything RIGHT, that I would lose the love of those important to me. I put many, many ridiculous rules and requirements on myself (again, I have done a lot of work to figure out why, because that’s not on anyone else – just me). I can’t pinpoint the exact time that the current shifted in my thought processes, but I know that once I started seeing myself for real, as me and not as someone whose worth was entirely dependent on other people’s moods, thoughts, and feelings, EVERYTHING changed. I stopped apologizing for everything (including my very existence) and started realizing that my body, mind, and spirit belong only to me. Trying to be anything for anyone else stopped being my life’s work, and my life’s work became being unapologetically me. The real irony here is that when I made that shift, the people who really matter to me seemed to love me more, and though my weight is the highest it’s EVER been, I seem to attract MORE positive attention now.
For over a year now, I’ve been off ALL mental health medications (and my migraine meds; just hormonal adjustment stuff, these days). It’s the longest I’ve ever gone since the first pills I ever took, and I feel so, so good about it! I have packed so much healing and so much self-work
into the last five or so years, and I wish I could say that it was an easy “fix,” but the truth is, it required me to stop thinking about “fixing” anything. I spent decades trying to figure out what was wrong with me and how to fix it, only to now discover that I’m not and never have been broken. I’m a human being who’s pretty cool, just as I am, without the approval, attention, or applause of anyone else. And this body? It is literally just a house for my soul. Now that I have resolved so much within my soul and mind, I am paying better attention to it again, and I am making some changes for different reasons this time.
A couple of days ago, I mentioned to my husband that I had lost six pounds on this new physical journey, and he said, “I just want you to be happy.” My answer back to him, “I AM happy, actually, now. I don’t hate my body or how I look, but I’d like to lose a little weight for optimal health.” This is the first time in my life that I don’t hate my body, and it’s the first time I’ve looked so opposite what I thought I had to look like since I was a child. To some, they might look at me now and think, “Wow, she’s really let herself go!” If they had any idea the fight I’ve been through over these last years, they’d learn that what I’ve done is let go of caring that anyone might have that thought of me. And I’ve let go of guilt and shame and doubt about the beauty of what matters, my soul.
Do the work. Don’t be afraid of the dark parts of yourself, because it’s in those places that you’ll find yourself, hiding, but far from broken. Don’t be afraid of what anyone else will say or think if you decide to just be you. If I can help you on your journey, or if you want to share anything, please, comment or reach out to me. We should all cheer for each other, every chance we get, and I can promise you that if you are struggling (with depression, eating disorders, trauma, just general mental health), I will be your cheerleader. Wellness and happiness absolutely CAN be found, and you are the one who’ll find them for yourself. It will be your greatest life’s work and reward. YOU are your longest relationship. Make sure it’s your best one. And remember, it’s never too late to become yourself.