Column: Look for the light

Emily Lundell
“My toxic obsession with perfection is something that I may always struggle with, but asking for help was light at the end of a long and dark tunnel. “

Editor’s note: this column was named as an honorable mention for personal columns in the TAJE Best in Texas contest. It was also named as an honorable mention for online personal columns in the ILPC contest. 

I sat in the back of the newsroom and stared blankly at the salad in front of me, rubbing my fingernails together and biting the inside of my lip until it was raw.

We were on deadline. I should be working, not wasting time eating. Suddenly, my head filled with an endless loop of lies.

Why are you not working?

You are worthless without your achievements, so get back to work.

You don’t deserve to eat that salad.

You are nothing.

My hands shook as I willed myself to pick up the fork. I couldn’t do it. Tears began to fall. I always felt guilty for eating. Work should be priority. Because of this, I skipped so many meals that I would eat little to nothing for days at a time.

My friends looked at me, so I buried my shaking hands in my lap, wiped my tears and forced a smile. This is how it always went. Smile and change the subject until I’m forgotten. It always worked. Nobody noticed the sadness behind my meaningless smiles, exhausted eyes brimming with tears and fake laughs, but that’s what I wanted. I wanted everybody to think I was perfect.

I’ve always been work-driven and passionate about the things I love, but it became my downfall.

Between advanced classes, honor societies, music groups, voice lessons, newspaper reporting and editing, leadership positions in organizations, volunteer work and the musical, everything piled on me. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

Everything that wasn’t working to improve myself in these activities was disregarded. Everything came second to work. My need to be perfect drove me to self destruction.

I spent hours in my room, pushing myself to be better. I felt trapped. It felt like a prison. Soon I became a prisoner of everything I loved.

However, my passions weren’t the problem. My obsession with achieving perfection consumed every thought, decision and action. I worked endlessly to achieve unattainable. I was never good enough. I began to measure my self worth through accomplishments that I was never proud of because I was so caught up with what I could do better.

I was so engulfed in work that I forgot about myself. If I wasn’t perfect, I was nothing. I wasn’t worthy of anything — love, happiness, health, family, friends.

I hated myself.

• • •

I stared blankly at my choir director as we sat in his office.  I numbly explained everything to him.

I finally told someone all I had been going through, however, I felt nothing. I had always been an emotionally driven person, so who was this person I turned myself into? What was wrong with me? Three words interrupted my thoughts.

“Are you OK?”

I wasn’t. Tears slipped down my cheeks. I’m not perfect. I never will be. My fears of failure and inadequacy became a reality, and I was drowning in them.

“Reya, the only thing keeping you from reaching your full potential is the way you treat yourself,” he said.

The past months replayed in my head — every all-nighter I spent working, all the tears I had to wipe away and the countless mornings I spent putting on makeup to hide the exhaustion, hunger and sadness on my face. I treated myself horribly, and it was destroying me.

He was right. I looked at him, and for the first time, I was me. I was thin with bags under my eyes, shaky hands and tear-stained cheeks, but I was me. I mustered words I never thought I’d say.

“I’m not OK. I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”

While convincing others that I was perfect, I convinced myself that I was OK too. This wasn’t true. Because of the safe space my director created, I allowed myself to face my demons and stop pretending that I was fine. He opened the door to healing for me, and I’ll never be ever to repay him. He made me feel like, for once, it wasn’t me against the world. I had an ally. I wasn’t alone.

Recovery is not easy. I have days where I sleep an hour or two, skip a meal and push myself too hard. My toxic obsession with perfection is something that I may always struggle with, but asking for help was light at the end of a long and dark tunnel. The pain and sadness that piled on me finally lightened, and all I had to do was look for the light.