Expressing My Eating Disorder Struggle Through Art Therapy

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Hannah Niemela

My name is Hannah and I am recovering from anorexia nervosa. It’s been about six years now and here I am, sharing my story for the first time. My general motto is, “Go big or go home,” which is kind of what I am doing here. 

There is a quote that always comes back to me, and actually it’s posted on the ceiling of my car. “There are two things relying on you to feed them today. The first is your body, the other is your eating disorder. Feed one, kill the other. It’s your choice, please make it a wise one.” I always wake up to that question, asking myself, “Am I going to feed my body or my eating disorder in this moment?” And almost every day, I do everything in my power to get myself out of my bed and make myself breakfast. I say “almost every day” because recovery isn’t perfect. It’s messy and hard, and sometimes it is the last thing I want to do. But every day that I make the choice to feed my body is another day that I get to be living here, sharing my story with all of you.

I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when I was 14 years old. To be honest, I don’t really remember much about that day. I remember my parents driving me to my appointment at an eating disorders center. And then from there, I remember being asked a lot of questions that I hazily answered while trying to convince the intake team that I did not have a problem. I had been struggling with restricting, exercise, and body image for a few years and being faced with the reality of having to explain my coping mechanisms to complete strangers was beyond my comprehension. And so the cycle began, admission to inpatient, discharged from inpatient, promising to “really recover this time,” and putting my parents through unimaginable stress.

From the ages of 14 to 18, it was a constant stream of treatment, therapy, inpatient and residential stays, and a few hospital visits. Everything else in my life just went away. I lost pretty much everything; I couldn’t work for more than two months at a time, I fell behind in school, and I lived in isolation from everyone. But I did have one thing that kept me somewhat together, which was being in art therapy. I finally found some way to express what I was dealing with, so I just took it and ran it with it. 

I grew up in an art-centered house: my mom was a sculptor and she was amazing. I was always encouraged to express myself through art and I loved it. High school art classes were my safe place, somewhere I didn’t have to talk to anyone about my eating disorder and I had the time to do what I wanted. After school, I spent entire evenings holed up in my room, painting, drawing, and trying to create some way to share with people why I couldn’t eat, why I was terrified of weight gain, and why I couldn’t talk to anyone. I spent countless hours in my basement room painting in books, trying to make something that could give my screwed up reality meaning.

I was on my second residential round in St. Paul, Minnesota, when I was introduced to art journaling. Take an old book and use the words to create messages that are meant to show another message. The entire house was centered around art journaling. Each break we had between meals and groups we spent art journaling. The entire back table was constantly covered in paint, glitter, glue, and magazine clippings, and it was a mess. It made me constantly anxious to look at the mess but later I realized that if you look through all the messy art supplies, you can see this warm, calm energy. We were all surrounded with eating disorders 24/7, and all these girls had found a way to cope with our difficult reality. 

Flash forward to today, to life in Montana. After my last treatment cycle, I moved to California and had my heart broken, leading to an impulse decision to move to Montana. I love my life right now; this is the first time that I have had friends, been independent-ish, learned some lessons the hard way, and grown into myself. I started working on this project in therapy a while ago and it wasn’t until recently that it really started becoming something. 

I wanted to create something that sheds light on the difficulty of recovery while providing affirmations and an outlet for stress relief. I have gotten through many rough therapy sessions by coloring books, and my mom has been telling me this entire time to create one of my own. I also am featuring some of my fellow #edfighters throughout the pages, because I want to share with you all just how tough these people are. We go through life fighting battles that you can’t see. Every day, we wake up and start the fight all over again.

I am still working on getting this project put together, and if you would like to contribute, send me your favorite quotes, affirmations, and mottos that get you through recovery. Visit my Instagram and Etsy pages to learn more!

Hannah is the youngest of 13 siblings and is originally from Minnesota. She is currently living in Montana, studying to be a nurse, and working on her recovery.