I spent majority of my life trying to be who I thought others wanted me to be: the scholar, the popular girl, the sorority girl, the successful marketer and the list goes on. My years spent in my eating disorder were years of lonely confusion, never understanding why I wasn’t ‘normal’. On the outside, I had it all, but behind closed doors I was killing myself to find perfection and ultimately trying to be someone I was not.
Today, I still get those twinges of ‘I’m not good enough.’ I think we all do. Last Thursday, as I stepped into the Hyatt on Capitol Hill ready to check in for the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Conference, those thoughts came creeping back in. There is no doubt I was already a little nervous going in. Researchers and anyone with letters behind their name often intimidate me. That negative voice chimed up in my head as I headed down to check-in:
“You don’t belong here. You can’t keep up with the research lingo and certainly have not been educated in this field.”
Going with my tried and true motto: Fake It Till You Make It, I held my shoulders back, stood tall and ignored that voice.
The registration volunteer’s voice snapped me out of my negative voice fog. I replied with my name, proudly stating I was with Southern Smash. Then I hear someone yell out, “McCall!” It was Claire Mysko, author of You’re Amazing! and Does this Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? Not to mention just an all around spectacular woman (and now friend). My Twitter buddy and I chatted, excited to finally meet face to face. Her warmth and sincerity was all I needed to know I was right where I needed to be and most of all that I deserved to be there.
One thing I have learned in this journey from ED survivor to advocate, speaker, founder, is to be me, always. And that is just what I intended to do for the next three days. I proudly sported the ever-cool conference badge that said my name and Southern Smash. Just like numbers on a scale, letters behind my name do not prove my worth or deem me worthy to attend the conference. I earned my right to stand tall and be there because I believe in the Southern Smash mission and most of all, I believe in myself. I am proud of who I am and what I have overcome.
Having spent my former life in Corporate America, I have attended my fair share of conferences. But nothing can compare to being a part of the NEDA conference. It is so unique in that anyone can attend. From research nerds to clinicians to families affected by the illness, the diversity was incredible. (And of course, there were the conference ‘regulars,’ those marketing and outreach specialists who spend their lives traveling the conference circuit. Needless to say, I found many new friends in this lively bunch).
But no one touched my heart as much as the families and those in recovery did. The first morning we loaded a bus to lobby on Capitol Hill. I sat next to a mother and her teen daughter from Charlotte, North Carolina. You could see the unique bond between them and how the mother glowed with pride when she talked about her daughter’s fight through an eating disorder.
The sweet girl sat quietly, wavy hair framing her face. I asked her what she was most excited about in the days to come. In a quiet, yet strong voice she said she wanted to plan the first NEDA Walk in Charlotte. I was overcome by her quiet strength and determination to become an advocate and pay it forward. Needless to say, her mother was beaming with pride during our conversation. I was in awe of this duo and the effort they took to come to DC to lobby, learn and make a difference.
I periodically saw them throughout the conference and always checked in to see how she was enjoying herself. We landed in the same sessions a few times and I couldn’t help but fixate in admiration at how she took notes and was so engaged in every lecture. Yes, this girl was here to make a difference.
Yesterday, as I headed upstairs to my last session, I saw the two sitting at a table enjoying a snack. I walked by and stopped to say farewell in case I did not see them again. I told the girl to promise and keep me posted on her walk, but moreover on her incredible future ahead. As I headed towards the escalator, my eyes welled with tears. This is what NEDA and this extraordinary community is about. It is not all about the research and therapy theories; NEDA is about bringing people together who believe in the power of hope. It is about the father who spoke so lovingly about his daughter’s struggle with anorexia. It is about the former marine who bravely shared her secret battle with Bulimia that ultimately forced her out of Iraq. It is about the gay African-American teen that stood up to the corporate giant of Abercrombie and Fitch. It is about the lively marketing ladies who live out of suitcases and spend weekends away from home because they believe in the power of hope and the possibility of recovery. And most of all, it is about that mother and daughter. That mother who witnessed her daughter fight through the darkness of her disorder and into the light of recovery. The mother who stood by her side and even made the trip to learn alongside her child. And about that soft-spoken girl who bravely traveled to learn how to make a difference. Yes, THAT is what NEDA is about.
Living with an eating disorder is a lonely world, a place no one would wish upon his or her worst enemy. And sometimes doing the work of advocacy can often feel the same, but not today. I left Washington DC with hope hangover. I am emotionally and physically exhausted and my heart is so full of hope and gratitude for everyone I met I can hardly stand it. This is the best kind of hangover anyone could ask for and I can’t wait to experience it again next year. I plan to carry this overflow of hope with me as I set out in what can only be describe an insane month ahead that includes a wedding extravaganza and three SMASHes.
So until next year, thank you NEDA and thank you to all those who touched my heart and contributed to my hope hangover…
…And I have to thank those who made this trip possible for me. Obviously, a huge thanks you to NEDA for inviting me and endlessly supporting Southern Smash. Also, to the Kappa Kappa Gamma Foundation for the Circle Key Grant, making my Lobby Day experience possible. Most of all I have to thank my family: my amazing in-laws who changed travel plans, my parents, best friend and loving aunt for all pitching in. And to my Jordan, my best friend and confidant: you are MY rock, never ceasing to amaze and inspire me with your courage and willingness. Thank you for letting me chase my life mission and supporting me every step of the way.