What I Learned about Life Through My Eating Disorder
Let me start by saying...
I am not a Registered Dietician, Clinical Nutritionist, Psychologist, Therapist or Medical Doctor. Eating disorders are very serious, and this post is not meant to treat or cure any illnesses, diseases or disorders. This is simply an account of my personal experiences and my journey towards recovery. If you currently struggle with with an eating disorder, emotional eating or any type of disordered eating, please know there are medical professionals that can help. My mission with this post is to open a dialogue and spread awareness of the many eating and body image issue we, especially women, experience. By sharing my own story, my hope is that people with similar struggles or challenges will come away understanding there is always a path towards recovery.
On the Outside, Things Looked Great
I was making friends, I was single, ready-to-mingle, my classes were going great, and I was independent for the first time in my life. Freshman year of college presents the opportunity to be yourself, to try new things and to discover a strong sense of self. However, things were not as they appeared. In fact, I was miserable inside.
When life (or the college cafeteria) gives you processed "food," well, you can't really make anything out of that, can you...
As I dragged myself to the cafeteria to stuff my face with pizza and burgers, and follow up my feast with a gloomy trip to the Wilkerson Hall bathroom, I wondered how long it would take for my roommates to start getting suspicious. I mean you can only tell your friends "I am going to check to see if I got mail" so many times. Who receives that much mail?! This was just one of the MANY lies I would tell as my eating disorder slowly began to spin out of control. That's the thing about trying to hide something, as you get caught deeper and deeper in the lies, it becomes harder to dig your way out.
You have to look backwards to move forward
So why and how did my toxic relationship with food begin? In high school, I never thought twice about my weight or my body image, but college offered a different set of challenges. I can pinpoint a few, specific life events that likely led me to my first binge. Please note, I am not blaming anyone but myself; however, my negative self-image, lack of confidence and how I chose to cope was a direct response to some crappy situations.
During the first few weeks of college, I had discovered I had been cheated on...for the second time. So yes, going back into a toxic relationship should have been a huge red flag, but this isn't how teenagers operate. Most of us make a ton of mistakes until we learn the hard way, despite everyone we love telling us we aren't thinking clearly. Life tip: your friends and family are usually right! Listen to them. I know...how annoying. Cue face palm.
Needless to say, being cheated on made me feel worthless and insecure. I felt empty, sad, not good enough, not pretty enough, not skinny enough, and not worthy enough to to be loved. I kept asking myself, "What exactly is wrong with me?" I am infuriated that something as petty as comparing myself to other women is what ignited a 6-year long battle with my body image. I figured if I could lose a few pounds, fit into a size 0 and stay skinny, then I would be happy. Then I would feel attractive and wanted. I never could have imagined the lasting damage and toll it would take on my mind and body.
I began having nightly binge/purge sessions followed by days of restricting calories or over-exercising until I became so hungry, I would eat everything in sight. It was a vicious cycle, and the worst part is, I was hiding it from every single person I loved.
When the weight of the world is on your shoulders, don't be afraid to ask for help
I began to get caught in the lies. Food would go missing from my apartment too quickly. I would spend too long in the bathroom. These little things did not go unnoticed. Despite my best efforts to hide my secret, I knew I had to tell someone. However, I am stubborn, and even after telling family and friends what was going on, I attempted to fix everything on my own. I was humiliated and ashamed for having started this terrible disorder in the first place. So what did I do? I attempted (and failed) to solve a mental illness on my own.
That isn't to say I didn't make a real effort to change. I began talking more openly with friends and family about what I was going through. I began taking better care of myself by eating healthier and not killing myself at the gym every day. The bingeing episodes became less frequent, and I felt like I was finally starting to heal.
Enter stress. Anytime something slightly stressful crept in, difficult classes, exams, dating, eating out in large settings, etc., I would go right back to my old habits. And since I only had one mechanism for coping with stress, I immediately fell back into the toxic cycle. This "get a little better, fall down even harder" cycle continued for a total of 6 years.
Everything was "fine" until it wasn't
To back things up, there was one specific moment I can pinpoint that was the driving force behind my recovery. It was the Fall of 2012, and I was having a difficult time adjusting to life in a new state. I rarely got to spend quality time with my now husband due to our conflicting schedules. I felt very alone and coped the only way I knew how, by bingeing and/or attempting to eat as little as possible. On this particular day, I ate everything in sight. From ice cream to plain white bread, I devoured whatever I could get my hands on. I was mortified, disgusted and furious with who I'd become. I hated looking in the mirror, because I no longer recognized the person staring back at me.
After my binge/purge episode, I remember rushing down the stairs to go for a run and just to get out of the house...to get out of my head. As I ran down the stairs, my heart began to pound so fast, I thought it as going to leap out of my chest. "Am I having a heart attack?" was my first instinct. I sat down, sweaty, shaky and terrified. The only thing I could think about was how angry I was for allowing myself to let this thing, this mentally exhausting demon, rule over my entire life. This was no life. I had lost any sense of who I was, and my life seemed like one, massive lie.
The amount of time and energy wasted is tough to think about, but I have come to the realization that my eating disorder is a part of me that I can't erase. I battle it still. I no longer have a toxic relationship with food, but there are still days when I still feel "less than" or "not good enough." The difference now is, I have the control - the eating disorder no longer has a hold on me. It doesn't have a say in how I live my life, because I will not give it the power to do so.
I possess the tools, knowledge, self-worth, discipline and tribe of loved ones behind me to never look back. It's funny how the things we struggle with most often become the most significant and impactful. Silver lining, I am grateful this alarming event happened to me. It was enough of a wake up call to make me stop and ask myself, "Where is your life heading?"
Road to Recovery
I finally committed to changing. With the support of my husband and family, I got the help I needed, and I finally began focusing on myself and my health for the first time in 6 years. Sadly, these disorders do not always have as happy of an ending as mine. Eating disorders can be life threatening. My body and mind had to go through years of healing and transformation to get back to feeling like my normal self. I went to therapy and had to re-learn how to love myself no matter what I looked like or what I ate. It took years to be able to view food as fuel and nourishment for my body AND mind, and not as a coping mechanism for my emotions and stress. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was actually living the life I had imagined.
My story is not unique
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (Current Psychiatry - Epidemiology of Eating Disorders). Women feel an enormous pressure to look a certain way or fit into a certain size, making an eating disorder seem like an attractive, quick fix. I get it, but I wish I could have understood how all-consuming this life decision would be. There are always healthier ways of managing the stressors in your life, so please take the time to implement the self-care and the self-love you deserve.
I have since made a promise to never disrespect my body again. I have vowed to love it and nourish it no matter what challenge I may be faced with. And through my recovery, a passion for health and wellness was sparked. I began reading everything I could about nutrition, fitness, stress management, recovery, you name it. I studied after work and on the weekends to get my Personal Trainer and Health Coaching certificates, because I knew I had found my calling.
Today, I get to focus my passion and energy into helping people rediscover a belief and confidence in themselves. Every single person has the ability to create and live their best life with a little consistency, determination, hard work and accountability. I want that for everyone, and in a strange way, I have my eating disorder to thank for that.
And although my past had some messy and painful moments, it has also been filled with growth, transformation and renewal. I am who I am because of each life experience, the good, the bad and the ugly. My eating disorder does not define me, but it is certainly a part of me. I am at a healthy place to speak openly about this chapter in my life, so I hope we can continue to open up the dialogue around eating disorders and other similar struggles. The more we discuss and confront these "taboo" topics, the easier it will be for everyone to discover their own success story.
I am not a Licensed Psychologist, Psychiatrist, Registered Dietician, Clinical Nutritionist, or Medical Doctor. I am simply sharing my story in the hopes that you can walk away understanding that overcoming adversity and challenging moments is always worth it. If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please seek professional help. Thank you.