What’s Eating You?
For the past three years, I have posted about this topic on my various social media platforms in hopes to spread awareness about a disease that affects millions of people each and every day. I was quiet about my illness from age 13 to 22, so it was quite shocking to many when I first let my secret out. Although some of you may have read or seen some of the other posts where I talked about my eating disorder, I believe this one is the most in depth and informative. I believe I am in the strongest state of my recovery, and can truly reflect on the ups and downs I experienced over the past 13 years.
It’s not that I want to necessarily write about this, but I need to. It’s my responsibility, as someone who has battled with this illness for so long, and who has risen to become stronger than I ever imagined. My goal is to inform, break stigmas, and become an outlet for others to reach out to. I am aware that many people reading this piece will not be able to directly relate to the emotions and behaviors I describe, but they may know someone who does after learning about these common symptoms.
Each year in February, there is a week devoted by NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association, to spread awareness about the severity of eating disorders and the mental illnesses [typically] associated with them. Many people are familiar with the two common eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. However, there are multiple other eating disorders that are rarely talked about in school or in the media including orthorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, night eating syndrome, pica, and more. Although these disorders do not share the exact same symptoms, many of the sufferers witness the same or similar emotions and feelings such as: embarrassment, guilt, shame, fear, depression, exhaustion, sadness, confusion, and hopelessness.
It is 2017, and eating disorders are talked about a bit more than they were in the past, however, there are still many people who are either clueless about the dangerous side effects of these illnesses, or have total misconceptions of what an eating disorder even entails.
Many of you have seen my pictures from the past, or have seen me in person when I was “super skinny.” However, many of you don’t know the severity of the symptoms that I [and others] experienced, and still suffer with today. This is never an attempt to gain sympathy or praise, but written entirely to bring attention to the critical and deadly symptoms attached to these disorders. Each year, I hope to raise awareness and establish myself as an outlet that others [struggling or not] can reach out to. I hope to combat any stigmas and stereotypes about eating disorders, and save someone from taking their own life. (*Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.)
When I was 13 years old I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and OCD. After about two months of restricting food intake (in hopes to lose only a few pounds after the cruise my family and I went on), I lost about 15-20 lbs. I started with Weight Watchers counting points, and then started to count calories too. I treated dieting like a game that I was really fucking good at. If I lost a pound, I felt like I just scored a goal in soccer. People started to compliment my shrinking frame, so I knew that I was doing something right. I wanted to keep going. I wanted to keep receiving compliments. I felt like I was “winning” at something for once.
I was noticeably thinner, quieter, and sadder that summer. I was exhausted pretty much all day – with no desire to talk with friends or leave the house. I measured or weighed every single thing I ate from baby carrots to a tablespoon of creamer in my coffee. I was consumed with numbers; the number of calories in a piece of fruit, the number of pounds on the scale, and the number of minutes that needed to pass until I could allow myself to eat again.
My mother eventually took me to a nutritionist who broke the news about all the above diagnoses. At that point, I knew there was something wrong with me – I just didn’t know why it was happening. “I didn’t choose this,” I thought. I started to see the nutritionist every week along with a psychologist and psychiatrist. I was put on Zoloft to help with the anxiety and depression I had towards my body image, food, and life in general. Everything about me was robotic. I felt stripped of emotions, feelings, and life. I was only 13 years old and seeing 2-3 doctors a week, taking anti-depressants, taking birth control (since I lost my menstrual cycle), and weighing myself at least three times a day.
For some reason, the memory that sticks out the most from that summer was a random morning when I was the only one in the house. My parents were working, and my brothers were at camp. I got out of bed around 9 or 10 a.m., and was walking to the bathroom when my vision started to fade. I remember waking up on my bedroom rug and wondering why I was laying on the floor. Did I trip on something? Did I bang my head? Why am I here? How long have I been here? I pulled my body up slowly and rubbed my eyes a few times. I walked down the stairs and remembered that I planned to eat a small breakfast that day (I wrote down everything I ate and the number of calories the day before) so I can have a snack with my lunch. My breakfast that morning was a peach and a zero-calorie diet ginger ale. After that, I would anxiously watch the clock for three hours until I could eat again. (*Most teenage girls eat anywhere between 1600-1800 calories per day according to the American Heart Association’s Dietary Recommendations. I was eating around 900-1100.)
After about 6 months of nutritional counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy (full of emotional breakdowns, screaming at my mom and doctors, refusing to eat with my family, barely seeing friends/family members, freezing all the time, wearing only sweats or clothes that exposed little to no skin), I started to finally gain weight. I was put on a meal plan and had to get weighed every week by my nutritionist. Since I was a competitive soccer player, I couldn’t really limit my exercise as that was absolutely out of the question for me or my coach (no matter how small I was getting). Throughout the rest of high school, I was maintaining the healthy weight that I achieved and was finally going out with friends. I started to drink alcohol, I had a boyfriend, and I committed to a Division 1 university to play soccer at. Life was improving. I wasn’t measuring everything I ate anymore, but I knew in the back of my head that my disorder would never completely vanish.
Fast forward to the end of freshman year at college. I was truly enjoying life – made a best friend at college, went out all the time, had a super attractive boyfriend, and was doing well in all my classes. However, toward the end of the school year, I started to develop bad anxiety again. I was off medication at the time since my mother and doctor said I was doing really great at school and I could be weened off over the winter. I went home that summer, and I slowly started to restrict again. When I went back to Philadelphia in September for fall semester of sophomore year, my friends from school all said they noticed I lost a bunch of weight. For me, that was the best compliment of them all. It’s like I would get a high from someone calling me skinny, small, or thin. It’s all I ever wanted. And it was happening, all over again.
The more compliments I received, the more weight I lost. I thrived off the approval of others. I kept thinking, “Finally, I’m the girl that everyone likes. I’m the girl that people want to look like. I’m the girl that I always wanted to be.” But of course, I was never satisfied. When I reached 105 pounds, I said, “What’s another 2 or 3 pounds? I can make it to 102.” And when I got to 102, I wanted to be 98. When I got to 98, I wanted to be 95. From what I can remember, my lowest weight was 89 pounds. “I’m finally out of the 90s!” I said to myself as I looked at the lowest number I’ve seen yet. The excitement and joy lasted for an astonishing 15 seconds. After that, I was back to planning how much I was allowed to eat that day, and how much I had to workout.
Since most girls who suffer from anorexia are notorious perfectionists, I amazingly achieved all A’s in school even though I was functioning on less than 600 calories a day. I started to see a therapist at college once a week after I had my first real panic attack during class in sophomore year. I went back on anti-anxiety medication, and was put on birth control again to trigger a menstrual cycle since that disappeared for the second time since I was 13. I was living in a constant state of denial and fear. I was afraid to eat pretty much anything other than salad, apples, yogurt, and diet drinks/coffee. If I was going to go out drinking one night, I would pretty much starve all day. When I had to get weighed, I would go to 7-11 and fill up one of those extra-large Slurpie cups with Diet Coke and chug it all before I had to hop on the scale at the doctors. I told my mom I was getting my period even though I wasn’t. My jeans were size 0-00 from Hollister, and I even had to roll some of them up to fit my waist. I had the body of a 14 year old boy. I can only speak for myself in this situation, but I never once thought I was “fat” or “chubby.” I think some people have the misconception that girls who suffer with anorexia think they are fat or overweight. I knew I was small. I knew I wasn’t fat. I just thought I was not thin enough. “Why can’t I be good enough.”
When I was in my third year of school, I started dating someone who was my most serious boyfriend to date. He was passionate about the restaurant scene and always wanted to try out new places to eat in Center City. In order to appear “normal” to him, I would barely eat all day, drink a shit ton of coffee, and do cardio for about two hours so I can have a decent meal with him later on. I knew it wasn’t “attractive” to be the girl who eats a salad on a date, so I ended up ordering a normal protein-based entree and pretending like I wasn’t calculating every calorie on the plate in front of me. Eventually, I opened up to him about my struggles since he started to notice my lack of confidence and constant worry about my image. We fought all the time for multiple different reasons, but he saw the raw parts of me that no other person has seen before. I never opened up to someone about my eating disorder besides my family and my doctors. He even went to therapy with me in order to help with my recovery. In the back of my mind, I knew that he wasn’t “the one” for me though. I knew that I wouldn’t be marrying him in the future, but I stuck with him since I truly believed that no one else would accept the broken and damaged girl that I was inside. I hate typing this out, as I truly feel like I hurt him more than I hurt myself sometimes. I remember one night when we were spooning in bed, and I thought to myself, “You need to hold onto him as long as you can. No one else is going to love a fucked up girl like you. No one is going to want to date the ‘crazy girl’ like you.”
We obviously ended our relationship after trying so many times to make it work. It was toxic and unhealthy, and I was actually getting thinner during our relationship. At the time, we ended on horrible terms – blocking each other on social media and basically telling each other to go die. Fast forward to now, we are friends, and have hung out multiple times since our breakup. We text each other on Christmas and on birthdays. We both know we will most likely never date each other again, but I am forever grateful for his presence in my life. The end of this relationship started to make me question if I really want to live the next 50-60 years of my life alone. Every relationship teaches you something about yourself, something about life.
After the relationship heartbreak (crying all the time, stalking his new fiancé on social media, staying up all night questioning if that’s the last time a guy will ever say “I love you” to me), I started to go back to hanging out with my guy friends from the wrestling and crew teams. For obvious reasons, I did not see them much during my relationship, which caused many many fights between my ex and I. Since I was now single, I started to hangout with them again. I remember clearly my two close guy friends, individually said to me at different times, “Get off the fucking stair master and start lifting.” That, of course, is paraphrased to what I translated their statements to be in my head. For some reason, it finally triggered something in me. I realized that I was destroying my body for 10 years and I still wasn’t happy. I still wasn’t satisfied with my image. So, maybe this whole thing isn’t about my body at all? Maybe this nightmare is about something deeper, and not about a number on a scale or how many ribs I can see when I wake up every morning? Maybe an eating disorder isn’t even about the food I’m eating? Maybe an eating disorder is about what’s really eating you?
During this emotional realization, Instagram was becoming the new and hip social media platform (2011-2013). As more adults (parents) started to flock towards Facebook, teens and Millennials escaped to Instagram. I started to discover the new evolution of female bodybuilders and lifters. Eventually, this got nicknamed to be the “Fitspo Movement.” Instead of girls displaying their size 0 waists and thigh gaps, these women were flexing their biceps, squatting with the #bros, and portraying how “strong is the new skinny.” I was instantly inspired, since all I knew was hours of cardio, low carb dieting, and a 23 inch waist. Slowly but surely, I started to make my way to the intimidating free weight section of my university gym. I never did anything like squat or deadlift, but I started small with dumbbells, barbells, and assisted machines. I was in shock that I could gain weight and people would actually find me attractive, or even more attractive?
This whole process was extremely emotional and difficult. Gaining weight was my biggest fear in the life for years. I remember one day I thought, “I rather die than be fat.” I am deeply ashamed by this statement, but it’s an honest recollection of one of the many painful thoughts I had circling in my head every single day.
After college, I continued lifting and even paid for a personal trainer to help me improve my form and confidence in the gym. In the winter of 2014, my menstrual cycle came back after four years of being without a period. I was a hysterical mess that night, since my mind translated having a cycle with, “I’m not skinny anymore.” After going to my therapist and taking some time to write in my journal, I looked at the bigger picture. My close friends and family members all know that I cannot wait to be a mom. I love babies, kids, puppies – I LOVE to take care of everyone. I tell everyone, “If the only thing guaranteed in life is death, and I had to choose a second one for me, it would be that I am destined to be a mom.” So getting my period meant that I will [hopefully] be able to have kids in the future since my reproductive system is functioning normally again. Although this was incredibly hard to accept, I am so happy that I can live with more hope of having my own children in the future.
During 2015-2016, I had a bunch of difficult experiences that caused my eating habits, anxiety, and depression to spike at certain times. After speaking with my therapist and mom in February 2016, we agreed that it was time for me to go back on medication and STAY on medication for a while. In the past, I was always put on medication, and then when life started to become brighter, I would ween myself off it – and then BOOM – life knocked me right back down again. We worked up to a dose that is good for me over that spring and summer. The summer of 2016 was the first time I went out in public wearing a bikini since the summer of 2013.
Since August/September of 2016, I have been the absolute happiest I have ever been in my life. I moved out of my parent’s house and currently live in Astoria, Queens. I took a risky swing and paired up with a random roommate from Craig’s List, and it has been nothing but a home run since we moved in together. I have awesome co-workers, a great boss, and a balanced work-social life. I go to the gym when I can, sometimes only 2-3 times a week (instead of 7 days a week or twice a day), and I don’t cancel plans when I’m feeling “fat” or “ugly.” I’ve ate things that I haven’t ate in years like New York bagels, full slices of pizza, *real* bread, and more. Although I still have moments where I’m feeling super down on myself, and critique every little imperfection on my body, I am strong enough to not let it ruin my day anymore. I thought that guys wouldn’t date me if I wasn’t supermodel-thin, but now I’ve realized that most men appreciate a girl with curves and confidence. I’ve removed the belief from my head that “guys aren’t going to want to date a “crazy” girl who had an eating disorder,” since I’ve experienced more praise and respect from men who listened to my story and appreciate how far I’ve come. I have a stronger relationship with my friends and family members, and most importantly, I have a stronger relationship with myself.
To this day, I am still hesitant to believe that any person recovers fully or 100% from an eating disorder. Since eating disorders are mental illnesses, there is no cure or magic pill to help rid each sufferer from their own unique demons. However, there is help, and there is treatment. I still have days where I want to starve myself, spend hours in the gym, and even look at my stomach over 50 times a day in the mirror. I’ve come to accept that mental battle rather argue that I “need” to change my body weight in order to be accepted. With the help of my therapist, my close circle of friends, my family members, medication, and the time I spend reading and writing, I am able to live my life to the absolute fullest.
An eating disorder is never about food, it’s about controlling an aspect of life around you since you feel like you cannot control anything else. Since we cannot control what people will say or do, what the economy will be like, or what genetics we have, we learn that at least we are able to control what we ingest and how our body looks on the outside. In the era of rising Instagram models, Victoria Secret Fashion Shows, and continuous magazine tabloids, it’s easy for people [females especially] to correlate these images with happiness. These celebrities on social media, on TV, and on magazines are wealthy, skinny, and smiling – why wouldn’t they be happy? Why wouldn’t we wish to be like them?
Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way, that thinness does not equal happiness. Size zero jeans does not equal zero problems. And a few pounds shouldn’t feel like pain. My mind was miserably consumed with what people thought about me and if they approved of me. I believed that skinniness was the golden key to approval and internal joy. All I wanted was for other people to like me because I didn’t like myself. That’s what was eating me.
I’ve discovered that people don’t like me because of how much I weigh or what jeans size I wear. People like me because I am funny, generous, compassionate, diligent, honest, and loyal. Those characteristics weren’t able to shine since my mind was only focused on destroying my body. Although it took me over 10 years to figure this out, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without this experience. Recovering from an eating disorder is still the accomplishment I am most proud of, and it has made stronger emotionally, mentally, and physically.
I recently finished the book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” by Mark Manson (strongly recommend to anyone BTW). Manson stresses how vital failure and struggle is in shaping our values and what we deem as important (i.e., what to give a fuck about). I honestly don’t believe I would be as happy or successful as I am today if I didn’t struggle with my eating disorder. All of the excruciating feelings I suffered through made me a more passionate and honest person, which is something I value so much in others. Manon includes one of my favorite quotes of all time – from one of the Founding Fathers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”
***If you know anyone, or you feel as if you may be dealing with some of the emotions/feelings/behaviors described above, please reach out for help now. Please visit NEDA’s website, email info@NationalEatingDisorders.org, or call their Toll-free Information and Referral Helpline: 1-800-931-2237.***