My eating disorder started in my second year of university. It is hard for researchers to pin down what causes an eating disorder, and for everyone it seems to be different, but for me it was a constant drive for perfection and a reaction to stress. The year before, I had moved away from home for what I thought would be an amazing experience. I have always been close to my family and friends and I felt comfortable at home. Unfortunately, moving away was not the fun university experience I had hoped for. It was difficult; however, I excelled in my first year studies and was proud that I did not put on the freshman fifteen. In fact, I lost a small amount of weight, nothing significant, but I was proud of myself for keeping a schedule of working out and eating healthy (if you counted soup, salad and veggie sandwiches every day as healthy…). I went back home for summer vacation that year and had a good summer, a normal summer.
I was sad to go back to school in the fall, to leave my family and friends behind. I had friends at school who were kind, fun to hang out with and I felt comfortable with them, but it was not the same. When I moved into my second year residence I was placed with three strangers. I felt unsafe in my own home and very uncomfortable. My classes were harder and I felt extremely isolated. I cannot pinpoint the exact day when my ED behaviours started, but suddenly I was eating the same thing every day. The exact same thing for breakfast, snacks, lunch and dinner. I ordered my food through an organic food delivery system and would buy the same thing week in and week out. I would count my food over and over again. If I got sent too much or too little it would immobilize me in fear. I would lay sleepless at night, pinching my sides, feeling how much “fat” I had and would continue counting my food in my head, going over my food plan for the week and how I would make sure I finished off my food perfectly and would eat no more or no less. I never ate out. On the very rare occasion that I had to eat out, I would go home and cry, obsess about it for days and make sure I worked out harder the next day. I tried to vomit a few times, but I could not do it. The one thing I did respect and appreciate about my body was my teeth, I did not want to ruin them.
I remember the day I discovered working out hard everyday would help me lose weight. I started off working out 4-5 days a week at the gym. But then realized I can do this every day if I scheduled it properly. So I did. I walked everywhere, took the stairs and worked out for at least 2 hours at the gym every day. I was addicted and if I was sick or sore, it did not matter. I started running hard and I remember feeling like my legs were aching, close to breaking multiple times. I did not care. The sad thing was I did not own a scale; however, every time I went into the gym I would step on the big one they had right by the entrance and check my weight. Slowly it was creeping down. I weighed myself everyday and my worth that day, my attitude and my mood was based on that number. I was starting to become a shell of a person, less me and more ED. Looking back, one thing I would advocate for is to get rid of the scale in the university gym. It is an unnecessary indicator of health and it is a clear sign to people that health is based on numbers, when it should be based on how you feel. Your weight on any particular day should not matter, but to me, and many others it makes or breaks the day.
At Christmas I went home and my friends noticed I had lost weight. They asked me if I had been working out more and eating healthy and said they were impressed. For the first time in a long time I was getting attention and I liked it. I always felt that I was the underdog in my family. Not deserving of love or attention. That if I died or disappeared no one would care because I was not important or exciting. My mom was worried, but did not know what to do. She encouraged me to eat a bit more and slow down with my exercise, which I refused.
When I got back to school it got worse. I restricted food and exercised more. I remember one day, while I was slowly eating my lunch (the same lunch I had every Tuesday and Thursday), I crossed my legs, and when I uncrossed them my right lower leg was numb. I could not walk properly and I had a severe foot drop. My weight dropped at a rapid pace. My mom was concerned as every time I called her I was crying and would talk about food and working out. She came to visit me and took me to see the doctor. I did not care at this point, I was so exhausted, tired and had no emotion. We saw an eating disorder specialist who looked me over; pointing out different things then went to write notes on the computer. He said nothing. I remember asking him the question, “So is anything wrong with me?” He said, “You are anorexic, I suggest you slow down your exercise and get help in Calgary.” Then he left. He did not offer me help with anything else, no medication, no psychological treatment. Looking back on it now, it was very unfortunate. Because of this doctor's reaction, I did not believe I was sick because I was functioning, getting amazing marks in school and if I was not sick enough that I could wait a few more months to get help I was fine. My mom let me stay in school, even though she was extremely concerned, she tried to find help, but I consistently refused anything she offered. I went on with my patterns because in my mind I was not sick enough to deserve help. Friends were concerned and I did talk to one about it and she told me, “I had something like that too one time. I was dieting in high school and trying to lose some weight. I understand what you are going through.” This infuriated me, I remember thinking, She does not understand! I have major issues and no one is recognizing this. Thinking back I think people were scared. They did not know what to do or how to help and I was emotionally withdrawn. I don’t think I would have accepted help at this point.
Finally, school ended and I went away on a brief vacation. My parents hoped I would get better by having less stress and being away from school. Things were worse. I did recognize I could not run as it was so painful in my legs, but I walked. I walked as much as I could. When we ate out I ordered salads and vegetables. I would eat, but it was a careful plan and whenever I thought I had overeaten I was so guilty. It was a guilt that over took my thoughts and emotions. Thinking back, I am not sure I was ever thinking pleasant or positive thoughts. I finally realized something was not right when we went shopping one day and I could barely walk around. I felt dizzy and needed to sit down. The moment we got off our plane in Calgary my mom took me to our doctor. She said my heart rate was dangerously low and my foot drop was concerning. I went to the emergency department, and somehow, the stars aligned that day and I got into the inpatient eating disorders program. I was very lucky as I soon learned this was not the case for everyone and even if someone is medically unstable, there is not always space. There were six beds, which were always full with severely ill individuals. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that only six beds in southern Alberta are available for those suffering from eating disorders. So many people need help and support, especially considering eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness.
While I was in the hospital, I kept a journal. Looking back at it I am amazed at how strong the voice of my eating disorder was. I wrote about my horrendous meals, my disgusting body and how much I hated myself. It is sad for me to look back on, but I am also very proud of myself as my mind no longer thinks this way and it is proof of how far I have come. One thing that is a consistent theme that came up in my journal was the concept of deserving. I felt like I did not deserve to be in the hospital, that I was not sick enough and that everyone else needed help more than I did. I felt like I had stolen someone’s spot. I felt worthless and not important. Once I was told by the psychologist that I just “faded into the background.” To me this meant I was forgettable and not important. I still struggle with this today, but have recognized that I am important and have a purpose in this world, which includes being happy and worthy of good things. The idea of deserving is something I would stress to anyone who is going through recovery for his or her eating disorder. No matter who you are, or how “bad” your eating disorder is, if it is causing you pain, stress or is taking over your life, even a little bit, you deserve help, support and love. You deserve to get better and comparing to other people’s illnesses is not helpful. Focus on yourself and what makes you happy. For me it was the fact that I knew I wanted to finish my degree and get out and make a difference in the world. I could not do that with my eating disorder.
After one month in hospital I was stable enough to go into the day treatment program. It was nice to be home with my family and in my own bed. In the hospital I told myself that I refused to have my eating disorder control my life as it did many of the people around me and that I promised myself I would go back to school in the fall to continue my degree. When I told my case manager this she said, “If you are not going to be here for the full treatment time, then I cannot help you.” This is so upsetting to me. People with eating disorders, including myself, need strong support and guidance, not someone telling them they are not good enough! I hope this is a perception that can be shifted in the future. A huge concern I had with the day program, which I remember clearly, is instilling fear in client by stating: If you don’t finish your meal on time you will have to drink Ensure. I remember clearly having this happen to me. It was my first day in the program and I felt like bawling. It was humiliating. Another time, a girl did not finish her meal and she had to drink “the dreaded Ensure.” She was screaming and crying. I don’t think anyone can understand the fear, humiliation and anxiety that came with this experience. It was terrible. Another concern with the day program was that each week the clients were weighed. We were not told how much we weighed and our goals were kept secret. I understand this component, shifting the focus away from weight was important. As someone who still struggles at times with basing their worth on a number (which fluctuates with things like hormones or fluid intake), I think keeping the focus off specific numbers and more on well being is important. One thing I found infuriating however was that, even though they were trying to shift the focus from weight, in the end, the whole program focused around weight and the numbers! If you did not gain a certain amount of weight in a week you were kicked out. This was so sad because the people who needed the most help were those getting kicked out of the program. When we came into group and someone was missing we would ask where they were and we were told, “They did not make weight.” This humiliation and fear did not make sense. We were not creating a normal relationship with food, our weight or ourselves.
Although I had my qualms with the program, my experience in the day program was a success. The day program and many of its members were helpful. I remember a facilitator telling me that I was doing well and that she believed I could go back to school. This was amazing for me to hear, I felt empowered and thought that if others think I can do I, I can. I worked hard that summer to get to know myself and who I was without ED. My emotions came back and I started talking to friends. I opened up about my issues to some of my close friends, which was hard to do, but was relieving. Because I was still not fully recovered I did not go to the gym or go running. Instead, as many people who are recovering do, I turned to yoga. This was a big key to my recovery. For everyone it is different, but for me yoga showed me how strong I could be inside and out. The most important thing yoga taught me was that being small and invisible was not what I was meant to be and that I deserve happiness and joy. I remember one day someone telling me, “No matter what your struggle is, big or small, it is yours and if it is impacting your life you deserve help, love and attention.” This was amazing for me to hear as I felt so underserving because I wasn’t the worst, was not sick enough, was not messed up enough…the list goes on. This comparing is so common in eating disorders and although it is something that still comes up for me at times, I have recognized that it doesn’t matter. What matters is what is going to serve me and help me find my own truth. Yoga as well as my family helped me to do this.
Today I feel like I no longer have ED taking up any space in my head. I practice self-love and self-care although some days are more difficult than others. To me, recovery is not a straight line to the top. It is a roller coaster with twists, turns and ups and downs. Recovery was also hard work. I spent 3 months in intensive treatment and the following three years with a physiologist specialized in eating disorders. This one-on-one treatment was amazing for me and she helped so much. I truly think that for anyone going through the recovery process, having a good support team by your side is imperative for success. After four years, I finally feel like I am finding some balance in my life. I can eat out, enjoy food, have ice cream for dinner and take days off from exercise. It took me years and lots of support, guidance and testing my own beliefs before I could get through my ED behaviours and find who I truly am. To be honest, I am still learning, searching for answers and working on letting go of control. It is a hard thing, but when you are caring and paying attention to yourself and your needs, it will come with time. Everyone’s recovery is different and turning to self-care, love and compassion for yourself is imperative for getting rid of ED and kicking him out of your head for good!