My experience with eating disorders isn’t something I talk about much, especially not online. I think that maybe that’s because of the sense of vulnerability that comes with speaking of such a personal, painful thing, along with the mindset of “it’s nobody’s business but my own” that I’ve always had. And aside from that, I think a part of me is unaccepting and in denial still, despite the fact that I was discharged from treatment about three years ago.
If I could set a Facebook relationship status with food, let’s just say it’d be “it’s complicated”. One of the things therapists ask is where your disorder or issues stem from; what makes you sick? But that’s the thing – it’s been so ingrained in me I can’t really remember a time I didn’t have unhealthy thoughts and behaviors surrounding food. Maybe it was triggered by the relentless bullying I went through all the way from second grade to seventh. Maybe it was triggered by my already existing social anxiety and OCD., or maybe it was the depression that kicked my disordered eating habits into gear. Either way, it happened, and at age thirteen I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in the office of my first therapist – even though I’d been experiencing symptoms long before then.
Mayo Clinic states that “The physical signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa are related to starvation, but the disorder also includes emotional and behavior issues related to an unrealistic perception of body weight and an extremely strong fear of gaining weight or becoming fat.” Physical symptoms aside, symptoms of anorexia nervosa include (but are are not limited to)*:
- Severely restricting food intake through dieting or fasting and may include excessive exercise
- Bingeing and self-induced vomiting to get rid of the food and may include use of laxatives, enemas, diet aids or herbal products
- Preoccupation with food
- Refusal to eat
- Denial of hunger
- Fear of gaining weight
- Lying about how much food has been eaten
- Flat mood (lack of emotion)
- Social withdrawal
- Reduced interest in sex
- Depressed mood
- Thoughts of suicide
*list taken from mayoclinic.org
Though there is no exact, direct cause of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders (binge eating disorder (BED), bulimia, EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), etc.), it is most likely a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.
One of my first memories of being unhappy with my body is when I was eight years old. It was summer, and I was playing at the park, a tooth missing from my grin and my blonde braids blowing in the breeze. I was wearing an outfit that I quite liked – a green romper with floral details. I sat down on some sort of playground apparatus and looked down at my thighs – a wave of disappointment rolled over me. They’re too fat, I thought. Nevermind that I was a healthy eight year old girl. Looking back, I realize that this is around the same time my obsessive-compulsive mindset began, and I see how closely those two things are linked.
My negativity towards myself only escalated as time went on. Maybe it was the bullying at school – the girls who called me fat and treated me as if they owned me. Or maybe it was my ever-increasing perfectionistic mindset and feelings of not being enough, along with increasingly stressful surroundings and situations. No matter the cause, I began paying more and more attention to food, weight, diet, and exercise over the years.
When I was about twelve years old, I was introduced to the concept of “pro-ana” (“ana” being short for anorexia) and “pro-mia” (“mia” being short for bulimia). Suddenly, this whole new world opened up before me and I realized I wasn’t alone in my feelings. I’d search forums and blogs and browse under the proana hashtag on Tumblr and Instagram. It was in searches like these that I found the concept of “thinspiration”, which is basically pictures of stick-thin girls to serve as “inspiration” to starve yourself. Suddenly, my life – health, relationships, etc. – went on a steep and drastic downward spiral that lasted about a year. Honestly, most of that year is a total fog – I don’t know if it’s because of the malnutrition or simply not wanting to have to recall the dragging, depressing days, but it’s like there’s a wall up in my mind and all I can see beyond it is blurred images of food and exercise and trying to hide my disorder behind smiles and reassuring statements. I had my meals and allotted calories mapped out for each day, and browsed internet forums on ways to consume less calories and burn more. Cold showers, constant exercise, and self harm became my daily routine, and eventually all I could do was sleep and lay in my bedroom, trying to hide my misery from everyone else. I was extremely suicidal, and promised myself that if I wasn’t able to starve myself to death, I’d find other means of suicide. It was like one long year of self-inflicted torture.
However, my plans were completely flipped when I was told I’d be going to treatment. I didn’t want to go, but to a part of me, it also felt like some sort of “finish line”. I’d won. I made it. I was finally sick enough. Eating disorders are competitive, greedy things. And so that December, I was admitted to inpatient treatment six hours away from home, where I stayed for two and a half weeks.
The first night was hell, to say the least. I cried hysterically and begged my mom not to leave me there. I was locked up in the eating disorder wing of a psychiatric hospital, with girls with tubes in their noses ands bones protruding out from under baggy pajama pants. Some cried, some slept, and some just sat there, consumed by it all. We started our mornings with cold showers, vitals, pills and vitamins, and blood drawings every other day as early as 5 am. We could have visitors for two hours each day, and four hours on weekends. We weren’t allowed to have pens or pencils, so I passed time between groups playing games with the other girls and writing in my journal with a felt tip marker. I made art in art therapy, and got to know some of the other girls, many of whom I’m still in contact with today. And it makes me happy to see that they’re thriving and living fulfilling lives.
After my time at inpatient was up, I was transferred to a residential treatment center four hours from home, where I stayed for two or three months. It was hard knowing that I was technically “in recovery”, and I hated seeing the changes in my body. I got to go on outings and have visiting hours thrice weekly, and made nightly phone calls home. I spent my days bonding with the lovely girls I shared my time there with, and going to groups and personal therapy sessions. I adored my therapist, and despite all the blood and tears I shed there, I look back on my memories of residential treatment fondly, given the circumstances. It was painful and horrible and utter hell, but I met so many lovely people and learned so much about myself and the world. It was there that I began writing so much poetry, and I even got the group to do Sunday night “poetry slams” that were easily the best part of my week.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from going through treatment, it’s that everything is so much more bearable when you know you have support. I couldn’t have done any of it if it weren’t for the girls I spent my time with and our inside jokes, reassuring kindness towards one another, relentless support, and heart-to-hearts. We bonded through the one thing that brought us all together and helped set one another free; and I think this is exactly how things should be. It’s been three years, and I still struggle every day with body image and disordered thinking. In many ways, I feel like I will always struggle. I still have the diagnosis haunting my medical records and reports, and I’m still not fully recovered physically from the damage I did to my body. But if it weren’t for the struggle, I may not have begun taking writing so seriously, and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s one of the things that’s made me who I am, and that’s okay. Now that I’m here and have lived through it, I would like to join the movement in breaking down mental health stigmas and fighting for proper education and treatment opportunities for those in need. Everyone has their battles, so why don’t we just support one another?
For help, insight, and more, visit these lovely websites or call the Eating Disorder Hotline:
NEDA (National Eating Disorder Awareness): https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org//
The Emily Program: https://www.emilyprogram.com/
Center for Eating Disorders: http://www.center4ed.org/resources.asp
Eating Disorder Hotline: 1-888-988-9706
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Thank you, and stay lovely!xx