Shattering Stigmas is an annual blogging event that lasts two weeks. During this fortnight, we’ll be talking about anything and everything mental health related. The aim of these posts are to take away some of the stigma surrounding mental illness, to invite people to open up about their stories, and to help others learn.
Rebecca isn’t an unfamiliar face to the Stattering Stigmas event. Last year she wrote a couple posts for me as well, and they were honest, real, and raw. This year, she’ll be making a few appearances again. You can find her on The Lady Lynx and her Twitter page.
Eating disorders were only added to the diagnostic index for psychological disorders in the last decade. While this is progress, it also speaks to the prejudice of many people who don’t have experience with eating disorders.
Eating disorders are a spectrum that runs from anorexia to bulimia to orthorexia and a million things in between. A lot of people think it’s a choice, a vanity. Maybe, in some aspects it can be? However it is always an illness.
TRIGGER WARNING: IF YOU ARE IN RECOVERY OR STRUGGLING, DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER OR TRIGGER YOURSELF.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me and the people I know who’ve struggled with it? It is a monster that eats at your brain. A physical weight you can’t get off of you no matter how much you starve or purge. It’s a compulsion. A pattern. It’s an illness. It’s an illness that can kill.
It’s not always a desire to be beautiful.
It certainly doesn’t help that beautiful seems to be tiny and skinny or that people fatshame people on the internet and in real life. It doesn’t help that clothing sizes sometimes give people status and that most clothing companies don’t have a range of ALL bodies in their ad campaigns nor clothes for a range of bodies in their stores.
To be honest, my trip down the rabbit hole didn’t even involve vanity…
It started really innocuously. My doctor told me I was morbidly obese needed to lose weight. He put me on an 1800 calorie diet and I downloaded fitnesspal, ready to go.
Only I kept going over the calories. And I wasn’t losing weight. I couldn’t figure out where to go from there. So in 2015, my doctor decided I was in need of desperate measures. He told me to only eat 1000 calories, unless I could exercise enough to burn off 800.
The problem with that is that I have chronic pain and it’s hard for me to be super physical without painful consqequences. So I knew I was only going to be able to eat 1000 calories. I also knew this was unhealthy. A good portion of my friends and family had either battled disordered eating or eating disorders, specifically anorexia and bulimia. But…my doctor had suggested it, so I was going to try.
However, in a rare moment of hubris, I thought I wouldn’t make those mistakes that my friends and family had, that I knew what to look for. I could do this. I would just eat 1000 calories and do my best with exercising. I would lose weight damnit!
I guess I should disclose that I have PCOS and metabolic syndrome, I’m insulin resistant. My body doesn’t process food correctly. Often, instead of turning carbs into energy, my body stores them as fat. So no energy and I eat way less than most of my friends, but gain three times the weight they do. A recurring question in my life is “how are you THIS big?” So not only did I have to worry about the calorie count, I had to worry about what I ate.
And I was a notoriously picky eater.
But I could do this.
Wrong. I’m a Type A perfectionist with control issues. So within a month, this went very awry. I decided, since I wasn’t losing weight, to do it my doctor’s way, with the intense exercise.
And I kept going over the calorie limit.
I would look at the app in despair every day. Until I kind of snapped.
I started restricting and punishing myself. If I went over the calorie limit, I had to take whatever I went over out of the next day and so on and so on. However the scale wasn’t moving. In fact it was going up. Fun fact about insulin resistance: starving yourself can actually cause you to gain weight.
My doctor was convinced I wasn’t trying. So I restricted more which he, and everyone else, was unaware of. I cut my max calorie goal to less than half of the original thousand. I cut out certain meals (no breakfast). I would drink if I was hungry instead of eating. I started cutting out carbs, convinced they were why I couldn’t lose weight. After awhile it got to the point that seeing carbs gave me anxiety attacks.
When the scale showed no change I changed tactics. I exercised. A lot. I relied heavily on my pain medicine for relief, which I didn’t always get. I stopped eating when I could get away with it. I wouldn’t eat out with my friends and made excuses as to why I couldn’t eat with them or why I wasn’t snacking.
I was being eaten alive by anxiety. What if I didn’t lose the weight? What if I became diabetic (one of my greatest fears for a myriad of reasons)? Why was I so weak? Why couldn’t I have just said no growing up instead of being a fat pig? (In retrospect I was very ugly to myself) What if they noticed? I wasn’t going back to treatment. But oh my fucking GOD WHY WASN’T ANYTHING WORKING.
The doctor, who’d been my general practitioner for years, had resorted to kindly bullying me and I quit seeing him. Every time I saw him he just confirmed my failure.
The numbers weren’t moving. It’d been months. I didn’t know what to do. So I stopped. I stopped eating unless absolutely necessary. Absolutely necessary meant that I was going to pass out if I didn’t. Sometimes it meant eating after I regained consciousness from passing out.
Sometimes I’d give in and those were the worst moments. I never purged, but there were times I wanted to (keeping my singing voice was the only thing that kept me from that). I remember when I had ordered a meat lovers pizza when visiting my brother. It’s a tradition of ours. I got a piece and nibbled at it, but he kept looking at me, and I swore he’d figure it out. So I ate it.
And I hated myself. I could feel the weight of that pizza in my stomach and I fucking hated it. I wanted to run around his neighborhood, convinced I needed to get the weight OUT of my stomach. But I couldn’t, because he’d notice and I didn’t want to stop. I had to overcome this eating thing.
I was stronger than food. Mind over matter.
So for the next three days I didn’t eat. I only drank water. I remember my brother asking why I wasn’t eating more pizza and convinced him I didn’t feel great and was eating pretzels. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t eating pretzels. I just drank that stupid water.
I remember feeling weird after the first 24 hours without food. It took me another few hours to realize that I was dizzy and weak because I hadn’t eaten in two days. I knew I was playing with fire because if I lost consciousness in front of my brother the jig was up.
On the third day I decided to go home. My brother was starting to catch on to me, or I thought he was and I wanted to be home with my cat. Also I wasn’t under the microscope there becasue my aunt was dying. (Which is another story for another time)
I shouldn’t have driven. I maintain that to this day. I definitely swerved a few times because I was dizzy and I should not have driven under those conditions. However I realized that water kept my head clearer and my vision not spotty so I drank six 16oz bottles of water on the two hour drive home.
My aunt died the next day. I remember eating. The next week or so was kind of a blur, but I remember my mom trying to convince me to eat a biscuit maybe two weeks later. I told her it wasn’t healthy and I had to lose weight. I thought she’d leave it. Instead she went in the market, bought a banana, and told me to eat that.
And I couldn’t. I started having an anxiety attack, shaking, crying, and terrified. I was convinced that, if I ate that banana I was a failure, that I had no self-control. If I ate that banana it would validate every insult or comment people made about my weight.
My mother was horrified. She didn’t know what to do. She knew what the General Practitioner had said about the 1000 calorie diet, but she also knew I stopped seeing him and that I hadn’t lost weight. She didn’t know what I’d been doing. As she talked to me, she realized I’d been bad off for months.
My mom took me to my psychiatrist who diagnosed me with anorexia. Then I was sent to my endocrinologist, who got me to a nutritionist. It’d been about seven months and I’d lost very little weight and, on top of that, my blood levels were fucked and I clearly needed help.
Funnily enough I had put myself at even more risk for diabetes than if I had just kept gaining weight and going about my life.
It took a bit, but I learned dieting wasn’t good in the long term and that fucking up calorie counts didn’t make me a failure. I wasn’t weak. I just needed to change my eating and lifestyle habits. I also needed to build in an accountability system so I didn’t relapse.
So I got my rules:
-I could no longer have any kind of calorie counting app or journal.
-I couldn’t own a scale and was only allowed to weigh myself at doctor’s appointments. My weight didn’t matter. It was a number, not a sign of my health.
-I could only exercise as much as my body allowed. It didn’t matter if I did five miles or three as long as I exercised. My body would let me know when to stop.
-No cutting out entire food groups.
-You have to eat three meals a day.
And then the nutritionist talked to me for hours about substitutions and good carbs/bad carbs. She showed me ways to LIKE veggies I hated. I went off soda and I made a lifestyle change. I didn’t diet.
The very very odd thing is that, for the seven or so odd months that I fought with anorexia, I maybe lost 5 lbs and I was miserable. When I did my lifestyle change I lost over 60, I’m continuing to lose weight, and feel healthier than I ever have in my life.
However, there’s still that little voice in my head that tells me that I should eat less, that I should start calorie counting more, exercise more etc. And I’ve been very sick these past few months, unable to eat much of anything that wasn’t a trigger food: aka carbs. Not relapsing or listening to that voice was hard, but I would talk to my British sister and we’d lean on each other. She’s been a rock through this.
I know this is something I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life, but hopefully I’ll never go back to that place.
If you know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder please don’t tell them to ‘just eat.’ It doesn’t work like that. I remember how hard it was to eat half a banana and convince myself that I needed those calories. I remember staring at everyone around me eating and cringing because I didn’t understand how they could mindlessly consume so many calories (even though I’d been eating with them not even a year ago). I remember the weight in my stomach when I messed up and ate something that wasn’t ‘good.’ I swore I could feel it in my stomach and bargained with myself. I won’t throw this up, but because I messed up I won’t eat anything tomorrow. It was meticulous calorie counting, notebooks no one would ever see.
You can’t ‘just eat’ when you’re convinced it’s everything that’s wrong, when food is the enemy.
For everyone out there reading this, if you are struggling, please get help. This disease will take away your teeth, your health, your hair, your healthy heart, and maybe even your life. This does kill. You can die.
Please get help before it’s too late.