This article contains highly triggering content as it discussing eating disorder habits and thoughts. Please proceed with the utmost of care, or do not proceed at all.
I’ve had an eating disorder for a long time. It started when I was thirteen, and I am now twenty three. I have had two major episodes with it: between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, and between the ages of twenty and twenty-one. In between those times, I lived my life being “sort of okay” when it came to food and exercise and my body. I had wobbles, and blips ,and things were not good, but I was also able to live a functional life.
My worst of the two major episodes was the latter. At my sickest I experienced nausea, dizziness, insomnia, dissociation, depression, weakness, fatigue, and anxiety. In addition, I bruised incredibly easily – working out on the floor for a total of two minutes resulted in every nodule on my spine was bruised. It would take me four hours to watch a two-hour movie because I could not concentrate on anything longer than ten to fifteen minutes, and so would pause the movie over and over again to busy myself with something else. I was described as “glassy-eyed”, and my personality vanished: I was not interested in anything except losing weight.
Eating so little affected my mood dramatically: I was angry, all of the time, and became emotionally distant and cold from my partner, and would not give or receive affection. I could feel the love for him burning strong inside me, but it was as if it was encased in ice: I could not express it through words or actions, and I cannot imagine how painful that time was for him.
I was afraid to go to anyone else’s house because I was scared that I would be tempted by food, and food shopping terrified me. I became suicidal, and was cutting up my body on a regular basis.
My relationship fell apart. My friends said I was distant and I never really felt present in reality. I could not focus on a conversation because I was looking at my thighs, arms, or stomach, trying to find a position to sit in which I didn’t look “huge”, or I just could not concentrate, and was worrying that I might just pass out at any moment. My mum told me that my dad had expressed a fear of me killing myself through starvation.
At the beginning, sleep used to be an escape, but as I got sicker and sicker, I began to have nightmares about binging or gaining weight. That is when I could sleep: I developed insomnia, and spent hours at night going over my meal plan for the next day in my head. I would wake up stroking my hip-bones.
Every time I showered, an abnormally large amount of hair would fall out, and as a result it thinned. It also became limp and dead. After I went into recovery, I had to have a fair amount chopped off, and now use four separate treatments to try and repair the damage.
I don’t have many memories of that time really, due to my brain cells dying, and the memories I do have are dull. Some are black and white. That’s what it felt like; no colour in the world at all. I existed, I did not live. In fact, I was slowly killing myself. I constantly switched between feeling nothing and feeling inconsolably miserable.
I was constantly exercising. Nearing the end of the worst year with anorexia, I experienced a “binge” period of three-four weeks, where my body went into survival mode and finally took over my brain; doing what it needed to do to keep me alive and locking me into a trance where I would consume a large amount of highly calorific food in one go without having any control over it, or really being aware that I was doing so. That completely terrified me, and so to combat the “binging” I began purging (self-induced vomiting), and would exercise for hours and hours on end after I had “awoken” from my dream-like state, to compensate for the food intake. This meant either repeating my high-intensity aerobics video over and over again, or walking up and down the streets of Manchester for two to three hours. If I ate far more than I wanted to, I would fast the next day. Once, the blood vessels around my eyelids all burst because of a violent purge.
All the while, I believed I was grossly fat and completely worthless. I believed that there was no way out of my misery except death.
I am now in remission after over two years in recovery.
The journey has been hard. At first I began eating but substituted one bad habit for another: I became even more obsessed with exercising and my life centred around it for five months. I would feel incredibly anxious until I had done my daily work out, and would only experience mild relief when it was completed because I almost immediately started to dread the next day when I would have to do it all over again. Every day was always organised around working out, and it took up so much time that I missed out on most social events. I gained weight, but became preoccupied with getting very toned. I also became fixated on nutrition, and “clean eating”. My calorie intake increased dramatically, but I would only eat “safe” foods and became very anxious if I ate something that I deemed unsafe or unhealthy. All I had done was exchange one obsession for another, and although now my body was substantially healthier, my mind was far from it.
Recovery was also hard on my body. As it was not used to digesting a normal amount of food, or anything other than soup, vegetables, fruit, and a bit of bread, my digestive system was not in prime condition. When I began to eat more normally again, it was kick-started and as it tried to adjust to my increased intake and variety of food, I was left with abdominal pain and bloating, gas (and believe me, I never thought I was going to stop farting – I was waking myself up in my sleep for weeks!), and night sweats, brought on by what is called hypermetabolism, which is the increased rate of metabolic activity (more on it here). The night sweats were so severe that I was waking up in the middle of the night and having to change my sheets because they were soaked through. This went on for about two weeks, and I had no idea what was wrong with me until I came across it on an amazing recovery blog Fyoured. In fact, this blog, run by a beautiful, highly intelligent, well-informed, knowledgeable girl called Kate, changed my outlook on food, weight, and body image completely, especially where my exercise and “clean eating” was concerned. Whether you are eating disordered or not, I highly recommend taking a look at this blog, as everyone, everywhere could benefit from her unbelievably positive and healthy outlook on eating and our bodies.
Eating more had healed most of my physical problems which included concentration, memory, mood, and the other issues I listed at the beginning of this article, and this vastly improved my relationship again, which was wonderful. Sadly though, it ended mid-November (because of issues unrelated to my eating disorder). This, understandably, destroyed me, and left me with no motivation to do anything for weeks on end. This included my motivation for working out.
Not exercising for a number of weeks managed to break the addictive cycle that I was in. I realised that not exercising did not mean that I gained a ton of weight, which had always been my fear. In fact, I gained nothing at all. Putting aside the fact that my serious, long-term relationship had just ended, not exercising made me less stressed, less anxious, and helped me to enjoy each day more and use it to do the things that I wanted to do, not the things that my eating disorder wanted me to do.
Don’t get me wrong, every day was still a struggle, and I did relapse for a few days now and again.
Every day I still battled overwhelmingly negative thoughts about my body, and when I came across images of me at my low weight I found myself very triggered. But things started to get gradually better and better.
I had also come across Your Eatopia, which I found though Fyoured. Both advocate an entirely unrestricted approach to food. All food is good food. Nothing should be restricted from your diet. Eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Don’t exercise in recovery, and if you want to be active in remission, make sure it is because you enjoy the activity you are involved in and that it is recreational and not to do with altering your body. Suddenly I felt overwhelmingly relieved: everything I thought I had to do, but didn’t actually want to do (gruelling exercise routines, eating super “healthy” foods and restricting yummy foods), suddenly became things I could stop doing.
I started developing a healthier relationship with food, and with bodies in general. I stopped seeing food as the enemy, and I started realising that people could be healthy at all different weights. I started really listening to my body and its cravings and I responded to them all. I started working on my issues with exercise (which I kept relapsing with as I tried to incorporate it into my life over and over again, and kept getting sucked down the rabbit whole of compulsive exercise). And yes, I gained weight. I very, very steadily gained weight for just under two years. Of course, gaining weight continuously for such a long time was very, very hard. I thought it would never stop, and I did battle thoughts of relapse quite a few times. I had breakdowns and sobbed down the phone to my mother. I spent a week in relapse when I accidentally read an email my father had sent someone else telling them that I was now “clearly overweight” (I’m probably “technically” overweight by a few pounds) and that I had an attractive figure at a lower weight, and more ignorant and wrong assumptions that I’m not going to go into detail with. I looked up tips on eating “healthy” and losing weight by eating lower calorie meals. I threw my toys out of the pram and said I AM NOT DOING THIS ANY MORE I CANNOT COPE. But I kept on going anyway, because going back was never really an option.
I now believe that I am weight stable, judging by the fact that jeans I bought six months ago still fit (woop woop).
Making the decision to recover was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. People don’t understand this, because they think that if you are sick, you must want to get better. What they fail to see is that part of the eating disorder is wanting the eating disorder, whilst hating it at the same time. Your sickness becomes part of your identity.
But now, over two years on, I am in remission. I think food is amazing. I eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I am healthy and free and I am now able to live an active life without it taking over. It does mean that I have to be really, really vigilant, 100% of the time because of this choice, but it means I enjoy recreational activity for fun rather than forcing myself to exercise in a way that is purely to alter my body and no fun at all. I don’t love my body. I don’t even like it. But I accept it, and that’s the thing about being in remission: there are far more important things to focus your time on. When I look in the mirror and I don’t like what I see, it does affect me, but then I get on with something else. I spend my time doing what I am passionate about, not punishing my body for not looking exactly the way I want it too. Okay, so my stomach creates rolls when I bend over. My thighs rub together when I walk. My stomach isn’t perfectly flat and there’s fat on my hips. I’m not super happy about that, but I sleep well at night, and I eat delicious things every day and have a great time doing so. I socialise with my friends over cake and coffee without even thinking about it. I host tea parties where we all bake and cook and eat lots and laugh. I have the energy to run around the badminton court, yelling “OHHHHH YOU BITCH!” when my friend wins like, every time. I have a massive personality with loads of passions and hobbies and interests, instead of being a walking eating disorders. I spend a lot of my time helping other people in recovery and am soon to be starting a job as a therapeutic care worker at my local eating disorders inpatient residential home. I can concentrate on conversations and books and movies. I can experience life with sharp senses and a sharp mind. The world is now in colour.
Eating disorders are NOT a trend, lifestyle choice, or phase. They are life-threatening mental illnesses that need to be treated seriously. There is no quick fix, no simple solution, and unfortunately, no cure. Eating disorders are for life: it is whether you let the eating disorder control you or whether you decide to fight to have control over the eating disorder that can make the difference between life and death, misery and happiness. I know that I am living with a chronic illness and that I will always have to wary. I will have to be vigilant and make sure that I am 110% honest with myself. Always. But I never thought that remission was possible for me, and here I am, living life to the full. Recovery is hard. Really, really hard. But it is a journey that everyone can take, and remission is a destination that everyone can reach. You have to keep fighting the battles, over and over, and eventually, you will win the war.
Please also bear in mind that only 15% of people with eating disorders are underweight. There is no such thing as “too fat to have an eating disorder”. In addition, BMI is not an accurate measure of “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Everyone’s bodies are different, and some deteriorate faster than others, making them extremely sick even if they are not classified as severely underweight. Also be aware that anorexia nervosa is also not the only severe restrictive eating disorder. Bulimia nervosa, EDNOS, anorexia athletica, ortherexia nervosa, and ARFID, are all also serious, life-threatening restrictive eating disorders.