I remember thinking people with eating disorders must be weak to do that to themselves. I was too intelligent to starve myself or lose control over what I ate. Four years and countless binges and therapy sessions later I have a slightly different perspective. I definitely fall under the category of perfectionist, to the extreme. I’ve been in the top ten percent of my class since I can remember, been involved in almost everything, yet I’ve never considered myself good enough at any of the things I did. I’ve always had the feeling that I’m compensating for something. As if somehow having perfect grades will make up for what I perceive as unattractiveness, lack of intelligence, and the list goes on.
That being said, I can explain my journey from one end of the eating disorder spectrum to the other, making all sorts of stops in between. My disordered behavior started sometime after junior year of high school. A friend (N) and I started taking laxatives and diet pills. Although neither of these seemed to affect my weight, it still seemed like I was doing something about it. I wasn’t overweight by any definition. But I just wanted to lose a little weight. My friend and I supported each other in our strange eating behavior during the school year, such as offering support in resisting the Krispy Kreme doughnuts brought into class since they would add at least an hour to our workout to undo the damage. My mom and I attended Weight Watchers meetings in an attempt to teach me healthy eating habits before heading off to college. After gaining weight the first few weeks I all but gave up on the points system.
At the beginning of senior year, there was a distinct moment I remember thinking I was finally going to do something about my weight. I didn’t begin with the thought that starving myself would be the best strategy. It just sort of happened that way. I still calculated Weight Watchers points almost fanatically, but I had cut back to more than half of what was recommended for my weight. I basically only ate one tiny meal a day for almost two months and I finally saw the results for which I had been looking. Regardless of the fact that I was constantly cold and didn’t have enough energy to get through the day, let alone workout, I was actually happy with my weight. In a strange way I was happy when teachers started noticing my rapid weight loss. At least then I knew it was significant enough to garner attention. One particularly concerned teacher took me aside and suggested that I be screened for Anorexia Nervosa. Outwardly, I scoffed at the accusation, but I was secretly thrilled to be doing so well on my “diet” that someone thought I was anorexic. Eventually I was diagnosed with mono and all my hard work disappeared within a few weeks. All the hunger pains and amazing self-control were wasted since all I had energy to do was eat. Aside from eating issues, my senior year of high school was by far the loneliest and most depressing year of my life. I sought therapy for depression and started taking antidepressants and things just continued like normal for a while. Summer after my senior year I went to the Eating Disorders Institute in Farge for treatment which later turned out to be fairly useless. Sessions went something like this: “How are you feeling?” “Awful”. End of discussion. Granted, I hadn’t even begun to experience the bad part of my disorder so I can’t blame anyone for not being able to help. I didn’t know what I was dealing with yet.
I still consider my first year of college to be the best and worst year of my life. I chose to attend the University of Minnesota, was accepted into the Honors Program, and met six of my best friends my first day on campus. I finally felt comfortable being myself which was something I had never experienced in junior high or high school. In addition to some amazing experiences, my binge eating spiraled out of control. I had had a few binges in high school, but nothing like this. This was in a world of its own. I binged several times a day for nearly five weeks and cried myself to sleep almost every night. I was gaining weight so rapidly and felt so out of control but I had no idea how to stop it. The self-control that I was so proud of in high school was nowhere to be found. I just couldn’t stop eating and it’s not like I was hungry. I tried everything I could think of to counteract the weight gain. I tried slim fast, liquid diets that tasted alot like what I imagined hamster food to taste like, starvation, purging, you name it. Nothing worked. The higher my weight got, the more depressed and hopeless I became. I was to the point where I didn’t want to be alive. I never wanted to kill myself, but I just didn’t want to exist.
I finally went to the mental health clinic at the university to get whatever form of help I could. I cried through the entire appointment and screening. I’m still not sure if it was from being unhappy or so grateful that I was finally getting help for something I had no idea how to deal with and felt weak for not being able to control. I only had two sessions there before being referred to a more intensive treatment center on campus. I also started group therapy which turned out to be an amazing experience. We were a group of about seven girls covering anything from anorexia, binge eating, to bulimia. The information we received was helpful but it made a world of difference to know that I wasn’t the only person dealing with an eating disorder. I didn’t have to explain my entire thought process in order for them to understand what I was dealing with. They were living the same hell I was and already understood my fears. It was amazing to hear them talk about many of the same insecurities and thoughts that I had considered “abnormal” for years but assumed were personal failures.
When I finally heard back from the other treatment center I went for a screening that took nearly three hours. I was tested for an eating disorder, anxiety and depression. It was pretty obvious that I had an eating disorder and my depression scored almost off the charts. I had known for a while that my eating wasn’t normal but now I had the diagnosis to make it a legitimate problem instead of a person failure. My therapist was one of the most amazing people during this point in my life and probably the most important figure in my recovery. She didn’t simply ask how I felt. She would keep asking questions aimed at showing how unreasonable my thought pattern was and how unrealistic my expectations were. She questioned the picture I held in my head of my future as a lawyer. In my mind the future self was far thinner than I was at this point. It helped me realize that to assume thinness and success go hand in hand is ridiculous and damaging to my self worth. I also met with a nutritionist to learn how to be healthy and to maybe incorporate some of the “dangerous” foods back into my life. Every Thursday I’d head to the opposite side of campus for a couple hours of therapy, the only thing that kept me sane that year.
My weight was at an all-time high and I was terrified to gain anymore. How could I face my friends from home when I weighed so much? I all but gave up on personal appearance and wore sweatpants virtually all the time. I became even more antisocial than I am normally. Why would I put myself through the hell of pretending to be happy and social when all I wanted to do was disappear? I mastered the art of hiding when I was upset. As important as support was at this point, I didn’t want to be the girl who cried and threw all her burdens on her friends. I did my best to hide when I needed to cry or binge or both. Crying alone may be depressing, but there’s no one there after to apologize to for falling apart. Freshman year I started doing something I had often thought about in high school but had never acted on. If I was really upset I could calm myself or take out my anger by cutting my stomach with a scissors. Self-destructive as it may have been, it focused my attention on the physical rather than emotional pain.
The one thing that took precedence during all of this was my academic record. I was taking between 18 and 20 credits every semester and was involved with several organizations on campus. My academic priorities stayed the same, no matter how much I binged or cut. Often it was difficult to focus on homework or studying when all I could think about was how fat I was getting. Iíd have to find the perfect spot while sitting at my desk so I wouldnít notice the newly formed bulge in my midsection.
The summer after freshman year was relatively uneventful. I stopped taking my medications because I’d forget and I also didn’t like how I felt on them. I was still determined to lose the binge weight but I knew if I did it in unhealthy ways I’d be right back where I started.
Sophomore year I was far more focused on my academics and my problems shifted from weight to anxiety and excessive worrying. I managed to over schedule myself to the point where I didn’t feel healthy due to anxiety.
The past summer I had the opportunity to study abroad in Spain. Iíd always wanted to travel outside the U.S. and live in a different culture. I was nervous about living with a host family and the language barrier, but I never even stopped to think how the change would affect my eating habits. After the initial culture shock began to wear off, I realized how little I controlled my food situation there. I also realized how quickly I could relapse when I felt this lack of control combined with another round of depression. I couldn’t believe how much my family could eat without being overweight. Spaniards tend to dish the food onto plates for you instead of letting you choose your portions. I’d sit down and look at some sort of salad, a heaping pile of pasta, bread, fruit and dessert. I’ve never been very successful stopping when I’m full so it was the worst possible scenario for me. I felt so unbelievably full after every meal that I just felt awful about myself and the whole experience. The second weekend of the program my friends and I traveled to Malaga, on the southern coast of Spain, for a weekend of sitting on the beach and relaxing. I was excited to see the Mediterranean Sea but not as enthusiastic about wearing a swimsuit, especially since I had already had two binges that week. The first full day we were at the beach all hell broke loose. Maybe it was the boredom or homesickness or even depression, but I made far more trips to the supermarket across the road than I should have. I was scared at how fast I had fallen back into my binges and obsessive thoughts. I’m fairly certain that was the turning point of the trip. If I hadn’t needed one of the classes as a prerequisite I wouldíve seriously considered going home. Unfortunately I was stuck there for another four weeks, literally counting the days before I could go home and start undoing the damage I had already done. The loneliness and depression I experienced were freakishly similar to the way I felt freshman year. I lost count of the times I sat in my room and sobbed because I was so depressed and frustrated that I had ruined all the progress I had made before I left. I felt hopeless because I couldn’t remove myself from the situation. I’m still angry that my eating disorder ruined what should’ve been a wonderful experience. Instead of enjoying my time in Spain, I was slipping back into the same insecurities I thought I had conquered.
Since getting back to the states, Iíve realized how depressed I was in Spain. Starting school again this fall was difficult and it was a little hard to function since I broke down into tears so easily. I decided to go back on medication in order to make things easier on myself. I don’t want to use them as a crutch but at the moment they’re something I need even though it’s much harder to concentrate when I’m on medication. Through everything that happened this summer and in the past, I can safely say I have a wonderful support system. My parents, my friends and my boyfriend have been amazing in helping me deal with this. They’ve hugged me, comforted me, made me laugh through my tears and reminded me that I was worth something, regardless of my weight. I can’t imagine how I would’ve made it through the past couple of years without these people in my life. I have no idea if I’ll ever be completely “cured.” My bingeing has decreased but I still have some of the obsessive thoughts that once controlled my life. All I know is that I’m fairly recovered and I have to be hopeful about the future. Regardless of what happens, I have some amazing people in my life that will help me through and I’m thankful everyday for that.