When people see some things as beautiful,Lao Tzu
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
It took me almost 10 years to admit out loud to another person that I had an eating disorder.
When I did, I spoke about it like it was done with, gone, in the past- like I was cured.
But you don’t cure an eating disorder. It’s with you for life.
I was at my worst when I was 17. Bad enough people noticed- that my parents stepped in and made me see a therapist and a nutritionist. But I didn’t get better, I just got better at hiding it.
It’s easy to do if you don’t look like you’re dying. You can’t put the thoughts in your head on a scale.
Disordered eating is a mental illness that sometimes, but not always, manifests in physical symptoms. Anorexia is the most obvious, but as I figured out, if you tip the numbers just enough, you can convince people you’re fine. Those closest to you: family, friends and roommates are harder to fool.
It is a disease that requires isolation to survive. It pushes the people you love most away. Soon there are no voices to contradict the loudest one, the one whispering in your ear incessantly, that you’re not good enough. It feeds on your insecurities and creates new ones. Eventually, it will kill you just as certainly as a brain tumor.
I was its prisoner for a long, long time.
When you’re little, bigger always seems better. We ogle at the tallest person in our class, the fastest, the one with the longest hair. Everything is a competition. I remember on pizza day, marveling at the kid who could eat four slices (FOUR!), when I could barely finish one.
I’m not sure when things shifted, when less became the ideal, but I was 12 when I first felt ashamed of my body.
Other girls in my class had started shaving their legs, dying their hair and wearing training bras and make-up. I used to laugh about my hairy arms and legs. I told people proudly I got it from my Dad. Suddenly, it wasn’t something to show off, but to hide. I forgot my gym clothes on purpose, choosing to write lines instead. I begged my mom for a razor.
When I finally got one, I was only permitted to shave up to my knees and only every two weeks. I remember using my Dad’s hair gel to flatten the stubble down so I could wear a skirt to a school dance.
In all other respects I was a late bloomer. I started Grade 9 skinny and flat-chested as ever. I probably wasn’t 85 pounds soaking wet. This was during the days of the early millennium, when jeans barely came past your pubic bone and bedazzled thongs peeked out the rear of every pair, a constant distraction to anyone not sitting in the front row of class. I didn’t have the body to wear pants like that, or liberal-minded parents. Any clothing deemed inappropriate never returned from the laundry room.
Until I was 16, I ate whatever I felt like and it didn’t affect me one way or the other. I bought greasy chocolate chip cookies from the cafeteria for a mid-morning snack, or a king-size box of smarties. I ate cheeseburgers for lunch and when I got home from school, polished off whatever sweet snacks were lying around the house. I didn’t feel bad about it and I stayed skinny.
I ate when I was hungry, stopped when I was full and forgot all about meals when I was busy or excited. Life was blissfully uncomplicated.
Going through changes
Shortly before my 17th birthday, my body started to change. Partly from puberty, and partly from working part time at McDonald’s, I gained some weight. I went from a size 00 to a size 3, my thighs got a little bigger, my tummy a little rounder. One of my best friends at the time was small like me, we had always been the same size and shared clothes. But it wasn’t happening to her. She was still the same size and I seemed to keep getting bigger. This bothered me a lot.
I started seeing photos of myself and not liking them. I hated how my stomach was never flat and a little bulge now showed around the top of my jeans.
When I turned 17 my friends threw me a surprise pool party for my birthday. It was one of the best moments of my life, but I remember seeing the photos of me in my bathing suit afterward and only feeling shame and panic.
If you’ve ever heard the expression, “going through changes”, I pretty much epitomized this sentiment from about age 10 through 19. My teeth were an orthodontist’s dream project and my hair rotated constantly through a variety of terrible styles and dye jobs. In hindsight, the bullying I experienced pales in comparison to other stories I’ve heard, but at the time, it affected my psyche deeply. Constant rejection from the opposite sex didn’t help matters.
I remember saying over and over to myself, I can’t be fat and ugly too.
I’ll never ever get a boyfriend.
It’s so hard being young. When you reach a point of contentment with yourself, you want so badly to reach back in time, give that girl a hug and dry her tears. It all seems so silly from a distance, but at 17, it’s the end of the world.
Before the school year wrapped up, I went to the doctor for a routine check-up. My weight was 108 pounds. I was gutted. Just two years ago I was 87 pounds, how could this be?
I looked in the mirror and noticed new pale stretch marks on each side of my butt.
That was when it started.
Perfection is a moving target
The summer before Grade 12 I became obsessed with losing weight. I tore out the workouts from my Seventeen magazines, I biked, walked and swam. For the first time in my life, I started monitoring what I ate: foods started to become ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
By the time school started again in September, I had lost four pounds.
Grade 12 was a season of perfectionism. I threw myself into my courses and worked harder than ever before. Whereas in the first two years of high school I didn’t take myself too seriously, now the standard to which I held myself had raised tenfold. In my mind, it was my one opportunity to finally get out of my small town and be somebody. I wanted to show-up everyone who had made fun of me, and never look back.
It didn’t occur to me that I was doing something unhealthy. In fact, I believed the opposite and felt superior to everyone else. They were weak and I was strong.
By the time winter rolled around I was less than 95 pounds. I felt cold all the time and developed Reynaud’s syndrome. Even inside, my fingers turned numb and purple. I lost my period.
I remember walking to my afternoon classes and feeling weak and shaky, like I was about to pass out. The first time it happened, I was scared. The hallway seemed to swim and wobble ahead of me. I pushed through the haze and came out the other side clearer. I felt powerful.
The longer I could go, the less I ate, the better I felt.
I started keeping a food diary. I wrote everything I ate each day and did my best to count the calories. McDonald’s was one of the first restaurants to post their nutrition information and I studied it religiously. My knowledge at that time was pretty limited. Carbs, protein and fat didn’t mean much to me. Calories were my entire focus. As long as I ate less than 1,000 per day, I would be okay. This was 2007, so nutrition facts were not widely available like they are now. It involved a lot of guesswork and I probably overshot.
Some of the typical lunches I packed myself for school included: ¾ cup of cereal (usually Special K or Rice Krispies) with a container of fat-free, sugar-free yogurt, and a banana; a banana and a pudding cup; a small apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter; an English muffin with a slice of cheese and turkey. All of these things were less than 300 calories, most usually only 200.
Because I worked three nights a week at McDonald’s, I could get away with only having a chicken fajita or apple slices, then tell my mom I ate at work. At home, I ate as little as possible, then would go for a walk or run to try and burn it off. I was constantly doing math in my head or scribbling numbers on scrap pieces of paper.
If I had to go out for a meal with friends, I overcompensated by not eating for the rest of the day.
My hair got thin and brittle. When I dyed it, the colour didn’t hold and faded quickly. I bought new, smaller clothes.
I started to get paranoid and anxious. This made me zero fun to be around. I would feel self-conscious eating if other people weren’t and constantly compared my plate to theirs. I always wanted to be the person who ate the least. Working at Mcdonald’s, every order I served played into this twisted obsession. Every burger was a number to me and I judged people harshly.
That March, I traveled to Egypt with a bunch of my friends on a school trip. My illness cast a shadow over the entire experience. Lots of walking, combined with strange food meant most of us lost weight. When I got back I was 87 pounds. Part of me was elated. Finally, I was back to what I thought was an acceptable weight. But another part, started to think maybe something was wrong.
Around this time, in my psychology class we were assigned various disorders to complete a project on. Whether by coincidence, or more likely, the actions of a watchful teacher, I was assigned Anorexia Nervosa. I was frightened to realize I was writing a paper on myself.
After finishing the project, I reluctantly agreed to see a nutritionist and a counselor. It was getting close to the time when I would choose a college to attend in the fall. My mom gave me an ultimatum: get better or stay home. This terrified me more than the thought of being “sick”. I was completely in control of myself, I had straight As. Everything was going according to plan. Suddenly others were calling the shots and making decisions, messing everything up. I had to get better, or at least … well enough they would leave me alone.
So ultimately, that’s what I did. I didn’t think I was that sick. It was just a diet taken a bit too far. I could gain some weight without it getting out of hand. I would do and say anything to avoid being admitted to a hospital. I’d seen other girls return from treatment and they were enormous. They would force feed me, force me to get fat. So I played along.
I started eating a little more and I made sure people noticed. I went back up to 95 pounds. I was small but could pass for healthy, my BMI was now borderline.
Most of the first year of college went by without a hitch. I ate enough to keep everyone off my back, but stuck to “safe foods” and a regimented schedule. College felt like an extension of high school. I was lonely and depressed. I started taking Gravol and OTC sleeping pills at night to shut my brain off.
Legal and lost
Before I turned 19, I was a virgin in every sense of the word. I hadn’t kissed anyone, let alone the rest of the bases. I hadn’t smoked or drank before, and I only really tried foods available in Listowel, that my mom bought. I was so strict and in control of myself at all times, bingeing had never been an issue. But I was tired of being lame and not fitting in, of staying in and doing my homework, of watching everyone else have fun.
As it turned out, I loved losing control almost as much as having it. In those early days of drinking, everything was new and exciting. People started to see me differently. Before a party, it felt like anything could happen. The world hummed with optimism and I thought I was invincible. All my inhibitions fell away and I could finally be myself.
The week after my 19th birthday, my grandpa was killed in a tragic accident. The rest of that summer is a blur to me. When I returned to school, beyond my wildest dreams, an acquaintance turned into a relationship. It took only a couple of weeks before I had kissed someone for the first time, lost my virginity and had my heart broken. I was devastated with no frame of reference to deal with the blow in a healthy way.
Food was something I had complete control over and I clung to that for a long time. I could say no. I didn’t turn to eating to deal with my emotions. After those tumultuous six months, it became a source of comfort and more often than not, a punishment. Things that used to be important to me, started to lose their meaning and were replaced by less savory pursuits. My grades slipped, but my drinking antics made me endearing and fun to be around. I was rarely invited to parties in high school and people made fun of me for not drinking.
Now I was the life of the party and I loved being the centre of attention. But like a bad cliche, when the drinks were all gone and everyone went home, I was more miserable than ever.
I would come home from the bar, order myself a pizza and eat it in bed alone, then go to the gym the next day and run on the treadmill to make myself feel better. On school nights I stayed in bed with my laptop watching Friends re-runs and eating bowls of ice cream or candy from Bulk Barn. A few years later these episodes would be followed by a round of laxatives.
It’s only now, looking back that I’m able to see the cyclical nature my behaviour started to take:
Big life change (move, job, school etc.).
Get back on track, regain confidence (restrictive, weight loss, feeling in control).
Enter into toxic relationship.
(Binge eating, loss of control, weight gain, anxiety, deep depression).
During the ‘control’ periods, I became stricter and stricter. I was always counting and micromanaging in my head. Every day I stuck to the schedule, bolstered my self-assurance and fueled my ego. I was constantly planning the next meal and how I would distract myself so I could get there without stepping out of line. I was eating, but my mindset was still sick.
A typical day of eating in my first year of university looked something like this:
Fruit and yogurt parfait
Sugar-free Red Bull
Mac and Cheese microwave dinner
Fat free pudding cup
Wherever you go, there you are
By my third year of university, I was avoiding downtime or being alone at all costs. The busier I was, the less I noticed my hunger. I was working full time, had a full course load at school and was out all night partying multiple times a week. I started eating high calorie foods, once a day. This allowed me to have something substantive in my stomach before I started drinking, but not gain weight. It also continued to support the illusion I was ‘chill’ and ‘fun’. It was one of the most unhealthy periods of my life, physically and emotionally.
After watching me spiral for months, my roommate did the kindest thing anyone could have at the time and asked me to move out. I decided not to stick around for another year, and instead finished the last of my credits from home. But this time, things didn’t reset. I no longer had the friend base or the money to be out partying every night. I started punishing myself with food and exercise again. I ran my first 10km race and completed a 64 km bike trip, but all I could think about the entire time was the calories I was burning and the food I had eaten the night before.
I had zero respect for my body.
I was obsessed with maintaining my fun-loving, party-girl persona while also wanting the admiration that comes with fitness. My constant quest for validation made everything feel hollow. I made jokes about how unhealthy I was, like it was cute. I posted about going to the gym to seem sexy. I became more isolated than ever.
Desperate to get my weight under control again, I started only drinking coffee during the day and not eating until 5 p.m. All this did was make me feel shaky and anxious. It irritated my stomach and didn’t really make me lose any weight.
Part of the problem was, I never really had any weight to lose. My body fought to stay at its ideal weight, and I fought endlessly to be at mine.
In 2015, after a particularly depressing New Years Eve and equally brutal New Years Day, I decided it was time to pack my suitcase again.
This time, I moved to Yellowknife. After a year in the North, I got back down to 95 pounds. A city full of young, single people meant there was always a party to go to and someone to drink with. I fell back into my old lifestyle quickly, but my depression was worse than ever. I found it harder and harder to put on a brave face, to keep up the two versions of myself and the sick side started to appear on the surface more often. Before, I was so good at hiding it, I made sure no one saw me cry. Now I was the girl who had too much to drink and was bawling in the bathroom. I leaned heavily on people and shared too much.
I was eating less than I did in high school and back to extreme restriction. I expect it was all the beer that kept me from dropping down to super scary levels again.
In the year after Evan and I moved back to Ontario, I lost two career-defining jobs and ended up working 12 hour days in long-term care. The stress and disappointment in myself, sent me into another downward spiral. My weight went up to 115 pounds. The heaviest I had been my entire life. I started to receive compliments on my new curves, but I hated them.
Running away had always been my reset button. I ran from Belleville to Halifax, from Halifax to Ottawa, from Ottawa to Kitchener, from Kitchener to Yellowknife, from Yellowknife back to Ontario.
My dad who has battled addiction most of his life once told me, wherever you go, you take your head with you. I moved from coast to coast to coast and my little friend E.D. followed me everywhere.
Fear and forgiveness
This time I didn’t have the option to just run away. Forced to stay where I was and finally face my shit, I had a nervous breakdown. The eating disorder was only a symptom of a much larger problem, I discovered. (more on that another time).
In early 2018, I made a conscious decision to get better. Not pretend to get better. I didn’t tell anyone, I didn’t talk about it. I was ashamed of myself and my behaviour. I had pushed people away or taken them for granted. It was something I needed to do alone.
Six months after I started my wellness journey, I found out I was pregnant. Enemy number uno for someone with anorexic tendencies.
As it turns out, being forced to accept my body was going change was the exact thing I needed to finally break out of the cycle and change my negative thought patterns. The things I put in my mouth directly impacted the health of my baby. It wasn’t about me anymore.
For the first time in a long time I have a healthy relationship with food. It doesn’t stand in for sadness, for guilt, for self loathing, for power, for control.
A strange thing happened when I gave myself permission to eat whatever I felt like. I stopped obsessing. I stopped overeating. Things that are available and allowed are always less attractive. Now I enjoy eating healthy because I like how it makes me feel physically; not for the emotional pride. I enjoy treats almost daily. I eat breakfast even if I ate a lot the night before and I don’t starve myself all day if I’m going to be having a big meal that night. These are huge victories.
But I am not perfect. You cannot cure an eating disorder. The thoughts do not go away. Instead, you must acknowledge them as they come and examine them objectively. You must have resources to pull from and facts to fall back on. You have to remind yourself, I have worked too hard to go back. You have to treat yourself with kindness on the bad days.
There are a thousand things that can cause weight to fluctuate daily and weekly: exercise, PMS, salty food, muscle fatigue, exhaustion, travel and dehydration.
Just because someone else isn’t hungry, doesn’t mean you can’t eat.
It is important to me to set a positive example for my daughter. So often I catch myself criticizing my body out loud. I’ve become hyper aware of this. Even if the comments seem harmless, I know they are not. She is always listening and watching.
I still find it very difficult to talk about this aspect of my life. The whole time I was writing this, I felt ashamed of my behaviour and worried about judgement.
But I don’t feel right, continuing to share where I’m at now or offering anyone advice, without getting completely honest about my mindset before I got pregnant. I have worked hard to educate myself thoroughly on healthy nutrition and am constantly learning more every day.
You may look at me and hate-like my photos because I’ve “always been skinny” so it’s “not that big a deal” or think I have it all together, that fitness comes easily to me or I’m naturally athletic.
I don’t workout every single day and I don’t always eat healthy. In fact, I make sure this is the case. Whenever I was offered dessert before, I would say no instinctively, now I try to say yes as much as possible. Going out for a meal was an instant anxiety trigger. I would study the menu beforehand, pick what I was going to order and then plan my entire day and what else I would or wouldn’t eat accordingly.
I’ve tried so many new things in the last year and actually enjoyed meal-centric occasions. I do not follow a set of rules or give myself ultimatums. Even if it seems harmless, it never is. Once the cycle starts, I know how it will end.
I know I’ve reached a happy weight for my body because my weight has fluctuated within a 3-pound window for the last five months. Before, I would have considered this size “fat”. Now, I’m armed with facts I use to contradict these unhealthy thoughts as they arise.
When I describe my feelings at 16 toward my body, I know they aren’t based in reality. That some of you will find them offensive. How could she possibly complain about being 108 pounds!? But body dysmorphia is not rational. Every time you eat something that goes against the rules you’ve set for yourself, you feel fat, or are afraid you’re going to get fat and start making plans to get rid of it somehow (by exercising or purging). You feel good when you’re in control and hate yourself on the deepest level when you aren’t. What should be a fun afternoon getting ice cream with a friend, turns into hours of cruel self-talk. Your brain moves so fast and is so distracted at all times, it’s impossible in those moments to stop and ask, “but what would really happen if I gained five pounds? Or 10 pounds?”
What would happen?
Maybe we are afraid other people will see us for what we truly are- or rather, the version we believe we are in that mindset: worthless, weak, unlovable. We’re afraid of rejection, of not being perfect, of failing. It’s no surprise eating disorders go hand in hand with a plethora of other mental health issues.
At 16, I couldn’t make my crushes like me back. I couldn’t change the way my teeth looked without hundreds of dollars in orthodontic work. I didn’t have the money for nice clothes. I couldn’t stop people from making fun of me behind my back at school or at work. But I could control what went in my mouth. I could stay skinny. And I clung to this power like a life raft for over a decade.
In my early 20s, there are a lot of reasons I said I would never have children. I didn’t want to give up my party lifestyle and I had never been in a serious relationship. I thought people who settled down and started a family had “given up” and I believed if you got pregnant, you got fat and stayed fat.
I was horribly naive and cynical.
I believe I got pregnant when I was ready. Six months into my wellness journey, I wasn’t perfect, but feeling healthier than I had in a very long time. Had it happened five months or even a year earlier I don’t think I would have had the courage or self-assurance to go forward with it. It was the ultimate test from the universe and has been the scariest and greatest thing to ever happen to me.
I read somewhere once that our children do not belong to us, we act simply as a doorway for their particular soul to enter the world. They choose the time period and the people who will provide the experience necessary to live out their purpose.
In order to bring forward another life, you have no choice but to surrender your body.
In a strange way, seeing the number on the scale creep up when I was pregnant, broke through the fear that something terrible would happen if I gained weight. I was still me. The world did not implode.
I share this with you now, so you know health and fitness have not come easily to me. For someone with perfectionist tendencies, it is hard for me to accept I will never be “cured”. It’s not a box that can be checked or an item that can be crossed out. It is a permanent part of me and I must live with it. I understand I will look in the mirror and not like what I see sometimes. But these thoughts do not own me and they are not me.
My body is different now. I have loose skin and stretch marks. But I also have muscles and strength. I don’t always love my body, but I respect it.
I write this knowing it does not paint me in a positive light. I’m not proud of the person I used to be, but I’m proud of the progress I have made and the person I’m becoming. Knowing now how common disordered eating is makes me feel less alone, but also breaks my heart. If I can somehow prevent my daughter from experiencing a fraction of the pain I went through, that is as good as any cure I think.