- February 26th, 2011
This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. It's brought up a lot of thoughts, feelings, and memories.
This May will mark one year since I graduated from the hospital treatment program. One year, after suffering on and off for varying degrees for twenty years. It's been wonderful and liberating, but also strange and scary. Once you've had an ED it will never really be gone. It's like an addiction, like drugs or alcohol. It will also be something you have to be cautious about, you always have to keep your guard up or it can come back. I can never go on a diet, I am not even supposed to eat 'diet' foods, I'm supposed to follow a prescribed meal plan every day, and when I am running (as I do) I have to make sure I add extra food depending on how long I've run. Not a strict meal plan, per se, but I am supposed to have a certain number of servings of food groups for each mail or snacks taken at measured intervals throughout the day. Even though I am now healthy and eat 'normally' I still have the mental checklist of what to eat running through my head every day - even just a little, even when I don't really notice. It will probably always be there.
The other ladies I knew through treatment have been doing a lot of ED awareness this week. They're a tough group of girls - I'm very proud of how well they're all doing still. It's been good to see and hear so much from them this week. I know it isn't easy for us at times, and it feels better knowing we're all out there for each other - even if we don't talk as often these days.
I started reading a blog that one of them had posted. It was written by someone who had an ED, about their experience. I thought, I've never done something like that. Maybe I should. Maybe it would be good for me, or maybe it could be informative for someone else. I don't know. I guess I just felt compelled, so I thought I would try. And I apologize in advance if this becomes long, or if it seems like too much - I just feel like I need to get this out tonight.
It started when I was about eleven years old. I realized when I wasn't a kid anymore I would have to worry about being fat. My mom and my friends moms worried about it. They went on diets and exercised. I would have to start worrying about those kinds of things too. I started taking 'healthier' lunches to school. Pita with lettuce and fig newtons instead of cookies.
My mom became very sick when I was about 13, which lasted through my high school and university years. She has multiple personality disorder, as she was abused during childhood. It's a mental illness that develops as a coping mechanism. I know I've written about it before. When my mom got very sick, she didn't eat very much. She lost a lot of weight. I was very stressed at that time too. She couldn't really take care of my sister and I the way she had before. My dad didn't know how to cope, and he was at work a lot of the time anyway. I was taking care of my sister, my mom, and myself. All while staying on the honour role, swimming competitively, running, taking dance and music lessons, and participating in theatre.
The ED got worse in high school. There was a lot of pressure to be 'perfect'. Not so much from my family (who, despite things being crazy, I loved very much - and I know they loved me), but from society in general. Ann Arbor is a city of very high standards where kids are expected to get good grades, participate in extra curricular activities, and go to university once they graduate high school. I didn't want to be anything less than expected, so I tried very hard.
By Junior year, I was eating a piece of toast for breakfast, a baggie of cereal before lunch, orange juice after school, and a sandwich for dinner. I don't know how I continued doing all the things I did. I felt so sick by the end of the day. Show choir - my last class, I always felt so light headed. I lost 20 pounds. I looked at photos from my theatre programs. People like Sarah Brightman, she was so thin and I so wanted to be in Phantom someday, just like her.
I went to treatment for the first time in high school. I can't remember why anymore. I don't recall being confronted by my parents or teachers. None of my friends asked why I didn't eat lunch. Sadly, it wasn't so terribly uncommon. I think I may have complained of a stomach ache a lot - I think I was scared, and I ended up going to a therapist, and diagnosed with clinical depression. Not surprising, I suppose, it runs in my family and goes hand in hand with ED. The therapist was so kind and caring. She worried about me with my family, and I remember she told me if I ever needed her, even if I didn't have an appointment, I could call her and she would meet me for coffee. I didn't do it, though I thought it was nice of her to offer. I was afraid to presume.
I got a bit better by the time I started university, thanks to a nutritionist I worked with my senior year in high school. She had recovered from an ED, and she was so strong and beautiful. She taught me not to be afraid of food, and I thought if she could eat things and be okay I could do it too. The ED came and went through my time at MSU. Not surprising, as I was a theatre major and dance minor. For months I would be fine, but there were also stretches of time where I skipped breakfast, drank diet shakes and took diet pills. I felt awful during those times, but managed to pull myself back out.
It continued on and off like this for years. Sometimes I would be fine for months, and eat pizza and not worry too much. But then I'd slip back again for months at a time. I lost a lot of weight when I was going through Canadian immigration. I remember having to put lotion on my hip bones because they rubbed on my jeans. I look at our wedding photos and wonder how my collar bones stuck out so far. I was okay for awhile in Utah, and then regressed when I got my first professional acting job. I saw the skimpy costumes I had to wear for dancing and starting working out even more, skipping lunch, and filling up on a latte on my way to rehearsal. I know the other dancers looked at my tummy in my costume and compared themselves to me.
Just typing this makes my heart fill with sadness, anger, and loathing. It makes me feel like I was such a bad, dishonest, selfish person. I didn't try to be. I worked very hard, holding down up to three jobs at one point. I spent time with my family and friends. I did extra work at the theatre, just to help out because I loved it there.
I experienced many of the typical side effects, but because I never got to an unnatural or unhealthy looking weight I could mostly hide it. No one really noticed that much. I lost my periods for years at a time. I had low blood pressure, and often got dizzy if I stood up too quickly. My nails were brittle. I was cold all the time. I couldn't sleep, even though I was often tired. I was depressed. My stomach couldn't digest food properly - it would sit like a painful lump because my stomach was trying so hard to hold on to it. It hurt. I would lose my train of thought mid sentence.
In 2009 I suffered a setback in recovering from a knee surgery, which in turn caused me to become depressed, which ED thrives on. I had to take a leave of absence from work. I was put on anti-depressants that made me feel nauseous, and I started throwing up. Every day. It had turned into a horrible, full blown bout of bulimia, which I had never experienced before. I would have a cup of tea at breakfast and a spoonful of peanut butter before heading to the pool or the gym. I would be so hungry by afternoon I'd end up eating two bowls of cereal and toast - and then throwing up. I could only keep down one meal a day, which was usually salad. I lost weight. I looked sick. I felt worse than I ever had. I hid everything from my friends and family. I hid food in my house. I wore layers of clothes. I was so very frightened, and I knew I wouldn't have any kind of future if I couldn't get it out of it. I couldn't be more than ED - I couldn't be a good wife, friend, daughter, worker, and I would never, ever be capable of having my own family. Physically or mentally.
I found a new doctor. She was wonderful. She actually listened to me and was kind and gentle when I explained, on my third visit in a month, when I finally had the courage, that I couldn't remember how to eat anymore. She put me on new medicine and referred me to a hospital program. The staff and other ladies there were so wonderful, I know without them I would never, ever have gotten better. I spent many hours with them in behavioural therapy, studying nutritional, actually eating, and just sharing and talking about life experiences. They taught me how to eat again - something that seems so natural and fundamental, I truly and honestly could not remember how it was supposed to work and how I was supposed to feel. They supported me, guided me, and held me hand through the whole process. I will be forever grateful to them for giving me my life back.
I wish I could go back in time to the 11 year old girl that I was and say that even though things will be hard and scary sometimes everything will be okay and I'll be fine. I have a good job, a loving family, and a wonderful, supportive husband. I'm moving into a new house and I'm well now so we can start our own family. There is an incentive to stay well when I know it isn't just for me, it's for everyone around me, and my future children.
It's been about a year now since the last time I had any ED symptoms, and I know I won't ever go back. I feel like I'm really living my life for the first time. I wish I could get back the twenty years that I had ED on my back, but I am grateful to be where I am now.
I know people may think it's weird that I talk about it as openly as I do now, but I think it's important for awareness and prevention. As an illness, it's much more prevalent, widespread, and hidden than people realize. With so much focus in media on dieting, being thin, being perfect, I think it's important to fight back with loud, rational voices of what is real, and what is actually important. I will talk openly about because even if I can't go back in time and warn my self I can stop someone else from throwing away years of their life.