My notebooks from college contain column after column of numbers down the margins. How many calories have I eaten? How many calories did I burn at the gym? How close am I to my 800 calorie limit? What did I weigh this morning? How far is that from my safe weight, where I deem myself an acceptable human for the day? Addition and subtraction ruled my life for six years. This calculated game I played each day determined my fate, my emotions and my identity.
If I stuck to the rules and “held strong” I had a great day, I was happy, and life carried on. If I broke these rules I obsessed for hours, beating myself with could have and should have scenarios played over and over again in my head. A cassette tape of horrific self-degrading and abusive thoughts played on constant replay. During my worst years if I passed the ultimate limit of 1,200 calories or ate an “illegal” food, as soon as the fork was set down or wrapper thrown away, a worrisome warmth would start to creep up my neck to my face, my heart rate would skyrocket and I would begin to sweat. Eating one cookie could cause a full blown anxiety attack as intense shame and guilt took my body prisoner.
If you’ve never suffered from an addiction the idea of self-starvation I’m guessing seems unfathomable. It seems unfathomable to someone with an eating disorder too, until one day the tide shifts and your disease, unbeknownst to you, becomes the structure, boundaries and rules by which you interact with the world. It is your main relationship and your top priority. You become blind to reality and instead live in a world full of fun house mirrors that warp, distort, and shape every sight and belief.
Hijacking of the brain by anorexia nervosa is a complex process that moves at a glacial speed. As the brain becomes extremely depleted of carbohydrates and necessary nutrients it starts to shrink. This happens so slowly that you don’t realize you have an eating disorder until it is much to late to simply stop your behavior. There is a decrease in both white matter and gray matter. The balance of neurotransmitters is disrupted, response to the reward circuit is weakened, and the emotional centers of the brain experience abnormal activity. The illness becomes so all consuming, controlling every fiber of your being until nothing else matters more, even the idea of life itself.
Most people don’t know eating disorders are more hereditary than breast cancer. One of the best metaphors I’ve read describing how eating disorders develop is that of a gun. Genetics create the gun, personality loads the gun and life experiences/environment pull the trigger. I could not relate to this more. I come from a family riddled with mental illness, especially addiction. My genetics mixed with my innate personality of perfectionism, extreme sensitivity and emotionality, need to please others and need for structure and control, set me up for an eating disorder from birth. When my mother passed three weeks after we found out she had leukemia I was thrown a curve ball at the age of 12 that wouldn’t catch up to me for years.
After my mom died I internalized thoughts that I was too sensitive, too emotional and too much in general. I learned I shouldn’t be so upset because that made others annoyed, uncomfortable and frustrated with me. Even making someone feel helpless in not knowing how to help made me feel guilty for upsetting them. To prevent this negative reaction from others I went into auto-pilot mode, stifling my emotions as much as I could. I excelled in school, countless extra-circular activities, and crafted an outside persona that appeared to be handling an awful experience incredibly well. I made sure no one would worry about me because I was doing better than fine, I was doing great. This ended up backfiring more than I could have imagined.
When I got to college and was removed from my family environment all the emotions I had bottled exploded. The environment at the University of Michigan didn’t help. U of M is a bubble of highly studious, perfectionistic and incredible human beings. I love my alma mater and feel grateful to have attended such a wonderful university, but this setting also came with the pressure to constantly strive to do more, know more, and be better.
I, like almost all women I know, had grown up with body image concerns. I was and still am a victim of the thin-ideal that is extremely prevalent in our society. Taught to believe that my self-worth is determined by my size and that being thin, beautiful and perfectly put together is what defines me as feminine and determines my success, I have dieted on and off and been extremely aware of my size since third grade. At U of M the pressure to lose weight intensified as I entered a dorm filled with high achieving young women to compare myself with and who it seemed were constantly talking about dieting, exercise, how many hours it had been since they last ate, how fat they felt, how many calories something had, how they were going to skip dinner because they were going out to drink later… Everyone wanted to be skinnier and joining in on the conversations around fitness and dieting became one of the main ways to bond, as it often is, with other females.
I vividly remember when my eating disorder started. It began as an extreme diet like eating disorders often do. Two weeks before my sophomore year of college something in me broke. I looked in the mirror and was so incredibly disgusted with myself and the way I looked. This year would be different. I didn’t want to go back to campus surrounded by these beautiful, thin, smart women as myself. I decided I would eat only an apple and a half cup of cottage cheese and work out for two hours every day until I moved back to Ann Arbor to start the school year. I dropped fifteen pounds in two weeks. This was magic. I started to receive so many compliments and the attention and positive affirmation from others, something that still heavily impacts me, encouraged me to keep going.
By the end of the school year I had lost a significant amount of weight through self-starvation. Over the next two years I would slowly lose even more, dipping below 100 pounds at my worst. Weighing less than 100 pounds and being 5’9″ tall is incredibly dangerous. My body had been screaming at me with signals to stop for some time. My hair was very thin and dull, I bruised incredibly easily, and for a period of time had a hard time making it through the night with out extremely painful muscle spasms in my calves, which I later learned was my muscle being broken down to be used for fuel. Eventually I had so many digestive issues that I got gallbladder surgery. This didn’t help the pain because my gallbladder was not the issue, starvation was. I continued to struggle with such horrible pain after eating that I visited the hospital every month the second half of my senior year of college, to check on my vitals and the medicine I had been prescribed to curb the pain. I started to develop osteopenia, which is the loss of bone density, not to the extent of osteoporosis, but on its way there. I was told I wouldn’t be able to have kids if I didn’t improve. I hadn’t had my period for years because I didn’t have enough body fat.
Eventually I sought counseling for life stress that didn’t relate to my eating disorder. I was lucky to work with a wonderful therapist who had the knowledge and history of treating those with eating disorders. She slowly broke down the wall I had built against anyone suggesting I had a problem or needed to change. I strongly believe that I owe part of my life to her. Recovery and especially the re-feeding process is the most excruciating thing I have ever experienced. It took three months to gain enough weight back to make me appear healthy and three years to battle the real illness that had warped my mind.
Recovering from anorexia is by far the thing I am most proud of in my life. Anorexia has shaped me into the person I am today and will always be a defining chapter in my life. I still think about food and my body differently than most, and there are days that are a real struggle, but more and more I am placing my energy into helping those who are currently struggling and the prevention of eating disorders. By being a board member of Michigan Eating Disorder Alliance (MiEDA), a non-profit dedicated to spreading awareness of eating disorders, I feel like I can do my small part in making sure not as many people suffer from this misunderstood and trivialized epidemic.
I am so incredibly fortunate to have the life I do. Anorexia made me a shell of myself and caused me to lose relationships, my health, and years of my life I’ll never get back. Through a amazing metamorphosis I am now my full self. I can say that I am confident, beautiful and more than merely living, I am finally alive.