I’ve been building up the courage to write this post for several months now. First, because I’m extremely private when it comes to sharing about this specific struggle and second, because talking about it brings up a lot of unpleasant feelings – shame, discomfort, sadness… But one of my goals this year has been to push myself to be more open and vulnerable, especially if there is the slightest chance that doing so could help someone else. So today I want to share a little bit about the eating disorder I developed years ago and my recovery since then.
This month marks the 5th anniversary of when I was diagnosed with Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (aka EDNOS). I’m sure many of you have never heard of it – don’t worry, at the time I had no clue what it was either. Essentially EDNOS means that an individual has disordered eating habits that are causing significant distress, but these habits and symptoms don’t perfectly fit the criteria for any of the other specific disorders – anorexia, bulimia or binge eating. You can CLICK HERE to learn more.
HOW IT STARTED
For pretty much as long as I can remember, I’ve had issues with food and body image. My earliest memory is from when I was about 3 or 4 years old. I remember standing in my laundry room with my younger sister, trying on our new swimsuits for the summer. I looked down at my stomach and immediately tried to suck it in, thinking I looked too fat. The sad thing is that I’m sure almost every single girl or woman reading this can think of the first time they thought that about themselves.
After gaining a bunch of weight in late grade school and early middle school, I was determined to take better care of myself. At the end of 6th grade I joined weight watchers with my mom and lost 30 lbs over the course of about two and a half years. What I really loved about weight watchers is that their program allowed you to eat anything you wanted to (Ex. Oprah’s recent “I love bread” commercial), but focused on portion control and balance. The problem was that once I reached my goal weight (which I determined by consulting a doctor), I couldn’t stop. My diet had become a means for control and a way to prove my worth.
By my senior year of college, the stress of graduating, finding a job, and living on my own pushed my already disordered eating over the edge. If I ate too much chocolate, I would tell myself that I had to cancel plans with my friends because I was a failure and they would all know. Then I would proceed to eat anything “unhealthy” that I could get my hands on, because I had already messed up that entire day so I could just start “fresh” tomorrow with a highly restrictive day to undo the damage. The cycle of restriction and binging grew worse the closer graduation got. I knew I hit rock bottom when I tried several times (unsuccessfully) to make myself sick after a particularly bad binge. As I sat in tears on the bathroom floor, I knew that I needed to get help.
At the time I figured that I could just talk with a counselor for a few sessions and then I’d be good to go, so it caught me totally off guard when my counselor diagnosed me with EDNOS and recommended that I seek treatment through a partial hospitalization program at The University of Iowa Hospital. I broke down in tears and looked at her like she was a crazy person. Me? Need partial hospitalization? No way. All girls deal with food and body issues – this is “normal”, I thought.
After much deliberation, and support and encouragement from my parents (who were amazing during this time – thanks so much mom & dad!), I entered the program and began the road to recovery. All I kept thinking was that I didn’t want to start my life as an adult out in the “real world” when I was already drowning.
So now, 5 years later, here are a few of my core thoughts on recovery –
*It’s ongoing. After the partial hospitalization program in 2011, I worked with health coach Paige Schmidt in late 2013 / early 2014 (see my interview with her about intuitive eating HERE). Even though I learned so much during both of these treatments, the application process can take a long time to really start to heal. The thoughts and behaviors that I learned and practiced for so long were very ingrained and almost natural to me. Even though I’ve healed so much since I started the recovery process, I still find myself slipping back to my old habits sometimes, especially when I’m under a lot of stress. The key for me has been figuring out what my triggers are and reminding myself that I am not who I was at that time, and never will be again.
*It’s mental. Eating disorders are the most deadly form of mental illness. Coming to terms with the fact that I was dealing with a mental illness (vs physical) was a huge step for me. At first I thought it was all about the food and tried to focus in on that. But it wasn’t about the food or my weight. Not really. Those things were just what I was using to manipulate and avoid a bigger issue.
At The University of Iowa one of the treatments they used was called Cognitive Behavior Therapy. One exercise that helped me the most was to ask questions working my way backward from the food/weight issue in order to find the real underlying issue. Mine went a little something like this –
What will happen if you gain weight? I will be ugly / undesirable.
What will happen if you’re ugly or undesirable? No one will want to be around me. I won’t have any friends.
What will happen if you don’t have any friends? I’ll be alone.
What will it mean if you’re alone? It means I’m not worthy of love or friendship. I will be worthless.
And you keep going with the questions until you don’t have anymore answers. So what was the translation for me? I wasn’t really afraid of gaining weight, I was afraid of being alone and feeling worthless. Once I realized that, I could focus in on understanding the WHY behind that feeling (where it was coming from, etc), and in turn also begin to heal the disordered eating that went along with it. This was and still is one of my favorite quotes to recite when I’m feeling discouraged and unworthy.
“You are loved more than you will ever know, by someone who died to know you.” – Romans 5:6
*Celebrate the little victories. Healing from an ED doesn’t happen overnight. Two of my little victories that stand out are when my old roommate Kassy and I smashed my scale with a hammer (I used to weight myself every day, so this was extremely cathartic!) and the first day I realized that I hadn’t mentally defined my food as “good” or “bad” as I ate for the entire day.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
My main reason for writing this post is to encourage anyone who is currently struggling with disordered eating. You are not alone, and it is possible to break free and live a happy life thinking of food as a source of nourishment and enjoyment. Start by talking to a trusted friend or family member, or CLICK HERE for more options of support.
Photograph by Lindsey Boluyt Photography.