While these days I sing prose for Champagne and fine foods, my relationship with food was not always so romantic.
This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDA) week. It is a great time to open up the conversation about eating disorders. There are so many misconceptions and far too many suffering in silence. I want to talk candidly about my own story, the emotions behind it, and what helped draw me out.
My eating disorder started when I was sixteen I moved to Northern Ireland for a year. I was far away from my friends and most of my family and often felt very lonely. I struggled to find my place in the cliques at school after dating a boy from one group and befriending kids from a mix others. While I got along with most, I didn’t really fit in anywhere. I liked punk rock, graffiti, poetry and going out dancing. I did not fit any category, nor did I want to.
I used my diet to find a sense of control and identity. I masked it as becoming healthy and slowly cut back more and more food groups. Some days at school I hoped I would faint so that someone might care. I was lonely and overwhelmed but never liked to ask for help or seem vulnerable.
As time went on my jeans started to sag, my bras became too big and the rings on my fingers became loose. I felt cold all of the time and my long blonde hair became thin and limp. I lived in a pair of track pants and stuck my hair back in a thin ponytail.
I exercised in every way I could and came up with bizarre meals with as low of calories as possible. Situations around food started to put me through stressful sweats and panics. I have clear memories of unexpected stops into candy stores or ice cream parlours that would overwhelm my whole body and mind with anxiety and make me feel ill. I became very good at excuses or leaving with something “for later”.
Near the end of the school year I had a few weeks off to study for exams. I went in one day to see a teacher and she looked at me and said “Please go home and have a big lunch.” I remember very clearly that I had planned on not eating until dinner.
Around this time I stopped getting my period. I calculated my BMI in a health and diet book and realized I was underweight. I felt confused. Part of me knew I had worked towards this but I felt sick at the same time. My health was suffering and I felt dizzy and tired.
Before flying home to Canada I spent the summer in France. Friends in the village I’d known for years seemed worried. A family friend who had come to visit told me straight forwardly “You look malnourished.” It surprised me that it was just as hard to hear “You are too thin,” because all I heard is “You are still not good enough.”
I was confused. Hadn’t the magazines always told me that those last 10 pounds were what I wanted to lose? Wasn’t everyone trying to lose weight? Weren’t models admired for their thinness? How come I had achieved my goal of losing weight and my only prize was a malnourished body, no menstruation and little left of the beautiful sixteen year old I was supposed to be?
I learned something very important around that time. I learned how important it is to consider the real outcome and motive of a goal before pursuing it. I learned that empty goals like attaining the perfect body or the perfect wardrobe could never make me happy. I also learned that starving your body can leave long term physical and mental complications.
Of course my eating disorder ran deeper than the obsession to be thin. Like many others it was a way of seeking control, of dealing with my depression, and of searching for highs that came with restriction and hunger. I hated how I looked but found an unhealthy satisfaction to keeping my weight uncomfortably low and being in control of my food intake.
When I moved back to Canada I was met with more concern and decided to take my health in my own hands. I started eating a high protein diet and working out so that I could put on weight healthfully and still feel good in my body. I started socializing more, teaching myself how to cook, and remembering how fun life was before I became pre-occupied with starving myself of life’s pleasures.
My best friend saved me. I slept on her sofa, cried on her shoulder, danced on her kitchen floor, cooked on her stove top and wore half of her wardrobe. She reminded me what being a young woman is really about. We shared an appetite for good food and appetite for life.
I graduated from high school that year with a healthy body, the best grades of my life, an award in English literature and an acceptance letter to the university of my dreams.
But it wasn’t all perfect. I still struggled heavily with body image issues and had days where I couldn’t face going to school. I had terrible nightmares and took upon some unhealthy binge eating habits with foods I deemed acceptable and started Night Eating. Looking back I wish I had sought the professional help I needed but am still proud at myself for being so determined.
It took years of working one on one with myself to work through my issues with minor set backs waiting around every curve. I pushed through by reminding myself of the life I wanted to live.
When I think of how many young women lose their dreams to eating disorders it breaks my heart. I would never have been able to accomplish what I have had I stayed focused on self deprivation. When we become wrapped up in an eating disorder we lose focus on a lot of what life has to offer and often shut the world out.
It is not as easy as just eating. Like with depression, it’s not something you can just snap out of. It takes time. It takes trial and error. It takes being extremely vulnerable, open, willing and ready.
Of course I still have moments of unease with my body. I am not immune to the pressures of society or the pressure I put upon myself. But I push through. I now speak to a therapist and seek help from a nutritionist when I feel myself slipping. I am open with my family and friends about my past.
Food plays a wonderful role in my life today. It is a pleasure, a form of nourishment, and one of my favourite reasons to gather with loved ones.
I am grateful to share my story. I came out of this one stronger.
Everybody Knows Somebody. Eating disorders don’t discriminate. They affect people of all ages, gender and demographics. In the U.S., approximately 20 million women and 10 million men are battling an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. Eating disorders can be deadly, but there is help and recovery is possible. For more information and treatment referrals, visit the National Eating Disorders Association at NationalEatingDisorders.org