It all started the summer after my freshman year of university. Despite being an athlete who never felt the need to watch what I ate and had no problem downing a Starbucks Brownie Frappuccino, I found myself looking in the mirror and not recognising the person staring back. After a year of parties with a never-ending flow of cheap beer, jungle juice concoctions, and unhealthy late-night snacks I had surpassed the predictable “freshman 15” weight gain by about five pounds. Deathly afraid of being considered chubby, I decided it was time to go on a diet. I drastically cut my carb intake, tried to eat mostly protein and vegetables, and employed a strict exercise schedule that comprised of three-mile runs in the hot summer heat. It took discipline and was painful at times, but by the end of the summer I shed that 20 pounds and was feeling great.
Unfortunately, feeling great did not last too long. Instead of being satisfied that I had returned to my pre-university weight, I still felt fat. Every morning, I looked in the mirror and stared at my perceived “problem areas.” I started developing an unhealthy attitude towards food, deciding carbs were the enemy and that it was never okay to consume any kind of junk food or dessert. Foods became either good or bad. I slowly began to obsess over reading labels, feverishly searching for the total calories and grammes of sugar of each food item.
To those around me, I appeared healthy, but inside I started to feel anxious anytime I felt hungry. Fears of consuming too many calories and gaining weight plagued my brain. After a night of drinking or an indulgent meal, I tried to make up for it by skipping breakfast and hitting the gym or going on a long run. I started to cut calories wherever I could – instead of having two eggs, I would see if I could get by with one egg and supplement with endless cups of coffee. This extreme level of restriction made me feel powerful – I believed that this was what self-control looked like. I employed tricks of chewing gum and drinking carbonated drinks to mask my hunger and make it through the day without eating what I deemed to be too much. The weight started to slip off and I reached a BMI of 18, just .5 point shy of what could be considered Anorexia Nervosa (AN) (AN BMI range = 17.5 – 15>).
Although I felt I was getting positive attention from my weight loss, my close friends started to notice something was up. However, I was not ready to hear their concerns. Instead of taking their words as those of people who care, I felt attacked. Why were they watching me? Why do they care what I eat? It is none of their business. Maybe they were jealous that I was skinnier than them? (At this point in time, I had a nasty habit of comparing myself to every other girl in the room – deriving a sense of confidence and self-assurance when I felt I was skinnier than the rest).
Of course, none of my thoughts had any truth to them in reality. In retrospect, I see my friends were worried and wanted to help me, but unfortunately, it caused me to delve deeper into secrecy and refuse to consider that maybe there was a problem. I thought that because I wasn’t throwing up after meals and was eating during the day (albeit fewer than 1300 calories), there was no way I had an eating disorder. It was not until I visited a close member of my family that I finally was able to take a long hard look in the mirror without clothes and see the skeletal figure that stood before me. I emphasise that it was without clothes because it was only then that I could truly see how skinny I had become (clothes can often hide the telltale signs). Recovery was not easy or immediate and it was not fast. And to be honest, the thoughts and fears of “being fat” never go away. It is something I deal with daily.
However, with a sense of awareness about my disordered eating behaviours and a routine meal plan that ensured I would eat a healthy level of calories, I was able to regain the weight. The biggest obstacle was probably learning how to retrain my thoughts and belief system. It was not me that was the problem, but rather it was how I looked at myself. I had been placing way too much importance on being skinny – hoisting skinniness up on a pedestal, equating it to achieving the ultimate success and epitome of attractiveness. But this distorted sense of reality could not be further from the truth. Figuring out that my personal reality was different from actual reality was key to my recovery. Perhaps this is why cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the leading evidence-based treatment for treating adults with eating disorders. A core component of CBT is learning how to analyse your thoughts, emotions and behaviours and retrain them into healthier thoughts and actions. Though CBT does require effort and “homework,” it is effective in targeting negative perceptions of the self. These negative perceptions are typically very self-critical and can lead to anxiety and shame that often trigger unhealthy weight controlling behaviours. Under the supervision of a therapist, CBT can help identify the factors that maintain an eating disorder and can help you to set goals for recovery.
If you are worried that you or a loved one might be struggling with an eating disorder, please check out the following resources:
No matter what – don’t ignore the issue. If left untreated eating disorders can increase in severity and cause both physical and psychological damage and in some cases death.