Today, I have decided to link up with Amanda to share my story of the gradual process of reaching out for help to recover from my eating disorder. I have told various parts of this story over time, but I thought it might be good to tie it all together and look at the process as a whole. Although everybody’s experience in seeking help is different, my hope is that others will be able to learn from the things I did that helped me, as well as the things that I wish I had done differently.
As the seasons have started changing, I have become acutely aware of the place that I was in mentally and physically two years ago. I had just graduated college, I was one week from my baptism into my church, one month from my departure to work at summer camp, and only a few months from the worst physical and mental state of my entire life. I was also in a place where I was starting to feel genuinely afraid of my disordered behaviors and compulsions, and I had the nagging feeling that I needed to help myself while I could.
When my family came to Indiana to see me graduate, it was evident to me that I was not myself. I had done a decent job of accommodating my disorder without interruption for quite a while by this point, and the influx of visitors and activities sent my brain into a hyper-anxious state. I became irritable, thinking only of how I would make it through my next meal eating as little as possible or how I would manage to squeeze in exercise at every turn. Rather than enjoy my loved ones who had come solely to visit me, I saw their visit as a nuisance in my life. I told my mom how little I was eating and, although I believe she was concerned, I don’t think she entirely knew what to do with the information. At this point, I still looked healthy and people were happy for me for losing weight, but part of me knew that something was not right at graduation. Unfortunately, although my weight loss had not yet spiraled entirely out of control, the disordered obsessions that had festered over time were running rampant and I felt that I could not stop.
After graduation, things slid downhill rapidly. I spent the next month working, cutting calories by the day, and exercising my body to its farthest limits. It was at this point that I decided to see a doctor. I thought that I simply needed some advice on how to stop dieting, and everything would be taken care of. Once I was in the doctor’s office, I told her how little I ate in a day. I said that I had a feeling it was not enough food, but I was not hungry for any more than that. In retrospect, my body was certainly starving at this point, but it had simply given up on asking me to eat. I was so hungry that I was tempted to eat my cocoa butter lotion, if you can believe it, yet I saw this as a sign that I had insatiable cravings, not as a sign of genuine starvation. The doctor nonchalantly said, “Yeah, you should probably be eating more than that,” on her way out of the door. She gave me a few exercises to help with my hip pain, and that was the end of the appointment.
Frustrated with my experience, I asked for a referral to a nutritionist. I printed off two days’ worth of food logs and gave them to the nutritionist as I sat in her office. She looked them over and said, “You eat a lot of salad.” I defensively retorted, “I love salad.” The nutritionist printed off a report of my body composition and said that I was healthy, but told me that I needed to be eating slightly more than I was. She asked me if I had ever thought that I might have an eating disorder. I was honest with her, saying that it had crossed my mind before, but that was the end of the conversation. She gave me a meal plan intended for people with diabetes, which still baffles me, and wished me luck.
When I left the nutritionist’s office, I wholeheartedly believed that I could take her meal plan with me, eat more, and be happy in a matter of days. What happened afterward, however, completely threw me for a loop. For reasons that I can’t explain unless I use the lens of an eating disorder, the nutritionist’s advice to eat more terrified me more than anything ever had. Rather than increase my calories, I cut them further while my obsession with exercise skyrocketed. It was also around this point that the utterly crazy, nonsensical rules about my disorder started to slip in. I could have a sugar-free latte, but if my pants felt too tight afterward I would need to exercise more. I developed rigid rules about amounts of food, numbers of sit-ups, and calories burned on exercise equipment. All of this terrified a small part of me that was screaming for help, but by this point I was preparing to leave for camp and I was still largely in denial about the severity of my disorder.
At camp, things only got worse. With no control over the preparation of my meals, I restricted food more than I ever had before. On top of this, I was hiking long distances with campers nearly every day. I was losing weight rapidly, my hair was falling out by the fist-full, and I could feel my bones trying to escape my skin. It was a horrible, painful 6 weeks and with each passing day I grew more desperate to return home, where I believed that I would be able to “get back to normal” in no time flat. It was at camp that I reached out to both my brother and my dad, sharing with them my struggle to stop losing weight. Although it felt good to open up to them, it was a sugar-coated version of the truth. I wanted to seem like I had things together. I wanted to give off the impression that I was happy at this much lower weight, and I just needed to figure out how to stay there. Even as my hair disappeared, my skin lost its color, and my muscle mass dissolved, I wanted to believe that I could find a way to be happy.
When I got home from camp, it became clear to me how much my eating disorder had taken over my life. The only things that I could focus on were The Food Network and recipe books. On my first grocery shopping trip after getting home, I nearly had a panic attack as nutritional facts swam around in my head. I saw my doctor, who told me that I was at a healthy weight and should stop losing weight, but had little to no understanding of eating disorders. She gave me a caloric goal to shoot for, but I felt paralyzed by fear of weight gain and I continued restricting. Soon after my appointment with the doctor and at the end of my rope, I walked into my mom’s bedroom with tears streaming down my face. “I think I need to see somebody,” I said meekly. When I admitted that I needed professional help, part of me felt defeated. I, more than anybody, had wanted to believe that I could get my “diet” under control, but my intuition knew otherwise.
I listened as my mom spoke on the phone with somebody we knew who had expertise as a counselor in the field of eating disorders. My mom booked an appointment for me and, for the first time in months, I felt something that resembled hope when she hung up the phone.
Of course, from that moment on it has not been entirely sunshine and lollipops. In fact, the beginning stages of recovery felt more painful than much of the time spent actively engaging my disorder. As my hunger cues returned and my metabolism began to function once again, I had to face my biggest fears of acknowledging my body’s needs and trusting myself. This is still something with which I struggle, but the wonderful things in recovery far outweigh the challenges (no pun intended).
My choice to seek help was not really one choice, but many. As my disorder extended its grip around more and more of my life, there was a little spark in me that knew something was not right. That spark called a doctor. It asked for a nutritionist’s referral. It reached out to family and walked into my mom’s room crying. That spark moved home to focus on recovery, and from that point on its light has grown.
In recovery, we continually have to advocate for ourselves. Nobody knows you better than you know yourself, and if something feels off to you, I beg that you listen to it. Listen to the voice that says that you deserve better and that something is not right before it is drowned out entirely. If the first person you tell does not respond with open arms, tell somebody else. Don’t give up on your own spark because it can and will grow into the light of recovery if it is encouraged.
Whew. That post was a doozy. Please take a moment to imagine me giving you a gold star if you made it all the way through. Seeking help is utterly terrifying, especially if you are somebody who tends to aim to please rather than speak up for yourself. Help may need to be asked for multiple times in the recovery process, but keep asking. It is worth fighting for.