Recovering from an Eating Disorder - A Student's Story

When I was 15, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa as well as orthorexia. What makes my experience special is that I was (and still am) dubbed the kid that “has it all together” because I have solid grades, I am involved in every social justice effort, and I am an athlete. Yet for as long as I can remember I have hated my appearance, and always wanted to change it. This resulted in me always being conscious of what I ate, and even though I was a “healthy” weight on the BMI scale*, I always received unsolicited medical advice from those around me. By the time I entered high school, I had already cut all the food groups I could while also flying under my parents’ radar. Looking back, what makes this so terrifying, is that everyone around me who was aware of my restriction didn’t think twice about it, due to how normalized caloric restriction is in our society. 

 

My first days of high school were frightening; they were filled with athletic tryouts, introductions to my peers, and a ton of homework. All these new experiences brought on new expectations as well as an insane amount of stress. Despite all the stress, I was able to juggle everything into creating a somewhat balanced first semester. Sure, my diet mainly consisted of carrots, fat-free yogurt, and apples, and I never allowed myself to consume more than a strict amount of calories per day. As my freshman year went on my balancing act soon began to crumble, I was falling asleep during class, my hair was starting to fall out, I was significantly limiting my calories each day and crying myself to sleep. But to everyone else it was all going well, I was in new social circles now that I was on the swim team, I was able to fundraise for our local abused womens’ shelter, and my grades were A’s. What makes eating disorders so tricky is that so many of us can maintain such great facades until it all tumbles down. As the year went on I never dropped enough weight, I had set an unrealistic goal weight for myself. My goal weight equated with happiness, validation, and acceptance from those around me. Yet, even when I obtained the goal weight it was never enough.

 

As the summer of freshman year rolled around my life was falling apart, even more, I was arguing with my parents about my health daily, I woke up at 6am each day to work out before swim team practice, and I could barely bring myself to go to get in a bathing suit. What held it all together was the screaming voice of my eating disorder….“If I couldn’t get out of bed, I was fat,” “If I hadn’t lost a pound, I was obese,” or “If I ate before 12pm, I was a pig.” The list goes on and on but the thing that was killing me was keeping me sane because even though my eating disorder was deteriorating my body, it was my way of coping with the world at that time and gave me a sense of control. The summer of freshman year turned into my sophomore year (or lack thereof), I was able to maintain all these moving parts until it was time for my annual physical. In some ways, I just wanted to scream, I needed help and when I stepped on the scale in the doctor's office, I could see in the nurse's eyes she knew something was wrong. Now, this is where ignorance comes in, I still couldn’t verbalize to any medical professional what I was doing to myself. So I gained back a little bit and was able to barely pass my annual physical. As the winter season of the swim team rolled around, my pain became apparent to my parents, I was sleeping all day, I wouldn’t eat anything, the bathroom was my second home, and none of my clothing fit. Now a few months later, my parents and doctors were able to figure out the game of my eating disorder, and I was sent to psychiatric treatment, but when you obtain such painful diagnoses every person around you seems to have a viewpoint. Teachers said “She had her life all together, why would she waste it on her weight”, adults said “I would never expect that from her”, friends said “I just thought you wanted to have a killer body” but eating disorder professionals said, “this isn’t surprising”. 

 

When I obtained treatment for my eating disorders I wasn’t suddenly cured. You see, everyone needs food and calories to survive. The one difference between an alcoholic and a person with anorexia  is that you can survive without alcohol but you cannot survive without food. The very thing that was killing me was something that I couldn't survive without. When you enter eating disorder treatment, you have to regain a body weight where your body  realizes that it is on the right track, but you are also able to allot food and nutrients to less essential things, like menstrual cycles, memory, vision, hair growth, etc. 

Eating disorder treatment isn’t easy, you feel trapped in a body that you don’t want, your life is suddenly monitored 24/7 and you have no privacy. The program I attended was specifically for people with eating disorders and I truly believe that in order to recover you need to attend a program that is aimed towards eating disorders (as they have both the nutrition and mental aspects). Eating disorder treatment is one of the most supportive environments I have ever been in, both clients and staff would sit down for a meal together in a safe environment. Talking through behaviors, trauma, experiences, etc was easy to process in this environment. As clients we were also exposed to alternative therapy methods, like equine, art therapy, yoga, acupuncture etc. The allowance to finding a passion while in treatment allowed for me to fill the void that my eating disorder had filled. Dealing with an active eating disorder voice wasn’t easy, but the fact that my dietician was able to reframe my thought process, educate me, and make sure I was eating what I needed was helpful.  Despite all the painful moments, there were hopeful ones too, you connect with people that understand you, you learn how to like food, you can participate in things you like. 

 

Eating disorders aren’t easy to overcome and recovery is the hardest thing I have ever done. There were many nights where I would contemplate why I was recovering, why I was living, and the pain I was putting others through. Questions swarmed my head on a daily basis, and many nights I thought there was no way to silence them. Eating disorders are the number one cause of mental illness related death---- and you might be thinking why? A person with anorexia  is living with a raging voice in their head and at the same time, everyone around them is forcing them to do something they don’t want to do. Studies have shown that individuals with anorexia  nervosa have the highest suicide completion rate and individuals with bulimia nervosa have the greatest number of suicide attempts. 

 

I am sharing my story today because I know I am not the only student who has fallen down the rabbit hole of anorexia. I am sharing my story to help raise awareness and make students, parents, teachers, staff, anyone aware of what an eating disorder does to a person. Because, as Americans we live in a society that perpetuates this image of “health,” everyone has a view on it and believes they can hand out medical advice. Some equate health with weight, diet, caloric intake, macros, fat content, exercise, etc. One thing should be certain, no person other than a qualified medical professional should affect a child's view on their health. 

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. 

Anonymous

*The BMI scale is the body mass index used to classify body composition considering a child's weight and height. Even though it has been used for years, it was developed by a mathematician modeled after men.

 

If you need additional information or resources, please contact Jennifer.Evans@lcps.org who will connect you with your school-based unified mental health team.

 

Resources

Eating Disorder Hope

Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders (F.E.A.S.T.)

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

National Institute of Mental Health

 

Educational Materials

Academy for Eating Disorders video library

NEDA Educators Toolkit

NEDA Parent Toolkit

NEDA School & Community