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One of the most defining struggles in my life– and by that I mean one of the things that built my character and identity more than anything else– has been my battle through two eating disorders, the resulting depression, and near suicide. When things get so bad that you simply want to die– to just stop existing– but you decide to hang on, that’ll affect the rest of your life and your general outlook. Nothing ever seems that bad again.
Not 100% sure where to start this story, but maybe a bit of psychological background on eating disorders will help. A lot of people used to have the perception that EDs are not really mental health conditions, but something solely to do with diet, body image, the media, and an obsession with being skinny. That is absolute malarky. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, compulsive overeating and a few other disordered eating behaviors (EDNOS, collectively) are categorized and treated very similarly– and for a good reason– to addictions like drugs and alcohol. Ultimately the baseline issues have to do with poor coping mechanisms and trying to find a sense of control when one’s life feels out of control. Many EDs tend to co-present with certain personality traits like perfectionism, “people-pleasing,” obsessive-compulsive behavior, and low self esteem. Just like a drug addict may seek a substance to cope with their problems and feel a certain high, bulimics and overeaters reach to food for the same feelings. On the opposite end of the spectrum, anorexics use starvation to feel control and it actually alters brain chemicals, resulting in dependence and compulsive restriction of caloric intake. Ultimately all of these people feel out of control of their lives and turn to outward, temporary solutions as a Band-aid.
I’ll leave the psychiatric background at that for the sake of this post, but if you’re interested in how eating disorders are diagnosed and treated, the National Institutes of Mental Health site is a great resource.
So with that background, we can suffice to say that my issues started relatively early in life. I am a middle child, the daughter of two very successful, high-achieving (and wonderful) parents, and part of a family with a history of addiction and mental health disorders. I was always a sensitive kid and really eager to please my parents, and frequently that resulted in me not speaking up for myself and acting like I was always cool and happy even if I wasn’t. I just didn’t want to fuss or rock the boat ever.
I was always a pretty regular looking kid. No, wait. I was regular SIZED. I looked like this:
I was athletic and played soccer and basketball for nearly my entire life, and I grew up playing outside in the woods. Then between about 6th and 8th grade, I went through that normal pudgy phase that pre-teens hit. I was entering middle school, which meant some new people and a new school. Never an easy time for an awkward adolescent.
Two memories from around this time really, really stick out in my mind– that type of memory that will be with you forever. I don’t know the chronological order or exactly when they happened, but they fit nicely here. The first is that I remember flipping through a JCPenny catalog looking for bathing suits, I believe for a family summer vacation. There was an image of a young woman wearing a bikini in that catalog that was probably the first magazine image that ever really got to me. The chick wasn’t overly skinny– she actually was nicely filled out and looked like just a regular lady wearing a bikini. But to a chunky eight grader she looked like the most idyllic model of a woman. She had dark olive skin and curly twisted hair and was smiling. It is insane how much I remember about that goddamned photo. I ripped it out of the magazine and carried it around in my backpack (or fanny pack or wrist wallet or whatever I was sporting in 1999) for “motivation.”
The second memory that stands out is going school clothes shopping at the mall with my mom, likely the summer before 7th or 8th grade. I was pretty tall for my age, maybe 5’4” or 5’5” and at my heaviest I think I weighed 170 pounds or so. Pretty round, but again, to be expected at that age. Anyway, we were poking around the Juniors section and nothing was fitting me. My mom, in a genuine effort to help, suggested we try looking in the Petites section (the part of the store for shorter, but adult-sized grown women). This devastated me. I burst out crying and my poor mother was so upset that we just left the store.
Now although I was a bigger girl at that point, it’s worthwhile to point out that nobody was making me feel bad about that at all. I wasn’t teased, nobody told me that I should diet, I was still playing sports, I never got called fat. I am, and always have been, surrounded by wonderful and not-superficial people. When the trigger was pulled, it was completely an internal catalyst. Like I said before, eating disorders often go hand-in-hand with OCD tendencies, perfectionism, and being a people-pleaser. I definitely had all of that going on– a mess of little complex wiring in my brain with no good outlet or ability to talk about my feelings.
In an effort to keep these posts to about 1,000 words each, I’m gonna leave this one here as the set-up for the rest of the story.