pregnancy

"It tore apart my mind." What it's like to be pregnant while recovering from an eating disorder.

This post deals with eating disorders and miscarriage, and might be triggering for some readers. 

On my wedding day, I didn’t fit into the dress I’d picked out six months earlier. The hook closure in the back snapped when I took a deep breath on the way out of my hotel room, leaving the top inch of the zipper open for the entirety of my wedding day.

If you squinted, you could believe it was a cute detail.

I knew the truth, though. I was too fat for my wedding dress, unable even to control my eating for a few months so I could feel beautiful in the gorgeous white gown I’d chosen specifically for this day.

Watch: Kasey Chambers on what it’s like to have an eating disorder. Post continues below.

Video by Mamamia

Pregnancy as a trigger

Weeks before, we’d moved from San Francisco to Boston.

We’d been squatting at my sister-in-law’s house, surviving on takeout until we found a place (and a kitchen) of our own.

I had just begun a new job that often had me up at 4:30 and working on the couch in front of the television until 11 or later. I didn’t have time or energy for proper nutrition, and it began to show.

After a significant weight loss five years earlier and a couple of years as a triathlete, I found myself getting steadily bigger with no way to stop.

All the diet and exercise in the world still wasn’t able to give me what I needed to overcome what I was finally beginning to recognise as a real eating disorder.

By the time I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was the heaviest I’d ever been. And pregnancy was the perfect excuse to gain even more weight.

I stopped going to the gym, ate whatever I felt like eating and ignored the weight gain guidelines. I was already buying maternity clothes, so there was nothing wrong with buying a size up, right?

Thanks to breastfeeding, a nutritionist, and the relative portability of a single child, I was able to lose a considerable amount of weight after my first pregnancy, leaving me weighing less the second time I found myself getting a positive test result.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about my second postpartum period. While one baby was pretty easy for me to manage, now that I had two I felt weighed to the sofa.

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Most days it was difficult to find time for more than just working and being a mum. After 18 months, though I was still breastfeeding my second daughter, I was at an all-time high.

Mums around the world know this single truth about pregnancy: It is a complete and total mind f*ck.

With the help of a personal trainer, a home exercise program, and an improved diet, I was once again able to lose some weight. But all the diet and exercise in the world still wasn’t able to give me what I needed to overcome what I was finally beginning to recognise as a real eating disorder.

I began asking for help after a while. I wasn’t shy about saying I couldn’t control my eating, or about asking for accountability partners to help me stick to my goals and talk me through hard times. I wasn’t ready to name an eating disorder yet — I’m still not quite there most days, to be honest — but I was very vocal that I needed some support.

Trouble was, I couldn’t find anyone who was willing to help without being paid an exorbitant fee for doing so.

Life’s hardships as a trigger.

I got pregnant again, unexpectedly. For a third time, I positioned my pregnancy between me and what I knew I needed. It was such a convenient excuse to eat unhealthy food and be largely sedentary.

By the time I lost the baby, I had already gained weight.

Not only was there the typical hormonal havoc wreaked on my system from being pregnant, and then no longer being pregnant, but I also had this extra weight I thought I’d be able to avoid dealing with for the next nine or so months.

I’d just lose it after the baby, I’d thought. But with no baby, all I had was the guilt and shame of the weight gain on top of the guilt and shame of miscarriage.

A month later, I found myself repeating the same cycle once more. Another pregnancy, another extended binge, another period of general sloth.

Another premature ending.

The loss tore apart my mind. The infection I got afterwards tore apart my body. The near loss of my husband to anaphylaxis a week later almost tore apart my relationship as well.

A new approach helped me gain control.

There came a time when I realised how thin the thread that tethered me to my sanity had become.

I started therapy, which helped with my immediate issues — the miscarriages and my relationship with my husband, my responsibilities to my living children and my baggage around my own upbringing.

But, a few months later, I started something else: a behaviour modification program aimed at changing my attitudes, behaviours, and habits around my relationship with food.

I felt like a new person. Suddenly I had a tool box full of strategies to manage my binge eating.

I had new ways to talk to myself about my weight and health that didn’t center around guilt and shame and self-loathing. I began a workout routine around the same time, and within a few months my weight was the lowest it’s been since before I got married a decade ago.

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I won’t lie, I felt accomplished because I was slimmer. I enjoyed hearing compliments from close friends and family members from time to time — people who knew how hard I was working to reclaim my body for my own after so many years of feeling out of control.

But I also felt healthier. More capable of being active with my children or walking my dog. Stronger.

More comfortable moving in the world, not feeling like I had to constantly tug my clothes this way and that so they’d fit the right way and not showcase my muffin top. And, yeah, I’ll say it. Sexier.

For the first time in my life, I felt like the boss. When I craved something that, before, I would have binged on, I could stop and ask questions. I had a plan to fall back on, and a support system guiding me.

Old habits die hard.

I’d said once that if I did ever get pregnant again, I wanted to do it at a point in my life when I felt like I had control over my body.

The universe must have been listening because, as soon as I felt like I had a strong grip on my diet and exercise, I found myself expecting once more.

Giving myself permission to gain weight after so much time trying to lose it was difficult.

Mums around the world know this single truth about pregnancy: It is a complete and total mind f*ck.

The time between the positive result and the birth of the baby amounts to one enormous spin-out of anxiety, fear, paranoia, and guilt — all of which are so strong they often drown out every ounce of joy, making you feel even more guilty for not enjoying these months of such intimate connection with your baby-to-be.

Add to that the terror of conceiving unexpectedly after two devastating losses, and the fact that I was in recovery from a lifelong eating disorder, and I was in triple mind f*ck land. Control was suddenly in short supply, and I didn’t know quite how I would handle it.

Being pregnant and in recovery is a balancing act

For self-protection more than anything, I decided that (aside from foregoing my precious Friday glass(es) of wine) nothing would change about my life with this pregnancy.

My workout routine would stay the same, my meal-planning routine would stay the same, and my general level of activity would stay high.

Physically, the effects were amazing.

Workouts were relatively easy to keep doing. I had developed a steady cadence of alternating cardio, strength, and yoga throughout the week, and I was able to keep to it.

Not only did I keep improving my balance and flexibility, but my strength and stamina were impressive even to me.

Outside the gym, I was able to be more active without hurting myself. I could go up and down the stairs without feeling like death, even well into my pregnancy, and found myself more willing to get up and do things with my kids, like playing tee-ball on an unseasonably warm winter day.

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I looked good, too. While during my previous pregnancies I had felt huge and blob-like all over, this time I really felt like I was just a human with a belly.

My abdominal muscles and back were strong enough to hold my belly up in front of me and, aside from those times I couldn’t fit into a booth at a restaurant or through a narrow space between seats at a theater, it was possible to forget the bulge was even there.

Mentally and emotionally, it was much more difficult.

I had expected to keep my behaviour and my relationship with food on a tight leash for the rest of my life, having now understood the troubles and the habits that had helped form and feed my disorder in the first place. I felt like I had won something, only to immediately lose it.

Giving myself permission to gain weight after so much time trying to lose it was harder than I could have imagined. Working through cravings and aversions without giving in to my inner demons and old habits was impossible. It was like I was on a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other multiple times a day.

…those urges never fully go away.

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I began having fruit, fibre and protein smoothies for breakfast.

It set my day off on the right note, ensuring I got some generous servings of the things I knew I needed but also knew I wasn’t likely to eat on purpose throughout the day. Midway through the morning, though, I’d find myself craving something and driving to the supermarket to pick it up.

Never was it a fruit parfait or a salad. Always it was a calorie-dense, nutrient-deficient sweet which comes packaged in multiple servings and which I would eat in one sitting. With it I’d pick up some soup, though, which I’d eat and feel good about later in the day.

After about 4pm, eating much of anything would give me terrible heartburn and nausea that would last for most of the evening, so I would instead eat some ice cream most nights to settle my stomach and keep me from feeling like I was starving to death.

I allowed this, telling myself it was temporary. But how much of that was just an excuse to get back to the behaviours I thought I’d left behind?

Back and forth, from one extreme to the other, I would swing. I was proud of myself for my physical strength, yet ashamed of my lack of mental fortitude.

I made some bad choices around food, but instead of dwelling on my failures (or even addressing them) I would pat myself on the back and tell myself I’d been doing far better than I had in the past, so it was okay.

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I would go out of my way to finish eating something I knew I shouldn’t have begun in the first place, but I could still fit into my pre-pregnancy pants, so I gave myself a break.

Leniency, though, is a slippery slope, and no one knows this better than someone who has stood at the top of the mountain, only to tumble down, over and over and over again.

Pregnant or not, recovery is a life-long process

Many people who have conquered their addictions refer to themselves not as recovered but in recovery. And there’s a reason for that. Those of us who have been controlled by urges for our entire lives know that, while we can gain a better understanding and even better control of them, those urges never fully go away.

The compulsion to have a cigarette after dinner, or a hoppy beer on a Friday night, or a salty snack just before bedtime, doesn’t often just disappear after a time.

Sure, the associations weaken and we develop better coping mechanisms, but if the situation presents itself just so, we can set ourselves up to fall right back into the habits we thought we’d kicked. Ask anyone who’s ever experienced relapse.

The fact that my eating disorder reared its ugly head during pregnancy is no surprise. My defences were down, my cravings were on overdrive, and my emotions were intensified a thousandfold.

It takes a lot of work to be vigilant about keeping this disease at bay, and a lot of days I simply didn’t think I could do it.

What helped me get through those days, and the ones that came after was the knowledge that I know where to find help.

No matter what, I can get back to my program and regain that sense of control I was able to enjoy in the months before I got pregnant. I can lean on my support community and talk about how hard it is to feel this way, with people who have walked in these shoes before.

And I imagine I’m not the only one. I suspect there are many of you who are in recovery, or seeking recovery, who could benefit from the same kind of community I was so fortunate to find.

And know this, as you go about your journey: There will surely be slips along the way, but with the right support, there’s hope that someone who understands will be able to help me back up.

Feature Image: Getty.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected]. You can also visit their website, here.  

If this has raised any issues for you or if you would like to speak with someone, please contact the Sands Australia 24 hour support line on 1300 072 637. 

You can download Never Forgotten: Stories of love, loss and healing after miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death for free here.

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