health

'I saw doctors, dieticians and counsellors. None of them caught my eating disorder.'

This post deals with eating disorders and may be triggering to some readers.

I had been begging for help for years, without even knowing what I was doing or why I was doing it.

The fact that my eating disorder existed was itself a cry for help. It arrived, slowly, starting in 2008 and came into full bloom in 2013. I sought help from all the right people, in all the right places, at exactly the right times.

Not only did no assistance arrive, no one had any idea what was happening to me. Even I didn’t know.

Watch: Singer Kasey Chambers tells us what it was like to have an eating disorder. Post continues after video.

Video by Mamamia

Perhaps I didn’t look like someone with an eating disorder. I wasn’t frail and my skin, hair and nails were all healthy. I was skinny, but apparently not too skinny to warrant concern. I loved food and cooking. I appeared to have things “together.”

Because it didn’t fit the “usual profile” for an eating disorder, mine managed to escape detection for a half a decade.

There were times of biological hunger, but the pangs of emotional starvation were stronger. The two hungers were a constant cycle, two warring heads of the same Hydra. For a long time I could pretend there was no war. Because I didn’t binge and I didn’t purge and I still ate regularly, I could hide the problem even from myself and others.

That is, until I couldn’t any longer.

I can trace it back to a handful of crackers.

Just previous to puberty, I might have appeared moderately chunky. Most children I know have gone through this phase around ten or eleven years. I’m sure there are metabolic reasons for it. Around thirteen, my body type shifted again and shortly after that I was bombarded with comments (compliments?) about my thinness.

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It was summertime when I learned to fear my body because I can remember the smell of the lawnmower burning fuel and the bitterness of fresh-cut grass. Those scents mingled with the incomparable aroma of Chicken In A Biscuit crackers, original flavor.

It was sometime in the afternoon. I was about eleven. I’d gone into the pantry to retrieve a snack, but I hadn’t requested permission. I had a niggling hunger and didn’t want to go through the process of making a formal request, as was usual in my household.

Then I was caught by my father, who’d just come in from mowing the lawn. The snack was taken away with the threat that if I snuck food between meals not only would I get in trouble, I would also become fat.

And that, I surmised, was worse than being disciplined.

To be clear, I didn’t binge eat an entire box of crackers. I had a handful of crackers, hours before dinnertime, whilst on the cusp of puberty, in the midst of a growth spurt.

That day I received a new, damning message: eating “too much” (which was an unspecified amount) would lead to being fat, which was a terrible, terrible thing that could be equated with punishment.

And if I was being punished, I had done something wrong. I had already heard something similar in the check-out lines at the grocery store, where the magazines showed me one version of beautiful, meaningful femininity: thinness.

This was the early 2000s in central Pennsylvania; only skinny, white women made it to the front covers. Furthermore, there was a strong trend of whatever the opposite of self-care is that ran deep among the women in my family.

None of these women seemed thrilled about themselves, their bodies, or their lives. I would not call them confident. All of them believed themselves to be overweight and, although they were vocal about this quandary, they stopped short of changing the situation.

Throw in a dash of the inherently sexist comments from others that always focused on my appearance, and that is a deadly cocktail for an eleven-year-old girl.

I was scared of the potential fate of fatness. I didn’t know where to turn.

Before I had an eating disorder, I researched them.

In a sense, I thought this would immunise me against having one.

I was a bookish, home-schooled child that took upwards of ten books out of the library at a time. Shortly after the cracker incident, I somehow got my hands on books that include the history of eating disorders and abstaining from food.

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I read about fasting girls, both in print and on the internet I newly had access to. I learned about Sir William Gull’s studies of anorexia in the late 19th century. I visited the Wikipedia page about eating disorders multiple times.

In my mind, I told myself I was doing research, I believe for some kind of project I was going to work on or a career I wanted to pursue at the time. Now I realise I was fascinated by it in a frightening way.

When I would read stories about eating disorders — strictly for “research” — I understood the urge fully.

I had started reading about them and they made so much sense to me that I could not stop myself from reading more. It was like watching a train crash. However, I told myself, because I was reading about eating disorders that meant I would understand them enough to avoid ever having one.

Really, it meant that I learned how best to hide mine.

Listen: When Your Child Has Anorexia. A Mother’s Survival Story. Post continues after audio.

My eating disorder liked disguises. First, it pretended to be a vegetarian.

Even at thirteen, I knew it sounded better to say I was becoming a vegetarian because I wanted to take care of my health. In truth, I became a vegetarian because it seemed to give me control over food. It gave me a reason to refuse food, to limit what I ate, but not in a way that aroused anyone’s suspicions.

I also always chose the smallest plate, another means of control. You can only eat so much food when there’s only so much room on your plate. I was mocked for it by my family, but no one seemed to pick up on the message I was sending: I was becoming afraid of food.

Perhaps more frighteningly, I was afraid and disgusted by myself. My body was out to get me, I quickly surmised. It was not my ally.

Everyone everywhere was giving me the message that as a female my body was my only currency. If I wasn’t beautiful — and that meant thin, with abs so flat you could build a house of cards on them — then I had nothing.

Only beautiful girls got loved, only beautiful girls accomplished great things. I didn’t believe my features to be beautiful — my nose was too larger, my cheekbones too small , my jawline not strong enough— so all that I could change was my physique. I had to be thin in order to be something good.

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From the time I became aware of my body, I was at war with it. Every roll my stomach formed when I sat, every way it pressed against my clothing.

When I bent over and my jeans slipped a little too low, it was my fault, my personal failing. It had nothing to do with the jeans. (However, I now realise it was the fault of whoever thought extra low waisted skin tight jeans were a good idea for female hips wide enough to birth a child.)

I could not stand for my shirt to touch my stomach or in any way suggest the form of my torso. But I also didn’t want to look frumpy. So I constructed a wardrobe that was mostly loose tops and tight bottoms. That way, I figured, I could give the illusion that my legs — and presumably the rest of me — was thin, but my flowy top wouldn’t touch my stomach and remind me of its existence.

Nothing, it seemed, could make me feel at home in my skin.

I feared food and yet I loved it.

I loved cooking and I loved to eat. I am, for better or worse, a foodie. Yet during the height of my eating disorder, every meal  had an aftertaste of guilt. Any intake of food meant a potential shift in my form. It would be years before I took the time to understand calories or macro-nutrients.

I loved food too much to become anorexic. I would find other ways of punishing myself.

Bulimia was never a possibility for me either, I suppose because I have a strong gag reflex and I couldn’t wrap my head around forcing myself to vomit. Bingeing is also not a thing that was ever attractive to me; I was terrified of feeling even slightly full.

Exercise of any form was not part of my family culture. No one in my immediate family exercised regularly, and gyms were mocked. Jokes were made when we would pass the local YMCA; the big glass windows made it appear like a human zoo.

I was a blend of shy and socially anxious; being in public for anything was a torment, so an unsanctioned visit to the gym was impossible. I was also home-schooled, so I didn’t have physical education classes or the option of sports or running track. All I managed were daily, religiously taken, fast-paced walks.

I suspect that if gyms had not been taboo and exercise had not been a huge unknown, my years with an eating disorder might have been avoided or at least curtailed.

It would have been something I could have done to assuage the abuse going on inside my mind, telling me my body wasn’t good enough. I could have learned the worth of having a body that was, most importantly, strong.

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"I could have learned the worth of having a body that was, most importantly, strong." Image: Getty

Instead, too hungry to stop eating, too terrified of exercising in public, all I could do was change my diet to be healthier, and healthier, and “healthier.”

Vegetarianism gave away to “plant-based clean eating,” as I occasionally flirted with veganism and eating mostly raw.

The wellness blogs I followed didn’t talk about calories or nutrients but instead aimed for diets so “pure” any kind of mathematics were unnecessary.

College was an opportunity to restrict my diet further, since I was out on my own. I ignored everything except the salad bar and stole away fruit and vegetables to eat later.

By my second year, I mostly supplemented with foods I stored in the mini-fridge, prepping them on my standard-issue dorm desk. On average I ate one and a half meals in the dining hall. It wasn’t fun, tidy or easy.

But I was eating vegetables, fruits, nuts and whole, gluten-free grains, like the wellness blog gods told me to.

I decided that this wasn’t cost-effective, making my own breakfasts and dinners in my dorm room. So I found the person who handled meal plans at my college.

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There was, I’d discovered, a one-meal-a-day meal plan; I was on the three-meal-a-day plan. I requested to switch. The request was denied and a meeting with the university’s registered dietician was suggested.

The dietician, I was told, would be able to explain to me ways I could make the dining hall meals work for me.

The dietician and I met, and although she was polite, neither our meeting nor our brief subsequent correspondence did anything to make me feel more comfortable in the dining hall.

She didn’t dispute that my diet was healthy but she also didn’t seem to understand just how strongly I felt about certain foods. I had wanted her to understand; to give me some kind of help. But she couldn’t hear what I was trying to say. I wanted zero vegetable oil in my diet, zero dairy, zero sugar. Yes, I was doing all that but I didn’t feel right still and I needed help.

Eventually, our conversation sputtered out, as I realised that she was, in my mind, too blind to realise that eating the vegetarian lasagna — with all its gluten and dairy — was not something I was ever going to be willing to do.

Little by little, I broke.

My body continued to rebel, but in new ways. I lost energy, I lost feeling. I descended into depression, which churned with my years of untreated anxiety. At a certain point, I stopped losing weight and lost muscle instead.

Although I visited multiple counsellors, none of them caught on to my eating disorder. I took multiple doctors and a naturopath detailed food diaries, and none of them spotted it either. I suppose in their minds I was eating regular, standard size meals, so there surely couldn’t be anything amiss.

"I suppose in their minds I was eating regular, standard size meals, so there surely couldn’t be anything amiss." Image: Getty
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Some people call it “Orthorexia.” But I don’t really care what it’s called.

My relationship with food and eating was out of order. That is how I know I had an eating disorder.

I thought about eating constantly. Partly because I was always hungry, partly because I had to plan each meal carefully. If I had to go out to a restaurant or a family party, I would “save up allotments” of food so that I could eat without shame later.

But there was always shame. Somewhere I’ve read that it is recommended that one eats until they’re about 80 per cent full. I was eating until I was about 60 per cent full because the smallest feeling of fullness would make me panic that I’d gone too far.

I was the queen of refusing dessert. It didn’t matter the occasion; birthday, Christmas or summertime trip to the ice cream shop, I wouldn’t touch the dessert for anything. This got me comments that were a mixture of respect and mockery. Every comment spurred me on to refuse more.

Just as my eating disorder was peaking, around the first year of college, I had a couple of times “cheated.” This left me with physical pain in my abdomen and inconsolable guilt. After those few episodes, I surmised cheating was never worth the trouble.

I had “purified” my body so much that sullying it with sugar or dairy would only bring me pain. Limitations, I believed, were the pathway to health and happiness.

I never starved myself.

I never binged.

I never purged.

I never exercised until I broke.

But I had an eating disorder.

Everyone that I encountered — doctors, dieticians, counsellors, and everyone in between — did not recognise that I had an eating disorder.

They didn’t even recognise it when I begged for more tests to find a food allergy I believed I must have. They couldn’t see it was both a cover to find another way I could limit my diet and an extension of my fanaticism over food.

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Food was an adversary because it fuelled my body, the biggest enemy of all.

Culturally, we have largely defined eating disorders in two ways: anorexia or bulimia. But our relationships with food can break down in more than just eating too little or too much.

Humanity’s interaction with food and eating is far more complex than that when it is a good relationship. Why do we assume it becomes more simplistic when the relationship goes bad?

I still struggle. I might always.

For as long as I can remember, I have felt like I don’t get enough air in my lungs and I yawn constantly, not because I’m tired (though I am) but because my body is trying to get more air.

Between yoga and starting voice lessons recently, I realised that it’s perhaps because I have been holding my stomach in for about 13 years. I don’t breathe deeply because I’ve trained myself to not let my stomach expand fully. Full expansion of my ab muscles is a liability; it might further betray that my stomach isn’t flat.

Now I’ve had that realisation. Now I can start working on healing in that department. While writing this piece, I had a panic attack about my body yet again. Healing is going to be an ongoing project.

However, now I am the girl that gets compliments on her baking skills. Me, the girl who thought she would never have refined sugar in her home, I make cakes with sugar, butter, flour, all the rest of it.

Not only do I make cakes, I eat them too.

I am still well within the recommended weight range for my height. Now, I have muscle and more energy. I can think more clearly too.

This summer, I will be experimenting with wearing something other than skinny jeans and I’ll try less bag-like tops. I want to learn to run and maybe use an elliptical. I will also eating more froyo.

As Emily Kate wrote in her fantastic piece, I am going to eat and it is going to be okay.

Maybe these sound like small things. But this is how we take care of ourselves. Little by little, I am giving my body peace offerings. We are a team, my body and I. It has, is and it is going to do amazing things. It doesn’t deserve my punishment.

This article originally appeared on Medium and was republished here with full permission. The feature image used for this article is a stock photo.

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 at [email protected] You can also visit their website, here.

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