submitted by Sarah
As the sensitive and quieter sibling, I easily fell off of my parent’s radar. Growing up with two younger sisters, there was always an expectation of me to be a positive example and act maturely. My mother was a stay at home mom, and everything was always planned out for us. What we ate, how much we ate, what we wore, when we showered, went outside, talked on the phone and other little things were all regulated and decided for us. As I became a teenager, I felt very eager for some independence and a little freedom. I had grown fed up of being treated the same as my younger sisters.
During my middle school years, the constant pressure to basically be perfect and my parents control resulted in feelings of self loathe, worthlessness and hopelessness. We didn’t speak up about emotions at my house much, and we were often told to “get over it” if we did. I was expected to always do as I was told, regardless of how I felt about it or what my opinion was. As I became a teenager, I often tried to speak up to my parents, my thoughts were often dismissed, and thus I began to internalize them. These emotions led me into a deep depression that I struggled to escape from. After a brief hospitalization for clinical depression, I forced myself to at least present myself as happy and normal. I refused to let anyone see me upset, angry or anything other than cheerful. As I pushed these feelings further and further away, I convinced myself that I had no resentment or anger towards my parents and proceeded to enjoy my freshman year of high school. However, my family’s decision to move from Massachusetts to Texas at the end of my freshman year forever changed my life.
In the beginning, I was excited to move down south. A new state, school and culture appealed to me, and I was anxious to see more of the world. However, after hearing that I would join a class of 1,500 students, and be one of 100 new sophomores, I began to have second thoughts. My parents focused on getting my younger sisters into horseback riding and soccer, which helped them meet friends with mutual interests. Being older, I was somewhat expected to fend for myself, and be more independent. However, my slightly shy demeanor held me back. I tried joining the student council and other clubs, but cliques had already been formed from the year before, and I was too intimidated to try and push my way in.
Because my sisters were both tall and constantly growing, my mother would bring them shopping for new clothes a lot. Lonely and desperate for some human interaction, I wanted to convince my mother that I needed new clothes too. So, I made a conscious decision to change my size and appearance. I began to exercise, and tried to cut out my favorite foods from my daily diet.
Not too long after, once my friends from home started commenting, and my mother brought me new jeans, I felt pressured to keep up with my diet and exercise patterns. This pressure was fueled by the emptiness and loneliness I felt at my new school. As my obsession with food increased, the void I felt decreased, and I began to numb my sadness. As I read my journal today, it talks about losing control and how I can't escape the part of me that says "don’t eat". A cry for attention and control so quickly turned to an obsession. I could see this happening, although the benefits of my obsession seemed to outweigh the consequences. Everything began to revolve around food; eating it, not eating it, looking at it, smelling it, grocery shopping, reading menu's online. Food was on my mind 24/7. When I wasn’t thinking about food, I thought about how I looked and about how close yet so far I was to becoming perfect. My eating disorder became an obsession about image overall, not just weight. It became an issue of controlling the way I looked and the way I felt about myself.
The physical symptoms began to approach, and I consciously knew that they were there. I knew what was happening, and part of me even had a desire to stop it. Yet, another part of me wouldn't let myself stop it. Denying my favorite foods made me feel powerful, and exercising daily made me feel motivated and dedicated. As the diet and exercise routines grew stricter and stricter, my parents began to notice and commented here and there. After 10 months of my struggle, however, my mother angrily forced me on the scale and brought me to a doctor’s office in Texas. He told me to exercise a little less, and that I would be fine. My eating disorder side was so ecstatic to hear this because it meant I was still in complete control. Yet, beneath the anorexia I was crying for help and recognition. I was sick of feeling trapped and in fear of my own thoughts and obsessions. Despite the doctor’s calmness, my parents began to reach for more control, which was difficult for them because I had a job and was often at work during family meals. They tried bribery, and refused to let me exercise. For a few weeks, they thought that they had fixed me. However, my anorexia’s sneaky side was in full force, and desperate to maintain control. Although my parent’s actions were genuine, my eating disorder encouraged me to fight them rather than accept their help.
Less than a month later, my father's company closed the Texas plant and moved some of the engineers back up to the Northeast. He was one of them, and we headed up to MA to house hunt. Parents and friends began to comment to my parents about my appearance, and after moving into a temporary condo, my mother brought me to another doctor in MA. This time, she detected a low heart rate, and told my mother to bring me back every week while I was placed on a waiting list for an appointment with an eating disorder specialist. This was the first time anyone had diagnosed me with an eating disorder. I denied it to the best of my ability, but deep down I was extremely scared. I wondered what this would mean? I worried about stepping onto the scale in front of doctors and nurses on a regular basis. I worried about the foods I would have to eat, or the therapy sessions I would have to attend. These concerns only made me clutch anorexia tighter, and I was determined to prove to my parents that they would not win this battle of control.
I began my junior year at my old high school, after begging my father to move us back to our old town. However, things had changed. My friends were the same and all of them welcomed me back with open arms. I, however, was much different. I had less energy and less desire to be social. Lunch, which was my favorite time of day freshman year, was now a half hour spent in the bathroom, crying and struggling with the inner thoughts I was plagued with. My parents and I found ourselves in constant battles, over exercise, food, or me being allowed to get behind the wheel of a car without eating. After years of feeling dominated by them, I felt passionate for anorexia. Each battle with my parents was an opportunity to show them who was boss through my eating disorder. Out of anger and resentment, I would react to their accusations and questions through anorexia.
My eating disorder had also turned me into a liar, and sneaky person. I was constantly lying to my parents and friends about how I felt, what kind of mood I was in, and what the doctor said. I would lie about which foods I ate, didn’t eat, liked and didn’t like. My days revolved around thinking of new excuses and reasons for my behaviors that I could use to convince people I was okay.
During this time, I didn’t like myself at all. I felt guilty for lying to the people who mattered most, and even guiltier for having this problem in the first place.
About two months into my junior year, the doctor informed me that my heart rate was extremely low, and sent me to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital. Scared out of my mind, I vowed to myself that I would turn everything around, and try my hardest to recover. After my 6 day stay, I remember the nurse telling me before I left that I "seemed like a smart girl, and would probably never be back". I was so pleased that she had said this, and her comment fueled my desire to be done with this negative experience.
At first, I thought that the hospitalization would be all that I needed. I had to plans to begin meeting with Darlene, my outpatient nurse practitioner, a therapist and a nutritionist. I figured that they would take anorexia and all the feelings that came with it, and just eject it from me. It just seemed like this was the next step. I was scared that I would lose it; however, I was anxious to see how quickly it would disappear and what I would have in its place.
However, upon being discharged, I realized that the feelings had never left. Although my parents had a closer eye on me, it was never close enough. Similarly, their close eye felt like intrusion on the one factor of my life I controlled. Their constant badgering made me feel powerless, and anorexia was the only way I knew how to regain that power at the time. This, along with my sneaky ways caused me to fall directly back into my old patterns. Within a few weeks, I was hospitalized on a long term unit, where I began a six week stay.
The most beneficial thing that hospitalization did for me was allow me to be safe from myself. Monitored meals and bathroom times were not pleasant, yet they forced me to confront my emotions and experiences with food, body image and feelings. Gaining weight was not easy, but the constant reassurance from the staff helped me realize that I wanted and needed to be healthy. I missed out on high school dances and football games, Christmas and New Years that year, and those are moments that I will never get back. Missing out on holiday break with my friends and Christmas traditions with my family helped me become angrier at my disorder, and I slowly began to hate it. I started to hate my eating behaviors for the tears my mother cried, the alienation my sisters felt, and the stress on my dad’s face. I hated anorexia for the classes I missed, pep rallies I couldn't be apart of, and the cheerleading season I couldn't try out for. Anorexia had become my enemy.
My anger only increased by having blood drawn every other day for the first two weeks of hospitalization. Having my vitals taken every morning, and up to three times a day was simply a frustrating pain. I hated having to be weighed every morning around 6 am. I was also informed that because I had missed so many periods, that I had osteopena, a condition which is the precursor to osteoporosis. Fed up with the medical annoyances and worried that I could have brittle bones at a young age, I felt determined to get better.
After being discharged from the hospital, my outside treatment team wanted a foolproof plan set up for me. Darlene, my nurse practitioner, became the most influential person in my life. Understanding, compassionate and realistic, she wanted to keep me out of the hospital more than anything. She set limits and stuck to them. Every time I tried to test her, she proved that she meant her original words, and I soon began to develop a sense of admiration and respect for her. Having experienced an eating disorder in college, Darlene was my own personal motivation. She was living proof that maybe someday; I too, could recover and perhaps even help people experiencing this awful disease.
Adjusting to home life after six weeks of being hospitalized was not easy. I was heavier, and I had to go buy new clothes. Some mornings, I couldn’t even get out of bed, and stayed in there, skipping classes and times with friends. In order to help me maintain my weight, Darlene had my mother begin to pick me up from school and sit with me for lunches at home. I did every meal with my parents, and although it felt awkward, it enabled me to return to school with my friends. My mother diligently measured out each portion, and arranged her schedule to fulfill any and all of me needs. At times, I felt guilt for having to re learn the basic fundamentals of life. Sometimes I was embarrassed and other times, I felt overwhelmed by my mother’s dedication to me. Yet, my intense desire for control was still there. It didn’t take long before I found myself resorting to some of my eating disorder behaviors while I wasn't under my parent’s watchful eye.
During this time, I was also meeting with a therapist. However, due to the fact that I had lost so much control over what I ate and which rituals I could practice, I decided to take control in therapy. Although my therapist tried to have me write letters and written answers to questions, I refused to speak to her or interact in any way. Part of me also felt guilty, and as if I didn’t deserve someone to listen to me for 50 minutes twice a week. I felt unworthy and useless to the world.
When summer approached, Darlene decided that I needed my freedom and no longer had to stay under my parent’s supervision. I was on my own for the first time in 8 months. Scared and torn between my disorder and my healthy self, I panicked. I tried bulimia for the first time. After a week, I ran to Darlene, begging her to help me stop. However, once you start, this cycle can become very addicting. No matter what Darlene warned me about concerning my bones, heart and digestive track, I could not stop. I was asked to come back to her office multiple times a week at times for medical reasons, and I felt so scared for my health. Yet, when it came time to make the ultimate decision, I always chose to revert to my eating disorder as the cure-all for any problem or situation.
Bulimia made me feel even more powerless than anorexia did. I would do everything I could not cave into my eating disorder. I even refused to carry cash with me. Yet, I would find myself going out of my way to the bank with my debit card and making a withdrawal. I tried writing, music, exercising, and other distractions, but the feeling of needing to binge and purge felt great. Even when my family was home, including my two younger sisters, I would still exhibit my eating disorder behaviors. Being the oldest, I felt so ashamed. I was supposed to be their role model and a positive influence. I acted on my eating impulses anywhere and everywhere; work, school, restaurants. I skipped so much school senior year for my eating disorder that my teachers began to pretend they didn’t notice. Known as a respectful, hardworking kid over the years, my teachers and classmates thought that my skipping school was simply a phase. These examples show how bulimia is so controlling, and such an enemy to hate. Its addicting nature and damage it can cause to your body are an unhealthy combination, and it is so hard to suppress the thoughts.
Also, the times I missed out on that summer due to my over exercising and erratic eating patterns. When I went on camping trips with friends, I was the only one who just had to go running, I was the only one who didn't eat when we went out dinner, or skipped out on hanging out so I could pay attention to my eating disorder. It was in complete control again. When my disorder began to affect my heart, Darlene recommended a day treatment program to help me break the cycle. And so, I missed more school and football games and fun times with my friends. I had to go early in the morning until mid evening, and I had to eat hospital food all over again. However, I gave up on myself after 2 weeks, and quit the program. I spent my senior year miserable and lost, afraid of what the next day would bring. No matter what I tried, I simply couldn't snap away from my thoughts and emotions. I went through so much money each week, spending it endlessly on food. My parents thought I was doing drugs because I was pale and had dark circles under my bloodshot eyes. Even if I had the slightest desire to go out with my friends, my lack of self confidence held me back. Every day ended with me being symptomatic, followed by a retreat into my dark bedroom.
I tried cognitive-behavioral therapy in the spring, but never did the homework assignments. After two months, my therapist terminated our sessions, because she felt that it simply wasn’t working. Sick of being unhappy with my looks, I thought that the cure would be to go on a diet and stick to it. Once again, I was avoiding my real problems and feelings, and blaming everything about food and body image. In May of my senior year, I went on another diet. With graduation looming, I needed to get back in control. I decided it would be a good idea to try once again to develop normalized eating habits. This worked out well for a few weeks, but led me back into anorexia again. My obsessive thoughts shifted from what to binge on to how much I could restrict and still controlled every move and choice I made. I spent this summer worrying about weight, food, and appearance. Every activity I did with friends revolved around what would be eaten or what I would have to not eat or eat in order to make them content. When I was with them, I had to force myself to look as if I were in the moment, while I was really just thinking about food, exercise and how I looked.
Darlene was also worried, and made me come into her office twice a week to get weighed and have my heart rate checked. She warned me not to exercise, because my heart rate was so low. Yet, I found myself running daily. I even brought my scale on our family vacation. The false feelings of control satisfied me somewhat, but deep down I knew that they were nothing more than false feelings.
During the summer after graduating from high school, my parents and I started participating in family therapy. My sisters both refused to go, and my mother didn’t force them to. Family therapy was somewhat helpful, but a terribly hard experience. I often felt triggered after therapy sessions, and struggled to keep my feelings in check. A lot of feelings came out in therapy, and no one likes to feel as if they’ve let their parents down. My parents were able to realize some things and make some changes, which they thought would help my situation. As much as I hate to admit it, family therapy provided my parents with a chance to look at themselves in the mirror. So much of my eating disorder had involved them telling me how they felt, or telling me what they wanted. Family therapy provided me the opportunity to tell them how I felt, and then address the messages and influences they had given me over the years. However, as you know, eating disorders are such a powerful force, and it takes more than just a few therapy sessions to even begin recovery.
As the summer closed, I was determined to make my experience at Northeastern University a positive one. My parents helped me move into the dorms during the beginning of September. However, college is a huge adjustment, and my roommates were very different than me. My shy self struggled to form new relationships, and I found myself isolating again. With the friends I did make, I could have fun, but they found it odd than I never ate around them. Similarly, I would never sleep in on the weekends, because I would feel the need to go to the gym after a night of drinking. There was a lot of downtime, even though I was in the city, and I wanted to get a job. Yet, my parent’s disapproval of this decision felt as if they disapproved everything about me. I felt alienated from my family, friends from home, and somewhat separated from my new friends at Northeastern. In order to comfort myself in this isolation, I turned to bingeing and purging to pass the time and keep me numb.
I was always looking for a private spot to act on my eating urges, but ended up in public restrooms in the dorms and at fast food joints. At one point, I had a breakdown from the stress of always searching for a spot. I called my parents and went home for a long weekend, desperate to get back on track. Two weeks later, I had an anxiety attack on the streets of Boston and called my parents from a bench on Mass Ave. They came to pick me up, and I chose to leave school for the semester. Once again, I felt determined to make a change. I figured that taking the semester off would relieve me from eating disorder for good.
After withdrawing and moving out of my dorm, I added my name to a waiting list at a new inpatient treatment center. In all honesty, my biggest priority was to stop gaining weight from my bingeing sessions. Even so, I constantly worried about my future overall. Would I ever get back to college? Would I ever be free of this disease? I was so sick of giving everything up for my disorder, and I constantly wondered why my eating disorder was so special to deserve all of my fun in high school, and now my college experiences too.
I was hospitalized for just under three weeks, and once again checked myself out. Hospitalizations always offered me a chance to break the cycle, but I often felt stuck and too withdrawn from life when I was in them. I thought that since I had wasted so much time having an eating disorder, why waste more in the hospital? I failed to realize the big picture during this time, which was that each time I left the hospital I was merely letting my eating disorder win. However, the wasn’t completely wasted as I left with another diagnosis; generalized anxiety disorder, and a new therapist. I also had some new medications to help curb this anxiety that I had felt for so long. At the time, I thought they had found the solution to my eating disorder. Perhaps I was just controlling my anxiety with food.
Darlene was still in the picture, advocating for me endlessly. For awhile, I was doing well, but the holiday season, as usual, brought about much tension and stress. The new foods and social pressures that accompany Christmas and Thanksgiving were too much for me to handle and I retreated back to my binge/purge cycles.
Despite my relapse, I began to commute to classes that winter. Even with my eating disorder, I managed to get through a semester. However, I was simply existing in a world that could offer me so much more. I showed very little emotion, and rarely allowed myself to truly feel anything. Any emotion I experienced led me back towards the comfort of my ED, and I missed out on many college activities. I still had no drive to go out with my friends or meet new people at school. I went to class and worked, and spent lots of time in bed. I had met a new boyfriend at this time, however, who had struggled with similar issues. Having done steroids in the past, he admitted to getting caught up in physical appearance and he too, often blamed negative situations on his weight. He was keenly aware of how he felt, which prevented him from becoming obsessed. His insight on his own experience encouraged me to open up to him. It felt safe since he totally understood where I was coming from. With him, I had many good days. He showed me that I could eat foods that I liked, and then work out at a normal pace, but only when I wanted to. He showed me how to balance myself and how to ask for a distraction when I needed it. Even so, whenever we had a fight or problem, or if I was alone, I would use my ED to cope. He would get very frustrated during these times, which made me feel powerless and emotional, thus leading to the cycle over and over again.
After my winter semester, I was eager to give college life another try. I moved out and into an apartment with my best friend. In order to move out and into the city, though, I needed to work full time while attending classes. This pressure was intense, and I often numbed my nervousness about money with food. I would run home in between shifts at work to binge and purge, and whenever my roommate would go out I would take advantage of the apartments emptiness. After a summer in Boston , I tried going back to the inpatient program one last time, but did not stay very long. After discharging myself, I stayed at my apartment and completed two semesters while living in the city, and spent my time self medicating with erratic eating behaviors and alcohol. I had also stopped taking medications for my anxiety and depression at the time, and I could notice a difference. My best friend was patient with my mood swings, isolation and depression, and I desperately wanted to turn my college experience around. Unfortunately, the stresses from working fulltime, classes, family and social relationships all led me to the same place. All I could focus on was numbing my mind, body and emotions. I sought treatment from a new psychiatrist and therapist, but had little luck. In sum, I was unhappy with the patterns I developed while living in Boston , and opted to move home after my sophomore year.
Little did I know at the time that this was the best decision I could have made for recovering from my eating disorder. My mother had gotten a job, so she was occupied, and my parents had loosened up over the years. I had more freedom and privacy, and in turn, felt more in control. This feeling of control helped, because I began to utilize my eating disorder much less, and felt more powerful over my choices. Each day I went without an eating disorder symptom brought me more confidence about my ability to stand up to my urges. I began to say reaffirmations to myself “you will take care of yourself today” or “you did this good, or this well, and you deserve to feel good today”. Saying these things may sound cheesy, but the more I allowed myself to feel confident, the more confident I became.
I still had the same boyfriend at the time and he helped me eat when I was hungry, and stop when I was full. He made me feel good about myself, and as if I deserved to eat. During this time, I also decided to terminate my therapy sessions. Having been through many therapists, and never having much luck, I opted to try confiding more in my family and friends. Therapy is a great outlet, and something that I hope to try again in the future.
My junior year of college, I felt so much more in control than I ever had. I could go to the gym without over-exercising. Similarly, I didn’t go to the gym if I didn’t want to. Each time that I went to the gym and worked out in a healthy way, I built up the wall against my eating disorder. Each time I made a healthy decision for myself, I felt stronger and stronger. I could go out to eat without bingeing or calorie counting. I wanted to go out more with friends, and I had less negative thoughts about my self worth and appearance. Occasionally, I would use my ED behaviors, but I had a much easier time stopping the cycles. I could also control the urges by delaying them or even stopping them before they turned into a full blown episode. Being able to exercise this self control helped me feel even more empowered and in control.
After my junior year, I was faced with a tough dilemma. My boyfriend of 2 and a half years and I decided to breakup. Although the breakup was mutual and healthy, I still worried that I would use my eating disorder to cope. However, the urges were small, and I was able to deny any negative thoughts I had concerning food and my body.
That summer, I decided that I deserved to feel even better than I already did. I sought out the help of another psychiatrist, and got medication for my anxiety. The changes were amazing, and I was so happy that I decided to do something positive for myself. I made some new friends, and started a new job. The break-up showed me how strong I actually could be at times, and that I didn’t have to be dependent on someone else. I could finally take care of myself and make choices based on what I want or need, and not based on the amount of pressure I feel.
Today, I can not believe that I can admit to being recovered. When I see Darlene, it feels so weird to tell her that everything is well and under control. Having an eating disorder is all about losing control, and being able to control the one thing you lost any and all control over is the most amazing feeling. For me, the cure was getting control over other things. Once I was able to make decisions for myself, I had more to control than just what I ate. Controlling your life allows you to feel better about yourself as well. Today, I can look in the mirror and say something positive about myself. Or, if I look in the mirror and say something negative, I can brush it off and still start my day off right.
Sometimes I shock myself with the choices I make, after being under the spell of my eating disordered thoughts for so long. Today I can honestly reach for a food item without looking at the nutrition information. I have noticed myself doing this, and sometimes need to pause and recollect myself. Similarly, I can go to the gym and workout for as long as I feel like, rather than in proportion to what I ate or what society may tell me to do. I can’t express how empowering this feeling is. In a way, it’s kind of scary too, because I realize how much I used to take these situations for granted in my pre-eating disorder days. Likewise, during my years of feeling captured by my eating disorder, I dreamed of days when I would be in control again and not in fear of my own mind. Now it is finally here, and I am so grateful and happy.
I don’t really know how it happened, but somewhere along the line, I learned to value myself and who I have become today. I have learned what makes me happy and I even feel worthy of love and attention. Learning these facts has greatly influenced my recovery. When I was struggling with my eating disorder, it was so hard for me to let people in. Yet, once I started to believe that people could care about me as much as I cared about them, I began to make better choices for myself. Today, I allow myself to admit that people want to see me, want to be there for me, and care about my opinions and feelings. It’s tough at times, but no matter how down on yourself you may feel, it is truly important to at least occasionally allow others in. Let your friends and family remind you of all the things you have to offer. Everyone needs this at times, so it is important to remember that you too, deserve a little extra attention, care and love. By doing this, and allowing myself to accept a compliment here and there, I have been able to strengthen many of the relationships that my ED managed to tear down. I have the same best friends, and they are so happy to have the “real” me back. My parents and I get along much better than we did before I got sick, and our communication lines are much clearer. I allow myself to place more trust into people, and the quality of my relationships has grown so much. I get so much more from the people in my life, because I allow myself to accept it.
When looking back on this experience, I am amazed at how long and intense my struggle was. After each hospitalization, I thought that I would be different and somehow magically be cured. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be patient with yourself, or those you know going through this. An eating disorder doesn’t just appear overnight, and in turn, recovery is a step by step process. The steps are different for everyone, and sometimes a step backwards needs to happene before you can truly step forwards. In the midst of the recovery process, it is important to remember that setbacks are not failures, just struggles. And those struggles can be overcome, regardless of what the eating disorder may lead you to believe.
In fact, there were many times that my family and friends didn’t think I would graduate from Northeastern. I am proud to say I was able to graduate, and then pursued a masters in social work. I even opted to move to Albany in order to pursue the degree and a new experience. I will not lie and say this was easy! A new city, new faces, new pressures definitely created a whole new set of challenges for me. I moved in with a boyfriend, and it was a complete disaster. The stresses of finding a new apartment and moving on my own while attending classes and working were extremely high. During these challenges, I would find myself slipping. However, I am much more aware of the signs and triggers, and I have learned to ask for help or support when I need it. Words can not express how grateful I am to maintain the control over my eating disorder that I struggled so hard to find.
Now that I am finished with my schooling, and beginning a new career, I am finding so many more opportunities out there for me to pursue. In order to go after what I want, I have to stay happy and healthy-both mentally and physically. The experiences I missed out on will forever be gone, however, am always looking forward to the new challenges and pleasures life brings my way, and I am more confident than ever that I can face them head on. It is never too late to get help or ask for extra support. I would certainly not be where I am today if I had not learned how to control my urges to utilize unhealthy coping mechanisms. It’s a tough battle, but the outcome is definitely worth it.