1 – Where did it start? What do you think triggered your illness?
It’s difficult to point to an event and say, “That’s it. That’s where it started”, but I know when it began to seriously disrupt my life and health. I was a sophomore in college, twenty-three years old. I was trying to juggle a tumultuous relationship, a full university schedule, and a 40+ hour working week. Certainly, with new information coming out almost yearly with regard to what causes eating disorders and mental illness, the supposed cause seems to be ever-evolving.
I can, however, attribute an increase in symptoms and severity of my condition to my rising anxiety levels and body image concerns in my life. This message wasn’t made perfectly clear to me before I was diagnosed, but I’m always quick to reaffirm what research suggests: it’s not a personal failing, but a serious, biologically influenced, illness.
2 – Did family and friends notice?
I think it was more noticeable to my family because they hadn’t seen me for several months since I was away at school. The first time I came back it was nice to get compliments about how nice I looked since I lost some weight (I was never obese as a teenager, but I had steadily gained weight throughout my late teens). These affirmations felt like reassurance of what I was doing, so I continued to restrict myself severely and exercise obsessively. When I came home again a few months later, I noticed concern in my parents’ and close friends’ voices. It had also become impossible to hide how much weight I was losing and how little I ate. They stopped complimenting me on how much I’d lost, and started offering me things to eat all the time (my mother went so far as to buy me my favourite sweets from my childhood). Looking back now, I can see it on their faces. They felt helpless.
3 – How did your eating disorder affect your home, work/ education life?
Due specifically to eating disorder-related issues, I withdrew from university three times. The first two times I was too embarrassed to ask for a medical deferment, as I didn’t believe my eating disorder was a legitimate reason to enlist the help of the college’s disability services. At times, intense anxiety about my body image kept me from attending classes for days at a time. It was during these moments that my depression was the worst. I thought it would all go away if I could just lose a little more weight: I would start getting better marks in class, be more productive at work, and my fiancée and I would finally begin to repair our broken relationship. My life was in shambles, and the only thing I was doing to fix it was the one thing that was making it worse. The eating disorder had completely taken over my thoughts. I believed it was the only thing holding me together.
4 – When did you realise there was something wrong and you needed help?
I realised there was something wrong because I could no longer focus on things I loved. Reading became a frustrating test of endurance because I didn’t have the ability to read a few paragraphs without my vision becoming disoriented. I stopping going out with friends because I never knew in advance where we were going to eat or how I could hide the fact that I wasn’t eating. My consumption of diet pills was ten times the suggested dose. They made me incredibly anxious and, I believe, contributed to hallucinations I started to experience.
I agreed to seek help because I wanted all the negative consequences of having an eating disorder to go away. I was hoping treatment could restore my failed relationship, allow me back into university, and return my excellent grades. I wanted to be able to read hundreds of pages of my favourite books again and run in the gym for miles and miles without passing out or tripping over my fatigued feet. But I also wanted to continue restricting the amount of food I ate, as well as having a large list of bad foods. Most of all I wanted to continue to lose weight without all the terrible side effects of an eating disorder. I had plans. My treatment team, however, had other plans.
5 – What kind of treatment did you go through?
I was admitted as an inpatient at a local hospital’s eating disorder unit three weeks after my father passed away unexpectedly from pancreatic cancer. In a way I think I was lucky to be cared for so closely, during such a trying time. My father’s death gave me a convenient reason to withdraw from school and take a break from work, as I still didn’t believe an eating disorder was a good enough reason to disrupt my life in such a way. I lived in a locked hospital unit for one month. We ate over a glass table, keeping our hands visible so that staff were certain we were not hiding food or disposing of it inappropriately.
Throughout the following weeks I was able to join an exercise class, participate in group outings, and have earned extended time away from the facility with a close friend or family member. Group and individual therapy were scheduled several times a day, as were morning weigh-ins and meal planning. During the end of my time in the hospital I was able to go home for longer weekends. Eventually I was downgraded to intensive outpatient status, which was Monday through Friday 7am – 6pm, leaving me responsible for one snack in the evening and all meals and snacks over the weekend. The end was in sight: it was time to focus on returning to the life I had left behind abruptly and get to work picking up the pieces.
I was discharged in April 2008 and again in July 2010 after my second stay. The latter was successful in changing my mind in what I wanted from recovery. I was done holding on and hoping I could keep parts of the eating disorder. It all had to go.
6 –Would you say you are “fully recovered” now? Do you think full recovery is possible?
Now, nine years after I made a call for help and seven years since I left the hospital for the last time, I consider myself to be in long-term recovery. I still keep a monthly appointment with my therapist and struggle occasionally during the holidays, but overall I consider myself a survivor. Through my time in treatment and work as a recovery advocate, I’ve met hundreds of individuals with eating disorders. I have been fortunate enough to make some lasting friends, some who have been fully recovered for decades. There has also been loss. Some people leave a program and then I hear weeks later that they’ve passed away.
Do I think full recovery is possible? Absolutely, but it doesn’t happen quickly or easily. I like to quote Victor Hugo in Les Miserables: “A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor.” This means that much of the work must be done within ourselves. Recovery is not an external place we reach, or the same defined moment for everyone. I don’t believe I will recognise the definitive moment when it happens, but I’ll know when it’s behind me.
7 – What advice would you give to someone suffering with an eating disorder?
You are not alone. There are hundreds of brilliant academics around the world doing research on eating disorders – working on the best therapy, interventions, genetics, dietetics, etc. All of it is in order to help providers treat and understand eating disorders better. There is a massive worldwide network of individuals and organizations working tirelessly to bring awareness to the prevalence of eating disorders and erase the stigma surrounding them. Many individuals like myself have seen the worst of the illness and worked through treatment. We understand the terror and anxiety of taking another bite of food with shaking hands. We get it. And we made it through. You can too.